What do you call having a profoundly psychologically harrowing life? I’ve had many labels
stamped on me over the past 10 years. I have been actively seeking relief from the emotional anguish which I have lived with everyday since I was old enough to understand the world around me.
When people are raised under complex, traumatic circumstances, it changes them. No two people have the same situation and no two people respond to growing up under huge stress the same way. What is clear is that when someone grows up with constant trauma, it follows them into adulthood and colors the character of the rest of their lives in one way or another.
Growing up was a nightmare, and it is why I struggle with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). My mother was a drug addict with mental health issues who abandoned me as a child to the Roman Catholic Church. They, in turn, placed me with an adoptive family. The process was messy and my adoptive family was extremely dysfunctional. I suffer from genetic issues and physical deformity as a result of my birth mother’s drug use. My early life was marred by frequent violence: beatings, bullying, ostracism, sexual abuse, and a general sense of constant fear.
Nevertheless, I endured. In fact, I excelled academically despite of the countless tragedies and difficulties I faced. My imagination and ability to make art kept me sane enough to stay alive during those years. As a teenager and young adult, I fell out with my adoptive family and ended up living on couches and falling in with drug dealers and burn-outs; the older I got, the grimmer things became. Eventually, a lot of luck and hard work saved me. And I managed to get a college degree and a stable job.
But the scar of all those years of struggle and fear left deep and ragged psychic scars; an
unending sense of emotional anguish: loss, fear, grief, betrayal. To this day, I struggle to make a life for myself. I build as best I can around the scars left behind, but I’m fundamentally unsure of how I can survive and thrive in the long-term.
I have been dealing with C-PTSD before I knew what it was called, before it was even an accepted diagnosis by any insurance carrier. Every morning I wake up exhausted – physically and emotionally. I have nightmares every night, often multiple times; I awake shaking, soaked with sweat, crying, raw. My muscles ache from being tense, and jaw aches from grinding my teeth. My body is always fatigued to the max and headaches are a constant problem. I get angry or frightened a lot; I can’t really trust my feelings or my body because it is so profoundly disconnected from what’s happening around me. A lot of me is stuck in the past and unable to heal, unable to move on.
Yet, my mind lives in the present – at least, sometimes. And I cope with things by being densely cerebral about everything, living my life as a series of logical deductions so as to circumnavigate my damaged emotional compass. Whereas the average person can usually trust their gut feelings and relax, I am physically unable to do either. I have lived feeling like I am about to die for so long that I’m extremely numb to most things. Numbness can look an awful lot like depression, and often people mistake the two. The numbness ebbs and flows, and when it wanes I am often overwhelmed by a profound and disabling sense of loss and hurt. I get flashbacks and the adrenaline rushes of “flight or flight” on a daily basis, and this makes staying in the present moment a Sisyphean task.
I have been trying to get professional help for just over 10 years now. C-PTSD is still too new, too controversial among for many providers – in fact, it still has yet to be recognized as separate from normal PTSD and lacks a formal mention in the DSM. For a long time there was debate in psychology on what to clinically call a person who experiences chronic, severe, traumatic emotional pain as a result of a long history of abuse and neglect; it is still hotly debated. Psychology as a science and practice is very young and heavily burdened by a long term pattern of denying the experiences of those it claims to help.
As someone with a lot of problems and no clear DSM label, seeking professional help has been extraordinarily hard. Only in the past few years have most providers begun to recognize C-PTSD as a real thing, though treatments remain experimental and expensive. Being studied, labeled, and dismissed over and over again, my psychological health processionals have left me very disheartened. I sincerely hope that one day psychologists can unbind themselves from the dogma of the DSM and unwritten laws of insurance carries and get to actually figuring out how to help people. Until then, I am on my own – forging my own path.
I cannot say I am okay, but I endure. I know that the pain I feel will always be a part of me, but I hope that one day I will no longer carry it as a great load and, instead, walk beside it as a companion.
For the past several years, I have been working in the area of legal advocacy for individuals with issues of mental health and poverty – seeking to helping homeless and mental ill people and petition for big changes in the system with regards to the way we see mental health, disability, and poverty. My experiences, personally and professional, have shown me in stark detail how we need to change the way our culture and government treat mental health.
Today I see big philosophical changes taking place about how we are talking about trauma and the impact of society on mental health. We need the momentum to continue and I challenge all of us to look to the future – myself most of all.