I thought it was a diagnosis for war survivors. Then I learned about CPTSD.
I still remember it like it was yesterday. It was late 2015, and for the first time in my life, I felt completely broken.
Although I had a job where others depended on me, a partner who cared for me, and a successful online blog that people loved, I still found myself in a constant state of panic and increased anxiety.
I’d wake up every morning, and the impact was almost immediate. My brain and body made it so my moods would swing like a pendulum. Not able to keep up the facade, I slowly started to withdraw from the world.
I couldn’t pinpoint what was happening, but I knew something was off.
One late November evening, as I trudged through the door after work, the phone rang. My mother was on the other end, asking pointed and invasive questions, not unusual for our strained relationship.
I cried on the phone asking for reprieve, asking for her to stop, when something clicked. For the first time in my life, I became fully aware of what was happening in my body.
And I knew I needed help.
Mental illness has always been a part of my family history, but for some reason, I thought I had somehow narrowly escaped it. It started to become clear to me that I hadn’t.
It wasn’t until 2015, when I started working alongside a team of trauma therapists, that I finally understood that I likely had complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), a different form of PTSD along with depression.
During my first intake, they asked me questions about my emotion regulation, alterations in consciousness, and relationships with others and my childhood.
The intake got me to look back and take stock of just how many traumatic incidents had taken place in my life.
As a child, my self-esteem was continually pummeled as my parents would spend time gaslighting and criticizing me; it seemed I could do nothing right, because, by their estimation, I wasn’t thin enough or didn’t look “feminine” enough. The psychological abuse wore me down over the course of many years.
Those feelings of self-blame and shame came to the surface again when, at my 30th birthday party, I was raped.
These experiences have imprinted themselves on my brain, forming pathways that have affected how I experience my emotions and how connected I am to my body.
Carolyn Knight explains in her book, “Working with Adult Survivors of Childhood Trauma,” that a child shouldn’t have to cope with abuse. When abuse occurs, a child isn’t psychologically equipped to process it. The adults in their lives are meant to be role models on how to regulate emotions and provide a safe environment.
Growing up, I wasn’t given that type of modeling. In fact, many of us aren’t. Working alongside my trauma therapists, I realized I wasn’t alone, and that healing from this type of trauma was possible.
At first, it was difficult to accept that I’d experienced trauma. For so long, I had this misconception from film and TV of who could live with PTSD.
It was soldiers who had witnessed and experienced war firsthand, or people who had lived through some type of traumatic event, like a plane crash. In other words, it couldn’t be me.
But as I started to settle into my diagnosis, I began to understand the layers that PTSD and CPTSD truly have, and how these stereotypes didn’t fit the reality.
Trauma is much broader than we tend to imagine. It has its way of leaving an imprint on the brain for life, whether we’re consciously aware of it or not. And until people are given the tools and words to really define what trauma is and how they could have been affected by it, how can they begin to heal?
As I started to become open with people with my diagnosis, I started to research the differences between PTSD and CPTSD. I wanted to learn more not just for myself, but to be able to have open and honest discussions with others who may not know the differences.
What I found was that, while PTSD and CPTSD may seem similar, there are huge differences.
PTSD is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a single traumatic life event. A person with a PTSD diagnosis is someone who has either witnessed an event or has participated in some type of traumatic event, and afterward is experiencing flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety regarding the event.
Traumatic events can be difficult to define. Some events may not be as traumatic for some individuals as they are for others.
According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, trauma is the lasting emotional response that results from living through a distressing event. But that doesn’t mean that trauma can’t be chronic and ongoing, which is where we find instances of CPTSD.
For those like me with CPTSD, the diagnosis is different from PTSD, but that doesn’t make it any less difficult.
People who have received a diagnosis of CPTSD have often experienced extreme violence and stress over an extended period of time, including childhood abuse or prolonged physical or emotional abuse.
While there are a lot of similarities with PTSD, the differences in symptoms include:
- periods of amnesia or dissociation
- difficulty in relationships
- feelings of guilt, shame, or lack
This means that how we treat the two aren’t identical by any means.
While there are distinct differences between CPTSD and PTSD, there have been several symptoms, specifically emotional sensitivity, which can be mistaken as borderline personality disorder or bipolar disorder. Since
When I sat down to meet with my trauma therapists, they made sure to acknowledge that the labeling of CPTSD was still fairly new. Many professionals in the industry were only just now beginning to recognize it.
And as I read through the symptoms, I felt a sense of relief.
For so long I felt like I was broken and as if I were the problem, thanks to a lot of shame or guilt. But with this diagnosis, I began to understand that what I was experiencing was a lot of big feelings that left me frightened, reactive, and hypervigilant — all of which were very reasonable responses to prolonged trauma.
Getting my diagnosis was the first time I felt like I could not only improve my connections with others, but that I could finally release the trauma from my body and make the healthy changes I needed in my life.
I know firsthand just how scary and isolating living with CPTSD can sometimes be. But over the last three years, I’ve come to realize it doesn’t have to be a life lived in silence.
Until I was given the skills and the tools to know how to handle my emotions and deal with my triggers, I didn’t really know how to help myself or help those around me with helping me.
The healing process hasn’t been an easy one for me personally, but it’s been restorative in a way I know I deserve.
Trauma manifests itself in our bodies — emotionally, physically, and mentally — and this journey has been my way of finally releasing it.
There are a number of different approaches to treating PTSD and CPTSD. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a popular form of treatment, though some studies have shown this approach doesn’t work for all cases of PTSD.
Some people have also used eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) and speaking with a psychotherapist.
Each and every single treatment plan will be different based on what works best for each individual’s symptoms. Regardless of what you choose, the most important thing to remember is that you’re choosing a treatment plan that’s right for you — which means your path may not look like anybody else’s.
No, the road isn’t necessarily straight, narrow, or easy. In fact, it’s often messy and difficult and hard. But you’ll be happy and healthier for it in the long run. And that’s what makes recovery so worthwhile.
Amanda (Ama) Scriver is a freelance journalist best known for being fat, loud, and shouty on the internet. Her writing has appeared in Buzzfeed, The Washington Post, FLARE, National Post, Allure, and Leafly. She lives in Toronto. You can follow her on Instagram.