This Is What Complex PTSD Looks Like

A mental health issue I’ve seen little talk about is complex post-traumatic stress disorder or C-PTSD. Often caused by a lifetime of trauma rather than one traumatic event, this type of PTSD is exactly what the name implies — complex.

My complex PTSD symptoms can take me from being a very logically-minded person capable of multitasking like a pro to a place where leftover emotions from past trauma assault my brain, leaving me crying and shell-shocked, struggling to remember basic things, like how to follow recipes, for days.

I am fine until it happens — a capable, competent, fully-functional adult… until I’m not. I hate PTSD. I get no say in what or who triggers my memories. I live in fear of the next time I’m reduced to a heap on the floor, pressing my head against the wall, holding my hands over my ears with my eyes squeezed tightly closed.

C-PTSD physically hurts my head in an excruciating way. I try so hard to hold it back when I know I’ve been triggered that I feel like my brain will explode from the painful effort.

This is C-PTSD.

Insomnia waits until 10 p.m. to appear with its best friend, Anxiety, both keeping me up all night sorting through all I have done wrong — and all that could possibly go even more wrong.

This is C-PTSD.

Anxiety is not the same thing as worrying. Anxiety feels like an elephant is sitting on my chest. It hurts to breathe. In my attempt to overcome it, I try to put everything in order, make everything clean. I snap at those around me when they don’t get the urgency. It’s Tuesday, but the unmade beds and overflowing laundry make me feel like I’m losing control of my life. Anxiety makes my head spin and my heart race, which makes me angry. I don’t want to be anxious, yet knowing I am can send me into an anxiety attack as I get frustrated at myself for “being silly.”

“It’s nothing. You’re being ridiculous. Stop it. Get a grip.”

This is C-PTSD.

The nightmares when I did manage to go to sleep were worse than being tired. In vivid detail, I’d watch my children die as I stood helpless, unable to move or scream. I relived one dream over and over as a teen, packing my bags to leave but always forgetting something important. I have woken up checking the teeth in my mouth many times, because often my teeth are horribly rotten, broken, or knocked out in my dreams.

This is C-PTSD.

For a while, therapy felt pointless. After years of abuse, I wanted a quick fix, and it wasn’t to be found.

I didn’t even know C-PTSD existed until I began cognitive behavioral therapy nearly a year ago. It’s been a lot of painful work to unearth the abuse, the negative associations and emotions. It became so painful that at times I had to take a break from it, because all I felt was deep physical and emotional pain from reliving the memories.

The time and energy needed to process a lifetime of abuse can be exhausting, painful and overwhelming.

This is C-PTSD.

After nearly a year of weekly therapy, I can say I am on the other side of the pain. It’s finally less now. I still get triggered, and I wonder if I always will. I count time by “the last time it happened.” I am stronger though. I have learned to find my inner voice and calm myself with it. I like myself more. I realize I survived something awful, but it no longer has a hold on me.

This is not C-PTSD.

This is hope.

This is being a survivor.

Image via Thinkstock.

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