Living with Complex PTSD.
I remember the first time I saw my therapist 4 years ago to talk about "issues with driving". I had been having progressively worsening panic attacks while driving, I couldn't figure out why, and needless to say, it was disruptive.
My therapist is a lively, friendly, relaxed 40 something Hungarian woman that specializes in trauma work. She was recommended to me by a former student after I had mentioned the issues I was experiencing with driving.
On our first visit, she asked a typical question, "What brings you here?".
What followed was a tidal wave of information. All at once my whole life story came spewing out like it was beyond my control. It was something akin to a dam breaking open.
It surprised me to open up about so much so soon since I tend to be a rather guarded person.
So when after a series of visits she explained that my panic and anxiety attacks were a part of Complex PTSD, it came as somewhat of a relief to finally have a name for what I had been living with for so long.
However, there was also a kind of shame that followed, a feeling of stigma. I didn't want to have this diagnosis or be defined by it. I definitely didn't feel comfortable opening up to friends or family about it.
It was a scary and lonely time.
What got me through (in addition to Eric's unwavering support) was finding that I wasn't alone. Thank grace for the internet, because I began to discover communities living (even thriving) with Complex PTSD.
I saw that with time and practice it was possible to live a full and happy life with the tools my therapist was giving me.
I've come to a point in my journey now where I want to share my experiences and what I've learned so far, because even if it helps make just one more person out there struggling like I was feel less alone then it's worth it.
What is Complex PTSD ?
Where PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a disorder that is caused by a short-lived experience of trauma, complex post traumatic stress disorder is caused by prolonged trauma or ongoing instances of trauma.
As I learned and understood more about Complex PTSD it became evident that I had every symptom. Here's a little bit about how I experience some of them.
1.) Dissociation -
Part of what was happening while I was driving were episodes of dissociation. Not just spacing out between work and home, I mean starting a drive home only to snap out of a blackout an hour later in a place I've never been to before having no recollection at all of the drive. It's as scary as it sounds. Losing time can happen even when I'm not driving, there's large chunks of my life I have no memory of, most likely because I was in a prolonged dissociated state. Dissociation is a major part of my C-PTSD.
2.) Distrusting others -
I'm a guarded person most of the time. I'm always ready to listen and be a support to others, especially close friends, but when it comes time for me to share, ask for help, or be vulnerable in any way, I largely don't. It's not necessarily that I think people are inherently bad as much as it is an almost uncontrollable urge to protect myself. It's a deep rooted fear and it takes A LOT for me to trust people, but I'm working on being better about being vulnerable.
3.) Isolating myself -
At some point, my panic and anxiety attacks became so bad that I essentially developed agoraphobia. This is partially what contributed to my panic attacks while driving. I was afraid of having panic attacks, so I avoided doing anything I thought might trigger them. This led to my world becoming very small. I would only leave the house to go to work, (8 minute drive) or to the grocery store (even this was very challenging). My home is still my safe haven, and I guard it fiercely. When family or friends come over I tend to need some notice to mentally and emotionally prepare, and I need a significant amount of "down time" to recharge afterwards.
4.) Startled easily -
This has gotten better with time, but I still startle easily. It makes me feel silly to be so startled by just a friend coming around a corner, or someone unexpectedly addressing me before I see them, or even Eric to approach me for a hug if I didn't hear him coming. We still laugh about the time he jumped out to surprise scare me and I half fainted as I froze in place and fell backwards on the floor of our bedroom.
5.) Nightmares -
This has also improved with time but I was plagued by vivid nightmares for a long time, for most of my life in fact. They often involved me being pulled out of bed by my feet by demons or shadow figures. Many times, as I tried to fall asleep, the feeling of an ominous presence loomed over me making it difficult to drift off without fear. The only way to describe what it felt like is that I was being haunted. Sleep wasn't always restful, and I was often exhausted and cranky. I'm so grateful this doesn't happen as frequently.
6.) Flashbacks -
Emotional flashbacks can happen any time something triggers emotions from the past. I can't always explain why or how they were triggered, and from the outside it can seem like I'm being "overly emotional" about something that may seem trivial. Sometimes a visual can trigger a flashback, and it can create anything between an intense reaction to dissociation. Then there's somatic flashbacks where sensations, uncontrolled movement, pain, or discomfort that has no medical cause are triggered in my body (I hate these the most).
Eric has a Mazda RX-8 that he loves to take on long drives. The feeling of his car (her name is Umi) hugging the curves of the road and the vibrations of the engine are relaxing to him, but to me it's almost overwhelming. At home, watching anything with the volume too high gives me anxiety, any time work needs done on the house involving noise, I need to prepare myself or be far away from it. I've officially let go of trying to become a "rollercoaster person". Every single time, even when I have the best intentions, as soon as the coaster begins to move I uncontrollably scream at the top of my lungs and cry like I'm about to be catapulted to my death, because that's what it feels like for me, not fear, but TERROR. I also can't do any ride with heights without having a panic attack, not even a ferris wheel.
8.) Feeling anxious -
If I'm not dissociated, or intentionally relaxed, my default state is some form of low grade anxiety. I feel the need to be prepared at all times for anything. It can be distracting when I'm trying to focus on work or a task, but I find that keeping my surroundings tidy helps keep my anxiety at bay. I also meditate regularly and practice yoga which both help a lot too.
9.) Difficulty communicating -
While I'm very happy and honored to be there for my friends and family when they're having a hard time and need someone to listen or talk to, I have a hard time verbalizing what I'm struggling with in my own life. This contributes to my friendships and relationships not being as intimate as they could be, because I'm not giving my friends and family a chance to be there for me the way I am for them.
10.) Difficulty with boundaries -
While I do have a hard time with trust, in the past I would overshare with the most random people. My boundaries were all over the place. Of course I didn't know what the heck boundaries were back then, but it wasn't doing me any favors. I have been practicing setting and maintaining boundaries, but it's still hard to speak up when they're crossed. I have to fight the feeling that I'm being selfish or mean for having real needs.
11.) Self-esteem and identity
When you've been called horrible things and treated poorly long enough, you begin to believe it's true and you expect nothing more. The idea that you deserve good things, love, affection, encouragement, and support feels selfish. I became a chameleon, morphing myself into who the people around me needed me to be or wanted me to be. I lost my sense of identity and have been in the process of recovering my true self and growing from there. It's still incredibly hard for me to not tie my identity into who I can be for other people.
These are some of the ways that Complex PTSD presents itself in my life. It's not my whole identity, but it largely affects how I interact with the world.
I don't place blame on anyone, because I know my parents did the best they could with what they had at the time. I know without a shadow of a doubt that my parents love me, and always want the best for me.
I think it's important to remember that most of the time everyone is doing the best they can with what they have, and that includes our family. Your parents are trying to do better than their parents did, and you'll try to do better than your parents did (assuming you have children).
Trauma can be passed down through generations, but so can healing, so don't be afraid to be the one that can turn it around. When you do the work of healing yourself, you heal the generations that came before you as well. We are, each of one us, an amalgam of our ancestors.
I'm living with Complex PTSD, and I have so very much to be grateful for. Both are true.
When trauma has shaped you, try not to confuse who you had to become with who you can be.
- Dr. Thema Bryant Davis