Perhaps one of the hardest things about being unemployed and living with complex PTSD is how quickly the old patterns of thinking can re-enter my consciousness. It’s impeccable – and frightening. If it can be said that our thoughts are a precursor to our actions, then the negative thinking that I’ve reluctantly embraced is leading to some evidently low level, self-destructive behaviour.
It’s tough. Everyone wants to feel like they’re needed, like they’re useful. It’s no different for me, either. The trauma I want so desperately to be rid of seems lately to be robbing me of the belief that I have something worthwhile to contribute, more now that I am unemployed than before. And it’s stifling. I find myself going in to fantasy, getting to bed later, eating junk foods that are consumed at a cost to both my hip pocket and my health. I’m talking to friends less too, and feeling frightened at the prospect of leaving the house. I’m bunkering down for a storm, and I’m going in to survival mode. Notably, none of it is helping me to deal with my adult problems.
And if I do leave my house, I leave my body too. I dissociate. Maybe this is the hardest part about C-PTSD. The disconnection that accompanies any circumstance that is merely perceived as threatening or overwhelming. I catch myself becoming adamant that I can’t cope, that I won’t, and that I refuse to, too. Every situation becomes evidence for my hyper-vigilant, outspoken Inner Critic that I’m not faring so well. The “See? I told you that you couldn’t cope!” storyline plays on repeat. God, it’s irritating.
Such toxic thinking. The world of a trauma survivor is apt to get claustrophobic quickly without the necessary tools to manage this feeling of collapsing and shrinking in to oblivion. And even then, it ain’t easy. Intellectually, I understand that I am simply feeling overwhelmed, and that if I just bring myself back to the present moment and do the next best thing to take care of myself, I’ll probably be OK. The path to recovery is at times a nightmarish paradox: do the thing that feels most frightening and you’ll thrive; stay present at all costs, and it’ll pass. So this is what I’m doing, to the best of my ability.
Numbing out is a fantastic strategy when you’re small, helpless, and reliant on giants to provide your safety and your broader needs for touch, emotional nurturing and physical safety. But what happens when they’re not met? What happens when such caretakers are narcissistic? Or abusive? Emotionally volatile or manipulative, and physically violent? I won’t speak for all people who grew up in domestic violence family systems, but I know that for me, I became an exquisite ‘dissociater’ at the slightest hint of confrontation or perceived threat. I jumped ship, so to speak, and abandoned myself with record-breaking rapidity. The reality back then was too painful because, as it turned out, the giants entrusted with ensuring my basic survival needs were the very ones threatening them. Thus, numbing my senses seemed like an entirely sensible thing to do!
It’s tough, and a little bit tragic, too. Because I know that the degree to which I felt unsafe as a child directly correlates with the amount of energy I now unconsciously put in to numbing out to survive. That’s the tragedy: that I must have been thoroughly terrified, and consistently so, throughout my formative years. The tough part is that a very dominant part of me still sees these strategies as totally viable and effective ways for dealing with all types of threat, be they proximal or distant, physical or abstract. It makes being gentle on myself hard, and creates in me a sense of incongruence which is unnerving and uncomfortable. And while outwardly I’m looking for paid work, I know I’m already holding down the full-time job of re-wiring my hyper-aroused brain with self-soothing techniques. You might say I’m doin’ double-overtime, and the penalty rates ain’t payin’ dividends just yet.
Changing these patterns is a lifelong process that requires support, hard work, and a lot of good luck. Threats to where I live and the prospect of working yet another stressful, underpaying job that underutilises my intellect and my potential make it hard to feel safe, and hopeful. This is where I’m at right now: finding and creating zones of safety in which to heal. Even starting a job that draws on my strengths is stressful because it brings up traumatic feelings and self-defeating thinking patterns from eons ago which, if not managed well, lead to overwhelm all over again, to quitting, and to the despair of being right back where I started.
So you see, it’s a really tough gig. I see it as an exercise in being broken down and re-created each time I fall and have to pick myself up again. A stable place to live, as well as a regular income from a job that affirms my personal philosophy and draws on my experience, is a by-product of recovery from trauma that protects me from relapses. Such things, though, are also pre-requisites for recovery. Herein lies the frustrating injustice of a person suffering under the sticky label of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress disorder. I’m fortunate enough to be able to articulate this, though as yet such eloquence hasn’t eased my burden or magically secured me a stable dwelling and a vocation that makes my heart sing.
There’s hope, though, because I’m a stubborn mother. In spite of growing up in a traumatic and unforgiving family system, in spite of the empty promises of a broken mental health system and in spite of the ill-offered advice from psychiatrists, with their over-emphasis on medicating feelings and ignoring the body’s wisdom, I’m still here, still being broken and still being reconstructed; the best is surely still to come!