“I finally feel like I am resurfacing after a period in the depths. I just got back from a week at Heal For Life in the UK (see http://www.healforlife.org.uk/index.html), a program run by and for survivors of childhood trauma. I’ve been wanting to go for ages after a friend enthused about her experience of the program, but fear and practicalities of work and parenting kept me away until now. I booked it about a year ago and in the couple of weeks leading up to it I felt in fear and dread and wondered why I was doing this to myself. A lot of my life is spent on that precarious knife edge of just coping, with wobbles feeling like they could descend into full on break down at any time and it almost felt inevitable that this would be the outcome of any in depth explorations of past trauma. I’ve done a fair bit of therapy over the years and spent long periods feeling stranded scared and stuck, and berated myself for not being able to let go and move on. Most recently I had some brilliant psychology support where I came to understand that the main thing I need to do to heal is forgive myself but that’s so much easier said than done. I feared that a week at HFL to focus on myself without the pressure and distraction of having to keep all the other life stuff of kids and work together would mean that I would fall apart.
I’ve not done much conscious processing since I’ve been back, it’s like I’ve slammed the lid back on that box for now in an attempt to re-orientate and adjust back into my home life, but the week, it spoke deeply to me. There is so much I could say, but I’ll try and stick to the headlines. Firstly (because it’s the most straight forward), the setting was idyllic in the grounds of a massive estate far from civilisation and other people. There were trees in the woods I’ve never seen before, magnolias in flower, cherry trees laden with blossom, the rich purple, green and white of bluebells and stitchwort, abundant cowslips and primroses, and hidden away, the biggest badger set I’ve ever come across with their amazing excavations out of the chalk and flint. I saw hares, deer and a fox. Wondering amongst that generous beauty was a great source of comfort and felt like a gift.
On the night we arrived, we were given an overview of the week where one of the team said it was basically about love, to which my automatic cynical response was “yeah right” and I had no concept of what that meant. But the love that was offered over the week was consistent, open hearted, boundless and profound. I have never known or experienced love like it – total unwavering acceptance from each member of the team throughout the week – they were really there for us without agenda other than to support. Love indeed was the key and it moved me deeply, was something I had never imagined possible, and I feel so so privileged to have experienced that. It questioned my fear of people and made me wonder about the possibilities if I could allow myself to be more open in my wider life.
The week was long and full and structured and held. I realised that I have been locked in a battle between my wounded child and punishing parent since my kids were born. I was able to tolerate listening to a bit of what the child part of me had experienced all those years ago and understand the importance of being open to listening more and experimenting with some compassion towards her and to allowing her to have a voice. I need to work a whole lot more with breaking down my resistance to that, but I have some great models from the love of the team to help me internalise. We learned about practical ways to de-trigger and were shown ways to become better parents to ourselves. We were given space and structure to explore our pains and remember our strengths – it was great to remember what a feisty rebellious girl and young woman I was because she has somehow been forgotten and to remember that fearless spirit surviving however she could gives me hope that there must still be some of that fight in me somewhere.
There’s lots more to say, but I’m going to leave it there for now. If you are still battling your demons though, I would say that going on a HFL week might be the greatest gift you ever give yourself. And we deserve it. We deserve to be deeply moved by love and acceptance, and support in finding ways to move forward…. Love love love. Love love love. Love is all you need.”
Barb Hildebrand attended HFL in the UK (May, 2016)
“Two weeks later thoughts … I am finding it challenging working in acute inpatient psychiatric care since doing the Heal for Life week. The healing I witnessed in some of the other participants and within myself in that one week was something I have never seen in psychiatric care. In fact, in acute psychiatric care people often become more unwell and after discharge are readmitted regularly thereby never receiving the care, the acknowledgment and validation of what has happened to them (in their past) which impacts on their lives today.
The key selection criteria for gaining the role of a mental health consumer consultant was that I have the lived experience of being a consumer (patient) of acute psychiatric care services. As is widely known, statistics show the majority of people accessing acute psychiatric care have a history of childhood abuse and trauma.
Research cited in online trauma training for psychiatry in Victoria reports that 90% of public mental health patients have experienced trauma, and that most have multiple experiences of trauma (NETI, 2005)
‘Child abuse has a causal role in most mental health problems including depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD, eating disorders, substance abuse, personality disorders, and dissociative disorders. Psychiatric patients subject to childhood sexual or physical abuse have earlier first admissions and longer and more frequent hospitalizations, spend longer time in seclusion, receive more medication, are more likely to self-mutilate, and have higher symptom severity.’ (Read, 2008)
Feeling safe is something many survivors struggle with. However, in a very short time I was amazed that I felt very safe during the Heal for Life week. I felt safe in the beautiful serene physical environment, I felt safe with the group rules/guidelines, I felt safe to allow my feelings and emotions be released, I felt safe to be me, I felt safe to connect with my inner child, I felt safe to act like a child and not feel guilty for having fun. I felt safe as the peer support workers were human … they shared their own vulnerabilities, which clinicians, psychiatrists and the like avoid, preferring to retain a professional distance. I felt the peer support workers and the participants were equal, there was no hierarchy … we were all in this together. I have never felt such love, joy and freedom to be me. I have tried to bring this feeling away with me and am mindful that psychiatric wards do not operate with such a holistic model. I need to keep the connection with my inner child to be the best support for those I care for in the medical model it espouses.
Each day in the psychiatric ward I see people terrified to be there, many of them say they are not sick, that they are scared to be in a psych ward, scared of some of the other patients, scared of the physical environment (often with obvious signs of patient distress with holes in the walls). They are upset they may be restricted access outside the psych unit, upset they are not allowed to smoke, bored with nothing to do, angry with their doctors, clinicians, psychiatrists … angry with the world and often with themselves.
In 2013 the Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council (VMIAC, 2013) examined women’s safety in mental health services in Victoria. The report, ‘Zero Tolerance for Sexual Assault’, gathered data for female patients from nine area mental health services across Victoria. It found that 85% felt unsafe during hospitalisation, 67% had experienced sexual or other forms of harassment during hospitalisation and 45% had experienced sexual assault during an in-patient admission.
On my return to work following the Heal for Life week, without realising at first, but after contemplation and reading the Heal for Life “Trauma Informed Care” manual I realised I was feeling re-traumatised being in that environment. Although, I’m staff (though the only self identified one with the lived experience), I was feeling somewhat traumatised because the ward wasn’t and isn’t a “safe place” for me anymore. In my work role, I put on the mask and endeavour unwittingly to push away, to ignore my own unacknowledged inner child. I connected with my inner child during the Healing Week … I long and ache for those I come into contact with each day to also have a similar opportunity..
I know the power of healing, even if it’s a glimmer that encourages participants to return to Heal for Life or make some simple positive changes it all is “healing”. To go into the psych ward with the experience of the Healing week I now find myself struggling as I know without a doubt that “there is a better way”. The Heal for Life Foundation offers a “better way”!!! My goal now is to study the Heal for Life modules, become a peer support volunteer, do the group facilitation training and work towards implementing aspects of the model of Heal for Life into the mental health sector.”
Postcript: Upon sharing my testimonial with a staff member on my return following the Healing Week I was disheartened to be admonished for my testimonial and told I hadn’t adhered to the social media policy and put the service I work at in a poor light. I am/was employed primarily because of my lived experience despite any other academic qualification. I feel I did what I was employed, respected and expected to do …to share my lived experience. There was no intention to bring disrepute at all .. my heart is full of loving intent and hope of being able to work collaboratively to bring some of the Heal for Life “Trauma Informed Model of Care” philosophy into the Victorian Mental Health Care sector. I have since learned and now understand the challenges of this as the mental health sector is based on the medical model … but there is hope … 🙂
Joanne Switserloot, Mental Health Consumer Consultant at a Melbourne Metropolitan Hospital Psychiatric Unit, VIC (March 2015)