What It Was Like to Discover I Had C-PTSD After Years of Abuse
When I was a boy, we were often taught the dangers of smoking. There were countless assemblies thrown by the school about how not to get started — all complete with gory pictures of black lungs and emphysema patients with breathing tanks. There was even one lecture by a former smoker who had a heart transplant and carried his old heart in a bucket of water to show a bunch of adorning 10-year-olds. Regardless of the venue, we were taught smoking is bad and it often can come back to haunt you.
I wish we had similar assemblies about how emotional trauma and abuse can often come back to haunt us as well. Granted, when “Saved by the Bell” was the hottest show for our age group and most people identified with at least one of the Power Rangers — no such awareness of the dangers of bullying and trauma were available.
Between the ages of roughly 12 to 15, I wasn’t just bullied, but tormented. The power of words and cruelty, especially by children who have no filter, is never to be ignored or swept under the rug. Middle school is not something I’d ever go back and live again, even if they paid me a million dollars. Never, ever again.
As far as I’m concerned, middle school is torture, especially in the mid-’90s when faculty and staff had little to no awareness of bullying and its ensuing mental harm. The kids tormented me so bad they chipped away at what would have undoubtedly been a different timeline. A timeline that would have had more self-esteem built into it and a timeline where my emotions and psyche would be in sync with that of a “normal,” balanced childhood.
Most fellow middle school students who didn’t have it easy looked forward to the final school bell to remind them their torment was over, at least for 16 hours or so.
But not for me.
When the school bus dropped me off at the corner of B Street and 6th Avenue, I had another terror to look forward to: my dad. With an explosive, primal and uncontrollable temper, we never knew what was going to walk through that front door come 5:30 p.m. It was literally like preparing for an enemy attack every single day and every single night.
My father didn’t have anger — he had rage. Abusive, hurtful, blistering rage. Even today, as a grown adult, just recalling the high-pitched screams of his temper feels like a dagger deep in my gut. He went from zero to screaming in a matter of seconds. He often raged over small nothings, but the spectacle he’d make of verbal stab wounds would last a lifetime. I’ve found I remember the horrid, scarring and damaging moments far more than the joyful moments that make up for them.
Essentially, between 1993 and 1996, the only time I wasn’t abused, bullied, mocked, criticized or humiliated was when I was sleeping. There was no balance, sanctity or safety. There was literally no escape when my looks and mannerisms began to change from a cute kid to (likely) gay adolescent. I became depressed and ridden with constant anxiety.
The verbal and emotional torment I was forced to endure was teeter-tottered in two daily shifts. The kids had the first shift: school hours; and my father had second shift: nighttime and weekends. My dad was particularly abusive toward me about my appearance. I had an overbite which pulled my lower jaw toward the back of my head, coupled with a rounded bridge on my nose which pulled attention in the other direction. I think you see it. Then, I had a slight hunch which really just threw a cherry on top of everything. It was a seriously horrid place to have to be. Nary a day went by when I wasn’t reminded by Pops of my physical shortcomings either in banter or direct cruelty.
It was the same song and dance at school. As far as my appearance and perceived sexuality went, it was an unfettered verbally abusive free-for-all. There’s no way I’d even come close to telling my father how horrible the kids were treating me. I knew all too well he’d explode, lose his temper and begin screaming at me for letting the abuse happen in the first place. Imagine this: you’re scared, hurt, angry, confused and need to feel safe, but the biggest person cast for that role makes you feel just as bad, if not worse. He’d scream something incredibly hurtful in place of a normal father comforting his son. This could be in the arena of something like, “Can you ****ing blame them? Look at you.” Or, “If you had any friends they could protect you.” He’d then send me to my room for the rest of the night. Adding the maximum amount of verbal insults to injury was a given with his episodic attacks. One time in seventh grade, he screamed at me for 20 minutes in the car about how “weird” I looked. Screaming at me in a moving car where I had no escape would be a commonality of his torment.
Far too many questions would be raised if I reported to anyone the school kids were slamming me daily with homophobic slurs. Especially Dad. How in the world could this have ever ended up good? So, I stayed quiet. It was a time when I didn’t even know what gay truly was yet, let alone being in a position to identify with it. I was robbed of a peaceful coming to terms of how things were for me.
Because my bullying and torment often happened by groups of kids, rather than individually, my reactions had to be slim to none. How do you fend off five kids all gaining up on you? How do you just “ignore” hateful taunts? It’s really hard. They wanted me to begin mouthing off so they could escalate it and be justified in the ensuing conflict. I learned early on administrators often judged the situation by my reactions and not the kids who started it. This is why fighting back wasn’t ever an option. Of course I wanted to stick up for myself and of course it burned inside. I pray it’s different now. A very special karma exists for the teachers and admin who knowingly watched me be humiliated and did nothing. You know who you are.
With nobody to truly trust and confide in, I had to build a wall. It was really my only choice. This wall didn’t do the best job at shielding the abuse, but it allowed me to stockpile the incidents and create innate protections from within — it’s somewhat like putting on emotional boxing gloves expecting at a moment’s notice the need for a fight-or-flight response. I was always “ready,” always on the “lookout.” Unbeknownst to me at the time, my entire central nervous system was being permanently revamped, uprooted and reprogrammed. In part, the wall exists to this day.
I knew how awkward I looked. I knew how effeminate my behavior was. I knew how different I was. If the kids missed a beat, not to worry, as father was there to sweep up any leftover debris. The man who was supposed to protect me was abusing me just like the kids were — daily, weekly, endlessly.
My father clearly didn’t like himself. With a bankroll of his own childhood trauma, absolutely no adult self-esteem and terrifying rage, how on Earth could he protect me? Chances are, there were some deep traumatic experiences where his own appearance was put on negative display. Needless to say, whatever was affecting him was incredibly deep, pungent and unresolved.
Maybe you’re curious where my mother was during all of this. I’ll just politely say she was present during some of it, but her hands were tied. Dad often abused me the worst outside of her presence. When my dad wasn’t screaming at me, the two of them went at it like cats and dogs. The household dysfunction my siblings and I were subject to was truly something for the Guinness. Maybe Mother could have attempted to stop the abuse, but it would be in vain. The daughter of a raging alcoholic, she essentially married a clone of her father and repeated the cycle of abuse all over again. It’s sad, and something I don’t have the heart to blame her over. How could I?
A lot of the abuse inexplicably went away when I was 16 or so and became athletic, excelling in water polo, swimming and weight training. The hunch had gone away and shoulders spread, I was strangely good at athletics. Having earned my varsity letters and even appearing in the newspapers, Father could now brag about me. Athletic involvement was extremely beneficial to me as a bridge between still bleeding wounds and a light at the end of the tunnel. After graduation, with little thought to the matter, I went to school two states away.
My college and 20s were amazing. Not being around Dad and his shenanigans anymore, I finally escaped. I no longer had to be screamed at for things I wasn’t doing wrong. I blossomed and excelled. I took full advantage of collegiate social life and pledged at a fraternity. For the first time in my life, I felt true, unconditional love from my fraternity brothers I never got from my dad. College breezed into my first few jobs, and my first few jobs morphed into a solid career where I worked my butt off, networked, socialized and enjoyed life. I bought myself nice toys and lived well. I didn’t have lovers, however. I think this was the secret to my 20s’ success. Having lovers would potentially make me realize there were inevitable realities I’d have to face someday. In fact, it was imminent.
My 30s were different almost from the start. With my fraternity brothers getting married, having kids and not being available so much anymore, I turned to the gay circuit. The gay circuit was like a fraternity on steroids. Acceptance for few, but love and shallow valuation from the inside was a key perk. I was in my early 30s, but still looked 25 — everything at this point revolved around attracting men, my zip-code and being outlandish. This was a very fickle era of my life. I began using recreational drugs and involving myself sexually with men in excess. Albeit my sexual activities were always responsible, they were a new and different kind of activity I’d use to fill the father void. It doesn’t work. The father wounds are always there and when I began treating my lovers how my father used to treat my mother, it was sickening. I began losing my temper the way father used to. This scared me to no end, and it made me incredibly sad. However, I had the drugs and beautiful men to balance things out for a while. Slowly but surely, though, I sank back into the depression that had framed my adolescence. This time, though, with bags under the eyes. That solid rock that had held me grounded during my 20s was not there anymore.
Then, it happened. I went broke and had to move back home. This is when everything would come together and split all of that sanctity of my 20s wide open. I’ll spare the bulk of the details, but it was like living my childhood all over again. The anger, the rage, the irrationality. My father screamed at me for small nothings, again. I cried every day for six months. One of his methods of abuse and control would be to lose his temper over something conveniently before bedtime and make me cower to my room hurt, sad and confused. Just like I was 7 years old again. I believe sending someone to bed when you’re raging and angry is one of the deepest, darkest forms of emotional abuse and control. I only remembered it in my 30s how he would do this through all of my childhood. The tears that streamed down my cheeks were raw and unadulterated and it felt, in some ways, good. I realized for the first time how truly, severely mentally ill my father is. Conversely, I also realized just how severely damaged I was, really for the first time.
One night after the tears dried and I was able to grasp reality again, I searched in my phone for childhood trauma. Abusive childhoods. Fatherly rage. I didn’t know what I was looking for or what would populate, but some articles came up on complex post-traumatic stress disorder, or C-PTSD. I hadn’t previously heard of it, but I couldn’t believe what I was reading. The symptoms, causes and the studies carried out all related to me, almost in minute detail. This disorder — a sister form of PTSD dealt more specifically with continuous and impactful trauma to the amygdala which regulates fight-or-flight response. Over time, this causes changes in the brain chemistry. There was now hard, scientific evidence of altered brain scans in a lot of these individuals; measurable to the point where fewer skeptics can call us out and peg us as just “overemotional.” There was a self-test, numerous studies, support groups and therapists in all 50 states who dealt with the matter. My word.
Now there was a bonafide explanation for things that had plagued me I never understood. I now had the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and similar studies to reference how trauma can affect the brain. Discovering C-PTSD and consequently receiving a clinical diagnosis almost seemed too easy in a way. What lay ahead, however, was anything but easy.
Having a therapist who was specifically equipped to handle clients with PTSD/C-PTSD was crucial. My therapist did a great job at helping me streamline my trauma into manageable clumps. As a result, everything felt far less overwhelming and left more room for productive healing.
Most traditional therapy centers on an approach that helps clients build on their sense of self. My problem was my adolescent trauma damaged so much of what should have been a normal cornerstone of human development that I hadn’t a clue who I was, hence being unable to build on that.
In order for substantial and reliable healing to take place, one must simmer in the pain for a bit. I was amazed how much I was holding in and how much I needed to get out. There were tears, but they were healing tears and not the hopeless, helpless tears which drove me to therapy in the first place. A good therapist pulls things out, appropriately, that underlie and frame one’s trauma.
My mom, God bless her, always took my pervasive depression and anxiety as feeling sorry for myself. It’s no wonder I developed a deep sense of shame over my feelings from an early age. Does this sound familiar? It was hurtful to have my feelings and experiences devalued as such, but this was how Mom was. Being in a supportive environment where I could finally release that toxic shame was paramount. Allowing a responsible and sensible amount of victimhood is necessary as it aids in the process of developing self-love. From self-love comes a new, more sturdy foundation for your healthier psyche to begin. Mostly, you want to get to a place where you are able to legitimately tell yourself it’s not your fault.
Bullying is not a rite of passage nor is it something “everybody goes through.” This is erroneous and irresponsible rhetoric usually shelled out by individuals who were maybe afforded healthier childhood environments. And God bless them for that, but don’t let them undermine your pain.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you verbal abuse isn’t abuse, or PTSD is only for soldiers. They are very much the same and there is data now to prove it. Cite the ACEs study or simply tell them it’s their opinion and they’re entitled to it. You’ll become more effective at standing up to people for the first time. Outside adversity can often come right as you are at the apex of making significant breakthroughs in your healing — the universe is funny like that. Your therapist can aid you when you get to this specific part of your healing.
Don’t ever let someone tell you to just “get over it.” They don’t have a dashcam of the trauma you endured. They don’t know your pain and never will. We are not “needy” or “attention-seeking,” we’re deeply wounded individuals who were never taught the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships.
It’s not all bad, not the least bit. We gain some fringe benefits from having a traumatic past. As trauma survivors, I believe we have an innate filter and discernment of people and situations that work to our benefit. Always trust your gut with people who give you that “feeling” and trust what it tells you. When you begin healing, you’ll be taught how to set healthy boundaries with individuals and how to weed out the toxic — this is OK. These are skills we never learned. You do not need to keep negative, hurtful people in your life and you’ll be a better person for it. Take back some of that power we unwittingly gave to people and say to yourself it’s alright.
Oh, and don’t smoke!
Unsplash image by James Marty