Traumatic memories, grief and fears of relapse: Negotiating the legacy of madness through healing exposure to trauma

I went to Liverpool for the first time 5 years ago,  in August 2008…

And it seems that this first trip to Liverpool has become for me a powerful  psychic symbol of a time when I was severely depressed and acutely anxious, I was living in what felt like  permanent panic and agitation, I was feeling constantly under threat, I was losing my ability to become excited and joyful at the sight of beautiful works of art, I was losing my ability to process language and comprehend talk and written information, I could not follow instructions and directions, I was not sleeping for days in a row, I was losing all interest in washing and self-care, I was viciously biting my nails, hurting my scalp and pulling my hair, I was having suicidal thoughts of increasing intensity, I was having paranoid thoughts in the sense that I firmly believed that my savings bank account did not exist, I had regressed-at the age of 42- to being an angry and needy child who was at the same time excessively dependent on and abusive (mainly verbally but at times physically as well) towards her mother, I constantly experienced my head as heavy and cloudy due to the potent psychiatric medication I was prescribed…an excruciatingly painful and traumatic time, characterised by pervasive feelings  of  desperation, failure, humiliation and unfairness…

 

Gustav Klimt,  Die drei Lebensalter  (1905)

(www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/gustav-klimt-and-1908-kunstschau)

I went to Liverpool for the first time on a rainy Sunday in August 2008, 5 years ago…I went with my mother…I went everywhere with my mother at the time…terrified to be or go anywhere on my own…I remember I struggled to find my way round Liverpool, I could not process the signposting…we finally got to  Tate Liverpool at Albert Dock…one of the reasons why we went to Liverpool that day was to visit a Gustav Klimt exhibition at  Tate Liverpool…I had always loved art exhibitions and I had always approached them with genuine interest, excitement and curiosity…until that rainy Sunday in August 2008…that Sunday I felt increasingly anxious, panicky and frustrated whilst at the Klimt exhibition…I remember that my agitation was so high and also so noticeable that it became increasingly embarrassing for myself and my mum alike…we ended up leaving the exhibition  hastily…thinking back to that visit to Tate Liverpool, the main source of my agitation was my inability to process language and understand the written information and commentary accompanying  Klimt’s exhibited creations…I remember reading and re-reading the written information and  commentary at the exhibition, hoping – in vein-that it would eventually make sense…I remember how frustrating and acutely painful it was when I realised that my cognitive abilities and intellectual capacity – abilities and capacity that had always been the most important source of self worth and recognition for me-were betraying me…

 

Head bandage – vintage engraved illustration – “Manuel des hospitalière et des garde-malaldes” (edited by Librairie Poussielgue – Paris 1907)

(www.shutterstock.com/s/bandage/search.html#id=93019000&src=KuPvz_8nIBWld6_tSgSymw-1-45)

I do not remember many specific details from that visit to Liverpool in August 2008…I only have overgeneralised, vague and fragmented memory of that rainy Sunday in August and of the summer of  2008 at large…I guess that what seems to be  my overgeneralised,  vague and fragmented  memory of that summer – almost an absence of event-specific memories that in most cases verges almost on amnesia-  is probably the result of psychiatric medication effects, but also an understandable and legitimate response to a deeply traumatic time in my life…What could be perceived as overgeneralised autobiographical memory in  my case is likely to function as a defence/coping mechanism, possibly reflecting an attempt to achieve what Mark Williams calls affect regulation (Aglan, Williams, Pickles and Hill, 2010)[1], that is an attempt to control and mitigate the affective disturbance associated with negative/traumatic event-specific  knowledge.

Nevertheless, what I do remember vividly from that visit to Liverpool in August 2008- more in terms of emotional memory rather than in terms of clearly demarcated, cognitively stored, specific events- is my profound agitation and panic whilst at the Klimt exhibition, as well as  my anxious and despairing search for bandages (surgical dressings) in a number of pharmacy stores in the centre of Liverpool…I needed the bandages to bind and protect the tips of my fingers that were badly wounded  through the vicious biting of my nails…I remember how shameful it felt to have to keep repeating the story of what I needed and how my fingers got to be so badly wounded to all the pharmacy store sales assistants who served me…

 

(www.shutterstock.com/s/%22psychological+trauma%22/search.html)

In the beginning of July this year, I went to Liverpool for a research-related meeting …nearly 5 years after that rainy Sunday in August 2008…the meeting was very productive and I was very pleased about that…after the meeting I wandered to the shopping area in the centre of Liverpool to have something to eat…I found myself very near  Tate Liverpool and the Albert Dock…and then fragments of traumatic memories associated with that rainy Sunday in August 2008 came flooding back…as in flashbacks that people suffering from what has come to be known as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) commonly report…I was kind of re-living the deep sense of agitation and panic whilst at the Klimt exhibition, as well as  the acute anxiety and  despair during the search for bandages…I felt deep sadness for that agitated, panicky, despairing and extremely vulnerable woman…I felt a profound sense of grief for the huge losses and biographical disruptions that woman had/has suffered…and I was able to connect emotionally with that woman and  recognise her as myself…

There are times, especially anniversaries, when I often experience  fragments of traumatic memories associated with my latest mental health crisis, a severe and enduring crisis that lasted around 2 years (2008-2010), coming back…whenever I am cognitively or emotionally transported back to that 2-year period, I-more often than not- catch myself feeling frightened…frightened that I am likely to relapse and find myself back in that nightmare…sometimes I even wonder – in disbelief- whether my current life, my ‘remarkable recovery’ (according to the mental health professionals involved in my care) is merely a pleasant dream that will soon be disrupted by my return to the bitter reality, ie to Park House,  the psychiatric hospital  where I was detained for 3 months in 2009…

Traumatic memories, grief and fears of  relapse – the legacy of madness…

How can one  negotiate this heavy legacy? What can one do with one’s trauma,  traumatic memories,  grief and fears of relapse?

In the last 3 years, my conscious choice has been to expose myself to trauma as a way of healing myself…and this exposure has taken both a narrative (narrative exposure) and a material/literal  (material exposure) form. By narrative exposure to trauma I mean i) articulating  and processing my traumatic memories  in one to one psychotherapy so that such memories can become meaningfully integrated into my psychic life, ii) talking publicly about my latest mental health crisis in the context of research and other presentations I have given as part of  my job as a Service User Researcher, as well as iii) writing about my latest mental health crisis in research/academic  and other articles (including articles for the Asylum magazine), and in my Asylum magazine blog (Dina’s Blog). By material exposure to trauma I mean both deliberately visiting places that hold traumatic memories of my latest mental health crisis (for example, visiting Park House, the psychiatric hospital where I was detained), and not avoiding such places when opportunities to visit them arise. Most important, reading through  my care records from the period of my 3-month detention in Park House and processing them in the context of my one to one therapy signified a critical step in the direction of narrative and material exposure to trauma.

Narrative and material exposure to trauma -most of the time  excruciatingly painful but altogether healing and life saving for me…

 

 Art and Recovery by Dina Poursanidou

Paper Collage, START in Manchester, 2011 

 


[1] Aglan, A., Williams, J. M. G., Pickles, A. and Hill, J. (2010) ‘Overgeneral autobiographical memory in women: Association with childhood abuse and history of depression in a community sample’, British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 49, 359–372

 

 

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