For me, perhaps influenced by a background working in hospitals, the word trauma should immediately be followed by the words ‘and orthopaedics’ and brings to mind images of accidents, broken bones and plaster casts.
However in reality the word trauma is much more subtle and varied, and for this blog I am going to talk about emotional trauma. I can’t promise any jewels of wisdom, but I will attempt to put into words my experience over the last few months and how this is impacting my sense of identity as I figure out what recovery means to me – as a person and as an employee.
Let’s get the hard bit out of the way.
At the beginning of December 2018, my husband Joe took his own life.
Joe had struggled with his mental health for as long as I have known him and this was not his first suicide attempt. We had been together for 8 years, friends for much longer, and his mental health has always been the third person in our relationship – unwanted, often unacknowledged but constantly present and influencing our lives.
This is my first real experience of death – and it’s a biggie! Not only have I lost my husband and best friend, I’m left blaming myself in a million different ways. So many what ifs, maybes and if onlys, none of which I can find a definitive answer to. All I can do is try and figure out my truth and learn to carry that with me.
The hardest thing to wrap my poor brain around has been the fact that I am no longer me. I’ve lost my identity and my sense of self, I’m left reconstructing all the facets that made up Lizzy and hoping that the finished article bears some resemblance to the person I was before.
Some changes are obvious – from wife to widow, from married to single, from ‘Joe and Lizzy’ to ‘Lizzy’. The others, honestly took me by surprise – from active to lethargic, from a fast thinker to someone who is easily confused, from being passionate about my job to really struggling to see the point.
I’m still at the beginning of my recovery journey and many of these personas will be transient, a necessary (if unwelcome) detour from who I was and who I will be.
It’s been difficult for me to accept that I’ve suffered a traumatic experience and can’t just bounce back in a week like I normally would. I am a naturally stubborn, independent person who really doesn’t like to admit defeat. In the last two months, I have not had a choice. I have had to take a break – the hardest one for me to wrap my head around is the fact that I have been off work since December and I’m only just starting to phase back. It feels like I’ve failed, I worry I’m letting my team down and that I should be back at full capacity by now.
All of those worries originate with me – one thing this whole experience has made me realise is just how fortunate I am. I’ve lost someone I love, but I am left with so many others who love me and care about my recovery. I’m even more fortunate that so many of them are my colleagues.
It is important to me that I do well at work, it has always been the thing that has driven me, the need to do a good job and make a difference. I have not been able to do that, I’m still figuring out how to. But I am not doing it alone and that gives me hope for the future. I know, without a shadow of doubt, that my manager will support and challenge me to get back to full capacity, that my colleagues won’t treat me with kid gloves, that they will rise to the challenge of my black humour and give me honest, compassionate feedback as I grope my way back to a full human being.
I’m not yet far enough along my journey to know when that will be, or what I will look like, but with the support of my friends, family and colleagues I am confident that I will get there. My future is different, but it isn’t bleak. There are perhaps more dark days than I anticipated, but they will pass; I still have new places to go, new things to experience, new people to meet, and whilst Joe won’t be there with me physically, he will forever be a part of my life; past, present and future.
Written by Lizzy Stillibrand, GMTS Leadership Development Senior Manager
Midlands Leadership and Lifelong Learning