When my third baby was born, he made no sound. No indignant cry, no surprised gulps of air. The atmosphere after giving birth, which had been so raw and loud and bloody, suddenly felt cold and quiet and flat, as was he. I didn’t get to see him. He was whisked away and, thankfully, brought back to life. Later, I went into emergency surgery and was brought back to life too.
And then we were marooned together, mother and baby, back at home. It felt different to before. I struggled to connect and he slept for days, both of us zoning out of normal life yet not sure where else to go. Occasionally, he would burst back into the world, engage, become overstimulated and then have a fit, his eyes rolling back, his small body shaking and feverish. I feared his hypoxic birth had caused brain damage and the guilt and fear made a dark place seem darker. Great Ormond Street told us he had vasovagal syndrome, that extreme emotion was overstimulating his nerves, affecting the heart and blood vessels, but that, in the long run, he’d be OK. After a few years, the fitting subsided.
It changed my life, that moment when we first looked at one another and I thought, ‘Will I ever begin to understand the complexities of your brain? What has the effect of all this been on both you and me?’ I felt I knew something about trauma. Over the past 35 years, my job in TV news has taken me to places where I’ve witnessed other people’s horror and communicated the worst day of their lives back to the viewers. I’ve always felt a responsibility to those I’ve spoken to whose lives are suddenly turned over and hollowed out with grief. I’ve always believed I needed to know how best to hear them, to better reflect their voice and their experience. Perhaps psychology and journalism share that in common – the need to help people tell their stories, help author their narrative. I trained as a trauma assessor to make sure I gave those voices the respect they deserved and also to help my colleagues who were struggling with what they’d seen and heard. I began reading more about the brain and eventually, began a part-time MSc in psychology, with my final research thesis examining post-traumatic growth.
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Then, breast cancer, with a double mastectomy and more confusion and tumult. I didn’t tell anyone except my close family that I had it; I didn’t want pity or sympathy and I feared people would define my experience with words like ‘brave’ or ‘fighter’ or ‘sufferer’ or ‘victim’, when I was none of those things. I was lucky – the NHS hospital where I was being treated offered six sessions of therapy and it was a place where I could rage and cry when I didn’t feel I could vent those emotions elsewhere.
While it helped me understand my own reactions to my disease, I still wanted to learn about recovery and growth, to better serve others. I plunged back into research, this time talking to scientists, experts in resilience and people who’d gone through really tough times. I wrote a book called Rise: surviving and thriving after trauma, a psychological first-aid kit for those who are struggling.
I’m now in the final year of a doctorate in counselling psychology, having spent the past couple of years offering therapy to those with cancer, to families experiencing complex trauma and to students. I’m BACP registered, an associate at a large London university and am helping patients at an NHS hospital, and it’s challenging and exhausting and humbling.
I can’t put my finger on the one event that brought me here, but I do wonder whether it was sparked by my son’s eyes gazing into mine to look for answers that I couldn’t then give. He’s 14 next week and is sitting on the sofa with me now, reading back copies of The Beano, fit and healthy and, yes, with a wonderful and complex mind that I’m still working to understand. But the path to understanding him has introduced me to new people and new ways of thinking that I would never have discovered without him. I’ll be 56 before I’m Dr Sian Williams. I had thought that was the destination, the finishing point, the final bit of learning. But of course, you never stop, do you? Life will keep throwing up challenges and we will continue to try to accept and adapt to them. We are never the finished article and perhaps that helps us remain questioning, and that quest for growth and learning will, one hopes, inevitably be for the benefit of all our clients.