Mental Health Awareness Week - 2019

This week marks “Mental Health Awareness Week 2019” so I’m leaving the thread of discussion of the blog temporarily to talk about why its so important to, well… talk. 

During the past there has been so much stigma about mental health – or ill health – and I guess it still exists today. I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of negativity regarding my own complexities and I’m sure I’m not alone. Its one of the reasons I decided to speak out, actually.

There is no shame in my heart that I have suffered with mental health problems – the trauma I have experienced in my life has been extreme and that had to channel somewhere. I’m immensely proud to have overcome and willing to be a voice for those who would prefer to remain quiet. I understand the need for privacy because I needed that for so very long too.

Therapy aside, and I cannot praise it enough, talking about my mental health on-line, through publishing my books, on stage and more recently here on my blog has helped me more than I could ever express. It’s released a pressure and enabled me to become whole again. Its enabled me to move on and forgive everyone involved (including myself) for all I’ve been through. Talking is the beginning of the journey to freedom and the chance of a better life for yourself. It has every possibility, with the right interventions, of allowing you to heal. 

Talking is important, whatever you might be going thorough there is always someone who will listen.  In emergencies you can reach out, in the UK here:

If you're in crisis and need to speak to someone:

 In an emergency / if in danger call 999

  • Call NHS 111 (for when you need help but are not in immediate danger)
  • Contact your GP and ask for an emergency appointment
  • Contact the Samaritans Available 24 hours a day to provide confidential emotional support for people who are experiencing feelings of distress, despair or suicidal thoughts 116 123
  • Use the 'Shout' crisis text line - text SHOUT to 85258

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Some Facts

Psychological stress was first reported in the nineteen-hundreds by an Egyptian physician who described a hysterical reaction to trauma. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has, confusingly been given many labels over the years. Previously known as ‘shell shock’ during WWI, ‘War Neurosis’ during WWII and ‘Combat Stress Reaction’ during the Vietnam War it wasn’t until the late nineteen-eighties that its present term was introduced.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop following any event that makes you fear for your safety. Any event (or series of events) that overwhelms you with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness that leave you emotionally shattered can trigger PTSD. This may happen especially if the event feels unpredictable and uncontrollable. Characteristics of a traumatic event are defined by its capacity to provoke fear, helplessness or horror as a response to the threat of injury or death and can affect those who have personally witnessed a traumatic event, are repeatedly exposed to graphic details of trauma (such as a paramedic) or those who are there to care for those effected by trauma as well as those who have experienced trauma.

During exposure to trauma you are in an intensively fearful situation during which your mind suspends normal operations in order to cope as best it can. This could trigger several different behaviours: you might freeze on the spot, fight or run away (otherwise known as flight). Until the danger passes you don’t produce a memory for the traumatic event in the normal way and unfortunately, when the memory is eventually presented for filing it can cause a lot of distress which can manifest itself in the form of nightmares, flashbacks and intrusive unwanted memories called re-experiences.

Re-experiences or flashbacks is the mind attempting to file away the distressing memory. They are unpleasant and frightening and repeatedly expose you to the original trauma.   Imagine your memory is like a filing cabinet but you’ve been too busy to complete your filing so you have piled up your paperwork in the bottom drawer day after day, until the drawer bulges. Now that you attempt to file all the paperwork (or in this case the memories) the task has become so overwhelming it makes you anxious: there are no reference numbers and you can’t read the documents. You have no idea where to file them, or who to turn to for help. Each time your mind attempts to file the documents your state of awareness changes to the point that those around you begin to notice. Your emotions begin to suffer and symptoms begin to present themselves in ways that can show both physically and emotionally. Physical symptoms are a shortness of breath, tight muscles, sweating and a racing heart; whereas emotional symptoms are when you feel on edge, hypervigilance or a feeling of panic.

Hyperarousal often increases emotional response although it’s possible that PTSD sufferers also feel emotionally numb causing trouble in communication about their feelings. In turn this can cause more anxiety and irritability. Symptoms of PTSD become unmanageable and uncomfortable to the point that avoidance linked to the original trauma begins to occur, affecting day to day life drastically.

Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Flashbacks are daunting and my first one occurred at the deep end of a swimming pool as I was attempting to regain some normality in my life. At the very moment I was magically transported back into the room in which I was attacked and re-lived the assault I was plunged into another trauma that would torment me for years. Water rushed into my airways, creating a secondary panic. Already claustrophobic as a result of my head injury I now had an overriding fear of placing my head anywhere near water and this would affect my daily living for a very long time.

My adult life has been a complex series of events requiring survival skills and although I’d successfully dealt with these events and survived their effects, being pre-disposed to trauma placed me at a higher risk of susceptibility to Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Because of my life, my memory loss and the assault it was a difficult process to come to terms with and an even harder one to conquer. Taking two separate courses of therapy with a substantial gap and two different therapists I finally broke free of the choke-hold CPTSD had over me and started to live life. It remains a condition that has my respect because despite it being under control I can feel it bubbling [very] deep under the surface at times: I know the signs and I know how to combat them.

From someone who had isolated herself and hid either in the empty bath tub or under the kitchen table until it was perceived safe to emerge please know its possible to harness fear and turn it into something worthwhile. Next time I will share more insight into PTSD and then will start talking about fear, when I will be introducing my first guest. 

If you would like to reach out with any questions please e-mail at support@donnasiggers.com

Building Memories

My memory palace has saved my sanity – it’s enabled me to live life again. Without it I’d become an empty shell reliant upon notes (and other techniques) left around our home reminding me to complete the most mundane tasks.

 

Building my palace started by revisiting an old family home – it wasn’t somewhere I was able to venture inside but was able to photograph from the outside. Re-familiarising myself with the building included sketching the rooms onto paper as I remembered them. My grandparent’s home was five stories and included a cellar and an attic which had provided lots of space for my cousins and I to share some wonderful memories. Each visit bought back a memory that I spoke into a voice recorder. The images I made enabled me to gradually build up an image on paper and eventually in my mind. Once I could remember the layout of the building I was able to close my eyes and imagine walking though each of the rooms.

 

Memory palaces work by associating the memory you want to store with an item or image that you place within your palace. One way I embed a memory is to write a four to six line poem and pair it with a photograph of an event and they get placed together inside the building that now forms my memory: if I have ever shared this act with you (because I often turn my poetry into a physical image too) then know you were a part of a day that meant a great deal to me.

 

As with any filing system there is a natural order within mine. Its somewhat precise, almost OCD and depending upon the memory it will depend on where I store it. Those of you who have read my thrillers will be very aware that I often write about confined spaces and one of my characters isn’t keen on them – that claustrophobia stems from my head injury – I also write about terrible happenings within cellars. Within my memory palace my negative experiences and memories are placed in the cellar. I certainly don’t avoid visiting and willingly walk down the steps to find out what might be lurking down there but its always good to know that I can walk back up and firmly lock that door behind me!

 

Over the years it’s taken me to develop and master this system into something that is reliable there have been some funny events that have needed some huge adjustments. As a family we discovered that wrong information that gets stored is immensely difficult to correct – there isn’t an override button I can press that deletes mistakes. It’s caused a laugh at my expense but I am now so very careful what gets kept and what I choose to ignore. Unfortunately it also means some things get forgotten – that what is important to some people may have been neglected by me and that can be an upsetting process for others to comprehend.

 

If anyone has any questions, please do ask me at support@donnasiggers.com

Memory

Memory loss is devastatingly frustrating and something I was determined to overcome. Forty-two is far too young to succumb to brain malfunction to the extent I was experiencing: we all forget at times but what I was experiencing was so very different. Many factors were, upon reflection responsible for what was occurring inside my mind but I was unable to find the words to express myself or, indeed help myself.

Overwhelmed by being assaulted my body went into shock and begun a slow process of shutting down which occurred over the course of a few days. My emotional state was in turmoil with denial very firmly kicking in until I crash landed which saw me very firmly placed in a hospital bed and in need of emergency CT scans and other tests. I’d plummeted from someone juggling a busy family life, work and full-time degree study to someone who couldn’t make a cup of tea or tell you what a pen was called. Months of internal torment and medical testing revealed my IQ of 192 had diminished and I wanted it back. After fifteen months I began the long, slow process of building myself a memory palace and, over five years post my injury I now function. Although my time-line of events is blurry I can remember a lot of my past (but not all of it) and am less reliant on some of the processes I needed to file new memories away – it has become more automatic than it once was. Embarking on new learning (or relearning old information as if it was new) is a time-consuming process but its one that I am truly thankful I have mastered and will never take for granted.

Having spent many years re-learning what every day items are called; who significant people in my life are and how they fit in; how to read and write again and so much more I can finally say that I'm in a good position again but still feel I have such a long way to go before I have fully caught up with myself.

With determination it is possible to regain what has been lost under some circumstances and I if you are going through something similar its my aim to give you hope.