I Have CPTSD: Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 

I have complex post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as CPTSD. In fact, psychiatrists have diagnosed me with several mental health issues (bipolar II, depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and ADHD), and not only is CPTSD the most miserable, I wonder if it’s caused my other issues. The others respond easily to medication. I pop some pills, and I’m okay: wham, bam, thank you ma’am, you’ve fixed my neural pathways. But complex post-traumatic stress syndrome never leaves. I can’t truly medicate it away. It affects everything, from my haircut to my food choices to my parenting style. I can’t shake it.

I’m trying very hard. I have serious professional help, help that picks up the phone anytime I call, even at 8am on a Saturday morning. But recovery is scary. Recovery is hard-ass work. Recovery is a total life change. I have to rewrite my own narrative.

Symptoms of PTSD versus CPTSD

Most people know about PTSD: post-traumatic stress syndrome. We associate it most often with soldiers, or kidnapping victims: those who experience one traumatic event in their lives. According to Healthline, symptoms include flashbacks; avoiding situations that remind you of the event; “changes in beliefs and feelings,” such as distrusting people or “believing the world is a dangerous place”; hyperarousal, or being constantly “jittery” or “on alert”; and physical symptoms, like nausea or tenseness.

CPTSD is different. It comes from an ongoing series of traumatic events, such as child abuse, an abusive relationship, “being a prisoner of war,” or living in a war-torn area for a period of time. In addition to the symptoms of PTSD, Healthline says it generally includes “uncontrollable emotions” like anger or sadness; “changes in consciousness,” like “forgetting the event or feeling detached from it”; guilt or shame “to the point that you feel different from other people”; problems with relationships; and loss of “systems of meaning,” such as religion or long-held beliefs about the world.

I have every single symptom.

Causes of CPTSD

My CPTSD was caused by ongoing neglect by my narcissistic mother, which started at birth and endured, in various forms, until age forty. When I say “birth,” you’re probably throwing me side-eye. How can you neglect a newborn?

I didn’t have a name for a week. I was supposed to be a boy, and my mother was so sure of this she hadn’t picked girl names. When she finally did (seven days later), she named me “Elizabeth” — her mother’s middle name — because my paternal grandmother had no middle name, which somehow absolved her of naming me after my father’s mother. In other words: my very name comes from spite.

I spent a childhood scapegoated for my mother’s insecurities. This is typical of narcissistic family dynamics; one child is the golden child, one the scapegoat. My brother (then sister) was named after my mother fourteen months after my birth. His hair was lovingly grown down to his butt; he took the front seat without question; his accomplishments and friendships were celebrated. He was called a great softball and basketball player. My hair was hacked off. I was relegated to the back seat. I was told a variation of, “It’s your fault you don’t have any friends.” I was corrected and harangued for every single mistake I made when I rode horseback. I was verbally abused: I had no common sense. I was too sensitive. Did I have to be so difficult?

I was only complimented on my skeletal appearance. My severe depression and anxiety was never treated. My college major was a waste of time. My brother was given a brand-new car; I was given a series of beaters that broke down regularly.

I could go on. But you’ve got the idea.

Treating Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

CPTSD is generally treated through talk therapy. Some people choose cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps people to identify negative thoughts and replace them. They often take certain drugs for depression (usually SSRIs) in the short term.

Instead of cognitive behavioral therapy, I’m undergoing trauma therapy. This can take several different forms. However, my therapist sort of uses what’s called imaginal exposure. Basically, I talk about the trauma, and together, we examine the thoughts and beliefs that stem from it. For example, I struggled with anorexia in my teens, and it recurred about three years ago. While it’s been treated, I still have trouble with disordered eating.

Three years ago, my mother moved to our state.

I was never beautiful. But I was skinny.

Another example: at dinner, my brother and I would be, without warning (maybe once a month), suddenly and viciously berated for our laziness and ordered to clean up, which we were never asked to do at any other time. At family dinners with my in-laws, I immediately stand and begin clearing plates, always starting with my father-in-law’s.

My traumas run that deep: so deep that many of my likes (long blonde hair) and dislikes (olives) come not from me, but from a desire to please my mother and earn love I would never have. My therapist and I are trying to figure out what those are. It’s so hard. These things slam me at strange times. Oh God, that’s why I hate tomatoes. Fuck, that’s why I’ve never trusted female friends. That’s why I hate my name. That’s why I obsessively attachment parented: something deep down swore my children would never go through what I did. That’s why I was taught to hate rich people.

They pummel me. I lose it. I curl up and watch David Bowie videos.

How I’m Healing

I am now estranged from my mother. It started as a trivial event and snowballed into oh fuck, this is what happened to me.

With my therapist’s help, I’m learning to make my own choices. I changed my hair. I’m changing my name. I’m trying different foods. I am learning to choose for myself. Today I will throw out the special jeans I use to measure my weight, the fifteen-year-old jeans I have one memory of before fitting into them again: telling my mother they were a size 2.

I thought trauma therapy would be big things. It’s not. It’s all the small things, like Blink-182 says (I’m into punk again because I chose it for myself. I never liked it because my mother did). And those small things can tear you to pieces. I hated the beach because my mother hated the beach. I disassociated as a child and built elaborate, imaginary families; I thought I was an insane freak until my therapist informed me it was totally normal — and friends who had suffered trauma confessed their own imaginary worlds.

I do not know who the fuck I am. I am slowly learning this. It’s terrifying. But I am slowly learning myself. I am listening to MxPx and The Sex Pistols. I am buying new dishes — I only liked Fiestaware because my mother did.

I am determined to form a full, authentic life . I cannot cancel my trauma. It’ll always be part of me, and I can use it: it made me compassionate, kinder. I can tell my story, and maybe one person will read this and feel less alone. That’s worth everything. I wouldn’t erase my trauma, because I wouldn’t erase who I am.

I learned to live through it. I will learn to live with it, and more importantly, live past it.

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