Few questions are as provocative for me as the one about whether polyamorous folk are disproportionately more likely to experience mental health challenges. As an activist I don’t want the world to stigmatize polyamory more than it does already and conscious of the power of my voice, I have rarely covered my complex trauma and polyamorous preferences in a single blog post. Until now. Until it’s become too important not to.
One symptom of complex trauma–toxic shame–magnifies the stigma associated with the C-PTSD label and until recently this shame has prevented me from embracing the totality of my mind. My weird and wonderful mind with its all its cracks and gold. Yet our identity lies the crossroad of experiences and so do I. Female, Polyamorous, Relationship Fluid, Identity Fluid, Adoptee, DV survivor, Divorcee, Foreigner, Adopted Daughter of a Narcissist, Offspring of a Narcissist and Abuser.
Whilst the diagnosis of C-PTSD requires medical formality and is rarely recognised, it also goes by the name of complex trauma and there is no doubt that I have experienced complex trauma. C-PTSD is a label which is used to describe a group of symptoms stemming from formatively experienced, compounded trauma, each of them on a spectrum of their own. One symptom is a strong startle response, another is anxiety, yet another is ‘red rage’ or emotional rather than visual flashbacks, to which each individual reacts in a certain way–‘fight-flight-freeze-fawn’–according to their own learned mix of survival mechanisms. For myself therefore I discard the word ‘disorder’ as a part of C-PTSD, finding it more useful to disaggregate the various traumas to more easily see where they intensify or diffuse my adult actions, reactions and preferences. And how these help or hinder me from tackling what life throws in my path. Being polyamorous or practising consensual non-monogamy whilst also dealing with the consequences of complex or at least compounded trauma, has a few subtleties all of its own.
Do you find the label troublesome? I asked.
The label isn’t troublesome, said my boyfriend, the troubles are troublesome.
I cannot deny that. Who could? The troubles are fucking troublesome, and not only to me. I feel the resulting anxiety aging me, wrinkle by wrinkle, spell after spell, as I learn laboriously how to cope with the emotional flashbacks without creating a tsunami that drowns others standing near me. Now they’re spaced out at around one per year, which is a lot less than during my twenties. I spent most of that drowning in sweet, sweet southern comfort. I was a worry to those who loved me; there were a few whom I hadn’t managed to push away. Now that I accept the label C-PTSD, I also have access to the resources accompanying such a label. They explain so much and for that I’m exceedingly grateful.
I’ve learned that I have an over-tendency to ‘fawn’–or people please–and use it as a disproportionately dominant survival mechanism.To understand ‘fawning’ as a survival mechanism, is to understand Stockholm syndrome. For me it’s the result of being female, an adoptee and an adopted daughter of a narcissist, suffering a disfiguring facial injury at the age of twelve and later reinforced as an adult in an abusive relationship. All of these experiences have resulted in a diminished sense of identity, which is an obligatory and temporarily successful coping mechanism if you are to suffer the loss of one mother only to be brought up by a narcissist who will only love you if you are an extension of herself.
What does that mean for me as an adult in the world of consensual non-monogamy?
- No Swinging, it’s too dangerous
Going to a swinging party where I actively have to reject and displease–as I perceive it–by saying ‘no’ to sexual advances is hellish and if I’m feeling vulnerable, is an impossibility. I fawn as a default in order to survive. And I’m extremely good at it. It has enormous benefits in my ability to empathize, because I often feel as if I am the person I am bonding with. But my ‘self’ is so malleable that it’s difficult to know or ascertain my own preferences. Like the superhero Peter in Heroes, I become the superhero standing next to me rather than having my ‘own’ power. Absorbing power has enormous academic advantage as I continue to soak up knowledge from those around me. But it clearly translates to a lack of boundaries in my interpersonal relationships. Something that many vilify because our rape culture dismisses ‘fawning’ as a sign of consent and fault–‘why didn’t she leave him?’ or ‘why didn’t she fight?’ She didn’t fight or flee, because she had been taught by exploitative adults around her, that fighting or fleeing would result in her own death. For many women this is an undeniable truth in abusive relationships and/or rape situations.
For me and after extensive self-work, I feel safe in saying no to those I trust, but saying ‘no’ to sexually advancing strangers is highly stressful for me. Understanding and being able to accept my reality, this reality has been a gift. It has allowed me to protect myself and feel confident about doing so. It has allowed me to take the space so that I can work on my less developed survival mechanisms. It has also assuaged my guilt for my youthful self-violating promiscuity. To state overt boundaries, once triggered severe paralysing abandonment flashbacks and it was necessary to sacrifice my body on the altar of my personal demons.
- A preference for long-term over casual connection
As I’ve grown older, I’ve discovered that to establish the deep trust I need, requires a huge investment in emotional connection. The establishment of a mentally safe space (in which anything is possible). It requires hours of intimate talking. For those who are interested in the exploration of power, agency, psychology, sexuality, objectification… those areas which risk triggering me most but which have also moulded me, this is ideal. In thrall of deadly sexual attraction–and beyond a certain point, often incapable of saying ‘no’–my mind counterpoints and titillates to a non-traumatizing yet adrenalin fuelling utopian balance. Once achieved, we’ll go for it.
Sure, it’s not for everyone and that’s okay. For some it’s too much like hard work. Yet that doesn’t diminish my worth; it just spices things up for me and the partners who grok me. What kind of partner groks me? Those attracted to the intricacies of the mind, known somewhat pretentiously as sapiosexuals. I am one, purely for my own survival. Not because I believe it’s a better way of being. For my transitioned relationship it’s also the reason we have remained partners, beyond the end of our sexual connection. We talk vulnerably. We allow each other to be utterly honest. My need to trust deeply has co-created an emotionally vulnerable relationship, and for that I am also very grateful. Especially because we have children.
- Emotional Intelligence as a foundation for relationships
We live in emotionally impoverished times. Loneliness is an epidemic. Oppression and division riddle the world around me. A combination of despair, fading hope, transitory joy. And even relentless–often privileged–optimism. I am privileged and that is my reality. I am lucky for my privilege. Yet I feel a lot of pain… more now than before. Because for years I’ve had to sift through layer upon layer of emotional blindness which my mind created as protection against trauma. It required extensive due process and analysis. The irony is that through having to consciously address and resolve my suffering, I have been rewarded by the gift of emotional intelligence, enough to know that there is always more to feel and understand. That, in turn has led to more and deeper connections. It has led to polyamory-by-choice.
You live within a paradigm of pain, said my boyfriend, as he reflected on my latest blog post.
I agree. And I am not ashamed. I have pain. I believe pain to be a key component to growth. And since I have it, I use it. I do not deny that sometimes I curse it, but over years of attempted mastery, that pain also propels me towards realising the gift and joy of an examined life.