Trigger warning: mentions of abuse, domestic violence, addiction, and suicide.
What is PTSD?
When you experience a trauma, your brain prioritises danger responses (getting your heart rate up, preparing to fight or run, etc) rather than processing what’s happening in the moment. As a result, that trauma is not processed like a normal memory.
Due to this, when something occurs that triggers the incident, your brain goes back to the trauma, which it’s unable to process as a memory, and you feel as if you’re experiencing it all over again. This is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in a nutshell.
Triggers can be anything: a smell, a raised voice, a loud noise, a certain song, a person who looks like the perpetrator of your abuse, a vehicle, the list goes on.
PTSD also changes your brain physically. It makes your amygdala more hyperactive and your Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) less active. Your amygdala is responsible for detecting threats and activating the ‘fight or flight’ response, activating the nervous system to help you deal with the threat, and helping you store new emotional or threat-related memories.
The PFC is designed to regulate attention and awareness, make decisions about the best response to a situation, initiate conscious, voluntary behaviour, determine the meaning and emotional significance of events, regulate emotions, and inhibit or correct dysfunctional reactions.
This basically means that the amygdala reacts too strongly to a potential threat while the medial PFC is impaired in its ability to regulate the threat response. Due to this, you end up with hyper-arousal, hyper-vigilance, increased wakefulness and sleep disruption, reactive anger and impulsivity, increased fear and anger and decreased positive emotionality.
It can also effect your ability to make yourself understood or explain your emotions, due to the decreased ability of the PFC to regulate them.
What is CPTSD?
CPTSD adds another layer to this. Complex PTSD generally results from trauma that occurred repeatedly over time. This includes torture, slavery, or a long period of sexual or physical abuse or domestic violence. This can result in constant issues with keeping a relationship, finding it difficult to feel connected to other people, constant belief that you are worthless with deep feelings of shame and guilt, and constant and severe emotional dysregulation.
There are all sorts of other implications, like the increased likelihood of having another mental illness (like depression or an anxiety disorder,) but I want to talk about how my CPTSD feels.
I was diagnosed with PTSD as a teenager, after experiencing several difficult and traumatic events within a few months of each other. My uncle passed away, my estranged father attempted suicide and ended up in the hospital for an overdose, my mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness, got married, got pregnant, and then was hospitalised due to complications with her pregnancy.
As a child, my father was an alcoholic who was not only abusive but would also speak to me like an equal- showing me rated R movies as well as a gun he bought to kill himself (but then decided against. I might have been 12.) I lived in a constant state of fear, always anticipating what might come next, trying to somehow be on the same intellectual level as a 40-something year old.
After my PTSD diagnosis and during my mother’s illness, I entered into an abusive relationship with an older man. I was 17 and he was 25. I was completely in love with him, and what started as questions about my friends and a few fights over the phone devolved into being told what to wear, losing contact with friends and family, gaslighting in the extreme, and nearly constant sexual abuse. We were together for almost 7 years. Over time and the recurring abuse, my PTSD became chronic.
I had already discovered alcohol, but this relationship made it easier to get and also introduced me to drugs. My alcoholism blossomed, and by the end we were drinking a litre bottle of 100-proof whiskey each.
Eventually, I left. He had tried to kill me, yet another trauma-arrow to add to my quiver. (This isn’t all of it, but its enough.) The months that followed were wild and blurry. I spent over a year trying to get sober, and eventually did. I celebrated 4 years of sobriety on 1st Jan, 2020.
How it feels
All this to say: my triggers are varied and abundant. A man who reminds me of my father for no particular reason, the smell of stale liquor on someone, getting caught off guard by the sight of my own hand, which looks so much like my mother’s, the kind of vehicle my ex used to drive, a man yelling, loud music, or any small gesture or movement which my hyperactive brain thinks might possibly display anger or irritability, like setting a glass down loudly on table or a subtle eye-roll.
I live in fear. It is almost constant and sometimes debilitating. I overthink my every action, apologise over everything and nothing. I have guilt over my broken-ness, my internal monologue about not doing enough, the house isn’t clean enough, I don’t have enough money, I don’t sleep with my husband enough, haven’t worked enough hours, drank enough water.
I am tired. Some days are easier than others. I find it difficult to articulate how I feel in normal conversation. I retreat into myself, internalising what I can. I feel like a broken record? How am I? Anxious, I say, struggling, fine.
What I mean is I’m trying. Trying to accept that my brain is different. Trying to fall asleep. Trying to keep my mind busy so I don’t fall in to a memory I can’t get out of. Trying not to ask my husband ‘are you mad’ for no reason 50 times a day. Trying to work, to write, to keep my house clean, spend time with my family.
Trying to live. Trying to heal.