What IS complex trauma, redux
So... uh... I already recorded this episode. After I had been making this misguided, “Might as fucking well humiliate myself,” podcast for a few weeks it seemed like a good idea to take a step back and talk about the definition of this CPTSD thing that we’re all learning about. One day I had the tough love conversation with myself, "Stop assuming people know, asshat. This isn’t common knowledge, plus everyone loves to dispute the relevance of childhood trauma. Use your words, Jess."
So that's what I did. You know, I really had no idea what I was doing all along, so trying to define the dizzying experience of Complex Trauma was kindof a big feat. But I must have done okay, because that remains the most highly ranked episode.
So, uh, why the fuck am I going backwards in time-space and doing it again, you ask?
Honestly, it’s because a psychiatrist in Belgium told me she recommends this episode to her clients and asked for a transcript… to which, I was super excited and flattered that a professional thinks my two cents are relatable… but I had to admit that I have nothing to offer her as far as written resources.
See, the first time I did this, I was just fuckin riffing. Things had just started gaining momentum and I was trying to keep up. So, I wasn’t writing pieces for the podcast yet, I was just making things up as I talked out my ass or reading subpar blog posts willy nilly. And, uh, I guess that the free-form ranting went surprisingly alright? Hard to believe, honestly.
Anyways, the question remains, what did I even say the first time around?
I honestly have no idea. Pretty sure my mouth and my memory bank aren’t connected when I plug in my microphone, I basically just get hyped up on caffeine and peanut butter, and hammer shit out with zero fucks to give. Plus, you know I don’t listen to my own episodes because I don’t want to hear my own voice. And, clearly, that means I don’t want to spend two days trying to write out what I’ve already said.
I’m not a transcriptionist AND I don’t want to experience my weird voice in that much detail. Sounds like my worst nightmare. Plus, fuck, clearly I must have left some things out if I was just ranting off the cuff under the influence of anxiety.
So… that’s it, I’m just going to do it again. With STRUCTURE and a half attempt at PLANNING and DETAIL. We’ll see. Maybe my first improvised attempt is better than anything I could ever recreate in writing. Maybe I surprise myself and provide new insight and clarity that other professionals want to use.
Let’s find out.
Today, Fuckers, I’m talking about Complex Trauma. Again.
What IS it? How does it all start? What's the difference between PTSD and CPTSD? How do we cope early on? How does it ramp up to destroy us in about 20 years? What are the common mental and physical comorbidities? How do our families and friends play into our lifetime of trauma responses? What happens with our personal relationships? And what does it really feel like to be on the inside of this fancy form of PTSD that no one even wants to acknowledge - Psychology, work, or family-wise?
A dual-brain theory
I’m sure I’ve made this spiel too many times, possibly.
Let’s first talk about one really enlightening way to see our brains that human beings generally hate to consider, because, like assholes, we like to believe we’re holier than all other animals. Here's a quick biological model that helps me to understand and forgive a lot of my own trauma fuckery.
Figure this. We essentially all have two brains working in our heads at any given time. There’s our thinking brain - the logical, reasonable, analytical part that we walking primates like to point at as “our human brain” and “our consciousness.” It’s where we believe “our personalities” reside. It controls our ability for higher level thinking and information integration. You know, your prefrontal cortex and all its associated bells and whistles that made us the ruling, pretentious turds on this planet.
And then there’s our basic, primitive, rudimentary “survival brain.” This has barely changed since it was passed down from the first slimy thing that crawled out of the ocean, through our mammalian ancestors, from primate relative to primate relative... all the way to us. This part of your brain is where all your basic living functions take place. Your involuntary reactions and muscle movements, your reflexes, your desire to eat, drink, and bone. This is also where your very powerful neurotransmitters give the signal to fight/flight/fawn/freeze if a stimuli is detected to be a big threat.
As you might guess, this is pretty important to recognize in our trauma talk. Turns out, our slime-creature brains are still calling a lot of shots. You'll want to come back to this double brained idea a few billion times over the next 50 years, so commit it to memory now. Thank me when the epiphanies pop up later.
Okay, very basic brain physiology lesson over. Moving on.
But what IS trauma, in the first place?
So, trauma is fairly well accepted when we talk about violent, aggressive, drastic, dramatic events in life. When soldiers come back from war, when we experience disastrous car crashes, when we lose someone abruptly in our lives… we generally societally accept that these are trauma-inducing events at this point. (Quick sidenote: even that acknowledgement is extremely new in human history.) But, it turns out that trauma is a brain process that refers to so much more than gunshots, explosions, or the untimely death of a parent. At the root of it, “trauma” is actually a term for a pro-survival brain mechanism that goes awry.
When we experience something that is so far out of our prior understanding of the world that our big, impressive human brain can’t easily process or integrate the new data streaming in, it does something to keep us safe and breathing in the moment. It takes that information and files it away in a different place. Put a pin in it, let’s set it aside and come back to it later… right now, we need to worry about figuring out how to stay alive.
Essentially, instead of placing the memory in your usual thought bank, where your typical day-to-day operations and thinking patterns are evaluated and pushed to the "completed" pile, your brain incorrectly stores this new event as a fragmented file in a less-often accessed folder on your hard drive.
This is an amazingly smart thing to do, if you think about it. You can’t be bothered to sit around with your big fancy primate brain and deeply consider what’s just happened to you if you ARE in the middle of a warzone. You need to mobilize. Your survival brain needs to take over, engage your fight/flight/freeze/fawn responses, and get you the fuck away from the immediate risk to your survival and procreation potential.
It makes sense. Stay alive in the moment, figure out how this is possible in the context of your prior life and deal with your dumb feelings later. We'll push this to the memory bank when we have a spare moment. Thanks, brain, appreciate the prioritization.
The problem is, that secret, now-fractionalized memory? It isn’t gone. It’s never been integrated with your old way of seeing existence. It’s just floating around in your brain-computer somewhere, fairly undetected and unreachable. I guess that would be fine if it just, poof, disappeared the longer you ignored it… but the problem is, you won’t avoid it forever. Someday, neural pathways that lead back to this dark corner of your thinker-box are going to be utilized. Energy will flow from your safe, logical, voluntary thought circuitry… right down to the faulty coding that you previously buried.
When this happens, your brain suddenly has to reckon with the old information that it’s been strategically ignoring for, you know, months, years, or decades. No big deal. And after this immense delay, in different conditions and with more life experience under your belt, settling up the unexpected event with your more vanilla impressions of the world is still not so easy. There’s a great deal of messy, unsorted information connected to it.
When the traumatic coding is re-discovered, old memories might come flooding back - the sights, sounds, smells, sensations, and other stimulatory details from the original event. The sensory information may rush back with such vivid clarity that it can feel like being transported back in time to the unexpected occurrence in the blink of an eye. The trauma sufferer may find themselves reliving the event, but because the initial experience might not be accessible as a prior memory, it can all feel brand new. Like a hallucination, out of the blue.
The brilliant “forgotten” memory won’t just project the body and mind backwards into time, though. Since the traumatic happening was never processed like the rest of your recollections, stored away safely in the “been there, done that” box in your head, the brain and body might also react as though it’s your first time around the block. The trauma sufferer can have rapid survival responses as the event is re-experienced as though it’s still a current threat, not a past memory. The body is flooded with epinephrine as the ole lizard brain starts yelling fight/flight/freeze/fawn. Previously programmed adaptive survival pathways might light up like a Christmas tree. Old emotional responses and maladaptive behaviors jump to the front of the line, without a conscious thought from that buggy human programming.
These system malfunctions are what we talk about when we discuss flashbacks and triggerings. We'll come back to those later.
All you need to know is, the re-emergence of the unwanted memory is a confusing and complicated discovery. This data just doesn’t fit into the old programs that you’ve relied on for your entire life, and as if you’re trying to run software on two different operating systems, it causes your head to malfunction.
Once the fragmented recollection is brought up, it’s probably not going to be pushed back into some ignorable spam folder again so easily, either. Now that your brain has found the hidden browser history, it’s probably going to check back a lot more often, whether you want it to or not. This information has been moved up from highly ignorable background noise to the “oh shit, let’s figure this out” folder. Your head uses this compartment to resolve big, ongoing issues over time.
You know how you can ponder a question for a month, generally forget about it, and then have it spring back to the front of your head two years later when a solution finally presents? Same thing. Your head has an unsolved mystery, it's stewing over some data points that just don't align, and so it puts that problem in a special place where it can be easily accessed as new connections are drawn in your daily life.
As you stumble on this unwanted information time and time again, now seeing relations to the recently-found memory all over the place, weird system errors start popping up left and right. It's like you caught a brutal virus watching porn in the 90’s. You can’t even see the necessary programs through all the flashing pop-up windows anymore. Your head is spinning all the time and your ability to complete the tasks you set out for suddenly seems impossible. The processing capability of your brain computer, itself, might take a turn for the worse, as new information becomes increasingly difficult to interpret and store properly. It keeps diverting energy to unresolved memory, rather than letting you focus on more timely issues at hand.
SO. In simple terms, this fragmented, improperly stored memory in your brain is the underlying mechanism of trauma.
Seems simple to avoid it, though, right? Just don’t sign up for the armed forces and pray that your dad never gets trampled by a stampede of wildebeest, right? Newp.
The other important thing you need to know is that Trauma is SO MUCH MORE than being beaten, shot at, or ripped away from your loved ones. Like I said, trauma happens when your brain can’t understand new information that's too far outside the realm of your prior perspective of the world and how you fit into it. This means, almost anything can be a trauma. It just has to be an event unexpected enough to make your head go, “Wait… the fuck? I can’t even handle this right now.” and subvert the new info to a messy pile in the corner, rather than neatly editing it and putting it in the normal file cabinet.
This is the piece of the puzzle that I think most of us Complex Trauma folks have been missing. Sure, some of us have experienced violence, abuse, and first-hand encounters with near-death experiences… but a lot of our past trauma is much sneakier than that. It can be more related to what we didn't experience than what we did. And to make everything even more difficult to comprehend for CPTSD sufferers, most of it comes from the people who are supposed to love us the most - our families - at a time when we had no idea how those support units were supposed to function.
Let’s talk about the differences between PTSD and Complex PTSD.
Complex PTSD versus PTSD
Okay, I think trauma is a done deal. We get it. We’ve heard whisperings of it. We know that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a real mental disorder that comes with flashbacks, triggerings, and significant life deterioration. We know it's related to our memories and inability to integrate mismatching information.
But what’s the difference between PTSD and COMPLEX PTSD? Ooooh, my trauma is more complicated than yours is. Sounds like a brutal game of one-upping in which everyone loses, amiright?
Despite the name, the major differences are pretty simple.
First of all, PTSD generally refers to an acute trauma. Or, ONE experience that throws your head for a loop and causes processing errors down the line. Complex Trauma, on the other hand, is defined by pervasive traumatic experiences. So, we’re talking about a whole mess of events that baffle our brains, experienced over extended periods of time… but these events are not taking place at just at any point.
The second difference is that CPTSD is specifically related to our childhood traumas. You may have heard of these kiddo events as ACEs, or Adverse Childhood Experiences. Essentially, these are traumatic early life circumstances that are shown to be correlated to a decreased sense of safety, emotional health, and stability in children. If you want more information on ACEs… google it. There’s plenty of research, articles, and online quizzes to find out if your circumstances qualify. But don’t worry, I’m also going to put out an episode on ACEs one of these days. To be highly reductive, all you need to know is, a tumultuous childhood leads to a tumultuous adulthood.
In contrast to these childhood events, the term PTSD is generally used when we’re talking about a trauma that takes place during more mature ages, when our brains have formed more clear pictures of what “normal” should look like. This is why PTSD is usually discussed in the context of physical assault and endangerment - the BIG events that can affect a resilient adult in life-changing ways. But, still, keep in mind that an adult trauma could be finding out about a spousal infidelity, losing a job, or anything else that challenges the old ways of viewing normal life. No one has to be stabbed or disfigured for trauma to count.
Next, Complex Trauma is distinct from PTSD in another important way. The nature of the trauma.
CPTSD, in particular, is largely related to social and interpersonal traumas. Abuse, emotional neglect, and substance addicted family members are commonly described in relation to Complex Trauma. Other external factors, like poverty or experiencing natural disasters, can be grounds for CPTSD, as well, but the predominating traumas are connected to our early relationships in life.
Of course, this emphasis on our first personal connections means that most Complex Trauma sufferers suffered at the hands of their families and caregivers. Those who are closest to us as children and therefore expected to be our steadfast providers are most often the sources of early ACEs. As mammals, we’re inherently programmed to expect our family members to protect and support our development, but quickly experience brain short-circuits when they’re actually abusive or indifferent towards us. Our development is actually delayed or disturbed by these social failings. We're such a social species that our brains can be changed forever by the negative experiences we have early on.
In short, our families aren’t exactly the picture of nuclear perfection… and there’s a good chance that they never learned how to be, because of their early experiences causing similar brain alterations. More on that later.
First, let me just ask… Do you think there’s a sizable difference between PTSD and Complex PTSD caused by the dissimilar characteristics of these two trauma disorders? Aw, yeah, Fucker, there sure is.
Specialties of Complex PTSD
Because of the dissimilar timing, intensity, and nature of the traumas, there are some subsequent contrasts in long-term effects and recovery prognosis for both. Very broadly speaking, PTSD is going to be a bit easier to handle, because the subject has a larger pool of life experiences to call on, the wherewithal to identify their trauma, and the ability to make life changes to avoid further negative events.
For instance, being mugged at gunpoint at the age of 22 is definitely a trauma that could cause post-traumatic symptoms down the line. But, the difference is that the victim has plenty of prior experiences with walking down the street and not being mugged. They know this isn’t a normal, everyday event. They can look at that occurrence, notice that there are before and after effects in their life, and deduce that they were affected by this unfortunate aggression. Even recognizing that there is the potential for PTSD is enormously helpful in understanding their new mental quirks. Having a narrative of “I felt safe until the day that I didn’t” is heartbreaking, but it does allow them to pinpoint the cause of their distress. That’s powerful.
Furthermore, their relatively long life history tells them that being outdoors past dark doesn’t always lead to violence. This was a remarkable event - not an indicator of how everything works in the world. This prior life experience makes it less likely that they’ll develop a generalized fear response to the stimuli that were present that evening - a phobia. They won’t necessarily believe that a masked gunman is waiting around every corner, because for 22 years, that assumption was disproved every time they went outside. They have experiences to draw upon for questioning their new fears via critical thinking.
Lastly, at this age and under these circumstances, the individual will also have the option of altering their lives to institute a safer MO and decrease the likelihood of enduring a mugging event again in the future. Maybe they will avoid walking down certain streets or leaving the house late at night. Maybe they’ll decide to take a self-defense class or apply for a conceal and carry license. These factors may feel like they’re letting their life be controlled by the traumatic event, which is unfortunate… but having the option to make these alterations can also make it a bit easier for PTSD sufferers to find empowerment and a sense of control as they begin trauma recovery.
With Complex Trauma, on the other hand, everything is different. Because the trauma takes place early in life, the individual necessarily doesn’t have a wide range of previous experiences to demonstrate what’s normal and what’s super fucked. They don’t have a bank of happy, functional memories to rely on. They usually can’t point at a single event and say, “I was happy, autonomous, and optimistic before X happened and my brain changed.” This shrouds Complex Trauma in a veil of mystery and confusion that leaves the sufferer feeling insane, other, and broken, you know, potentially from birth. No big deal.
Since their traumas take place at the hands of family members or caregivers, for individuals with Complex PTSD, everything often seems totally normal to them. Their mom and dad taught them that life looks a certain way, and there’s no reason to expect that they would be treated in a different manner elsewhere. They don’t know that there’s any other way for moving through the world, or there’s another option for associating with other human beings. Their expectations and coping behaviors are set in stone during the developmental stages of life.
CPTSD sufferers only know life being one way - and that manner of existing is something they learn to anticipate without realizing there are other options or having choices in the matter. Children don’t have the power to make changes in their lives, in most situations. They’re “trapped” in their circumstances and necessarily adapt to the situation, rather than removing themselves from the dangers. The threats to their safety are too big for them to fight, quite literally. This is how the survival mechanisms of Freeze and Fawn come about, as well as one of my least favorite CPTSD hallmarks - learned helplessness.
Finally… one additional point about how elusive and challenging Complex Trauma makes life in the context of our families of origin. When you grow up surrounded by trauma and dysfunction, with everyone around you speaking in similar language, what do you think happens to your long-term outlook? Any chance it’s going to be harder to spot the interpersonal downfalls? Think maybe there are some sneaky, maladaptive beliefs about the universe that get programmed into those tiny heads?
There are. I call them Fucked Up Core Beliefs.
Let’s talk about FUCBs.
Inner world of CPTSD; FUCBs
How would one characterize the internal environment of a Complex Trauma sufferer? Uh, is “brutalcore” an allowable description?
As mentioned earlier, we’re designed to have a broad perception of the world which includes our experiences and perceptions of all this cool molecular junk around us in the physical realm. This perspective includes how things traditionally happen - what we should expect from our environment and the ways we should and shouldn’t move through it.
When we’re young, our brains work very hard to figure out these relationships so we have some sort of plan waking up every day and setting out to accomplish our necessary tasks. This means we’re continually looking around, examining the landscape, and forming internal programs based on our past histories that direct our future behaviors.
If you’re raised in a family that operates… uh… let’s say “less than functionally” when compared with the rest of the planet, what do you think happens to our early perceptions of the universe? Maybe we wind up with destructive ideas implanted in our heads as we try to make sense of the abuse, addiction, and aggression all around us? Maybe we don’t see life through the same rosie glasses as our peers? Maybe we also start to see ourselves with skewed lenses?
Yep. That’s the ticket.
These core belief systems that are supposed to guide us through life successfully are deeply ingrained in our psyche, giving us altered views of the world and how we fit into it. When all you know is interpersonal strife and struggle, your brain is bound to get some colorful ideas about what normal looks like and how to deal with it.
The difficult part is, these ideals are established so early and thoroughly through our social learning that we generally have no idea what is or isn’t accurate. These beliefs have been imparted in us from the beginning; we’re learning about how we fit into the environment starting all the way from birth…. But actually, these belief systems probably go back even farther. We’re talking about the effects of generational trauma and dysfunction, handed down from father to father.
If we’ve never known a life without these massive ideations, can we detect what’s valid and what’s based on human misbehavior? If our families have been raised with the same core beliefs, do we have a single goddamn chance of choosing a different path?
Not easily. We get inundated with dysfunctional core operational systems that we can’t even differentiate from our own outlook and opinions. They form the ways we interpret the entire world. They shape the ways we regard ourselves and others. And we basically have no wherewithal or choice in the matter.
Isn’t that fucked up? Sure is. Hence, Fucked Up Core Beliefs.
Considering these brain patterns are so elusive… How will you know when you’re entertaining a FUCB? Well, if you can envision someone else speaking the sentiment out loud and your inherent response being, “Wait, that’s really fucked up,” - congratulations, you’ve stumbled upon a FUCB! It’s hard to identify them in ourselves… much easier to spot them from an objective view.
I don’t deserve nice things.
Nothing ever works out for me.
I’m doomed to always be this way.
No one cares about me.
I’m a burden on everyone.
It’s better to just be alone.
I’m not one of those people who has money.
I just rub people the wrong way.
Things aren’t ever going to get better.
If any of these sound familiar, or tangentially related to something you occasionally fall back on when you’re falling apart… yep, those are Fucked Up Core Beliefs. You’d never agree with them if your best friend uttered the words, right? You’d have to question their certainty about such broad, sweeping shit-views and give them a reasonable critical once-over, yeah?
Right. And you’re going to have to start identifying them in yourself so you can dispel their assumed reliability, too.
Trust me when I say, you’ll probably be discovering these crappy ideas for the rest of your life. And every single time, your first response (if you’re anything like me) will be, “shit, how did those words just concretely come to mind? That’s totally fucked.” FUCBs.
Next up, as your brain tries to understand this human existence in the context of a social dumpster fire… How do you learn to see yourself moment to moment?
Inner world with CPTSD: Inner Critics
Let’s take things one depressing step further! What else gets inextricably confused with your early trauma experiences? Not only your views of the world and how it’s appropriate to function in it… but your views of yourself and your own worth. Time to talk about Inner Critics.
So, humans have an interesting social adaptation that’s meant to keep us safe in a tribe setting. The purpose is to establish an understanding of societal expectations and finding security in our personal connections. It’s a self-evaluative process that takes place in the ole brain box when we’re around other members of the species - some call it the Looking Glass Self.
Essentially, based on others’ responses to our social attempts, we start to learn where we fit in the herd hierarchy. This makes plenty of sense from a survival standpoint, but it’s also wildly inaccurate. You know, you can’t really judge what’s going on with the electrons flying around in someone else’s head based on the look on their face. But our brains really do their damndest to make heads or tales from contextual clues.
So, again, when your early experiences included nothing but dysfunctional connections - relationships with narcissists, addicts, indoctrinated religious fanatics, or just other Traumatized Motherfuckers with less self-awareness… how do you think those inner social reflections are going to look? Again, if you guessed, “totally brutal,” you would be correct.
Because our original social connections were likely defined by neglect, temperamental fluctuations, and bullying, we didn’t have a great opportunity to develop an accurate view of how our little kid beings were allowed to exist. We probably experienced a lot of tumultuous times that forced our brains into considering what we did wrong to receive such treatment. This is especially true if we come from hot and cold households, where things are stable one day and completely batshit the next.
Trying to figure out how we caused the upset is a natural brain mechanism. Unfortunately, it forms a self-blaming (and shaming, but more on that later) view of ourselves in our heads. One that has been with us from the very beginning of our young lives… so it’s pretty well fixed as we continue to grow and develop over time.
This, unfortunate frans, is where we wind up with shitty “thinking voices” in our heads that we call our Inner Critics. And lawd, are they assholes.
If you’ve ever laid around for a week or eight, telling yourself you’re a selfish piece of shit who drives everyone away and doesn’t deserve to be on this planet for the sake of every other human… you have made contact with your Inner Critic. If you consistently say “I’m not good enough and I can’t do it,” you’re no stranger to this cuntbag between your ears. If you can’t stand to receive a single piece of criticism, because the screaming bully in your skull already has too much ammo to handle, you’re well acquainted with this shit-slinging naysayer.
Sorry about that, Fucker. Your Inner Critic is going to be one of your biggest enemies in this trauma recovery trek. You will have to get closer before you can silence them enough to make big moves in your life. Because how hard is it to start a new, healthy routine or seek mental health support when your own brain is telling you that you aren’t deserving or capable? Pretty impossible.
It's difficult to take steps in the right direction when you don’t consider yourself worthy of a single thing. Don’t worry, with enough practice you’ll learn to shut this Karen down, eventually. When the whispers start wearing you down with crippling criticisms that halt your every activity… you’ll need to learn to shut that bitch up.
Don’t get me wrong, coming to terms with your Inner Critic is a fight. It’s not easy when you’re chasing faint tracks in the sand that were laid down decades ago - all the while, telling yourself you're a fat lard who won't ever catch up. It's an unfair race, especially, since most of us won’t even hear the utterance of the words “Complex Trauma” until waaaay after the self-esteem damage has been done.
This brings me to the next incredibly challenging part of the CPTSD life. The distance between trauma onset and post-traumatic symptom emergence.
So, you’ve been feeling like shit for a little while now, huh? It’s probably taken a while to get to this point, where you’re seeking help and getting a new answer? Maybe you’ve had a lifetime of depression and anxiety symptoms that made you feel different and alone. But let me guess… things ramped up at some point or another, kindof out of the blue?
Yep, that’s another fun part of this Complex PTSD life. The signs are there, somewhat subtly in the background, or, at least muted enough that you could turn off your feelings and self-medicate to get through the day, for some years. Things are a bit off, but you manage to keep things together… enough.
And then one day it’s like you were hit by a train. Suddenly, occasional mental illness ‘quirks’ have become major pieces of your daily existence. All new issues are popping up left and right. You don’t seem to have control of your thoughts or feelings anymore. You’re baffled by the wild swings that you’re experiencing in emotions, cognitions, and lifestyle. You just can’t seem to pull it together again. You aren’t showing up for your obligations or old interests. You don’t really have interests anymore, besides Googling shit late at night. You fear that all of these newfound tendencies are actually parts of your personality that were hidden for the past lifetime.
One of the weirdest parts of Complex PTSD is the delayed start that often characterizes individual experiences. Maybe you were a bit of a challenging kid in certain respects, but CPTSD doesn’t generally show up with full force right away. Instead, it seems to erupt out of more manageable symptoms one day, or slowly enters the picture to gain momentum step by step over the course of years. Once it’s gained territory, though, the hallmark comorbidities of Complex Trauma tend to explode with increasingly terrifying symptoms that stick around with a stubborn, life-changing grip around your neck.
For most CPTSD sufferers, depression and anxiety are early experiences with the larger diagnosis. They may spend their adolescence plagued with dark days, social disruptions, and anxiety disorders. However, despite these mental health downfalls, many folks with Complex Trauma learn to leverage their hypervigilance and stress responses into massive accomplishments. The other half of CPTSD sufferers will choose the more avoidant route of coasting through the obligations of life. A lot of this split in the road has to do with Advantageous Childhood Experiences that counteract your other ACE's - but that's another story. Either way, once the ball gets rolling, gear up for a total life upset.
From the early seeds of depressive episodes, suicidal ideations, and generalized anxiety eventually come the continual days, weeks, and months of mental distress and personalized torture. Suddenly, the depression is too great to get out of bed or put down the snacks. The anxiety has grown to monumental panic-attack proportions that are actually limiting your functional living. The obsessive thoughts have become so intrusive that concentrating on daily tasks is impossible.
The trigger for these escalating mental disorders varies from human to human. The causes can range wildly. Everything from having a single triggering experience that pulls up a whole host of repressed memories to experiencing another trauma that suddenly sparks those old, unwanted data points is fair game. Receiving unpleasant news, having a system breakdown, or slowing down in life can also allow the faulty coding to come into view, drumming up exciting new mental illness symptoms. Hell, maybe you just spontaneously combust one day as your brain accidentally finds that crumpled up memory shoved under the bed.
The point is, once your unwanted trauma file is recovered, everything starts to get harder. Just getting to work each day feels like a monumental feat. Seeing friends or leaving the house starts to be an incredibly stressful experience. Running to the grocery store is enough to spark a panic attack. Spending time alone with yourself is an excruciating request, essentially as attractive as chewing off your own arm.
And then come the big-hitting mental disorders, comorbidities, and physical ailments. Buckle up, we’re in for a wild ride.
Welcome to CPTSD: Triggers and flashbacks
We’ve already briefly talked about triggers and flashbacks. Namely, the physiological way to think of these unwanted throwbacks - basically, they’re your old, unprocessed memories being unexpectedly rediscovered like a Facebook notification that’s reminding you of something on your timeline a year or twenty ago.
But in functional terms, what are these experiences like?
Well, first of all, a “trigger” (I hate that term, by the way) is anything that causes your brain to run old programming which creates a chain reaction in your head and your body. When a stimulus is detected it sends electrons from your receptor cells up the branches of your nervous system back to your brain, yeah? Yeah.
In the brain, an existing pathway is suddenly excited by this information… but it’s not a great trail to be following. In fact, it’s a neurological connection that contains a lot more data than you were ready for. Again, just like our trauma talk, this excitation has reached some unprocessed or fearful information from the past, stored to be readily accessible in your thinker. Because the data hasn’t been integrated properly into your “this is old, currently irrelevant shit” memory compartment, your brain gets confused. It’s like you’re experiencing the associated stimulation for the first time. And, again, it’s not pleasant.
You might experience neurological and physiological upset in the blink of an eye, at a time when the signals coming from your head are completely inappropriate or out of context. The associated troublesome memory isn’t directly related to the circumstances at hand, but it is “triggered” as though you’re experiencing it all over again. The same thoughts and sensations, with the same intensity, come streaming back into your human meat jacket.
Triggers can result in any number of things flooding your system, not just panic. This is one reason why I hate the word, in particular. It always seems to be used in relation to internet whiners claiming that they’re having mental breakdowns. And, maybe those cases are legitimate… I don’t want to dispel anyone’s experience… but many seem reductive and overly dramatized. Or maybe I’m just a cranky old asshole (I am).
In reality, though, triggers can lead to a lot more than anxiety attacks and attention-seeking posts on social media. A trigger doesn’t have to cause an acute brain shutdown and bountiful tears. Sure, panic attacks and overwhelm is possible… but you can be triggered and experience things like old memory recoveries, survival system arousal, and repetitive thought patterns, too. They might not be an acute experience - you can be triggered into a trauma response that lasts for days or weeks.
If that's not destructive enough, you can also be triggered into such an immersive bodily recollection that you actually start to see, hear, smell, and feel old stimuli that’s linked to the brain pathway, as if it’s happening in real time. The memory feels so fresh and raw that you’re actually transported back in time to re-experience the circumstances of the trauma. This would be what we regularly call a flashback.
In short, a flashback is when your brain forgets what it’s purposely forgotten, spontaneously finds that misplaced memory, and tells you it’s happening again.
At the time of the original event, all of the stimulation streaming in was probably so overwhelming that your head decided to just bury that shit along with the memory of the event. Now, striking on that old recollection brings back all the systemic information that also needed to be pushed aside so you could function in the moment and keep breathing.
Makes sense, right? This is why soldiers can be triggered by loud sounds, darkness, or open spaces into a state where they literally can see, hear, and feel the explosions around them. It’s also why loud noises around the house, harsh voices, and exasperated sighs can cause us to see the faces of our parents, hear their berating tones, and tense our bodies in preparation to run. Why some people make you irrationally uncomfortable in a fearful way. Why an off-color social interaction can leave you ruminating over unrelated events from a decade earlier.
These interrelated brain mechanisms are easy to understand objectively, but nearly impossible to contend with in the moment when they’re happening. It feels like losing control of your faculties and your physical body. Oftentimes, extreme anxiety, fear, and depression will follow these fleeting events. And the worst part is, once the triggers and flashbacks start, they don’t often stop. You can live without a single incident for 25 years, but once it occurs (just like trauma) it seems like your brain starts pinging that old memory pathway more and more often.
And that causes a lot of new problems.
Intrusive thoughts, obsession, and mental health degradation
With these increasingly frequent and upsetting mental ailments come… well… a lot of thoughts about said new experiences.
Obviously, you’re going to be a bit freaked after you just felt your body catapult you into a straight-up survival scenario from 1985. The first time you relive the most terrifying moment of your life isn’t something you forget and move on from easily. And now these experiences are increasing? Aw fuck no. Brain don’t know what to do with that.
I think it comes as no surprise, as these trauma-related brain hiccups continue, you struggle to ignore each incidence. You don’t really know what’s going on. Even if you’re reasonably trauma-aware, I think the experience is very different from the abstract information presented in a psychology book or a mental health awareness post. Besides, this might be your first real indication that you have trauma in your past, at all. It probably always seemed like something that happened to “other people” until the day when your body was quaking with adrenaline, you were hyperventilating, and you could hear the sound of your mother’s voice assaulting you as you spontaneously collapsed into screaming tears.
What happens next? Oh, you start obsessing over it. No big deal.
Not only will your triggers likely cause you to have repeating thoughts on a loop - sentiments that were attached to the original event, or distant memories that just keep rising to the surface as disturbing recollections out of context - but your fears over what’s been happening to you will create a vicious cycle of brain and body activation.
Yep, you’ll probably start to compulsively think about your compulsive thoughts that your brain never wanted to think about in the first place. Whew, re-read that one a few times. The sentence is purposely as messy as the experience.
What’s worse than having triggering flashback experiences in the first place? Ruminating over the last one while actively fearing the next occurrence. This is how we start traveling down a path of semi-self-aware shittery that has no answers, only more questions. It’s how we start seeing our attention spans dwindle. It’s how we lose all sense of control. It’s how we fear that we’re losing our minds.
The intrusive and obsessive thoughts that start cropping up with heightened trauma responses, anxiety, depression, physical ailments, and repressed memories… oh, Fucker, they’re going to be rocking your world. When you’ve never experienced something like this before but it’s suddenly becoming the norm, your brain has no other choice but to run through the events on repeat. It wants to resolve the questions with reasonable answers and move on, but it’s lacking some missing puzzle pieces.
You may or may not want to consider this, but this obsessive response is in the same vein as a new trauma. A novel experience that changes what you expect from the world is abruptly shoved into your personal repertoire of possibilities? Yep, more or less a similar brain process. The difference between “expected” and “actual” is too great to neatly process the event and put it back on the shelf where it belongs. Instead, you just keep refolding the disastrous blob of shapeless fabric and trying to force it the same shape as a tee-shirt... similar to my battles against a fitted bed sheet.
Without answers to lay your concerns to rest, you start worrying all the time that it’s about to happen again. A flashback, a panic attack, a weird sickness, a major bout of anxiety or depression - these all become daily threats to your wellbeing that you can’t predict or influence. You’re always on high alert, chronically stressed and anxious over the possibility of being excruciatingly stressed and anxious.
You incessantly search for answers - generally, through online searches at 3am while you lie awake. Just saying. Not the best research approach. You have a million possible answers floating around in your head, but none of them really explain the whole ordeal or make you feel any better. With the sleepless nights and constant brain-fatigue, you can’t control your thought direction very well anymore. Your focus begins to fade. You just want this all to end, but like a Chinese Finger Trap, the harder you thrash, the worse it gets.
Eventually, you try to avoid the potential causes of your mental disorder uprisings like the plague. You shut yourself off from the world to minimize the number of factors that could overload your brain or keep yourself in situations where it feels “safe” (relatively speaking) to have a fucking meltdown. You start to feel like an invalid. Your life gets very small.
In the absence of other humans, entertainment, and life experiences… your intrusive and obsessive thoughts only have the power to grow louder. Your distress gets larger. Your mental health sinks lower. Your old pals, anxiety and depression, are no longer mildly uncomfortable inconveniences that you occasionally have to deal with - now, they’re ways of life. Constants, from the moment you open your eyes til the moment… well, your eyes are still open because you haven’t slept in 6 months.
And with all this constant system stress comes… you guessed it, surprising physical ailments.
I suppose it’s no surprise that when your mental health is firmly rooted in the garbage disposal, getting yanked and severed into a million pieces, your physical health isn’t long to follow.
I’ll spare you the physiological details - I find them over-discussed and easily Google-able. The book The Body Keeps The Score will change your life, if you haven't read it yet. Plus, who has the attention span to remember all the unnecessary biological details? The fact is, when you grow up in an unstable, insecure, dangerous environment… your brain expects that the world is unstable, insecure, and dangerous. This sends signals to your body that you need to be prepared for the worst at every moment. Who knows when you’ll be under attack again.
The result? Your body is riled up with pro-survival hormones, waiting for disaster. Disaster never comes, your brain never settles on down, and so you continue to pump out “oh shit” chemicals on repeat. When your biological system is consistently on overdrive, clearly something is eventually going to go wrong.
This is where our next Complex Trauma treat comes into play. Our immune systems react in individually unpredictable ways to the continual parade of alarm bells and fire alarms.
After being ramped up or damped down for months or years at a time, it makes sense that something is bound to go awry in your delicately balanced biochemical reactor. When your immune system goes, well, you’re pretty fucked. You might find yourself dealing with chronic pain, GI problems, auto-immune diseases, or just strange numbers of head colds and fevers that no doctor can quite explain. Gum disease, rheumatoid arthritis, Reynaud’s disease and random respiratory infections are all fair game.
Besides our immune dysfunctions, there are tons of other trauma-correlated ailments that don’t necessarily have a great explanation at this point in time. For instance, many PTSD sufferers discuss horrific acid reflux, which has yet to be connected back to anxiety or trauma by science, but can’t be coincidental based on the sheer number of reported experiences. Many other folks talk about blaring migraines and debilitating muscle aches, namely, tension headaches and unmendable neck/shoulder pains.
Besides these fun festivities, plenty of us have also experienced abrupt dietary allergies and sensitivities. Guts of steel one day, suddenly unable to eat off the regular menu the next. Of course, with this rapid shift in GI health, we’re unlikely to immediately understand the cause. Many Traumatized Motherfuckers will go through years of torment and ineffective home remedies trying to figure out why they suddenly can’t seem to eat a bite without their bodies revolting with inflammatory responses and angry poops.
The worst part of this, besides every part of this, is the lack of care or answers you’ll probably receive. At best, if you see a medical professional you’ll probably get a prescription for antibiotics, a beta blocker, and a shrug as they cite psychosomatic illness and send you out the door. Doctors aren’t very knowledgeable or in-tune when it comes to the crossover between brain disorders and body malfunctions. Modern medicine hasn't caught up with the holistic view of humans as animals.
Do your best not to take it personally when doctors and nurses treat you like a lying basket case. Just realize that medication can’t really help you, even if they gave two shits. Western medicine won’t iron out your issues. Taking pills will just put bandaids on your ailments while the underlying problem continues to rage. Fixing your head will fix your body. So you’d better get started, if you’re tired of perusing WebMD until the wee hours of the morning.
This brings me onto my next point. If you’re afraid that you’re losing your gotdamn mind… well… you're not the only one. But you’ll definitely feel like you are. And that's grounds for a new method of personal torture.
If there's one thing that we find hardest to understand and combat, it might be dissociation. There's so much to say about this escape-mechanism topic. Everything from your emotional numbing to your faulty memory to your sense of having no idea who you really are is caused by dissociation. And, unfortunately, it becomes a go-to strategy under many forms of duress, including your physical discomfort.
Essentially, dissociation is disconnecting your logical brain from your environment - bodily and your actual surroundings. It's almost like pulling pieces of your thinking organ apart; isolating and utilizing distinct areas for the sake of sanity and survival, while other components are powered down for their own protection.
This is why, say, you feel disembodied during extreme stress. Why you can't feel anything at all some other days. Why you have trouble living your life, rather than watching yourself do it. Why you forget that you're supposed to do X, Y, and Z to take care of yourself, blackout, and realize you did A, B, and F instead.
It's even why people around you might make accusations that you have several sides or a split identity. I mean, you sort of do. And that's where involuntary dissociation and Dissociative Identity Disorder comes into the picture.
To radically oversimplify a highly complicated idea, some psychologists now believe that during our early traumatic events, we learn to dissociate to protect ourselves. We disconnect from our real environment and escape to a calmer place. We also learn how to act like someone else in order to keep the peace. Additionally, the shame that we suffer from our perceived social failure can cause us to identify "ourselves" as "me now" versus "me then."
This degree of dissociation is pretty normal in a Complex Trauma sufferer. We need to survive massively upsetting events, so we teach ourselves to mentally dip when danger is in view. Unfortunately, we do it with such efficiency over time that we can eventually lose control of the defense function. It becomes easier and easier to accidentally slip into some in-between world, where we're half-present and half-running on our lizard brain to go through the basic motions.
Sometimes these extreme survival adaptations can even change our brains to the extent of forming separate personalities which have been shaped by the environment. This is where DID - Dissociative Identity Disorder - comes into the picture.
If you've ever had the sense that you weren't one cohesive human being with predictable personality traits, interests, reactions, and perspectives... you might have DID, or the less dramatic phenomenon, a fragmented view of self.
Don't worry, you aren't insane. It's a common experience. It's born of those traumatic events that forced you to become someone outside of your inherent being and your strong will to survive. Adapt to dangerous situations and live. But, you might learn to compartmentalize pieces of your personality to do so. And, as always, your brain might become a little too skilled in this task - causing it to involuntarily make adjustments for you, depending on the circumstances.
What's one of the strongest triggers for dissociation? It's our next topic, coming at you hot.
Time to go back and talk about big parts of our new continually activated trauma responses: Shame, depression, and how this spiraling shitshow creates a tendency for social isolation. Which only creates more shame and depression. Complex Trauma is an apt name, huh.
Okay, so to back this up a step or two, remember how CPTSD is generally created by social interactions and insecure attachments early in life? We form self-evaluations around that time based on how others react to us? These are survival mechanisms and pro-social adaptations thanks to our history of evolution.
The other important aspect that directs our outward interactions? Shame.
Shame is our emotional response to social stressors. If we feel as though we’ve done something wrong, specifically in a social context, we wind up with shame. Close relatives are worry and guilt - but they are different, largely because of the explicit social aspect of shame responses.
What’s the purpose of shame? It’s to tell you when you’re in danger of being kicked out of the herd, to put it in extreme terms. You don’t want to be out in the wild surviving on your own, so our bodies developed an internal regulatory system that tells us when we’re acting in line with social norms and when we’re toeing the line of losing our support system.
The discomfort we feel during a shame attack is often a painful, twisting sensation in our stomach with a sharp, tight feeling in the chest. For me, a healthy dose of shame also gets served up with some fear/stress responses. A pounding heart, shaky body, hypertensive pressure in my head. Why? Because this dumb body wants me to know that I’m putting myself at risk of losing all my friends and comrades. “You should be scared, bitch. You’re about to be on your own.”
The problem with shame in the context of Complex PTSD is… well… we have too much of it. There’s a recommended daily serving that stops us from becoming unwashed, unfiltered, psychopaths... but through our early trauma experiences, we’ve been programmed to become glutinous on shame.
Because our early challenges usually included social rejection or direct abuse, we learned to turn on those shame pathways as young kiddos. All the humans around us acted in ways that threatened our safety in the tribe, so we internalized those signals to mean something about us, rather than seeing our authoritative family members as the root of the problem. Again, how could we recognize their dysfunction before we were even out of diapers? We couldn’t.
Instead, we learn to blame ourselves. To constantly feel as though we’re fucking up in a social context.
We also might learn to internalize our early traumatic experiences as a way to explain them. Our human brains need “reasons” for everything to function properly. They want to make sense of our worlds. And so, they’re inclined to take our young traumas and spin them into tales of self-blame.
Having now taken the horrible events on your own shoulders… Do you think we’re especially motivated to think or talk about those experiences? Nope, obviously not. Shame leads to silence. This is why Complex Trauma sufferers are unlikely to seek treatment or disclose their early lives to other humans. The fear of additional social stigma and shame drives us into secrecy. We learn to hide ourselves. We try to function with our mental illness behind closed doors. And we’re unlikely to get the support, education, or professional help we need to approach the underlying problems.
When our shame responses are super-human strong, this obviously creates a lot of negative downstream effects, besides being really uncomfortable, self-hating, and unlikely to get psychological help. Namely, we also learn to either avoid all social connections down the road and save ourselves the imminent heartbreak of ruining another relationship…. or to punish ourselves with deepening shame spirals to make sure we never make the same mistakes again. Or both. Take your pick.
Obviously, neither of these is a great long-term solution. Over time, they will both lead to the same place.
Let’s discuss isolation and life-shrinking depression.
Depression and Isolation
If you don’t feel like you can have a social life without committing social suicide, what’s the next course of action? Well, if you’re like me, your social failures are so deeply painful that you’d rather just… commit real suicide, honestly.
“I don’t want to put this on myself or others ever again. I just can’t seem to be the person I need to be for other humans. And I’m really fucking tired of the old abandonment pattern that dominates my relationships. SO, I’m just not going to do it anymore.”
Lock myself in a room with an endless pile of work and throw away the key. OR, more likely in my past - lock myself in a room with an endless pile of self-hatred, snacks, and exhaustion and wait to die.
There are probably a lot of dark days, where you feel so individually fucked that you’d rather just keep your mess away from other humans. You might have suicidal ideations as you consider a life where this constant misery is the norm. It’s hard to imagine a brighter future when you’re not in control of anything going on in life, even from inside of your being. Plus, the nonstop pain and illness isn’t doing your will to live any big favors.
When we don’t feel safe or capable in the social world, our brains and bodies just want to protect us from the positive punishment of imparting shame on ourselves. It doesn’t help that no one ever seems to “get it” when we reveal what we’ve been going through for (checks watch again) our entire lives. Trying to open up about our internal pain and receiving confusion, denial, or just disinterest in response? Uh, it’s a new shame response in the making.
So we withdraw. We stop putting any effort into other humans. We can’t handle the emotional roller coasters that come with being influenced by others. And this pushes us into isolation.
With isolation and self-hatred comes? You guessed it, depression. Now, as if we weren’t already unlikely to seek help for our CPTSD, we have the low-energy inner experience of depression choking us like heavy monkeys on our back. You didn’t want to tell another soul about what you’ve been through in the first place… now go through the effort of finding a medical professional, getting yourself to the appointment, paying for the appointment, and hoping to god that you actually get along with this human. Lord knows, you can’t take another social rejection if they don’t understand you.
Right. And so, we end up locked indoors, potentially agoraphobic, or at least just surviving with an increasingly sparse social circle. Without social support or strong connections, we stop feeling safe doing anything. We start developing new phobias or just notice that our fear responses seem to be reactive in bigger, bolder ways.
Our allowable activities keep dwindling. Our lives continue to get smaller and smaller. And all the while, we’re dealing with some major inner crises as we slip, slide, and slosh through uncontrollable emotions and illnesses.
It puts some sizable questions into our heads.
The big question: Am I losing my mind?
If you’ve been spending a lot of time alone lately, researching everything you can find on mental illnesses and assorted bodily dysfunctions, there’s a good chance you aren’t regarding yourself so highly at the moment.
In fact, you’re probably somewhere between horrified and repulsed by your brain and body antics. The continual rumination over how you expect to operate in the world and what’s actually been happening lately will throw you for a loop. There’s a lot of self-comparison to your younger years, as well as outside comparison to your fancy *functioning* peers.
Deep existential crises take place when you’re chronically sick and in the throes of a mental breakdown, knowing you were once capable and now you can’t seem to do a goddamn thing.
Comparing your present self to your past self can be a horrific and intrusive thought pattern. Seeing how things have rapidly changed leads you to deduce that they will continue to follow a similar pathway. You already can't think or see straight, and now your head is filled with notions about what this all means about your most important organ. Has your brain finally given up? Is this the culmination of your early, ignored experiences? Is your thinker just finishing its rightful evolution into a puddle of pudding?
What went wrong, how is it possible to lose all sense of your previously-determined "self," and will you ever get back on your old trajectory again?
For a lot of us, this is a pivotal moment. You either choose to find answers - seeking therapy and mental health counseling - or you continue to retreat, wither, and fade in continually-deepening dysfunctional ways of life.
Unfortunately, most of us don’t feel extremely motivated to seek outside help when we’ve already been let down so many times before. Additionally, we feel as though we’re the only ones going through some sort of rapid brain degradation, speeding straight ahead towards life on the streets as invalids.
No one else is talking about this shared experience in losing their fucking grip on reality, and therefore, we are alone in our fears. We take on these unmanaged mental landscapes as personal problems. Evidence that we're broken beyond repair. Signs that the worst is yet to come. That's not going to give you supreme confidence in the validity of mental health care or your ability to make any changes. If you're the only one suffering in this way, no one can help the malfunctions that individually affect you.
It’s also not going to help that during this stretch of time, you’ll likely be experiencing even more isolation and social distancing (before that was a necessity of life) than ever before. It’s hard to maintain relationships when you can’t leave the house for sake of losing your mind.
And, besides, if we’re being honest… you’ve always had a bit of a rough time with these “social association” things. No matter how hard you try, they always seem to go down the toilet with a dramatic splash. Overall, the whole long-term “social relationship” thing is pretty confusing. Amiright?
Don’t worry, that’s all a part of this wild ride, too.
Here we are again, talking about how the social basis of our trauma effectively fucks us for the rest of our lives. But, you know, at least there’s a reason for the lost friendships and abusive romantic partnerships. That's sort of helpful, right?
It’s just your family of origin throwbacks. Reliving your hometown dynamics on a loop. Trying to execute skills you never learned. Being incessantly racked with fear and depression the entire time. All that good shit. Plus… should we talk about attachment styles? Why not complicate this further. Ugh, it’s an overwhelming mess of personal disasters. Let’s highlight some of the issues, and dig deeper into all our personal life lesions in other chapters of this story.
I think it's no mystery that after a childhood of negligent, unstable, obsessive, or unfulfilling relationships, we wind up with complicated social connections down the road. If you're interested in attachment theory, there is a lot to say. But for our purposes today, let's just focus on how we commonly develop instable attachments that include anxious, avoidant, and disorganized patterns and how those turn into repeated difficulties down the line.
To be incredibly brief, if your caregiver was intermittently negligent or abusive growing up, you often wind up with an anxious attachment style. You sometimes received the support you needed and other times were left to fend for yourself or received critical attention from parental figures.
As a result, you wind up with stressful relationships in the future. You're unsure what to expect from people, but seek them as a source of safety, nonetheless. You may have obsessive thoughts about your social connections and feel increasingly anxious when you are distant or separated. This is commonly characterized by codependent tendencies and relationships with poor boundaries.
On the other hand, if your parental figures rarely attended to your needs growing up, you likely developed an avoidant attachment pattern. You're more likely to learn to fend for yourself, and reject close relationships because they have historically proven to be painful and unnecessary. You become unwilling to engage on an emotionally intimate level, and you may have a loner lifestyle - whether or not that's what you truly desire deep down. It's very possible that you abandon relationships when they become emotionally charged or challenging, opting for the safety of being on your own rather than enduring the heightened stress of an unfulfilling association.
Lastly, Complex Trauma sufferers are also correlated with a disorganized attachment style. In essence, this is a combination of the two prior patterns. At times, the disorganized attachee is desperate for connection and strongly desires close companionship for stability. At the same time, they push loved ones away as a means to protect themselves.
This attachment style is thought to be more closely linked with fear than the avoidant pattern; the individual actually craves connection, but also learned that this is a dangerous risk in life. To put it bluntly, this style is a wild clusterfuck for the perpetrator and their partners, alike. There's a push-pull pattern that leaves everyone baffled, even (or, maybe, "especially") the human who's experiencing the emotions behind it.
When you're unable to form secure attachments - which is the fourth style, and doesn't really hold any water in this conversation, since about (counts on fingers) none of us have experienced this - you're able to heal many unresolved pieces of your childhood trauma. Learning that you can, in fact, count on other humans like our biological evolution demanded works wonders for our fearful brains. But trauma survivors are far more likely to cycle through unstable relation after unstable relation, continually caught in a dissatisfying and confusing loop. This is another reason why we are predominantly skilled at falling into abusive relationships with narcissists, addicts, and folks who remind us an awful lot of our families.
Complex Trauma sets you up for codependent relationships with poor emotional boundaries and repeating patterns of abuse. We're desperate (sorry) for love, yet unable to figure out how connections with other humans really work or how they can be relied upon.
And so, we wind up in tumultuous situations with similar patterns to what we observed growing up. Intermittent reinforcement of our needs and emotions, shaming, control, and emotional abuse are all extremely prevalent. Violence and aggression. Mutual addiction enabling. Unhealthy preoccupation.
With our poor emotional regulation skills, we usually don't understand where our emotions end and another's begin. We become one pool of feelings and dysfunctions as both partners fail to find an even balance between autonomy and connection.
To take this one step creepier, we sometimes subconsciously expect folks to step in as substitute parents to provide the love and support that we didn't obtain as small children. We provoke and dismiss our partners, over-relying on them at times and swearing ourselves to celibacy at others. Plus, we have the unfortunate tendency to find ourselves so thoroughly broken and unlovable that we believe 1) we can't take care of ourselves and 2) no one will ever truly care for us. This learned helplessness works to keep us trapped in confusing and often dangerous situations that don't benefit us long term.
This one stings to recognize in yourself, but we also generally don't know how to respect another human's perspective when their actions seem to threaten our sense of self. Whether or not it's conscious, we often attempt to control people as a means to moderate our own loneliness and deep personal voids. We may become the same mental tormentors that we saw and experienced growing up, learning to manipulate for the sake of our own security. This is where the cycle of abuse turns us into perpetrators, even though it's the last thing we would ever want for ourselves or others.
Maybe you're shaking your head, because you gave up on other human beings a long time ago. None of this relationship talk applies to you. Well, Fucker, if you fall in the camp of the avoidant attachment style, the result is no different. Perhaps you aren't jumping into chaotic relationships or getting trauma-bonded to violent humans, but you suffer from an isolated life racked with loneliness and avoidance.
It it wasn't clear by my prior bitching about depression, shame, and isolation, hiding yourself away from other members of the species isn't a good idea, either. Over time, that shit is just as good for you as living with a gaslighting monster. Maybe you'll get a lot of work done or pour your heart into an ambitious project with your lifetime... but without meaningful social connections, you'll never truly heal your brain. You're less likely to seek help. You just get yourself stuck in time - maintaining whatever level of traumatized living you've settle on.
(Sorry to be blunt. Frankly, I'm tired of people in my own life citing their fearful avoidance as a superior living strategy as they preach from their high horse... never acknowledging that the steed is missing a limb.)
All of this is to say, relationships suck after a childhood without any healthy modelling. Romantic, friendly, or familial... you're likely to be challenged by your social connections. And without these connections, you're likely to suffer worse mental health symptoms.
It's a cruel joke that our best bet for trauma recovery includes the one thing we're worst at enacting, but luckily, there are other ways to get started before you jump head first into the pattern that will often break your head, first.
Now that we've talked about all the ways Complex Trauma is going to wreck you, let's stop wallowing and talk about the applicable part.
How to heal
This is a topic worth it's own motherfucking book. It will be getting it's own episode in about... any time now. But, to be short on the subject and let you know that you aren't doomed forever, there are tons of ways that you can start to help yourself with your CPTSD recovery efforts, both in and out of your therapist's office.
First, yes, you need to see a trauma-informed therapist. Don't give up if you've found one that you like. Don't give up if you haven't meshed with a single mental health professional before. Keep plowing forward with seeking counseling so you can work through old memories and emotions safely with someone who can help in a time of mental crisis. You don't want to tackle newly-uncovered recollections on your own. You need someone to validate your early experiences and teach you to come back down to earth if you get supremely triggered. Maybe you need a little psychiatric care in the beginning, just to put a patch on your depressive tendencies and avoid an emergency mental health breakdown. Find someone you trust and do not give up.
Next, outside of the therapists office, I recommend getting educated. You're already listening to these words, so that's a pretty good indicator that you're open to the idea. The more trauma education you can cram into your head, I fucking promise, the better you will feel. It helps to know the underlying adaptive and evolutionary physiology at work, even if you aren't a biology nerd and you don't give two shits about memorizing show-offy facts. Learn the "gist" of the underlying mechanism and call it a day. Just having reasons for the aspects of your life that seem completely unreasonable is massive. You can let go of that old, "am I totally insane," question in your head and realize that you aren't the only one who's experiencing this baffling mix of brain and body dysfunction. Explanations exist.
Then, I strongly, strongly recommend taking a look at your life and cutting out the things that aren't serving you anymore. You don't want to be unnecessarily triggered all the time while you're paying a professional to teach you to be less triggered. If any people, places, or obligations aren't serving you anymore, cut the fat. Get rid of your old tormentors and codependent enablers. Move out of your triggering neighborhood. Quit your abusive job. If these changes necessitate major life transitions, such as downsizing your home or living a less frivolous existence, trust me when I say that it's worth it. Going bare-bones, but having control over your time, space, and brain is a massive help in trauma recovery. Cut out some bullshit and you can focus on what really matters.
Once your life is whittled down to the essentials, start rebuilding it. This is where Applied Behavior Analysis comes into play. You need to start figuring out what behaviors support your healthy thinking or reduce your physical symptoms and prioritize those activities in your life. Establish new routines for yourself to keep your brain clean of erroneous informational fragments, ruminatory thoughts, and ignored emotional memories. Change your schedule to match your energetic needs. Cut down your anxiety and fear responses with grounding practices, like exercising, writing, creating, breathing, and seeking real community. Create a new daily living pattern for yourself, and then repeat it day after day after day. Then, just don't ever give up, or your brain will very quickly get down.
Easier said than done? I fucking know it. This Complex Trauma discovery and recovery journey is a lifelong one. I don't think we ever reach a place where the old brain pathways just disappear. It truly is a day by day experience in changing your thoughts, behaviors, and environment to keep your head pointed forward instead of craning around to stare at your past. It's not easy. It's not fun. There will be backslides. There will be pain. There will be massive re-triggerings.
But at least you have some answers to your brain's great mysteries now.
Realizing that your childhood is the root of your problems is upsetting and enlightening, at once. If you continue exploring the connections between your past and your present with an open, objective, accountable, yet forgiving mindset, you will be able to make strides in your mental illness recovery. You will be able to learn how to experience emotions without getting dragging through the dirt. You will be able to find the inner strength to imagine and create a life you actually want.
You just have to believe you can do it.
Finding out you have Complex Trauma - and shit, learning that there's a thing called Complex Trauma - is a major step in the right direction. Good job. Sincerely, give yourself a pat on the back. Everything will be ever so slightly easier and more reasonable from this discovery forward.
Know with utmost certainty, new, traumatized fran. You aren't alone. You aren't damaged or doomed. And, even when you feel completely zombified on the inside, you aren't dead yet.
If you're willing to put in the work, put your past behind you, and keep pushing towards a future that you want to live... you might be a Traumatized Motherfucker.