So, I’m unemployed now. Prior to becoming unemployed, I’d experienced in my body panic at the prospect of not having an income. “What will I do?!” I thought to myself obsessively in the wee hours of the mornings leading up to my termination. It felt as though I would die. My heart would pound and my back would ache in silent protest; I couldn’t sleep and I was agitated at the people around me more than usual. “Fucking people,” I thought. People weren’t the problem, though.
Funny then when the date came and passed and I did not, in fact, die. What a relief. Life goes on after one job finishes, soon to be replaced by another. Probably the biggest difference between this latest transition in to unemployment (unemployment is a common aspect of recovery when you have PTSD) and other previous events is my steadfast commitment to staying present to my internal self. My Body.
Some of you will dismiss the feeling of feelings as some new age wank-off crap. That’s OK. Others of you who are familiar with the numbing effect that trauma has on feelings and connection to one’s own body will appreciate just how big it is to have stuck with experiencing my emotions in a time of considerable stress. It’s a win, and I’ll take it. I didn’t act out with most of the socially acceptable drugs – caffeine, booze, begging my parents for financial or emotional support. No. I recognise now that all these forms of ‘acting out’ don’t help me. All they do is numb what needs to be felt: Panic, anger, rage, resentment, sorrow, and grief. I didn’t hide from these feelings, and as a result, a gift of self-realisation has been forwarded on to me; more insights as to where I’ve come from, what I’ve endured and triumphed over, where I’m heading and what my preferences are for living a full and abundant life. The pain from my past and the hope for my future are both being fused in to a comprehensible and consistent story of whom I am. This is good news for me. Prior, I had little notion of who I was due to the stop-start effect of dissociation.
By staying present to myself and by allowing myself to feel what needs to be felt, certain inescapable truths have slowly risen to the surface of my conscious mind. Namely, I like to write. I’m good at it, and using this skill for paid employment would give me great satisfaction. I’m working on that. In the past I dismissed my talent. My sister is the writer and the reader. ‘We can’t both be writers,’ I used to think. But who made that rule? It’s a belief, I’ve learned, that is a result of the neglect and emotional abuse I endured in my childhood. It’s one I’m thankfully letting go of. Also, the subject of psychology interests me. I have a Psychology degree that I’m not doing justice to by answering calls in call centers. This will change eventually.
Maybe I need to return to study to realise these inclinations more fully. This might mean share housing again, or moving further out in to ‘the sticks’ if I wish to continue to live on my own whilst I study. But living on my own has transformed my recovery from PTSD. It’s provided a safety that I hadn’t previously known while share housing. And it’s so much easier living on my own. You know all the usual annoyances. Big black hairs clogging the bathroom sink, loud and offensive music playing at 9 a.m. on a saturday morning, and taking a bite out of the block of cheese and putting it back in the fridge – and those are just my quirks.
I have to find a way to make it work. Unemployment, flashbacks, returning to study, stress. These are all factors that I have to learn to mitigate in the recovery process. I complained to my friend, Sam, the other day about how slow the recovery process seems to be of late (not true, but you know when it feels like progress is slow?). He said, “You know, you sound exactly like someone who is on the verge of change. Maybe you’re exactly where you need to be right now.” Thank God for friends who say these things during times like this. One day at a time. Just for today. These are the maxims I stick to in my recovery. I stick to routine and hand it over to the universe. After all, if it’s meant to be, surely the universe will intervene and offer encouragement?
I suspect my computer is slowly dying. It has these weird spasms in the form of a glitchy white line across the top of the screen. Great. Just fucking great, I think to myself. A part of me believes that it’s all coming to a head. Job’s drying up; lease ends in February (which means I have to inform my landlord of my decision to renew or get the fuck outta there); I’ve been grinding my teeth mercilessly in my sleep (and even with the support of a splint, my teeth are starting to wear) … and now my fucking computer could be dying.
Just. Fucking. Great. What does a wiser soul do in these situations? Someone tell me. Please. Because every fiber of my being wants me to panic. Let loose, cut sick and go nuts – give up on recovery and pack up shop here in Melbourne and travel again. But not in some romantic, Jack Kerouac adventurist kind of way. More like a compulsive escape from reality and escape from adult responsibility kinda way. You know, put my life and the pursuit of meaningful work on hold? Go in to fantasy? Be anonymous and do anonymous things with anonymous people? Yeah… It feels relaxing just thinking about it. Be a vagabond just to forget the pain of my apparent transience.
But I know I can’t do that. I know that the best thing for me right now is to just…. Fucking sit with it. I say it with a sigh as I write it, and the word shit escapes my mouth. Fuck, too. Back stooped and irritated with this uncomfortable life juncture, I feel pissed awf. Because sitting with uncertainty is hard, don’t you know? And nobody ever fucking taught me to sit with feelings.
Feel-scared-get-yelled-at. Feel-angry-get-smacked. Feel-sad-what-are-you-crying-for. I’d say I got an ‘F’ in Emotional Literacy 101 when I was a wee lad, but that would imply that my parents actually enrolled mein the fucking class, which they didn’t. My father would have denied the relevance of learning about feelings with the same fervor as some dopey deep-South parent who refuses to let their goofy kid attend classes on the Theory of Evolution.
So now adrenaline pumps in to my stomach at the prospect of having to work another crappy job and live in another shitty share house as I lie in bed. My brain is scattered, but I can make out the message it’s sending to my body clearly: “Fucking run, you fool!”
But instead I just lie here. I try to focus on where I am and how I am experiencing this message in my body. Actually, my neck’s kinda tight. My stomach is in knots, which probably has something to do with the fact that I’m tensing it, huh? I consciously un-tense, and the pain of uncertainty slowly starts to fill the space instead. My back hurts. And my jaw feels locked. I oscillate between allowing myself to feel the physical discomfort of insecurity, and tightening. Meanwhile, my faithful fantasy-riddled mind schemes ways to avoid, avoid, avoid, damn you!
Instead, I notice the creamy white walls of my bedroom and the cracks in the ceiling. My wardrobe door is open, so I explore the contours and contrasts of black shadows and yellowy-white wooden doors that house the clothing of a 20-something drifter with a penchant for collecting books and not reading them in their entirety. I tell myself loving sweet nothings, tell myself it will be OK, no matter what happens.
And this is a hard act to swallow when you’re in a state of panic and when you believe, truly, that nothing is OK and that things might turn out like “last time” – some vague mish mash period of time half-remembered and half dreamed up, and that’s not been properly integrated in to my story of myself. Hard as it is, though, my current act is a more tiring one to maintain: running and avoiding and denying my feelings and myself. I’m done with that. So today I say “Fuck you,Fear!” and I make the decision to do nothing. In bed, between the rock and the hard place, I find that this takes up most of my energy, and for today I’m cool with that.
I’ve had a mild breakthrough in the last few days. Or maybe it’s a big breakthrough? I’ve been feeling the lows, don’t get me wrong. And the anxiety-induced highs that come with the acceptance of an uncertain future, too. But something in me has changed. I felt it shortly after an EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) session with my psychologist. At the time I was watching Spielberg’s delightfully intriguing and naturally well-done Bridge of Spies – you know, the one where Tom Hanks looks constipated about 86% of the time? (I love you, Tom Hanks. Sorry for the dig).
I came in to the movie late because I insisted on purchasing lunch beforehand. And so immediately prior to my mild awakening I sat in a darkened theatre room, munching on dim sims and a sausage roll simultaneously – much to the dismay of my fellow moviegoers. If they could have seen the apologetic look on my soy-and-tomato-sauce stained face, I’m sure they’d have been forgiving. Or disdainful. But alas, I digress.
Something in me changed. I felt it. I couldn’t be sure what it was, but it was something. Something clicked over. Quick and subtle and barely perceivable, but it happened. Am I cured of my complex PTSD? Ha! The thought of a rookie in recovery. No, not cured. I know I’m not, because I continue to be triggered in to flashbacks, experiencing the same thoughts as before this mild awakening.
But the feelings that accompany the distressing thoughts…they’ve changed. Or maybe it’s my evaluation of them. The feelings are still felt as an intense energy, a force. But they’re not life-threatening. “But they never were! Feelings can’t kill you!” I hear you say with mild amusement. Well, no, feelings can’t kill you. But the traumatic circumstances that led to the intense feelings for the C-PTSD sufferer could have, perhaps. So the feelings were a memory of a more life-threatning chapter in a very old book.
But now, something has changed. I find myself waking up in the morning, my Fear Brain kicking wildly at the ghosts of trauma past. Though now, my rational, heaven-sent higher consciousness takes over shortly after, scanning the room calmly to remind me that I’m safe. “It’s Here and Now, and you’re free from the past,” it whispers to me as I fall back down to earth from the dizzying heights of anxiety.
One of the many gifts of hard work in recovery, I suppose. My advice if you’re still struggling with mental illness? Keep going. Perhaps there’s no foreseeable cure, but it is a universal law that if you work hard, you’ll reap the rewards. Maybe not right away, but you will. Winston Churchill was right when he said, “If you’re going though hell, keep going.”
Hope, they say, is a four-letter word. Or maybe they don’t say that, I’m not sure. It is a fact, though. H-O-P-E . 1, 2, 3… Yep. I spoke to a mate yesterday and he applauded me for the hard work I have been pouring in to my own recovery over the last year.
“I hope it pays off,” I said with some trepidation. Visits with a trauma specialist (that ain’t cheap), daily yoga in the morning along with a quick read from my meditation book, catching up with and calling friends regularly to check in with my emotions, running my own mental health support group, exercise, maintaining a part-time job.
This stuff isn’t easy for people who live with complex PTSD. And it requires a great deal of faith, too. Faith that you’re putting in enough time and hard work to see results that you want to see. But there’s a fine line between faith and expectation. I gotta keep a close eye on my expectations; they’re not always rooted in reality.
Doing something just because I want a result, you know? Not an uncommon phenomenon. The abovementioned routines I engage in are worthwhile simply because they’re good for me in the moment. Regardless of circumstance, I need to keep doing them. My old life can be characterised by inaction and self-destructive habits. But not my new life of recovery.
It may take time to reap the long-term benefits of these routines – such as maintaining a sense of calm when starting a new job rather than being flooded by flashbacks that result in my compulsion to quit. Or pursuing a job that genuinely taps in to my passion and feeds my curiosity and creativity – and that pays butt-loads.
But I know that I need to love myself, with all my faults and all my ailments, now. Not some magical time in the future when things are all better – that’s my fantasy rearing its head – but now. So my hope for today is that I can be gentle with myself in spite of the approaching uncertainty in my life (because life will be always be uncertain).
I hadn’t felt like doing too much last weekend. I had an interview – my third with the same company – last Friday. It was a practical interview, focusing on my ability to write within a timeframe. To be honest, I felt very triggered doing it. Something about deadlines gets my heart racing.
Some bad memories associated with it, I suppose. There’s nothing like a good trigger to make you question how far in your recovery you’ve actually come. Being severely triggered is like a huge fucking hangover after a drinking session, but without the drinking.
Honestly. The weekend that followed, I woke up and I just wanted to go back to bed. But I couldn’t. My fear brain was switched to ‘on’ on Friday at the interview, and I’ve been working to switch it off ever since. Remember my first post about complex PTSD? About seeing a lion in the bathroom? That’s what I’m working with at the moment.
So when I rolled around in bed on Saturday in a state of inebriated anxiety, all I could feel was my heart pumping, pumping, pumping blood in to my stomach and surrounds. And all I could think about was the future. But not some idealized location or place of heightened achievement or success.
Just doom. It wasn’t pleasant. So how did I get through it, I hear you ask? Well, I just sat with it. Or, if you want to get all literal on my ass, I just lay with it. I just lay there in bed and let it wash over me. All that horrible anxiety and fear and impending doom, I just let it be there.
When I found myself going in to fantasy – thinking about the past, or the future – or worrying about my apartment lease or my job or the prospect of actually getting this writing job (which terrifies the shit out of me), I just came back to my body.
I felt it a lot in my stomach. In my throat, and in my chest and lower back, too. And it’s important that I know where I feel it, because that’s where my trauma hides. The feelings are associated with things not getting better. They have a timeless quality to them, something that feels as though I will be stuck in it, and with it, forever. Like a nightmare, you know? This is complex PTSD.
Like a nightmare. But, like most nightmares that occur in bed, this one passed too. Which I’m really grateful for. One day at a time. One step at a time. Things do get better. But slowly. For me, recovery really is about learning to associate negative feelings and overwhelming thoughts with a pervasive sense that things will be OK. Maybe not right away, but eventually.
It can be a slow, slow process. But such a worthwhile one. Stick in there if you suffer from C-PTSD!
Yesterday, I had a panic attack. The day before that I had two. Today, I’ve been leaving my body a bit – dissociating. I’ve had to take special care to remain focused and centered. And that’s been a real task. I also need to call out that the last few days, I’ve thrown out my regular sleep patterns by getting to bed later than usual.
The negative undercurrent that oozes through and around my mind’s eye is probably apparent to others: I avoid social conversations, I isolate, and I crave carbs. Jesus, how I crave carbs. And sugar. Gimme gimme gimme! Give me something that will make me feel something other than fear and anxiety about the impending doom! So the story goes.
And my thoughts get darker. My imaginative mind, my addiction to fantasy has been thrashing wildly in an effort to get me to bite. I’ll be honest; this week I have nibbled on occasion. How could I not believe the stories my mind tells me about “The Future”? If I feel horrible now, so the logic goes, then how can it possibly be better in the future? Recovery, a part of me thinks, must involve no negative emotions whatsoever. Ha! For years, this logic has been fed in a dank little room in the corner of my mind.
I find myself shutting down when I get like this. I suppose “healthy” people just deal with the anxiety. They acknowledge it, and they moderate their feelings by exercising and talking to friends. They drink smoothies with green shit in it and, I imagine, they pronounce the word “quinoa” without betraying a sense of self-consciousness for sounding like a snob. They take action and they get over it by dealing with it.
It’s a slightly more complicated story when you have complexPTSD (C-PTSD), but the logic of a “healthy” person under duress is the same as that of a person with C-PTSD: You perceive a threat (e.g., stress) and then take steps to reduce your exposure to the threat.
You see, once the C-PTSD brain is triggered, the anxiety felt in the body reminds the brain of what it felt like when it was originally traumatised. And if, when you were originally traumatised, you were powerless to effect change or fight back or escape the threat, your brain does the most logical thing it can do: It tells you to leave your body because shit’s about to go down, son. You dissociate because you don’t want to be present to what’s about to happen to you.
Many times after experiencing trauma earlier in my life, I can recall quiet but panicked moments where I thought: “It’s OK that that happened to me; it’s not my body anyway.” A psychology degree and the consumption of countless books on trauma later, I now know that this process of disowning my body is called dissociation. Dissociation is a defense mechanism that the mind uses to deal with circumstances that are too painful or overwhelming for the mind to process at the time.
Fast-forward 20 years later, however, and the brain is still remembering and now responding to emotional stress in the same way it did then. It doesn’t know how to distinguish between threats any more, and given the severity or the frequency (or both) of previous traumas, it does not want to or knowhow. Better safe than sorry, right?
The lovely irony about having emotional flashbacks and about unconsciously using dissociation to cope with them is that the brain is employing an adaptive survival mechanism in a situation that does not warrant its use anymore. As an adult, a person with C-PTSD has resources they can access which they simply could not have had access to as a child, when the traumatic experiences occurred.
But when the brain cannot distinguish between threats (e.g., emotional abuse versus, say, not having a job in February), and only knows how to use one or two coping mechanisms that it’s used it’s whole life, how is it supposed to know about and access more adaptive resources? It’s stuck in the moment of trauma from yesteryear.
Example. A healthy, well-adjusted person such as yourself might walk in to the office at work to find that your boss is having a bad day. Your manager, in a fit of rage, yells at you and tells you to fix the report you sent in the previous day. But you didn’t send a report in yesterday and you certainly don’t know what error he’s talking about, because you consider yourself hot-shit when it comes to report writing. So you let it slide and write it off as Mr. Manager having a bad day. You go to your desk, eat your morning burrito, and start your day.
But the person with C-PTSD experiences alarm from the moment they see the manager’s angry face. They’ve walked in to the office and now they’re being yelled at, just like they were when they were a kid. And that’s exactly what they tell themselves too:“It’s happening again.” It’s time to shut down, the brain quietly whispers to the body.
The person leaves their body and maybe even does what they did when they were a kid: they take responsibility and become overly apologetic in a misguided effort to dissipate the threat directed at them. On an unconscious level, they’ve probably surrendered to the familiar feelings of shame and fear and humiliation, too, which are of course the feelings they felt when they were traumatised as a pup (when you are a child, your brain has not developed enough to know that if something bad has happened to you, it does not mean that you arebad. Family Systems Therapist John Bradshaw explains this concept of Toxic Shame brilliantly in his talk Healing the Shame that Binds You.)
It’s not hard to conceive that the person in this example, who experiences re-traumatization in a relatively common work scenario, might begin to view the workplace as threatening, and may in turn seek to avoid it altogether. No job = no more reminders about the trauma. The cycle becomes self-perpetuating quickly, you might have guessed. I suspect that many homeless people suffer this fate as a result of unprocessed complex trauma.
So it’s not hard to see why it’s called complex PTSD. Many treatments for C-PTSD focus on getting the person to remain present when they are triggered and to deal with the stress in a more up-to-date, productive way. If the dis-ease and distress that’s experienced in flashbacks is one that sees the sufferer focusing overwhelmingly on events from the past, then the present, and an accurate and reasonable appraisal of it becomes a sort of Holy Grail to recovery.
In my own recovery I do all the things I can to stay present, especially at work. I do body scans, which involves focusing on the different parts of my body in the now. I listen to the low hum of keyboards tapping and the murmur of people talking on the phones in the now. I take time to mindfully touch and study the green leaves of the glorious Zanzibar Gem that sits in front of me on my desk, and I pay attention to the feeling of satiation as the water I drink travels down my throat.
I know my contract ends in February 2016. The uncertainty of it makes my stomach tighten. And the additional thought of having to start all over again agitates me too. A new job means new people, new processes to learn, and new stressors to manage. New threats, the traumatised part of me grumbles. My body remembers the trauma associated with being humiliated in learning environments. Parts of my brain have not yet cottoned on that the trauma I’m bracing for happened literally years ago.
So, Big Daniel finds this all very frustrating and heartbreaking and unfair sometimes. Little Daniel, who experienced the trauma, can’t help but ask: If it happened to me and I didn’t ask for it, why should I have to deal with it?
Early trauma teaches you about the inherent unfairness of life, and from an exceptionally young age, too. It also teaches you about the painful choices you must make if you wish to thrive. It really does put a new spin on the maxim “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” Thanks, Tony Robbins.
At its heart, recovery from trauma is about learning to manage what is. It’s not about lamenting what should or could or might be. And as much as a part of me wants to believe the worst about my future, I have to hold on to the present moment, where change can be effected and where resources can be energized.
I must stay positive (but not delusional), focused (but not stubborn or rigid) and above all else, remain gentle, patient and hopeful toward the part of me that remembers darker times. They are, of course, just memories now.