Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (cPTSD)

The first time I learned that I may have PTSD was while waiting to take an organic chemistry exam. A few of us were in the hallway and I recognized a girl from my Animal Welfare class. We are talking about why we are in this hallway waiting to get into this particular room. It was for an untimed test. Hers was because of a learning difficulty. She took longer to read. I described how I would have a strange panic when hear someone writing on their paper with pencil three rows back or want to physically stop someone riffling through their backpack or cracking their knuckles. I would not be able to focus and went blank. Often, I would read questions over and over and would not even remember what the questions were asking.

The previous exam takers were leaving and people from our exam were starting to file into the exam room. One of the last people left, a guy, hung back and said, “look, I don’t know what your story is, but I have PTSD too.” He wanted me to understand that he knew what I was saying. He was a veteran and we didn’t get to talk about this any more than that one brief encounter. I was dumbfounded but very grateful that he shared that. I thought PTSD was something warriors got. My dad had nightmares and drank too much to forget things from his time in Vietnam. I was not a veteran.

What is PTSD? Let us start with that the letters mean. They stand for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In 1980’s, people started to notice a cluster of symptoms that were similar for veterans that were returning from Vietnam. Most people are familiar with symptoms associated with PTSD such as flashbacks, unstable moods, avoiding a person, place or thing, arousal symptoms, survivor remorse and insomnia (not a complete list). People who have a traumatic event such as a car accident, natural disaster or assault can also have PTSD.

What is cPTSD? Good question. I had to learn that one as well. The “c” stands for “complex.” Ok, I can relate to that. My dad was pretty complex too and he went through Vietnam (4-tours). How is this different? “Complex PTSD comes in response to chronic traumatization over the course of months or more often years. For many it starts in childhood, but that is not always the case. Trauma can include emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuses, domestic violence, living in a war zone, being held captive, human trafficking, and more.” Another difference that resonated with me when I did some research was the idea that this comes from being in a situation where complete control is in the hands of another person or persons, and you do not see an end in sight. Symptoms are often more severe than with (basic or normal) PTSD. Basically, it breaks down your sense of self and messes you up on a deeper level.

Ok, now what do I do with this information? How can I fix this? What is the plan?

I will not say my therapy journey has been brilliant. I am sure that I was not an easy patient as we worked through some of my traumas. I am still working on it in therapy and on my own. I did learn three key things: Not all therapists are trauma informed; Not all therapies are helpful and, in some ways, can make things worse; To be able to work on the mental health bits, you need to also understand how to work on the physical bits.

I will slowly share some of my journey with time. Please be patient with me as I share what I am ok with at the moment. If you happened upon my blog while doing some research, here are three resources that are a helpful start while you start your journey.

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