When I was young a series of upsetting, traumatic and challenging things happened in my life. Things that were totally out of my control.
On their own, each one would have been painful and difficult to deal with. A sequence of traumatic events spread over a period of years left my adolescent brain unable to cope and I suppressed many of the memories.
I was initially diagnosed with depression at the age of 31. Now, more than 10 years later, I have a much better understanding of what it means to live with the day to day experiences of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
When faced with traumatic experiences, the brain is unable to deal with and process memories correctly. Instead of being stored away neatly, the memories begin to spill out and the trauma is relived as though it is happening all over again.
Triggers can happen at any time. They can come in many forms and cause both emotional and body responses. Fight, flight or freeze – the danger response hardwired into our bodies, flashbacks, and reoccurring dreams and nightmares.
PTSD isn’t just about reliving trauma; it encompasses the desperate sadness of depression, suicidal thoughts, anger and rage, trouble concentrating, avoidance and dissociation. I see all this as my brain responding creatively, in order to protect itself from reliving the full force of the trauma.
Unsettling images and feelings
Most mornings my brain is heavy and slow from processing thoughts and memories through dream sleep. Often, I’m left with recurring images that take time to understand or decipher, and unsettling feelings that are tricky to pin-point.
My flashbacks are complicated and confusing: incoherent images of the past, like rapidly turning pages of a photo album going round again and again. Each photograph I glimpse gives me a picture memory with its associated sensations and emotions. No single image is there long, but each leaves me with the weight of the accompanying feelings.
At times I zone out into states of dissociation. This is when my brain can no longer cope with whatever is happening, the influx of information causes an overload and begins to shut down. At its worst I collapse and can’t move. There’s no quick fix for this but I am learning new ways to ground myself back into the present. On an average day I am continually catching myself staring off into the middle distance.
There are days where I don’t want to be seen. On these days I find people frightening. They have the power to lie, hurt, harm, abandon, to kill and be killed, to die. It feels like my vulnerability can’t be contained, seeping through into my body language and, like windows into the soul, my eyes reveal everything. The idea of being seen when I feel at my most afraid and vulnerable is terrifying.
There are other days when I have superpowers. When my sense of smell is extremely acute, sensations of touch are heightened, and I see minute details. It’s not as exciting as it may sound. It’s an extension of my perceptions of danger. I’ve learnt that during these states I am highly susceptible to triggers.
My brain is constantly problem-solving, trying to put together the pieces of a broken puzzle. My adult mind is carefully trying to assimilate the experiences I had as a child. Like an archaeological dig I’m constantly unearthing things. Not everything fits together or makes sense. The pieces don’t come in the right order, but everything needs to be carefully handled, labelled and stored. All of which happens slowly over time.