What My Complex PTSD Looks Like


A mental health issue I still see so little talk about is complex post-traumatic stress disorder or C-PTSD. Often caused by a lifetime of trauma rather than one traumatic event, this type of PTSD is exactly what the name implies — complex.

My complex PTSD symptoms can take me from being a very logically-minded person capable of multitasking like a pro to a place where leftover emotions from past trauma assault my brain, leaving me crying and shell-shocked, struggling to remember basic things, like how to follow recipes, for days. I end up in fully dressed in the shower letting cold water run over my body in an effort to break a flashback that is assaulting my brain. Flashbacks can hack at me six, seven sometimes ten times a day. Sometimes they are triggered, sometimes they just erupt all by themselves.  I can be walking through a shopping centre a smoker can pass by and the smell of the nicotine can trigger me. It’s that instant.

I am fine until it happens — a capable, competent, fully-functional adult… until I’m not. I hate PTSD. I get no say in what or who triggers my memories. I live in fear of the next time I’m reduced to a heap on the floor, pressing my head against the wall, holding my hands over my ears with my eyes squeezed tightly closed. I sob hopelessly, crying like a child and nothing can comfort me. Then I can have a week when no flashbacks happen. Not exactly convenient for planning.

C-PTSD physically hurts my head in an excruciating way. I try so hard to hold it back when I know I’ve been triggered that I feel like my brain will explode from the painful effort.

This is C-PTSD.

Insomnia waits until 10 p.m. to appear with its best friend, Anxiety, both keeping me up all night sorting through all I have done wrong — and all that could possibly go even more wrong. This happens two to three nights a week and this is even after I have taken medication to help me sleep but the fear of the nightmares fights the medication and it has no effect. I am often in sleep deficit. The nights I get sleep are sheer bliss. I awake those mornings and thank my husband for watching over me so well. My suicidality is so much lower when I get sleep. When in sleep deficit my suicidality is through the roof and my self harm is higher too. I lose control and cut more. Life in general becomes more difficult to manage.

This is C-PTSD.

Anxiety is not the same thing as worrying. Anxiety feels like an elephant is sitting on my chest. It hurts to breathe. In my attempt to overcome it, I try to put everything in order, make everything clean. I snap at those around me when they don’t get the urgency. It’s Tuesday, but the unmade beds and overflowing laundry make me feel like I’m losing control of my life. Anxiety makes my head spin and my heart race, which makes me angry. I don’t want to be anxious, yet knowing I am can send me into an anxiety attack as I get frustrated at myself for “being silly.”

“It’s nothing. You’re being ridiculous. Stop it. Get a grip.”

This is C-PTSD.

The nightmares when I did manage to go to sleep were worse than being tired. In vivid detail, I’d watch my children die as I stood helpless, unable to move or scream. I relived one dream over and over as a teen, packing my bags to leave but always forgetting something important. I have woken up checking the teeth in my mouth many times, because often my teeth are horribly rotten, broken, or knocked out in my dreams.

This is C-PTSD.

For a while, therapy felt pointless. After years of abuse, I wanted a quick fix, and it wasn’t to be found.

I didn’t even know C-PTSD existed until I began EMDR  nearly a four years ago. It’s been a lot of painful work to unearth the abuse, the negative associations and emotions. It became so painful that at times I had to take a break from it, because all I felt was deep physical and emotional pain from reliving the memories.

The time and energy needed to process a lifetime of abuse can be exhausting, painful and overwhelming.

This is C-PTSD.

After nearly years of weekly therapy, I can say I am almost on the other side of the pain. It’s finally less now. I still get triggered, and I wonder if I always will. I count time by “the last time it happened.” I am stronger though. I have learned to find my inner voice and calm myself with it. I like myself more. I realize I survived something awful, but it no longer has a hold on me. I have had a recent suicide attempt but having survived it feel stronger for coming out the other side. I am back in therapy and am working hard. My psychotherapist is confident that our current stage in therapy is crucial to getting to the crux of the cause of my C-PTSD.  We obviously know it’s the child abuse I suffered at the hands of the men in the paedophile ring  but it’s the guilt and shame I experience is the barrier to my getting well. She feels we are moving towards that healing happening despite this recent suicide attempt. I want to believe her.

This is not C-PTSD.

This is hope.

This is being a survivor.

I would love to hear from you so please leave a comment. All feedback is much appreciated. Thank you. Erin

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