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A Girl We’ll Call “D”: Navigating Complex PTSD

A Girl We’ll Call “D”: Navigating Complex PTSD

Content Warning: The following content may be distressing for some readers and includes references to sexual abuse, including in childhood, and physical violence.

The story I will share is my own, a story of a 30 something year old woman, living with Complex PTSD, which I’ll shorten to C-PTSD, and having lived with it since early adulthood. Today I am a happily married woman, happily married despite remaining significant turbulence caused by my C-PTSD.

My days over the last few years are spent 80% of the time in a contented and peaceful state, a happy, safe, secure and calm place, however, the other 20% of the time sees me often crying intensely and for hours, soaking a shirt (often my husband’s) with floods of tears and a nose running like a tap as I cry out in agony, sob or try to talk it through. 

Many things trigger me, and I often know why, but not always.  Things from minor degrees of irritation, upset or anger to any degree of separation or disturbance in intimacy can completely derail me.  It’s very hard for me to know what I’m feeling, to know what I’m really upset about, what assumptions I’ve made, or what something meant to me to be so upset about it.  Sometimes the best I can do is to curl into a ball on the floor for a while, maybe like an hour, until I settle a little. 

Lots of days of work get lost to my inability to stop crying or feeling not entirely safe from myself as much as others. 

Sometimes I just can’t function but don’t know why, there’s just a not ok feeling inside of me, something is just not right, and I may be able to hide it and function at those points, but they aren’t times I feel really enthusiastic about anything, any degree of functioning takes effort when I’m in those states on the inside.

My C-PTSD became a part of my life when I was in early adulthood.  I already had some symptoms of PTSD from childhood sexual abuse and I also had insecure attachment with my parents, especially with my mother who was emotionally distant and my father who was around but kind of always busy and just wasn’t one to talk much about emotions, let alone reflect and validate what I was feeling. 

I grew up learning that one kept things to oneself, didn’t bother others, didn’t tell when someone did something to hurt me, and given I couldn’t tell anyone, I’d also not feel my own pain, except for for years later when it would come around forcing its way back up to the surface in my flashbacks and nightmares. Then more trouble came along, and with it, C-PTSD. 

As a young adult, for the first time in my life somebody saw me, saw my pain, saw how I behaved around the person who had abused me as a child, well, one of them.  He saw me, he chose to comfort and express care, compassion and love.  He told me he had feelings for me.  I cared for him too, but was not willing to have an affair with him and told him that doing that would leave me an empty burnt out shell of myself and that I wanted us to be friends. Before I knew it, he’d pushed me for a kiss, and before I knew it, I was having an affair.  I was convinced/wrongly assumed for a couple of weeks that this was something I was willingly engaged in.

I had a holiday booked which I went away on at this point, and returned, certain, entirely utterly certain, that I did not want to be involved in an affair.  I told him it was over, I got there to talk over how we’d go back to being friends and workmates and found myself being pushed again.  I don’t remember if there were a few more attempts that went like this, probably, but my next memory involved me telling him more firmly and having a knife held to my chest, which achieved absolutely nothing, because either I dissociated entirely, or, as I remember it, I just read his bluff and decided that he wouldn’t get what he wanted with me dead. 

When he turned it on himself however, my early training on how I was allowed to and required to interact with others left me doing whatever he wanted.  But with a few years of begging to be let out of it every single day, many times a day.  I did step back after asking myself if I was really helping him, and on hearing myself reply “NO.”  That was a hard year.  My guilt, my depression and shame were debilitating, but even then, I kept a brave face and said “I’m fine” through my words and by my actions. 

I cried myself to sleep for over a year but did not reveal my feelings to my family.  I was unable to. 

Several years would pass before another experience like the one with him.

Another older man came along after several years at passed.  I was able to step completely away from him after the first incident, but still needed a year of therapy to recover from and make sense of it. 

My freeze/fawn response, and my view of myself and what I’m worth, and the rules I learned for what I needed to do with others (or more allow others to do) made for a very confusing experience.  Made for a person who could go along with things I absolutely, utterly did not want to and would not have chosen to, had just finished saying no to, and had utterly no ability to act on that spoken preference of no, and who can take years or even decades to figure out that my actions were a fawn response from sensing danger- danger I didn’t even know on the second round that I was experiencing.  I had just been at that point so very vulnerable that the threat of being discarded and unbefriended was intolerable, and felt like a life-threat. A feeling I hadn’t been aware of having at the time as I had dissociated, it was only after several sessions of EMDR I uncovered the memory of freezing and the awful feeling that caused me to have a freeze/fawn response. Instead I’d gone along again. You hear often about dissociation people saying “I just left the room, I wasn’t there” when they’ve completely spaced out and their awareness is entirely elsewhere. 

My emotions left the room. 

I didn’t know how I felt, I was unaware of how much I had not wanted to or how I felt about what he did, and so was naturally merely fascinated by my physically shaking. After the only issue of abuse with the second man, I looked down at my hands and laughed, perplexed by my hands shaking, amused at this involuntary wobble in my hands. At that moment that I’d dissociated and didn’t know I had til later, my brain had decided that this is going to happen whether I like it or not, I don’t like it, in fact I don’t like it a lot, so I’m just going to protect us by making us unaware of this.  That makes for a very confusing experience when its all over but you’re missing parts of your experience, the parts that make what happened make sense.  

 Today I am enjoying a relationship with a new Psychologist and attending group DBT (Dialectical behaviour therapy) to learn better skills to connect with, and calm my emotions, to ground myself and to be intentional and wise about my choices while I’m living often in mildly dissociated flashback states. My new Psychologist, about the 10th psychologist or counsellor I’ve seen, is the most validating person I have ever met.

It is incredibly helpful to share something with her and to hear her give it the significance and weight it really deserves. We are going to try to get at the early roots of my C-PTSD with EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and I am looking forward to that experience.  

I live in hope that there will be days when my symptoms are for the most part, at least, a thing of the past. But something I hope to still remember enough to sympathise with others.

My past isn’t the end of my story, just the point at which I’m starting today.  My life isn’t over yet.  I am here, and happy to be.  I want to see what tomorrow could be.  I want to see what I can do and who I’ll be years from now


Quick Escape