Recognizing our struggles when reading a book or listening to a podcast is a profoundly healing experience.
So our problems are not only « in our head » ? What a validation!
It also normalizes our experience and help us find a sense of community: a lot of us have survived a traumatic past and we are all facing similar difficulties.
And best of all, it gives us hope: there is a cause of our unhappiness, and there is a way out. There both are not what we thought they were, but they exist nevertheless.
All of this went through my mind when listening to this episode of the CPTSD Podcast: Present-Day Symptoms and Consequences of CPTSD.
I strongly encourage you to listen to it if you know, or suspect, you have lived through ongoing trauma.
What is CPTSD anyway ?
CPTSD stands for Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
You may not know CPTSD, but you probably have heard of its cousin PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
PTSD is what happens to people who lived through a traumatic experience. It is well documented in psychiatry manuals, usually using the example of war veterans. Its consequences are often described as hypervigilance, depression, nightmares, relationship problems, and addictions.
CPTSD is what happens to people who lived through traumatic experiences for years. It often follows being trapped in a traumatic situation, such as an abusive family or relationship. It is sometimes included in psychiatry manual although it has not made its way yet to the DSM. Its consequences are often described as hypervigilance, depression, nightmares, relationship problems and addictions.
What is the difference between CPTSD and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ?
Symptoms sound the same ? Well, they are similar in lots of ways.
One of the main difference is that someone suffering from PTSD knows he or she has been impacted by a traumatic experience.
We do not typically understand the whole range of symptom as caused by the traumatic event, at least without professional help. However nightmares and periodically reexperiencing the trauma as if it was happening here and now ensure we do know there is a problem in our past.
One the other hand, those among us who are suffering from CPTSD often have no clue, at least initially.
I remember realizing early that I had a lot of problems compared to “normal folks”. Adolescent, I had already suffered episodes of diagnosed depression, and my self esteem was painfully low. I now believe I was suffering from both problems already as a child. And I know I am far from the only one.
Did I realize it was a consequence of a traumatic childhood ?
Not at all.
Even worse: It could not possibly be linked with my childhood.
It was all about me. I was defective. I was the problem. I had to fix myself. And again, I know I am not the only one. How do I know ? Because that’s how survivors of trauma usually present themselves when reaching out for help.
To make the connection even more difficult, some of us do not even remember our traumatic childhood.
So what we are left with is very real problem in our present day lives, with no clear cause.
Hence the almost universal question: « What is wrong with me ? ».
How can I understand I am suffering from CPTSD then ?
As Tabatha Bird Weaver explains in the podcast, symptoms of CPTSD include :
- suffering from a serious self esteem problem, from « not enoughness » to a deep sense of shame about who we are
- trying to fill the self esteem gap with achievements, but nothing really works
- out of control emotions: either we have extreme emotions or we don’t have any. When we don’t have any, it looks a lot like depression.
- addictions to substances or activities
- feeling spectators and not actors in our own lives
- Failed or toxic relationships. And even if they go well from the outside, they feel hollow to us.
This list accurately describes my adolescence and years of my adult life. It also looks like a list of what I am writing about on this site.
What should I do if I suspect I am suffering from CPTSD?
If you also recognize yourself, don’t despair.
I promise there is nothing wrong with you, even if you feel there is.
I know it’s hard to grasp, but trust me : your difficulties come from what happened to you. You can heal. If I managed to get better, given where I was coming from, you can too.
But I guess you have a bit of work to do to understand what happened and heal yourself. If you can, look for professional help. Also look for information using books, podcasts, and sites like this one. Try to connect with healers and fellow survivors.
Do everything you can to understand what is happening to you and to come out of isolation. Healing from CPTSD is, well, complex, but it is doable as long as you don’t stay alone.
And remember, inside all the terrible things you believe about yourself, there is a hidden gift: you know you have to change and this is precisely what needs to happen for you to feel better.
It looks like nothing much, but it is a key difference with character disordered, abusive people: they believe the world has to change, not them. So they stay stuck in dysfunction. You won’t.