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My Journey With PTSD

July 31, 2014

I wrote most of this 7 months ago and I published it online anonymously. It is a follow up to an article that I published in September 2013 but I haven’t been ready to share it under my own name until now.

Before I start I would like to say that publishing these raw details about my past have helped me heal and move forward more than anything else ever has. I can’t even begin to describe how liberating it is to get these things outside of me and into the world and I hope that in doing so, others with similar problems will come to understand that they’re not alone and they have nothing to be ashamed of in their symptoms.

At this moment in time I’m in a pretty calm place. With my PTSD I do have mostly good days but it’s taken me 15 years post diagnosis to get to this point and to feel comfortable talking about it.

People develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for a number of reasons. For some, it happens because of a single terrible event and for others, like myself, it develops because of years of prolonged abuse.

The most difficult thing for me to accept about PTSD has been that it is a mental health condition but it is not something I was born with. Many people in the world have been subjected to the same stresses that I was and many others have been subjected to horrors I can’t imagine but they never develop PTSD.

So if I’m completely honest, having this diagnosis left me feeling weak and ashamed. I was in denial about it until fairly recently because I couldn’t admit to myself that I allowed the source of my PTSD to break me. I was also afraid of the stigma that it carried should anyone find out because basically, unless people have a very good reason to research something like PTSD or have experienced it themselves, they don’t know half of what they think they know and their reactions to finding out, verbal or otherwise can be extremely hurtful or patronizing.

I know now that developing PTSD doesn’t mean that I allowed anyone to break me. Everyone copes with extreme stresses differently so I guess I can say that I was born with a predisposition by just being me, but developing PTSD was not my fault. I did not allow it to happen, it just did.

The source of my PTSD was my biological mother. She was profoundly mentally ill, unpredictable and very poorly supervised. Unfortunately for me, I was along for the ride because the priorities of her family, the ones who knew what was happening, were always to protect her (not me) and my grandmother thought that she had my mother under control (she was massively mistaken). So if she hurt me in any number of ways, it was just covered up and swept under the carpet lest someone outside the family find out and they left me to live alone with her because I guess no one thought that leaving a defenseless child with someone as mentally ill as my mother was a really bad idea.

No one ever talked to me about her illness except to say that she was “sick” and no one ever once asked me how I was doing. I was just told to be good and being good meant keeping my mouth shut to help maintain the poorly fabricated illusion of normality that anyone with eyes could see through. My biggest problem was not that no one was on my side but that I didn’t even know I had a side.

On any occasion when she was admitted to the mental hospital, I was dropped off with  relatives only from her side of the family and I was either not permitted to see or outright hidden from my father’s side of the family so that there was no chance I’d say anything that could give them the ammunition to claim custody of me.

If my father managed to gain custody of me, my mother would have lost her financial independence.

I didn’t get away from her officially until I was 15 years old and by then a great deal of damage had been done. That damage turned into PTSD and that is what I live with now.

It manifests in a number of ways. For example, I still have nightmares and flashbacks and on very bad days my stress translates into physical pain with no actual medical cause (I’ve been tested numerous times). I am often extremely anxious with an overwhelming feeling of impending doom and I usually have a great deal of trouble coping with physical contact from anyone except for my husband and daughter. My triggers take many forms from the sound of a vacuum cleaner to the smell of cigarette smoke and I never know when these triggers will in fact trigger something. There are other symptoms as well that are still too personal for me to publish.

Until she died I spent many years avoiding everyone with any connection to my mother. After the first anniversary of her death  I decided that it was time to start actively pursuing the next stage of my own healing and this is why I started writing again.

Getting over PTSD and healing from the wounds that it represents is not something which happens all at once. It’s a long road with many detours and it’s not a smooth ride.

For a very long time I felt so disappointed in myself that I couldn’t be stronger and that I couldn’t survive what I went through unscathed but for a few bad memories as some people can. I felt that I was a complete failure as a human being for allowing myself to be trapped in a profoundly stressful situation over such a long period of time that it eventually broke me in so many ways. Even though I was a child who didn’t know any better I felt like I was stupid and it was my fault. Admitting to something as personal as being broken is absolutely terrifying. To cope with my fear I just bottled it all away inside of me and buried my feelings, convincing myself that PTSD wasn’t responsible for the symptoms I was exhibiting even though my case is pretty much textbook.

Today I can look at myself in the mirror and see all of the strength it took to get out of bed every morning for all of these years carrying this burden. For most of my adulthood I allowed people to think that I was strange and emotionally fragile because I didn’t want them to know what was happening inside of me and I wasn’t ready to face it myself either.

Based on my own experience I can say that keeping it to yourself really isn’t a long term solution but it does serve a purpose because you do need to wait until you are at a point when you are emotionally ready to open the floodgates. Sometimes it takes months, sometimes it takes years and no one on earth can push you or manipulate you into getting to that place any faster. It’s a state of mind that you need to get to on your own with the support of the people you trust. The best thing that anyone can do for someone with PTSD is to be supportive, but never pushy.

Many people I’ve encountered have had the attitude that you need to jump on the issue (whatever the issue is) – forgive, forget and move on, but those are the people who have no idea what it’s like when your brain won’t let you forget.

You see, when you are a child and your brain is still developing it uses your surroundings to establish its baseline for “normal”. This means that if your brain matures into its hard wired adult form and you have felt like you’re under threat your entire childhood… it stays that way, even once the threat is gone.

I can’t forget what I went through and what it was like to live with that woman. Even though she is dead and buried, her actions, her words and the constant threat of her remains with me.

I cannot express how much I wish it was as easy as forgiving and forgetting, I would have washed my hands of all of this so many years ago if I could have, because believe it or not, waking up crying or screaming in the middle of the night is not fun, and experiencing a randomly triggered traumatic flashback so vivid that I can smell it is not my idea of a good time. It’s not comfortable living in physical pain caused by anxiety and living in a more or less constant state of heightened anxiety is incredibly exhausting.

People who push the forgive and forget mentality are the ones who may consider themselves to be reasonable and perhaps even empathetic but where they fall short is that they truly have no understanding of PTSD and as a result, they’re not helpful at all. In fact, they can be completely toxic to a person who is trying to move forward because of their tactless clear lack of understanding. It’s like telling someone with clinical depression to just cheer up already.

I can’t remember what it feels like to not be this way, but I can remember what it feels like to be a complete emotional disaster who is afraid to go to sleep at night and that’s not where I am anymore. That’s not where I’ve been for over a decade so what I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t just disappear but learning to cope is possible and gradually the symptoms lessen and become manageable.

For some people, therapy is a life saver but I personally never took to therapy.

Before the custody battle kicked off  (age 14) I had been taken to see counselors several times when I was elementary school age because my mother had been reported on multiple occasions for child abuse and neglect by teachers and my father’s family. Somehow she always received a warning that they were coming to talk to me, even when they saw me at school which is a massive failing of the child services system. As a result of these warnings she and my grandmother would chastise me and coach me on what not to say. They would scare me with promises of foster care if I told the truth and they convinced me that I was at fault for bringing the wrath of these child services people on our family. This was the point that I started to develop a fear and deep rooted distrust of “counselors”. This also meant that I was scared into sealing my own fate of prolonged abuse because I didn’t tell the counselors what they needed to hear.

When I was 14 and 15 part of the process I needed to go through to be removed from my mother’s custody was that I had to speak to and be assessed by several different state appointed social workers. I didn’t want to talk to any of them but I was in a position where I felt like I was fighting for my life and my right to be free of her mental illness. Unfortunately When I finally confided in them they didn’t listen to me at all. In fact they tried repeatedly to force me back with my mother (despite all of the documented history) so that they could close the case, and this only solidified my distrust.

After my aunt was finally made my legal guardian I saw one last counselor in an attempt to work through some things. I sat down in the chair at the side of her desk and observed that she was holding a file containing papers about me and my case which I assume she’d read through, then the first thing this absolute stranger told me was that I was her hero.

I did not know what to say to that. It made me feel unbelievably patronized and furious. How dare she suggest that surviving a horrible and abusive childhood then taking my physically and mentally ill mother to court was heroic. I didn’t need admiration, I didn’t need pity.

30 seconds later, before we’d built any sort of relationship and with the finesse of a sledge hammer fracturing concrete she  jumped straight into the sexual abuse and frankly that was the end for me because I knew I no longer had to speak to these people so I didn’t, and I never went back.

What I did need at that time was someone who didn’t know me or pretend to know me to listen, because talking about it when you’re ready really does help, but if you can’t find someone to trust you can’t be ready and it just festers inside of you like a disease.

I do believe now that it was a mistake I never went back to talk about it, clearly not with that woman but if I could do it again, I would have asked for someone else and I would have reported her happy ass for being so grossly unprofessional. Unfortunately this is the perspective you gain as an adult and hindsight… well, you know how that goes.

So that was 15 years ago and since then I have considered therapy again a few times but unfortunately it costs a lot of money which I do not have so I haven’t gone down that road and looking at where I am now I’ve not done terribly for myself having skipped out on the therapy option, it’s really not for everyone.

Once the threat of my mother taking custody of me was over and my aunt had the legal documentation in hand stating that she was my guardian until I was 18, I started healing. I healed without professional therapy and without medication. It took a lot of long conversations with my auntie who always made time to listen, to get me to a place where I wasn’t such an emotional train wreck any longer. The nightmares and flashbacks became less frequent and less intense.

I felt safe and less anxious all of the time and the physical manifestations of abdominal pains and dizziness became more manageable, but then I sort of hit a plateau and that plateau was caused by guilt, then the guilt started me on a path of regression.

The plateau was caused by the fairly enormous guilt complex I carried about leaving my mother. The guilt was there because it had been reinforced in my brain my entire life that my mother was sick and it was my job to take care of her and this was a duty that I’d completely abandoned. She also hadn’t yet managed to entirely destroy the love that I still held onto for her as my mother which meant that she had the power to use my guilt against me which she chose to do, often.

At this time I was just trying to be a normal teenager getting the worst side effects of PTSD under control. I hadn’t yet even grazed the surface of working through my memories and feelings and I was still a child so I lacked the maturity to put her actions into perspective.

The guilt existed because secretly I did still feel like I was somehow to blame for everything. My mother played the victim as she always did and she was very good at it. My grandmother (her mother) reinforced my guilt at every opportunity by suggesting that when I came to my senses I would go back to my mother and I was under the impression that her entire side of my family thought I was a selfish horrible person with no mind of my own. In fact I have been told by more than one person, as an adult that my mother told them my aunt had brainwashed me and that is why she lost custody.

For the record… My aunt never attempted to brainwash me. In fact she always encouraged me to maintain a relationship with my mother when I was ready and on my own terms.

Religion was also used as a weapon against me at every opportunity because (by my understanding based on observation and personal experience) with those who will use religion as a weapon, if you can’t get someone to think the same way you do, you tell them that they’re a bad person then threaten them with eternal damnation, confident that Catholic fear tactics will do the job because after all in this twisted mindset God is on the side of child abusers and molesters (because confession is magic) but not so much on the side of the innocent child and it is the child’s job to suck it up, keep quiet and pretend nothing ever happened while waiting for it to happen again because NEWSFLASH, people who hurt children don’t often just quit, even if they feel remorse, and they’re even more likely to repeat the behavior when they know that they’re not likely to be punished or shunned in any way for it.

(Note: I am well aware that there are plenty of perfectly kind, decent and wholesome people in the world who practice the Catholic faith and though I am no longer associated with any organized religion, my previous statement was not an attack on Catholicism but one about how religion can be twisted by a minority of people within a faith)

So as a result of all this guilt I made the mistake of trying to maintain a relationship with my mother, often on her terms which was inadvertently completely detrimental to my attempts to lessen the effects of PTSD on my life.

As a rule, it’s probably the worst idea ever to attempt to maintain a connection with the focal point of your PTSD but I was not embracing my own diagnosis at all and I was still trying to not be responsible for her being institutionalized by keeping an eye on her. Unfortunately with all this guilt I had yet to accept the idea that I wasn’t responsible for her mental health.

I visited my mother occasionally by myself but that rarely ended well. Every time I saw her I would be falling to pieces beforehand and  had worked out an A and B escape plan. Usually I tried to make sure there was a chaperone of some description present when I saw her but she still, without fail always found a moment to corner me and said or did something manipulative, calculated and awful which no one else witnessed and it would send me into several days of depression, nightmares and anxiety so I had to cut the visits down.

In response she tried to buy my affection with bags of presents.  She’d use these gifts to try and tempt me to visit her and when I didn’t visit she’d leave them at my grandmother’s house so that when I visited my grandmother I was given the presents that I didn’t want as well as a brutal kick in the gut speech about how my feelings didn’t matter and I needed to get over it and go back to my mother  because I made her sad and heaven forbid my mother was sad. So I started visiting my grandmother less frequently as well because she just wrecked me every time I saw her and it was difficult enough facing her, even though I loved her, knowing that she was the primary enabler to all of the abuse I was put through by my mother.

It was like being on rickety emotional roller coaster. Even though I knew it was dangerous I’d do  my best to put my own panic aside and stay in touch, and I would in turn be destroyed for my efforts. Then after I picked myself up off the floor and could sleep again I’d try another time and it ended the exact same way. I started to realize that the plateau wasn’t a plateau anymore and that I was actually regressing. It was just a new cycle of abuse she had orchestrated. My mother was still using me as her emotional punching bag and I was allowing it to happen.

When I was about 18, one of the presents she had left for me in a bag of random things was a huge bottle of conditioner (I had extremely long hair) and I made the mistake of using it not realizing that it was laced with hair remover.

As the terrible chemical smell of burning hair filled my nostrils  and a pile of my hair fell out over the course of a few days, it finally really hit me that I was genuinely hurting myself by maintaining any relationship with her and I had the power to make it stop.

She only reached out to me to hurt me and besides the fact that seeing her triggered physical pain, nightmares and massive anxiety attacks, it seemed she was also totally incapable of restraining herself from lashing out at me so I made the choice, as an adult to stand up and tell her NO. That is the time I started avoiding her entire family at all costs because I couldn’t take it anymore.

Severing ties is not as easy as I make it sound. Even though I’d had almost nothing to do with these people for many years it was still difficult to completely turn my back on my family.

Gradually I recovered from the downward spiral and started to heal again.

When I was barely 19 I got my first apartment by myself and it was wonderful. When I lived with my aunt there was always a certain safety that my mother would never come to the door for two reasons. The first was that she hated my aunt with a seething passion for taking me in and the second was because my aunt lived in the middle of the woods and my mother didn’t drive. I’d left that safety for the independence that my apartment provided and the pursuit of putting my past behind me to continue living a normal life. I also looked after my elderly great grandmother (father’s grandmother) who lived next door to me.

After about a year of complete freedom my mother let me know that she found out I was living by myself by leaving a cryptic message on my answering machine and then one of my aunts drove her to my apartment so that she could start leaving presents at my door while I was at work.

Superficially I know that leaving presents by the door seems sweet and thoughtful, but given the history I’m sure anyone reading this can see where it’s going.

I’d already made it abundantly clear that I did not want anything from her. I asked her repeatedly to leave me alone and give me my space because I wasn’t ready to deal with her but  she was still going out of her way to make it to my house from the next town over where she lived (30 mins away) to leave things at my door just to let me know that she had her ways and she knew where I lived. All of this under the guise of a supportive and caring mother.

After the first bag of stuff was deposited on my door step she started leaving daily messages on my answering machine while I was at work. Hearing her voice every day made me physically sick but I still had to listen to the messages at least partially just to make sure they weren’t from anyone else about something important.

I started to hide in my own home (not turning on lights) as I sat on my computer all night doing school work and playing games on the internet. I also stopped answering the door for anyone who didn’t announce themselves.

I quickly realized that I was regressing again. The nightmares came back in full force. I started sleeping with an 8 inch hunting knife under my pillow because I had the completely irrational fear that she’d get into my apartment when I was sleeping  and I even got to the point where I was nervous about  going into stores where she had any possibility of also being in because the sight of her made me sick.

I still shopped and worked and went to school full time continuing my pursuit of having a normal life but she made coping with a normal life extremely challenging.

At one point she even informed me that she was going to start taking classes at the same community college I was attending so that we could see each other there and let’s just say I didn’t take it very well. After I started my semester she let me know that she never registered and her lack of higher education was my fault for not being more supportive.  I don’t know if she ever actually intended to start classes or if she just wanted to push my buttons but I was very much relieved and I honestly didn’t care at all about her half hearted pursuit of higher education.

I got to a place where self preservation finally kicked in and that tiny bit of love that I’d held onto for so long disappeared. She had chipped away at it, relentlessly until it was gone and had no one to blame but herself.  I made it clear to her that she had built a glass house with her second husband (married when I was 18) and if she didn’t want him to know the whole truth behind why I took her to court she needed to back off. Having said that, if he had ever actually wanted to know I would have told him everything but I guess he was comfortable with whatever she had told him.

After that spell of drama things got a lot better for me and I haven’t taken any large steps backwards since.

The last communication I sent to her was when I was married at age 22 and it was just an email with a wedding photo and a subject line “By the way”. I’d only sent it because my grandmother had cried at me (literally cried at me) that I had to tell my mother I was married. I know it sounds cruel to do it that way but I was finished with pleasantries.

After I was married I moved to Scotland and the distance that I put between her and myself helped ease the symptoms of my  PTSD a great deal but it hurt me in a lot of other ways.

The day after I found out my mother had died (January 2013) I went outside and it was like seeing the world with different eyes. It didn’t change my PTSD symptoms (as I secretly had hoped it would), but I’d never imagined I could feel such relief. I never wished her death but I did wish her away from me and I am not ashamed to admit that I feel tremendous peace in knowing that there is no longer any possibility of her infiltrating my life or contacting my daughter.

My journey is far from over. Sometimes I still have very bad days and I feel guilt that I shouldn’t but like I’ve said previously, I do have mostly good days. The most difficult thing at the moment for me is getting people to understand and respect my personal space issues and when I put that into perspective, it’s a fairly massive improvement from where I was as a teenager.

From → Ramblings

One Comment
  1. Cheryl permalink

    Stuh, I am so very very glad I know you. I knew most of this before you published. (I tried to be helpful in unobtrusive ways from a distance, given our situations.) And I just wanted to say that you have had a positive influence on me in so many little ways. Thank you.

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