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What are you scared of?

Updated: Nov 25, 2021

I ask because I visited a place last week that was established to help people affected by childhood trauma to live happier lives. This organisation was celebrating their 20th anniversary – no mean feat for anyone – and they were hosting a Trauma-informed workplace wellbeing seminar. It made me think deeply about my own life and childhood, and thankful that my experiences were generally happy and supportive.

Maybe, like me, you’ve had your share of nasty comments and unwanted intercepts of your personal space. How did it make you feel? What did you do about it? Did your actions make you feel better, worse, or the same? How could you have responded differently?

When I was little, my family had a dog. I don’t remember this dog, who was called Nicky, but my siblings have told me about things during my childhood and beyond. Apparently, I used to lift his tail and conduct examinations! Poor Nicky!

Big Sis and me, with Nicky (not the black dog I imagined he was)

I remember a story that Nicky bit me on the elbow. No recollection of this or any other Nicky-related event, myself, but I have the vague feeling that a sibling told me about it. I do, however, remember vividly that one day I walked to primary school, and in the yard outside the classrooms, I was set upon by two large red setters. People laugh when I say it that way, but it was a scary experience. They jumped up on their hind legs, and thrust their forelegs onto me, making them both taller than me. I was terrified. I remember nothing beyond that point.

For all my life, I have had a fear of dogs, especially black dogs, big dogs, and big black dogs. It’s been problematic when my friends have been dog-owners and I’ve had to sit through visits to their homes with the dog nearby. I had chickens a few years back, and they were attacked – viciously – by my neighbours’ dog, leaving feathers strewn around my yard and up to my back door, and carcasses under my house. I’ve lost five chickens, and I’m not sure I can face losing more (I raised two from balls of fluff, so I was attached to them as pets).

I’ve been going to Sydney Theatre Company matinees with dear friends for years, and in 2014 when I broke my ankle, I became quite emotional. One weekend, the friend who always drove to Sydney, called to organise our trip and I became distraught. She had started taking her dogs to her mother’s place on the way to Sydney, meaning I had to either go in the car with the dogs, or drive myself there and meet up. I loved my friend and her mother, but one of her dogs made me feel like I was trapped in the car with hundreds of live funnel web spiders. Not a happy feeling! Even meeting her there and having the dog bark on my arrival felt awful.

Fast-forward to now. I have neighbours with a sweet little dog that I adore. What has happened to me? For one thing, I’ve known this little dog since he was a puppy, and there is something about baby mammals that can melt the hardest heart. Maybe it’s oxytocin and serotonin; they’re feel-good hormones that are released during bonding moments. It might be that I have patted the dog every time I’ve seen him (nearly every day); that means I am habituating to him and I get positive reinforcement for approaching him, talking to him, and patting him (he is a patient, affectionate and softly cuddly dog). I know I am safe in my own home and neighbourhood, and maybe that has helped too. I’ve also visited my friend and had dinner at her place, getting used to both her dogs, who are really just as nice as my neighbours’ dog.

So, what has happened? Well, I’ve been reading a book written by Liz Mullinar, and it very simply (but compellingly) describes what could have been occurring. Now, because I was blessed with a very supportive family, friends, schools, church community, and neighbourhoods, I’ve been able to naturally put into practice some of the concepts that Liz talks about in her book, called "Heal For Life".

“In response to the lack of services Liz, and her husband Rod Phillips, helped found a nationwide charity ASCA (Advocates For Survivors of Child Abuse – now Blue Knot Foundation). ASCA was dedicated to raising awareness of child abuse and providing advocacy and support for survivors.”

They also established Mayumarri and Heal For Life – the organisation that I mentioned at the start. I visited Muyumarri in 2009, and the place felt so peaceful. I can see why Heal For Life has been going for 20 years. I have been involved in all kinds of research and know how to find, choose, trial, implement and evaluate interventions, and the Heal For Life approach rings true in many ways. Maybe they’ve done things the hard way to start with, but that’s because they were trail-blazers. There seemed to be nothing “for survivors by survivors”, and certainly not a tool or approach to help survivors to actually heal (for life) 20 years ago; so to keep on searching and learning and trying to do what seemed to everyone else as impossible, took so much more than determination.

I invite you to visit the website and consider how many people in your own workplace may be suffering because of adversity or trauma from their childhood, and how that might play out in your workplace. What would you do to help? I invite you to also buy the book, “Heal For Life”, by Liz Mullinar. It’s only $40 but it could be more, because while it’s targeted to survivors, it can also be a great handbook for therapists, managers, and the people who are significant in a survivor’s life (like partners, family and friends). There are poems from guests (the Heal For Life team doesn’t use words like client, consumer, or patient, because those words are disempowering). The poems are truly poignant. The logic of Liz’s methods feels sound; you feel safe in knowing what is going on inside your brain, and you feel safe because you have control over what you do to support yourself.

I’m still only halfway through (afterall, this book is 20 years’ of Liz’s experience and expertise), but I look forward to absorbing more. I’m inspired to think about what kind of research I’d like to do in collaboration with Heal For Life; so, watch this space ….

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