I’m trying to scream, fighting for life but cannot make a sound. My mouth opens, but nothing comes. This reoccurring dream would find me every so often. Isolated to times of stress or depression, I cannot say. Just as those bouts of grief-stricken anguish are countless and fleeting, so are the dreams. To my recollection, I have not had these dreams since my father told me that as an ill child, I would desperately try to cry but didn’t have the strength in my lungs to make noise. He said, “You’d cry and cry but nothing came out.”
I was a sick child. One of my earliest memories is being in a ball on the floor of the living room trying not to defecate in my pants from a stomach virus. The 70’s orange, coarse rug rubbed against my face as I pleaded in silence for it to stop. Throwing up on my mom in her bra…vomiting up phlegm in a bucket as she loaded me into the car in the dark. I don’t know if these were all part of one episode of sickness or different times.
I remember being left in the crib crying as my dad shut the door. These childhood memories…what’s remarkable is I seem to differentiate these memories from later childhood memories…though it’s all my childhood. My childhood was punctuated in a clear, divisive way in my psyche: before the deaths and after the deaths. Innocence and innocence lost. Clear through 19 years old, my youth was heartbreaking at worst and still fighting, fighting for my spirit at best.
Some say it’s the traumatic memories that stick with us from our childhood because, simply, it was traumatic. We remember the difficult times because it was hard. I like to see this at times as a process of growth and strengthening. It is an education in survival. Other times, the pure sadness of it envelops me as if I’m still there until I awaken my adult-self enough to soothe the grieving child in me.
Still, there are some happy memories. I can feel the coolness of my mother’s coat as I hugged her while she picked me up from the sitter. I can feel that love. I can still experience the glee of swinging on our swing set with my sister as we sang “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” getting higher and higher. It doesn’t change those joyful memories. Yes, the bad outweigh the good with these recollections. It builds strength. It builds character. It builds a story.
Perhaps the events from the “Before Phase” of my childhood that resonate with me the most are the ones I don’t remember. I digressed, I was a sick child. I was a sick infant. My mother had preeclampsia which resulted in her having an induced birth about a month before my due date. I wasn’t quite developed. I stayed in the hospital a month after my birth. I’m told some time around two years old I was having trouble breathing and started coughing up blood. I turned blue. I almost died. This is what they tell me.
“You were sick a lot. You nearly died. You cried and cried and nothing came out.”
How that proximity to death impacted me I cannot quite say. It’s other people’s conscious memory. It must lie in my subconscious with those dreams of trying to scream. My subconscious, my inner child, is a crying little girl. I can feel her like rain on the windowpane, fluttering and tapping against my mind, reminding me when I feel weak and frustrated with life that I owe her so much more than I give her.
Despite the illness and sadness, I’ve persevered. I survived. That was the beginning, and I have yet to write the end for it has not happened yet. These words are a key to the future. They are what I return to half my life later. They were my solace in my angsty tween years, my reputation in high school, a pass time in my ragged druggy days, and my long-lost friend in recent years. Always a passion, always my gift, I have not forgotten what God has given to me to fulfill my potential and deliver me from the mediocrity for which others settle.
The upstairs hallway wallpaper always was peeling in my childhood household. I’d imagine the contrast it made on the wall into shapes of dinosaurs and angels like others imagine in clouds. It’s unknown to me why it was never fixed. A lot in that house was broken. The toy room and my dad’s tinkering room did not have heat. The bathroom upstairs floor was soft and overrun with the powdery air and mold. My parents rented that old farmhouse since before I was born. I lived the first 14 years of my life there…a little less than half my life. Perhaps the landlord was cheap and incompetent. Perhaps my dad was lazy. The house needed improvement, but it was left undone at least when I was living there.
I still dream about it. I dream about the floors rotting in ways it never did in real life. I dream about going back, and the family who is there has lovely additions. In other dreams I am in the playroom confronting the real or imagined ghosts who inhabited that old house.
The happy times in that home usually took place outside in the yard. Bear, the dog, was always by my side as I sucked on honeysuckles and frolicked through the grapevine trellis. As an adult I am still drawn to nature and animals. It’s my escape from the walls in which my tears are shed and my head spins. The walls may change, but it’s always me there grasping for salvation as the unforgiving waves of anguished melancholy sweep me under the tide. I carry that old house with me. Those last ten years of my youth have stuck to me and ravaged whatever I’ve tried to make of my life after it. Over twenty years I’ve hurt and dealt with it in whatever way I knew how. From partying the pain away when I was finally free to therapy to medications to God to denial to faking it for everyone else, I tried. A positive attitude does not make it go away. Hiding your sickness to make other people comfortable does not make it go away. Making better life decisions does not make it go away when the one decision you should make is to own your truth.
This is me owning my truth. This is not blame towards those who forsaken me when I was a child; I can barely tell them I have CPTSD because I don’t want them to hold any guilt. I don’t want an apology; I want to get better. This is not anger towards those who aggressively hurt me as a child. It’s not even hate for those who saw my cracks as an adult and benefited from me being sick. I took responsibility for my past many years ago. I may have been wronged in some ways, but it is my duty as an adult to care for my well-being.
I could spit at and deny God for the sheer internal hell I occasionally experience. I could defame His name for all the atrocities in the world. For some time, I did. Yet, turning to Him is what helped me. I’m not a religious person but reading Christ’s words in the Bible facilitated leaving an abusive person, a person I prayed for years to come back into my life only for him to be wasted by his own demons enough to act in ways that gutted me. A twist the knife in your heart person. I remember visualizing Jesus taking my hand, leading me away from him because he would never fully leave even though he hated me. He wouldn’t let me go until I made him. And made him again and again…until one morning he showed up at my door stinking of onions that I could not bear to be in the room with him. I don’t know if he actually stunk of onions or if I finally developed an aversion to him which manifested itself as an extremely unpleasant stench. Yet, we both knew, and it was done.
Numerous times people who knew me well asked what I was doing with him, “What is going on here…you need to get away from him…what is wrong with you that you put up with this?”
I didn’t want to see it. I couldn’t see it.
One time I told him I thought I should go back to therapy and work on my past, “I don’t think you understand. There’s this grief…” He just laughed at me.
Never validating me nor my feelings, he wanted me sick, so he could feed his sadistic and toxic behavior. One thing other than God that confirmed me leaving was when we were arguing close to the end of it all. He messaged me that at least he said good-bye, unlike my father. He went there. He went there knowing how it would jab at wounds he knew never fully healed in me.
Recently, I ran into somebody who he introduced to me during those years. He expressed admiration on how he saw that person have me on the brink of insanity, but I always made it to work. I always pulled it together and did what needed doing.
“Not many people can do that,” he said. Yet, I learned how to keep going when I was a child.
I got away. Then came the why, the “Why God?” Why did this person I thought was the love of my life do this evil to me? There was one answer at that time. It was to look at how I could let someone mistreat me that way. It’s not shifting the blame to myself, yet it is taking accountability for the choices I’ve made and deciphering how I could let that happen. It’s learning. It wasn’t why. It was how. Broken women tend to find relationships affirming the traumas and abuses of their past. Accustomed to heartache and instability, they attract what they know.
After almost two decades of unsuccessful, fragmented therapy, it took one online counselor to say to me, “You are traumatized, and you keep on traumatizing yourself because that’s what you know.”
Flashback to when I was 20, partying hard and hearing about PTSD and veterans, I remember hearing about how MDMA was in the early stages of possible treatment. I knew it was such a relief for all the turmoil inside me when I took it. I wondered if I had PTSD, but back then, it was a first responder disorder, a military side effect etc., categories in which I did not fit. Doctors said I was depressed. So, I was depressed, while a quiet part in me said there was something more.
I began research about healing from traumatic childhoods. During this search I discovered Pete Walker’s Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. I ordered it and began to read about the disorder. CPTSD is like PTSD but has more nuances to it. It typically occurs when people are helplessly exposed to multiple traumatic experiences over a long period instead of a single traumatic event. I sometimes describe it for myself, “It’s like I got PTSD, and nobody noticed, and shit just kept on happening.”
I remember pleading to God when I was about 12, “This can’t be my life. How can this get worse?”
I previously thought I had borderline personality disorder, but I didn’t fit into some of the manic behavior it describes. Yet, as I read about CPTSD, it was like somebody had my life on paper. It described everything: the dissociation, the emotional flashbacks, the depression, the anxiety. All of it. I learned my depression was a symptom of CPTSD, not my root illness.
Against what many physicians would recommend, I self-diagnosed myself because it was the only thing that made sense to what was going on with me. I knew I had to advocate for myself after the years I spent improperly and unsuccessfully treated for depression. I began pursuing treatment aligned with CPTSD.
It seems straightforward now as I recollect this process, yet there was much strife in me learning about it. There was a grief about how my childhood left me with a disorder that would take much work and self-care to overcome and continue to overcome as time went. It took tremendous acceptance of the past and of myself. I had to accept the sickness and embrace that I finally knew what it was despite how much it hurt.
Some of my previous talk therapy was beneficial, but I felt it wasn’t giving me the extra nudge I needed. Medication was not an option for me because I tried various antidepressants in the past. They made me into a different person, not me. I believe medication can give someone who is experiencing a huge weight of depression and is not used to it or someone with suicide ideation some relief, so they can do the work to get better. It should not be a long-term plan. You must learn how to cope with yourself. That is a skillset I have. I’ve felt the dull ache time and time again enough to know to bear it until it fades. I’ve learned how to be aware of what is going on in my mind. Out of all the aspects of depression, I always found the hardest was the physical depression that sits in your bones. It’s frustrating to have all this life to live, but it hurts to get out of bed. Yet, you get out of bed and bear it…and bear it until it goes away for a time. Out of the numerous medications I’ve been on, I firmly stand behind St. John’s Wort, a homeopathic remedy. I used it for years. It gave me energy and kept enough sadness at bay while I was still myself. I stopped taking it because it lost its potency from my years of usage. I also stopped because I was ready.
At some point during my new research I came across Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR. Before this, I considered hypnosis to help soothe my inner child. After discussion in the online support group, I decided I wanted to try EMDR. My understanding of it is it helps you reprocess traumatic events from a different standpoint. My standpoint is I am an adult now and able to process grief and abandonment with an adult mind instead of a child’s. I found a therapist 30 minutes away from my home who practiced EMDR and paid out of pocket. We worked on a few events until my life got too busy with owning a house and raising my son on my own. It did work for the traumas we addressed. I no longer get upset about it or get triggered. It’s simply something that happened in my life. Perhaps I was making excuses not to continue. On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 the worst), we started at about a 7 on my list of traumas, but as I processed that, it quickly progressed to the 10 on my list because they were connected. They were all connected. And that’s where I stopped, short of the 10 because I wasn’t prepared for or aware of how negatively it affects my life to this day.
Time went by. I attended to my responsibilities. I worked, and I mothered my child. I took care of my house. I lost sight of therapy because I was content, but just content. I continued to have failed relationships, despite knowing I was picking the wrong people. I don’t remember when I began to drink more heavily. I found drinking made me numb to how tired I was with keeping up with everything. It made cleaning my house more tolerable when I felt sapped of all my energy. All my responsibilities were together; thus, I was together, I thought.
Yet, all it takes is one trigger to have you reeling from the façade of stability and plummeting into despair with CPTSD. It was an argument, and I responded by drinking more heavily to soothe my nerves and grief. I don’t remember much of this episode. Combining the booze and grief created this block in my brain I can’t get around to recall much. One thing I cannot forget is I managed to make a friend at work who understood my pain. I hadn’t let anyone get close to me for a long duration. Despite my anguished daily drinking, I appreciated having an affinity again with someone. She was one of the few people I met whose kindness matched my own. She was looking to move closer to town and never asked me, but after much consideration, I offered her my spare room to rent. Three weeks later I decided I was going to quit drinking. The next morning, I woke up and found her dead.
So, I drank more. Two months later I lost another person I loved. I drank more. A month later I lost someone else. I kept on drinking until one day I noticed I drank half a box of Cabernet in one night. I was losing track of my responsibility along with my memory. I spontaneously stopped after a date one night. I knew it was time.
I began to piece my life back together and cope with the grief sober. My house was clean. My son was happy. I worked. I felt I was okay-ish. I believed my productivity was a sign of my mental health, but it really was denial.
I continued to try to date and hated it. It made me extremely anxious and self-deprecating in my mind. I realized I wasn’t having success because of my trauma and fear of abandonment. It wasn’t an epiphany like many imagine one. It wasn’t an “aha” moment. It was a blow to the mind to realize dating is a trigger. It dropped me into a type of depression riddled with anxiety I’ve never experienced. I stopped eating and let things go. I managed to go to work and do light duties around the house and with my kid, but not much else. It was and is heartbreaking to know that despite the progress I made in the past, I am not well enough to find love at this time. I’ve felt myself push past my romantic loneliness threshold many times over the years, and to understand and accept that I need more time is stifling. Yet, without help, I know I will continue to self-sabotage myself from what I want. I asked God why again, and knew I needed to be the love of my life.
This epiphany not only cemented the work I needed to do. It also had me look at the recent events and how their similarity to the losses of my childhood also triggered me. I found my roommate dead; I found my dad abandoned us, and it was like he was dead. I lost three people in short time in my childhood; I lost three people in three months this past winter. This relapse was going to happen no matter how much I pushed it under my consciousness. I needed help.
I found an EMDR therapist who practices five minutes from my house. She takes my insurance. Oddly enough, my first appointment fell on the day I was three months sober. I also received a new job offer that day. That’s three things, three good things while I’ve had my share of days of three bad things. She asked me what I wanted to tell her before we start.
I started at the beginning, “My grandfather was murdered…and then…and then…and then…and then…”
She looked at me briefly. I could tell she wasn’t sure if that was all, and I said my last “…and then.”
I cried as I told her I made so much progress until I fell into this, all of this. She asked me what I thought my diagnosis is. I said, “CPTSD, but I’ve always been told depression.”
She stopped me right there, and asked, “What do you think you have? How can you not be depressed if you’ve been traumatized?”
Before leaving she told me I’m the first person to sit in her new chair. It’s just a chair, yet I can make any imagery I want to out of it in my mind. I recently wrote a piece about being stuck in an old chair. I found the new chair promising.
What have I lost because of this disorder? On occasion I feel like I’ve lost my life or who I could have been. I lost my childhood. I don’t remember much from my adolescence. On a concrete level, I lost my college education because I was too sick to make it to class and then gave up, self-medicating with recreational drugs. I lost relationships. I lost love. I abhor to say it, but I feel as though I lost my family. I still go to family gatherings, but I’ve realized that my family is a trigger. As much as I look forward to seeing them, I am paralyzed, mostly quiet and aloof among them. I find myself talking the most to my brother-in-law because he is one of the few who wasn’t around for it all. I’ve even contemplated not seeing my family because it makes me so anxious, but I’m not willing to make that sacrifice. For a time, I lost my self-esteem and belief I can genuinely connect with new people. And yes, a long time ago, I briefly lost my will to live.
Yet, what have I gained? I have an immense tolerance for emotional pain and loneliness. I have independence. I understand children in pain. I have a life stitched together out of sheer will and strength to overcome hardship and appreciation for it. The trauma is not something I want taken back. It is part of who I am. It’s an old friend who teaches me more with each passing day. I just can’t allow it to affect what I want out of life any longer.
I am owning this disorder and how it shaped my life. There is a bittersweet gratitude that I was able to discover it. For a long time, I thought there was not a name for it. If there is not a name for it, there is no recovery. Since the few years I learned about it, CPTSD gained more recognition despite not being included in the DSM-5. Although I feel burnt out and still gaining vitality back from this last bout, I am hopeful I will get better. I have much work to do, but I am willing to do it. The world needs to know that this exists, that there are people out there getting misdiagnosed and improperly treated because nobody is looking at their trauma. The world needs to know most “crazy” people are ill from no fault of their own, not exclusive to CPTSD. Stigmatizing mental illness benefits no one. Accepting it and embracing recovery does. On the individual front, accepting yourself and your illness may be terrifying initially, but you come to find utmost gratitude in receiving the gift to help you find your way.