We Are Essex

Susanna's story

Photo of Susanna Alyce

"Bit by bit you get through the day, you get through that anxiety"

I found out in 2014 that I’d lost my memory, and I’d lost my memory due to some really hideous things that happened to me when I was a child. It’s a traumatic memory loss called Dissociative Amnesia. I’d lived 50 years thinking I just suffered from a bit of stress and that’s why I did meditation and yoga, but I don’t, I have a mental health condition. So I went and did some really intense trauma therapy. Trauma therapy is right at the cutting edge of mental health, it’s come into existence in the last 8 years and it’s really been at the forefront of mental health treatments over the last 3 or 4 years I would say, so it’s right at the frontline. Even in the last 12 months there’s been a shift in the way in which the British Psychological Society suggest we consider mental health. It’s not something that’s gone wrong in this piece of apparatus above our eyebrows, it’s something that has changed in this piece of apparatus according to events that have happened in our lives. The other thing that’s happened is that the type of trauma I suffer from hasn’t been diagnosable, it hasn’t been in the manual of mental health issues, but in June last year the World Health Organisation recognised this thing called Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s still not recognised in America.

Essex are interested in contributing to the fields of research around trauma and they want to do this thing where people who have mental health issues research those mental health issues. There’s this mantra nothing about us without us, so it’s really new that people with mental health issues are researching mental health issues, and the champion of that is at Essex; Peter Beresford. My supervisor Danny Taggart works quite closely with him and he himself was abused as a child, so he’s written lots of papers and he’s speaking at many conferences on this interface of understanding mental health from within and not from without. I think Essex is amazing that they are so engaged in what’s completely new. It’s so wonderfully refreshing to just be a student doing a postgrad; I think it’s a real tribute to Essex. It really fits hand in hand with all the posters around campus saying that they are at the cutting edge of research and that they want to do research which is completely new and innovative.

My PhD itself is investigating trust in the context of complex trauma, so trust in the people who’ve been sexually abused as a child, or who’ve had long-term build-up of trauma through their childhood. When you’ve suffered traumatic experiences at the hands of others then it makes it really hard to trust people, so how then do you trust mental health services, how do you trust your doctor? So then you can’t access the services you need to get the help you need. So my PhD is about trust, and the idea is that it will generate enough information so that services will know how to be more trauma informed. Trauma informed services are something that are right at the cutting edge of development; at the moment they don’t have enough information from actual trauma survivors to know what it looks like, or to know how to provide support. So my hope is that my work will provide data and guidance that enables services to offer therapy to trauma survivors in a way that trauma survivors can actually access and want to access.

Researching the thing that has affected me so personally is occasionally hard, but it’s mostly really rewarding. It’s hard in that when I read formal diagnoses of stuff I’ve been through and I think Oh my God, I’m mad! And sometimes I think I’m the luckiest person on the planet, because I think I’m not mad, I’m completely sane and I’ve got the most amazing life and I’ve survived. I feel proud that I can contribute something, because I’m not mad, I can function really, really well.

Mostly it’s fascinating because I feel like I have so much to add from what I know personally, both as somebody with those mental health issues, but also as somebody who now works with people who have trauma. I teach meditation and yoga to people who have trauma and I can see how much I know about stuff on the ground.

The treatment for trauma is to re-visit it in a safe context. You have to do that through your body, not your mind. Trauma plays out in the body through physical sensations and experiences, so you use meditation and yoga to establish your sense of safety and then you can draw the trauma in bit-by-bit with someone who you feel safe to do it with, whether that’s me or any other therapist. Gradually the brain, which has been storing trauma in one part of the brain, shifts that into ordinary biographical memory, and once it has shifted into biographical memory it doesn’t play out in the body anymore. It’s amazing and it can be done and so few people living with trauma really understand that there is treatment that can help.

You have to find some way of feeling good inside your body. For some people it’s exercise, for some people it’s yoga, for some people its tai-chi, for some people it’s walking. You have to find a way that you can learn to trust your body and live in your body. If your body is full of anxiety you just want to get out of it, so you keep drinking, or you keep taking drugs, or you keep shopping and using your iPhone; you do all the numbing behaviours, you watch tele, you have too many relationships which don’t work, you do all the things you can to avoid the feelings, but the healing of it is to learn to live in your body and to learn that actually your body is an ok place.

My motto would be ‘Just this moment’. So you just survive this moment, or you thrive in this moment, or breathe in this moment, or walk in this moment. Your mind is always worrying about the future, remembering and regretting the past, and in the meantime life is just going by and you’re not even noticing it. So if you’re in the moment, if you wake up to what is happening right in this moment, then you’re fully alive. When you’re really suffering from anxiety, and this is coming from somebody who has really suffered from anxiety, the words ‘just this moment’ have literally got me through days where I didn’t think I could. Just this one step, that’s all you have to live. Bit by bit you get through the day, you get through that anxiety.

I really admire and respect each of the steps that I’ve taken to get where I am now. The thing that helped me was that I learnt to meditate at 21 and that gave me a sense of a safe place to live from, and a sense that I could trust myself and the decisions I made. So although it’s been a very long journey, although it took me to 50 to be brave enough to discover that I’d lost my memory and to start to tackle my trauma, the steps that got me there were all essential.

For more information on trauma and the treatment of trauma, you can click here: https://www.nicabm.com/program/pgu-treating-trauma-master-4/


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