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To the Trauma Survivors Looking for Their Prince Charming

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You’ve heard the fairy tales — Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel. These ladies had horrible childhoods, but overcame their circumstances and found their Prince Charming. But what happens in real life when you deal with trauma and are trying to find love?

• What is PTSD?

From an early age, I didn’t think I would find a Prince Charming — someone to rescue me from the chaos that was my childhood. Little girls grow up to marry someone like their father, I heard. That’s what frightened me.

When I was younger, I didn’t know if I wanted to get married. Of course, I would dress my Barbie in a wedding gown and marry her off to my Ken doll, but I was never one to daydream about my own wedding. My only dream was getting out of my house and being on my own.

I didn’t watch sappy Lifetime movies or romantic comedies. I watched “Dateline,” “20/20” and “Law & Order” — shows that featured abuse. Maybe these shows comforted me in a strange way. As a teenager, it made me feel like I wasn’t the only one who had a messy family life.

As an adolescent, I knew I would be susceptible to unhealthy relationships unless I was proactive. I would listen to the experts in these shows list the telltale signs of an abusive person. I studied these shows, making sure I wouldn’t replicate what I had seen. I also took cues from my own father. He was emotionally and verbally abusive and was an example of exactly what I didn’t want in a partner. What I wanted was someone who would love me for me, flaws and all — I just didn’t see marriage in my future. I think it’s because I didn’t grow up with any good role models of marriage and didn’t feel worthy of finding love.

Flash forward to my mid-2os. Suddenly, I was ready for marriage. What changed?

Maybe it was because I surrounded myself with friends who all married good men, and thus, restored my faith in marriage. Maybe it was the fact that I had spent time away from my father and was now able to see that the universe wasn’t as bitter, angry and jaded as he was. Maybe it’s because all the things my father made me believe through his words and actions weren’t actually true. I was a good human being who deserved to be on this earth and deserved love.

I was still filled with self-doubt though. I became easily overwhelmed and discouraged, but felt like I had to put on the appearance that I “had it all together.” My mind was a battlefield and I thought I was different for having these feelings. I thought something was wrong with me, but I couldn’t tell what. If I did end up finding a guy to date, I thought he would eventually find out the “real” me. Who would be able to love the real me?

I had a few relationships that weren’t stellar, but weren’t horrible. I prided myself on the fact that each relationship was progressively better than the last. The things I wouldn’t tolerate from a partner became the driving force behind finding a good mate.

“I cannot marry someone like my father,” became my dating mantra.

I even made a list of great qualities that described myself and a list of what I was looking for in a husband. Qualities like: makes me laugh and likes to travel, doesn’t yell at me and treats both others and myself with respect. They were non-negotiable qualities, and if a man didn’t meet these criteria, I was out.

In my late 20s, I met my future husband. He worked as a psychiatric nurse. While we were dating, I would casually ask him questions about certain mental illness symptoms, crossing out the ones that I thought I had, but didn’t. Things progressed well between us. We experienced different relationship milestones with ease: meeting each other’s families, attending a wedding together and a road trip to Chicago. By the end of the year, we were engaged and celebrating the one year anniversary of our first date. We even moved into a house we had bought together in a quiet, family-oriented town. The whole time, I still had doubts that this guy actually liked the “real me” and couldn’t believe he saw me as wife material. He thought I was smart, pretty and funny — all things I knew to be true, but found it hard to believe someone else would see.

We married on a warm afternoon in June. It was a beautiful ceremony, followed by an awesome reception and a fabulous honeymoon in Mexico. When we returned, we settled into married life. However, I had no idea how to be married. My parents hadn’t been good role models for a healthy marriage and I didn’t know anyone who had a good marriage growing up. I read books on the topic and I learned mostly from TV shows — the same way some immigrants learn how to speak English from American television was how I learned to be a wife. From Roseanne to Carrie Heffernan to Debra Barone, I took mental notes on how a marriage was “supposed to” work. It worked when I was younger, so why wouldn’t it now?

The problem was that TV was not real life.

Yes, all these wives encounter the “typical” struggles of marriage, just like I was going through with my own husband. However, their problems were solved within 30 minutes, which isn’t always true in real life. There are times you will go to bed angry. There are times you won’t be able to come to an agreement — you agree to disagree, but it will come up again since it remains unresolved.

I used to panic every time we fought. I didn’t know how to deal with disagreement, so I did what my parents did: yell. My dad could be harsh with his words, and unfortunately, I mirror that in my own marriage. I was angry at the world and would take it out on the person I loved and lived with, my husband. I found myself picking fights with my husband, mimicking the miserable environment I grew up in, and oddly, found comfort in it. I had trust issues with everyone, even though my husband gave me no indication of being untrustworthy.

I decided enough was enough, and last summer, I found a therapist that dealt with women’s issues and anxiety — which was what I thought I had. After a few sessions, she told me what I really had was post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. When I told her I was never in the military, she explained that you didn’t need to be a veteran to have PTSD. My childhood was my war zone.

After I was diagnosed, it felt like a weight had been lifted off of me. When I went home and told my husband, he agreed with what my therapist had said. How I acted and responded to situations now made sense. Then came the challenge of how to process through, and live with, my diagnosis.

Of course, I was happy to know that I wasn’t “different,” but how was I going to be a fully functioning adult, wife and one day, a mother? And now that my husband knew the details of my therapy sessions, how could he still love me?

Well, the truth is, he met my list of non-negotiable qualities when we first staring dating and he has now lived up to the vow, “in sickness and in health.” He asked me what I needed from him regarding my PTSD, and no matter what, he tries to understand my mental illness and loves me no matter what.

My husband and I recently celebrated four years of marriage. It has been a bumpy ride, full of loss, death of parents and change. Throw in medical matters, mental health issues and struggles with infertility, and you have a recipe for giving up. But, we both recognize we are not who we were four years ago, or even six years ago when we met. After everything that has happened in our lives, we have become stronger. Things that were meant to destroy a relationship only brought us closer together.

I continue to struggle with the effects of PTSD from my childhood and it may never go away, but at least how I deal with them is in my control.

So, what would I say to someone who thinks they can’t be loved?

Yes, you can.

First, start by loving yourself. Right now, make a list of all your amazing qualities — from your ability to sing on key, to your beautiful eye lashes. Write down every single trait, quality and characteristic that makes you the beautiful human you are. Do it now. Have a least 10. And if you’re struggling, call a good friend or trusted family member and ask them for help.

Next, write down your non-negotiable qualities for a relationship. Things you will not tolerate from a partner. I’m not saying write down, “needs to be tall,” or, “must have blue eyes.” I mean the heavy stuff. Maybe your list contains: tolerates your views on religion and politics, is on the same page as me about starting a family and marriage and the number of kids they want and finances. These are all important topics of conversation as your relationship progresses.

Regarding your mental illness, write down what you will need from a partner. For me, it’s alone time to recharge my batteries and limited loud noises. I startle easily, which my husband is aware of. He’s a loud talker, so I just remind myself that he’s not actually yelling at me and that I’m safe. He encourages me to focus on my coping skills and doesn’t take anything personal.

Also, make sure your partner is aware of your mental illness. Make sure that they are informed on your illness and they don’t dismiss it as something that “isn’t real.” It’s up to you to know when the time is right to disclose such information. After a few months of dating my husband, I had told him just about everything about myself, even the things that were floating around in my head that I thought made me “not normal.” He never saw it that way and understood where I was coming from, and still wanted to continue our relationship.

Finally, look at that list often. Remember that you are worthy of someone who appreciates all of your qualities, recognizes your views on life and understands that your mental illness is a part of you, but doesn’t define you. If a partner doesn’t meet your requirements, it’s OK to move on. Don’t ever think, “This is as good as it gets.”

Trust me, it’s not.

You may not meet your soulmate right away or when you expect to, but that’s OK. Finding anything or anyone worthwhile takes some time. In the meantime, focus on yourself and make self-care your number one priority. Take care of your wants and needs: see a therapist, seek out a good friend or hobby you like, and find healthy coping skills that work for you.

You are in control.

Bonus tip: When out on a first date, pay attention to how he/she treats the people around you, particularly the wait staff. This tip has served me well.

If you or a loved one is affected by domestic violence or emotional abuse and need help, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

Thinkstock photo via TongRo Images Inc

Originally published: June 21, 2017
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