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Steve's story

Once you’ve got out of that ‘locked box’ you put yourself in, it’s freedom!

Between the ages of 8 and 18, I suffered a lot of sexual, physical and psychological abuse. This affected the whole of the rest of my life up until I started my sessions, and I was over 50 by then. I had strategies in place to avoid certain situations and I shut myself off, not allowing myself to feel anything.
In 2006, a friend and I had a business that started to fail, at the same time as my friend’s mother, and my own mother, both died. As a result, I had a bit of a breakdown and began to have suicidal thoughts. My doctor referred me to the service, and I attended three CBT groups, first for anxiety and then depression, before going on a RELAY course (RELAY stands for Regulating Emotions and Looking After Yourself and it teaches skills and strategies to manage difficult feelings and relationships). This course was where I first met Claire, a clinical psychologist.
The groups had helped me to get past what was affecting my motivation and away from my suicidal thoughts, but I still couldn’t sleep in the dark, had nightmares about particular situations from my childhood and had a number of ‘triggers’ that brought on long-lasting and debilitating flashbacks. I went on the waiting list for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) CBT with Claire.
The group work had given me preparation on coping strategies. Claire started by helping me to understand PTSD and its symptoms, as well as how memory works.
Claire told me that the key to progress was to expose me to a PTSD memory, producing a flashback, and then retraining my brain to think: ‘that was then, this is now’. She helped me to develop an image in my mind of a ‘safe place’, and during the first distressing sessions, she showed me how flapping my hands, jumping about and recognising where I was (not where I thought I was) could help me get out of a flashback.
Then we homed in on one major incident, to which a flashback was always strongly triggered by the smell of Cillit Bang cleaning fluid and small dark cupboards. Taking a bottle of Cillit Bang, a cloth and industrial rubber gloves to trigger a flashback, Claire helped me to describe what I was experiencing, focus on moving around, flapping my arms to prove to myself that I wasn’t trapped, and remember what day, what year it was and what we were doing. Each time we did this, a bit more of the original incident came out, and as I conquered the stronger events, the ones that emerged were weaker.
We then moved onto the trigger of being in a small cupboard.  We had access to the cleaning cupboard at Waverley House.  As we took with us the Cillit Bang, a cloth, a torch and industrial rubber gloves we must have looked like we were going to investigate a murder!
Claire always made sure I was in control, and the first time I actually got into the cupboard, the light was on and the door open. I got to the point where I went into that cupboard with the light off, Cillet Bang in my hands, and Claire locked the door!
We then focused on my remaining behaviours, and thoughts about myself and others that were maintaining my sense of threat. I had a fear of being attacked and avoided any situations that involved crowds, or eye contact with people. We agreed on an ‘experiment’, where I would go out into a crowded street and deliberately look around to see who was actually making eye contact with me – and almost no-one was. Looking back on it, my behaviour in avoiding these situations, which I thought was keeping me safe, probably scared more people than I believed would scare me!
We used imagery in one session which allowed me to rearrange my memory of events such that I no longer felt as vulnerable, useless and ineffective as I had always thought I was.
Today, memories still come up, but now they’re just images that don’t affect me in an emotional sense any more. I do voluntary work locally, and in the past there were times when I’d had to walk outside the building and come in another door in order to avoid walking past a cleaning cupboard. But it’s not a problem now – I feel fine rooting around for stuff in the cupboard, and I can even use Cillit Bang to clean my kitchen. In fact, the only thing stopping me cleaning nowadays is laziness! And I can sleep in the dark, where before I had to have lights on all the time.
Once you’ve got out of that ‘locked box’ you put yourself in, it’s freedom!