Sorry it’s been a long time since I last wrote a blog post. For a mixture of reasons, not discounting a hideous amount of deadlines, I decided to take some time out from writing, and campaigning in general, for a bit. I felt like I’d reached a point of battling with my mental health and only recently feel like I can breathe half-easy again, so I took some time out to reflect on myself, to try and understand the battle, and to seek the comfort and love from those around me.
But I’m back, and suddenly it’s over half-way through December and only a few days away from Christmas. When did that happen? The last half of the year flew by, I felt constantly like I was sprinting without the chance to stop for air, but now I have stopped and I’m just stunned at how fast it all went. And right now, I’m in some weird place of transition; I feel like I’m standing on a hill and surveying with heavy eyes everything behind me…my eyes heavy not just with sorrow but also happiness; the year has been one of extremes. I feel like a changed person from a year ago. It’s been a year where I’ve fought not only for my right to survive, but for my right to safety…for my right to humanity. And I have achieved it. I’m catching my breath and crying, with so many emotions, because whatever happened…I achieved it. I am an equal, and safe within that equality. Most importantly, I believe I am an equal.
This Christmas will be my first normal, safe, happy Christmas. Ever. And I didn’t reach this point purely by chance. It’s been a fight. For once in my life I’m looking forward to Christmas, and I’m excited for what 2015 might bring. I’m frightened of the unknown but finally trust enough in my resilience and abilities to adapt and manage whatever is thrown at me. Nothing can be as difficult as what I have overcome. I was not beaten by years of torture and abuse. 2015 therefore cannot beat me. So as scary as the unknown might be, the longing to discover the world is far greater. I know I will be okay, and that assurance is precious and new.
The year has thrown some incredible challenges at me; PTSD has taken more of a hold, a twisted cost of becoming safer, and the first few months of the year passed in a haze of being suicidally depressed. I don’t remember much. I remember I was President of a society and had to take a week or so out. I remember sitting in meetings and trying my damned hardest to plaster on a smile, clinging to any moment or glimmer of triumph or happiness. I remember being hugged tightly by a friend who didn’t know if she’d see me again. I didn’t believe I’d see her again. I remember watching with guilt-ridden eyes and a hollow feeling in my chest at the slow tears of one of my friend’s. I remember my mind twisting those tears – you’re hurting them. They’re better off without you. I remember wondering how on earth I was going to get past this hellish period, if it was even possible, and trying to convince everyone else I was okay. Only my close friends and the professionals knew the real story. The tally of failed suicide attempts taunted me in some sick humour, as I wrecked my body time and time again.
I became addicted to the sensation of passing out from no oxygen, or from too much medication haze. But waking up broke my heart, and I craved even more to be unconscious again. To be nothing. For the pain to just stop, to just leave me alone, for my suffering to stop and to be back with my babies again. I gave up, again, with my degree. It seemed pointless; I wasn’t intending to make it. And then the mental health team determining I wasn’t in a crisis, as I’d been suicidal for a long period and not a one-off, and I therefore didn’t need hospitalised. The logic was lost on me, but I didn’t mind. I had lost the capacity to care. My life was a blur of forcing myself out of bed, forcing myself through my presidential duties and helping others in the department, getting home numb, and blacking out in bed. At one point I set myself 5 minute deadlines…don’t die yet, give yourself 5 minutes…over and over again, the theory being if I could live another 5 minutes then it was worth trying. Every 5 minute block added up, and soon I had made it through yet another day. I’d lie in bed at night time crying at the prospect of facing another huge day to get through, and welcomed the blur of medication that forced me into sleep. I didn’t feel like anyone understood, and gave up trying to explain. My friends wanted me to talk, but I was too tired to try. I remember one night deciding I couldn’t go home, and booking a hotel, whilst in a very questionable state of mind. Everything was just a mess. In hindsight a lot was probably a direct result of programming but in reality it doesn’t make much difference; the reality is still the same, I was suicidally depressed and stuck by living on a 5 minute rota, fooling half the people in my life I was okay, and leaning on the other half of people in my life just to keep breathing. It’s a stark contrast to where I stand now, planning my long-term future with my girlfriend.
Around end of April time, thanks to incredible friends and the professionals supporting me, I finally started to feel like I was lifting out of the black fog and I started to believe a future was possible again. I panicked as I realised I not only hadn’t revised for May exams, I also hadn’t attended lectures since January either. By a mixture of cramming and pure luck, I managed to pass first year. I struggled relentlessly with anxiety and self-worth issues, but the suicidal hell was gradually losing its hold over me. I felt less like I was choking, and although I was still despairing with grief, I felt more able to talk; like I had more energy to explain, more ability to find the words. Gradually I felt myself emerging again, and tried not to torture myself with the worry I’d caused my friends. I even managed to give a talk at another University. I booked my flights back to South Africa and with that felt overwhelming relief; I had a) booked something 2 months away, so had every intention of making it that far and b) was going back to the place that had been the initiation of my healing and recovery process, and had laid down so many foundations. It was there I was first treated, consistently, as someone of worth by adults in a family setting, and with that I discovered what I was fighting for. I clung to the hope of being well enough to go back, and breathe in South African air again.
By June, I had finally a complete timeline of my childhood. I haven’t remembered every waking second of my life, and nor do I need to, but I had the headlines of everything. Finally, the memories that I had forced into the depths, the memories that had been robbed from me, were back. I had ownership of my past. No more nasty surprises, and nothing that could be used against me. I felt more complete than I had ever felt, and with that felt a surge of energy and determination that I hadn’t felt in nearly a year. The memory of hitting rock bottom and living there wasn’t too far behind me, and sometimes I felt myself slipping, but kept propelling myself forwards. I was fuelled with the determination that they weren’t going to kill me now.
In June I sang in part of a huge concert marking the centenary of the Great War. I sang one of my songs about being free. I was terrified. But singing it, I felt something shift. I sang with passion and fire, and felt the flame of fight burst back into life after its long period of being all but a flicker. I wanted to throw up with nerves and cry with emotion all at once, but I focussed on singing, on letting the energy within me pour out into the song. It remains the most memorable and significant performance I have ever done, and probably will ever do.
Shortly afterwards, I fell into a whirlwind fling with a woman who was controlling and manipulative. I think she perhaps has self-esteem issues, but I wasn’t to talk about my academic work with her, and I wasn’t allowed to laugh around her because it was ‘irritating.’ She also had no room for mental health. She manipulated my body and confused me massively. I realised I was falling into another abusive relationship, and with the support of my friends, I finished it after only a few weeks. As crap as this had been, it was a massive improvement from my relationship only a year and a bit before with my abusive ex-partner – I’d got out of this situation much sooner.
By now it was summer and the bleak months at the beginning of 2014 felt comfortably far away from me, and South Africa approaching at a fast pace. I worked with a magazine with campaigning about suicide, and it didn’t escape me that I had gone from being very suicidal, to speaking out about it, in less than half a year. I was filled yet again with energy and hope from this, and a fuller belief that I can do this.
Just before I left to South Africa, I met another young woman, and was pleasantly stunned to find there was no ulterior motive behind her. I met her and we sat by a river, enjoying a quiet picnic and I discovered her incredible talent as an artist; how her soul flickers in each piece. In her eyes I saw nothing other than genuine kindness and warmth, and a softness to them that put me at ease. I instantly knew she was special, and months afterwards I learned that she had felt the same. I am definitely not one for love at first sight as it’s just too fairy-tale and silly for me, but I do believe an instant connection between people is possible and instincts are more often right than wrong (if only I had listened to mine more with previous partners!!). With her I felt an instant connection and was unnerved by it, but also curious. We started dating and then I left to South Africa for a month, and wondered if she’d grow disinterested in my absence, and found myself feeling sad at that prospect, which surprised me and reassured me in equal measure. We kept in touch and I felt myself growing closer, and shortly after arriving back in the UK we ‘officially’ became girlfriends and have enjoyed a beautiful relationship since. She has helped healed something deep that no friend or professional could do, and with that I have awoken into a full belief in my right to a safe and happy future, and also belief in my ability to have that. Suddenly I am planning my career, my life plans, my dissertation, my hopes and dreams. Suddenly I have a future that is more than just a ‘get by and survive’. It’s a future that follows survival. I am finally a complete survivor.
South Africa was also wonderful. I look back through the photos frequently. I had a few flashbacks but this to me only meant I felt safe with my friends. Sometimes I close my eyes and try to bring back the sensation of warm sun on my skin (as if that ever happens in the UK!). I have so many fond memories and truly cannot wait to be back, this time with my girlfriend. I remember sitting at my friends’, laughing hysterically over a glass of wine, as a mutual friend reeled off completely hilarious and surreal stories. I remember having a braai and sitting outside with the girls in the sun, believing for a moment that I might tan, and laughing at my friend’s brilliant sarcasm and dry humour. There was a sadness I had not felt when I was first there, as I was more aware now of what had happened and watching the family was so alien to what I knew. But this sadness felt healthy, it seemed important that I felt it and did things to soothe it. I’ve learned sadness in itself is not bad; it’s how I deal with sadness that determines whether it’s healthy or not. I was rightfully sad. But I was also rightfully in an environment with safe and loving friends who brought more smiles and laughter to my face than I could have asked for. And when I sat in a pub howling with laughter with them all the day before I flew back to the UK, the sadness was all but a distant twinge. There is in fact a photo of this (mildly tipsy) moment of full-body laughter between one of my friend’s and I, and I often look at it and smile widely at the memory.
My friend there runs a creche, and some of my friends and I had fundraised to get them a music keyboard. Their faces when they saw this keyboard will stay with me forever. I am often so haunted by the faces of the children in my past, and to have a memory so powerfully beautiful and pure struck me deep. It reminded me of why I fought to survive, for these moments, and also why I do music…and also why I love kids! I so often take for granted how easy it is for me to practice keyboard/piano, and sing at gigs, and this was brought into perspective seeing the gleeful faces of the excited kiddies.
I gave a talk at the local University there, which was a huge step for me and I doubted myself right up until the moment I opened my mouth. I had no idea if/what cultural differences there were regarding abuse, stigma, disclosure, support, etc etc. I was literally miles away from the professionals who help me, or my friends who are usually around after a talk. However, I had my friends in South Africa, and with this comfort, I decided to brave. I felt a deep need to talk there, one which I hadn’t felt before and couldn’t quite place or understand, but somehow I felt I really needed to give this talk to the small group of students. So I did, and I was overwhelmed by the response. The memory has stayed with me and fuels me to keep going even on bad days. After I spoke, one by one the students in the room opened up. Some had never spoken before. They talked amongst themselves. We sought validation from each other, they asked questions, we gave answers. We were a group of survivors and one by one offering each other a hand out of silence and shame, and into validation, comfort, and the right to talk. It was indescribably moving, and I decided then that if my voice can help initiate this kind of life-changing moment for survivors, then I would keep talking!! I felt humbled and touched to have been able to help somehow, and often think of those girls and wonder how they are getting on.
Aside from spiders (yuck), the nature and environment also reached deep within me. I am so used to claustrophobic UK (however I do love our countryside). I miss the cheeky little monkeys staring at us as we drove past them. On one day, there were giraffe by the road on the way home from the local town. It feels a lot more like man and nature work alongside each other, are within and around and entwined over there…. not man first and nature second.
On days when I’m struggling, I remind myself of the endless laughter with wonderful friends, of the sun, of the gorgeous kiddies and their keyboard, and of the environment. So many beautiful memories to arm me against hideous days, and only 8 months until I’m back there.
This last term has been very wobbly, with some extreme low points and frightening points, such as the hallucinations in the mirror and general PTSD symptoms. My eating has been up and down and as the weather has cooled, my fibromyalgia has reached a new level of unbearable pain and fatigue. However, the term has also been incredible. As I say, I have spent this term in a wonderful loving relationship with my girlfriend and I am truly looking forward to spending Christmas with her and her family, and I have also gained more memories with my incredible friends here. I have finished the term having completed all deadlines on time, and with a new passion for my degree that I have not previously felt. I have explored with my tutor the possibility of doing my dissertation on the resilience of abuse survivors, something which would have felt laughable as a topic only a year ago, and impossible as an idea two years ago. I have come to learn that referring to myself as ‘strong’ is not arrogant, but is acknowledging my ability to fight, persevere, and be okay. I miss my babies painfully, and somehow facing my first Christmas is making their absence harder…but at night I sometimes look at the stars and imagine them and all the children up there, playing, laughing, crying with me, smiling with me, urging me to keep going, and I know one day, somehow, I will hold them again.
2014 you have been at times indescribably hard, with weeks and even months of despair and overwhelming grief. But you’ve also brought me some of the most beautiful memories of my recovery to date. I started the year and didn’t believe getting through 5 minutes was even possible, and unsure of my right to safety and freedom. Now, as I stand here and look back, I can cry with relief at the difference…at how far the journey has gone. I not only believe in my right to safety, I believe in my right to humanity. I stand here ready to face my first Christmas, where last Christmas was spent in a refuge/respite centre. I am surrounded by the most wonderful amazing friends to whom I will never be able to express my full gratitude, and a beautiful girlfriend who gradually shows me the world can have love in it without cost, negotiation, secrecy and inequality…and that I am loveable. I am loving my degree and keen to start next term, and cannot wait to be back in South Africa and showing my girlfriend the country that has provided me with the most energy, hope and warmth. A future is not only possible, it’s right and deserved and no matter what is thrown at me, I know I have overcome the worst and do not deserve to be harmed again.
I would like to thank each and every person from the last year. Friends around the world who have encouraged me on this blog, thank you for helping me feel less alone in this horror. Friends who I have shared smiles and laughter with, who I have performed on stage with, thank you. To my close friends here and in South Africa, thank you so much…so so much…for the memories, for your encouragement and absolution that I would be okay and deserved to be, for your belief in my strength even when I had no belief myself. And to my girlfriend, thank you for putting up with a girlfriend who has PTSD and DID, and for showing me what a real relationship is.
In hindsight, I wouldn’t change a single moment of 2014. Every hard and painful moment has strengthened me, has processed grief, and has helped me believe I can cope when I’m struggling now. The hard moments have also only made the great times shine even more, and stand even fresher in my memory and mean even more to me.
I am not just a survivor, I am a human with a traumatic background, a present that moves with recovery, and a solid hope for a future.
Thank you 2014, for shaping me and moving me away from a victim, and more into safe adulthood.