I’m not sure how to describe therapy because everyone’s experience is so different and there are so many different types of therapy. I choose to think of therapy as my self-care, its learning to understand and love myself on a deeper level than I ever have before. I take care of my health so I can manage my PCOS and live a healthy lifestyle so why wouldn’t I take care of my mind?
There wasn’t really a defining moment where I thought I need help but it was an idea I muted for quite a few weeks before starting some research. Zak was a big motivator for me as I always encourage him to talk about his emotions and I want him to tell me everything, hence my gentle parenting approach. I felt hypocritical like I was setting a bad example when I couldn’t even explain my own emotions or thought process. Let’s face it motherhood in itself is overwhelming; that love you have just looking at them where your heart could burst, its unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The protectiveness or my inner lioness as I call it, knowing we would fight to death for them. I also realised that by taking care of myself I was being a better mum. If I don’t want to shout and scream at my child and control my emotions then I need to do the work to clear out the past so I don’t get so stressed. Losing Zoe also drastically changed my perspective on life, I wanted to live, I wanted to be free and truly happy, I didn’t want any more regrets and I promised to listen to my gut always – hence me chasing Jay back!
I don’t really want to make this post about all my trauma and details of every single session I had because quite frankly I think we have all heard enough about my trauma. But I do think it’s important to share some of my experiences with therapy so hopefully it can be relatable and show you how it helped me.
I think there are a lot of misconceptions about therapy and a lot of stereotypes that need ignoring and I also get it doesn’t work for everyone. But for me it was enlightening. The brain is an incredible place and understanding how I am wired and why my thought processes happen the way they do has helped me enormously. It means when I fall back into bad habits or my mind spirals now, I have the tools to stop, reassess and give myself some tlc rather than getting stressed.
As most of you will know I got a diagnosis of PTSD from an independent psychologist, this wasn’t my therapist and was in fact in connection with Zak’s clinical negligence claim. I was incredibly shocked to receive the diagnosis and whilst the appointment was long, emotional and draining as I had to recount the entire last 3 years of my life, I wasn’t going into it expecting a diagnosis. I’ve had moments of true happiness in the last 3 years, probably happier than I have ever been before and I naively thought PTSD meant I was at rock bottom, hallucinating or even suicidal. What was perhaps more shocking was she expected me to be suffering the after effects of PTSD for another 18 months and then after that I would likely suffer from an adjustment disorder as I adjust to my new normal.
I thought I’d just highlight the things I experienced/still experience as part of my PTSD because I honestly underestimated each symptom. For me it was:
- Nightmares about Tom leaving/Zak dying
- Visions when I first wake up in the morning that I would go in to find Zak dead in his bed. My mind then also races through what I should do in that circumstance right from ringing work to tell them I won’t be in to how will I pay the mortgage if I am off for 6 months grieving
- Permanent fight or flight status mentality
- Not being able to concentrate on tasks that I used to enjoy like watching TV or reading a book
- Reluctance to leave Zak with anyone other than me or my parents
- Panic attack when seeing an ambulance – again not how I thought a panic attack would look but racing heart, stomach drops, sweaty and instant image of Zak in incubator
- Anxiety of Zak’s medical appointments
- Every time Zak has a pain episode or falls over, instant thought is it’s my fault. It’s my fault he has CP, he shouldn’t have to suffer
- Specifically the 10 days Zak was in Bristol NICU when first born, I felt out of my body like I was floating and looking down on everyone or living in a movie. I couldn’t feel any after birth pain, I could see people talking to me and their lips moving but it sounded muffled, no appetite, intense headache for days (though likely related to Sepsis too), my milk not coming in until day 10, couldn’t initially bond with Zak as I didn’t believe he was my child, exhaustion but not really sleeping and I couldn’t cry, I was just numb
That last point now I see it written down on paper I find particularly mind blowing because it’s so glaringly obvious I wasn’t ok and though I think my parents saw it and did everything they could to pull me through and just be there I find it extra painful that I was criticised for that period of time in my divorce. It’s something I cannot forgive and never will. Just typing it now makes my blood boil and want to sob. I should not have had to justify my actions in those first 2 weeks, but yet I had to defend them. This has only added to the damage already caused and taken a lot of work in therapy to rewire my brain in therapy to realise I am a good mum. People never truly understand the hurt and lasting damage their words can cause.
It was only once I got to therapy that I fully understood I have experienced 2 traumas. Zak’s birth and Tom leaving. The problem is they were in such quick succession that in my mind they intertwined and as the psychologist described it was like pouring petrol on a fire. Some of the dreams I had about Zak dying were in fact relating to the abandonment of Tom leaving me.
I had to do a lot more work in therapy around my divorce than I first anticipated. One particular exercise will always stand out; when she made me write a letter to Tom (and not post it obviously) and tell him how I really felt. I remember writing the first sentence and being stuck but once I got going by heck did it flow out of me, my words were burning the page I couldn’t get them out of me quick enough, the rage tore through my body and when I read it back through I sobbed. It was like 3 years of trying to squash that part, 3 years of hate and 3 years of being the bigger person just shattered and it all came running out. She encouraged me to just sit and feel that emotion. Don’t move past it. Just embrace the sadness, the hurt the anger and quite frankly the unfairness of it all. Let myself wallow for a day or 2 and don’t panic I’ll be stuck there. I think I never allowed myself to do it in the past because I had a baby to focus on and I was scared if I opened that door I’d never get past it. The relief I felt to let it out was overwhelming. It also made me realise I was over analysing my relationship with Jay, I was trying to focus on the big stuff so was missing all the small stuff, I was missing the cues of just how much Jay loved me, I’d think of questions to ask him and answer them in my head and make my own mind up of what he’d say before I even asked him! It also confirmed that my anxiety about having future children was not based around pregnancy or labour but were around the relationship element. I had no idea how to share a pregnancy with someone, to be vulnerable with someone and emotionally connect with someone at such a key change in your relationship because I was on my own from about 5 months pregnant. We did a lot of work around this, mapping out my thought process and looking for the clear cues Jay was giving me that he is there for me all the time. Even now if I feel overwhelmed I’ll replay one of his voice notes as just his voice soothes me. It snaps me out of whatever thought trail I am on and reminds me of the present.
To deal with the Zak element of my trauma I did something called EMDR therapy which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. It helps you unpack a specific trauma and reprocess it in a safe way. They don’t really know why it works but it’s incredibly effective and Prince Harry has even talked about how much it helped him. It allowed me to go back to the absolute worst part of the trauma, the image of Zak lying under all the tubes and wires and me not connecting with him and process different parts of it at a time. It requires letting your mind float and I found that quite difficult initially as I tried to control my thought path, but once I relaxed into it I found I was remembering things, smells, faces and sounds I hadn’t even registered at the time. It’s very powerful and there were times I’d sob through it, other times I’d get nothing, but slowly and surely I moved through it. I had about 10 sessions of pure EMDR in the end and each session would require closing my eyes, tapping my shoulders and picturing that image of Zak and then letting my mind run from there. At the end of each session she would take me back to my safe place, we did a lot of relaxation, meditation and breathing to bring me back to right here and now so I wasn’t stuck in the trauma. It sounds a bit crazy and you feel a bit silly at first but it only took a couple of sessions for me to start noticing some changes in my reactions to things. Before I started EMDR if you asked me how that image of Zak made me feel on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the worst, I was a 10. And the thought I had linked to that image was it was my fault. I genuinely believed it was my fault Zak was born dead and now has CP, despite every doctor, nurse and report since telling me otherwise. By the time I finished EMDR my reaction to that image had gone from a 10 to 2 and I now only believe that it was 20% my fault. I know that’s not perfect but it’s a huge improvement, it stopped all my symptoms of PTSD and it also proves our trauma never leaves us. Don’t get me wrong I know it’s not my fault, there are a number of people to blame and I am not one of them, it was outright clinical negligence. But I am his mum. It’s my job to bring him into the world safely, I think I will always think I should have pushed harder or quicker, I should have asked questions, I should have spoken up. I know that’s unrealistic and unfair on myself but I think we underestimate the mum bond and responsibility we inherit when pregnant.
Ironically the things I thought were making me crazy like sitting on Zak’s bedroom floor watching him breathe & sleep or still having a baby monitor when he’s 3 are the things my therapist told me to keep up. It’s these things that are grounding me, the things that calm me and keep me here in the present so there is no need to stop them. There’s no timeframe, why does it even matter if I do it forever? I have been through trauma and that does not go away, what therapy taught me was to find my way through it and this is my new normal and that’s ok.
My sessions even helped with things like better sleep hygiene and stress management. I now have tools like breathing exercises, grounding and 5 sense check to help me with different challenges I face in general life. It helped me to label my emotions, sounds ridiculous doesn’t it but I couldn’t tell you how something made me feel just what my thought process was. It wasn’t until we broke things down like my anxiety around Zak’s appointment that I realised I was angry. I’m angry my child has CP, I’m angry he lives in pain, I’m angry we have to go to so many appointments because quite frankly we shouldn’t have to because he shouldn’t have CP! And that’s ok. I am allowed to be angry. It taught me to give myself a break and some breathing space. A chance to separate out each emotion and really truly feel it.
Hearing some pretty obvious statements from my therapist also helped. Simple facts like how unfair it was I was abandoned with a new born with no explanation. How unfair it was I am now a single mum but also how much I am smashing it. How unfair this was my first experience of motherhood, so I had nothing to compare to and all my future pregnancies my forever be marred by this. Just the simple fact I couldn’t go in the ambulance with my child (because I was still a patient myself) when he was being transported to Bristol is horrendously unfair and unimaginable for most people to be separated from their child particularly when they are hours old. These were all things my friends and family have said and continue to say but just hearing it from an impartial and a professional made it hit home. I also tried to skirt round some things without realising I was doing it. It wasn’t until halfway through my therapy I could actually admit my child was born dead. Apologies for the bluntness I know that’s not a nice sentence to read but it’s the truth. My son was born not breathing and placed in my arms floppy and blue for approx. 30 seconds before he was whisked away to be resuscitated, put on a ventilator and taken to SCBU. Being able to say that out loud was so important and so essential to my recovery.
I am a survivor. I have survived a 100% of my worst days. I am someone who goes into auto mode and I deal with what is right in front of me at the time and put myself last. It’s that survival instinct you hear about but not everyone has it. That means I am great at the time but I neglect myself and if I don’t do the work after then I will always suffer further down the line. In fact I often joke about my experiences and I say I survived sepsis I can handle anything, as if it’s a throw away comment and it doesn’t bother me. Of course it bothers me. It’s just me trying to find a way to push through and I take the emotion out of the sentence so I can just state the fact because we all know I am as straight talking as they come and that makes it less painful. I am not perfectly healed from therapy and I still have more work to do. Sometimes I slip into old habits and try to plan and perfect everything in my life so I feel I have some control; when in actual fact I have spent the last 3 years winging it and I have thrived not just survived. I am a good mum, my child comes first in every single decision I make. Zak will not remember those first 2 weeks of his life or even the first 2 years but what he will remember is the bond and relationship we have now. In his words we are best friends.
So my advice when it comes to therapy. Be brave. It’s as simple and difficult as that. Take your time to find the right therapist, do your research, and think about what you’d like to get out of it. Whether its help with stress management, sleep or relaxation. Most therapists offer a free trial session to see how you feel and if you connect. You definitely need to have a bond between the 2 of you, it needs to be someone you can talk too easily but for me it was important I didn’t feel pitied or patronised and for me it was really important it was a woman. You need to be prepared to go to places you don’t want to, not every session will be hugely revealing or mind blowing. Some leave you wondering if they even made a difference, others leave you numb. It’s like picking at a scab some bits bleed more than others but by removing the scab you help the healing process.
It’s expensive there’s no sugar coating it; sessions vary from £35-£75 an hour generally and mine was in the middle of the 2. Most therapists will let you pay weekly or all in one go, whatever is good for you. You can go to your GP to be referred for 10 free counselling sessions on the NHS and I am absolutely not saying to discount that, if that’s the only option for you then it’s worth trying. But I am saying that by going private and finding your own therapist means you have more control over your outcome and experience. To me it was worth every penny, I lost so much to my trauma this felt like I was finally taking something back for me. I’ve never been one to spend on bags or makeup so I looked at this as my self-care. I was healing from the inside out.
Don’t expect your trauma or past experiences to leave you, they are with you forever, they are part of your makeup. They change you and shape you and you will forever be a different person with different views on life but you can, with the right help, find your way through it. You need to be open to it, not go in with any preconceptions, judgements or expectations. Don’t believe the stereotypes and just take the experience for exactly what it is at face value. One session at a time.
It also might not work the first time or even the second time but don’t rule it out forever. When Tom first left I had a couple of sessions with a counsellor because I was in such shock and needed some reassuring but it didn’t do a lot for me, it felt like she just fanned my ego and told me she was impressed. I didn’t start therapy again for another 18 months after that and it made a world of difference because I was in such a different place. I was tiring, I was always on edge, struggling to sleep and sometimes would get so overwhelmed with the amount of things I have to juggle in life.
My therapy journey is also not over, I have recently gone back for a few more sessions and no doubt I will have more sessions in the future. That’s the beauty of it you can go back to it, assess different situations and things you are balancing at that point. I truly believe everyone should have therapy at some point in their life just to better understand themselves and how we tick. At the end of the day we are all unique, there is only one you and we shouldn’t rely on others to make us happy, we should make ourselves happy first.