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The Mental Health Journey of Sam's Life: the story of an adult survivor of childhood abuse

Every month, as part of Empathic Connections Counsellings magazine, there will be an article based on the interview of real-life people who have come forward to talk about their mental health journeys. As you may already know, part of ECC's mission and purpose is to normalise talking about mental health personal stories so we can build a network of support and connections to help other people reach out for professional guidance in times of need. Rather than feeling isolated, judged and alone.

In this months article, we are going to be focusing on the journey of Samantha who I had the absolute pleasure interviewing and have the upmost respect for her. During the hour-long interview, Sam and I explored some open-ended questions and I made notes whilst listening. One of the main motivations for Sam being a participant is to help others by sharing her story, even if this message helps one person out there then this means more positive effects can come from the most challenging and traumatic times of Sam's life. With this purest of meanings, Sam was open and honest when describing her journey and this shone through in every word she spoke.

I hope I can describe Sam, her life journey and mental health healing to the full credit she deserves. I hope to be able to demonstrate and describe Sam's determination and courage in finding the right combination of support that worked for her. I hope I can show the love and amazing level of self-awareness and use of tools that she has leant and continues to implement. Sam is a truly amazing person and I admire her so deeply. We hope by sharing this article someone out there may be inspired to not give up and reach out to any professional who can help you.

As we spent some time reflecting on what Sam's notices with her current mental health, Sam explained that she has had “a good year” this filled me with joy and demonstrates that there is that ray of hope. It shows that if you participate in getting professional support that mental health can improve. Having a good year means a lot more than words can describe right now because Sam has experienced a lifetime of reasons and trauma that would cause anyone to feel the effects on their mental health. Sam notices that there are still some bad days, but they are far less than they ever have been in her life. Sam is a down to earth woman, who understands and accepts that yes there may be some bad days, and that is to be expected and that it is ok. The major difference now is the bad days are self-explanatory, a day, and are far more manageable than they have been in the past. A day is not months and years which is how it felt in the past before Sam started her healing journey with the help of mental health professionals.

15 years ago, Sam received her diagnosis of BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder), PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and Depression. Sam reflects on her memories from this time and notices that she remembers feeling a huge sense of relief from having a diagnosis. That finally, after all these years of emotional and psychological struggle there was a clear and rational answer and explanation of what Sam had been experiencing with her mental health. The diagnosis was helpful in Sam understanding more about why there were challenges with her emotional and behavioural responses in relationship dynamics and overall quality of life.

Sam's story highlights the importance once again about how trauma in childhood affects mental health and how those effects carry on into adulthood and are felt throughout life. Sam suffered sexual abuse from the age of 5years old and as a child was unable to inform any of her family members or any other adult. For years, Sam felt she could not tell anyone about the abuse that had happened to her, keeping the abuse and effects on her mental health well hidden. As Sam grew into early adulthood she was alone in carrying the effects of the trauma, still feeling unable to inform anyone including her Mum. Sam was in a vulnerable position because she didn't want to upset her Mum, and thought about how sharing what had happened to her would be dismissed or challenged by her Mum or immediate family. Sam made her decision that it would be safer for her if she kept her trauma effects and information about the abuse to herself because she couldn't risk losing her relationship with her Mum. Sam had always felt so close to her Mum and loved her dearly, Sam felt she could not risk any more trauma being triggered, or the potential loss of relationship with her Mum.

As the years went by, Sam maintained a relationship with her mother without sharing what had happened to her. This was an extremely hard and psychologically draining experience for Sam to be in and there were times where Sam felt the urge to tell her Mum but just could not risk losing her. The love Sam had for her mum carried her in those moments where Sam was struggling with the weight of the trauma by herself. Unfortunately, the heavy feelings Sam was experiencing were about to develop into deeper, darker feelings because Sam had to face a major loss. The death of an elder family member carried duel meaning to Sam because the death of her Grandad also was the death of the offender of the abuse in her childhood.

Throughout her mothers grieving over losing her Father, Sam's Grandad, Sam maintained keeping the abuse she had suffered from him hidden. Until years later, Sam had to face another loss, the death of her mother. Sam found herself falling into the spiral of experiencing the deepest, longest depression and grief. Sam explains that she felt intensely the 7 stages of grieving with the loss of her mother. Sam explained she felt the phases of shock, bargaining and denial, but one phase felt bigger than the others, the feelings of anger. Understandably, Sam felt angry towards her Mum and describes her thoughts from back then being 'how did she not notice?' 'Why didn't she check up on me?' 'How come she didn't see the signs that I was being abused?' Sam explains when her two daughters were children that she was extra vigilant of them, of any physical pains they might have experienced. Sam explains, that in the past surely her Mum could have noticed more that Sam was indeed suffering and at times this feels like Sam was let down by the adults around her that were meant to keep her safe. As time went by, and as her children aged, Sam started to experience severe PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Sam explains this is due to her children reaching the age of where the abuse started happening to her, aged 5.

As time moved forward Sam had not planned to tell anyone about the historical child abuse she had suffered. Until one day, Sam went to see her brother and uncle, unexpectedly this became the day Sam's truth was revealed to her family, or to anyone for the first time. As Sam reflects back to this memory she recalls how the feeling of fear was racing around her body because what if they did not believe her? This fear of not being believed had been sitting with Sam for some years because of who the offender was and how other family members viewed him. This is a completely understandable fear to experience because the hurt and pain caused by others not believing you when you have been a victim of abuse can be utterly devastating. Sam felt so vulnerable, nonetheless, Sam also noticed that there as an absence of a previous fear had been hang over her, the fear of losing her relationships with family members. Sam was already enduring the stages of grieving with the loss of her Mum, and the fears that had once held her back (understandably) were no longer there. The loss of Sam's Mum on top of the loss of the offender had changed her, like a type of permission to the unconscious part of her psyche to allow her truth to emerge and surface. Sam's Uncle did believe her and explained how similar abuse had happened to Sam's cousin too. Sam recalls how this did feel validating to a certain degree, yet was mixed up with all the other feelings of hurt, pain, depression, anger and grieving. Some triggered from Sam's truth being spoken of on this day and some feelings that Sam had to repress throughout her life to help her cope and survive and maintain a relationship with her Mum.

This could have been the end of Sam's story because life was certainly not getting easy for her. Yes, Sam had survived to get to this point, however, a new era was incoming and Sam was facing a major crossroad. What path was Sam going to take? What was the future going to be like? Where was her mental health struggles going to lead her? Darkness and depression surrounded Sam, engulfing her, absorbing any remaining light and hope. Against the odds, Sam gathered up any last remaining resilience and made the first steps in seeking support. This is the point Sam made one of the most important appointments of her life, with her GP. Feeling terrified about what could happen Sam bravely moved forward. This is in no way an easy thing for Sam to do because she was feeling the fear of being judged and speaking to people, in fact, Sam was experiencing a fear of people full stop because of how she had been treated. Thankfully Sam's GP took her situation seriously and was placed on a treatment plan of medication and individual therapy.

Initially, Sam felt confident about working one on one with a therapist because the idea of being in a group therapy setting gave her fear. The thoughts of being around other people and having to talk about what she had been through felt highly uncomfortable. However, after some time in individual therapy, Sam noticed that she wasn't getting what she fully needed, something was missing for her. When her therapist suggested a referral to a support group that was specifically for people with a diagnosis of BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) Sam felt more curious about working in a group setting because even with her fear of other people, the other attendees would also have a diagnosis and perhaps would have also had similar trauma happen to them. Sam took a leap of faith and joined the group for 3 years in total. Looking back, Sam reflects “What I feared the most was what was most successful.”

Over these 3 years, Sam took part in many different types of therapeutic modalities. Including CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), Art Therapy, creative exercises and group therapy for 7 hours a week. As Sam reflects, she recalls that it felt like such a “powerful process”, extremely thought-provoking and sowed the seeds to her recovery from depression. Sam started to grow from experiencing rock bottom, dark feelings, to starting to feel her light of hope grow. Sam reflects on her memories and recalls a group exercise involving rocks and large stones. The group were asked to write down onto paper all the hurtful thoughts they experienced and all the hurtful statements from others they had heard throughout their lives that had suck to them psychologically. The group then put all the rocks into a rucksack and were asked to carry the bag on their backs. They all felt the immense weight, it felt so heavy, debilitating and made it extremely difficult to even stand up! The group reflected on the symbolic meaning, this is how it had been feeling for them psychologically for years! That in fact, all the painful dark thoughts and unkind harmful words from others had been weighing them down just like this bag. That if they keep carrying the bag of hurt that any progress forward would be much more difficult. The group reflected that, symbolically, maybe it was the right time to put the bag down. That they did indeed have permission to no longer carry them.

Sam recalls how much she gained personally from her group therapy journey, sharing how her experience of art therapy surprisingly was one of the most rewarding aspects. Before, the thought of starting art therapy felt daunting to Sam because she felt unable to draw or paint. But, Sam found a technique to assist her in creatively expressing her feelings. In the form of cutting out pictures from magazines to be able to express her storyline and emotions connected to events and her mental health journey. The process of searching for images, cutting them out and placing them onto a storyboard felt cathartic followed by a group discussion which promoted deep, meaning conversations. Sam recalls another aspect to her healing journey, being encouraged back into studying through the Queen Elizabeth Foundation where she enrolled in learning new skills and gaining a qualification in accountancy. Sam remembers back then looking at the options of potential courses and asking if there were any based on accountancy and completed the course with flying colours. This later enabled Sam to gain a new job as an accountant for a famous fashion and high-end luxury goods brand.

Sam volunteered to be a part of Empathic Connections Counselling magazine, to be interviewed for this article because if by sharing her story helps you, the person reading this. Or, if by sharing her story helps someone who has also experienced trauma to keep going, then something good and meaningful can come from her story. Sam wants to share with you “Everyone has mental health, you're not going crazy, you just need to be realigned. The hardest part is asking for help. The first appointment is terrifying, but after that it is ok.” If you have had a similar experience to Sam, do reach out to a mental health professional, or your GP. Remember Sam's experience that the first step may seem the hardest but there is light at the end of the tunnel especially once you take that initial step in your healing journey. If you have had a similar experience to Sam, do reach out to a mental health professional, or your GP. Remember Sam's experience that the first step may seem the hardest but there is light at the end of the tunnel especially once you take that initial step in your healing journey.

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