Content note: Contains mention of fictitious substance use, self-harm, and suicidality.
So I got my dissociative/complex PTSD diagnosis this week. To say it was a surprise is a HUGE understatement. I always associated PTSD with startle reactions, not dissociation, so I never thought I fit the profile. People perceive me as calm… often even when I’m upset about things. The problem is that sometimes I even perceive myself as calm when I’m upset about things. Our society has some very flawed notions about emotions that encourage unhealthy dissociation, and I know now that my perceived calmness is often unhealthy dissociation. I thought my emotional responses were typical.
Dissociative/complex PTSD is actually distinct from ‘regular’ PTSD. Unlike ‘regular’ PTSD, complex PTSD is more likely to be chronic. It’s also considered a more severe diagnosis, although people may not consistently experience symptoms. Complex PTSD results from early and ongoing childhood trauma. The theory is that this trauma creates a self that is somewhat less integrated.
This whole thing feels surreal to me. I know I wasn’t happy as a child, but I thought I had transcended my past. I do not actually think that I experienced significant trauma in childhood, but others tell me that my childhood experiences were traumatic. I’m told that my experiences count as all four types of abuse (neglect, physical, emotional, and sexual), all before I left preschool. To hear that I have trauma, that it still affects me, and that it is in fact deeply ingrained in me, is upsetting. I don’t always accept that it’s true.
My goal might not be ‘overcoming’ this as much as it is about managing it. From reading other people’s experiences with trauma, I expect that managing complex PTSD will be lifelong. I’m worried that I might think I’m ‘over’ it some day in the future, only to discover that it has still been controlling me all along. I already thought I had transcended my past once before and I don’t want to make that same mistake again!
I might always have dissociative tendencies, but if I can learn to recognize my triggers and develop coping skills I might be OK. I’m told that in the interim I will have to work on this concretely for three to five years. ‘Working on’ means that I have to address my childhood. Admittedly, crawling into a dumpster and overdosing on heroin sounds more appealing. Some of the memories and images I have in my mind would make most empathetic people want to do this. The trick will be to go slowly so that I don’t get overwhelmed and dissociate or crave ‘escape’.
Moving slowly means that before addressing my childhood, I have to learn more about complex PTSD, how it’s shaped me, and how I move forward. It also means that I have to ground in the present and in my body. I know I have those skills because I worked on them concretely when I lived in the Bay Area after I left my parents’ home. I just need to reconnect with those skills, and be reminded to do so.
What I am doing so far:
My first steps towards grounding in my body had me speed-walking up Stone Mountain and then down. Speed-walking helped quiet the mental narrative in my mind and brought me more into my body. As I came down Stone Mountain I started running along some trails. It felt like another form of dissociation to me, because I was disconnecting from my thoughts, but it felt good and was calming. Exercise is supposed to be good for grounding no matter how it’s done by people of varying physical abilities anyway.
My second step towards grounding in my body is represented in the photo to this blog post. I’m supposed to engage my senses, so I took a steaming hot bath by candle light while listening to music. I added some Bay Laurel, which reminds me of home (and smells good). When the heat got too much I added cold water, and the alternating temperatures also helped ground me. I guess that’s something to continue exploring.
I’m honestly not sure what’s on the other side of this process. Often I don’t think I have PTSD or trauma (so I don’t need to work on this). Yet I am moving forward slowly. I will continue to post updates largely so I can witness myself. I’m not sure if anyone else will be reading this. If other people are reading this, I hope some of my posts may be informative.