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This was not meant to happen

Psychologies Magazine

Not all change is wanted or planned for. Life throws unexpected events at us which are beyond our control, and leave us wondering, why me? Accepting that everything changes, says Helena Pozniak, can help us cope and move on.

Joan Henriques knew her husband had been killed long before the police told her. He was one of the 35 who died in the Clapham rail crash on December 12, 1988. News of the collision broke slowly but, by midday, sitting by the phone, she was certain he was dead. ‘I remember every detail of those first few hours,’ she says. ‘I felt numb and hollow. Weirdly enough, I knew I had to detach my emotional side from my “doing” side. If I’d given in, I would never have survived. There was suddenly so much to do, and I got busy. At his funeral I felt as if it was for someone I didn’t know.’

Nothing prepares us for the unexpected invading our lives. ‘Why me?’ is our first reaction. ‘It isn’t fair.’ Intellectually, we know life isn’t fair. But this doesn’t stop us from railing against the injustice of chance events.

‘We live life according to a template, not necessarily consciously, that if we behave well and responsibly, everything will be OK,’ says trauma psychotherapist Susan Cowan-Jenssen. ‘When something rips open that structure, we need to keep our sense of security. Events are so utterly random – you step on a bus and it blows up. In truth, it’s terrifying. The idea of fairness is our attempt to give meaning to something about which we are helpless. It’s a fantasy that we have control over all aspects of life – and it can be destructive.’

Bereavement, sudden illness, job loss – these are changes beyond our control, which trigger a recognisable pattern of reactions. First shock and then denial – the executive, for instance, who walks around for days with his redundancy pay cheque in his pocket, refusing to cash it; the parents who keep their dead child’s room exactly as it was. Anger and sometimes depression follow, a need to apportion blame and a feeling that we’ve lost control. We can get stuck at any of these stages, but it’s only when we have accepted the change that we can move on.

‘People feel very guilty or angry, often with no basis whatsoever,’ says Cowan-Jenssen. ‘They have thoughts like “why couldn’t I have saved her?” or “why did he leave me, the bastard?” Part of that guilt and anger is a way of trying to assert control.’ If you feel guilty – even subconsciously – you believe you could have done something about it. And if you could have done something about it, then the world wouldn’t be a chaotic place where chance events can hurl you off course. You are constructing a fantasy in which, if you are good, you can control events. ‘But the point is you can’t, and that’s quite unbearable,’ says Cowan-Jenssen.

Learning what you can and can’t control is a move closer to coming to terms with events and learning to live with abrupt changes.

Jenny, 28, had been married for a year and was unaware of any problems until her husband announced, the week before Christmas, that he was leaving. ‘I couldn’t believe it. There I was, thinking we were perfectly happy. I became hysterical, I felt disjointed, and like a part of me was missing.’ For about nine months, Jenny threw herself into work and a hectic social life. ‘It was when we were actually changing our wills and putting a separation agreement in place that it actually hit me. After the initial shock – I hadn’t cried about it for nine months, and I am naturally a real cry-baby ¬– I’d put barriers up. That was my way of dealing with it. I ended up in bereavement therapy; it was the first time I had properly cried about it. Therapy did help me find some inner strength I didn’t know I possessed, to get through it. It never takes the pain away completely, but it does help.

You do see yourself differently. I saw myself as a failure. I never knew what went wrong – he never told me. I am very analytical, and I went over and over it trying to work out what happened. It took a long time to realise it wasn’t my fault – it was just something that happened to me. ‘Eventually I took control of my life. I bought myself a new car – it cost a fortune but at least it was my decision. I upgraded my property and changed my job. The most dramatic thing I did was to change my name back. I felt more like myself – in a sense the old me was back.’

Asserting control is a therapeutic exercise, it enables you to come to some sort of peace with catastrophe. Gary Bond felt so, after his daughter Millie was born severely brain damaged seven years ago. ‘When we first saw her in the hospital – flat, lifeless and grey – we expected the worst.’ But Millie survived, with extreme cerebral palsy, and Gary set about discovering why she had been so starved of oxygen during her birth. He eventually won a settlement of £4.25 million from the hospital. ‘I didn’t want sympathy. I felt much more comfortable talking to lawyers – focusing on details of the case, doing something. I have to be positive. If I’m not, the rock that I am on the outside falls to pieces.’

If you can throw off the role of victim and seize the reins, you are moving on and taking responsibility for your own wellbeing, says life coach Miranda Kennett. ‘Action is a great stress-buster, as is planning for action. Self-pity can be very comfortable, but it becomes an excuse for not doing anything yourself.’

Gary and his wife had gone from being a happy family with one healthy daughter to a couple forced to spend most of their time caring for their second, brain-damaged, child. Eventually their marriage broke down under the strain.

‘I felt very low and desperate at that time,’ he says. ‘But I became more determined, fuelled with more anger. I made it my mission to prove who was responsible… perhaps I did it for my own sanity. If we hadn’t won the settlement I fear the outcome would have been a sense of failure that would have haunted me for the rest of my life. But I genuinely believe things happen for a reason. I’m proud of what I have achieved, and I can enjoy Millie for who she is. I am a more spiritual person. I am probably the happiest I have been for as long as I can remember.’

But what makes one person thrive in the most unlikely scenarios, while others crumble? Why does one person diagnosed with cancer declare it started a positive change in her life, while another can’t leave the vitriol and bad blood of a painful divorce behind? The more resilient and resourceful tend to take on the challenge; those who defined themselves by the role they have lost – mother, wife, etc – may find it harder to recover.

Stephen Thomas displayed remarkable resilience when he had both legs amputated following an attack of meningitis at the age of 18. He was comatose for six weeks and, for most of that year, he was in and out of hospital, but he developed an extraordinarily positive attitude.

‘I wanted to deal with things myself,’ he recalls. ‘I’m a strong person, I don’t rely on anyone. I didn’t want counselling, I wanted to do things my own way. I am grateful I am still alive – I see myself as one of the lucky ones.’ On leaving hospital, Stephen learnt to walk and drive again. He’s since made dramatic changes to his lifestyle. Before his illness, he dropped out of school with no qualifications. ‘I was just drifting, earning pennies stacking shelves.’ He’s currently studying for a degree in sports science – but has put that on hold to become a full-time athlete, a member of Great Britain’s Paralympic sailing team.

‘I have a lifestyle I could never have imagined, in some ways I have never looked back. This disability has helped me reach goals I wouldn’t have dared dream of. Of course, at the time, I thought, ‘This isn’t fair, why is this happening to me?’ But I know there are people far worse off. The support of my family has been one of the most positive things to come out of this.’

‘You have to get some perspective,’ says Cowan-Jenssen. ‘Find a context to give your experience some meaning.’ In practice, this means finding support – friends, family, people who’ve been through something similar; people you can call in the small hours to buoy you up. When you see others experiencing similar feelings, it helps you stop feeling alienated and vulnerable.

While the less robust may remain shattered by events, most people do pull through eventually, say psychotherapists. After a time, grief can become a comfort – if you make a conscious decision to revisit it – to think about a loved one you have lost. Cowan-Jenssen explains: ‘Every experience changes us, and we can’t predict them. So we need to accept that events don’t define us, but how we handle them does.’

How to handle unwelcome change, by life coach Miranda Kennett

Try a projective technique:

Regain your sense of security, by psychotherapist Susan Cowan-Jenssen

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