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What Complex Trauma Feels Like to Me

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Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex trauma are just that — complex. In fact, I believe all mental health and trauma are. It’s all so complex.

Some days it looks like managing triggers — finding a way to keep grounded. And managing it all can feel overwhelming and painful, and still, somehow, I am managing. Managing to put one foot in front of the other and get out of bed and do some or all of the “adulting” I need to do to function in the world.

And some days, managing feels somewhere close to living.

Other days (today for me) it looks like triggers and flashbacks and body memories and barely functioning and sleeping when I possibly can and nightmares and terrors and trying to piece together how on earth I found myself here again. Looking back at a week that was also so triggering, and finding some answers, but knowing some of it has no answer, and struggling to sit with that. Sitting with it, right there in the discomfort, trying to find a way to move through and ground myself and be in this body, while also trying to distract and comfort, and getting frustrated when another piece creeps back in.

It looks like a body in pain and illness and vibrating with memory and feeling, some I know and can decipher and name, and some I can only feel…and feel and feel and feel. And oh, how painful it feels.

This is today for me.

And somewhere in all of this is everyday.

This is trauma. This is complex trauma. And every day it is complex and it is never ever linear.

If you are somewhere within this, every day, in one way or another, with trauma and all the things that often come with trauma: I see you. I hear you. I believe you. I love you.

Because if I’m sure of one thing in all this, it’s that we need each other. And while everyone’s experience of trauma is individual and uniquely theirs, and sometimes it can feel like the loneliest place in the world, we can move through this together. We need each other.

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And I’m with you.

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Thinkstock photo via Transfuchsian.

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Why Aren’t Trauma Survivors Warned That Parenthood May Be a PTSD Trigger?

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For many survivors of childhood abuse, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may re-occur, or never arise, until they become a parent. A significant number of parenting survivors do not recognize the increased depression, anxiety or onset of flashbacks as symptoms of PTSD, weaving in and out their journey to raise a family. Instead, many will internalize debilitating shame and question their ability,and even their right to parent.

According to the National Center for Victims of Crimes, 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys will be a victim of sexual abuse. These abused children all have one thing in common – they eventually become adults. Naturally, many of these adults become parents but have never spoken about what happened to them, leaving trauma symptoms to lie dormant, festering, until acts of Parenting 101 expose them to triggers which can send them spiraling. Most struggle silently, alone, and confused. It doesn’t have to be that way. And in fact, it shouldn’t be.

One night, as a new mom, I walked into my daughter’s bedroom to kiss her goodnight before heading to bed myself. As I went to my daughter’s bed, I was halted by a physical reaction to what I was doing. I had this sudden, unexplainable sickness in my stomach and felt panicked. I had this thought that I was violating her personal space by being in her room while she slept. I felt repulsed by the idea of kissing her on her cheek. In that moment, I was able to recognize my thoughts and physical symptoms as irrational and was able to kiss my baby girl goodnight; however, I had yet to understand where this was all coming from.

Following that episode, I started to recognize that same mental and physical pattern while performing basic acts of care with my children. The sickness and panic was there when I changed diapers, bathed them, gave affection, when affection was requested, when I breastfed, when I disciplined either of them – it became the norm for me to feel “off” anytime I was in the role of Mom. But who do you turn to with this kind of revelation? How does one ask for help because caring for her children is making her physically and mentally sick? I often asked myself, “What the hell is wrong with me that I feel like this?”

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This is the PTSD I have had to learn to cope with as I raise my children because I was sexually abused as a child. I’m now able to recognize that panicked physical reaction I experience stems from the eight years my abuser walked into my room at night and the lack of protection I had from others in my life. I was told “I love you” by my abuser every time he abused me. I believe that is the reason I felt ill when I went to kiss my daughter goodnight and tell her I love her.

Becoming a mother added a whole new, difficult layer to my recovery. I became triggered by things  I did with, around, and for my children. I was triggered by certain people around my children. I was triggered by their sheer existence, in that I now could see how innocent of a child I was at the time my abuse began.

I have worked in the field of mental health for the past 10 years and invested a significant amount of time working through my trauma before becoming a mother. Even with professional and personal experiences in recovery work, I was unable to recognize what I was experiencing as PTSD, nor was I ever forewarned this may happen.

With research such as the Adverse Childhood Experiences study (ACEs) beginning to come to the surface, we are learning there is science behind how survivors of childhood abuse experience adulthood and parenting. Prolonged abuse and the toxic stress that follows can distort connections in the brain that associate things correctly, like love and fear. Also, a survivor’s nervous system may develop in an abnormal manner, leaving the survivor with a faulty fight/flight/freeze response.

It wasn’t until I connected with other parenting survivors of childhood abuse online that I shed the belief that I was broken and not worthy of being a parent. Through sharing my experiences, I learned how common this is for parenting survivors. Once I was able to break through the shame, I was able to re-enter therapy and talk truthfully about what I was experiencing. At that point, I began learning about PTSD and triggers. Even though the process of acknowledging my reality as a mom was brutal, it finally started to make sense.

It isn’t always a choice for an abuse survivor to associate “normal” feelings with “normal” things. For example, a parenting survivor may experience a desire to push her child away when the child asks to snuggle and watch a movie, despite wanting to participate in the loving act. Intellectually, she may understand this is a normal way of showing affection; however, her body recognizes that kind of touching as stressful, unpleasant, or even harmful.

Bessel A. van der Kolk, in his book “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” teaches us that “Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies.” He further states:

The mind needs to be reeducated to feel physical sensations, and the body needs to be helped to tolerate and enjoy the comforts of touch. Individuals who lack emotional awareness are able, with practice, to connect their physical sensations to psychological events. Then they can slowly reconnect with themselves.

That’s what makes being a parenting survivor so difficult. Survivors do not often experience parenthood as their peers do and often feel alone because of this. This can add one more layer of fear, frustration and shame to their day-to-day experiences, especially when they have never heard anyone speak about parenting as they are experiencing it.

It takes an incredible amount of energy and conviction to weave through PTSD while raising children. For many, the child is the trigger, meaning you can’t avoid it.

One has to be willing and able to work through the incongruent feelings she experiences while parenting and choose to analyze and process her reactions at a later time to continue healing. That is incredibly difficult to do when already experiencing sleep deprivation and other exhausting demands of parenthood.

I think most parents feel like they are winging it, but growing up in dysfunctional families often leaves a person without a visual of what a “good” parent looks like. Add trying to understand PTSD symptoms to that process when no one ever talks about this and it is a recipe for the cycle of dysfunction to continue.

A parenting survivor has to commit to raising her children while at the same time re-raising herself. Often times, this is done with little to no support.

There are so many missed opportunities for providers to prepare new parents for what may occur. First and foremost, ask! Looking back, I was never asked by my primary care physician if my childhood abuse was affecting me as an adult or parent. The lactation specialist never asked if I had experience with childhood sexual abuse when I struggled to breastfeed my child. My previous therapist never warned me this may be one more thing I may need to learn to navigate when we discussed my plan to start a family.

I remain shocked that with all that is written about and for survivors, and about and for parents, few have recognized and addressed parents who are survivors. As an advocate for parenting survivors, I am continuously amazed at the response I get when I speak on the topic, by both professionals and parents in the communities. The most common responses I get is, “I’ve never heard anyone talk about this before” or “I didn’t know this happens to other parents.” It’s a shame.

Understanding what triggers are and why they occur has saved my life and allowed me to parent in a break-the-cycle fashion. It has allowed me to use the triggers to assist in my recovery and no longer hinder it.

It is my goal to increase awareness on the topic of parenting as a survivor by educating community medical, mental health and human service providers on the role childhood trauma has in becoming a parent.

The good news, as Bessel A. van der Kolk and other leading trauma and forward-thinking experts like Peter Levine (“Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma”), Judith Herman (“Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror”) and Brene Brown (“Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead”) are proving there is hope, if you are willing to do the work. And believe me, it is work!

With “trauma-informed” care becoming a buzzword of sorts and with the ACEs study adding science-based evidence to validate the actions and reactions of abuse survivors, I can only hope the 1 in 5 girls and the 1 in 20 boys will be more prepared for the role PTSD may have in their lives as they become new moms and dads.

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.

Follow this journey on Trigger Points: Childhood Abuse Survivors Experiences of Parenting.

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

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Why Trying to Rest With PTSD Can Feel Like a Nightmare

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When someone doesn’t feel well, most people are quick to suggest they “go get some rest.” On my harder days with my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I feel anything but well. My brain feels distant and foggy, I’m weak and frightened, and everything feels generally awful. However, going to get some rest isn’t always a good idea. Often it can do more harm than good.

While people may think sleeping would provide a welcome escape from the symptoms of PTSD, it often doesn’t. Instead, my flashbacks turn into nightmares or night terrors, but my coping skills can’t come along when I fall asleep. This essentially leaves me having prolonged, constant flashbacks without the ability to control or calm them. Helplessly, I lie there, asleep, watching as I relive it all. When I wake up, my body is still reacting as if what happened to me years ago actually happened just moments ago, and even though I know it didn’t, every other part of me feels as if it did. The rest of the day, and sometimes longer, continues as if the event did actually happen to me just hours ago. I’m exhausted, constantly on edge with anxiety, distracted and tense.

Sleeping takes far more time than the amount of time an ordinary flashback lasts. Most of my flashbacks now, after intensive treatment, only last for a few seconds. Don’t get me wrong, those few seconds are gut-wrenchingly terrifying and absolutely have ruined an entire day for me before. The most intense my flashbacks I have ever gotten involved multiple flashbacks occurring back to back, each one lasting about two minutes, continuing on for about an hour. Obviously, at that point, I couldn’t function. However, a night of sleep, usually lasts far longer than an hour. So not only am I unable to carry with me the coping skills that have made my flashbacks manageable when I fall asleep, but I’m asleep far longer than the longest amount of time my flashbacks have ever lasted, meaning my PTSD has far greater opportunity to remind me, with alarming clarity, exactly what my trauma did to me. This means I often relive several traumatic circumstances throughout the night, waking up feeling as if all of them just occurred moments ago. Additionally, going to sleep means I’m not aware of what’s going on around me. This means that the constant scanning of my surroundings that I do when I’m awake is not possible, and this feels like a weakness to my hyper-vigilant mind, causing intense anxiety. Of course, intense anxiety makes it nearly impossible to go to sleep. The fact that I happen to have multiple comorbid conditions is not at all helpful to this circumstance, but unfortunately, this is a relatively common occurrence for individuals with PTSD.

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Even with two medications specifically treating my insomnia and PTSD every night, I still have nights when I struggle to relax to fall asleep or have horrible nightmares and awaken more exhausted than I was. As a matter of fact, as I write this, I’m yawning, because I’m physically exhausted, but still wide awake psychologically. I am trying to get my mind to settle and calm. I’m constantly dealing with physical and emotional exhaustion, but can rarely get a restful night of sleep. This is just another typical occurrence that comes with living with PTSD. I certainly never asked for or wanted this, but I was dealt this card, so I suppose I have to play it somehow.

Some things do help me calm my mind while I’m awake and help me fall asleep. I’ve also found I typically have fewer nightmares when I felt calm as I went to bed. For me, one of those things is writing, which is part of why I’m writing this right now. I’ve learned these skills through a lot of trial and error as I worked through things in therapy and learned what was helpful for me. But it’s not 100 percent by any means. I had awful nightmares just a couple of nights ago, even with utilizing medications and skills from therapy.

I wish my PTSD was as simple to escape as “getting some rest,” but unfortunately that’s not the case. Sometimes sleep is the worst possible option. Other times, I’m so exhausted that nothing else stands a chance. With my PTSD, trying to get some rest has become a nightmare.

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

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

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This Is What My Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Looks Like

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This is what my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) looks like:

It’s 4 a.m. I am still awake. My brain won’t shut off and my thoughts are racing so fast, I can’t catch them. I sit up on the edge of the bed and cry quietly so I don’t wake anyone up because I can’t even pinpoint why I’m crying and telling someone whom I don’t know just feels fake.

I text you in the morning, and when I don’t get a response by afternoon, you hate me and never want to speak to me again. I’m convinced I’ve lost another friend.

This is what my PTSD looks like:

I wake up covered in sweat after finally falling asleep and can’t remember my nightmares, but my heart is rapidly beating and my chest is tight.

I find the energy to pull myself out of bed and stare at the basket of dirty laundry I haven’t washed yet, and my chest is tight again. I feel like I’m not in control.

This is what my PTSD looks like:

I’m watching TV. A violent scene that would send me into flashbacks comes on and I disassociate. I’m no longer even “there” to react.

I make plans and then spend an hour before thinking of ways to back out because the anxiety of being around people is almost overwhelming.

Shopping during busy times makes me dizzy and short of breath.

This is PTSD. I am not a combat veteran. I never served in a war.

I am one of the millions of people who struggle in silence because it’s easier than explaining it over and over.

This is what my PTSD looks like:

Panic attacks, nightmares, insomnia, wanting to be left alone, disassociating from reality, memory lapses, feeling detached.

It doesn’t have a look, and the scars it leaves in its wake are invisible, but that does not make them any less real.

If you don’t understand it, please ask us for help instead of acting ignorant and invalidating our feelings.

It might be a curse, but it is never a weakness.

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

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What the Autumn Leaves Taught Me About My PTSD

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I love all the seasons, but the colors of autumn make me love it the most. Here in Australia we are well into autumn — nature is becoming vibrant, filled with bold hues of red, orange and yellow, right before the starkness of winter covers over what is left with its blankets of frost and snow.

Though, as someone who has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), there is another reason I love autumn. For me, nature’s beauty has a way of soothing my soul and reminding me what is important. The trees of autumn show me how truly beautiful it is to let the dead things go. Their leaves, although dying and wilting away, bring warmth and delight, then once the last of the life drains from their veins, the tree lets the wind carry them away.

If the tree was to hold on to the dead things, there would be no room available for the buds of spring growth or the shadow of the fully grown summer leaves. In the simplest of ways, I can see letting go of what I no longer need, the things that no longer serve me, is important for my survival.

PTSD is thought to be from toxic stress caused by trauma and exposure to an event when the victim felt there was no escape. There are an infinite number reasons why someone may be traumatized, and there are just as many ways people display the many symptoms. Just like no tree lets go of its dead leaves the same way, no human can either.

However, it can be so very hard to let the dead wood go. I know it is something I find difficult. The nightmares do not help me to heal, and my near constant state of alertness and anxiety only wavers in severity. To let go of the past is difficult, but learning from nature, I can see without doing so, I am never going to get to experience the joy of growth either.

So this year, as autumn melts into the blur of beautiful colors, I will be paying special attention. I will long to let my painful past go, to let it drift off on the coolness of the wind and to allow myself to be stripped bare and vulnerable for a season — before sprouting into beautiful new growth, ready to embrace the new seasons of recovery!

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10 Reasons Why I Can’t Just 'Get Over' PTSD

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I’m scared of my husband. He’s a sweet, gentle man, but sometimes when I see him, my body falls to the ground. I huddle in a ball on the floor protecting my neck.

Intellectually, I know — or at least part of my brain knows — he would never hurt me. But, my body doesn’t know that.

My body is stuck in a moment, over 10 years ago, when someone that I was in a relationship with — someone I cared about — raped me.

Now, my brain sees my husband as a threat — as a potential rapist. And I live with him. This means I live in fear.

Let me be very clear: my husband never raped me. But post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a strange thing. Because my husband is a man that I am in a relationship with — and someone I care about — my brain sees him as someone who might be potentially dangerous.

PTSD has created a disconnect between my brain and body that is maddening.

I want to get past my trauma. I really do. But PTSD, which is as real as a towering brick wall, stands in my way. Here’s why I can’t just “get over” it:

1. My brain is injured.

When I broke my foot several years ago, no one thought that I would just “get over it.” I wore a pink cast and used crutches. I had a loud rolling knee scooter. Everyone knew I was struggling and offered to help out. PTSD is an invisible monster. No one can see it so they don’t know to help. But my brain is truly injured. Like my broken foot, my brain can heal, but it needs time.

2. My world is constantly ending.

My injured brain sees the world through “PTSD glasses.” As much as I want to, I can’t just take off the glasses, not until my brain heals. These glasses are constantly scanning for danger. All. The. Time. Again, no one can see it. To me, everyone and everything — every day, even in my dreams — is out to get me. What is most confusing is that, with the glasses on, I can’t tell fact from fiction. That, of course, adds fear on top of the fear.

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3. I think I am a horrible person.

My injured brain tells myself negative messages this all day long. I know it’s the PTSD glasses talking. But it feels real. And it is so hard to move forward when you feel like you don’t deserve to take up space. I didn’t always feel this way. In fact, I sometimes look at the books I’ve written about personal growth and wonder where in the world that person went! Because, when PTSD takes over, I don’t feel like someone who has a lived a life worth writing about. I feel like a monster.

4. I am enraged.

PTSD drives me to do things completely against my core values and beliefs. I worry that even my friends in my PTSD support group won’t understand my outbursts, as many don’t experience this type of anger at all. Worse yet, I am afraid that I will remind them of their abusers. In fits of rage, I become my biggest nightmare. Sometimes I think I’d rather be in a terrifying nightmare than constantly be living in a real one.

5. I am exhausted.

The PTSD glasses don’t even come off at night. Sleeping is quite a challenge when I’m always on alert towards impending danger. And, when sleep does happen, it is only to be interrupted by sweating and screaming. I wake up in a panic — exhausted from drowning (again), being chased by snipers, and from riding in runaway trains and cars. This all makes me so, so tired.

6. I have flashbacks.

And then there are the flashbacks: how can I be re-living a part of my life that happened years ago — over and over again? Somehow my brain will not let it go.

7. I am sad.

I have been hopeless before in my life, but this depth of hopelessness is new to even me. Sometimes, I cry like someone might cry after losing a child — a pain I have never even known.

8. I have no idea who I am right now.

The former me, the one who wrote those books, knew how to navigate life, but that version of me seems all but gone. I am trying to pick up the pieces of myself and put them back together. With an injured brain and PTSD glasses, this is very difficult.

9. Sometimes I am not even in my body.

It is hard to explain what this is like. I can be yelling at my husband, but I’m not really there in the moment. It feels like I am watching myself do it. I am just above and to the right of my body, as if detached and floating. “Who is that person?” I question. I realize it is me, but I am so confused inside.

10. I am so ashamed.

Shame is heavy. It is hard to move even an inch sometimes when weighed down by shame. The reasons I feel shame stretch far and wide. I am ashamed of what PTSD drives me to say and do. I am also ashamed that I experienced this trauma. I feel guilty — like it was my fault — even though I have been told by plenty of people it wasn’t. Again, this is the PTSD glasses, the injured brain. I need time to heal.

Thankfully, I took the time that I needed to get better. With professional help and support from loved ones, I overcame all of the above. I overcame these horrible things that made me want to die — these horrible things that I thought might kill me.

I once thought being dead would be better than living with PTSD. But I refused to continue living like this — living a life ruled by fear. Thankfully, I made it.

My marriage was unable to survive PTSD, though. My marriage was the casualty. I have deeply and fully grieved that loss.

Writing this today feels surreal. It took time (lots of it) but I was finally able to take the glasses off. I am now able to breathe. I sleep. I feel joy again. My brain healed and I found my body again. I found me. I now realize that the trauma wasn’t my fault. However, to heal, I needed to become accountable for my actions. My job was to take steps to break down that PTSD wall.

What makes me most happy now is that I’m no longer afraid.

Jenni Schaefer is a bestselling author, popular speaker, and a National Recovery Advocate for Eating Recovery Center’s Family Institute. In partnership with Insight Behavioral Health Centers (877-737-7391), Eating Recovery Center (877-957-6575) provides specialized treatment for eating disorders as well as related disorders, including PTSD.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month (SAAPM).

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 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.

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

Thinkstock photo via Tverdohlib

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