Fighting Fit: The story of Síle Uí Chiaráin MHGI, HGDip
Síle Uí Chiaráin MHGI, HGDip, scribing for and collaborating with a Kosovo and Iraq, veteran who suffered a series of severe shocks and traumas throughout his life, most recently in the army which resulted in chronic PTSD. Since being picked up by PTSD Resolution and exposed to the bio-psycho-social model of psychotherapy that is Human Givens, said ex vet is living a safer, happier, healthier life and is optimistic for his future.
Growing up in Northern Ireland in the eighties in Londonderry, Derry, more latterly 'Derry/London Derry', living with bomb scares, hovering helicopters, checkpoints and tragic loss of life or stories of life-changing injuries incurred and sustained as a result of 'The Troubles', was life as we knew it. To some extent it was normal, to and for those of us whose name, home address and choice of school could trigger a violent response from the political or religious die-hards of the opposition. To be in the wrong place at the wrong time could literally be fatal. Even at primary level, I remember being schooled on what to say and what not to say if I was asked questions whilst playing outside. I do recall those early days with some level of ease and carelessness however, in spite of the hatred and tribalism on which we were weaned, until my father was killed by the IRA when I was just nine-years-old
Looking back, I'm not sure if I realised the full extent of the trauma of losing my father in such violent circumstances. Rather, I just accepted it, as so many others seemed to have to do at the time as well. In the wake of my father's murder, the fallout was like a grown-up discussion that I wasn't part of. As a physically small, anxious pre-teen, I didn't feel confident enough to express my hurt and trauma, my sense of loss, my pain, I chose instead to be as invisible as I could be and just suck it up. A subsequent relocation to Belfast, heralded a downward trajectory in my life that I have often since arrested, less often managed to sidestep, and rarely succeeded in ascending out of, even for brief periods.
Having been enrolled in a number of schools, of a variety of denominations, one thing remained constant; I seemed to be in the minority. Not properly socialised in my formative years, I felt marginalised, bullied and threatened as a teenager in Belfast in the nineties. The over-loaded school system, staff on high-alert, due in no small way, to the political culture of the time, categorised me as troublesome; troubled didn't get a mention. Suspension and expulsion being the default disciplinary tools, for clients like me, only accentuated my sense of dissociation from any mainstream world. I had tried a number of jobs with little success for one reason or another throughout those confusing and burdened mid-teen years. My childhood dream of becoming a pilot had and has, hitherto at least, not been possible due to the obvious gaps in my formal education. Suffering from depression at that stage, low self-esteem, and with more meat on a butcher's apron, I embarked on a gruelling physical training programme to prepare myself for military life.
Having been prepared by a close family friend with a background in amateur boxing, for my army interview and physical exam, I got over the line and proudly enlisted at the earliest opportunity. Absolutely nothing could have prepared me for the next year of my life. Basic training in the army is excruciatingly challenging; physically, mentally and emotionally. It tests every aspect of your person as a human being; shouting and roaring, military precision, beyond exhaustion, demands on memory and recall and so it continues. I remember facing my fear of heights in a state of acute anxiety on a huge assault course with a line of soldiers behind me; no way back, I just had to "feel the fear and do it anyway", to quote Susan Jeffers. I basically had to tightrope walk a narrow plank to the next stage of the already taxing course, which I did in floods of tears; in fear of death should I fall. Against all odds, I passed out. I was proud. In that moment, like childbirth, or so I'm told, the hardship paled into the beige of everything and a sense of achievement and prestige filled my shiny new army boots, quite perfectly.
Trade training followed and took me on a meandering journey of a menagerie of trades from carpentry to plumbing, to engineering and everything in between. Whilst it was invigoratingly exciting, it was a huge learning pressure point for me, but I got there with the help of peers and superiors. Combat training in particular, daunted me and having requested an appraisal with my superiors on its completion, I was given two months off to go home, study the engineering codes in greater detail and return with the next cohort of trainees. It was agreed that I wasn't quite ready to continue on as a solider at that juncture; a position I concurred whole heartedly with at the time. I felt like a bit of a trail blazer in those early days of round two combat training mind you, as I had been around the block before, so to speak. I remember feeling like an emerging leader of sorts, as I was able to keep my peers briefed on upcoming operations, manoeuvres and training targets. Thanks to my awareness of the inside track and my willingness to share, we established quite the team spirit.
The passing out parade was a very proud day. My mum was present and she and I both took great pride in proving some formerly negative superiors wrong, about my ability and sense of endurance. Unfortunately the joy of that experience was overshadowed almost overnight by a series of life-changing bullying experiences, targeted purposely at me by peers and subsequently by superiors when I turned the page, and life as a soldier began in earnest. I had tried to stick up for a new recruit at the initiation ceremony for his regiment. Dignity and safety are irrelevant at these time-honoured events but as an empath, I couldn't stand by and watch a young man make a fool of himself in drink and knew that I was risking life and limb to mark his card, but I did so regardless. What ensued thereafter was a sustained tirade of hateful, antagonising, depreciating and disparaging remarks towards me over a protracted period of time as well as physical threats to my safety and on my life infact.
When I reported the severity of this hate campaign to the powers that be through due process, I was not only ignored, I was disrespected and disbelieved to all intents and purposes. I have done my work on the injustice of this with my HG psychotherapist and therefore don't feel the need name and shame or to retell the story in all of its potentially attention-generating glory. Suffice to say, systems can be toxic and people can die inside, because bullies are allowed to go unchallenged and run free.
In the end, I left the army prematurely, a broken man. I went on to suffer a number of personal traumas which pushed me over the edge socially and behaviourally and I was disciplined accordingly. I now understand that even when you move on, unaddressed traumas move with you. The course my life took after that was really a mirror image of the unexpressed emotions and traumas of my journey up to that point. In the end I didn't feel I had anything to live for. I was tortured by psychotic self-talk and had no self-worth. I wanted to die.
Living on my own in my mum's duplex in an overcrowded cul de sac in Holywood, no friends to speak of, bar my cousin in Canada with whom I stay in touch via a gaming console, the concrete jungle of my world started caving in on me. My mum was working on an army base in Germany, my sister lives on the other side of the city with her young family and I was barely scraping my way through the costs of daily life on welfare and was living quite reclusively. I began to lose sight of any real reason to push through the increasingly familiar pain barriers any more. I was barely keeping my head above water, socially, personally, professionally; the smallest things were acting as triggers for anger attacks and the resulting altercations had cost me jobs, friends and relationships. Having established myself as the neighbourhood mean man, 'don't look at me, definitely don't speak to me, or I'll deck you', being the message my demeanour and energy emitted. Making necessary trips only; to the local shop for necessary supplies, the rest of my time was spent gaming, lamenting and sleeping; badly. Even my gaming practice was becoming too fraught with anger attacks and unhealthy rage on failing to rip through the levels of my game of choice, for healthy living.
Tortured by intrusive thoughts, flash-backs, and in an almost constant state of heightened arousal, living 24/7 in survival mode finally brought me to my knees. Feeling actively suicidal and tortured with suicidal thoughts, I contacted PTSD Resolution on the advice of a fellow veteran; an organisation she assured me would help with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress and destructive self-talk. I wrote a no holds barred email in pure desperation to the boss of PTSD Resolution and was promptly assured that help was at hand. I was screened by a secretary and informed that a Human Givens Practitioner would make an initial house call as my anxiety levels around planning a train trip to a southern county, from whence I was informed she hailed, were prohibitively high.
Having had an initial introductory phone conversation with the designated HG practitioner and having agreed a date for therapy at my place of residence, I felt an element of pre-therapy gain, already I felt somewhat supported, not completely on my own; slightly hopeful that the dark cloud would lift eventually. Shortly before the appointed time on the chosen day, I watched through a curtained window in my front room as a southern registered car turned in the cul de sac of my estate and parked as close as possible to my house. Local youngsters looking up from their ground level huddles to weigh up the approaching stranger, breaking the discourse of their game asked randomly in their broad Belfast accents 'who are you?, who are you here to see'? Their intrigue took them to their feet and they followed in a busy scrum while I answered the door to this lady, whom I realised at that stage was undoubtedly my intended visitor. I banished my cats from the front room as she arrived and welcomed her, somewhat nervously. The rest you might say is history.
Having built on the rapport that we had established in our initial phone conversation, there followed two hours plus, of information gathering and giving, in commensurate measures. I told my story and the psychotherapist made sense of my irate reactions to the specific situations that I volunteered the details of. She used a Human Givens model called APET to help me understand my anger outbursts and subsequent self-deprecating periods of darkness and despair; Activating agent, Pattern match, Emotion, Thought. Understanding this gave me instant relief. My difficulty holding down jobs, my quick temper and tendency to lash out, were pattern matches to the litany of traumas I had suffered in my life, heretofore suppressed and untreated.
Alcohol, I quickly deduced, wouldn't help going forward when it would come to naming the animal/emotion I was experiencing in these all too familiar trigger situations. Naming the animal/emotion, is key to understanding the quick fire thought process that leads to behavioural reactions, when an activating agent prompts a pattern match, to a troubled past experience. Understanding and internalising that emotion comes before thought, gave me back such a sense of control. I was in my powerhouse when I realised that I have a brief period in which to recognise the emotional response to a situation that is rising in me, in given circumstances, before a thought forms and produces a chemical reaction to same. In getting better and quicker at recognising my emotional response to situations, naming the animal; fear, guilt, shame, hurt, rejection act, I would have the opportunity to manage the nature of the ensuing thought shower. I learned that by not defaulting into the stress response every time, I would not only stay out of trouble in the short term, but that I would be rewriting the neural circuitry of my brain that had been hard-wired over years of fighting; what syncs, links. Because my behavioural reaction to situations had been maintained and sustained repeatedly over the years, I was not in control; I was infact, out of control. My mind, which is my brain in motion, being therefore my body effectively, because my body does what my brain tells it to (which is of course brain in motion), was unconsciously engaging in the same habitual behaviours which didn't serve me, and I was fast identifying with that set of habits and patterns as me, and losing the will to live. I saw no way to change these habitual patterns and it was a me, that I didn't like and was infact, afraid of. APET and breath work have changed my life in this regard. In my case, I was sufficiently de-traumatised in those early sessions at least, by the power of knowledge.
The information facilitated transformation. I knew it was time to rewrite the automatic programmes in my brain to serve my aspirant and already emerging more healthy self. Neuroplasticity is what the psychotherapist called this; I had to break the habit of BEing myself. The first thing I knew I would need to do to engage with losing my mind and creating a new one, was to kick alcohol to touch, in the short term anyway.
I learned about and practiced 7/11 breathing and felt so empowered to know that I would have such an effective mechanism in my emotional tool kit at my disposal from that moment forward, to use at anytime, anywhere. In order to engage the parasympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as rest and digest, cycles of slow inhalation for a count of 7 and an equally slow but slightly longer out breath, for the count of 11 helped me to relax more and more as I engaged with the process. As soon as I realise now that I have an animal to name; an emotional response to get power over, I slow my breathing down to allow me to access my thinking brain and establish clarity. When we are responding in stress mode; fight/flight, we get stuck in our limbic system, our emotional brain and we cannot think clearly. Connecting with my breathing is still my go to relaxation and reassessment tool and I practice it daily since learning of its benefits, like it is my job. I find I sleep better when I practice 7/11 breathing before I try to drop off at night, and my day goes better when I visualise my desired agenda for the day ahead, against a back drop of 7/11 breathing.
Nocturnal repair has been a passive but palpable bonus in the last few months. Understanding the rudiments of sleep hygiene and being more relaxed in general, have improved the quality of my sleep, immensely. Managing anxiety levels actively by burning off cortisol on daily walks, connecting with nature and tentatively with people and community more and more, as well as improving my mind/body connect with knowledge of APET and breath work, has hugely altered my sleep pattern and its value and worth in my overall wellness. I am intrigued to know about Joe Griffin's expectation fulfilment theory of dreaming and comprehending the evolutionary gift that it is, has literally changed me as a person. I will never be nonchalant about bed time and sleep again. I would go so far as to say that I take sleep very seriously now. Quality sleep is both a basic emotional need and an innate resource. I aim to be a so wholesome and healthy in mind and body going forward, that my sleep cycles every night are a healthy balance of slow-wave sleep, to repair the hardware of my body and REM in which I can close the templates on emotionally arousing situations that happened throughout my day.
The primary function of dreams during REM sleep, is to give you the opportunity to act out metaphorically (in dream sequences) the non-discharged, emotional arousals or expectations that the stuff of life mitigated against addressing, completing or discharging the previous day. I'm flat out trying to complete expectations on emotionally charged daily experiences healthily nowadays as they arise, in so far as that's possible, and I respect the role that quality sleep plays in dealing with the rest. I know now too that in REM, I continue to up-regulate genes and upload improved and evolving suites of knowledge for living my best life. Sleep is the bomb man!!
The therapist would like me to have done what she called a Rewind with her that day. It was explained as an opportunity to play traumatic memories back, through consciousness in my mind, but in an induced trance state. I fully understood the process and could imagine its benefits, especially having worked with telecommunications as a signaller in the army. I completely understood how hardwired circuits in the brain, playing habitually of their own volition on repeat, would need to be reprogrammed and have the emotional arousal associated with them down-regulated, so that they could be stored as memories in the hippocampus, the filing room in the brain, where memories are supposed to be stored, as opposed to remaining frozen in the limbic or emotional system where they get stuck on entry, due to their highly charged emotional content. The footprint that traumatic memories had left on my limbic system left me prone to anger attacks and depression, especially given the presentation of certain and particular activating agents. The rewind would have facilitated the thawing of a number at least, of these emotionally charged memories, frozen in time and squatting in my emotional brain. But I just wasn't up for it on that day, too much too soon.
I got as much relief from the information about this process, as I had capacity to take on board that day and aimed to be more emotionally ready to embark on same at our next session. To conclude that day instead, we decided upon and agreed a number of things I could do with immediate effect to raise the vibration of my life. It had been quite a while since I had done any physical activity and I had become quite sedentary. Apart from the obvious feel good factor of working out, particularly in the fresh air, I learned that exercise actually increases the size of your hippocampus. Appetite whetted for new knowledge, not least in relation to the subjects discussed that day alone, I was definitely keen to create more space for new learning going forward, so that itself was reason enough to introduce some aerobic activity into my sluggish life. Having discussed real options, we agreed that I would walk by the sea shore every day; therapeutic and cathartic in equal measure. A number of suitable books were identified to me which I could, and have since, borrowed from my library as well as a number of podcasts to keep me focused on the desired outcomes and results.
Having done an emotional needs audit with the psychotherapist that day, and with a skeletal understanding, as much as time allowed for on that day at least, of the importance of having our basic emotional needs met in balance, I felt so much better, even after one session. I was supposed to make my way to the psychotherapist's practice location for our next session and we had discussed trains, connections, pick up and timescale. I'm afraid I just wasn't there yet when the next date came around and PTSDR kindly sanctioned another house call. This is not ideal for the charity but on a once off basis it really made all the difference to me. Our second lengthy session was equally valuable and built on the strong foundations of week 1. I practiced more guided 7/11 breathing, discussed the marked improvements in my life practice since last we spoke, and having more experiences to unpack in steered conversation with the psychotherapist since the previous session, APET made even more sense and I became more adept at naming my animal to get better at turning that APE to a PET at will.
I was still too tense in that environment to do a rewind, but again the science of why one would, was suitably helpful and made sense of the pattern matches that had been ruling and ruining my life to date. I still need to manage my consumption of alcohol as it hijacks my sense of reason and usually doesn't end well. For the most part, I am more informed today and am now a daily reader on the subject of mind / body balance and I am a happier person since being afforded the Human Givens intervention. I no longer have suicidal thoughts, I view the world through a different lens and I hope to enrol on an online course that embraces these positive thought processes and get myself a job in some form of community service. I am forever grateful to PTSD Resolution for facilitating this intervention and am now an ardent follower of the human givens approach to life. I have a wallet sized card with my needs and resources listed on it and I check in with its content regularly to see where and what I need to work on to enrich my world. I am very much a work in progress. But I AM a work IN PROGRESS and life is a much brighter place, since feeling cared for, having a place to thrash out my stuff and a plan to focus on for a future I now look forward to.
My recommendation to anyone slipping, or who has slipped into that dark hole where they feel the lights could go out in a puff and they wouldn't care, or worse where you wish you could end it all, is to reach out, get the help you need and believe in your ability to self-regulate. Breath and ones breathing is the only thing we can exercise any control over within the infinite capacity of the autonomic nervous system. Begin by slowing down your breathing every time you feel stressed, threatened, compromised and that will in turn slow down your heart rate. Improved heart coherence improves brain coherence with almost immediate effect, and when compartments of the brain are communicating more harmoniously with each other, we stand a better chance of making more rational decisions. Stay upbeat and focused on a desired outcome in so far as it's possible, always. Where attention goes, energy follows. When you combine a clear intention with an elevated emotion you improve your state of being and the potential for and of your world magnifies multi-fold, almost instantly.
'These pains you feel are messengers, listen to them.' Rumi