Pain Is Inevitable. Suffering Is Optional

Last year, I had the rather jarring revelation that I had been a battered spouse.  I had come across an article on battered spouse dynamics which had then sent me to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence where I found that after more than a quarter century of owning the narrative that I had abused my ex-wife (a narrative that she made a point of feeding as much as she could), it turned out that the joke was on me.  This new understanding of what had really happened forced me to reassess more than just my first marriage.  The past 30 years came into question at full force.  The way I had lived, based on a lie that I had not only believed but had fully accepted and internalized, suddenly felt like one of those alternate realities that are the story line in all kinds of science fiction stories.  The stress and emotional upheaval which resulted from this new information sent me back to therapy for the first time in over ten years.

My first experience in therapy all those years ago was positive.  I had sought out a therapist after listening to the experience of a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and how it had impacted their life and thought, perhaps, I was suffering from the same condition.  However, when I brought this to the therapist, and they went through an evaluation process, I was told that my problem was not PTSD, but was actually extremely low self-esteem.  So, I spent the next couple of years working with that therapist and by the time I left therapy I had done a significant amount of work and had made some improvement.  There were some issues that I still felt weren’t getting better, but through a combination of denial and incorrectly assuming that these were being addressed elsewhere, I didn’t fret much about them.

This next therapist that I had started seeing earlier this year didn’t diagnose me right away—or at least didn’t tell me immediately after making the diagnosis—and their therapeutic approach was kind of scattershot.  After several months I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was just spinning my wheels and needed to find a new therapist.  However, just a couple of weeks before switching therapists, this one told me that she had diagnosed me with PTSD.  This was a real surprise and I told her about my previous therapy experience and that I was having trouble reconciling these two different opinions.  This therapist said that my previous one likely just missed it because of a few factors, not the least being that by that time I had been sober for almost 20 years and the work I had done over that period had masked the severity of my condition.  But, she said, there was no doubt that this new diagnosis was correct.

I started seeing my new therapist a month ago and we did some basic intake to fill out some of the gaps in my chart.  During that process it occurred to me that I needed to get more information before my next appointment.  Once again, while doing research on one issue, I discovered that there was a whole different problem at work.  While I didn’t necessarily doubt my diagnosis, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I didn’t cleanly fit the profile, especially after having previously gone through a PTSD assessment a decade prior.  So, I felt it was necessary for me to get a better grip on the disorder and the life experiences of those who have it.  This is when I came across a term I’d never heard in my life before:  Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  There’s a good reason why I’ve never heard of it (and why you probably haven’t heard of it either):  it doesn’t exist as its own diagnosis in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), which is the primary source for psychiatric diagnoses—primarily because there is so much overlap in the symptoms between the two disorders.  However, CPTSD will be listed as its own distinct diagnosis code in the upcoming 11th edition of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) which will be released in the US in 2022.  In other words, it’s not a household name—and may never become one.

CPTSD has some distinct differences from PTSD, which explains to me why I never felt quite right about the PTSD diagnosis.  The first being that while PTSD is typically tied to a single traumatic experience (physical assault, severe accident, war combat, natural disaster, etc.), CPTSD is the result of a sustained traumatic experience over time from which the traumatized person cannot escape (being a victim of human trafficking, being a prisoner of war, living in a war-stricken region, enduring domestic abuse, ongoing childhood neglect, etc.)  Further, while those with CPTSD will typically exhibit many—if not most—of the symptoms of PTSD (flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the trauma, feeling constantly on edge, angry outbursts, negative personal thoughts, distorted guilt, etc.), they will also exhibit a number of additional symptoms such as a lack of emotional regulation (extreme sadness or anger), significantly negative self-perception and body image, immense shame, difficulty with relationships (avoiding relationships, engaging in abusive relationships because they are familiar or abusing others, significant lack of trust, seeking out or becoming a rescuer), suicidal thoughts or actions, experiencing fear for no obvious reason, loss of systems of meaning, etc.  This is where it started to hit home.  My traumatic experiences may not have been on the scale of a sexual assault or getting my leg blown off in a war, but they lasted for years.  Further, my symptoms lined up with the vast majority of the additional symptoms exhibited by people with CPTSD.  Suddenly, after more than 40 years, the Gordian Knot of thoughts, feelings and actions which had so baffled me, actually started to make some degree of sense.

I brought this to my new therapist and—luckily for me—it turns out that she has spent a number of years focusing on CPTSD and its treatment.  She said that she likewise had no doubt that my self-assessment was right on the money.  So, that’s the good news:  I not only know what the problem is, but I am also working with someone who understands it.  The bad news?  I will very likely be in therapy for the rest of my life.  Some people with PTSD are able to work through their therapeutic process until the traumatic event no longer interferes with their daily life—the traumatic event was acute, therefore so is the treatment in many cases.  However, CPTSD takes on more of a chronic presentation because the trauma itself was so long-lasting that it completely changes the brain and body of the person—particularly if that trauma was experienced in childhood when neural pathways were still being formed.

So, in the same spirit which facilitated my post in 2020—the hope that others might identify, feel less alone, and possibly get the help they need—here we are again.  I’m going to address some of the aspects of CPTSD which have personally impacted me.  If you, or someone you know, finds that this rings any bells, it may be worth following up with a health care professional.

First, the trauma itself.  Well, I guess it’s more correct to refer to it as “traumas.”  There were three significant ones throughout my childhood and two more in adulthood.  I have an older brother who literally hated me from the day I came home from the hospital and took it out on me every chance he had.  I know this because I was three months old at my first Easter, when—according to what my parents told me—I reached for a piece of candy that was in my brother’s basket and he started beating me.  That’s just the earliest example I know of specifically, but my parents told me on more than one occasion that my arrival was not a joyous occasion for my brother.

He beat me on an almost daily basis—particularly during breaks from school or weekends when our parents were at work and there was nobody to provide even a modicum of restraint.  He also employed other means of physical abuse—suffocation, prolonged painful wrestling holds, and he even tried to drown me once.  However, he wasn’t content with just physically abusing me.  He also went full tilt into mental and emotional abuse.  I received a steady stream of insults, taunts, threats, and scarring emotional messages.  All day long I was told how stupid, fat, lacking in common-sense, lazy, worthless and irritating I was.  If I liked something he instantly hated it and would put it down relentlessly.  He frequently threatened to kill me—and our parents if I ever told them what was going on.  One time he got wind through the grapevine that I was badmouthing him at school.  After receiving a righteous beating, I then had to endure a lecture from him about how much he builds me up in front of his friends and tells them how great I was so I could feel even worse—to the point where I felt I deserved my punishment.  If I received some kind of award or accolade, he would tell me that it was stupid and meaningless or that I only got it because people felt sorry for me.

As remorseless as he was, he wasn’t stupid.  He went to great lengths to make sure that he didn’t leave any marks, lest my parents (or a teacher) notice.  Every once in a while, he would go too far (well, too far for him) and I’d be missing a tooth or have some other physical mark that was obvious—but that just became the exception which proved the rule.  A few bruises and other obvious knocks here and there were just a sign of garden variety sibling rivalry as far as my parents were concerned.

Which brings me to trauma #2.  My parents did scant little to address the situation.  They treated the whole thing as though it were normal sibling squabbles.  They weren’t normal, not in any sense of the word.  My mother would yell at my brother to cut it out, or my father would tell us both to “give it a rest”, but ultimately there was no larger recognition that I was being abused on a much larger scale.  Even worse, they both suggested that if I would just fight back, or ignore him, he would leave me alone.  No matter how many times I tried to explain to them that none of that worked, they refused to believe it and just chalked it up to me exaggerating.  I learned at a very early age that if I tried to hit him back, I would get it ten times worse.  Of course, if I just laid down and took it, I would get it almost—but not quite—as badly, so I learned how to do the risk/reward calculation there.  As for ignoring him when he would say terrible things to me:  when I tried to do that, he would simply start beating me because there was no way I could ignore that.  The only real option I would have when he was home was for me to go into the forest behind the farm and spend hours there alone.  When I got a little older, I took to getting on my bicycle and riding until the sun went down.  I couldn’t employ these strategies all the time, but when the opportunity presented itself, I took it.  I remember watching the TV series Cheers and the theme song always bothered me.  The chorus is “sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”  I ached to go where nobody knew my name because then I could be left alone.

When we attended family gatherings, I would see how my cousins interacted with each other.  They didn’t always get along, but they certainly got along much more often than they didn’t—and if there was any disagreement that looked like it was going to escalate, one or both of their parents would shut that shit down.  Meanwhile, my brother would grab me by the ankles and literally bang my head on the floor in front of my cousins—but not the adults.  To this day I can still see the chips that were taken out of my teeth.

So, not only could I not avoid my abusive brother, but I also could not depend upon my parents to make it stop—and was made to believe that I was responsible for both his bad behavior and for finding ways to prevent it.  I was alone and isolated in that house and my brother knew it and exploited it for all it was worth.

My father was, by far, one of the least compassionate human beings I’ve ever known.  His favorite expression, whenever something bad would happen was, “you’ll live.”  When I was six years old, I fell off a neighbor’s horse and broke my arm.  The pain was beyond anything I’d experienced at that point, and I had no way of dealing with it so I just screamed and screamed and screamed.  When I walked home, still screaming, my parents asked what happened and I told them while screaming.  I had no idea my arm was broken, but holy shit did it hurt.  My father said, “you’ll live” and had essentially washed his hands of the situation.  My mother decided to put an ice pack on my arm which just sent me through the roof.  My father never took out health insurance for the family because he was a cheap bastard (considering how many times I landed in the ER during my childhood, one would think he’d change his tune on that bit), so for sure he wasn’t taking me to the hospital if he could at all avoid it.  Finally, after 12 hours of non-stop crying, my mother told my father to take me to the hospital.  He seethed with resentment the whole way there…and then the ER doc, after looking at the x-rays, asked my father when I broke my arm because by that time the external bruising made it clear that it didn’t just happen within the past hour.  So, dear old Dad got to eat a little humble pie, but it sure as shit didn’t help the fact that I went the entire day before getting the help I needed.  This is an extreme example, but it perfectly illustrates the general lack of give-a-shit he had toward me.

Even though the abuse at the hands of my brother, and the emotional abandonment by my parents, was traumatic, going to school was not a refuge either.  Trauma #3:  bullying.  In some ways, children really are like animals.  They can tell when another one is wounded or weak and they will go to town on that one.  I’m sure that I looked as terrified as I felt most days, and the other kids picked up on it.  Plus, I also had a mild case of Tourette’s Syndrome (which wasn’t diagnosed until my 40’s when I had a job with good enough health insurance to get it checked out), so I would make weird sounds and my head, face and body would jerk regularly.  Plus, my calves were abnormally tight which kept me from putting my heels on the floor—in essence, I was literally and figuratively on my toes all the time.  So, here’s a weird kid who is afraid of his own shadow, which makes for a great target for the other kids to bully mercilessly.  That being said, I got into very few fights in school.  On the rare occasions when I got cornered, all of my pent-up rage would come flying out and I would beat the other kid bloody—and then I would keep beating them until a teacher pulled me off.  I almost choked one kid out before a teacher got to us and had to physically restrain me.  So, it was this very odd cycle of bullying for a few years until I got into a fight, then there would be a blessed period of a few weeks or even a couple of months when the other kids would leave me alone after they’d witnessed what I’d done to one of their friends, and then the bullying would resume.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

I had no friends—and I mean that literally (not figuratively literally, but literally, literally).  There would be a kid here and there who I thought was my friend, but who would turn on me the very minute it became socially advantageous for them to do so.  There was only one kid growing up who never did that, but his father committed suicide when my friend was in the 6th grade and it so thoroughly damaged him that he got held back a year, so in effect I’d lost him as well.

Similar to the problems with my brother, my parents were likewise not helpful with my problems at school.  My father kept telling me to get into more fights and my mother kept telling me to ignore everyone.  Roughly four or five times every school year I would fake being sick just so I could be home alone and not having to deal with anyone for a while.  I couldn’t dip into that well too often, lest my parents catch on and ship me off to the bus, so I had to learn when the timing was right.

I had also developed a habit around this time of watching traffic go by the farm and wishing I could assume the life of any of the random people who drove by.  I knew, even at such a young age, that I had no idea what challenges or problems these unknown people faced in their own lives, but I was still willing to take that bet.  This little exercise continued well into my adulthood.

There was no friendly direction.  I woke up feeling afraid and I went to bed feeling afraid.  Eventually I began to think of my very existence as a crime against the world—that I should never have been born and that my actual birth was a criminal act.  My parents weren’t the criminals—I was.  I was seven years old when I came to this conclusion.

Not long after this point, I started regularly contemplating suicide.  I thought of a few different ways to do it.  I could shoot myself with one of my father’s guns.  Or I could poison myself with a bunch of pills.  Or I could stab myself to death.  At one point I even had a hunting knife pointed into my stomach like some kind of disgraced juvenile samurai, but (spoiler alert) I could never bring myself to follow through.

When I was 15 years old, my parents and I moved across the country.  It was essentially a geographic cure for my father (it failed), and my mother was not in the least bit in favor of moving so far from her extended family, but I was 100% on board.  There were a couple of reasons behind my interest in the move.  The first, and most important, reason was that my brother wasn’t coming with us.  He was 18 and had no interest in moving there so he was going to stay behind.  The other major reason was that I could reinvent myself and start over.  Nobody there would know me, and—critically—none of them would know my brother.  This was an opportunity for me to leave my traumas behind and I meant to make the most of it.

Good news/bad news:  We moved during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in high school.  The good news was that I was able to create a more-or-less new version of me by the time school started.  I was outgoing and funny.  I was interested in making new friends, and the only real stumbling block I had was my undiagnosed Tourette’s, but by this time I’d done a lot of at-home physical therapy so that my heels could touch the floor.  I still walked kind of funny (and there were still the physical twitches and noises), but at least I wasn’t on my toes all the time.  I’d managed to cobble together a small circle of friends.  I wasn’t a social butterfly by any stretch of the imagination but compared to my previous life it was a huge improvement.

The bad news was that, after six months, my brother had managed to so thoroughly screw up his life that he asked our parents if he could move down there.  He’d done a few short stints in jail and was burning bridges left and right, so he also went for the geographic cure (which also failed).  The larger problem—besides the fact that he was going to be moving in again—was that my parents bought the house we were living in with the expectation that I was the only one of their children who would be living there.  It was a two-bedroom house.  This meant that I didn’t even have the dubious benefit of not having to deal with him when I was asleep because he was going to be sharing the same bed with me.  Well…I say “sharing” but that word never really existed in his vocabulary.  What was his was his, and what was mine was his, and it had always been that way.  It was no different when he flew down and moved in.  During the course of each night, he would shove me over until I was perched on the last few inches of my side of the bed—and I would often slide off and hit the polished brick floor.

Obviously, the constant stream of abuse resumed, as did the general ambivalence of my parents in regard to it.  However, by this time, I had a friend—the person who was really my first “best friend” in my life—and he only lived a few miles away so I would bike over to his place regularly.  My physical existence at that point wasn’t as terrible as before—but it was a huge step backward for me mentally and emotionally after thinking that I would finally be free of my primary abuser.

It’s time to pause now and take stock of some of the symptoms of CPTSD which had started to manifest in me at a very early age and were now beginning to calcify in my behavior.

Feeling Constantly On Edge:  I was always trying to brace myself for something terrible.  Before we moved across the country, it was so bad that I would be constantly looking over my shoulder whenever I was walking through the halls in school.  I was tense all the time and the muscles in my back and neck would be knotted up and would frequently hurt. 

Dissociation:  I developed the ability to separate my consciousness from my physical presence when I was in a threatening situation.  Time would essentially stop and I would shut down until the threat had passed.  I was also tired all the time because I had discovered sleep as a means of time travel.  I could go to sleep and wake up anywhere from several minutes to several hours later instantly.  The only relief I would have at the time was either when I was alone or when I was asleep.  So, during the times when I wasn’t alone, I tended to fall asleep at the drop of a hat.  I would sleep in class.  I would sleep when sitting at a table to eat with other people.  When in a car with my brother or my father, I would be asleep before we left the driveway.  It sounds counterintuitive that I could sleep when in such stressful situations, but it was my only means of escape when I couldn’t be alone, and my body and mind would take it every chance it got. 

Hypervigilance: I developed a high sensitivity to the subtle facial expressions, body language and tone of voice people use. I tracked and cataloged these changes without even realizing I was doing it. This was my own personal early warning system that I was about to catch hell. By doing this I was able to brace myself for the abuse in whatever form it would take before it even started. I’m sure there were plenty of times when I was getting false alarms, and that my behavior would get totally out of whack for the situation. There’s one classic example that I still remember: I was on the playground during recess when a kid I knew wanted me to “play fight” with him. I didn’t know what he meant and as soon as he raised his hand, I immediately screamed, fell to the ground and balled myself up to receive the beating. He was really confused and tried to pull me up and explain that we weren’t going to actually fight—just pretend like we were going to fight. It made no sense to me and I just shook until he left. It didn’t matter to me because I knew the minute I let my guard down I would regret it.

Negative Personal Thoughts:  By the time I was in middle school I no longer needed my brother to tell me what a piece of shit I was because I was telling myself the same thing whenever I made the most innocuous mistakes.  Dropped something?  I am a fucking clumsy, stupid piece of shit.  Missed a question on my homework?  I am a fucking stupid, imbecile, dumbass piece of shit.  Said the wrong thing?  I have no common sense, and I have no business being around people because they can see what a worthless piece of shit I am.  The tape would run over and over and over in my mind and was just as relentless as if my brother were standing right there—but the voice was mine.

Significantly Negative Self-Perception and Body Image:  I had such a terrible body image that when I needed to change clothes in gym class starting in middle school, I would go into a bathroom stall to do it.  It didn’t take long for the kids to notice and give me hell for it, but it was better than changing clothes in front of them.  I think I took a grand total of one shower after gym class.  I didn’t care if I smelled terrible afterward because it kept people away from me.  When I was home, I would frequently stand in front of a mirror and tell myself how fat and terrible I looked.  When I looked at my face, I would tell myself just how plain and uninteresting it was.  It was so unremarkable that it was no wonder nobody liked me.  I started doing this when I was still in elementary school.

Significant Lack of Trust:  I couldn’t trust anyone and always expected to get hurt by other people.  When someone told me they would do something, I figured they wouldn’t actually follow through.  When they did follow through, I thought it was a miracle.  I could not bring myself to introduce myself to people I didn’t know—much less walk up and say hello to someone that I did know—because I knew they would reject me.  By the time we had moved across the country I had developed a keen ability to pretend I didn’t notice someone I knew and would continue on as if they weren’t there.  After we moved and I had managed to make a few friends, I lurched all the way to the other end of the spectrum and trusted them way too much.  I wound up in a bunch of very dangerous situations because my trust meter had been broken for years and I couldn’t tell when it was actually a reasonable response to not trust something or someone.

Becoming a Rescuer:  After we had moved across the country, I was constantly looking for someone to rescue.  If someone was having a bad day, or just a bad couple of minutes, I was there seeking to be the person who would carry them through it.  It didn’t matter what my personal situation or resources were.  I could be sleep deprived, hungry, broke, or even lacking transportation.  I once took my mother’s car without her permission and drove 200 miles through an ice storm in the middle of the night to rescue a friend who was in a bit of trouble.  I didn’t even have a license to drive at the time, but it didn’t matter.  I got into a fair bit of legal shit over that stunt, but not a few months later I was riding my bike 15 miles in the dark to rescue another one.  When there wasn’t an obvious opportunity for me to be a rescuer, I would seek them out, often badgering friends about what problems they had so I could fix them. 

Avoiding Relationships:  The first time I actually had built up the nerve to ask a girl out I was 16 years old.  She was way out of my league, but we had developed a decent rapport in our classes so approaching her wasn’t totally out of the blue.  I had this great restaurant in mind that we could go to—white tablecloths and the waiters used those little crumb scrapers—and it was local enough that it wouldn’t put anyone out to drive us there.  I went to her house and asked if we could talk on the porch.  When I asked her out, she laughed.  The expression on my face must have been pretty bad because she tried at that point to get herself under control, but she just couldn’t do it and kept laughing.  She tried to apologize, but her laughter was telling me the truth.  All the way home on my bike I told myself I should have known better—that there was no way anyone would be interested in me so what the hell was I thinking even trying.  I couldn’t bring myself to even look at her in class and eventually stopped talking to her altogether because it was clear I wasn’t worth it.  A few months later, there was another girl who—looking back—was clearly very interested in me.  She kept calling me and asking me out, but I kept putting her off.  I had so completely cut myself off from the possibility of having a relationship that it never even dawned on me that she liked me and wasn’t just looking for someone to fill a seat or use an extra ticket.

There’s a secondary piece to this symptom—at least as far as I can tell, because I’ve not seen anything in the list of symptoms that speaks to this directly:  Becoming Invisible.  I learned, at a very early age, that it was much safer for me to not be noticed at all, no matter what situation I was in.  So, I learned how to be really, really quiet, so the point where I could walk away and nobody would notice for several minutes to an hour later.  This particular skill got me in a lot of trouble with my parents—particularly if we were supposed to be going somewhere (or, we’re out somewhere and needed to go home) and I wasn’t around when the time came.  Sometimes, if I knew that disappearing wasn’t an option, I could remain in a room and be so quiet that when I eventually did move or make a sound it would startle people.  On one level, they knew I was there, but on another it was like a statue had suddenly come to life and it freaked them out.

Seeking a Rescuer:  When I was 17, my parents got divorced.  My mother had done a superb job over the years to mask the problems they’d been having so the announcement was a total shock.  I went into a pretty bad downward spiral as a result and a girl who I hadn’t ever considered asking out (because she was even further out of my league than the first one was) reached out to me and became a confidant.  Her parents had divorced several years before so she could identify and helped me through it.  Eventually, we became boyfriend/girlfriend.  She was my first lover.  But I was an emotional black hole, constantly needing her approval, sympathy, and company, with absolutely zero regard for her needs and feelings.  She wasn’t really my girlfriend—she was my hostage.  After about six or seven months, she’d had all the fun she could stand out of me and broke it off.

Suicidal Thoughts:  I’d already mentioned above how I started thinking about suicide at a young age.  It never really stopped, even after we’d moved, and I’d developed at least a modest social circle and didn’t have to deal with bullying at all in school anymore.  By this time the thoughts had a little more flair to them.  Maybe I could jump off a cliff at the nearby mountain.  Or I could swerve my bike into traffic.  Alcohol and pills should be fairly painless because if I have a bad reaction to the pills I would be passed out from the alcohol. 

Experiencing Fear for No Obvious Reason:  This basically goes without saying.  The problem, as I got into my high school years, was that I was making decisions based on fear that were utterly baffling to the people around me.  They couldn’t understand why I was acting this way and neither did I.  My social gains had pretty much stagnated after the first year as a result because nobody wanted to deal with my garbage.  I still had a few friends—drinking buddies, really—but that was still better than what I’d had before.

Poor Emotional Regulation:  My problems containing my rage were also not getting any better.  Generally speaking, I had learned to conceal my outbursts when around other people, which meant that when I was alone my frustrations would be taken out typically on objects.  In other words, I broke a lot of stuff.  After we moved and I no longer had to worry about being bullied, I also didn’t get into any more fights with one particular exception.  Through personal stupidity, and the inability to know when not to actually trust someone, I wound up cornered by three football players who were looking to make an example of me.  They had borrowed class rings from their friends, so their hands were rigged for maximum damage.  The problem for them was that I had been made aware of this possibility and had spent the last several days concealing an old railroad spike that I’d found when I was a kid on the farm.  It only took a couple of minutes but by the time it was over, two of the football players were running away and I’d put the third in the hospital.  I was standing over the writhing body of the third kid, laughing and taunting him, about to start delivering some swift kicks when my best friend broke through the circle and dragged me off.  All I could see in that kid was my brother and what I wanted him to feel, even if only for a few minutes.

Time passes.  I barely manage to graduate high school and actually get accepted to a university.  It is there that I meet the woman who was to be the next significant abuser in my life.  Knowing what I know now, I had initially been drawn to her for a couple of reasons.  The first is that she was paying attention to me, and The Black Hole ate it all up.  The second was that I saw her as another rescuer.  I was primed for just this type of relationship.  It didn’t take long for her to start with the standard abusive tactics (isolation from friends and family, manipulation, control, physical abuse, weaponizing sex, etc.) and I stuck with her for all the reasons mentioned in that other post—but I also stuck with her because being abused was normal for me so there was a certain degree of comfort in that.  For anyone who can’t understand that last sentence, congratulations:  you’ve never been on the receiving end of an abusive relationship so there’s no way for you to understand, and I envy you.

This was trauma #4:  the relationship that was to become my first marriage.  The post that links to this one goes into all the necessary details about the abuse from that relationship.  While there isn’t really much more detail to add here, I will say that recognizing that relationship for what it really was does provide me with a better perspective of how and why I acted the way I did.  It also provides a context for some additional CPTSD symptoms that have haunted me to this day.

Flashbacks:  There are three types of flashbacks—Visual, Somatic and Emotional.  Visual flashbacks are what people think of when they are dramatized in stories of combat veterans—they are transported back to the traumatic event and are reliving it.  Somatic flashbacks are when someone feels physical sensations, including pain, in areas directly impacted by the trauma.  I don’t suffer from either of those first two—at least not to the extent that I’m aware considering this whole thing is so new to me.  However, I frequently endure emotional flashbacks which appear to be the least understood but are also the type most commonly associated with CPTSD.  Emotions from past traumas are activated and it presents as being emotionally unstable or irrational.  This happens a lot with me to greater or lesser degrees, depending on the time of year or the severity of a precipitating event.  Most of the time I simply feel afraid and powerless, which is bad enough when trying to function as a going human concern.  However, at certain times of the year (the anniversary of the fight which led to the divorce, the anniversary of the divorce and my daughter’s birthday) I tend to get even more unstable for at least a week.  I’m more irritable.  I take everything personally.  I withdraw further into myself.  I’m sad all the fucking time.  There are other ad-hoc times when I will go into a flashback.  Every once in a while, my current wife and I will have a real doozy of a fight and when those take place, I will do one of two things:  I will either explode or I will implode.  As one person put it to me, I can push a lot of air—when I scream, it is loud, and it is terrifying to the person on the receiving end.  I can’t seem to stop myself either.  It’s like I’m on autopilot, telling myself I need to stop right now, but I just keep on going until I’m exhausted from screaming and flailing around, which is then followed by a paralyzing level of remorse that lasts for days.  That’s what exploding looks like.  Imploding is my most extreme form of isolation and withdrawal.  A little over a year ago, my wife and I had a pretty bad fight, and I was overwhelmed with the feeling that I was smack dab in the middle of my first marriage.  For the next three days I avoided almost all contact with her.  I couldn’t bring myself to talk to her and, when I did, I couldn’t stop stammering.  I worked and ate downstairs and spent a grand total of maybe 30 minutes in the same room with her over that period when I wasn’t sleeping.  It took all my self-control to be able to sleep in the same bed.  She called me on it which, frankly, didn’t help—but she had no idea what she was dealing with.  It was at least another month afterward before I felt even close to normal around her.

The negative body image impacted both marriages.  It is exceedingly difficult for me to change clothes in front of anyone.  When I was married to my first wife, she used to make the situation much worse by deliberately staring at me while I changed clothes.  She knew how uncomfortable I was but was trying to make me “get over it” which just made me feel violated.  I realize how stupid that sounds—how could I feel violated by changing clothes in front of someone to which I’m married—but nothing about CPTSD is rational.  My current wife still doesn’t like the fact that I have this problem changing clothes, but at least she doesn’t jam me about it much which is helpful.  Once in a while I can change when she’s in the room now, but I do it as quickly as I can.

Significant lack of trust has likewise had a big impact on both marriages.  My ex encouraged me to start journaling—and then would read my journals and confront me about what I wrote.  There have been a few times, in my current marriage, when my wife has said something hurtful that was directly in response to something she knew to be a soft spot for me.  It may have been said in the heat of an argument, and not something carefully calculated like my ex would do, but the result was the same.  I have a much harder time talking with my wife—even about something as innocuous as how my day went—because, just below the surface, I fear that it will be used against me in the future.

Avoiding relationships likewise got a real boost after my first marriage ended. The experience of being laughed at by the first person I had the courage to ask out was so jarring that I have asked only one other woman on a date since then.  It was several years after the divorce, and I was really smitten with this one to the point that I couldn’t help but show her that I was interested and had asked her out to lunch.  She agreed, but it was clear she was reluctant about it and eventually told me she didn’t see a future with me because I wasn’t professionally successful.  That was, literally, the last woman I ever pursued.  Every other relationship that I had (and there weren’t many) all developed more-or-less mutually in a more-or-less natural way as the result of just spending time around each other.  My current wife still expresses her disappointment that I never formally proposed to her, and that we just sort of decided to get married at the same time—but there was no way I was going to risk getting rejected again and I simply couldn’t bring myself to do it.  It certainly wasn’t fair to her, and I struggle with the notion of whether to tell her why I never proposed.  There’s really no upside to disclosing why.  Either way she just gets to feel crappy, and I get to be the cause.

My ability to become invisible had also developed to the point where I not only was able to come and go without notice—and that I was startling people more often by suddenly materializing in a room—but I’d also learned how to avoid being noticed as part of a group.  To this day it manifests itself in not speaking up during meetings, or waiting until I am literally the last person to speak (assuming the person running the meeting keeps a tally of who has spoken—otherwise I can get away with saying nothing at all).  At home, if my wife and I aren’t actively engaging in something like watching TV or playing with the dog, I generally won’t talk at all.  Sometimes, though, even doing something together doesn’t mean I’ll be talking. We do the dishes together every evening. Most of the time I never say a word. Just the other day, I was reading a book when my wife sat down next to me.  I don’t know what her motivation was, but she didn’t say anything—she just sat there.  Now, she could have just wanted to relax a little bit and it probably didn’t have anything to do with me.  But my instinct for invisibility kicked up a notch and I retreated further into the book, not acknowledging her presence at all.  It was probably only a few minutes, but it felt like forever.  Eventually, she got up and left and I could breathe again.  The whole time I’m telling myself to look at her and say hello, or reach out and hold her hand, but I just couldn’t do it.  My fear and my need to disappear had me paralyzed.  Once again, there’s no upside to discussing that incident with her because she gets to feel crappy and I get to be the cause.  With each one of these incidents, it becomes harder to engage, which makes it easier for me to disappear.  I’m sure this is harming her in ways that I can’t even imagine.  I’m also sure that trying to break through more than 40 years of ingrained behavior has become much more difficult than I had ever considered.

After the divorce came trauma #5:  the custody battle.  Again, this is discussed in excruciating detail in the post from last year, but in many ways has been the most damaging of them all because it is still current.  After all, I haven’t had any communication with my brother (save for a single email exchange after our father died) in almost 30 years.  I hadn’t spoken with my father for almost 10 years before he died, alone and alienated after he’d burned every relationship he had.  My relationship with my mother is on more stable footing.  I haven’t had to deal with bullying, except for a recent experience with it within the past couple of years, involving my participation in a volunteer organization and two people who sought to get rid of me at any cost.  Certainly, I’m no longer in an abusive marriage.  But I’ve never been able to have a relationship with my daughter and these days it’s by her own choice.  It is, by far, the longest of the five traumas and the only one which is still currently active.  As a result, I’ve developed a whole slew of additional CPTSD symptoms.

Intrusive Thoughts:  For roughly the first two years after my daughter was born, I couldn’t stop thinking about her and about the destructiveness of the custody battle.  It was all consuming.  I couldn’t sleep.  My academic performance went down the toilet.  I’d lost my appetite and was losing weight.  I had trouble carrying on conversations with people because I couldn’t listen to what they were saying.  I was just barely hanging onto the job I had at the time.  My personal hygiene was left to rot.  Most days I would just sit on my bed and stare off into space.  Eventually, I learned how to compartmentalize that part of my life so I could get through each day with some degree of productivity.  After a number of years, I was even able to go a day or two without thinking of her at all (which had the downside of increasing my level of guilt, but we’ll get to that).  But, for the most part, thoughts of her would come and go throughout the day—I’d just gotten better at keeping them from overwhelming me.  However, over the course of the past year and a half, after I’d finally understood the reality of my abusive marriage, the intrusive thoughts have gotten worse again.  I’m not staring off into space like I used to, but it is much, much harder for me to concentrate on almost anything I’m doing.

Avoidance:  I cannot, cannot, cannot be around when there is anything that reminds me of what I’ve lost with my daughter.  Some heart-warming story on TV about a father and his daughter?  I’m out.  I can’t buy birthday cards for my stepdaughters because 90% of the cards aren’t for stepchildren and it’s too difficult to wade through them all.  Any form of entertainment or reading that has anything to do with a father-daughter relationship is not an option.  Father’s Day is an exercise in personal misery.  I almost never refer to my daughter by name.  My relationships with my stepdaughters, as a whole, have been seriously negatively impacted over the decades because engaging with them is an entire universe of pain that I can’t get past, and they can’t understand—nor should they be expected to.  It’s particularly bad with my youngest stepdaughter because she and my daughter are roughly a month apart in age, so all I ever see in her is what was taken from me.  She and I had a very tense and adversarial relationship while she was growing up and I know that my undiagnosed CPTSD had a lot to do with it.  We’re moving in a better direction today, but there is still a lot of ground to cover, and I still have a lot of trouble staying current when she’s in the room. 

Distorted Guilt:  This really gutted me over the years because I had owned the lie that everything that happened was my fault, my responsibility, and therefore I deserved all of the shit that was coming my way.  I completely lacked the capacity to take an honest inventory of what was actually my responsibility and what wasn’t.  To be sure, there were plenty of terrible things that I did and that I needed to atone for—but by no means was I 100% responsible for everything.  I know that now…but it took almost three decades to get there, and in the meantime, I ate guilt for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Immense Shame:  This goes along with the distorted guilt but goes one step further to the point where I have substantial resistance to anything that might improve my sense of well-being.  My shame tells me that not only do I deserve my pain, but that I don’t deserve anything which will make things better.  There was a period of about five years when I flatly refused to do anything in the way of improving my mental health because there simply wasn’t enough anguish which would pay the karmic debt that I owed.  On a less apocalyptic note, my shame also tells me that I don’t deserve any type of recognition or compliment for anything.  I don’t want to celebrate my birthday or get any atta-boys for a job well done.  Please, please, please, for the love of God, do NOT compliment me on my appearance.  When my current wife and I were starting to get serious in our relationship, I had to tell her outright to not compliment me in any way.  I couched it in terms of my alcoholism and that my ego doesn’t need any opportunities to inflate itself, but the reality was (and is) that I just couldn’t bear it.  On the flip side, I am likewise really very bad at offering recognition or praise to someone else.  If someone has good news to share, my response is muted to the point where I sound totally disinterested.  Obviously, this is not great for my dealings with the rest of the human race.

Loss of Systems of Meaning:  By the time I was in high school I was already expecting the worst in just about any situation.  However, my experience with the civil court system and the child support bureaucracy completely shattered any faith that I had in the world as a fundamentally good or decent place.  If you look in the dictionary under “nihilism”, you’ll find my picture.  Nothing matters.  Nothing works out for the best.  Anyone who tries to make the world a better place is simply trying to paddle to shore after they’ve already gone over the waterfall.  I recently read a novel about a comet striking the planet, and the ensuing destruction of society, and felt that I would be fine with that happening in real life.  Bad people always win.  My sense of justice is completely out of whack to the point that when I see something on TV or read about a bad person or institution getting their shit handed to them, I have a visceral reaction that is totally unreasonable—I am filled with righteous anger, my whole body tingles and my heart pounds while I have to fight back tears and feel like jumping up and down and pounding my fist.  I can’t have a conversation with anyone that addresses larger social issues because it’s all going to hell anyway so why do we even care.  Expecting or hoping for the best is nothing but a setup for disappointment so it’s best to aim as low as possible, whether it’s if we’ll get any rain for the garden (we won’t) or the next ruling by a right-wing Supreme Court that will set this country back another 100 years.  I need to just strap in and get used to it because there’s more where that came from.

As this current trauma has gone on, some of my other symptoms have changed in their presentation. 

Lack of Emotional Regulation:  On any given day I can feel myself on the precipice of either bursting into tears or flying into a blind rage.  It’s a good thing that I’m home alone most of the time because I’ve been fired from so many jobs over the years due to this very problem.

Suicidal Thoughts:  They’ve never left me, but as time goes on, the form they take changes.  The primary version now is when I’m driving alone in my car on the highway.  I could just drift over and slam into that abandoned car on the side of the road, or into that bridge abutment.  Or I could just crank the steering wheel and flip the car—at this speed it should turn multiple times and increase the possibility that I won’t survive.  Again, these are thoughts only and I have never gone so far as taking any serious action.  I can feel my muscles getting ready to move, much like the time I was standing on the Hoover Dam and thought how easy it would be to swing myself over the wall and drop 700 feet, but my capacity for the Worst-Case Scenario always intervenes.  After all, the worst outcome would not be that I would die, but that I would survive.  Crippled for life blowing into a tube to maneuver my electric wheelchair, or so brain damaged that I’m completely trapped in my body with no way to communicate with the outside world to please just pull the plug.  No thanks.  One thing that probably doesn’t really belong in this symptom category—but I can’t think of anywhere else to put it—is that I don’t worry about dying in general.  If I was diagnosed with a terminal disease my first reaction would not be to desperately seek treatment options to extend my life.  If anything, I’d go in the opposite direction and just let the disease take its course.  Some diseases frighten people more than others.  Alzheimer’s Disease, for example, terrifies a lot of people because they are afraid of losing their memories and failing to recognize the people they love.  Not me.  I would welcome the ability to forget everything with open arms.  Sign me up for the abyss.

Feeling Constantly On Edge:  I live in a world which is too loud, too bright, and stinks too much.  My stomach is almost constantly in knots these days.  I don’t feel comfortable in any environment or situation—particularly if other people are around.  Being alone allows the tension to release a little bit, but not entirely.  This is where my dog comes in.  My wife pointed out to me recently that our dog seems to know when my thoughts need to be interrupted by a sweet puppy who loves to gaze into my eyes (which is not normal behavior for a dog because they consider eye contact to be aggressive) and calm me down.  She would make a terrible therapy dog because her level of energy is off the charts, but she does a great job at short-circuiting my destructive thought processes.

Hypervigilance: I am highly attuned to my wife’s behavior. If we’re doing the dishes, and she happens to put down a utensil a little too forcefully, I am certain she is pissed about something and that it has to do with something I did—or didn’t—do. If we happen to cross each other’s path, I won’t just move out of the way—I will practically jump out of the way. When this happens there is frequently a slight twitch in her right eyebrow which tells me that she’s angry. At least, that’s what my early warning system is telling me. She’s probably just confused about my reaction, or she’s not thinking anything at all, but I can’t get out of High Alert at any point when she’s home.

Dissociation:  There are times when my wife wants something that I don’t.  When she pushes for it, I will completely shut down and wait for the “threat” to pass.  Time stops again and my consciousness separates itself from my physical situation.  Eventually she will give up and walk away. 

These symptoms have had a seriously negative impact on my marriage.  We’re not in constant conflict, but my inability to function normally creates so much tension that we deal with each other less and less.  In my mind, I have to protect myself at all costs.  All.  Costs.  It doesn’t matter that she isn’t actually threatening me because everyone is a threat all the time.

Which brings us to the title of this piece.  It took a long time before I learned that it was not necessary for me to wallow in my pain—and that doing so was not only destructive to me but hurtful to those around me.  I don’t have to suffer, no matter how much I really, really want to.  Laying out all of these behaviors in one place certainly makes it look like my daily existence must be unbearable—or perhaps just performative—but the reality is that I’ve been able to function for as long as I have because of the idea that suffering is optional.  When I started doing the work I needed to do in order to stay sober, it had the intended consequence of changing my way of thinking and behaving in a significant portion of my daily life.  It had the unintended consequence of masking the deeper problems due to my undiagnosed CPTSD.  I had gone from feeling like I was up to my neck in shit to feeling like I was only up to my waist in shit.  Now, to the outside observer, they would look at me and declare, “hey, you’re up to your waist in shit, so you should get out of there!”  But, from my perspective, it was so much better than being up to my neck in shit that it felt manageable—and if it was manageable, then it was livable.  So, that’s exactly what I did over the course of the next 22 years:  I just lived with it.  As human beings, we have an extraordinary ability to normalize almost any situation, no matter how destructive.  My own experience demonstrates that quite clearly.  The problem, obviously, is that, over time, I became less and less able to function in a way that was acceptable to other people.  Hence all those jobs I got fired from for my destructive behavior and all those friendships and relationships I burned through.  But the shit stayed at waist level, so it was fine with me even if it was most definitely not fine for anyone else.

Fast forward to a little over a year ago when I had my little epiphany.  I knew that the newfound knowledge of having been a battered spouse wasn’t something I could just live with—and I knew that it definitely was not something that I could address in my work as a recovering alcoholic—hence the decision to return to therapy.  This is the practical application of suffering as an optional activity:  once I came upon this new reality, I had a decision to make.  I could either carry on as before, trying to blot out the truth of my situation through isolation, rage, tears, avoidance and full-tilt nihilism, or I could seek help to do something about it.  Fortunately, I’d already had clear-cut experience through my recovery from alcoholism and my previous time in therapy that seeking help was far better than trying to ignore the problem.

Of course, then came the latest curveball of the CPTSD diagnosis.  It didn’t complicate my decision about therapy because I’d already made the decision and was already in therapy.  But what it has done is make it harder for me to ignore the immediacy of the problem.  I no longer have the luxury of thinking I can talk my way through the trauma of my first marriage and the custody battle and move on with my life.  I’ve got work to do, and I need to do it to the best of my ability if I’m going to have any shot at keeping the crazy at bay.  I’m not sure what form that work will take because my new therapist—who, I will remind you, specializes in this disorder—is not sure how to go about treating me considering the variety and severity of the traumas with which I’ve been living all this time.  I’m honestly not sure how I feel about that.  Is it validation that it’s actually worse than I’ve tried to make it out in my mind?  After all, I never had to go to sleep each night to the sound of gunfire in my neighborhood, or scrounge in garbage heaps for my next meal, so I still have trouble deciding whether the problem was the severity of the traumas, or my inherent weakness as a human being (which, ironically enough, is one of the other symptomatic factors in CPTSD).  Or is my therapist’s difficulty in knowing how to treat me just another failure waiting to happen?  My ex-wife said a lot of things which have stuck with me over the years, but one that is in the Top Five is this:  expect nothing and you shall receive it in abundance.  I realize the intent of that little quip is to encourage the listener to actually expect more; but for me it is validation that if I’m going to get nothing anyway then I should start with expecting nothing so at least I won’t be disappointed.  So, right now, I’m trying very, very hard to anticipate a better daily existence as a result of this therapy, even if the person conducting it is flying blind.

Again, the point of this whole essay is for anyone who may be walking around asking themselves “what the hell is wrong with me”—and who identifies with this experience—to finally be able to put their finger on it and to find the help that they need.  Of course, just finding the help at this point won’t be easy, considering how overloaded mental health professionals have been in the age of COVID-19, and the fact that CPTSD is still not fully accepted as a legitimate diagnosis.  But I was lucky enough to find someone who might be able to treat me, so my hope is that those of you who see something of yourselves in this post will be able to do the same. 

For those of you who might know someone else who fits this bill, let them know there is a way out.  I don’t know how to get there yet, but maybe if enough of us are able to step outside the shadow of the mountain of fear and shame in which we’ve shivered for so long, we’ll be able to get each other there together.

About butcherbakertoiletrymaker 568 Articles
When you can walk its length, and leave no trace, you will have learned.


  1. @butcherbakertoiletrymaker Thank you for the honesty and bravery it took to write this piece. You may not want the compliment, but it’s deserved. I relate to so much of this, but it’s your story and I don’t want to make it about me. Maybe someday I’ll summon the courage to tell my own.



  2. I’ve experienced some of this.  Particularly the time I had the Cokehead Narcissist in my life and from my asshole supervisors/manager at work which happened in the same time frame plus finding myself isolated from my friends and family.

    Also made worse by inhaling coke (at her threat)- I paid for it because she never used her money and never at my own initiative.  I was fortunate to not develop any addiction issues and stopped that shit after about 9 months.

    It’s tough trying to make heads or tails of things when you’re constantly getting whacked in the head.  You just want to make it through another day.  I was fortunate to say the least.

    I still annoy my remaining living friends with stories about those days and the overwhelming feeling of pride/confidence I gained when I got some luck and used it to overcome this mess that I put myself into.

    It’s never easy to lay yourself bare to a bunch of semi-strangers.  I’m glad you survived and found a way to deal.  Those mental scars run deep, but they will heal to some extent with some help.

  3. This is a savagely beautiful essay that you wrote.

    I say savagely beautiful because it came about because of so many decades of pain and suffering, yet the way you wrote about it is beautiful because of the clarity and expression.

    I am very glad your current therapist not only agrees with the CPTSD diagnosis and has experience in it. So often people are stuck with a therapist that might mean well, but has no effing clue how to work with people with specific concerns.

  4. My heart just hurt reading about your childhood and how you had no one to advocate for you. There is nothing I can say that will help so I’ll just say that I really do appreciate all of your posts.

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