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Charlie Webster: ‘We’ve got to stop sugar-coating trauma’

Charlie Webster: ‘We've got to stop sugar-coating trauma’

Charlie speaks to GLAMOUR about her new book, how she overcame trauma, and why she's helping other people heal.

This article references rape and sexual assault.

Charlie Webster is known for going the extra mile, literally.

The journalist (and now author) has run sixteen marathons, three Ironman Triathlons, and, in 2016, she completed a 3,000-mile bike ride from London to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where she was due to present at the Olympics. Instead, she spent two weeks in a medically induced coma after contracting a rare form of malaria.

Six months earlier, I'd met Charlie at my university's annual women's empowerment conference, where she delivered the keynote speech. As the university's dedicated women's officer, I was asked to introduce Charlie to the audience. I remember meeting Charlie; she was focused and glamorous, nodding slowly as she wordlessly rehearsed her speech.

The next time I see Charlie, her face is splashed across the media, accompanied by frenzied reports that she'd narrowly escaped death.

This was not Charlie's first brush with trauma. As a child, she was abused by her stepfather, and as a teen, she was sexually abused and groomed by her running coach.

But Charlie is not merely the sum of all her traumatic experiences. In her new book Why It's OK to Talk About Trauma, she forges a new path for all survivors of trauma, as well as breathing much-needed humour into a stigmatised condition.

Read GLAMOUR's full interview with Charlie Webster here…

GLAMOUR: Thanks so much for speaking with us today, Charlie! Why do you think we, as a society, so bad at talking about trauma?

Charlie Webster: I've thought about that a lot myself because I really struggled talking about it too. Talking about trauma means you have to face things, and it's sometimes really hard to face what's happened to you or how you're feeling.

One of the ways to deal with trauma is to detach from it emotionally. But I was just being horrible to myself. I was taking the role of all these people who have done these things to me and doing it to myself. And that's quite hard to face; it's hard to face all these horrible things that have happened to us.

But actually, we need to also work through them. No blame, but we need to work through them. And that's just really hard to do because we have to face the things that have happened to us. I ignored and shut all those things out and pretended they didn't happen. So to speak about trauma, I had to accept that those things did happen to me finally, and it just hurt. It hurt so much.

Another reason – and I definitely do this myself – is the fear of what people will think of me. Will that person disown me? Will they not be able to handle me? Am I bringing them down?

Do you think it's harder for women to speak about trauma? Particularly sexual trauma?

That's such a good question because I think [men and women] are different, and that's what makes this life wonderful. I feel like men are also very good at masking their trauma, but so are women. And that's important to recognise. I'm not saying that men aren't, but women are very emotionally intelligent and have that instinct. I feel like we can mask things very well because of that and we can mask it through caring for other people.

But at the same time, I'm also super conscious that I have three brothers who I'm incredibly proud of that I've also been through a lot. And it is also very hard in a different way for them too. But then I think overall, talking about trauma, we have very similar coping mechanisms.

When it comes to sexual abuse and rape, there's a fear of being judged and questioned and thinking it was your fault because, disgustingly, society does make us feel like that. I want to speak to individuals and let them know that it's not their fault. And I know men who have been sexually abused and it's tortured their entire life. And some people, men and women have taken it to their grave.

You mentioned in your book that “pain had become your normal state of being”. Do you think women in particular are encouraged to embrace a “keep calm and carry on” mentality when it comes to emotional pain and trauma?

Absolutely. Part of trauma is these unhealthy coping mechanisms that we do because of our fight and flight. That's individual. But then there's society's layer over the top of it, which is exactly what you're talking about.

If we're speaking specifically about women, it's like…. You can't cry too much. You can't show too much emotion. You can't be angry because that means you're aggressive. But if you cry, then you're a cry baby. We are made of emotions. Emotions are normal. And when we repress all these things, that's what causes mental health problems.

When I was younger, I couldn't cry. Things would get worse if I cried because I would be showing vulnerability and people would take advantage of that. If I cried when I was at home, things with my stepdad would get worse. So I just learned to cut off emotions because any emotion actually could become quite dangerous.

“You can't cry too much. You can't show too much emotion. You can't be angry because that means you're aggressive. But if you cry, then you're a cry baby. We are made of emotions. Emotions are normal.”

We have all these mental health campaigns that encourage us to ‘talk about it’ but when I'm really not in a good place and when I've been through some of the things I've been through and I'm living with trauma, I can't talk about it. That's a symptom of trauma.

Society still doesn't recognise that it's good to be upset, it's good to cry, it's good to feel these emotions. It's even good to feel anger. That's one of the things I learned. I just repress that all the time because it was like, as a woman, I can't be angry.

I remember once I was in an adult abusive relationship and I remember being angry and the guy was calling me aggressive. One of the things I've learned is that anger is a normal emotion. We have anger for a reason. I've campaigned so much and really pushed to try and change laws – that sometimes comes from my anger about the fact that I need to change things. And that's a positive thing.

And also I need to be angry, to be angry for myself, to be able to heal, to move on from some of the things that have happened to me.

In your book, you write about how behaviours like exercising, working hard, and dieting are soicaly acceptable. But they can easily become a coping mechanism or self-harm as a way of dealing with trauma. What are your tools for spotting when these behaviours start to become unhealthy?

A good example is at school, nobody will look at the high achiever to see if they're struggling. But actually, that constant incessant working is a coping mechanism. We distract ourselves so that we don't have to feel the things that have happened to us. If I just try harder and I work harder, then I'll be good enough, then somebody will love me.

“I was pushing myself to feel pain. And only when I felt pain was it enough.”

I think for me, in terms of exercise, I was pushing myself to feel pain. And only when I felt pain was it enough. I do exercise now and sometimes it occasionally back creeps in, but I can notice it and it's like, 'Oh, well, I haven't eaten and I'm not feeding myself properly afterwards'.

It's those little things that can actually be self-harm. It's not me being healthy and using exercise to help my mental health and to be healthy and feel good, that's actually exercise to harm myself. And I used to run and run and run and run until I couldn't run anymore. Whereas now I'll go for a run and it doesn't matter if I'm going slower and I'll look around me and I'll take things in.

How does it feel to be stepping into a role where you're educating other people about trauma – not just yourself?

It's exciting, but it doesn't make [my trauma] worth it. I don't agree with sugarcoating things or the whole ‘adversity makes us stronger’ because it also damages and harms you. There are people who were very close to me who aren't here anymore because of what trauma's done to them.

It's really important that we don't sugarcoat it.

But at the same time, for me (and where this book was born), I just felt like I was living all these things, and I just don't want people to keep living in the pain that I've lived in and to suffer the way that I feel like I have. And if I can help people through my own journey, I feel like I have this knowledge and all these learnings and I just want to give it out. I want to give it out, and I want to help other people heal because it's really hard to access help.

Why It's OK to Talk About Trauma: How to Make Sense of the Past and Grow Through the Pain is out now (Welbeck, 9 May 2024).

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, you can access support at Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or texting 86463 (9 am to 6 pm on weekdays).

For more from Glamour UK's Lucy Morgan, follow her on Instagram @lucyalexxandra.