It started with Reddit. I was reading some posts when I discovered a subreddit that covers a condition known as “CPTSD.” Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. When I looked up the information on the subreddit sidebar, I was taken aback. A lot of the symptoms I saw were absolutely in alignment with my own lifelong experience. The reason why this recent discovery is so big to me is that it seems to underpin almost everything that is wrong with me.
With the knowledge of CPTSD, I now have a feasible explanation for anxiety, depression, emptiness, and other types of symptoms. I think the reason why this disorder might slip under the radar is because, unlike PTSD without the “C”, it’s not necessarily something that develops from an origin event. CPTSD is something that develops gradually over time. It is something your brain learns. Detrimental coping mechanisms and hyper nervous system states are rooted into the way you live. And because you can’t quite conceptualize that this isn’t a normal way to live, it’s harder to find your way out through healthier coping mechanisms.
The biggest thing that sets off my alarm, is that all my life, I’ve believed two key things subconsciously. First, I am not like “normal” people, which bars me from ever fitting in. Second, something is inherently wrong with me. Like many with CPTSD, I’ve always felt off. I mean, I’ve grown awareness of mental illnesses such as social anxiety disorder. But the problem is that social anxiety doesn’t quite get to the root. If that was all the issue entailed, then I imagine I’d be much better off than I am.
In many cases, Complex PTSD is the spawn of childhood malnourishment in areas that may not be so obvious. Overt things like repeated sexual, physical, and verbal abuse can certainly cause this type of trauma. But what about people who really can’t pinpoint what happened? Like, there’s a missing link somewhere, but it’s really hard to identify where. From reading and research, I’ve discovered that trauma doesn’t have to be obvious.
But this leads me to face a possible truth that makes me uncomfortable. It’s possible, that as I grew up, certain emotional needs were not met. And because I was malnourished in this manner, I grew up with the idea that, since those needs weren’t met, those needs were also invalid. I also think that I struggled (and probably still struggle) with the idea that I am an autonomous person rather than just an extension of my parents. I can look back and realize something profound. Going against my parents in even the smallest of ways has always caused me great distress. I can’t seem to self-soothe my way out of it.
Life is adaptation. When we reach an obstacle, we have to learnt to adapt. But sometimes, due to ignorance and inexperience, we adapt in unhealthy ways. As a child, I think I learned the only way to adapt to discomfort is avoidance. Facing people, being assertive, standing up for myself, saying something contrary, saying “no” to others, doing something without perceived permission or approval, questioning authority, asking for help, and making decisions for myself without the consultation of external opinions are all damn near impossible for me.
The real kicker? I have failed to grow up in some very critically important ways. My development, in certain ways, has not evolved past that of a child. When I was a kid, I did everything I was told. The disconnect comes when trying to assert my will. Because I am afraid of being contrary and possibly cutting off connection with those I love, I simply “don’t do” confrontation. It’s much easier to avoid it. The truth is, I do have preferences and values that I want to adhere to. But I never reveal my cards unless I am alone. And if I have to do things my ways, I will always keep it a secret.
What this results in is the degradation of my own identity. If I can only act as an extension of my parents, then I’ve already sacrificed the “self” that’s within. It makes me realize I don’t know what I believe in or stand for anymore. Like, at the core, who am I? And because I fear facing all this, I find it easier to just nod and smile. To just agree with people despite my misgivings. “Harmony” seems like a nice word, but it’s actually cancer. I find it truly difficult to let harmony go. It’s become my god.
My parents taught me many things. They loved me and provided for me. I know they did the best they could. But I think I’ve never felt truly safe expressing myself. I fear that my true expression will lead to hurt, ridicule, or criticism that I can’t handle. When I do feel criticized, I bristle internally. I am so damn sensitive that a tiny verbal jab can feel like an assault and spiral me into a sad, angry depression. I hate that part of myself. But it’s the reason that I feel the need to hide myself. No one can hurt me if they don’t hear from me. No one can pick apart my words and beliefs when I decide to keep my mouth shut.
Another hallmark of CPTSD is feeling your emotions to the extreme. Sadness is devastation. Anger is broiling rage. How the fuck do I center myself? On the one hand, holding in those emotions is unhealthy. Constantly hiding behind a smile or neutral expression is actually really harmful. On the other hand, if I chose to truly express how I felt, it would come out in an extreme way. Emotional regulation is tough. The only time I feel like I just want to let it all out is when I’m alone. When I’m alone, I am capable of punching things or throwing things to release anger. When I’m alone, crying is typically extreme, though cathartic. But this shit will never happen around others.
I think the internalized mode of operation for me has always been “avoid, shrink yourself, and become an emotional chameleon” in order to survive. After years of doing this, what do I get? A diminished sense of self when I’m around other people. I change the way I act based on who I’m around. It’s especially bad with coworkers. They have no idea who I am. I play my cards close to my chest. I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve. To some, I may appear cold. To others, I may be kind and exuberant. And still to some, I may appear neurotic and completely unhinged, as if one little mistake will set me off.
Speaking of mistakes, tiny mistakes send me to a land of shame. I skip right past guilt and go to shame. Shame convinces me that I’m a burden to other people. No one wants me around. I make life harder for other people. The chain is what follows:
Mistake made –> Shameful thoughts –> Avoidance –> Loneliness/Emptiness/Depression feelings
Sometimes, I feel so much shame that I do get to a place where the idea of no longer existing actually becomes cathartic. I am not suicidal. I think it’s important to make that distinction. It’s just, when you reach the rock bottom of shame, your thoughts are going to go to some very dark places. The idea of me being erased from existence, scrubbed from reality, nullified–all these provide a twisted sense of comfort. Eventually, the thoughts go away. But the fact they exist and I “feel” them in a subconscious way is a red flag.
I think another sign of CPTSD is disconnecting your mind from your body. In other words, losing an awareness of your self. I have had times where I felt numb. Like, especially at work. I just move. I lift. I push and pull. I answer the phone. I walk. I do all these things mechanically without the ability to truly live and experience the present. If you could look in my eyes, you’d see internal death. It’s almost like I numb the awareness of uncomfortable feelings (like anxiety) in order to function. And if you think about it, it makes sense. I would have a much easier time answering the phone if I could disconnect from my anxiety, which means disconnecting from myself. The reason I need to disconnect from myself is because I think I sometimes conflate my identity with my negative symptoms.
I am caught between two choices. Reveal my true self and live the way I want to regardless of who sees and risk total abandonment OR hide everything to live in harmony while my internal self succumbs to emptiness and confusion. The latter choice has the benefit of ensuring that no one leaves me or hates me. But let’s be real. I can’t guarantee that, anyway. One would almost say that I’m being childish.
And you know what I say? That’s the entire fucking problem. I haven’t fully grown and am still using my maladaptive strategies that may have worked in childhood, but definitely do no work NOW.
When I was five years old, being a “good boy” who eats all his greens was beneficial. It sufficed. But that shit has nothing good for me now. I am close to thirty, but oftentimes feel underdeveloped. My body has changed, but my insides haven’t. Socially, I am isolated and unable to make new relationships. I’ve had every chance in the world to make friends and connections. Fuck, college should have been a great time in my life! I made no friends. I made no connections. It’s because I’ve never left my childhood mode of operation. I still have it to this day.
My inner child is still scared. My inner child is still crying. My inner child still has pain that he hasn’t gotten over yet. That’s why I hurt so badly when I feel criticized. That’s why a light joke at my expense can sometimes send me spiraling. That little kid I used to be hasn’t been able to move on. And I don’t know how to comfort him when self-compassion is often near impossible for me. It’s a lose-lose situation.
I am trying to be more aware of this inner child. I know it sounds a little New-Agey, but I’m starting to really think this applies to me. No wonder I still feel underdeveloped. My inner child is still trying to heal. And until it does, I’m not going to be able to live a normal life. By normal, I mean healthy in every way. I have to be able to comfort my child self as the adult that I am now. But how do I do that? I have to do more research.
See, I think the problem is that I protect my inner child by avoiding. But avoiding life and social interaction doesn’t feed my inner child. The emotional nutrition my inner child needs can’t be found with avoidance. In addition, maybe I’m still trying to comfort that inner child through external means. For instance, seeking approval from parents, authority, coworkers, etc. If I remain a “good person” in the eyes of others, my adult self feels validated. But my inner child doesn’t feel it because my inner child doesn’t trust the praises of other people. My inner child only trusts the negative reactions of other people.
Basically, I’m depending on other people to give me what I lacked when I was a kid. It’s a faulty way to do things and it puts people on pedestals that are detrimental to me and to them. It creates and reinforces attachment issues and even possibly codependency. It explains why it’s so hard for me to be a socially functional person. It explains why dating or new friendships are next to impossible. If I get close to someone, then that person becomes my judge of how I’m supposed to feel. That person’s reaction (or lack thereof) will determine whether I feel wounded/victimized or content. This means I am ill-adapted to social situations. I put people on pedestals and treat their opinions as fact. Constantly doing this makes me vulnerable to shame and devastating hurt. The hurt is so devastating that I can only maintain a few close relationships. And even those can be fraught with major internal issues.
The very fact that I avoid confrontation makes it impossible to have a genuine relationship. This leads to a sense of “otherness” that will sometimes leave me feeling very alone. I see other people interact and it’s so organic and easy. People even joke, poke fun, and even argue–but they remain close. They remain friends. They remain okay. I just don’t understand how. I feel like if I tell someone, “Hey, I don’t agree,” that I’m basically saying I hate them. Why is my thinking so black and white?
Anyway, this is a very broad approach to what I’m dealing with. I have a lot more to say regarding my possible CPTSD. Again, I am not diagnosed and I have never sought help. I never condone or recommend self-diagnosis. However, I am confident in one thing. Something is off. Something is wrong. Something is missing. And when I spend most of my days feeling so bad, I know that something needs to change within.
Anyway, I just needed to get this out. If you feel the same or are familiar with these symptoms, please comment. I would love to hear from others. In the meantime, have a good day!