Not Waving But Drowning
“Sorrow carves the heart to contain more joy” - Kahil Gibran
A friend suggested I should write something about my experience of trauma for this website. Initially I wasn’t sure how relevant my experience would be to people traumatized through activism. Although I’m involved in activism, I was injured during a car accident unrelated to activist activity. However, after some thought, I decided that there are many common themes running through traumatic experiences and I can write about some of these.
Trauma can stem from many different sources. The initial event may be ‘categorized’ as a primarily physical trauma or a psychological one. However, as there is no clear boundary between the physical and the psychological, the effects will almost certainly include both, and often they will act to reinforce each other. The impact of serious trauma is massive. It is an experience that divides life in two- ‘a before', and ‘an after'.
After my accident, I often felt incredibly alone. I spent several months feeling like I was literally losing my mind and I longed to have someone I could talk to who had been through a similar experience. Hopefully if you are reading this after being traumatized yourself it might help to read my story, maybe you have responded in similar ways and it may help you understand that what can feel like the beginnings of insanity are a normal response to an extra-ordinary event.
If you are reading this after someone you love has experienced trauma, perhaps this will offer some insight into how they may be feeling and stress to you the importance of support, in particular long term, consistent support. Good support is an absolutely fundamental component of recovery, and conversely, a lack of it can inhibit recovery significantly.
Whether you have experienced trauma yourself, or you are supporting someone who has, I hope you can find parts in this account that help you in coping with your situation.
Love transforms experience
"Christopher Robin had a question to ask, and he was wondering how to ask it.
"Well," he said at last, "it's a very nice house, and if your own house is blown down, you must go somewhere else, musn't you, Piglet? What would you do, if your house was blown down?"
Before Piglet could think, Pooh answered for him.
"He'd come and live with me," said Pooh, "wouldn't you?"
Piglet squeezed his paw. "Thank you, Pooh," he said, "I should love to.""
In Winter 2005 I was involved in a serious car accident that left me with a broken back and spinal cord injury. At first I was paralyzed from the waist down and was told it was quite likely I would never walk again. During my two months in hospital I was in a lot of discomfort and being unable to move or feel my legs was extremely distressing. However, my overriding memories are positive, and surprisingly, the time I spent bedridden in hospital was, in many ways, one of the most incredible experiences of my life. This is undoubtedly due to the support I received. My friends and family were amazing. I felt cocooned in a bubble of love, fully protected from the reality of my situation. Despite complications in my recovery, that saw me in and out of intensive care, I was often on a complete high, totally joyful at being alive. Over time I got more movement and sensation back in my legs, and several weeks after the accident I was told that I would probably walk again.
The support I received at this time was paramount in my recovery. People often told me how ‘strong’ I was, but I firmly believe that the strength I had came almost entirely from the love I was given. It masked the pain and enabled me to cope- without it I could never have been strong.
I guess my primary community is (for want of a better word) the ‘activist’ community and I think this was in part why support was so amazing. Partly because we’re used to responding to crisis situations, so my accident fitted into a familiar framework and suitable responses were clear. And also, significantly because of belief in solidarity. This meant I was supported by people I didn’t even know from the wider ‘activist’ community. People supported me in different ways and all of it was valuable. The people closest to me spent many days (and nights) in hospital with me and other people kept my spirits up with letters and cards. The little things really do count, and if you’re ever not sure whether to bother sending a card to someone you think might be in need of some TLC- DO IT!
The long road to recovery
“There is only one courage, and that is the courage to go on dying to the past. Not to collect it, not to accumulate it, not to cling to it. We all cling to the past, and because we cling to it we become unavailable to the present.” - Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh
I guess it doesn’t sound like I was that traumatized so far… and its true, at the time I left hospital, two months after the accident, I think I was coping reasonably well with my situation. Physically, I had recovered massively, and I was able to walk, albeit tentatively. But any massive trauma has long term consequences. Spinal cord injury affects both motor and sensory function to varying degrees, depending on the completeness of injury. Its effects are pretty wide ranging, including movement, balance, sexual functioning and bowel and bladder function. My short term recovery had been incredible. I had gone from being unable to move to walking in two months, and at that rate of recovery I hoped to be ‘normal’ again within another few months. Having never suffered any major physical trauma before, I wasn’t aware that recovery doesn’t happen like that. I now understand that initial recovery is often rapid, but a (relatively) short while into the healing period it can tail off to barely perceptible improvement. For me, the most difficult time probably began around 4 to 5 months after my accident. My coping mechanisms were exhausted and when I then got diagnosed with a chronic illness and a couple of other events also negatively affected me, the cumulative result was pretty much a breakdown.
Around 4 months after the accident my recovery seemed to plateau. To a casual observer I seemed pretty much better. However, I was acutely aware of all the ways in which I wasn’t. For the previous few months I hadn’t had to think about what the accident’s legacy on my health would be because my recovery was ongoing. When it appeared to stop I had to start dealing with the reality that I was now a different person, and maybe I always would be. My thoughts at this time were characterized by fear and a prevailing sense of loss. Not only was I sad about the actual losses I had sustained, but equally distressing was the fear of loss for all the things I was uncertain of recovering. From the first days after the accident I had ongoing ‘deals with the devil’. Initially, it was: if you let me walk again, I’ll give you running and dancing. Then: if you let me have usual bowel and bladder function, I don’t mind walking with a limp… and so it went on as my recovery progressed. But, I gradually learned that all losses are significant and while I could be grateful for the things I had recovered, I would still grieve for that which I had (or feared I had) lost. I knew it was possible that I could recover more, but I could never be certain. It was far easier for people observing my recovery to have faith in further improvements. In part, because my friends and family saw change over time, where as I was living the tiny changes every day and consequently less able to see them. But also because it’s a lot easier to believe everything will be ok when you’re not directly experiencing the situation and its not you who has something to lose. With the benefit of time I can now see that my friends optimism was warranted. The ability of others to see changes more clearly and their greater impartiality can be a reason to trust people close to you who put forward explanations of why they believe things will get better.
I was grateful that I could walk, but in many ways, learning to walk again was just the beginning. I was now trying to go back to my normal life, but as I did this, all the differences between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ me became obvious. Although I could walk, I was aware that when I did I was off balance. I used to dance a lot and I could no longer do this. I couldn’t run, sensation below where I had been injured was different and I had to have quicker access to toilets than before. I thought about loads of the things I used to love doing and was consumed by sorrow at the thought that I’d never be able to do them again. And…. I was vulnerable. I felt that fifty years too soon I was experiencing what it must feel like to be old. My body was weaker and I was scared of my back being damaged further. I now knew experientially how vulnerable human bodies were, how they can break in an instant, potentially irreversibly. Plus, I could no longer run if I needed to. All of this affected my everyday life significantly. I was now fearful of many things I’d previously felt confident doing, walking by myself at night, hitching, taking part in actions, walking in the mountains, play fighting. It was a strange time, I had recovered so much, but I felt so different.
As these months went by and I felt I wasn’t improving further, I became more stressed. I started having nightmares about being paralyzed and I’d wake up shaking and crying. Everything felt wrong. I wasn’t the person I’d been before, but I could move and feel my legs and I was back in my own bed, living the life I used to lead. In these moments I started to question my sanity and whether the accident had ever really happened. Other times I woke up with a dead arm from the way I’d been sleeping and panic would set in, an irrational fear that I was somehow paralyzed again, or was developing an illness that would ultimately lead to paralysis. In the day times any sudden loud noises left me shaky and tearful. I think this was due to the physical memory of trauma held in my body- before my mind had time to assess what the noise was, my body was already back at the accident. I became incredibly anxious about my health. I became convinced I was developing various debilitating illnesses. I started having panic attacks, the symptoms of which I put down to these serious illnesses. As my anxiety manifested itself in physical symptoms, it seemed justified and a vicious cycle was created. Apart from to perhaps my very closest friends, I think the image I presented to the outside world was generally one of someone who was coping. My reality was quite different. I’d spend hours by myself crying and rocking. I thought I was losing my mind. I felt completely unable to cope with my life, but I didn’t know how to stop coping. I felt like a taut piece of string that needed to snap, but I didn’t know how to break. I wanted to fall apart and have someone else come and pick up the pieces and make me better again. I thought about suicide most days, often I wished I’d been killed in the accident. During the worst months, life was a choice I had to make nearly every day. I couldn’t see how I could possibly have a future that I would want to live in. I couldn’t imagine ever feeling happy again. I felt incredibly alone and that no one I knew could understand my experience. I felt how I had during my worst depressions, but that this time it was based in a physical reality, so was somehow more real, and wouldn’t end. I’m not sure what it would have meant to have ‘snapped’, it didn’t happen. Eventually, from somewhere, I found the reserves to move beyond this point.
One of the main coping strategies I used during this time was postponement. I set myself a suicide deadline. I committed to give my body and mind a certain amount of time to improve by and decided that if by this date I still felt the same, I would make an informed decision to die. I applied a similar rational to self harm- my body had been through hell and needed all the support it could get if it was going to have a chance of recovery. Rather than self harm, I would try to give it space to heal and if I decided to die at the suicide deadline, I would simply put it out of its misery completely. Generally this approach worked quite well, and when the deadline arrived, while I wasn’t in any way great, I was a lot better, and “life” was the favored option.
It is only with the benefit of hindsight that I can see that this period wasn’t a plateau at all, but a very gentle upward slope of further healing. In the early months of my recovery improvements were obvious. Not feeling anything, to feeling something, not being able to move at all, to moving a leg, being bedridden, to taking steps, being unable to piss, to being able to piss etc. Once I was able to move and feel different sensations again, all new improvements were only going to be this recovery further refined. I couldn’t see the slow, subtle changes that were ongoing. Now, two years on, I can clearly see the journey I've taken and I trust that it is still continuing. I have learnt that bodies have an amazing capacity for healing, but also that recovering from massive trauma extends over years, not weeks or months.
The importance of long term support
“True friendship isn’t about being there when its convenient; it’s about being there when it’s not.”
During this time I continued to rely heavily on support from my closest friends. The need wasn’t so obvious, but it was as essential to my well being then as it had been during my time in hospital. In hospital, support had been incredible, and obviously that level of support over the long term is unsustainable and I didn’t expect it to continue. But although by now my peripheral support had lessened, I still needed the people closest to me to be there. Not in the same intense way as before, just that they’d check in with me to see I was OK, that I knew I could phone them when I was panicing, or when I became convinced I had another illness, or needed someone to reassure me that I would still get better than this. Some people remained completely solid in their support and I‘m hugely grateful to them. For example, one of my best friends would always take the time to read up on the problems that I had, (or the illnesses I thought I had). This had a dual impact, it made me feel listened to and cared for, and the evidence presented would often alleviate my fears.
Unfortunately, not all my key supports remained so solid. In particular, one person, who had been one of my main supports and who I had trusted and relied upon significantly, withdrew their support a few months after the accident. This loss of support was pretty devastating and exacerbated the difficulties I was experiencing. Following this experience I’d offer the following advice to people thinking of placing themselves in a primary support role. It is imperative that you are self aware. Long term, consistent support is really vital and while providing strong support during the initial crisis is a wonderful thing to do, it is not a responsibility taken lightly - if you choose to arbitrarily remove this support later, it can be hugely distressing. Think about how much energy you have to give someone and if you are willing to be there for the long haul. Assess your motivations. If you are genuinely motivated by love, then hopefully you’ll be there long term. If your current desire for intimacy, guilt, ego, the excitement and drama of the situation or wanting to be a hero feature significantly- maybe you’d be better off taking a peripheral role. And, if you are unfortunate enough to experience a total loss of support from someone you trusted, it sucks, but if they really don’t have the capacity to care any longer, the best thing you can do is seek support from those who do love you and not add to your difficulties through continuing to look for care from those who won’t (or can’t) give it. As one of my best friends wrote to me, “to learn to see the hands that are being held out to you and not to focus on the ones that have been withdrawn.”
I also remember during this period, a friend (who had no idea of the intricacies of my situation), saying, when they found me tearful at a party, “stop feeling sorry for yourself, you’re fine, its all in your head.” At a time when I was questioning my sanity on a regular basis, and genuinely unsure how much was real and how much was ‘in my head‘, this was quite a hard thing to hear. I now know it was both untrue and incredibly insensitive - I wasn’t fine, and even if it had all been “in my head”, my anxiety was a direct result of my experience and distressing in and of itself. Trauma has many consequences, physical and psychological, obvious and not so obvious. Other people cannot judge - the impacts are both subjective and real. Yes, I was super fortunate that I wasn’t in a wheel chair, but its not OK for other people to see your experience only in terms of how lucky you are compared to the worst case scenario. If I chose to make that comparison, that was my prerogative, but for other people to do it devalued the very real losses that I was experiencing.
Be careful how you judge people who have experienced trauma. If you’re not a really close friend how can you assess what they are going through? Don’t make assumptions about what they have suffered, lost or experienced based on your own limited observations. This isn’t to say if you are a close friend and you feel anxiety, fear, or a distorted view of what has happened is a debilitating consequence of trauma you shouldn’t try and discuss it. Of course not, but approach the subject sensitively and understand that the psychological impacts of trauma can be as distressing as the more obvious physical ones.
A couple of final points regarding support… Returning to doing actions was quite a stressful experience for me. I’d never really been afraid on actions before, but returning to situations where I potentially faced getting injured again and where I needed to be physically able, when I wasn’t sure that I could be, was pretty fucking scary. I didn’t know what my body was capable of anymore or exactly how vulnerable it was. The first few actions I went on I felt like some weird cartoon character as my legs properly shook with fear. It was interesting that the people who were by far the most supportive of me during my first post-accident action were people I didn’t even consider to be close friends. What I needed was to know that people would be looking out for me and to have a buddy that would leave with me if the situation became too full on. For different reasons it wasn’t my close friends that offered this. For some it was because they wanted to feely participate in action without having their activities restricted through supporting me. For others, probably I didn’t articulate clearly enough what my needs were because I didn’t want to be a burden or to “be weak”. Luckily there were other people around who empathized with my situation and really looked out for me. Although I’m aware that it was primarily my responsibility to ensure that I felt safe, I also think we have a collective responsibility to have an awareness of people’s different needs in action situations and to look after each other accordingly. This isn‘t to say that everyone has a ‘right’ to go on all actions. There are situations that just aren‘t suitable for some people and scenarios where having someone physically less able involved can put other people at risk. But, there are many different roles people can play, and if we talk about it openly together we can work out what the possibilities are. For example, on a later action, some of my close friends were much more supportive and dedicated a section of our action meeting to discuss what I needed and how they could support me. In reality I didn’t need that much, but knowing that it was a consideration and that people were aware it was difficult for me made me feel confident enough to reengage with taking action again.
A journey ongoing
“Life is either a grand adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.” - Helen Keller
Its now well over a year since I started writing this article and lots has changed. I’m at a point where I never imagined I could be a year ago and I’m once again loving life. Its been a long process to get to here and full of lessons learned. I could probably write a small self-help book with all of them, but for now, here are the ones that stand out most to me at the moment. Probably the main thing I have learned is that you need to give yourself time to heal. It’s a simple truth. Seen in the length of a life time, several years is really very little, although it can feel like forever while your living it. The second: allowing yourself to be open to what is possible. Recently a physiotherapist told me a story about a man who had a serious accident 10 years ago and who came to her unable to do many things. She told me that as they worked together it became clear that he was physically capable of much more than he was currently doing. She said, “his body had moved on, but his mind was still afraid.” This resonated strongly with me and in the weeks after hearing this story, I had another period of recovery. It made me realize that I’m still working out what the absolute physical limitations imposed by my injury are, and which are those that can still be influenced by my mind. And, thirdly, while being open to possibilities, a lesson that I’m still trying to learn is acceptance. I try to live the delicate balance between accepting where I am now and continuing to work for things that may be possible. Life is a constant state of flux, nothing stays the same. I am not the same person I was before my accident- but I am different, not less. I have recovered incredibly, but some things will probably always be different, and I’m now at a point where most of the time, finally, that’s ok.
The title comes from one of my favourite poems.
Not Waving But Drowning
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.