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[Editor’s Note: This piece is part of an ongoing series of personal essays on what it’s like to live with a mental health diagnosis. Each piece describes a singular and unique experience. These essays are not meant to be representative of every diagnosis, but to give us a peek into one person’s mind so we may be more empathetic to all.]
My life is woven together by threads of trauma. None are explosive enough to solely cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But it’s the impact of dozens of smaller traumas combined that landed me in a psychologist’s office with a complex PTSD diagnosis.
That was five years ago. Back when the stress of a turbulent divorce and serious health problems left me incapable of using my normal coping skills. I couldn’t work harder or achieve more to prove my worth because I was too sick to work at all. I went to therapy to “fix” my problems and get over childhood pain, but instead, it unleashed a monster that swallowed me whole.
For six months, CPTSD left me curled up on the bathroom floor, shaking and sobbing, reliving my past traumas. There was no past or present, just the cold hard bathroom tile, feeling incapable of stopping the tsunami of memories and sensations.
Science says developing CPTSD is a crapshoot of genetics and resiliency.
My therapist tells me I went too fast into the past before, and that healing my trauma has to be done slowly and carefully. I sit in her office every week remembering my childhood, with small buzzers against my legs, processing old pain in new ways. Someday, she tells me, I will be healed. CPTSD usually responds more slowly to treatment than PTSD because it’s a series of traumas instead of one large trauma, but it can respond. There is hope.
There is no such thing as an average day with CPTSD. Some days, I am fine—stable and normal. Other days, my body and my mind separate over and over again, in the fuzzy way I disassociate that feels almost like my insides are electric—I breathe in and out to come back to the present. The bad days used to outnumber the good days, but I’m five years into healing this madness. I know my triggers now, and I know when to push and when to be gentle.
Still, even seeing my ex-husband’s name in my inbox can be enough to trigger that frisson of disconnect and anxiety. But now I can identify my episodes in their infancy and manage them before they consume me. I’ve learned to breathe in for four counts, and breathe out for six counts, relaxing my nervous system, as many times as it takes. I’ve identified my coping strategies, and I have a self-care plan ready. The more empowered I become, the less intense these episodes are. They are the monsters I know and live alongside, and my good days feel like I’m living on borrowed time.
I couldn’t look at my ex-husband’s face for three years. When he dropped off my daughters, I looked at his shoes, his pants, my daughters—anywhere but his face. If I accidentally saw his face, I broke into a cold sweat and my heart raced with panic. But eventually, I began to look at him. A glimpse here, a glimpse there, panic rising in my chest until finally, I saw him as he is; not as the all-powerful evil he is in my memory. He lost his power and I found mine. But it took me two years of actively trying to work my way up to his face, until finally one day, it didn’t trigger me.
I do most of my breathing exercises in the car. I let my mind wander, breathing in and out, remembering the past from today’s perspective. I see myself as a little girl and forgive her for not speaking up sooner. I see myself as a teenager and forgive her for not reporting the rape.
When people tell me how healthy and strong I seem, I laugh. They don’t see the daily battle I fight to be stable and healthy. It’s taken me five years, but most of them only see today. They don’t see the gaping hole inside that therapy is teaching me to fill.
Science says developing CPTSD is a crapshoot of genetics and resiliency. Maybe if my own family tree wasn’t littered with trauma, I wouldn’t have been as likely to develop it. Perhaps there was something I could’ve done to better cope with the endless series of traumas that scarred my childhood, but I don’t really believe that. I think I developed CPTSD because disassociating and forgetting was the only way to survive. Now that I’m no longer at risk, no longer being actively traumatized, I have the power to put myself back together. CPTSD is what pushes me to heal the bitter, broken parts of myself that I would rather leave hidden by the passage of time.
But that is not today. Today, I still can’t remember much. I talk, write, and feel my feelings, with my demons riding on my back. I tell myself I am good enough as I am, imperfect and flawed, and I try to believe it. And I chisel away at old pain, terror, and helplessness to find the me I can be when I am free.
. . .
The “A Day With Mental Health” series is brought to you by Headspace and Bring Change to Mind (BC2M). BC2M is a nonprofit organization built to start the conversation about mental health, and to raise awareness, understanding, and empathy. They develop influential public service announcements (PSAs) and pilot evidence-based, peer-to-peer programs at the undergraduate and high school levels, engaging students to eradicate stigma. Because science is essential to achieving this mission, BC2M’s work is grounded in the latest research, evaluated for effectiveness, and shared with confidence. Headspace is proud to partner with them as we shine a light on the day-to-day experiences of living with a mental health diagnosis.
This series will publish weekly on Headspace’s the Orange Dot. Read the rest of the series here.
Artwork by KAREN HONG