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How Cardinal Pell’s Recent Conviction Triggered My Complex PTSD


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.

When we think of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), we often think of soldiers who have seen and experienced horrific things. Usually coupled with depression and/or anxiety, it brings images of our brave defense force personnel dealing with the condition when they return from war.

However, extreme trauma or life events can lead to a diagnosis of PTSD. Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) is often hard to diagnose at it can be very much intertwined with other illnesses such as major depression and borderline personality disorder (BPD).

The symptoms of “complex PTSD” are often caused by ongoing or repeated trauma where the victim has little or no control and no real or perceived hope of escape. These experiences can lead to deteriorated self-esteem and having to cope with intense emotions throughout life.

In recent days, the conviction of Cardinal Pell, one of the highest members of the Catholic Church, has been a wave of graphic news of his terrible crimes. During such a high profile news story, it is hard to escape the cavalcade of information and details relating to his offenses.

This triggers the aspects of PTSD that are incredibly hard to escape and control. As a 16-year-old, I was traumatized. My sexual assault was not only violent and terrifying during the moments it was happening, but installed a sense of fear I have never really been able to shake right into adulthood. The feeling of anger that my life has been so difficult, my attempts at suicide, my self-harm and addictive behaviors to escape how I was and how I am feeling… they are, together, a battle that rages every single day of my life.

For me, when a high-profile case such as this one floods mainstream media, it immediately triggers the memories I try so hard to fight off. Seeing, in recent days, people like my home country of Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister John Howard defending the character of a convicted child abuser rubs salt into the wound. It seems incredulous that anyone could defend someone who has been found guilty of such horrendous crimes and provokes so much anger it has been hard to control.

Whilst there is a heavy focus on the Catholic Church and the Royal Commission into child sex offenses, for any sexual assault survivor it only triggers the memories of our own experiences.

For me, nightmares are a constant in my life, which makes going to sleep something I don’t at all look forward to in times like this. It is like my brain unleashes a flood of feelings and memories that are so incredibly painful that it is difficult to wake up in the morning with a positive outlook on the day.

The common symptoms of living with complex PTSD include but are not limited to:

1. Difficulties expressing emotion.

High emotional sensitivity and a reduced ability to respond to situations in a manner that is socially tolerable.

2. Negative self-belief.

A perception fostered by the opinions of others and negative experiences, leading to feelings of worthlessness and shame.

3. Problems maintaining healthy relationships.

Difficulty feeling close to another person and a general feeling of disconnection, distance or being cut off from other people.

When so many people are disgusted and angry at what George Pell has done, it can lead to a sense of isolation with my own experience. It’s probably the first time I’ve found myself lost for words. I can only tell myself that of course it is going to trigger memories, but the lack of control over that feeling is difficult to put into words.

I am sure there are many people out there like me who, despite our sense of relief that justice will be served, are struggling with the trigger activated by such a high-profile case in the media. It has been almost impossible to avoid hearing the intricate details of Cardinal Pell’s crimes.

In the coming days, I hope people like me, who couldn’t and never did report the crimes against us, feel empowered that this man will suffer the indignity of a jail sentence. However, it will take time for me to be able to calm the distress I am currently feeling.

To every survivor out there, I hope you are strong and are dealing with this the best way you know how. It is an extremely personal journey for every victim and I hope this case can strengthen our resolve not to let our past destroy our future.

Photo by Albert Dera on Unsplash