Please welcome my Depression Catalyst for Change guest, Sheila, who shares her story and her struggles with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I face several mental health struggles: Depression, Anxiety, Bipolar Affective Disorder (BPAD), and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD). I thought about writing this piece on generalized depression or anxiety, but I believe there are many articles on that topic. I thought about writing about BPAD, but, as I am newly diagnosed, I’m still learning about it and trying to differentiate what parts of my personality and past are “the Bipolar,” and what parts are “Sheila.” I’m not quite comfortable writing on that aspect of my life with any confidence just yet. So, I’d like to share with you a little about my experiences with C-PTSD.
C-PTSD is a fairly new concept in the world of psychology. In fact, it is not yet listed in the DSM; however, there is an increasing push by professionals to recognize C-PTSD as a separate entity from traditional Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
C-PTSD develops when trauma is prolonged and there is a physical or emotional barrier to escape. It can develop in situations of actual captivity such as in kidnappings or concentration camps, where there is physically no way to escape; or it can develop in instances of prolonged emotional and psychological abuse, where the victim feels unable to escape. In my case, C-PTSD developed as a Child Witness to Domestic Violence, as a victim of child abuse, and, later in my life, as a victim of Domestic Violence.
Compared to some stories out there, mine is “not as bad” as it could have been. I have used this logic in minimizing and justifying the experiences that shaped me into an insecure, terrified adult. My childhood was nowhere near the horrors described in Dave Pelzer’s memoirs, for example. In fact, I read those books in fifth grade and spent the next seventeen years of my life using them to essentially gaslight myself into not believing my own story. It wasn’t that bad. It was almost never physical. I’m fine. My marriage isn’t abusive because it’s nothing compared to the things I saw as a kid and even that, objectively, wasn’t that bad.
My therapist shared with me a few months ago, as my full-blown PTSD symptoms were just beginning to emerge, that there is no “hierarchy of trauma.” This had never occurred to me before. The idea that “just because someone had it ‘worse’, does not mean it wasn’t ‘bad’” was a foreign concept. And I think it’s a foreign concept to many living with C-PTSD. Which is why I would like to tell my story. To validate myself, and to validate anyone else who may be struggling with minimizing and justifying their own traumatic experiences.
This is me when I was 5 years old.
Almost every single picture of me from age 5 to age 9 features me making some sort of martial arts pose. I was obsessed with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers as a kid. The characters had strength. They had the ability to defend themselves. They were heroes. They were everything I wanted to be. I want to note that, by the time I was five years old, I had lost contact with my birth father due to his struggle with heroin, watched my mother marry and divorce my first step father, and lived in a minimum of 7 different places across two states, including a short stay at a homeless shelter. While I’m sure these events had an impact on me, I do not consciously recall them, and in this piece, I’d like to just give an overview of the things I do remember.
When I was five years old, my mother began dating the man who would become my second stepfather. He was so cool. He had a fast car, he bought me candy, he listened to awesome music, and, at the time, my mother was working long hours, so my younger brother and I spent a lot of time with him. I really liked him, and I bonded with him. When I was six, he and my mom got married. Also when I was six, they had their first real fight. He threw a boombox across the dining room, and it shattered against the wall, as he screamed at her.
Throughout their marriage, these types of fights were very common. He would punch holes in the walls (sometimes punching the wall right above her head as she huddled on the floor), he would throw plates and frying pans across the kitchen, he would threaten her, he would scream the most horrendous things a child could ever hear said about their mother. It was undoubtedly an abusive situation; but, with one exception, he never hit her, so it wasn’t that bad, right? This is what I told myself. And I’m sure it’s what my mother told herself, too. The one time he did hit her was bad. I was in fifth grade and he chased her outside, tackled her to the sidewalk, and hit her repeatedly in the head. I watched it happen while attempting to shield my two-year-old brother from seeing it. That event caused the first of many separations. They would separate and then reconcile in what seemed like an endless cycle of instability and uncertainty. I spent my childhood perpetually having the rug ripped out from under my feet, regaining my footing, only to have it ripped out again.
My mom stayed in this marriage for 15 years. She returned from each separation for a lot of reasons. Financially, she couldn’t afford to be a single mother of three children. Spiritually, she felt unjustified in getting a divorce as the church leaders told her repeatedly that she needed to “look at where God was teaching her to submit in her marriage” (Churches often play a role in perpetuating spousal abuse) and she didn’t want to sin against God. Emotionally, she was scared and tired. She had her reasons, and they were all valid, and she was doing the absolute best that she could given the situation. But that does not negate my experiences.
This is me at age 12.
I look at that picture and I can see a general sense of insecurity and being closed off to the world. It’s hiding in my eyes, in my body language, in the way I’m not even looking at the camera full on. And that’s not exclusive to this picture, or caused by the environment in which it was taken. That’s my Uncle with his arm around me, and he’s like an older brother to me and always has been. I’m at my Nana and Papa’s house, which was my haven, my safe place. But I was scared to my core, then, I just couldn’t admit it. I didn’t even realize it. There was no validation of my fear. No confirmation of the difficult time I was having. I was just a kid learning, continuously, that the world was not safe and I was not “good.” See, a tenant of fundamentalist Christianity (like the type in which I grew up) is that God allows things to happen either as punishment or to teach you a lesson, but everything is a part of “The Plan”. Who was I to question God? I had no right to complain or be angry about anything that happened. I wasn’t allowed to even talk about it. This mentality cultivated a deep sense of shame and the idea that I deserved every last moment of fear I felt.
As the oldest child, I was responsible for protecting my brothers from witnessing the abuse. As much as I could, I shielded them. I put videos on and gave them headphones so that they couldn’t hear the fights, all while I listened intently to every word to make sure it wasn’t getting too dangerous. I listened to determine whether or not to call 911. I snuck into the kitchen to remove the knife block on more than one occasion because I was afraid my stepfather might stab my mother. A part of me was afraid to go to friend’s houses for overnight visits because I didn’t want to leave my mom and brothers to deal with his rage. In fact, on more than one occasion, my mom called me while I was at friend’s houses and asked me to come home early because my stepfather “was in a mood.” I was afraid to go to weekend Ultimate tournaments in high school and actually ended up quitting the team, despite my love for it, because I couldn’t leave my brothers alone with him if he got angry. (My mom was working weekends at the time, overnight shifts, so, by my reckoning, I was really the only buffer to ensure that that didn’t happen). On more than one of their separations, I knew it was coming ahead of time so I could secretly pack my and my brothers’ things, but had to act like everything was normal and not tell anyone because we couldn’t risk my stepfather finding out. But it wasn’t that bad. Lot’s of people had it worse. Who was I to complain?
And the child abuse factor? Well, that was nothing compared to the horror stories you hear. When my stepfather would ground us, it was for a week at a time, regardless of the offense. During that week, we were allowed to go to school, do our homework at the kitchen table (with him watching us to make sure we weren’t “dilly-dallying” to prolong our time downstairs), and to eat meals (under a time limit, of course, so he knew we weren’t just trying to stay out of our bedrooms). Beyond that, we were to stay on our beds. No books, no music, no stimulation. Just lay on our beds. On school days, we were allowed two bathroom breaks, and we had to ask permission before going. My stepfather reserved the right to deny the request if he thought we were “using it as an excuse” to get off our beds and walk around. On non-school days, we were allowed four trips to the bathroom. It was essentially solitary confinement. But it wasn’t that bad. After all, I was only grounded twice. (The offenses that warranted those two groundings? One time, I forgot to bring my dirty clothes downstairs one night. My stepfather saw them on my bedroom floor in the morning, and I was grounded. The second time, I watched one music video on VH1 – a forbidden channel. My brother told on me three months after it happened. I was grounded.) If we did get off our beds without permission while grounded, my stepfather would “spank” us, or, as he called it, “warm our butts.” His expressed goal in this was “to make sure” we “wouldn’t be able to sit comfortably for hours.” I learned that there was no statute of limitations in this system of punishment. I learned that no offense was too small. And more than that, I learned that when he would punish us like that, it would almost always lead to a fight between my mother and him. My mom would insist he was being too harsh (he was) and he would fly off the handle. I stopped getting in trouble not so much for fear of the punishment, but more for fear of my mom’s safety.
Lots of kids get grounded. Lots of kids get spanked. I just need to be better behaved. I need to keep everything safe. I just need to clean more around the house. I just need to keep getting good grades. I just need to pray more. DCF was only called once or twice, and we were never actually taken away. The neighbors only called the police a handful of times. It’s not that bad.
This was my mantra growing up. I normalized everything. I internalized everything. I justified everything. There were plenty of good times. I have a lot of happy childhood memories. But the impact of this chronic trauma on my self-image cannot be denied.
Here’s me with my absolute best friend going to Senior Prom.
This is me when I was 19 years old, home from college on vacation, with my youngest brother.
This is me at my own baby shower at age 23
In each of these pictures, the smile does not reach my eyes. My body language is unsure and tense. I lack confidence. Regardless of the situation, my back muscles just can’t seem to relax. I can’t relax. This is C-PTSD in action. Looking back at these photos, I see a visual representation of my lived experience from age 5 to age 28. Try to act like a normal person. You see? I felt deeply that there was something wrong with me, at my core. That I was “defective” somehow. That I was completely different from other people. Even my family. Even my closest friends. On a very real level, I just felt like I couldn’t relate to anyone.
Except the man who would become my husband. He didn’t flinch when he was visiting in high school and my mother and stepfather would argue. I never felt judged by him, and I thought that he could fill that hole, that defect, the missing part of me. That he could make me human. I fell in love with him when I was seventeen years old. He broke it off when we were eighteen to date another girl he met while at college. I waited. I had it in my head that I would marry him, and nothing would detract me from that thought. Sure enough, when he and the other girl broke up, he called me and asked to try again. I agreed. He joined the Army and proposed to me right before a deployment to Afghanistan. I accepted whole-heartedly. When he returned, we moved in together immediately. He cheated on me, I forgave him. I got pregnant two months into sharing an apartment with him. He cheated on me again. I forgave him. We got married two months before our daughter was born. He told me, after the ceremony but before the reception, that he had been cheating on me with another girl. I forgave him again, but asked him timidly, “since we’re married now, can you please stop cheating on me?” He said, “Of course.”
The first time he pushed me, I was still pregnant. I lost it. I started sobbing. He said he was sorry. He hugged me and comforted me as I sobbed, he said he was sorry for scaring me and it would never happen again. When my daughter was three months old, I had my gallbladder removed. The doctor’s instructions were clear: I was not to do much moving around for the first three days after my surgery. On day two of my recovery, my husband screamed at me for not cleaning the kitchen. He slammed pans off the counter onto the floor. I ended up huddled on the ground uncontrollably and hysterically sobbing and shaking. He stood over me and yelled at me about what a “weak bitch” I was for having such an “irrational” reaction. And I, myself, didn’t understand why the fight bothered me that much. Not at first, anyway. In hindsight, it’s obvious that I was triggered. My stepfather used to slam pans, and now my husband was doing it. C-PTSD symptoms from childhood were popping through even as I was re-enacting that trauma by staying in an abusive relationship myself. One that reinforced my sense of shame. One that affirmed that I did not deserve anything better. One that kept me, more or less, free from really needing to dig into the trauma I experienced as a child.
There were other instances of the abuse in my marriage getting physical. Pushing, kicking, shoving me with his flat palm against my face. Each time I would tell him that if he ever touched me during an argument again, it would be the end of our relationship. Each time, I gave him “one more chance.” But most of the abuse was emotional. And he never outright hit me. So it wasn’t that bad.
This is the impact of complex trauma. It warps your sense of what’s acceptable. It blurs your ability to set boundaries. It eradicates your ability to feel justified in sticking up for yourself. After each really bad fight, my husband would tell me that I was overreacting due to my childhood experiences. That I was “oversensitive” because of the abuse I witnessed growing up. That I was crazy. That I did not know what a “normal” argument was. On that last count, he was right. But I wasn’t overreacting. I was underreacting. I was justifying treatment that should never be justified. For a long time, I believed him. When he would say these things, I would think I am overreacting. Especially during the times I would end up sobbing on the floor. It seemed like a disproportionate response, even to me. Of course, I know now, these instances were the moments in which I was deeply triggered. I had no control over the extent of my response because I was not only afraid in the current moment, but I was also internally reliving the fear I felt but could not express as a child.
In November 2016, I finally worked up the courage to tell my husband to leave. Things had been steadily escalating, and I was afraid. And my daughter, now five years old herself, had started to come up to me after arguments and say, “Mama, dada was really mean to you. That wasn’t nice.” That was actually my final straw. I could not let my daughter grow up in the environment in which I grew up. I could not pass this warped sense of “normal” down to her. So I had him leave.
And suddenly, for the first time in conscious memory, I was living 100% abuse free. That’s a good thing, right? Well, here’s the thing about PTSD – it only fully emerges post trauma. And November of this year was the start of my post traumatic life. I was slammed with flashbacks and panic attacks. I couldn’t sleep due to nightmares. I fell apart. I ended up hospitalized in a psychiatric unit for 7 days due to the severity of my symptoms. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t considered, on more than one occasion, reconciling with my husband. That sounds crazy, right?
Well, it is. And I know that. But PTSD makes the whole world scary. Until I’ve got things sorted out, anything could be a trigger, and I never quite know when one will hit me. Sometimes, I start to panic for no apparent reason, and then the panic feeling itself triggers a flashback. It’s a vicious cycle. A stupid, irrational, vicious cycle. Living with abuse, I can handle, I’ve thought to myself on more than one occasion. I’ve done it my whole life. Living abuse free, though? It’s terrifying. As backwards and ridiculous as that sounds, it’s the truth. I am in a battle every day with my trauma. It tells me I deserve abuse. It tells me to stick with what I know. It tells me to get back to my comfort zone. No matter how unhealthy or dangerous or maladaptive that comfort zone is.
But I battle it. Every damn day I battle it. And, little by little, I’m winning. I’m gaining a little bit more confidence. A little bit more self-respect. A little bit more of a sense that I am valid as a person and that I have a right to live in an abuse-free environment. I don’t know yet what a fully safe, confident, and self-actualized Sheila looks like. But I’m excited to meet her. I’m excited to be her. And that’s why I will keep fighting every day.
Sheila is a Vermont-based Mental Health Blogger. She is a mother, a former direct service mental health worker, and a mental health advocate living with PTSD and BPAD. She’s trying to do her little part to stop the stigma. You can read more about her journey on her blog Parallel Dichotomy and you can connect with her via Facebook and Twitter.