sad woman sitting in corner of a shower stall with her makeup running

This Is What Complex PTSD Looks Like

22k
22k
53

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.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

22k
22k
53

RELATED VIDEOS

JOIN THE CONVERSATION

5 Tips for People on the Road to Trauma Recovery

446
446
3

Trauma can come in many forms and can be caused by many different types of events. It can also lead to conditions such as anxiety depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Your spirit can feel crushed. You may be angry, hurt, shocked and scared. You may have days where you feel better, and then, something triggers you. Suddenly, it’s almost as if you’re back where you started. In the long run (for the most part), our minds and souls do heal, and we recover.

While you’re on that journey, it’s often hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Give yourself some time after the traumatic event to ruminate, to despair, to experience the range of emotions that come with trauma. However, don’t let it eat up your life. It’s too precious a gift.

If you have experienced or are experiencing trauma, then it’s important to talk to a counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist. There may be quite a few different techniques that specialists recommend to help you in your recovery process.

I experienced a deeply traumatic event some time ago. At the time, it felt like the shock, pain and fear would never go away. For awhile, I felt like the “Walking Dead,” unable to fully appreciate the many wonderful things in my life or be present in the moment. I do still have anxiety disorder, but I can honestly say that yes, I am happy. As time went by, I gradually found myself cheerful, excited about the future, looking forward to living my life to the fullest and counting my blessings.

These are some of my favorite techniques recommended to me by various specialists, books and friends. I hope if you have experienced trauma, they might be useful to you too. Some might sound cheesy (and did to me at first, too), but I really found that they sped up my recovery and made a huge difference in my life.

If you have any techniques you’ve found useful yourself, then please do feel free to comment at the end of the article!

1. Find your safe space.

Think back to the time in your life when you felt the safest, happiest or most relaxed, a place that feels like heaven on earth for you. Where was it? Close your eyes, and imagine yourself there. What can you hear, see, smell, taste or feel? For example, my safe space is rocking my little girl to sleep on the rocking chair, as I can feel her warmth, see her faint smile as her eyes begin to close and smell baby shampoo. It’s a moment of perfect relaxation for me.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a moment to bring yourself back to that safe space. It’s incredibly calming, and it will help you de-stress and face new challenges.

2. Practice mindfulness.

We are only ever alive in the present moment, but for many of us, we spend much of our lives not noticing that moment at all. Instead, we’re listening to internal chatter: worries, annoyances, ruminations or the length of your to-do list. In the case of trauma victims, these are intrusive thoughts about the traumatic experience and the associated emotions (such as fear) that come with the painful memories.

Our fight-or-flight physiology means we’re prepared to either fight with a predator or flee from it. If the predator is a lion, then that’s helpful. However, if the predator is your past, your body is reacting the same way: You’re living emotionally in a war zone.

Bring yourself into the present. Notice your surroundings in detail. Listen to the noises around you. Remind yourself that you live neither in your past or future, but in this very moment. Life consists of nothing but moments, and the more time we spend lost in worry and fear, the less time we spend truly alive.

3. Connect with nature.

The Japanese have an expression, shinrin’yoku, which literally translates to forest bathing. They’ve done quite a few scientific studies about how great spending time just being in the forest is for your emotional state. It’s a popular way to calm your stresses in Japan (along with taking a relaxing bath every night to wind down from the day). Nature really can be one of the greatest medicines out there. Even just going to your local park, lying down and noticing the texture and fragrance of the grass and the chirping of the birds is wonderfully relaxing. It’s a great way to soothe a troubled heart.

4. Cultivate gratitude.

So much of happiness is about outlook. To get cheesy for a moment, “Accentuate the positives and eliminate the negatives,” is really is good advice! Psychology Today has a great science-based article about the benefits of cultivating an attitude of gratitude. A common way to cultivate gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal. Every day, write down three things you’re grateful for (whether in your life in general or things that happened that day). Before long, you’ll start finding yourself in a mindset where you notice and appreciate the happy things in your life more.

5. Try the 80th birthday exercise.

I found this exercise truly life-changing and a wonderful anchor that helped guide me home to my own recovery. If you only try one thing from this article, then make it this one. I’m sure it will be meaningful for you as well.

Imagine you’re at your 80th birthday, nearing the last chapter of your long life. A party is being held in your honor, and the people who are important to you and whom you are important to, are gathered around you. What sort of things are they saying about you? How are you looking back on your life? How have you spent these years?

If you have are still recovering from trauma, then it may feel like your day-to-day life is full of fear, pain or self-doubt. Would you want to spend your life like that, and look back at all the opportunities that you missed as the days slipped by? Keep that 80-year old version of yourself in mind, and be kind to him/her. Work toward making that far-away birthday one to remember by believing in yourself, your values, your principles and your path.

I’d like to end this post with a favorite quote of mine, by Viktor Frankl, an Austrian-Jewish psychiatrist and survivor of the Holocaust, as well as being renowned for his insightful book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.”

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms, to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Having seen some the worst horrors in human history, his words truly carry weight. You hold the key to overcoming, surviving and thriving after trauma. Recovery is a feat of strength, for which you should be proud of yourself. So be brave, and look forward to a brighter future.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Image via Thinkstock.

446
446
3
TOPICS
, Contributor list
JOIN THE CONVERSATION

Why My Husband Is Happy He Doesn't Remember His Dreams

5
5
2

I’m usually awoken in the middle of the night by am  toddler or a sweet kindergartener. From scary dreams to a simple cup of water, my nights are interrupted by two cute little boys.

Some nights I am woken by swift kicks and flailing arms. My husband is having another nightmare. He has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his deployment to Afghanistan during his enlistment in the military. Nightmares are just one of the many symptoms associated with this disorder.

Once in the middle of the night, I woke up to the sound of crying and whimpering. I sat up expecting to see one of my boys standing over me.

It wasn’t the kids; it was my husband.

I was a little shocked to hear a man who doesn’t shed tears actually crying. I leaned over and soon realized he was still asleep. He was dreaming, and it did not sound to be a very pleasant dream. I imagine he was back in the real life nightmare of a deployment to Afghanistan. He was dreaming of that place again.

This evening I asked him if he had any dreams last night. He said he couldn’t remember, and I then told him what he had done in the middle of the night. He sat on the edge of our bed for a few minutes and seemed to really try to remember his dream. He looked up at me with a half-smile, and said he’s glad that he doesn’t actually remember any of his nightmares. PTSD has given him a horrible memory. He doesn’t have to relive all of these horrific nightmares. A simple, yet powerful reflection of his current situation. PTSD has so many negative parts. He found one of the symptoms that he can use to his advantage. That is what we must do. We must use or imperfections for our own benefit. We must learn how to use them. It gives us a way that we can have an advantage over the playing field of life.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Image via Thinkstock

5
5
2
TOPICS
JOIN THE CONVERSATION

Having a Flashback Is Not Simply Recalling a Memory

682
682
4

Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is most often associated with those returning from war. However, for many of us with complex childhood trauma like sexual abuse, PTSD can be an all too common diagnosis. While its symptoms can manifest differently for each individual, ranging from nightmares to insomnia to anxiety to suicidal ideation, something most people deal with to a greater or lesser degree is flashbacks.

When discussing the topic of flashbacks with friends and family, most assume it’s just a memory, like remembering your first kiss or your first time at Disneyland. However, that’s not what it’s like at all.

For most people, myself included, flashbacks are an intense re-experience of a traumatic event, which feels like it’s happening now and involves all your senses. In effect, it feels like being re-traumatized, even though you are not actually experiencing the event for real.

Flashbacks can be triggered by many things. For me, things like the smell of the cologne my perpetrator wore, the sound of a toilet flushing, the sight of white briefs, even something as simple as sunscreen can send me into an episode. It’s different for each person.

When I’m having one, it can take many forms. Sometimes, it’s as crazy as turning around in the middle of dinner and seeing him standing there, which takes my breath away and triggers my freeze instinct. Often, it happens at night while I lie awake, my brain racing with thoughts, unable to shut them off. All of a sudden it feels like a wave flooding over my body paralyzing me. I instantly am transported back into my child body.

I relive, in absolute vivid detail, a particularly horrible experience. Things like the smell of his breath, the steam on his glasses, the blue towel with multi-colored fish hanging on the towel rack, the taste of his saliva, the feeling of his rough hands against my skin, even the exact blue jean skirt and checkered top I’m wearing bunching up against my skin are intensely and painfully felt. All the while, it’s as though I’m trapped by my mind and my body. An endless loop of remembering and feeling.

Once it’s over, the racing of my heart feels as though it could pound right out of my chest. I’m clammy, and it feels like I’m going to die. Slowly, slowly the feeling passes, and reality sets back in. I’m back in my grown up body in my real life, but this terrible fear remains: When it will happen again. What will it be? How long will it last? How many more times will I have to endure this agony?

These are questions I ask my therapist every time I see her. She assures me there is another side. There is hope for a life beyond flashbacks. Yet, for now, I wait, I hope and I do the hard work of healing, praying one day I will be free from the tortures of my mind and my past.

All I can do is trust and believe because the thought of this lasting for the rest of my life is intolerable.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Image via Thinkstock.
682
682
4
TOPICS
JOIN THE CONVERSATION

Lady Gaga Shares Open Letter About Her Experience With Mental Illness and PTSD

184
184
6

On Monday, Lady Gaga handed out gifts at a homeless shelter for LGBT youths, but the singer kept on giving a few days later, this time in the form of an open letter. The note, published by her nonprofit organization Born This Way Foundation, shares Gaga’s experience living with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

“After five years of searching for the answers to my chronic pain and the change I have felt in my brain, I am finally well enough to tell you,” Gaga writes. “There is a lot of shame attached to mental illness, but it’s important that you know that there is hope and a chance for recovery.”

In her letter, Gaga details how living with PTSD has affected her life personally and as a performer:

It is a daily effort for me, even during this album cycle, to regulate my nervous system so that I don’t panic over circumstances that to many would seem like normal life situations. Examples are leaving the house or being touched by strangers who simply want to share their enthusiasm for my music… I also experience something called dissociation which means that my mind doesn’t want to relive the pain so ‘I look off and I stare’ in a glazed over state…When this happens I can’t talk. When this happens repeatedly, it makes me have a common PTSD reaction which is that I feel depressed and unable to function like I used to. It’s harder to do my job. It’s harder to do simple things like take a shower. Everything has become harder.

In addition to dissociation, Gaga has also dealt with somatization – physical pain that results from being unable to express emotional pain. “I am continuing to learn how to transcend this because I know I can,” she added. “If you relate to what I am sharing, please know that you can too.”

Gaga, a rape survivor, also took the time to address some myths associated with PTSD, such as it’s a disease that primarily affects people serving in the military:

Traditionally, many associate PTSD as a condition faced by brave men and women that serve countries all over the world. While this is true, I seek to raise awareness that this mental illness affects all kinds of people, including our youth… I pledge not only to help our youth not feel ashamed of their own conditions, but also to lend support to those servicemen and women who suffer from PTSD. No one’s invisible pain should go unnoticed.

Adding to Gaga’s experience, the letter also features a note from her psychologist “drnancy.” “It is my opinion that trauma occurs in an environment where your feelings and emotional experience are not valued, heard and understood,” drnancy’s note reads. “The specific event is not the cause of traumatic experience.”

You can read the complete letter on Born This Way Foundation’s website.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

Photo credit: Philip Nelson

184
184
6
JOIN THE CONVERSATION

When I Realized 'Suck It Up' Logic Doesn't Work for Mental Illness

150
150
1

Learning to accept I couldn’t control my mental illness and how I reacted to it was probably the hardest part of getting better.

Growing up in a family with four sons and no daughters, and most of us being wrestlers, we really had the “suck it up” idea when it came to anything that hurt. I wrestled knowing I had arthritis and I didn’t quit until I couldn’t walk anymore. We didn’t talk about feelings, and we never admitted anything was wrong.

This set me back so far on my pathway to treatment and, ultimately, recovery.

A few years ago, I was robbed while working alone at my (now previous) job. I was forced to the back of the store and my hands were zip tied and I was left there alone. This completely flipped my world around.

I didn’t leave my house for two weeks after the robbery.

But with my “suck it up” logic, I went back to work after those two weeks. I kept working for a couple months, and this made the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety that came with it so much worse. Eventually I quit because I realized it was making me worse, but I thought that if I just ignored it and pushed on that it would go away… I was dead wrong.

Months later, I am still feeling unsafe no matter where I was, and it was affecting my schooling. I finally convinced myself to go talk to a therapist at school. This was such a hard decision and I never even told anyone, not even my parents, that I had a problem still, or that I was getting help.

I went to him a few times, felt much much better after some behavioral therapy, then decided I could fix the rest on my own. I was mostly correct, but once the one  year anniversary came back around, the PTSD and anxiety came back way worse than before. Instead of replaying the robbery over and over in my head and different ways it could have panned out, I was doing this with everything. Driving a car? My mind would play visions of me getting in terrible accidents. Sitting in my room? My mind would play visions of someone breaking into the house and killing me/my family.

There was always a rational part to my mind that knew these were all irrational thoughts, but my body didn’t care. Physiologically, my body would react to how I was reacting in the visions and this made me angry. I ended up abusing prescription pain medicine because it made my mind go blank. I would self-harm because the physical pain would distract my mind from the irrational thoughts, so it was myself hurting me instead of “nothing.” I didn’t want to accept I wasn’t in control of myself.

A friend convinced me to go back to therapy, and I cannot thank them enough for that. I started doing more behavioral therapy and just generally talking about how I felt and what was going on.

I hadn’t even thought about the fact that I had PTSD at this point, but after doing some tests and explaining my symptoms, my therapist told me I probably do have PTSD. This was a huge relief to a part of me, because now, I knew why I felt the way I did, and I knew that there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it. This was when my recovery took a huge turn for the better. She listened to what I said, and was understanding. She helped me realize that it’s “normal” to not have control during episodes and this is what really helped me gain control.

From this point on, it was all uphill for me as far as recovery. It definitely wasn’t easy, and it didn’t happen overnight, but I was on my way to getting better.

Over that year and a half after the robbery, I didn’t want to accept there was something wrong and that there was nothing I could do about it. If I had just accepted there was something wrong, I would have realized that it’s OK to not have control, because it’s not your fault. I needed help. I was foolish to think I didn’t need it, and that just made everything worse.

It’s OK to admit something is wrong. It’s OK to admit that at least part of it is out of your control. 

If I had known these two sentences before the night of the robbery, I would have still been traumatized, but it wouldn’t have controlled my life for so long, and I would have gotten the help right away like I needed.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Image via Thinkstock.

150
150
1
TOPICS
JOIN THE CONVERSATION

Real People. Real Stories.

8,000
CONTRIBUTORS
150 Million
READERS

We face disability, disease and mental illness together.