Me vs Complex PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) – an ongoing battle towards recovery
Since the age of 7, I endured multiple traumatic events in life (sexual assault, domestic violence and inter-personal trauma, childhood trauma, neglect) that left me fighting a battle with myself. It started out as anxiety and depression, but there were also a few symptoms that I couldn’t pin point. To be honest, I was even ashamed to share them with my therapist initially.
In a culture, that glorifies ‘positive thinking’, I thought of myself as a misfit. It started with having flashbacks during random hours of the day – be it eating breakfast or hanging out with my friends.
Complex PTSD is a response to chronic traumatization that occurs over the course of years or months. It hinders your sense of self and processing emotions. Society often associates PTSD with war veterans; which has become the elephant in the room whenever I bring it up amongst friends or acquaintances.
To break the stigma and normalise conversations around PTSD, I want to share some lived experiences of my symptoms. If you can relate, I hope that this might help you take the leap of faith to seek help, but most importantly remember that you are not alone in this battlefield.
1. Guilt and helplessness:
At multiple points in my life, I internalised the idea that I deserved the abuse I was receiving. I labelled myself as ‘damaged’ early on and was convinced that I would never see the light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes, I questioned whether those traumatic incidents really happened at all.
I was constantly at war with myself and thought I would never know the feeling of peace. My flashbacks were debilitating and affected my daily functioning. I did not have the words to articulate what I was going through internally and often lashed out at people close to me. It was a constant pattern of feeling guilty and then helpless – “Why is this happening to me?” “Why can’t I control it?”
2. Physiological symptoms:
I used to be always on edge and hyper vigilant – I kept my armour ready and braced myself for potential traumas and flashbacks at all times. This left me constantly tired and I would still feel exhausted despite sleeping for 12 hours.
The cycle of flashbacks, discomfort, hyper vigilance and panic attacks resulted in recurrent stomach/abdominal pain and diarrhoea. Sweaty palms, excessive leg shaking, increased heart rate, low blood pressure and feeling dizzy were some of the other symptoms I faced.
Day-dreaming was a coping mechanism that gave me joy and comfort – a tactic that I first developed as a small child. I mastered the art of blocking the negative events of the past by losing track of time.
I would sit in front of a laptop for hours in an attempt to study, but would day dream about getting a high score without actually processing anything. I would scroll on Instagram for hours and lose track of time. I could stare at the walls of my room for hours because at least it felt safe.
I was labelled as the ‘lost’ friend who could not process multiple instructions at once and zoned out frequently – even when surrounded by the people I loved. I thought I was unworthy of happiness in real life, so I built a castle in my dreams full of love and laughter, to escape my reality.
4. Loss of trust and hypervigilance:
At my low points, I was convinced that I would never be able to form healthy relationships with other people. I justified my past abusers and toxic relationships as something that I deserved to go through.
I was constantly and excessively reading into people’s body language, tone of voice, expressions and non-verbal cues. This was exhausting to say the least. Being alone on public transport, in malls or at markets was overwhelming. I was on “defence mode” and would quiver at the sight of people walking behind or too close to me.
If I went out for walks, I would look back at least 50 times to ensure that I was not being followed or attacked. I would often myself paralysed at the thought of leaving my room and isolated myself socially. A couple of years ago, I actually started stammering and could not make eye contact with anyone. In a room full of people, I felt alone and scared.
Imagine this: You hate watching horror movies, yet you are being forced against your will to watch one on repeat every day. I was reliving my most painful memories, which impaired my ability to function every day, yet I labelled myself as a “professional whinger” who couldn’t get over these events because I was weak. Some days, I found myself being irrationally emotional, which made me “feel” the traumatic event.
I did not have the energy to face the world outside. I ran out of excuses to cancel plans with friends – how could I explain these flashbacks and the subsequent anxiety that follows? How do I justify that an incident that happened 17 years ago affects me to this day? How do I describe that a loop of every traumatic event in my life has become a personal Netflix show that I cannot stop watching? How can I tell you that a random object triggered my past memories?
6. Sex drive and intimacy:
For a long time, I associated sex with assault. I did not know how to tell my loving and supportive partner that being intimate sparks old memories of an abusive relationship. I became ashamed of using the “anti-depressants can lead to a low libido” explanation every week. I truly believed I was disgusting and would often question why my partner was being nice to me. I found it bizarre that my partner never raised his voice at me or spewed abuses.
Growing up, healthy relationships were never modelled to me and I repeated what I saw. Dysfunctional relationships and accepting abuse were all I knew, and so I kept retraumatising myself. I looked for a care-giver/parent in potential partners with the hope that they would be able to magically fix or save me – until I broke that toxic cycle.
7. Suicidal tendencies:
With CPTSD, I got a hamper which gifted me with depression and anxiety for free. Frequent crying spells, numbness, loss of appetite, binge eating and fatigue were later followed by thoughts of suicide, suicidal ideation and self-harm. I was at the end of the road and found myself thinking of death as comforting – an escape from my reality where I could breathe freely and finally lift the burden off my shoulders.
Self-harm managed to numb the pain for a while, but I knew what I was doing was wrong and I did not actually want to die. I was simply desperate for some closure, and a break from the constant questioning. “Am I crazy?” “Will I ever feel loved and cherished?”
Fast forward to this moment and I am proud of how far I have come, thanks to seeking professional support and working hard to progress along my road to recovery. My treatment definitely improved my quality of life and equipped me to break the toxic cycles that were once engrained inside me.
My journey has been anything but linear – there were often good days and then bad weeks. However, I wanted to stand on my two feet, no matter how shaky they were, and live the life I always dreamed of.
While I can never forget the trauma that I went through, I have made peace with it by accepting it as a part of my life. I pack it up in a suitcase and lock it inside a cupboard somewhere in my mind, which helps me to externalise the suffering. I can now say with my whole heart: “I was not the problem; the problem was the problem.”
This piece was written by one of the ICLA eFriend Peer Support Workers. eFriend is an online platform where you can connect with a trained peer support worker whom has their own lived experience of feeling lonely, isolated, stressed or worried. You can speak to your eFriend Peer via video or phone call. Your eFriend Peer will listen, validate and provide hope. If you like, they can also assist you to identify any other services you may like to try or help you create plans to improve your personal well-being. Or they can simply listen.
To book your first call visit: efriend.org.au