Written by Kristen Milstead
That’s what my therapist had said to me when I expressed my frustration over why I was having so much trouble dealing with the world, despite the fact that I wasn’t interacting with my ex-boyfriend anymore.
That’s when I realized just how truly pathological this situation had been.
I hated how I had changed without even realizing it, how I wasn’t my easygoing self anymore. I hated how angry I could get over the things that had been done to me. I hated how triggering certain things could be for me.
Mostly, I hated the nightmares I had at night. Sometimes they were so physical– people coming out of walls and beating me with baseball bats, spiders crawling all over me– and I woke up screaming sometimes, for the first time in my life. Once I dreamed of nuclear war, and the explosion rocked me with such intensity, my body shook in my sleep. I woke up crying, staring at the ceiling, unable to move for almost an hour.
But sometimes the dreams were more akin to real life– dreams of betrayal and lost love.
Occasionally, I dreamed he was hunting me. Other times I dreamed he was protecting me. But he was there.
God, when would he ever go away?
And that was just when I was asleep.
The thing that’s hard about having PTSD/Complex-PTSD is that it leads to an unpredictable life:
- sometimes I feel normal, or as normal as I can feel– my baseline normal
- sometimes I am not feeling so great– there’s some lingering overwhelming thought/emotion/combination of both that is interfering with my ability to carry on and I can’t get rid of it
- sometimes I’m fighting through something internally, but I’m still able to carry on externally and basically, no one knows what’s going on inside me
- sometimes I have a bad moment that catches me off-guard and it may throw me off for an hour or so
- sometimes I wake up and I just don’t feel like being around anyone because everything feels like a trigger
- sometimes I get a glimpse of what my life is going to be like when this is completely behind me… and it’s quite nice
This battlefield inside of me has been raging for years now. It has quieted, but some of the symptoms remain.
On some days, there is a residue of that tense something is not right feeling that does not want to leave me.
It manifests itself like this:
- A Whole Lot of Anxiety
The primary emotion that I deal with is anxiety. Often, it is an omnipresent feeling that needs almost nothing to trigger it. During the time I was with him, my fight or flight mode was permanently tripped off the chain and I have just begun to get that under control.
My body became so used to feeling on edge, ready for some kind of attack or betrayal, never knowing when it would come, waiting to be ground down. It’s still there to a degree and I wonder when it will leave, although it’s much better now.
I now perceive my life through a filter that I don’t know how to let go of. The anxiety can be made worse at any given time by anything, internal or external. An unwanted thought. Something someone says. I read things into what people say and do without wanting to or meaning to. Then I have to talk myself down from it and put sense back into myself again, remind myself that filter is there– and I’m left trying to figure out whether someone is really being a jerk to me or if I was being too sensitive.
After years of being told I couldn’t trust myself on that by my ex-boyfriend, now I really can’t. I’ve got some strategies for that now and I’m getting myself back, but it’s been a long road.
- Intrusive Thoughts and Emotional Flashbacks.
My ex-boyfriend put many poisonous words into my ears over the years, things about how no one would ever love me like he did or at all and about how I was a “this” or a “that” because of random things that set him off. These were things that equated to me just living my life, but that he didn’t like because they made me too independent and therefore did not allow him enough control and made him feel insecure.
Associating the greatest love of your life with someone who intentionally tried to hurt you with cruel words takes time to sort through. It goes beyond the normal break up emotions. It includes being lost in a confusing swirl of memories where your version of events was consistently challenged.
The brain is constantly trying to sort it all out to make some kind of sense out of it all. If something happens that reminds me of any of it, I can get emotionally triggered for hours.
That might look anything like a panic attack to crying unexpectedly to getting annoyed by something that seems innocuous. Then I have to talk myself down or soothe myself out of that too.
I can cry at the drop of a hat. About anything. The tears are always on the surface as if they need an occasional release. Strong emotion of some sort leads them to come forward for a few minutes.
I was told for a long time that whatever emotion was having was the wrong one or that I wasn’t allowed to have an emotional reaction to horrible things that were happening around me.
- Reactions to Events Sometimes Out of Whack
I can be easily triggered because of the anxiety and “fight-or-flight” mode. At the same time, if I’m feeling particularly numb at a certain time, it may seem as if I’ve gone the other way and I’m not acting as if I care enough.
Or it may seem as if my boundaries are too strong or too weak– either I’m not letting anyone near or letting someone walk all over me and not making my own needs known. Yeah, that’s me trying to figure out how to put them back in place again since they were eroded so slowly I don’t even know where they went or how to get them back.
- Trouble Concentrating or Forgetfulness
So much of my mental focus is taken up by just managing anxiety and dealing with the intrusive thoughts that it’s difficult to have the energy left to sift through vast amounts of other information to even get me out of bed in the morning and then keep me functioning to get to a task or focus on a conversation at hand.
I’m easily distracted, blocked, processing information in new or ever-changing ways, and constantly exhausted. This can make me sound less intelligent or make it seem as if I’m not paying attention when words won’t come out right or when I have to ask someone to repeat something.
It just takes me longer to process sometimes if my brain is on overload. So yes, it translates to an inability to communicate effectively.
This last effect, as a result of some of the others and of C-PTSD in general, is the worst for me. The sheer amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to just carry out normal activities and heal from all of this often leaves me falling short. I’ve been dealing with some mental deficits and exhaustion that affect me socially and professionally.
Words are strange things for me these days. Sometimes the word that comes out of my mouth sounded like the one I wanted to use but isn’t quite right.
Other times, I will be in the middle of a conversation with someone, and everything will be fine. Suddenly, the word I wanted as I was speaking just… isn’t there. In my mind. I mean, it won’t come to me so I can’t say it out loud.
It’s like having your train of thought suddenly careen off the track and right in front of you is nothing. Not one word will come to my mind. There’s a white, blank wall as if my mind is blocking me from picturing words at all.
And as I’m trying to remember what word I was trying to use next, I can see the person I’m talking to waiting patiently for me to finish my sentence. The longer they wait, the bigger the blank wall gets. I’m suddenly certain the word isn’t going to come, but still I fumble over what I was trying to say.
I can feel myself wishing the conversation would suddenly just end. I back up a few words and hope the word I’m looking for will come to me. I search my brain for a similar word, something that will substitute for what I’m trying to say.
But no. There’s nothing. So instead, I just push past it, as if I’m interrupting myself and moving onto my next related thought. I’ll nod as if what is saying is so obvious, I don’t even need to finish my sentence. But by then, my thoughts are too jumbled and even though I know exactly what I would like to say—the perfectly formed idea, the brilliantly developed connected made between our thoughts gone.
I let our conversation die shortly after.
This is the mental fog I carry around, thanks to C-PTSD.
It’s much better than the fog I carried around when I was in the relationship due to cognitive dissonance and the effects of the psychological abuse, but this fog remains.
Some days it’s better than others. When I’m especially tired, I can’t really carry on much of a conversation at all. Even though I can think complete thoughts, putting them into words doesn’t go very well.
One day, I have hope that I can fill my brain with all the words I know again and they will flow out of me the way that they used to.
I want to say to people that I am not unintelligent, that I can carry on conversations. That my brain works, that I have thoughts and ideas and they are in there. I just can’t get everything out at that particular moment.
I want to tell them about the things that have happened and how far I’ve already come.
But I don’t.