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My Life With C-PTSD

September 4, 2017

         I have Complex-PTSD, a type of PTSD in which the individual has experienced trauma over an extended period of time as opposed to just one traumatic event, like a car accident or shooting. People who have been in abusive relationships, veterans, or those were abused throughout their childhood often have C-PTSD. C-PTSD is tricky to recover from. A former therapist of mine tried Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART) but the problem was that the therapy only focused on one incident of physical abuse I experienced with my ex-boyfriend when, in reality, the entire relationship was full of psychological and emotional trauma as well as other violent episodes. Trying to erase the image of one act of violence, which is what ART aims to do, did nothing for what the trauma did to me psychologically and didn’t help me with the other flashbacks I have. I was promised I would be guaranteed amazing results with ART and would walk away trauma-free by six sessions. Instead, I felt more anxious than ever and my panic attacks increased. We didn’t sort through my low self-esteem or feelings of worthlessness. We didn’t talk about my fear of men resulting from the abuse or my constant paranoia. PTSD, though currently discussed as a mental illness, is widely acknowledged to be a brain injury due to scans that show how trauma changes the appearance of the brain and ultimately how it functions.

         There is often a dramatic shift in personality in those affected by PTSD and that was an aspect of recovery my therapist seemed to ignore. She thought she could erase my memory and have me go back to who I used to be. But I can’t. I’ll never reach a better place if I keep my focus on fully recovering because that’s not possible. I wouldn’t be human if what happened to me didn’t leave a lasting impression. It seems like everyone in my life expects me to one day recover and go back to my old self. They want my brain to work like theirs so I can solve all of my problems through positivity and confidence. People hear the word “PTSD” and expect me to jump at fireworks and have nightmares (both of which I experience), however, they don’t always realize the way PTSD affects your everyday life. I realize every day how little people understand about mental illnesses and how they affect people’s lives. I want to share my full PTSD story with you to help spread awareness of what it’s really like to live with this disorder and why I can’t go back to who I used to be.

         After I graduated college in 2013, I became involved in a relationship with a classmate I had a crush on for several months. I was never the kind of girl to get asked out in high school so I felt special when someone I looked up to took interest in me. Looking back, the bullying I experienced in high school set me up to have minimal standards for what I deserved. I spent my whole life believing I was a burden to others so when people treat me poorly, I blame myself. I felt like I was lucky to be noticed by him and ignored several red flags. When our relationship began, he was always telling me stories about his previous girlfriends and how badly they hurt him. He told me I couldn’t hurt him the way they did and I felt like I was responsible for making sure he was always happy and never upset with me. I never took the time to question whether I was being treated right or if I was happy, especially since I hadn’t been in a real relationship before him and didn’t have anything to compare our relationship to.

         When I was in a car accident he went out and partied with his friends, turning his phone off. He told me this was normal and that wanting him to be there for me was me suffocating him. I believed him.

         He got out of my car and started kicking it over and over, screaming at the top of his lungs, when I told him I loved him for the first time. He told me it was my fault for making him feel obligated to love me back. I apologized. 

         I started to notice that he was the one who did all of the talking, mostly about other girls, and that he barely knew anything about me, even 8 months into our relationship. I brought up that I would like it if he took more interest in me and didn’t talk about other girls in a sexual manner so much. He told me I was crazy and that I made him feel like nothing he did was good enough. I felt guilty and hated myself.

         He hit me on Valentine’s Day for wanting to hug him and told me it was my fault. I begged for forgiveness.

         I spent a year believing that it was normal for your boyfriend to never listen to you talk and that I was a bad girlfriend for feeling weird about him always seeming to be secretive and obsessed with other girls. He had a difficult past and I allowed that to be his excuse for everything. Having lived my whole life with anxiety has made me aware of the reasons why people act the way they do. I know that anxiety hasn’t made me a perfect person. I’m not as good of a friend as I could be because I’m usually too anxious to leave my apartment or make a phone call. I compare myself to other girls and need constant reassurance. How could I make him feel bad for his behavior when I wasn’t perfect myself? I gave myself the label of the crazy jealous girlfriend and fell into a deep depression that I blamed myself for. Everyone always told me how handsome he was and that I was lucky to have snagged him. His friends thought he was the coolest guy in the world. He was like the popular boy in high school I could never have had. I believed there was something wrong with me for crying so much when I should have been feeling so lucky to be his girlfriend. I hated myself for having depression and anxiety because I knew he hated me for having it. I was always reminded of how much of a burden I was and how his ex-girlfriend was better than I was.

         Abusive relationships are hard to get out of because you’re often manipulated into believing you’re the one who is wrong and that everything is your fault. If your abuser gets violent, it’s your fault for upsetting them. If your abuser cheats on you, it’s your fault for not fulfilling them enough. I once brought up the time he hit me on Valentine’s Day and he told me it never happened, despite having apologized for it while crying just a few hours after it happened. This is another thing abusers do: make you question your version of reality. Now I wasn’t only crazy, I was delusional. By this point, I was a wreck. I didn’t know what was real and I didn’t even know I was being abused, despite it seeming so obvious. I thought I was completely crazy and this manifested into severe anxiety. I didn’t sleep at night and was moody at work. I would either not have the energy to get up and eat or would eat until I was sick. There were mornings when I would wake up to him touching me in my sleep. This terrified me but I never thought to confront him about it because of my fear of upsetting him and because I thought it was my fault that I felt uncomfortable. He was my boyfriend; did he already have my consent? I had no sense of what was normal anymore and no sense of ownership over my own body and mind as I had allowed him to have complete control over every aspect of me, even my private thoughts.  

         When it was all over, I wasn’t the same person anymore. I was on edge all the time and lost a lot of weight. I didn’t want to be around anyone and cut off a lot of people in my life with some walking away from me because of how easily agitated I became. Though I knew I was unhappy with him, abusive relationships are addicting. It feels so good when they apologize to you and validate you after intentionally making you anxious and afraid with their anger that the abuse works like a drug. That’s part of why people don’t want to leave even if that seems insane to people looking from the outside. Abusers are like a drug that we know is killing us but we feel even worse when we’re without it.

         I should have gotten professional help much earlier than I did but I was manipulated into thinking that if I saw a therapist, I would get called crazy and delusional. I was trained to believe it wasn’t abuse if everything was my fault and I was deserving of it. After the breakup, he still had control over me. He told his friends I was crazy and used my strange behavior after our breakup as proof. Many abusers are good at putting on a good image for the public and my abuser was the best at it. Everyone in his life adores him and would let him get away with murder if he told them it was only because he’s so misunderstood, his favorite excuse to use to make people feel sympathy for him instead of having him acknowledge his mistakes. I even fell for how charismatic he is when you first meet him. People I used to be friendly with were calling me crazy and saying I needed to be locked away. Even my own best friend didn’t understand I was struggling and became so frustrated with me that she talked about me behind my back to our co-workers and yelled at me for being anxious. I’ve always had anxiety but this time it was so much worse. I couldn’t sit still and always had a lingering thought that everyone in the office hated me and knew about my past relationship and how crazy I was. Every morning I drove to work feeling a tightness in chest and throat. I was either anti-social or seeking comfort in the wrong kind of people. My co-worker once sent me a series of harassing messages telling me I was crazy and no one liked me after I trusted the wrong person at work with my insecurities. I was completely alone, humiliated, and constantly sent the message that I was crazy and worthless. Someone who believes that about themselves typically doesn’t find themselves worthy of help.

         I unfortunately found myself re-traumatized two years later but oddly enough it saved my life and led to me getting help. Last summer, I thought I had found a guy who was going to make everything better. My biggest mistake here was thinking a better relationship is what I needed to “cure” my PTSD. I had no self-esteem and the person I usually sought validation from was gone. This made me vulnerable to being taken advantage of by bad people and seeking validation from people who reminded me of my ex.

         This new guy started out as the nicest person I had ever known. He seemed to be patient with me when it came to my anxiety and traumatic past, promising he wouldn’t run away just because I was going through something difficult. I remember texting my friend and telling her that I felt like everything was finally falling into the place.  

         My favorite thing about him was that he texted me at 10 a.m. every morning while my abuser would have gone days without contacting me to make sure I was always on edge and feeling insecure. With this new guy, there was predictability and consistency. I didn’t feel nervous to text him first like I did in my previous relationship. I never felt like I was bothering him and he seemed genuinely interested in getting to know me. He even pointed out the little things about me that he liked, like how comfortable I was with being alone. I had never had anyone notice those kinds of things about me before. I lied earlier. My actual favorite thing about him was how special he made me feel. He said he had noticed me for years and had always wanted to talk to me. All my life I felt invisible but I stood out to him. I was wanted.

         One morning, it was 10 a.m. and I didn’t hear from him. Just the night before he had been so sweet and I couldn’t think of any reason why he would have disappeared. My anxiety kicked in as I battled with myself over whether I was being crazy. People used to always tell me I had good intuition but my abuser had manipulated me into distrusting myself. I had quickly gotten used to hearing from this guy at the same time every day and latched onto that consistency as it calmed the anxiety my PTSD made me feel over being abandoned or unwanted. He had always been patient with me before so I decided it was okay to reach out and ask if everything was okay. He said everything was fine but didn’t say anything more. I didn’t hear from him again for hours even though he promised to check in later. I had flashbacks to everything that happened in my previous relationship. My abuser used to tell me he was going to kill himself and then not answer his phone so that I would feel scared and responsible for anything that happened to him. I was a little surprised he acted so distant with me so the next morning I told him it hurt my feelings that he acted so strange the day before. He responded by accusing me of causing drama and telling me he doesn’t care if I feel anxious. It was like I was talking to a completely different person. I decided to end things right there because I had a feeling he was planning on leaving first and I wasn’t sure if I could handle that. When I did, he blew up and said a lot of hurtful things about how I shouldn’t ever be with anyone because I’m too messed up to be worth anyone’s time. I was immediately transported back to my abusive relationship where I would have no idea what I had even done but everything was still my fault anyway. I kept telling myself that my ex was right and I was unlovable and crazy.

         Even though I was the one who decided to end things if I wasn’t going to be understood properly, I all of a sudden wanted his validation and approval to make me feel better just like I had experienced in my abusive relationship. I kept trying to make things civil between us but it would get shot down with anger and insults. At one point he even told me he barely knew me, making it seem like I was crazy for liking him despite the fact that he had just been in my apartment a couple of days before. Not knowing where any of his anger was coming from and being brought back to a place of having to question my sanity made me panic so badly that I couldn’t stop shaking for days. I felt so confused and scared. I went from being the happiest I’d ever been to feeling completely broken. I had panic attacks that lasted an hour every single day, 10 times a day, for three months. After that, they tapered down to three times a week but were still just as intense.

         The thing is, I didn’t understand why this short-lived summer fling was affecting me so much. Normally, I would have been upset and then brushed it off as just another jerk. But here I was, unable to eat or shower because I was both completely numb and too anxious to move. I felt dizzy thinking about how confusing his sudden change of heart was. I was worse off than I was after much more severe and long-term abuse. I felt crazy and like I was insane for thinking I was deserving of happiness if I was as terrible as these two men made me out to be. When people asked what happened, I couldn’t even tell them because I didn’t know. I still don’t know why he snapped. Even so, I blamed myself because this is what I had been trained to do. That was why I reacted so strongly to this incident: I was being re-traumatized and this was the trigger that made the PTSD I was ignoring blow up. I was left with no choice but to acknowledge the damage that had been done to my brain. The therapist I see now said that once you’ve been abused, you notice the red flags in people more quickly and are more sensitive to the vibes people give off. That’s why I didn’t immediately recognize how toxic and abusive my first relationship was, I was noticing something strange this time around and couldn’t ignore it. This was when I decided to seek out help and tried the ultimately ineffective ART.

         The ART didn’t work and so I remained a shell of a person, crying constantly and obsessing over what was wrong with me instead of noticing that something was wrong with the ones abusing me. I didn’t acknowledge that it’s never acceptable to speak to a human the way both of these men did. All I could think about was how unlovable I was. The reason why I am telling this story is because I found myself, over a year later, thinking about what happened last summer and crying as I replayed our conversations in my head over and over, trying to fit everything together and make some sense out of it. I kept trying to figure out how I could cry over someone I hadn’t known very long and hadn’t seen in a long time. That’s when I went back to therapy and found someone who knows how to effectively help me cope with PTSD and re-train my brain. I’m still in the process of this therapy but so far, I have already learned a lot. My new therapist taught me I wasn’t actually crying over him and this is true. I don’t think about wanting to be with him and if I had the chance to be with him again, I wouldn’t do it. I don’t feel jealous over his new relationship like I thought I would when I saw them together and cried. What I was crying about and what left me so traumatized was how he made me feel about myself and the trauma he reinforced.

         When I had come out as being abused in my first relationship, his friends called me crazy and said he would never do that. I was victim-shamed and harassed so badly that I have a long list of blocked numbers and Facebook accounts. Not only did I have to deal with sorting through the trauma I experienced, I had to do it alone because no one would listen to me or believe me. I was afraid of going anywhere in fear that I would run into him or his friends. Any time I saw a car that looked like his, my heart would race and I would avoid going out again for weeks. This left me feeling constantly afraid of what other people were thinking of me, especially since we went to college together and had mutual friends. In my mind, everyone from college hated me and was judging me. As much as I loved my undergraduate school, I can’t go back there now knowing that it will remind me of falling for him before I knew who he truly was. If we ever have a reunion, I can’t go because I know there’s a chance I’ll run into him and his group of friends who believe he can do no wrong and that I’m just some crazy girl.

         This mindset caused me to experience these fears and paranoia all over again after the falling out with the next guy I dated. After he told me I was crazy, my first thought was that everyone in town would think I’m crazy since he’s friends with people from where I live. I was never popular in high school and felt like I was just starting to be accepted by people when I was suddenly overwhelmed by the thought of everyone hating me. I kept deactivating my social media every few weeks, convinced everyone was making fun of me. People I didn’t know too well would send me friend requests and my first thought would be that they were spying on me because they were curious to see the crazy girl. I didn’t leave my apartment for months unless it was the middle of the night and would only go to grocery stores that were open late and order everything else online. If I did have to go out in public, I hid from people I recognized and was filled with tension and nerves until I was back in my apartment. The paranoia of PTSD isn’t just a fear of loud noises or a fear of getting hurt. It can be any paranoia related to the abuse experienced. For me, the paranoia was that everyone was talking about me.

         When I got out of my abusive relationship, he immediately began a relationship with another girl he had been flirting with during our time together. Throughout our relationship, he was obsessed with his ex-girlfriend and never stopped talking about her. When I saw the guy from last summer with his girlfriend several months after our falling out, I was reminded of how it felt to realize I was being used by someone I had genuine feelings for and the devastation that comes with realizing you were never liked to begin with. This was a difficult truth for me to face because it hurt to know that I was being lied to when I was told I was loved and cared about. My fear of being unlovable and worthless felt like it was coming true and being re-traumatized reinforced that even further.

         Before seeking out help again, I went through a very dark period. My rescue cat passed away in a traumatic way one week before Christmas. I remember feeling like something in me was switched off after this. Everything in my mind went blank. My PTSD left me with no faith in humans and an inability to socialize, making my cats the only living beings I could connect to. My cat was sick so I distracted myself from the pain I was in by caring for her 24/7. Most importantly, when I felt like no one loved me and I didn’t love myself, she loved me unconditionally and didn’t leave me just for having a panic attack.

         After my cat died, I stopped caring for myself and simply getting in the shower or eating became an impossible task. I lost weight all over again and my hair started to fall out as a result of me becoming malnourished and neglecting to brush my hair or even get out of bed most days. Every once in a while I would put on makeup to take a picture for social media, editing out the dark circles under my eyes that were puffy from a combination of crying and a lack of sleep, giving off the illusion that I was okay in case people were looking out to see if I was falling apart. I was so numb that I didn’t even notice how awful I looked. I once had a panic attack while driving and had to pull into Chipotle until I could calm down. To the people near me, I probably looked like I was overdosing on drugs with the way I was violently shaking while sloppily dressed. One day, I woke up and noticed how much my face had changed. I don’t know what caused this sudden awareness. I guess it took time for my mind to cope with the shock of losing my cat after already going through a difficult time. I looked older and sick and my hair was brittle and frizzy. My hip bones and ribcage were poking out because I had stopped eating due to my obsession with wanting to be good enough for the people who abused me. I cried while looking at myself, realizing the toll the past few years had taken on me. I didn’t want to live like this anymore and took getting help more seriously. Taking care of myself when I hated myself and wasn’t even sure I wanted to live anymore was the hardest thing I ever had to do and I’m still not sure where that strength came from when just going to get the mail with the fear of who will see me in the parking lot was the hardest part of my day.

         I’ve learned my mind is so different now that I can’t truly connect to most people. They want me to “just be positive.” With good intentions, they give me the same advice they would give themselves after a stressful day. PTSD has been isolating because I can’t talk to anyone knowing I’ll be frustrated by their lack of understanding and they’ll be frustrated with me for not just being happy.

         My therapist told me some good has come out of what I went through and I was hesitant to accept that thought. It feels wrong to say I can make something good out of abuse. While some say they wouldn’t change their hard times because it made them who they were, I would go back in time and pick a different college, a different seat in class, anything to keep what ended up happening from happening. I would take it all back in a heartbeat. However, I do know what my therapist is talking about. I’ve walked away from the abuse with an almost psychic ability to read people and their intentions. While I used to make excuses for my abuser, I now see the red flags for what they are right away. I’m able to cut out toxic people with more ease than before because I’ve learned to prioritize managing my anxiety over feeling like I’m responsible for everyone else.

         Knowing when people aren’t treating me right sometimes means calling them out on it and facing the verbal abuse all over again. I get called crazy. It’s easier than having to swallow their pride and apologize. I can at least now recognize that behavior for what it is even if my increased sensitivity causes this to still hurt enough to shake me. In a weird way, being re-traumatized last summer saved my life. It forced me to recognize what I was ignoring and get help. I spent a lot of time teaching other people about abusive relationships and how to recognize abuse so that I could help people avoid becoming like me but I rarely took my own advice. Now I know that I need to change the way I think about myself and recognize that someone who calls me unlovable is a toxic person and how I define myself should not be dependent upon a toxic person. This is easier said than done and will likely be a life-long battle for me. The therapy I’m doing now will help me reevaluate any toxic thoughts I’m having instead of allowing it to drag me down. But those self-doubts and fears I learned from trauma will always be there even if I manage to make them smaller and smaller. I can learn how to manage it but I can’t be free of it. Maybe that’s why I love The Bell Jar so much. My PTSD is like Esther’s depression. It’s a glass dome that keeps me from being fully present with the rest of the world.

         After everything that happened last summer, I decided to start publicly talking about my mental health and this turned into a passion for me. I realized that the guy I dated mistook the anxiety that stems from PTSD for being an overly-obsessive girlfriend. I couldn’t get him to understand or listen but maybe I could help other people. Becoming an advocate for mental health changed my life and gave me something to be passionate about when I was feeling unmotivated and like I didn’t have a purpose. I connected with people who had the same struggles as me and felt less alone. I sometimes even received thank you messages from people who felt like they were the only ones who experienced what I was talking about. I slowly became less afraid of people and realized that even if they’re not immediately near me, there are people in this world who get it or are at least willing to listen.

        My experience with abuse has made me a vocal advocate for women’s rights. My abusive ex was always making me feel small and like my thoughts had no value. I was afraid to speak most of the time because I thought I was stupid in comparison to him. Freeing myself of him has involved being more vocal about what I believe in and sharing my opinions. I know what it’s like to be victim-shamed, have my struggles trivialized, and have no one sticking up for me. That’s why I’m so passionate about sticking up for other people even if I don’t relate to their struggle. People liked me better when I was quiet and they could mold me into whomever they wanted me to be. I’ve tried to be that quiet and submissive girl again because feeling disliked and isolated has hurt me more than anyone could understand. I spent a long time wishing the people I grew up with would accept me. Even my own circle of friends only seemed to include me in their group to be the designated butt of the joke. In recent years, it felt like people were finally starting to notice and like me. After my PTSD diagnosis and my shift in personality, I could feel everyone growing distant from me again. I tried and failed to go back to the more palatable girl because I now was able to have my own voice and as scary as it was I couldn’t give that up.

        PTSD is a daily battle and it impacts every aspect of my daily life. I’m afraid of being in a romantic relationship and can’t relate to my friends who are dating. PTSD has also limited who I can date. I learned from trying to date after abuse that not every guy will have the patience to handle someone who will be initially afraid of them and who will need regular reassurance. Not every guy will understand my anxieties and fears and too many people are quick to make assumptions based on the crazy girlfriend stereotype. I wake up many mornings consumed by fear and need someone who can help me cope with it instead of calling me irrational and a burden. I’ve also learned I have to tell anyone I date about my PTSD early on so I don’t waste my time with someone who will say something mean to me and hurt me. When I hurt, I hurt badly. I don’t want to risk that happening. This of course scares plenty of men away or gives them the idea that I’ll be easy to take advantage of and they play the good guy until they get what they want. Dating has changed forever for me.

        As lonely as it is to struggle with romantic relationships and friendships, I try not to get too upset about this and remind myself that this means I waste less time on the wrong types of people and have learned how to take care of myself and find fulfillment in things other than love. Struggling with agoraphobia could have made it easy for me to be dependent on someone else and I was able to get through my agoraphobia on my own. Having to push myself to leave my apartment and get in the car with no one there to help me if I ended up feeling scared at the last minute showed me I can be okay on my own and that reassurance soothes many anxieties I could potentially have. With all of the challenges I’ve faced, I’ve done a lot on my own and while it’s sometimes sad to not have anyone by my side I’m also proud of myself when I look back on how terrible I felt and how badly I wanted to die but somehow kept going with no one there to push me but myself. While my abuser made me feel like I was nothing without him, I now know that I don’t need anyone and that if I’m with someone it’ll be because I want to be with them.

        The battle of PTSD is how part of me is more confident in who I am than ever and part of me is more afraid than ever. I’m always fighting off the fear that everyone is talking about me and hates me. I’m always fighting off the fear that the man smiling at me wants to hurt me. I’m always fighting off the fear that I’m worthless and will never be happy. I’m always wondering if people are lying about being happy like I was and feel fearful over whether I can ever trust in the idea of one day being okay. At the same time, I have a deep awareness of what constitutes a healthy relationship and have chosen to surround myself with better people and speak up for myself. I now have a passion for something that involves helping and educating people. Through therapy, I’ve learned what I like and don’t like and who I want to be because I want it, not because I want to please someone else. I haven’t been perfect and hurt a lot of people but I’ve learned how to own up to my mistakes and apologize without manipulation, sympathy-seeking, or excuses. While I wish I could take back all of the trauma, I’ve learned so much about how to be a better person, what healthy relationships are, and how to help people with mental illnesses. I wouldn’t want to go back to who I used to be even if I could.

        As of today, I’m not happy but I’m trying to be. It’s hard to publicly write that because real emotions make people uncomfortable in this age of social media where everyone’s lives are perfect and negativity isn’t allowed. But it’s the truth. I’m back in therapy because I’m not okay but want to be. I’m hoping to one day be happier, find real love for the first time, and have a job that doesn’t make me worse. What I need is for everyone around me to not force me into being happy right away or assume that me having one good day means everything is fine now and then get mad when another bad day comes. Just like with a physical illness, PTSD comes with good days and bad days. I have this new badass ability to speak my mind without a filter and stay firm with my beliefs even if it risks my likability factor and yet I still battle the fear of what everyone thinks about me. Some of my struggles I keep to myself until one day it’s all too much and I breakdown. I don’t want to be given up on just because I may have more bad days than people without a mental illness.

        If you have someone in your life with PTSD or any other mental illness, please understand that it’s not their fault that they don’t think the way you do or that they’re different people than they used to be. They may not respond to the advice you’re trying to give them because PTSD makes everything much more complicated than just thinking positive. Even though we may be able to know when someone is being abusive to us, any reinforcement of trauma we’ve experienced will have an effect like how a survivor of a car accident feels panicked upon seeing a car wreck even if they’re not a part of it. Instead of trying to give advice, just listen. It may not feel like enough but it is enough to just say you’re sorry they’re hurting and that you love them. It is enough to just say they’re heard or give them a hug. If you care about that person, you have to accept the ways in which they’ve changed instead of expecting and help them find ways to use those changes for good the way I have.

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