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Kate's Story - Bereavement & PTSD

f you met me, you’d probably think, she is ok. She smiles a lot, works in a prison, champions wellbeing. She must be fine. But actually I’m not. I’m two stories running parallel. One of the outer coping, down-to-earth Northern. But underneath there is another story of floating away, recurring dreams, PTSD flashbacks and panic attacks. Sometimes these stories meet – when I have to cancel last minute with a migraine or stomach issues. These aren’t excuses. Anxiety is felt in the head and the body; twisting my gut, pulling sleep from my body, pushing needles into my eyes.

Caring for others makes it go away temporarily. Pushes it down deeper as the fear of letting others down supresses the anxiety of failure. Failing myself again.

I’m not sure where it began. With a childhood marked by poverty hidden behind closed doors. Empty tins put back in cupboards to make it look like we had food. Or at school, being bullied for greasy hair and unclean clothes. Hot water was a luxury we could ill afford. Perhaps the relentless stress of 20 years’ teaching? But going to work in a prison brought it all home. The same mustard coloured doors and poor food options. Being locked in. Here, I had the keys though. I could leave and go outside. Escape the realities of what happens to those who have been born in in the ‘wrong’ area, the ‘wrong’ skin. I loved the work. To see what it meant to be human. To see what is left of us when all else is taken away. I was subject to the same rules – no phone, family contact, a strict regime. Together we told our stories and began the road to recovery.

It all came surging to the surface in a prison classroom. A call came through. Not the normal alarm bell for a fight or overdose inside. This time the outside came crashing in. My dad had been found dead. Amidst words and hugs from friends and students, I lost all feeling. I don’t remember the journey to see what remained of my family. An instant orphan. After 6 weeks off work to arrange Coroner’s inquests and funerals, of beginning to sift through the huge hoard of papers left behind, I went back to work. I wanted the routine. The stability. The grounding in grim, bittersweet reality. After 2 weeks, I was bone tired, head spinning and wide-eyed. I was signed off for 6 months. In that 6 months, my two storied selves collided. I alternated between calm and panic. Insomnia and sleeping for two days straight. Dark dreams and waking, walking moments I couldn’t feel. My body told me to stop. To look at the signs of self-destruction. To stop ignoring being eaten away. I found 3 lumps, tumours quickly removed. Scooped out and feeling even more hollow, I knew it was time to recollect. Gather my thoughts, stories, words and pictures back inside my sagging skin. I avoided eye contact, lost my sense of taste and smells brought back other images.

Flashbacks of incidents in prison, attempted suicides, overdoses, self-harm blood trickling down arms. These took over and masked the other image of my dad being found. It took 6 months of counselling to begin to split the images up. To put them back in boxes which I peer into with care. Diagnosed with anxiety, depression and PTSD, I began medication too. I didn’t want to take the tablets and put it off. I wasn’t weak. I could do this on my own right? Wrong. The upswings were great. I began writing a book, cleaned the house, got a speeding ticket. The downswings were worse. I wondered what it would be like to stop, just stop. I didn’t want to. But I could see the attraction. When a close friend took his life, others were shocked. I wasn’t. I finally understood what he meant when he talked about the ‘glimmers of darkness’.

So I went back to more counselling. More medication. It has taken the edge off the lows and the highs. I’m learning that it may not be forever. But I need to work out the swirling stories. I channel them into writing – speaking about things as if they are stories helps me feel less vulnerable. Less exposed. ‘Asking for a friend?’ We all do it. It’s not me, it’s someone else. Something else. Maybe a colour or shape or animal. Today was sap smeared green. Yesterday was newborn nappy yellow. Maybe tomorrow will be glowing orange...

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