Kelly Spencer - Happy Healthy YOU
(A wellness column by Kelly Spencer: writer, life coach, yoga & meditation teacher, holistic healer and a mindful life enthusiast!)
As I sit with a man and his wife, I listen to their story. During the interview, I find my mind wandering to thoughts and feelings of disbelief, mixed with gratitude and compassion.
Definition: per·fect storm: (noun) - A particularly violent storm arising from a rare combination of adverse meteorological factors. A particularly bad or critical state of affairs, arising from a number of negative and unpredictable factors.
I have known this man since I was in high school. The two of them are sharing their experiences and perspectives of childhood trauma, mental health diagnosis, coping, and ultimately, their healing journey. They agree the discussion and conversation is much different than those of yesteryear prior to proper therapeutic approaches with an accurate diagnosis. They have a calm and hope in their story now, but life was not always this way.
Brad Enright is no stranger to trauma. He is a Fire Department Captain that often needs to put on a brave face in the presence of gruesome car accidents and horrific deadly situations. Through the years his wife Tammy, a mental health support worker, attempted to diffuse the first responder’s situational traumas he experienced as well as personal challenges, with awareness and discussion. It wasn’t working out as hoped.
Enright’s traumatic experiences were not isolated to vocational circumstances but an unfortunate regularity he knew his whole life. He was the child of a home with continual injurious experiences that bred an ongoing shame and self-judgment which he carried from childhood to adult life. Each intense adverse situation building on the next creating unfathomable unease in Brad’s life.
The ramifications of each aftermath created more storm in the relationships in his world. The need for isolation from others and an urge to self-medicate eventually no longer brought the solace he so desperately sought.
Childhood trauma coupled with accumulative traumas creates the perfect storm for PTSD - Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Childhood trauma obviously affects the body and mind of the young being, but also re-wires the brain and some research suggests changes on a cellular genetic level occur, sometimes referred to as CPTSD (Complex-PTSD). Many individuals with PTSD will turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to numb their pain or to gain some measure of control in their lives.
The Canadian Mental Health Association says, “PTSD can make people feel very nervous or ‘on edge’ all the time. Many feel startled very easily, have a hard time concentrating, feel irritable, or have problems sleeping well. They may often feel like something terrible is about to happen, even when they are safe. Some people feel very numb and detached. They may feel like things around them aren’t real, feel disconnected from their body or thoughts, or have a hard time feeling emotions.”
It seems so trite to surmise Brad’s trauma in a paragraph, but after growing up in a home of all forms of abuse, alcoholism, uncared for mental health issues and suffering, that anguish trickled down to affect his children. The trauma to his children ultimately led to the end of an already deteriorating first marriage that had been seeking therapy previously. Three years after the end of this marriage, his daughter was often scared by his unpredictable anger and struggled with his behavior and the words he would say.
“He never directed it at me, but he did towards my mom and others. I remember being very scared wondering if he would hurt them.”
The effects of her father's undiagnosed PTSD eventually led to an extreme reaction towards him and a dissolving of their relationship for almost a decade. His son remembers the challenging strain and unpredictability of visits before he cut ties with his dad for several years.
“It was hard to know how he’d be, when I saw him.”
His wife Tammy shares, “I understood trauma but I missed the signs of PTSD that he was displaying such as anger, easily startled, pulling away from social circles, self-medicating with the need to feel calm... yet not succeeding, and emotionally he stopped showing he cared.”
Each traumas seemed to build, growing and expanding the intensity of each. The pain would haunt him and be triggered by
both small and enormous challenges. The anger that followed were unstoppable and relentless, eventually turning into a rage and hate toward the world and himself, seemingly creating destruction to all in its path. His mantra became “bad (stuff) happens to me,” and “this world is bad,” states Tammy.
“I felt so much anger all the time,” says Brad.
His wife says it was like walking on eggshells. Unaware of his mental illness or the possibility of feeling any other way, the disorder wreaked havoc. Tammy was trying different methods to reach Brad while trying to maintain self-preservation. As a last effort or at the very least giving an opportunity for a peaceful divorce, Tammy asked Brad to try therapy. He believed nothing would change as he had been to multi-therapists during this marriage, as well as his last. But he went with reluctance and much skepticism.
“Our therapist was able to identify (PTSD), validate his feelings and emotions and help him make the connections in life that caused him to be in this sad, dark place. She helped him to understand that trauma happened TO him and then helped him to reprocess his memories through EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprogramming).”
This was the same treatment his daughter received as a young girl to process the trauma she experienced.
“I will forever be grateful. Throughout this journey, I did my own work. I supported him with his and respected that she was the therapist and that as his wife, this was not my role. I educated myself, I learned to “check in” with him after a shift, but I also learned that I didn’t need every detail of a (accident) scene and I learned to trust that as he was healing. He knew when he needed to lean on his therapist to help him sort out the tragic scenes he attended.”
Mayo Clinic describes PTSD as a mental health condition that is triggered by a terrifying event, either experiencing it or witnessing it. Most people who go through traumatic events may have temporary difficulty coping but with time and good self-care they usually get better. If symptoms get worse, last months or even years, and interfere with your day to day functioning, you may have PTSD.
At a recent PTSD seminar I attended, I was shocked to hear some of the statistics. This disorder is not just for post-war veterans as many of us think but can affect anyone. First responders such as fire fighters, ambulance and police may be at greater risk especially if given past accumulative traumas such as adverse childhood events. Females are at higher risk for PTSD than men, some research suggests from higher incident of child sexual abuse. For those affected by this debilitating disorder, the brain is unable to process the memory of the trauma(s) and therefore it never gets “filed” into the proper part
of the brain, leaving it very present and vulnerable like an exposed and raw nerve-ending flapping in the wind.
Brad has been in therapy for two years now. He is a changed man. He is a happier man. Brad and Tammy shared their story at this seminar, a story of hope and courage. They hope to release the ongoing stigma of mental health and therapy. They want to advocate for all people that may be suffering, including First Responders, to seek help and get an accurate diagnosis with proper help from professionals that are educated in this specialty area.
Brad and Tammy want to remind those suffering that the brain, mind and heart are amazing and have the ability to heal with therapy, support, love and time. EMDR has had positive evidence based research around trauma. Another friend of mine with a CPTSD diagnosis states she has had positive results from medication to treat the anxiety and depression as well as DBT (dialectic behavior therapy).
His children, now young adults, celebrate a rekindled relationship with their father. They enjoy visits filled with laughter and insightful, empowered conversations.
“He’s just a regular nerdy dad now,” says his daughter with a laugh.
“Your story could be the key that unlocks someone else’s prison. Don’t be afraid to share it.” – unknown
I went for a walk this weekend in the woods. In the water was a tree that had rotted, broken and fallen. Within the dry, dead tree stump that remained, a new green tree was ascending and branching out form its core. It was a reminder that no matter where we are in life, there is always room within what feels fallen, to plant seeds of hope and let the growth of healing and our own personal ascension expand our body, mind and heart.
I was at the PTSD seminar with my young adult children to hear this information and support this couple’s recovery. Like the interview, as I listened I found my mind wandering to thoughts and feelings of disbelief, mixed with gratitude and compassion. After all, this couple is my children’s father and step-mother.
* Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Team for debriefing of first responders for Oxford County and area: (519) 228-1918.
* Homewood Health Centre, Guelph inpatient program (519) 824-1010.
* For children Vanier Children’s Services (519) 433-3101 and Child and Parent Resource Institute (CPRI) both in London (519) 858-2774.
* Canadian Mental Health Association Woodstock (519) 539-8055.
* Meditation and mindfulness practices such as yoga have positive evidence based research results.
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