Complexities: Episode 2
note: for the time being, in regard to writing about my life with CPTS(D), I will not name or directly identify my abuser. You can make some probably pretty educated guesses if you feel so inclined, and if you've ever talked to me in real life I've probably been super open about it. But tragically, my abuser and I have a lot of mutual acquaintances, many of whom follow me on social media. I don't know if any of them read this, but it's just not a risk I'm ready to take, a conversation I'm ready to have. I have a threat/promise of a restraining order out against my abuser if they ever contact me again in any fashion. But the grapevine is long and wide, and I just have no time, patience, or energy to deal with any of it at this point. Perhaps as I get more comfortable writing about this SUPER FUCKING PERSONAL and painful aspect of my life, and after a few important life events pass that I need to get through with some grace and decorum,, I'll be more direct. But for now, here we are.
Also, the reason I'm even writing about these SUPER FUCKING PERSONAL and painful things is that I hope it can help end the stigma and "shame spiral" for those living with CPTS(D), help people who are hurting feel less alone, less like they're just "crazy," and raise awareness that this shit is real and absurdly damaging, even in seemingly good/healthy relationships/situations. That this is abuse, plain and simple. And it does long-lasting and far-reaching damage. Also, totally selfishly, this is part of my healing process.
Ok. Here we go.
I listened to this episode of Complexities Podcast WEEKS ago, and re-listened to it today before/while writing this article. The subject of this episode is "Identity." For me and my experience with CPTS(D), this is a pretty big issue. Also, trigger warning, I'm going to get into a lot of really heavy shit in this entry, including abuse, religion, politics, suicide, mental health, firearms, and more. You've been warned.
So Pat and Austin read and discussed a description of what causes CPTS(D), and it basically boils down to children being neglected and broken down with verbal, emotional, sexual, and/or physical abuse, denigration, rage, abandonment, fake unconditional love, and linking corporal punishment with contempt, creating individuals who live in constant fear and with a learned helplessness and feeling of powerlessness, so they can be easily controlled.
Or, as Austin says, "the origins of Complex PTS(D) is... a parent suffocating and manipulating a child's identity so that they're more easy to handle. Or, often the parents who do this are narcissistic parents, and narcissists really want their children to be... them, or they want them to do something that feels good for them, and it's never about what the child wants. It's always about what the narcissist wants. And so ultimately they just turn these children into their idea of what their child should be, therefore the child never... not only does the child not form any kind of attachment, but it also never forms an identity.
[Pat: Because it's never given a chance to be who it is, or wants to be?]
Yeah, it's like the whole identity of a child who grows up in that kind of situation is extinguished. There's no connection to "self." So not only is there no connection to a parent or somebody who makes the child feel safe, but there's also no connection to self."
Austin goes on to read a bit about emotional neglect from this great book called "Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving" by Pete Walker (a book that I 1000% recommend), about how that creates "feelings of unmanageable amounts of fear. And the child eventually gives up and succumbs to depressed, death-like feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. This type of rejection simultaneously magnifies the child's fear, and eventually adds a coating of shame to it. Over time, this fear and shame beget a toxic inner critic that holds the child, and later the adult, totally responsible for the parent's abandonment, until he becomes his own worst enemy and descends into the bowels of Complex PTS(D)."
Ok, so I'm not going to give you a dictation of the whole podcast, but these bits I thought were important to discuss word-for-word. That's basically what CPTS(D) is, and how it happens. The specifics vary case to case, but the general story is the same. And it starts so young! As Pat and Austin point out, it's way more than just one or a series of events. It's a "lifestyle of trauma, neglect, and fear-state where you never, ever feel safe." And because it starts so young, there's not really a "pre-trauma" state. So, like, when you're treating PTS(D), that's a big part of the therapy: helping you to go back and connect with yourself pre-trauma. But with CPTS(D), the trauma and fear and helplessness and abuse and shame and all of it start so young, and are happening as you're in those moments of beginning to form your own identity. So there's nothing to go back and connect to. There's no point where you were "un-broken" or "un-traumatized." Let that sink in for a hot second.
I don't remember most of my childhood. I have spotty memories of my adolescent and teen years. Big events, high points, special moments, really horrific moments. My earliest memories, starting around the age of 4, are just exclusively a disconnected handful of blips of abuse. Severe physical abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, psychological abuse. Though I didn't fully understand the more subtle complexities of most of these, I did know I was terrified. At 4 years old, I was afraid for my life, and the lives of those around me. I started therapy (with church counselors, not qualified therapists. Because Jesus) by age 6 or 7, and by the age of 12, I had made my first suicide attempt. There were many, many more to come over the years. The reason I mention that is to highlight the level of fear, trauma, and worthlessness (etc etc) I was living with, even as a small child. The people in my life I should have been able to trust, I couldn't. Well, I could some days, sometimes. But others it could be a life-threatening error. And that dichotomy was almost worse than just always knowing who to stay away from. It was a playing with the heart. That fake unconditional love, gifts, praise, and adoration, until it was all ripped out from under me and the world came crashing down and I thought I might die, or my sister might die, or my mother, and so on... It could be a week-to-week shift, or change many times within a single day. This was not only a challenge, but taught me very early that you can trust no one, not even those you should always be able to rely on. Not even those in your life who are supposed to love you the most. Trust. No. One. Everyone will hurt you. It's just a fact of life. Or it was a fact of my life, at least.
Unsurprisingly, living that way fucks you up. And I didn't even realize it until I was like 15 or 16! I just assumed this was how everyone lived. Because it had been beaten into me that you NEVER talk about your problems with others. You put on you "church face" and go out into the world (which for me was usually church, because cult-life) and smile and praise Jesus and everything is perfect! Then when out of the spotlight, the masks fall off. So I always seemed fine, and everyone else always seemed fine, so how was I supposed to know that I was the only one faking it?
I also learned really young that my job in life was to keep the peace. At all costs. Bend over backwards, break even, every day, to try and keep everyone happy. Make sure everyone (specifically those who can hurt you, control you) is cared for. That there's literally nothing that might set anyone off. So that included eating food I hated with a smile, apologizing for everything, even if I wasn't involved or even remotely in the wrong, making crafts and procuring gifts to show adoration so everyone would feel happy and content, sharing hobbies and interests with everyone of importance so they could "bond" with me (I never really bonded with anyone) and maybe they would be happy with me, and if they're happy with me that would be enough for them to be happy in general, and no one would get a frying pan thrown at them. And if someone was going to get negative attention, I could usually divert it towards myself. I never actually learned to feel emotions properly, so taking the brunt of verbal and emotional abuse came naturally to me, especially if it meant I could protect others. And if I couldn't divert the attention and protect them emotionally, I could sweep people away and physically protect them, armed, behind locked doors. I was probably one of the few 13-year-olds with a firearm in her closet. Oh, the South and its lack of gun control!
So all that horrific nonsense to say, I didn't learn to feel things properly. Emotionally I'm... let's just say that I struggle. I'm getting better, thanks to some amazing therapists and some truly beautiful, patient, loving people in my life. I also never learned to trust people, and never for a moment in my life felt safe. I'm constantly on the verge of "cut and run." But most important to this article, I never developed my own identity. I was always just whoever people needed me to be in a given moment to feel good and be happy. To fill the gaps. Whatever. I spent my life not really exploring who I was and wanted to be, but morphing into whatever person was needed to keep the peace and make people not want to hurt me or those I love. It started off as a survival mechanism, and since getting out of that (and subsequent) situation(s), has turned into a not-so-good habit. But it's not really a "habit" so much as it is an "I have absolutely no idea who I am because I have never had the opportunity or ability to find out."
Those early, formative years are important to developing your identity, and discovering who you are. People with CPTS(D) didn't have that opportunity. Be it manipulation, neglect, direct abuse, or an amalgam (that one's for you, Pat & Austin) thereof, there is just zero connection to yourself and who you are, who you want to be. And I know that's hard to wrap your head around, especially if you're a "Pattyface" (someone without CPTS(D) who grew up in a more "normal" environment). Pat talks about how he is an (absolutely incredible) drummer because he was assigned drums in band in school, and was good at it, and stuck with it, and now he's a drummer. Is that the same as being forced into an identity, or denied the ability to form your own? I'd say no. Sure, he was guided down that path, and encouraged to stay with it, and seems to have grown to love it, but it's different than, for instance... I learned to write poetry (very well... I'm published many times over now) because it made my abuser happy because that's something they were really into. They pushed me into it pretty forcibly, and when I expressed lack of interest it... didn't end well. But if I wrote too, and shared my poems with them, we could have conversations and "bond" and they were happy with me. They would criticize my pieces and tear them to shreds (sometimes literally) and I would thank them for the "constructive criticism" and make my piece theirs, and they would be happy and I could possibly eat my dinner in peace that night without having my plate thrown across the room or hours of screaming and degradation. If I wrote well enough, in a style they liked, and then let them "fix" my art they would be happy and I could sleep through the night without being ripped from my bed or awakened by frightened shrieks from elsewhere in the house. Maybe. After getting away from everything, I didn't write or read poetry for about 6 years. I couldn't stand it! It made me angry and afraid and repulsed. It's only been in the last couple of years that I have gotten to discover poetry for myself. Explore it and enjoy simply and solely because it speaks to me (I even do a #NightlyPoetry on twitter most evenings, sharing little blurbs that speak to me or that I particularly enjoy). I still don't write poetry, which honestly breaks my heart a little. I'd love to explore that again someday, but at the same time, I am so afraid that it will trigger me to a point I will never bounce back from... that it's one of those things that I only did because it calmed that "you're going to die" side of my brain, but now might make it worse. For instance, weird things: I can never chew/be around someone who chews cinnamon gum, I feel instant panic when I hear the binging of the car when you've left the lights on, I struggle to say the word "ridiculous," and CAN NOT listen to certain Rolling Stones songs without being triggered and it causing severe flashbacks.
So here I stand, 30 years old and often feeling pretty hollow. Like... I'm up to really cool stuff, and I do really neat things, and I've had a lot of experiences, good bad and ugly... I have some beautiful folks in my life and I'm passionate about things and have a lot of creative ideas, but... I don't necessarily feel most of them. It's like so much of what I have done, and am even still doing, is because it filled some important role (for someone else) at some point in time, or is caused by a trauma response. So I have recently begun evaluating every aspect of my life. From hobbies to fashion choices to the music I listen to, to my education and career. How much of who I am is actually who I am? As I've been going through therapy, working on myself, addressing my flashbacks and my triggers, I have also been trying new and old things. Feeling stuff out for myself. It's a lot harder as an adult, when your psyche is no longer in that "identify forming" state. How do you really identify why you're doing what you're doing? When you were never allowed to learn to feel stuff, how do you know when something just feels right? Honestly, I don't know the answer to that question. But I'm not giving up. I'm exploring, and trying to be really analytical but also pay attention to my emotions in every moment. And y'all, it's exhausting. But I think that maybe, just maybe, I might be beginning to find myself.