What Little Steps Mean for Someone With Complex PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder, for me, is debilitating.

I wake up most mornings, if I’ve managed to sleep despite the monstrous cocktail of medications I take, gasping for air, bolting to an upright sitting position and clutching my chest. It feels like my chest is caving in. It takes me a minute to figure out where I am, what year it is and if I’m in another nightmare. Yes, kind of like “Inception.” My mind has turned on me, warping every noise and every step into a dangerous situation. This is normal for me, although I use the term “normal” loosely.

I isolate myself. I spent two months inside a literal blanket fort earlier this year because I was too afraid and ashamed to leave the comfort and safety it provided me. I’m a 33-year-old adult. I left to pee, at least, and to attend my various doctor and psychology appointments. 

What makes PTSD complex? Although Complex PTSD (c-PTSD) is not a diagnosis in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM) at this time, it’s widely accepted in psychology and psychiatry circles as a more severe form of post-traumatic stress disorder. The complex part is added when someone has been subjected to prolonged abuse, torture or kidnapping — trauma spanning more than one single or acute event. 

For years I functioned carrying this PTSD around; it attached to me like a shadow. Sometimes I was stuck in it, sometimes it trailed behind and sometimes it spanned in front of me, outlining difficulties and pain I could not escape. It would invade personal relationships and friendships, causing havoc and unfortunately, destruction. It causes me to react differently to situations than others. I often have what is called a “flat effect,” meaning I seem withdrawn and emotionless. I may flinch if touched unexpectedly.

But because of all of this I thrive in crisis and found myself gravitating toward stressful jobs. I performed calmly and rationally under stress because it could never match the stress I’d already endured. I compartmentalized. I functioned. I put myself through school while working full-time and volunteering. I chose a path, set my mind to it, managed my stress, knew what might “set me off” and dealt with life in a way that worked for me. I slept well. I enjoyed things.

And then it happened. I was assaulted at work. I was working in a hospital and a patient was having a bad day. There was an altercation, I lost consciousness twice, sustained several hits to the head, broke my tailbone and more. This occurred a few days after the 15th anniversary of my eldest brother beating me for nearly two hours while suffering a psychotic break. Everything crumbled. I stopped sleeping. Nothing was safe. I moved twice, stopped talking to or seeing my friends, didn’t reach out and fell into a dark place.

The term “re-traumatized” was muttered between professionals and more than two years later I’m still home, afraid to turn all the lights off when it’s time for bed and uncomfortable with silence at any time, even with raging migraines that knock my sight into blurred and double vision. 

I have to retrain my thoughts. Every second of the day is a battle, whether I have a flashback, which literally feels like I’m being attacked again, or if my mind is telling me someone around the next corner is waiting to attack me. I spent weeks, if not a couple months, in my early therapy days taking one step after another and repeating the same sentence of reassurance. Every step I would think, “I’m going to be killed/attacked/murdered/kidnapped” and internally I would then yell, “I’m safe in this second. There’s nothing hurting me.” Then I would take another physical step and repeat the process. This allowed my comfort zone to grow, step by step, systematically conquering fear after fear.

Fear is what is central to my c-PSTD. It wraps itself around me, pounds me with thoughts of violence and throws memories at me that make me unaware of myself, my surroundings, what year it is. It tightens around me like a vicious suit of armor, crushing my chest, clogging my thoughts, running my resting heart rate from my old 55 beats per minute into a sometimes constant 155 b.p.m. 

By mid-afternoon to early evening, I want to give up. But I have a list of positive things to do and say, so I do and say them. I go through all these motions and no one knows. No one sees because I stay inside, suppress my panic and disguise my sweating with the summer sun’s rays until I’m home and I can deflate. 

But day in and day out, I have to find little victories. Everyday reminders of what life was like before. It’s all about these little steps: I bathed today; I took the bus farther than yesterday; I did something nice for myself; I went to a social gathering; I didn’t hide; I’m safe in this second. There’s nothing hurting me; I’m safe in this second. There’s nothing hurting me.

I have to believe that someday I will again be self-sustained. I will defeat and change my cognitive processes that have turned on me. I will take those steps. I do take those steps. Someday, c-PTSD will fit nicely in my back pocket again. It will always be with me, but it will not always crush me. I can’t stay angry that this has all happened to me. Anger keeps me sick. Fear keeps me sick. Hope, no matter how small a sliver, keeps me alive. I struggle, I fall, but I get back up.

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