The majority of us are likely to experience a traumatic event over the course of our lifetimes. But when that experience continues to impact us long after the event occurred, it can begin to impact our mental health. In this post, Olivia shares what it's like to live with trauma – and how she's learning to cope.
Over the course of our lifetimes, many of us are likely to experience a traumatic event. Whether it's a natural disaster, illness or injury, physical or sexual assault, or the loss of a loved one, these experiences can have a profound impact on us emotionally and psychologically.
Sometimes we're able to adjust after these kinds of events. But in other instances, we might find it harder to make sense of what happened – and this can have a profound impact on our mental health, leaving us with lasting symptoms that get in the way of us fully living our lives. In these cases, we use the term 'trauma'. Trauma describes how we react emotionally, physically, and psychologically to a distressing event.
Our responses and reactions to trauma are deeply individual. Some people may find it impacts their mood, resulting in depression, or anxiety. It can cause us to experience sleep disturbances, or feel fearful of certain experiences.
And for Olivia, her response to the trauma she experienced in her childhood makes it difficult to walk into her local supermarket. Olivia is 29 years old and works in marketing for a busy tech start-up in London.
From an early age and well into her adult life, Olivia experienced sustained trauma in the place where she deeply wanted to feel the safest – her family home. Here, she shares her story of her experiences of childhood, trauma, diagnosis, and coping.
PTSD isn’t always about the obvious triggers – you can almost prepare yourself for those ones. It’s the things I’m not expecting that can feel a lot more challenging.
Olivia, 29, London
A childhood in conflict
Olivia doesn’t remember much of her childhood years. Her first experiences of life were formed in a household that was constantly at war – first with her parents, and later, when her mother met a new partner.
“I used to just think that I’d forgotten everything,” she begins. “I presume at some level that’s become a coping mechanism. My partner always asks me, did we eat together at mealtimes, did we take holidays? But I don’t remember anything.”
“I dealt with my mum and dad’s divorce quite well, I think – I suppose it seemed logical to me as they didn’t get on,” Olivia shrugs. “But I think it was the realisation that my parents weren’t that into me that was the most painful thing. When you’re little, you think you’re their world. But when my mum met my stepdad, I felt dumped. She thought he was the best, but I knew he was the worst. We were never going to be able to get around that. He’d deliberately make my sister and I late for school. We had to quit our after-school activities because he wouldn’t take us, or help mum pay for them. He thought he could treat us how he wanted, and we felt powerless to stand up for ourselves.
“I think I was up to ‘here’ all the time,” she adds, gesturing. “I lived in this plane of tension and anxiety for so long it became normal. I didn’t know who I was; I thought I’d done something terrible for my parents to be so disinterested in me. I was just surviving.”
Things eventually fell apart between Olivia’s mother and her stepdad. But when he left, they didn’t get better. Now a teenager, Olivia watched helplessly as her family dissolved in front of her eyes, and her mother struggled with depression and addiction. Each school holiday was punctuated by the excitement of escaping to her father’s for a few days, followed by the inevitable anxiety that surrounded returning home.
“There were times where after my stepfather left, my mother became physically abusive. I lived my life walking on eggshells – I never knew which version of mum I was going to get. I started to form attachments to people, and find other outlets to help me cope. I spent hours in chat rooms talking to people online. I remember I used to get so upset when my friends got boyfriends, because from my perspective, it was more of my family disappearing.”
Reaching breaking point
Olivia’s early experiences of the world she grew into trailed her into adulthood. As she became old enough to drive, escape, and live life on her own terms, she had moments where she felt that the way she reacted to things didn’t match up to what was actually happening. And a few years after her mother passed away, Olivia reached her breaking point.
“When I was dealing with her estate after she died, my step-dad came back into the picture,” she recalls. “I felt like my mum had died and the whole world had failed her – I just wanted to do this one thing right by her.
“A few years later, when I got an email from the solicitor about her estate and my step-father’s name was mentioned, I remember just screaming and thinking I would never escape him. I’d inherited this nightmare my mum lived with. I completely broke down.
“I felt like he’d come back to take everything I had,” she says. “My reaction of fear to that email – at that point I thought it was so irrational. I realised that this wasn’t me reacting to an email at a level I should be. Then I realised there had been lots of moments like that – such as a little row with someone I’m incredibly secure with that would leave me in an absolute state. These were like levels of reactions I didn’t know how to deal with. I didn’t recognise myself – I was like a frightened little girl.
“When I have these reactions,” she says frankly, “I feel like the floor has fallen through my stomach. I feel sick and dizzy. And then the fear comes. I feel like I can’t cope – like I’m going to die. I’ll try to call someone but not be able to speak. I can’t stop crying, and I can barely breathe. It feels like I’m being attacked. It ends in a panic attack.”
Olivia pauses. “For days afterwards, I feel nervous, like something’s coming for me. I can’t sleep or eat, and I’m totally exhausted. I don’t always know what’s triggered it, or what I’m remembering. But it’s not like I see it happening in front of me again – it’s more like the feelings I felt at that time come back and surface in that moment, even though I don’t necessarily know what that moment is.”
Help, hope, and life after trauma
Olivia knew she needed help, but it wasn’t until her mother’s death and the moments that came after that she really took it seriously. She started working with a counsellor, who diagnosed her with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She’s currently unpicking the threads of what happened to her during her childhood years, understanding her reactions, and working on learning ways to cope. And things are starting to look better.
“I was so relieved when I got a diagnosis, because I’d begun to believe I was this volatile person, that I was irrational,” she smiles. “Once I dug a bit deeper, I realised I wasn’t lashing out at the people around me, but rather that I was suffering in my physical self. I knew at some point, I’d need to look back at the things in my past – and actually acknowledge what happened.
“I’ve learned how to analyse the conversation or event that has created a situation,” she adds. “That’s really helpful – I analyse the event as it happens, and I’m able to take a step back and really understand what’s going on before I react. I’m getting better at saying, “I didn’t mean it” when I say something in the moment.”
Olivia considers herself a work in progress, and is still learning the ways that her trauma has impacted her relationships long into adulthood.
“Sometimes I still struggle getting those words out, because when everything in your body is telling you to run, it’s so difficult to stop and analyse that feeling,” she confides. “I still struggle with the idea of going back to the hospital where she died. But PTSD doesn’t always work like that, because it’s not always about the obvious triggers. You can almost prepare yourself for those ones — like when I go to my local supermarket, where I used to go a lot with her as a kid. It’s the things I’m not expecting that can feel a lot more dangerous.
“But when I’ve come to understand love and tenderness in my relationships now, a realisation unfolded within me that it could have been there all along. I’m so happy and I love that feeling so much, that when there’s a reminder of my childhood, I’m reminded how fragile things are – and suddenly I’m right back there with those feelings.
“I spent years trying to ‘win’ mum’s love,” she says, crooking her fingers into air quotes, “but I’m in a good place now. It took me a while, but I’m there.”