It’s become a running joke, my jumpiness. My boyfriend has learned to gently signal his presence lest he startle me. Which is usually by simply walking in the kitchen when I am already there. I jump, my heart races until a second later when we both giggle. It happens around twice a week. Sometimes I even inadvertently let out a little scream. That makes us laugh even harder. Others have written this off in the past as a weakness. An oversensitivity. But oversensitive or not, I can’t help it. And until today I didn’t know why I was so easily startled.
Sometimes and more recently post-Trump, I get a ‘sweep’ of what I’ve always called ‘red rage’, a combination of fear, anger and nausea. It’s a sweep because it brushes over me starting from my chest rising in less than a second over my neck and head. Sometimes I can’t even read the news. The most severe instances of red rage have caused me to pass out. It lasts for under a minute, but can take some hours, or very occasionally days to recover. During the awful sweep I either leave the room or I verbally lash out against what, or more usually who, has triggered it. Controlling behaviours trigger it. Conflict triggers it. Belittling and criticising triggers it. Fortunately most of those I’ve chosen to have around me, do none of those things (and those who do, like my mother, have been cut from my life). But until last week, I thought everyone had the ‘red rage’.
As an adult I’ve known for a while that I experience toxic shame, a sense of being virulently and personally unloveable. I’d chalked it up to being brought up by a maternal narcissist in a sex-negative, strictly protestant environment. It has made me question my social value–why would anyone want to know me? Love me? I’ve worked with it and even though it’s a fluctuating target, I’ve overcome a lot of it. But lots of people have that, I thought. It’s a matter of self-esteem and lord knows we all have work to do on that. Don’t we?
Apparently not all of us.
These are the symptoms of complex trauma, otherwise known as C-PTSD. And I’ve been living with it, dealing with it by myself and accepting it as normal for about twenty five years. I’ve often guessed that more than others, I am a product largely of nurture. That my reactions and propensities were directly related to my upbringing as opposed to genetics. C-PTSD would explain it because the weight of trauma overshadows what I might have otherwise been like. I have no time to develop in a different direction to that which my trauma dictates at any given moment, is an urgent threat.
My latest realisation has come over this Christmas, that time when many might have to spend time with people who might trigger us, as a matter of duty. I came. I celebrated. I was triggered on multiple occasions. I held it together until it was all over, and now comes the fallout. This morning, I read through the symptoms with a growing sense of horror and dull recognition as I checked them off one by one. Some are shared by its better known relative, PTSD–strong startle reactions, extensive trigger avoidance, re-experiencing the past through flashbacks–and some are only for C-PTSD, emotional dysregulation (perfectly describing that verbal lash I talked about), toxic shame and a feeling of being utterly disconnected.1
It seems impossible to me now that I shouldn’t have known this, after all I’ve written extensively about my anxiety, trauma reflexes and feelings of isolation, oh-so-many times. Yet I didn’t ever, ever consider the label C-PTSD, despite overwhelming evidence.
It comes from traumatic loss and chronic stress in my childhood through adoption compounded by maternal narcissism–a text book case of primal separation, objectification and neglect all wrapped up in one neat bundle. Followed by my adoptive parents’ acrimonious divorce, a severe facially disfiguring car accident and consequent social rejection, all before the age of thirteen. It’s still a shock though, because I wasn’t abused physically, or sexually (at least not as a child). And those are really the only worthwhile abuses, I thought. Those abuses are the serious ones and because I hadn’t gone through them, C-PTSD seemed far too self-indulgent and selfish a label. Apparently this thinking is common. Apparently I am typical of those who have it. One of the consequences of feeling unworthy, is that you don’t even feel worthy of a diagnosis.
I would have preferred not to know. I would have preferred to just get on with my life, easily and happily. Getting the label means I feel like I have suddenly become an infinitely heavier burden on those I love. And having spent my entire life trying not to be a burden–even though my adoptive mother regularly informed me that I was–admitting it goes against what I had to do to survive. Be the good girl. Blend in. Make yourself liked. I am scared that by donning the label, people will shy away from me. They will find me too much to deal with. I am ‘too much like hard work’. Yet threats on a global scale and one key interpersonal conflict have spun me to a place where I cannot get through my life right now without stopping and looking at what and who I am.
What I see when I look in the mirror is someone to fear. Someone who will cost society money–a liability as opposed to an asset. And I’m scared. Terrified even. I feel like I’ve fooled those I love and who love me. I’ve always wanted to be loved and to be the kind of person worthy of being loved. And now it’s as if they’ve got a present wrapped up in a shiny bow but opened it up just to find something ugly and vile inside. Me. I should have put a warning label on myself. WARNING. I’m the monster under the bed. I’m toxic. I am what I have always been, too complicated and grossly unlovable.
Yet I know I make people laugh. I know I comfort many. I know I have added value to many lives through my writing, because they have told me. I know I am the same person as I was yesterday. I know all of this in theory. I also know there are ways to deal with this. I know because I’ve done them in the past, even before knowing what it was I was dealing with. But I need to be in a safe place to do them, and that safe place is where it’s always been. Away from the world. And when you live in a family of six that’s not an easy space to find. So just in order to make some attempt at healing myself, I must ask others for help. Some of my duties will fall to them. And it is with a despairing heart that I reflect on the fact that no matter how hard I’ve tried to heal myself and to struggle through life, it seems as if it is my inescapable destiny to be a burden.