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.

Writing and Creative Prompts

For a very long time, I had a kind of writer’s block. I could write technical things like grants, business plans, strategic plans and the like – for clients or friends. The physical act of doing this for me and my business was stupid painful. I did it, but with my concussion/Q-fever, I wrote a grant last fall and completely forgot that I did it. Some of this knowledge about food systems is so ingrained in me. It really is part of my muscle memory. 

Creative writing was gone to me. Journal writing, a previous safe way to process things, was also gone. I would stare at the screen or blank page and freeze. I may write a few pages and give up a day or two later because my grammar was off or it was not well written.

I looked at creative prompts. My daughter and I would try these and one of us would quit them. We never finished them. I wondered what it was about the prompts that made us stop. I started to explore them on Instagram and Pinterest to see if there was an easy way to explain why we never finished them. There was always a prompt or two that would stump me. I am sure it did for my daughter too. Is that why we stopped? 

I found one. A 30-Day Mental Health Challenge that had simple activities that I could do. I found three I could not do, but get this… I crossed them out at the beginning (since it isn’t cheating if you do it in the beginning) and started there. I was supposed to fill 3-pages in a daily journal or write for 20′ whichever was longest. Ok. It could help with the therapy I was working on and yah, let’s do this!

The first month had 31-days. I did not add another day of challenges. I figured I needed a day to reflect, to consider another challenge, to maybe just not do it. In the end I did all but two of them. I was not there in my brain space. Did I panic and stop? No. I talked about why I just couldn’t in the journal. It became easier to write about things that were happening outside of the prompt.

The next month was going to be a declutter the mind and space challenge. The first day, organize computer files. Guess what? It stopped me from doing this challenge. For some it may have been a simple task, but for me that was a multi-day project. I never finished that challenge. The rest of the daily prompts were fine and the previous month, I could substitute a prompt if I didn’t think it fit… why not this? I knew it was a lot and I could have changed it.

What saved this daily creative activity? A co-Art challenge I was doing with my mom. A daily sketchbook thing. I used to draw ALL OF THE TIME. Why did I stop? Adulting? I was looking for things that could help my cognitive issues. I will talk about that experience later. One you-tube guy said that daily sketching and creating is a great way to grow brain cells. I wanted my brain back. It did not involve me doing or consuming woowoo stuff, so draw anything with a pen it is…

That month, I bounced back and forth and was a little more of a hot mess, but I did get back into a daily creativity thing. I just wrote in the journal and have not gone back to daily challenges. Writing was getting easier and if I didn’t have words, I did art. Get this…. I allowed myself to make a mistake and it was humbling at first, but ok. I reminded myself it did not have to be perfect, and it was not going to be displayed. Stop expecting perfect.

I cannot say I was gentle to myself or that I did not have anxiety over a daily commitment, I did. I do. My world was shaken up and I was trying to find a way to ground myself and find a new daily rhythm. What starts out as a halting uncomfortable brain fart became a very me brain fart and I was feeling silly, but ok with it. It didn’t have to be perfect. I also realized I was SO out of practice with my art and I really should not expect great things right away.

Yah, grammar and coloquial Shannonisms were there in my writing and Ahhh that is why we did those fundamentals for an entire quarter in Jr High art class. I was so out of practice and had to remind myself that if I looked at a little kid’s first drawings and essays, they are not brilliant either. Just do it.

 Is drawing or writing perfect for everyone? No. A friend does colouring books. I know a lot of people who quilt, scrap book, bullet journal, make amazing art with Procreate… I stumbled upon patterns and mandala drawing folks on Instagram and Pinterest (a great way to wind down before bed is watching them and watercolour artists online…). I downloaded some of them for inspiration if I was stuck. If I could not draw or was short of time, make a pattern. I will share some of that later too.

I found I was anxious when I started daily pattern drawing, but by about day 6-8, I found it was more relaxing. I was also more confident about handling a pen and was proud when I could make straight lines free-style again. I am working my way up to loose floral watercolours.

One of the creativity prompts (from Superbetter) was to write a letter to something I am grateful. This built on the prompt the day before that was trying to get you into a routine of trying to think about things you are grateful for. I wrote a letter to a hot cup of tea. It may sound silly, but I admit I was surprised what came out. It isn’t quite Robbie Burns Ode to Whisky, but it is mine. It clearly was something I *was* grateful for.

I will be honest; I did not keep that first month’s journal. I was afraid of revisiting it because I was basically in shock about a lot of things. I don’t plan to be Ainis Nin, but for this blog, I will share a lot about how I got to this point, what is helping or not helping me and then the journey. I also plan to include creative writing or art that I have done and there will be a tag or category that says “creative” at the beginning of this. 

I am still working out how I am going to do this blog (I will keep repeating this until I know what I am doing), I am going to be ok that it is not perfect and just roll with it. That is a current personal objective and is super hard for me. So yah, this is also a daily creative project that will evolve with time. I hope to explore a few things. I may settle into something specific. I may just doodle about or share a photo. I may edit and re-publish it again later. We will see how it goes!

Giving Myself Permission to Heal

Since March, I have been reassured that this was time for me to focus on my health and healing. It is such an uncomfortable thing to think about when every part of who I am is about taking care of others. The thing is that mentally and physically I did hit a brick wall. I didn’t know how broken I was or why.

As I work through a lot of this, I am told over and over again to write. I am told to focus on healing. I start doing creative things that I have not done in decades. I go to an awful lot of medical appointments. I write some more. I start to finger through the stored accumulation of a lifetime of hastily packed items from a farm, a creamery, a failed marriage, parenthood, education, a commercial building, my youth…

What do I do with all of this? 

I am sitting with everything and starting to process their meaning to me today and remembering a lot. When you are in survival mode for so long, you don’t sit with things. You don’t feel. You cannot answer super simple questions like “how are you?” You don’t grieve. You don’t do anything more than depend on the muscle memory of daily life and make sure everyone is ok to the best of your ability.

I want to use this space to document this journey. This will evolve as I move along. We will see what happens.