When your area of specialism is trauma and bodies, you know it, spot it happening for others even when they might not realise it themselves. Trauma happens in all sorts of ways, and this is a common one that has impacted so many dog owners. If we don’t recognise our experience as traumatic (if it actually was), then it is harder to process and the impact of this time can linger in our heart, our nervous system, and wider body for a long time. I wrote this for a special someone I know… I’m sharing it here in case it helps you too.
I am thinking of you. I am so sorry you are having to walk through such a tough time at the moment, and just when it seemed like things finally were feeling lighter for you. There is something I want desperately to say to you, but I know right now in these first few stunned hours, you will probably not want to hear it, be able to process it or even have any inclination to spend time connecting with me. Today you need your own time and you need to be uninterrupted by other peoples’ thoughts…so I will message you simply that I am thinking of you. I will write out what my heart is holding for you here, and maybe when you are ready for this you can come to it in your own time.
You know, people will say all sorts of things to you now. Things that you may or may not find helpful to receive. Please remember, so often they are speaking from their own needs. They care about you, they mean well, but they will tell you the things they need to hear, the things that they are comforting themselves with. If what you hear helps – great. IF what you hear doesn’t help or support you – no worries.
One thing you may hear directly or maybe just implied…
many other people have been through what you are going through…
I understand exactly what you are going through…
and here’s what I want to say to you.
You are unique
They have not and cannot understand exactly what you are going through. You are unique. As are they. Their life is, was, has been different to yours. Their personality, their way of coping, their hopes, dreams, their connections all different to yours…. the details of how this unfolded… and their relationship with their dog was different to yours too.
You have your own treasured moments, memories that will, in time (and it may be a long time), be a solace… but for now you are alone in the uniqueness of your grief and I want you to know I understand that. It is horrible and it is so hard. It may feel too much – or numbly nothing right now. You are still seen, and respected, and supported. The process you are in now and the one you will be going through (as it does change) for a while… are honoured by me.
Many people realise that hearing unexpected tragic news about your dog is devastating… and especially when it comes as a surprise, after so many other vets have said there is nothing really wrong. Not many people realise it is often, actually traumatic. Professionally, I know when to use that word accurately, and last week was one of them. From now on, when you consider the traumatic things that have happened in your life, hearing that news just a few days ago needs to be on the list. It will have changed you – not just your heart but your body, your nervous system… and now… there is grief too.
Here is something people often forget. Trauma and grief are different. We can go through trauma without grief. Sometimes we experience grief without trauma. They are different things, impact us differently and need different things to help us recover. Sometimes we experience them together. They enmesh, yet are still different.
The one thing I know to be helpful at times like this is to let your body lead you. Cry when you need to without any need to hide or apologize to anyone or even yourself. If there are no tears right now, make no apologies for that either. There are no ‘ought’s and ‘should’s at the moment. Sleep when you can whatever time of day it happens. Eat whatever you want when you can – it doesn’t matter what it is… just something to keep your blood levels steady and your body’s cells resourced to help you through this life-altering time. Drink water.
Be around whoever you want to be around… and leave when you want. Speak to whoever or no one. You get to call the shots right now and you have people around you who will respect that (even if they don’t fully understand- see my point above, they will be expecting you or advising you to do or be how they would or want you to.)
You have permission to be however you need to be. Today. Tomorrow and for days to come. You are loved. Your journey is yours.
The dynamics of connection, belonging, understanding, acceptance, knowing, fun, partnership, responsibility, trust and meaning that happen when there is a precious bond between a human and a dog are just some of the facets of the treasure life was with them. You will know, it is hard to put it into words. The hole of their absence is also indescribable.
Life has been interrupted again. It will never get back to ‘normal’ because your precious one is forever gone. There will be different life… eventually…. if you let you take your time… your body can recover… one day there will be ‘ok’.
In the meantime… you know where I am. x
written by Claire Wilson for someone special… and everyone.
Claire is a Trauma therapist. A dog lover who lived through both trauma and grief with her furry one.
The author of Grounded, TEDx speaker and the Founder of GROUNDED GrownUps®
I started training school staff and advisory teams around understanding children who had experienced trauma over ten years ago. It was something that grew naturally out of my years as a teacher and then as an experienced play therapist and clinical supervisor. For schools, it was a new concept and back then I was very much a lone voice. At that time most people were still talking about Emotional Literacy and some nearer the front of the curve, were getting their heads around Attachment.
Over the last decade and the last few years particularly, there has been an explosion in the ‘popularity’ of trauma awareness. Everyone and his dog is a proud ‘trauma informed’ practitioner/ professional / school. (The dogs, it should be said, didn’t need as much training as the people ;-))
So how is it then, that with the great shift in our cultural acceptance of ‘mental health’ and embracing the crucial fact that we need to understand trauma, be properly informed around what it is, the impact it has and really take it seriously, that a little boy age 7 is in his second month of medication?
Let me explain. One of my consultations recently was precious time with a Mum. She is one of the Mum’s that really care about their kids and genuinely want the best for them. A mum who is prepared to do more than lip service and willing to look at the bigger picture, honestly. She wanted to see if I could help with her son’s new diagnosis of ADHD, and what, if anything could support him, because she wasn’t truly thrilled to have her 7 yr old on 2 different meds daily.
The story of his journey from (let’s call him…) Sonny, to a ‘boy with ADHD’ was pretty typical. Issues first raised when he was at nursery, concern from teachers and Sencos throughout KS1. Ed Psyche. EHCP. CAMHS assessment – diagnosis, oh, and then a mere 6 sessions of ‘therapeutic creative arts’ with a charity. His presenting symptoms were pretty standard; hyperactive, struggles to sit down, avoidant of work, buzzy, blurting out, happy on his gameboy, low self-esteem etc.
The point that truly shocked me in all this, is this: In the conversations (across 3 different schools) with the 6 teachers he had from nursery to now, and the SENCOs, the Ed Psyche, the CAMHS worker and the creative arts ‘therapist’, not ONE of them mentioned to her that all his behaviours might also be a result of early and complex childhood trauma.
Didn’t they know his full life history?
Yes, they did.
Apparently mum had been as open and honest with all of them as she was with me. They knew about the multiple things that had happened in the past and the current, significant family situation that was still on going. Not one person saw the link to complex childhood developmental trauma. Not one person saw his behaviour and functioning ability as a very understandable and normal result of a nervous system that had been totally overwhelmed multiple times in his short time on this earth.
We need to do better.
We can do better.
Sonny has been through ‘the system’. I fully understand that this system is at breaking point and in it’s own state of overwhelm. I also know all the grown-ups within this system care and want the best for these precious kids. But for a little boy to come through without one person truly asking and grasping ‘what’s happened to you?’ seems to me broken. For so many professionals to be part of his story and invest time in his case but not yet truly ‘see’ him feels all kinds of sad.
We need to do better.
We can do better.
This is not ‘trauma informed’ care. For a little boy to be on meds, and working on adjusting his 7 year old self-identity around a label that may last him the rest of his life, but may well not be accurate, is, to me, not OK. This kind of thing was going on as standard 10-15 years ago. I thought we were past this.
TO BRING CHANGE
To change the trajectory of the mental health crisis in our teens and older children, we need to start to truly honour and respect the impact of life experiences on a little person’s brain and body. We need to stop automatically seeing fidgeting, buzz-iness, needing to move and reluctance to write as ADHD (I know there’s more to it – I’m being brief on purpose).
There is a current move in education to encourage people to stop seeing children just as their labels. It is damaging to them and potentially misses their real unique needs. I wholeheartedly agree. However, I would suggest their real and biggest need is being seen and understood correctly in the first place.
In case you are wondering, I helped Mum become ‘informed’ about the impact of childhood trauma… it made complete sense and resonated deeply with her. She cried with relief that finally someone got it.
Claire Wilson is a trauma therapist and consultant. Her first book GROUNDED – Understanding the Missing Piece in the Puzzle of Children’s Behaviour, is widely acclaimed by teachers, parents and therapists in the UK and around the world. She was one of the first to bring the understanding and application of Polyvagal Theory to the UK. Claire’s TEDx talk is a great resource for anyone who cares about mental health. Both can be found at www.groundedgrownups.com
Did you see the waves come through?
Did you feel the tremors?
Did you notice everyone hold their breath and freeze, go faster, do more or panic out loud with previously unheard screams; loss and pain that may yet reverberate through generations.
Did you scream? Cry? Hold your breath? Did you stop, retreat, collapse, or push through, push on, push out?
2 years…. And still counting…
It is not over.
The waves are still coming.
The tremors still rumble and all around structures are being shaken, falling, failing, disintegrating.
Danger often comes from outside. We are held safe and supported or impacted – even threatened, by what is going on around us. Jobs… culture… services…structures… leadership… legalities. Squeeze. Contract.
And the hardest part. The additionally traumatizing part of it all… is when leaders don’t see.
When they hide their eyes. Deny impact. Disconnect. And like a child shutting down in a classroom, can’t help their behaviour. They simply live out their patterns. Their own curated collections of trauma still unseen, un-visited, pain unacknowledged. Upper lip stiffened years ago. Lip service all they can muster. Bluster. Souls still toughened with danger-proof steel. Focus narrow. Numbers. Tangibles. Tables. Survive chaos by control. Deflection. Distraction. Control.
When they keep going and going and going and….
When they get smaller, and bigger, and tighter, and less authentic and more powered. More power-fuel. Their conundrum of mis-alignment growing with each new challenge. Shock. Blow. Still unbroken. Lips unquivering. Unflinching. Unaware without and within. Perpetuating impact for others. Amplifying Pain.
When they deem the best way is forward. With blinkers and denial and blame and formulated standards. Power used for preservation. Subconscious intention.
When they grab back the boxes. Grapple a way back to ‘normal’.
But it is not normal.
Normal got swept away by the waves that were higher than the highest buildings.
Normal was buried under the rubble of these times.
We need to bring you flowers. To place candles and vigil in the streets. We need time to mourn you too. It would help us, to demonstrate and collate, to slow and be still and acknowledge our loss of precious, steadfast, idolized, idealized Normal.
These times. Now. Not familiar. They are turbulent. Still.
Life has been changed. We have all been in the sea of it. All of us. Some got boats. Some died. Others are drowning. Still.
Gasping. Desperate. Too long spent existing beyond themselves. It is not over. Still.
Change and uncertainty remains. Exhaustion flooding. Tolls are being taken.
We could survive together. We have better chances together.
All of us need…all of us.
But when leaders continue to cling on to their survival patterns of disconnection. When leaders remain ignorant of themselves. They can not empathize. They cannot be together. Their bodies simply cannot be.
There is no allowance for grieving Normal. No tolerance for tangible truth. No sense in wasting time being still. Not good optics to be seen standing in streets acknowledging such cosmic change. Impact.
Trauma from years back changed them. Then. Now. It is no longer possible to connect with others. To acknowledge pain. It is too much. May crush what’s left of them… their survival selves… their remains… they cannot allow that. They cannot stop. CanNOT be weak. Must not be broken. Must not look back. Must carry on. Pretending. Functioning. Freezing. Desperate. Numb. Brains on over drive. Doing the only thing they know to do. Survive. Preserve. Power. Assert. Rules. Direct. Clamber back control.
And all the while appeasing those leading them.
STILL by CLAIRE WILSON
Founder of GROUNDEDGrownUps®
For more insight on nervous systems and the impact of the past, check out her book
GROUNDED – Discovering the Missing Piece in the Puzzle of Children’s Behaviour
or her TEDx talk
Fresh Insights on Corona Virus : What we can learn about ourselves and othersTelling someone who is scared not to be is about as supportive and effective as telling someone who is ranting to calm down.
It doesn’t work. It doesn’t help.
The thing about a big event like this pandemic is that it affects us. It restricts us. This invisible ‘thing’ is now the reason we cannot do what we want to do. We cannot live the way we want to. We cannot travel. We cannot work. We cannot go visit our family who may be sick. Even if we are not feeling the physical effects of the virus, many of us are feeling our lives be curtailed by this thing we didn’t see coming.
Some of us are ok with it.
Being calm is easy. Empathy abounds. We have no problem seeing ourselves as a significant member of our national / global community. We are flexible, resourceful, creative. Being logical is no big deal.
But for some of us it can leave us feeling overwhelmed. Feeling small. Feeling powerless.
And if there is any event back in the earlier pages of our life story where something happened that had us feeling these same feelings; small, overwhelmed, dis-empowered, then our current reality may well be accompanied by the music of that time. Our body instinctively moving the same dance: muscles extra tight. Our heart rate elevated. Our breathing quicker and our view of the world the same : not a happy or safe place to be. We have to give in. We want to hide.
We want to whisper “please don’t tell me to stop feeling scared. You have no idea of the nightmares that have been triggered in me. My body remembers… This is how things are. We are being overwhelmed by this ‘thing’. We can’t get away… it’s out to get us and it will. That’s just how it is.”
And for some of us it can leave us feeling on edge. Anxious. Wondering what is coming next. Waiting for the inevitable… next.
Because if there are moments, even far back in our story, where we lived this way before, where we were used to being on the look-out, waiting, anticipating the next bad thing to happen… we learnt that there is …. always… a next… And those harmonies will accompany our current experience. And our body will start that dance again… tight muscles, sweaty palms, racing thoughts, butterflies in the tummy and hyper-focusing on every detail of what is going on around us…
We want to beg “don’t tell me to not worry. Don’t tell me It’s nothing. I am scared, and my body remembers. I am at the mercy of this invisible force out to hurt us all. I need to watch its every move. Need to keep moving. To duck and dive, to run. I can smell it coming… my nightmares have begun again.”
And for some of us it can leave us feeling annoyed. Feeling angry. Feeling disrespected.
The echoes of not being noticed, not being honoured, from times gone by now pumping their revengeful war-dance through our entire system. We want to shout ”I will not be pushed around! I will not be dwarfed and belittled by this force. I will defend myself. Defend my rights. I will survive. I will do what it takes and keep moving. I am full of energy and I will shop and travel and keep living MY life on MY terms. I will make sure I am the bigger one this time! I cannot, will not, allow myself to do otherwise.”
You see for most of us right now – trying to be logical and explain facts will not help. We live from our nervous system state and if our body has us in a defense state (mobilise or shut down) then it is impossible to truly hear and comprehend facts. It is impossible to discern truth from hype. It is impossible for your brain to calm your body when your body memories have been a-woken and are screaming messages of un-safety at your brain.
So What CAN We Do now?
Let us not tell each other to calm down – but let’s lead ourselves. Let us be the change we want to see.
It is for each of us to really pay honest attention to our own response to this situation and extend ourselves some compassion and permission to listen to the music we are hearing. To listen out for the internal strains of fear, overwhelm, or defiance… To notice the dance we are doing in our body and quietly ask ourselves when we learnt those steps?
To consider what this experience reminds me of?
To pay attention to ourselves in a new and gentle way.
Because the truth is – it is unlikely we have actually lived this exact situation before.
The truth is that it just feels like we are unsafe now the way we were unsafe in the past…
Now we can notice ourselves and our body.
Now we can move – our arms and legs, we can get up, we can move from room to room, into the garden, or outside.
Now we can acknowledge the pent-up energy in our body and express it safely, or honour it and soothe it.
Now we can choose what we will focus on. We can listen to the story our body is singing and see where we may still need to befriend ourselves, to heal and to grow in order to bring that old music to a close.
Now we can reach out and connect with others who are safe for us. We can use technology and still benefit from their calming smile, their twinkly eyes, their soothing, honouring, respectful presence, and their ability to help us giggle our way to safety, and find logic and perspective again.
And when we are brought into a state of safety within, then and ONLY then, we can intentionally choose our own response to the way our life is being altered and find the good in it, the things we can be grateful for, the space, the time, the peace, the spontaneous fun.
I know this story is well known. I’m sure you have heard it before. This is my version of it. It ‘s good to come back to and remember it’s message now and again. We may not be in a position to change the world for all children, but we can certainly make a difference…
One day a man was taking his dog for a walk to the beach. It was early in the morning – a great time of day for a walk, especially with a dog.
As the man got to the top of the cliff he could see the debris from the storm that had rampaged against the shore all night long. The beach was covered in all sorts of things: seaweed, drift wood, rubbish… and starfish.
There were hundreds and hundreds of starfish that had been carried up onto the beach by the waves. Now the tide had gone back out, the waves had abandoned their cargo and if these starfish didn’t get back into the water – well…
Everyone knows that starfish need water.
Water is the environment that they can thrive in.
The man got down the steep path with his dog, and onto the beach. And he could see now that he wasn’t alone. There was someone else on the beach early this morning too.
It was a boy and he was throwing things into the sea.
The man got near to the boy as he was going in that direction anyway… and as he approached he could see that it wasn’t pebbles or wood the boy was throwing in, but starfish!
The man shook his head and carried on walking. The beach was covered in the tiny creatures. What could anybody do to save them? It was ridiculous to try. “Ridiculous…” he muttered to himself and on he went.
When he had got as far as the big rock – the only thing it seemed the sea hadn’t moved in last nights’ storm, he turned, called his dog and started heading back up the beach towards home.
He was amazed to see that, after all this time (he walked slowly, did the man) the boy was still there. Still patiently and carefully picking starfish up one at a time and throwing them back in to the waves.
The man started muttering and mumbling to himself again… but his dog went bounding up to the boy, wagging his tail and curious to see what was in his hand.
The man, who was obviously older and knew a thing or two about life, couldn’t help himself. He told the boy he was being ridiculous. That he should stop what he was doing right now and go back home. There were too many starfish up on the beach… and he was just a boy. The man finished his ‘advice’ with the simple, emphatic statement: “There are too many of them. There is nothing you can do to make a difference.”
The boy stopped still for just a moment. Was he deciding to listen to the man? Was he contemplating the truth of what the man was saying? Or was he trying to figure out something else.
Quietly the boy turned and bent to pick up another starfish. He walked it to the sea’s edge and gently tossed it back in. “Made a difference to that one…” he said, and he bent to pick up another. “Made a difference to that one… “as it flew threw the air and splashed back home.” Made a difference to that one…” with each and every starfish that he saved.
Now it was the man’s turn to be quiet. He watched the boy for a few moments, his dog hovering by his side wondering what would happen next… and if it was home-time still. Then the man bent down. His eye fell on a beautiful starfish that had slightly different colouring to the others. He gently picked it up, walked it to the water’s edge and released it quietly, whispering “made a difference to that one…”
More than CPD
In June last year (2017) I was in London for a few days. I was there to be part of a specialist training for further enhancing my skills and credentials of working with trauma and the body – with children. I was excited about the training – in fact I heard from the organiser I was the first one booked on it. However, as I look back, those days mean even more to me now.
I arrived the afternoon before and met some of the other participants (from all over the world) for a meal. When walking back from that meal, we passed this march… You may/may not remember that that was a few days after the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower – just down the road from where we were staying.
I will never forget the energy of that moment… we stopped still and honoured those that marched past – the survivors… their anger, their grief, their fight, their trauma and I felt I became part of that moment, honouring them all, and those who were impacted by the trauma of the fire.
Over the years I have learnt so much about trauma. About how it can change people, the elements needed to heal from it, that it can change the course of your life, but doesn’t have to be a life sentence. About how brains and bodies change. About the hope there is.
At the end of the training days, when we sat in a big circle in a closing activity, I remember talking about Grenfell and committing myself to do my part to contribute to changing society views around trauma, and those who have experienced it.
What you wont know, is that just before that course, a few hours before that meal, and a few hours before witnessing that march I had pulled out my iPad in my hotel room in London and started writing… my book.
Catalyst for Good
Grenfell had had an impact on me – as my car crash had years before – that same ‘you never really know when your time is up’.
I didn’t want my time to be up without passing on some of the things I have learnt over 25 years working with and around children and families. Things I have learnt and researched and seen in action about what it really takes to bring the best out in children – trauma or not. Things that are not common knowledge…yet. That would be a waste. Grenfell was my catalyst to stop procrastinating and start using my voice. It was time to start getting what was in me out.
GROUNDED is a book that has come from over 25 years of working with and around children. Insight from years as a teacher, an accredited play therapist, a clinical supervisor, a therapeutic adviser to schools and families – and a trauma specialist still helping people of all ages heal from the impact of their experiences.
It is a book that is relatable to teachers, parents, TAs, grandparents, aunts and uncles, football coaches and Scout leaders. It is packed with current neuroscience and everyday stories that make it all so easy to read and understand. It is a book that advocates for children – and has a message they often can’t speak for themselves. It is a book for all adults who want to be the best they can be for the kids they know. It is a book with a message and a mission. It is a book of hope.
GROUNDED is a book that is endorsed by teachers, Heads, parents, grandparents, play therapists, psychotherapists, international trauma specialists and world leading neuro-scientists.
It is done. GROUNDED is out.
There is a lot more I could say about the book, but I wanted to let you know some of the story of where it came from.
Now I want to share it with you all, with gratitude, as you have felt like part of the team that has helped bring it to birth.