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My Lived Experience Has Taught Me a Lot About Posttraumatic Growth

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Trauma is what happened to me, but I choose not to let it overpower me. Why should I? I went through relentless bullying at school and it  impacted on me. I had gone through subsequent traumas, and whether it be bulimia, exercise addiction or drinking dependency, is irrelevant. It was ultimately a manifestation, in various different ways, for the last 20 years.

What interests me the most is that people are more likely to accept that I was a man who was bulimic throughout my teens. My exercise addiction emerged when I was on my 20s. And then in my early 30s, I had been alcohol dependent and have undergone three detoxes. But it was bulimia that I had been noted for – more than anything else. What was going on underneath it all wasn’t investigated and continued to remain underlying.

Since the age of 13, I had developed bulimia, as a direct consequence of bullying. My eating disorder wasn’t so much with body image issues – as some might assume. Instead, it was a knock on impact of the bullying that led to self-esteem issues. Confusion of my identity and sexual orientation also played a part, given the age that I was.

At 16, I attempted to seek help. Two days after leaving secondary school, I was referred to CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health services), without any follow-up. At 18, after moving down south, I tried again to seek help. But still, I had no success.

Fortunately, due to a series of ‘suddenlys’ I was able to recover from the behaviours of bulimia. Yet, the underlying issues were far from being addressed and a number of life events further contributed to me feeling down.

At 25, I learned that my mother died – after seven years of having no contact. In fact, I had no knowledge that she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. My sister had the unfortunate job of telling family members of the sad news when she passed. And that our mother didn’t want any of the family to know she was ill until the time of death. Or to even attend her funeral – which I was unable to attend in respect of her wish.

Despite of the seven years of no communication and absence, it eventually hit me: my mother was dead. Nothing could be undone, or reversed. It just was. It was only until I was in my late 20s that I eventually begin to realise and feel the grief of my mother’s death.

What I hadn’t anticipated was the backlash on my mother’s side of the family. For everything she was and wasn’t, she was blamed for at the anniversary of her death on social media by her sisters. Both me and my sister defended our mother. After all, she wasn’t around to defend herself; and we both did what we had to do and have no regrets.

Also during those times, I got into a relationship with a guy. He was seven years my junior and was keen, eager and attractive so thought at the time ‘he’ll do’. In reality, he was a convenient distraction and was  a form of escapism from everything that was going on with the family at that time.

My story is not unique and it’s far from extraordinary.

After several weeks of dating, it became obvious to me that something was not right. I couldn’t easily explain. Nothing added up. He acted out in all sorts of weird ways. I initially thought he had a mental health issue. Which, to some degree, was actually true. He acted out in sexually and aggressive manner. I never saw him again.

What he did was not explainable or justifiable. The only way I can rationalise it is that I was damaged. He was also damaged. All I can say is that for all the wrong reasons, two damaged people attract each another. 

My story is not unique and it’s far from extraordinary. I’m not a victim. I have no one to blame. and I’ve drawn a line. And I certainly have no shame. Instead, I’d prefer to evolve with the traumatic experiences I’ve had, which could and be labelled as posttraumatic growth.

Posttraumatic growth happens when you work with the traumatic experiences you’ve had. Working against it will only lead to more misery that resolves nothing.

After all, what I’ve learned is that unless you are prepared to change, then nothing will change. And that begins with you.

Sam Smith is a mental health campaigner, HuffPost contributor, and speaker with lived experience of bulimia and emotionally unstable personality disorder.

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