Wendy Woolfson

Understanding Hope

Wikipedia describes the tale of Pandora’s Box as “…a metaphor for something that brings about great troubles or misfortune, but also holds hope.” As a storyteller, it was a story I never told. I couldn’t connect with the hope part of it. I hated that story and avoided it at all costs.

I even hated the word hope for a long time. To me, it seemed like such a trite word that people used to describe something that I thought didn’t exist but was meant to be good and always there. I couldn’t see it. I didn’t understand what people meant when they said there was always hope because in the life I was living I couldn’t see any sign of it. My situation wasn’t changing, it was going on endlessly, and it felt relentless with no change and no sign of improvement, no matter how hard I tried. I was holding down a full-time job and I had a plethora of trauma memories and symptoms that crowded my mind and body making every day a brutal struggle.

I was caught in a loop of difficulties that went around on itself like the waltzers at the fairground; sometimes it would speed up like crazy with the barker flinging you round as hard as he could, sending you into a wild spin that feels like you’re going to eject from your seat at any moment, and you hold on as tight as you can for fear of losing your life. Other times, it’s a gentler spin which can be fun and less scary, less stomach flipping but still distorting and disorienting. Then there’s the rest of the ride where nothing dramatic is happening, but the threat of a wild spin is always there, and you’re on eggshells and tender hooks wondering when the next assault will come, feeling disoriented, spinning around and around. I was feeling the symptoms of trauma.

My first understanding of what hope might be, came the day I attended my assessment appointment at the trauma centre to see if I was eligible for their service to receive therapy. I spent the forty-five minutes with the psychologist weeping, and describing the main things that were issues from my past. It was exhausting, and during that time I felt embarrassed and worried at everything I was sharing. I didn’t know if any of it was worth it and whether they would accept me as someone who could receive their specialist help. When it was time to leave, they told me they would let me know by letter as soon as possible. I dried my eyes as best I could, stemming my tears as I walked out of her office. Then, as I stepped out of the front door of the building I felt this incredible sense of unexpected relief wash over me, and I realised that that was the first time I had told anyone this stuff and felt entirely listened to. I knew she had really heard all I had to say as she listened without interruption or judgement and I could see she believed me. It was in that moment that I surprised myself by smiling. It was a moment of epiphany, when I suddenly knew what hope felt like, for me. Even if they didn’t accept me, I knew I had been heard and believed and that alone gave me hope.

All too often when people tell us of their difficulties, we are so busy thinking about how we might respond to them that we forget to listen. It’s obvious when someone isn’t listening to you and it can hurt deeply, especially when it’s in the context of disclosing trauma. When I coach people in trauma practice with children and young people, I explain that when a young person says they have something to tell you, you drop everything and you pay attention. If you’re standing in the supermarket aisle you stop and you listen. If you tell them to wait until you get back to the car or the office or home, the moment will be lost and you may never hear what they needed to tell you. Children and young people are often spontaneous, and for anyone it takes great courage to choose the moment to disclose something, so the opportunity could easily be missed. I know this was my experience as a young person, and an adult, and it would have saved me so much pain if I had been listened to then.

Adults often feel helpless in the face of a disclosure from a child or young person. They feel the burden of needing to fix the situation and worry about whether they can solve their problems. There’s no need for that because at the initial point of disclosure all they want is to tell you, and to be heard and believed, much as I did in that assessment. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to fix their problems but listening to them goes a long way to providing support and giving much needed hope. Giving a young person hope and showing them that adults do listen and want to help could in itself be a life saver.

Maybe hope is another of those words that needs to be talked about more, and explained to children, to build their awareness of it and to look for it. We need to be aware of the hope in any given situation. I guess it’s that optimistic view or ‘glass half full’ type of thing. When I was a young adult people used to mockingly describe me as a Pollyanna character, always optimistic. I read and enjoyed the book when I was young, and maybe I am, in a less pronounced way. I’m ok with that. I lost that part of me for a very long time, and if it’s that which has come back through healing, long may it continue as it’s likely to be one of the things that’s helping me get through these painful months.