7. Broken People Heal.

By this point, I was fifteen years old and full of life, hope, naivety & dreams. When ever I could, I would find a few moments to dream away, whether this was at home or in my natural habitat, the wilderness. I have always been a big romantic too. I often dreamed of having my own big family one day, at least four children and a sporty, businessman husband. I know, this all sounds silly and cliché, but when you are growing up in the middle of crazy and where nothing is cliché, you crave it. You dream of safety, nine to five life, love and comfort. This was nothing but a dream. We just had love.

When ever I ventured out into my wilderness, I knew my safe, physical, boundaries very well. As the time went by, and as the war got a lot more dangerous, I had to restrict my walks to just the edges of our forest. I missed my long thinking walks and the very familiar wild environment. I missed the smell & the shades of the deep forest and the soft, silky feel of the moss on the rocks that I used sit on. I missed the heights of “my” hills.

Our parents, mum, would speak to us very often and explain where strategically we were positioned and what the risks of us being attacked were. And if we got attacked, our parents had a plan. They always had a plan for everything and they would make it clear to us, what ever happened, they had a solution; we, the children, would be ok.

Indeed, every now and again, our valley was shelled. During these attacks, because of our three level, three concrete floors, house, our neighbours would come to us as soon as they would hear the explosions and we would all run and hide in our cellar.

At first, as soon as we were in the cellar, a sense of fear and adrenaline rushing through our bodies would overcome us, then deathly silence. We used to all sit on the floor and wait. Nobody ever spoke during these long attacks, as if we were afraid that they would hear us, they would know where we were hiding. Even the young ones, our babies and toddlers, kept quiet. There is something almost majestic about the sound of the shells falling in the distance. You go into some part of your subconsciousness that tricks you into thinking that this was not real. You start thinking: “This is not happening to us. This isn’t our reality.”

The sound of the shells falling and exploding, almost sounded like we were extras in a WW2 movie. But we weren’t, this was happening. To us.

I still find it fascinating that even in those moments we, the children, felt safe. Or we were just too young to understand the risks and the consequences of the attacks. But perhaps most of all, our parents made us feel safe & reassured.

Our dad, like so many fathers then, wasn’t with us. He had already gone to his new war equipment & aid transport job. This broke my mum, she missed him terribly. She is one very loving and funny lady, she absolutely loves to have a good laugh, especially at her own expense, but during those times she went very quiet. Her safe place was by the burning fire of our AGA, she spent many evenings sitting on her favourite handmade wooden stool, whilst watching the fire. She & the war mothers had to remain strong, she had three children to look after.

By this point there were many evening curfews in place, but we were still able to go out for a limited amount of time. This felt like being released from prison.

Every now and again, my mum would let me go out with my friends in the evening for a little while, into our tiny town that had just a handful of cafes which in the evenings turned into nightclubs. My friends and I used to get so excited about these little outings! Like all teenage girls, we used to spend hours getting ready and we used to giggle all the way into town with such excitement! We’d walk there and back.

This was the first time I truly fell in love. I remember the moment I saw him so well. He was tall, sporty looking, with short light brown hair; he had bright blue eyes. Gorgeous smile!

We were introduced by a mutual friend. I was the only one out of my friends who didn’t smoke at this time; this caught his attention. He said that he was a non-smoker too and that he was really impressed that I didn’t smoke. He said: “Did you know that Vesna was a goddess of spring?”. This made me so happy, not many people knew this about my name.

He joined us at the table and pulled a chair to sit next to me. My teenage heart was racing like crazy! I was trying so hard not to show my almost physical reaction to him. I was so nervous. But I truly shouldn’t have been, he was so nice and so friendly. That night we chatted about anything and everything; we got on so well, we laughed so much. He too had this desire to one day, when this war was over, travel and explore the world. We joked and agreed that one day we’d visit New Zealand together.

At this time of my life, talking to boys was not my best skill. I absolutely hated that awkward stage where you just don’t know what to say and you end up sounding like a complete plonker! But talking to him was so easy. He was an intelligent, open minded soul. I think, from that moment on, I dreamed of marrying him every single day.

When we parted that wonderful evening, I gave him our home phone number. He said that he’d call me the next day and he did. His phone calls were magical. I used to get butterflies in my tummy every time I knew he’d be calling me.

To keep our relationship a secret, if my mum answered the phone, he’d say that he was my school friend. At this particular time of my life, my mum didn’t want me to date anyone. These were dangerous times, my mum was always worried that I’d meet someone dishonest. She had enough worry as it was. But I knew I was safe. He was lovely.

I remember telling my best friends about him: how different he was from all the other boys I knew, how kind he was, how insightful and forward thinking he was. He was absolutely stunning too. I was so excited; I was utterly in love!

After many happy & meaningful phonecalls, we eventually started dating. It was amazing and I was constantly on cloud nine. He came from a different town, so unfortunately we didn’t get to see each other very often because petrol was very sparse then. But the very little time that we spent together was magical to me. We would talk for hours and we both loved walking too. We both loved our stunning natural surroundings. We hiked through the forests a lot; we used to sit high up on this rock that overlooked my beautiful river. We would close our eyes and imagine a world outside of our country’s borders.

We dated for a year in secret. My mum was still too shy to talk to me about boys. I desperately wanted to tell her how nice he was and how kind he was to me.

He was two years older than me. When his eighteenth birthday came, this was such a bittersweet occasion on so many levels. I couldn’t go to his family birthday party, it was too far away for me to go there and come back in time before the curfew. I remember I was so angry at the whole situation that we were in. I was so upset.

I was also absolutely terrified; I knew what was coming. He had to go to war too. I became fearful even more.

I always worried about our dad, but worrying about my love was different. I loved him deeply. I was going to have my four babies with him one day, after we’d traveled the world.

I got to see him a few days after his birthday. He came to say goodbye. He reassured me that everything would be ok and that we had our lives ahead of us, together. I held him so tightly when we said our goodbye. I wanted to remember the smell of his skin and the colour of his eyes. Bright blue. We made our undying promises. He left.

That day I skipped school. I went for a long walk, I sat on our rock above the river, making sure I made plenty of room for him. I closed my eyes, listened to the river & imagined him sitting next to me, holding my hand.

16th of February 1994.

It was my good friend’s sixteenth birthday party. I remember it so well, we had no electricity.

It was very rare that we had any electricity at this point, our evenings were spent indoors in candlelit rooms, listening to the radio powered by wires connected to a car battery. My friends and I would go to each other’s homes and we’d play drinking games and we sometimes played the Ouija type board game. This was hilarious because we had a thief amongst us, we all knew this person’s “secret” habits, and when ever we played this game, this person would always say that they suddenly had to go home and they’d absolutely leg it across the bridge. Crossing the bridge at night was extremely dangerous, but I suppose “a ghost telling all of us” about this person’s stealing habits was lethal! Ha!

This party was the same. One candle, homebrewed alcohol and some music on the radio. We sang and danced, like only teenagers can, completely oblivious to the outside world. We were so happy!

Suddenly someone knocked on my friend’s front door and to our delight, it was my friend’s brother who had somehow managed to come home from war to surprise his sister on her birthday.

We were all absolutely hysterical with happiness. He was home and he was alive and well. He hadn’t been home for three months. It was amazing. We all hugged him a lot.

Once things calmed down a bit, he said that he wanted to speak to me in private.

We sat down on the floor in the hallway and he told me:

“Aleksandar was shot by a sniper. He died two days ago. They tried everything, but they couldn’t save him. I am so sorry.”

He was already buried. My Aleksandar. My Aleksandar.

The whole room started spinning around me. I felt faint. The tears were absolutely streaming down my face, silently. It was my friend’s birthday. It was her night and her brother had just come home. I didn’t want to spoil it for her. I just took my coat, put my boots on and very quietly left. It was bitterly cold outside, the moonlight was so bright, I could see the steam coming off the river. It looked stunning.

I stopped by the river and I wept. Losing him hurt so much. My pain was almost physical, I was shaking whilst I cried silent tears. He was my dream, my dream man. I was going to have my four babies with him. I wanted to hug him so desperately. I wanted him to hold me tightly how he used to. I wanted to see his face and kiss it. I wanted to inhale the smell of his skin whilst he is holding me, hugging me. I wanted to talk to him. More than anything, I wanted to talk to him. I was in shock; my absolute darkest & worst fears became my reality.

I stayed by the river for a while, it was only when my feet & fingertips started getting really cold that I ran home. When I got home, before I went into the house, I quickly wiped my tears and walked in. Mum was sitting by the fire, no candlelight; she wanted to save the candle for the next day, she said. My brother and sister were already asleep. “Now that you are back, I will go to sleep too, I’m tired. Keep the fire going.”

This was my saviour. I sat in our living room, on my favourite armchair and wept, silently in the dark. I kept seeing images in my head of him hurt. He must have been so cold when fell into the snow. I felt his pain deep inside. I knew he was gone, that his spirit had left his body, but I kept thinking how cold he must be lying in the freezing ground. This upset me so much. I cried for his parents and his sister too. I desperately wanted to visit them, to tell them that I loved him too & how sorry I was, but I had no means of getting to them. There was no transport. All I could do was pray for them and for my Aleksandar.

For a long while, this was my life. My evenings were spent like this, crying on my own in the dark, going through my five stages of grief. I tried so hard to accept that a young life was lost, that my love was lost. I couldn’t help but feel this tremendous anger! Why me?! Why take him?!

To me, at that time, this was the end of my world.

I know, I was only sixteen, I was in my formative years.

What I didn’t understand was what a lasting effect his death would leave on me. Losing him, and friends after him, affects me to this day. It affects me as a wife and as a mother. I have to fight my fears for my precious, loved ones, daily.

I ever spoke to my mum about Aleksandar’s death. She knew, my friends’ parents told her.

My mum was already broken. Her husband, her younger brother, her husband’s two brothers and many, many of my parents’ friends were at war. She didn’t know where they were, there were no phone calls or emails to their frontlines then. She had three children to look after and somehow feed us and keep us safe. She had so much on her shoulders. I didn’t want to break her even more by telling her how hurt I was; that I was grieving. I grieved on my own. But in her own way, she helped me. She made sure that I had plenty of time on my own in the darkness of our evenings.

Death was something that we, teenagers, didn’t talk about. It was too hurtful to talk about it. There was too much of it around us.

My friends knew what had happened, but we never spoke about him.

I wrote him letters. So many. Writing these letters gave me peace and solace. I stored them in my room, tucked away in my bed. For nobody to ever see them or read them. They were just for him.

I never got to see his grave. But after twenty four years, he is still a massive part of me. He strengthened my belief in bigger and better world that was out there. Not just Bosnia and our horrid civil war.

He reinforced my desire to travel and he reinforced my thirst for learning. He helped me broaden my understanding of the world. With him, I was whole. Without him, I was broken for a long time.

I think I was broken until I met my husband. It took my husband a long time to build me back up. His love, determination and patience has helped me not to be broken any more. But I feared, I feared and I feared. I feared that whom ever I loved, that they would die too. I still fear.

Even after twenty four years, writing about Aleksandar was still so hard and raw.

But I can tell you that I am filled with love and nothing else.

The only way we can heal is by fully embracing the pain and the love that we felt for this person. Fully and truly and thoroughly. We have to let it hurt, we have to cry it out, write it out, run it out, walk it out…what ever works. Please, if you are grieving, just let it all out, do what ever works for you.

And only then we can celebrate this wonderful person we loved so deeply, and only then we can move on.

I feel incredibly lucky that I have all the resources that I need in the UK, which have helped me heal over the years. They have helped me immensely. I sometimes feel terribly guilty that my countrymen and women don’t have this. They don’t have the counselling resources that we do here.

There are so many broken people in my motherland. So many. I would love to help them and their children.

If you think that you might be able to help someone , please reach out. You, just you, might be their saving grace.

Cathartic. Consequences of war & trauma.

Writing about Aleksandar’s death was very cathartic.

Twenty-four years have passed; discovering that it was all still so raw, was such a powerful and a sobering feeling. I felt very strongly that he was still very much part of me.

But I had to write about him. I had to finally tell my story. I had to tell the story of this beautiful human who was taken from us too soon, too young. I had to tell the story of hundreds of thousands of people from my home country, who have been through similar, and worse, far worse, and yet nobody hears about them.

It hurts me so much that nobody hears their voices. I have always wanted to write about my people, but I never had the courage to start. By my people, I mean the good, honest country people, not the country’s leaders or politicians.

My “awakening” came when I started studying to become a childminder in the UK. I had to study so much about trauma and how much childhood trauma affects our adult lives and how much infant and childhood trauma affects our brains. More often than not, trauma or abuse goes unreported.

I read so much about how much help there is available for our children in the UK and which agencies to contact if we suspect that a child is being abused or experiencing trauma. There are SO many amazing agencies in the UK, which is just wonderful, but there are hardly any in Bosnia.

My final push in my writing direction, came in September 2017; I received a call from my sister who was so distressed, she could barely speak. She is twenty five years old; she lives in Bosnia. She was our war baby. As a result of the times that she was born in, she too experienced a lot of trauma. After years of struggling, she had finally summoned the courage to seek counselling. She went to see a private counsellor and explained why she was there. This…man, then proceeded to ask her if she was a virgin. She was shocked and became very upset. He then lectured her on his religious basis; she ran out, crying.

I was furious and so upset for her. I felt so guilty that I didn’t have any means of helping her. I was angry.

I would love to set up a trust fund which would enable me to set up a counselling program for our veterans in Bosnia, their families and especially their children. I would be the happiest person alive if I succeeded in this.

I feel so strongly about counselling. Counselling has helped me immensely; I can’t advocate it enough. Trauma and bereavement counselling has been one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, and one of the best things in my life at the same time. My counselling has changed my life forever. It allowed me to heal, to properly say goodbye to my long lost loved ones, it allowed me to move on and have a proper closure. I am much nicer person now, thanks to my counselling.

If untreated, trauma leaves lifelong effects on a person and their loved ones around them.

Trauma ruined my paternal grandfather’s life, therefore subsequently affecting my father’s life, then mine.

My grandfather Stanko succumbed to his broken heart, years after he lost his first wife and a daughter during the WW2, and years after living through his war traumas. He never recovered. My father still doesn’t know what his father went through. I still don’t know what my father went through.
My grandfather died when he was only fifty-five, leaving seven children and a wife behind, my grandmother.

He was once a force to be reckoned with. He was a mayor, a politician, a land owner, a successful farmer…the list is big. He died just before my second birthday. Everyone tells me that he loved me so much and that he took me with him everywhere. I dream of him quite often. I dream of him sitting under our huge linden tree, on this bench that he made, I’m sitting on his lap. I dream that he’s telling me stories, but I never hear his voice. My father still has this bench. I sometimes dream of him calling my name from the top of this hill where our farm once was. I wish someone wrote his stories down.

This is my grandfather Stanko, in the middle.

In the absence of therapy or counselling, some men and women have resorted to alcohol. This is so common all over the world. Alcohol intoxication numbs their pain and the suffering temporarily. This eventually becomes an addiction. This absolutely breaks my heart.

These were once strong men and women. They had achieved so much. They managed to keep my parents’ generation fed and safe, as much as they could and whenever they could. They fought in WW2, they fought in the last civil war too. Yet, they are judged and ridiculed because they drink. They were seen as fools and ill-disciplined. They were seen as weak.

I worry that my father drinks too much too. I worry that he too will have a heart attack like his father did. My father was once a fit, strong man, who set up his own company against all the odds, he travelled the world. He was a game changer, ahead of his time. He was a successful businessman, a workaholic, a generous heart who employed people of all nationalities and backgrounds. He employed the misfits, the “fallen off the wagon” ones, he took a risk just give them a second chance. He let homeless young people sleep in our house or in his trucks. Don’t worry, he wasn’t stupid, he was very strict, they were all too scared of him to do anything stupid. He was the centre of my world.

He doesn’t travel any more. He retired early and handed everything over to my brother. He now breeds organic pigs, sheep and goats, on a much smaller scale than before. He helps my mum run their B&B and a small restaurant. He keeps himself busy, he’s always building something, extending buildings and outbuildings or making something out of wood. But he has regular nightmares and night sweats, he sometimes shakes violently in his sleep. He regularly shouts in his sleep too.

Our father has carried his traumas since he was a young boy; they just multiplied in the ‘90s.

When we were younger, I judged my father’s occasional angry outbursts. I judged him and at times I didn’t like him for this. I didn’t know.

Now that I am older, now that I have been through my own series of unfortunate events, I understand him so much more. He carried so much on his shoulders.

He is still this kindhearted, intelligent, full of knowledge and wisdom, selfless, charismatic, cheeky legend of a man, but I can tell you that he is a shadow of his formal self.

Because of the traumas that our grandparents experienced during the WW2, we have to understand that our parents could not have had balanced childhoods at all, which subsequently affected them as adults. Most likely they were frequently exposed to domestic violence as a result of this. Their parents were still suffering and in a sense, still broken. The two generations didn’t have time to heal; they first had to deal with the aftermath of the WW2 as well as having young families, and then boom! Another war happens.

A war doesn’t stop once the bullets stop falling. The war aftermath carries on for at least two generations. It destroys the economics and the infrastructure, which directly affects families, especially in the cities.

I remember, people went hungry, they took on any jobs, people got exploited, women got exploited, children got exploited. They lost their pride and their integrity just so that they could feed their families. They begged and pleaded.

These “exploiters” were the people that our father warned us about at the beginning of the war, they were the war profiteers. He made sure that we never had to go through this ourselves.

On top of all of this terrible hardship, there was this ever-present mental health stigma. If you sought medical help, you were seen as weak or crazy. When it comes to mental health, it was not and still is not acceptable to seek medical help, but it is acceptable however to suffer and make others around you suffer.

The other thing that seems to be socially acceptable in the Balkans, generally, is going to see a Serbian Orthodox priest, a Catholic priest or a Muslim imam for a confession. This confession is seen as a form of counselling. I understand this, this is how it’s always been done, this is what majority of people are comfortable with. I passionately support “It’s good to talk” campaigns, but these wonderful people also need expert help, they need medical help.

I am religious, but I see this as my personal choice and the way I view religion has nothing to do with anyone else. I personally believe that we are all equal and no priest or imam is a higher human being than us.

I do however believe that doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists have a lot more knowledge about mental health than we do. Who are we to question their many years of hard work, studying and dedication? Who are we, the ones who did not study human anatomy and human mind, to question their vast knowledge and expertise. I LOVE my country, but stigma has no place amongst modern humans.

I saw so much of this in Bosnia. I want to change it. I know, I understand the enormity of my dream, but I can start small. I can first start in my home town, and then expand my counselling mission further. I am terribly stubborn, and I can be pretty persuasive. I can do this!

It breaks my heart that our grandparents never healed. Our parents haven’t mentally healed either. Just as our parents were in their prime, on their way to recovery, this civil war happened. Another war in the Balkans. Again.

They didn’t stand a chance.

Yet, we judge them. We must not judge how they deal with their pain. It is their way of coping. If we can just get people to talk, to a mental health professional, I know this would help them move on and have closure.

They could then live much healthier lives. They would then have much more mental strength and resources to deal with their addictions. I want to help provide this support to my people.

I would do absolutely anything and I would speak to absolutely anyone, if this meant that we would be able to provide trauma, grief, bereavement & PTSD counselling.

These wonderful people have suffered too much for too long, they have carried this burden for too long. I would love to somehow help them release their lead balloons, help them have closure, help them put it all to rest and move on. They deserve a f***ing break!

There are many symptoms and effects of PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Please red these carefully:

“Symptoms of PTSD:

Persistent, Invasive, or Intrusive Symptoms – symptoms are connected to the precipitating trauma and begin after the event:
Intrusive, invasive, involuntary distressing memories of the events
Nightmares
Dissociative episodes (flashbacks) during which the individual feels they are re-experiencing the event
Prolonged emotional distress when faced with triggers of the trauma
Physiological reactions to triggers of the event
Avoidance Symptoms – these behaviours attempt to reduce the level of suffering of a person by avoiding triggers and memories of the event.
Avoidance (or attempts to avoid) people, places, activities, conversations, objections, and situations that may lead to disconcerting thoughts, feelings, or memories of the trauma
Efforts made to avoid anything that triggers distressing memories, feelings, or thoughts of the event
Negative Mood Symptoms – these symptoms begin with the event and worsen over time
Inability to remember parts of the traumatic event
Negative beliefs about oneself, others, or the world
Distorted thoughts about the trauma that lead to assigning blame for the event to themselves or another person
Constant negative mood state
Inability to feel pleasure
Feeling disconnected from others
Inability to feel positive emotions
Alterations in Arousal Symptoms:
Irritability
Angry outbursts without provocation
Recklessness
Self-destructive behaviour
Self-harm
Difficulty concentrating
Hyper-vigilance
Exaggerated startle response
Sleep problems
Other symptoms of PTSD may include:
Depersonalization: Feeling detached from your body, as though you’re looking down from above
De-realization: Feeling as if you’re walking on water, in a dream or alternate reality
Effects of PTSD
The effects of PTSD touch every area of an individual’s life leaving virtually nothing unscathed. The longer that PTSD exists without treatment, the greater the effects of PTSD on a person’s life. The most common effects of post-traumatic stress disorder may include:
Pseudo-hallucinations
Eating disorders
Paranoia
Difficulty regulating emotions
Inability to maintain stable relationships
Dissociative symptoms
Depression
Anger
Nightmares
Difficulty feeling emotions
Guilt
Sleep problems
Substance abuse
Social phobia
Difficulty maintaining job
Agoraphobia
Self-harm; self-mutilation
Suicidal thoughts, attempts or completed suicide.”

If you recognise some of these symptoms in yourself, or in someone you know, please seek medical advice. PTSD is fully treatable.

Mental Illness Is Real

Mental Illness Is Real.
Depression, PTSD, PND, ADD, ADHD…there are many medically diagnosed forms of mental illness.

Some say that people who commit suicides are cowards and selfish.

Who are we to judge? We don’t know what goes on in people’s minds.

But simply, they are not weak, cowards or selfish. They are just very, very poorly. We can’t even imagine the pain and suffering of a suicidal person. They desperately need all help available that there is.

It affects me deeply, that there is still this stigma attached to mental health.

We live in 2017! We have UNLIMITED information on mental health, but the mental illness stigma is still very much present.  Some people still say that it is not a real illness.

Who are we to undermine mental health experts, doctors?! These people have spent many, many years of their adult lives studying medicine and human mind, human mental health. They are experts. They acknowledge it. They accept it as a REAL illness.

Mental health IS real. It EXISTS.
We cannot EVER imagine the pain and struggles of people who take their own lives. Whether this is because they are addicts or not. They are/were suffering immensely.

People become addicts because of a mental illness. Because of trauma. There is sooooo much that can be done. There is so much being done already.
We need to take trauma seriously. We need to treat it early.

If you suspect a relative or a friend is suffering from depression or from trauma, please do something to help them. Try hard to give them some extra strength to seek help. There is so much help available out there. And, if you live in the UK, it is free. It’s on our amazing NHS. I am not sure how it works in other countries, but there must be a way.

If you are suffering, please don’t suffer in silence. It is good to talk. Please, if you are feeling unwell, please talk to someone.

If you feel that you can’t talk yet, please try and write it down and then do what ever you wish to do with it, whether you keep it or burn it or post it away…what ever works. But please don’t suffer in silence.

If you are not comfortable with people knowing that you are seeking help, nobody has to know. Nobody but you and your therapist.

Seeking help is a sign of strength. Take ownership of it. Show your strength.

It is good to talk. Please try. Please.