A violent attack left Lili Sinclair-Williams traumatised and plagued by vivid flashbacks, night terrors, and suicidal thoughts. But with the help of cognitive hypnotherapy, she now sees how her ordeal has made her a better person
Reader warning: please note this story includes details that some readers may find upsetting.
Saturday 1 August 2015 was the day my life changed forever. It was a beautiful sunny day as I flew home from France, after a glorious two weeks staying with my parents.
As I arrived at my flat, I passed the communal garden where a party was in full swing. I remember feeling a real sense of contentment as I dropped off my suitcase, and changed, then headed out to a friend’s barbecue nearby.
My friend and I decided to make a night of it, and went to a local bar. The next few hours were spent on the dance floor (as any good night should). I walked home in the warm night air, thinking about seeing my friends at work on Monday, and looking forward to getting into my own bed after a long day.
Walking up the drive to my flat, I heard a man’s voice asking for a lighter.
I figured he must live in my block, or be visiting a friend, as he was walking up the path behind me. I was in such a great mood that I accepted his offer of a cigarette. Although all I wanted was to be in my bed, I didn’t want to appear rude, so we briefly chatted while we smoked.
After a few of minutes I said I must go as I was exhausted, and it was 2am. What happened next I could never have imagined. He grabbed me and subjected me to a 20-minute violent attack. I tried to fight back, but I was overpowered by this large-built, 6ft-something man.
I screamed and kicked and punched, but it didn’t stop. Suddenly, everything went quiet. For a split second I thought: “Am I dead?” I frantically looked around to see I was alone, then got up and dashed to my handbag. Without thinking my fingers were tapping 999, and I ran into my flat. I was screaming, crying and bursting into panic attacks every time I caught sight of my bloodied self in the mirror.
I had to wait 32 minutes for the police and ambulance to arrive – a long time when you think your attacker will come back at any moment.
When they did arrive, they were wonderfully efficient. My clothes were bagged up, my mouth swabbed, my fingernails chopped off. I was taken to hospital, where tests and swabs and photographs were taken. My parents rushed back to London and took me to their house. Suddenly things were very silent, and that was the moment I realised nothing in my life would ever be the same.
The next few weeks were the worst of my life. I suffered flashbacks, night terrors ambushed me daily, I couldn’t leave the house, food lost its flavour, and I jumped at every single noise.
Each time my parents tried to take me for walks around the block, my throat seized up and I forgot how to breathe. I started counselling, but it didn’t help.
The thought of seeing friends or family made me hide under the covers. Every tiny decision felt like the toughest job in the world. I wanted to make it stop, I wanted to close my eyes and wake up in five years, when it was supposed that “time” would have healed me.
The police were fantastic and caught the perpetrator after seven days. My parents were a tremendous support, and I felt incredibly lucky to have such brilliant people around me.
Slowly but surely, I started taking baby steps to normality – learning to leave the house again, taking public transport, popping back to my office – I was really lucky to have such a supportive boss. A few months passed, and I moved back into my flat. This wasn’t easy, but was something I thought was imperative if I was to get over what had happened.
Despite these steps, I was still suffering. I’d been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. The night terrors and flashbacks were worse than ever, and I started getting suicidal thoughts. I was struggling with the simplest of tasks. I was drinking every night, and smoking more than ever. I couldn’t enjoy anything I’d previously loved.
My dad, a therapist, was aware of my decline and arranged for me to see a cognitive hypnotherapist. Over the next five months, in the lead-up to the trial, she helped me to manage my emotions.
I knew very little about cognitive hypnotherapy prior to this, but it soon became apparent that it’s very different to traditional hypnotherapy. The therapist works to “dehypnotise” the subconscious mind out of the problem pattern it has developed.
Any preconceptions I had of hypnotherapy being mysterious and magical quickly dissipated, and I soon learnt I was in complete control of my recovery.
I gradually started to feel pieces of the old me coming back. I was being rebuilt. By the time my court date arrived, I felt strong enough to sit in the witness box and give my evidence. I survived it, and I felt proud of myself for doing so. There was a light at the end of the tunnel. The perpetrator was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Over the three years since, I have noticed a complete shift in my priorities. I started making changes to ensure I was doing what I wanted, rather than what I’d always believed I should do. I met the love of my life – who is now my husband – have quit smoking, and put my health first.
I suddenly knew I had a purpose. I was taking responsibility for my life and my happiness. The attack felt like the shake-up I needed to discover what really matters to me. I decided to train as a cognitive hypnotherapist, and help other people discover the fulfilling lives they deserve.
Cognitive hypnotherapy is a short-term therapy with long-term results. I couldn’t believe the breakthroughs I made in such a short time, and experiencing it first-hand has made me a better therapist. I’m now helping people, and that is the greatest feeling in the world.
The philosopher Epictetus said: “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters” – and he was entirely right. People tell me I am strong for going through what I did and coming out the other side. I don’t see it as strength, it was a necessity.
Even in my darkest hours I tried to focus on why I wanted to survive, what it was about life I loved so much – my family, friends, nature, fun, food, love, laughter. I promised myself to be more present, to savour every gift life brings. I am now grateful for what happened to me: it shook me awake and made me a better person. And if I can help others in the same way, that is a gift I will cherish.
Lili’s story vividly shows the debilitating effects of being traumatised. When our mind-body system is overwhelmed, we unfortunately relive the event over and over again as if it were happening now. It’s great that Lili was well supported, both by professionals and in her personal support network, and that she found a therapy that worked effectively for her. Seeking help when the past repeatedly intrudes into the present is important, with Lili’s story showing the benefits of taking action before symptoms become long-lasting.