Sam’s story begins as a 16 year old school leaver subjected to a horrible unprovoked attack on the streets near where he lived in Colchester. He and some friends were on the way to the local shop one evening to buy chocolate when they were set upon from behind by a group. Sam was beaten and left in the road. The case was taken to the police and, eventually, the courts, with the whole legal process taking over a year.
Prior to this event, Sam had found school difficult as he struggled with writing and dyspraxia, a developmental disorder of the brain in childhood causing difficulty in activities requiring coordination and movement. He required additional support and was often left in a different room to classmates to help him concentrate. He struggled with worrying and this isolation at school made him feel different, this became increasingly worse after the attack – though he did not associate the two for some time.
He remembers: “It’s hard to explain, I just thought I was nervous from school and nervous talking to people – I didn’t associate it with the attack. I just ignored the fact that it was to do with that.”
Sam’s life continued and he went on to college. His daily walk to college even began to fill him with fear, often resulting in the need to be sick on the way in. He had some counselling with a local youth service but didn’t find it helpful with him wanting to isolate himself.
Sam said: “I stopped wanting to talk to people. Then I got awkward with friends. Then I got nervous about bumping into those friends. It just went on and on until the point where I didn’t want to leave my house just in case I met someone – in case they said hello to me. I just didn’t realise it at the time. It got to the point when it got so bad that I didn’t even leave my room for about six months.
“It took me so long to get help then my cousin found a Health in Mind leaflet. We talked about it and kind of thought it might help, or it might not, so I asked her to fill out the form and send it in. They called me for an appointment. At first I thought, well is it going to be the same as therapy I’ve had before – am I just going to sit in a room and talk and it’s not going to help me to want to go outside?”
At this point Sam was 19 and he was allocated a Support, Time and Recovery (STaR) worker, Natalie, from Mid and North Essex Mind. Mid and North Essex Mind work in partnership with the NHS’s Health in Mind, providing services like Support, Time and Recovery. It took a great deal of courage for Sam to leave the house and come in for his first appointment. Natalie suggested that perhaps she could start meeting him at his house and they could go out for short walks to get him used to leaving his home. This was the start of exposure therapy – this It involves the exposure of the individual to the feared object or context without any danger, in order to overcome their anxiety and/or distress.
Sam said: “I just thought, I’m not doing it. The day came when Natalie came to mine and I was shaking so much I couldn’t talk. We left the house and it was so weird just even walking down my street.”
Sam and Natalie started meeting on a weekly basis to go for walks from his house, he said: “We did have to come back sometimes because I just wanted to throw up like I used to on the way to college. The walks got longer and longer, like me going to a supermarket and trying to do a shop. Sometimes she’d come with me, sometimes we’d split up and she’d meet me halfway round. Sometimes we’d just stand and wait so I could get used to it.”
Exposure therapy is gradual in its nature and there were lots of stages for Sam to go through with Natalie, like gradually extending their walks to the town centre after around two months of working together and eventually getting to busier locations and shops in the town itself.
“When we started going to town, it did take a bit longer because we could never predict how busy it was going to be. Soon I had to start waiting in public town centre places on my own but I worried that people were staring at me, wondering what I was doing. Natalie also got me some telephone support which really helped. They taught me techniques like counting the people with hats on when I was waiting, it made me concentrate on that rather what I thought they might be thinking of me. Those silliest things made a difference, it did help a lot.”
Sam started to become more determined and his mood gradually changed. The more he went out by himself during sessions the easier he started to find it. He set himself goals, he said: “I thought, well I’ll just be sadder if I don’t do it and push myself. My mind just changed from ‘I don’t want to do that at all’ to ‘I’ve got to challenge myself to do it’. Everything Natalie and I did helped, even just talking to her helped so much. She was really good at helping me breathe through situations, focus on different things and talking through different scenarios.”
Natalie and Sam worked together for about nine months. In that nine months everything has changed for Sam. Not only is he able to leave the house and get out and about independently but he’s also back in contact and socialising with friends, going to the gym and volunteering at local centre.
He said: “To think that when I came in to Mid and North Essex Mind I thought ‘Well this is going to be a load of rubbish’, and now I feel so positive. I’m so glad I kept at it. I really don’t think I would’ve been here if it weren’t for the work I did with Natalie. I wasn’t leaving my room, my family had tried so hard and I wasn’t bothering, I was just thinking I was better off dead. I still get nervous but I manage it now.”
Sam’s looking to the future more now. His interests have always been with art and design and he’s even thinking about a prop design course in London. He knows that will be a big step for him but to even be thinking about this as a future opportunity just shows how much things have changed for him.
“I’m very happy and I look at things in such a positive way now. My brain’s just developed to be very positive with things. Negative situations I really try to talk through now, rather than just cuttings things off or shouting. I don’t get angry now like I used to. Everything’s changed for the better. The next stage is looking for work but I feel pretty confident, it’s a new challenge.”