I started trauma therapy about three months ago. When I realized my mother was a consummate narcissist, and that many of my psychological issues stemmed from emotional abuse and neglect, I realized I had CPTSD: complex post-traumatic stress syndrome. While PTSD is caused by one traumatic event, explains VeryWell Mind, CPTSD comes from exposure to multiple traumatic experiences lasting over months or even years. It typically arises from childhood trauma.
And I had plenty of childhood trauma. I was emotionally abused — told it was my fault I had no friends; frequently berated for having “no common sense”; often told I was “too sensitive.” I was relegated to the back seat while my brother (then sister) was given the front. My mother let his long blonde hair grow to his butt, while she hacked mine off. My parents ignored and dismissed my severe anxiety and depression. He was lavished with praise for being pretty. I was only praised for being thin. Even my accomplishments were diminished: in college, my mother showed no reaction to me going Phi Beta Kappa (an academic fraternity very few are invited to join). She never showed any interest in my writing and dismissed it with arguments that I should study computer science instead. I drove beater cars which regularly broke down; my brother, who lived much closer to my parents, was gifted with a brand-new car.
I was always less-than, always put down or ignored. My feelings had no validity. My parents berated me for ungratefulness.
When I realized I was suffering from CPTSD, I knew I needed some serious help. So I contacted a trauma therapist.
How My Trauma Therapy Works
I speak to my therapist once a week, and can call her if needed; she’s scheduled me for emergency sessions when I’ve melted down completely. I thought trauma therapy would deal with big things: my lack of friends, my untreated depression. It didn’t. Instead, we looked at events and feelings in my life that seemed normal, but instead caused trauma that simply built and built.
For example, when I was born, I had no name for a week, since my mother was so sure I would be a boy. Finally, she picked her mother’s middle name; she disliked my paternal grandmother — and she had no middle name, which absolved my mother from naming me after her. She never bought me my own toiletries: I was forced to use her deodorant, her tampons (far too big for a small teenager), her hair products. I was never shown how to do my hair, put on makeup, or shave my legs. She neglected to cut my fingernails — my aunt used to do it before I was allowed in her pool with other kids. I hated her for it then. I love her for it now, because she saw that neglect and did something about it.
I’d never realized any of these things were abnormal.
I’d never realized my verbal abuse was abnormal.
I’d never realized that a thousand small things came from a desire to please my mother and earn her love. When most of my hair fell out from a combination of anorexia and hypothyroidism, I began to wear a long blonde wig — the hair she never allowed me to have, but loved so much on my brother. I claimed until age forty that I hated raw tomatoes — because she hated raw tomatoes. I shoved down my musical tastes for hers. I starved myself because I was praised for being thin.
My therapist helped me discover these seemingly small details. I was not my own person, I slowly realized. I was a collection of trauma responses. It devastated me. I’d finish trauma therapy and faceplant on my bed, unable to do more than cry and watch David Bowie videos on YouTube.
But she helped me see that I wasn’t alone. “These things are normal for the child of a narcissist,” she’s say. “You’re normal. Your trauma will always be with you, and you need to accept that. But it doesn’t have to control you, and that’s what we’re going to work on.”
I’m Changing Now
It started small(ish). I lost my shit when I realized my name came about because of spite — I’d always cringed when I heard it, always hated it, and never realized why. I deserved a name that didn’t provoke that response, a name given in love. Self-love. I (think) I’ve finally settled on Zalie (Zay-lee): rearranged letters of Eliza. I love it, and I won’t have to legally change my name to have it.
Why did I love long blonde hair? Trauma therapy helped me discover that it was because my mother loved my brother’s long blonde hair. I didn’t love it. She did. I now have short black hair while my own grows out, and when it does, I’ll cut it into that same bob and dye it darker.
I obsessed about my weight because my mother only praised me for being thin. It didn’t heal my eating disorder, but I knew where it came from, and I can better manage it. I chucked the jeans I used to judge my weight (I’ve long known I can’t have a scale). Those jeans were fifteen years old, and my most salient memory of them had always been wearing them while I proudly told my mother I was a size 2.
I decided to try raw tomatoes. I liked them.
Trauma therapy showed me I didn’t hate the beach and prefer the mountains. My mother hated the beach. I liked both things equally, and was finally free to swim, enjoy my annual vacation to the Outer Banks with my in-laws.
But most of all, trauma therapy made me remember how much I love punk rock. It had always only belonged to me. My school friends didn’t introduce me to it, and my parents hated it. When I started college, I gave it up — subconsciously, to make my mother happy. I stopped dressing in punk clothes. I stopped listening to music I loved.
I decided, fuck that.
I started listening to punk again — not just what I loved in high school, but new stuff, too. I went to Hot Topic and bought those plaid pants I was never allowed to have. I bought band T-shirts. Every day, I wear a punk-ish T-shirt and a choker chain. I’m forty. I don’t give a fuck. I’m an old punk kid. I have my beloved pop punk back; I joined a bunch of punk Facebook groups, made friends, and started going to shows again. I skipped senior prom for a NoFX show. I deserve to have it back.
My parents refused to shell out for a drum set or lessons. So I bought an electronic kit and a subscription to Drumeo. I fucking play the drums. Am I good at it yet? Not really. But I practice every goddamn day. “Today is the worst you’ll ever be at the drums,” my husband tells me when I bitch about staying on tempo. He’s right.
Most of all, because of trauma therapy, I stopped believing I was a total failure at everything. I really thought that. I’ve written for Scary Mommy for years. I’ve written novels. I have an advanced degree and that Phi Beta Kappa thing; I’m an awesome mom. “You were treated like a failure so much you believe it,” my therapist told me, and I broke down completely. Now, when I begin to fall into those feelings, I know where they come from — and I can make them go away.
Maybe People Think I’m Weird
I’m forty years old. I lost forty years of my life responding to trauma rather than living as my authentic self. Since I’ve progressed through trauma therapy, I’ve stopped giving a fuck. Think my choker chain is stupid? Doesn’t matter. Don’t like my black hair? Go to hell, because I like it. Like one of my new favorite underground punk band, You Over Me, says, “I’ll never ashamed to be myself/ If you’ve got something to say, keep it to yourself… I’ll be who I am/ And damn I’m gonna own it.”
I can be proud of what I’ve accomplished. There will still be bumps in my road. I’m still kicking down roadblocks on memory lane, like they say in my favorite show, The Magicians (which I am no longer ashamed to love just because it’s niche). I’ll still break down sometimes. I’m not done.
But I’m becoming me. And that’s worth everything.