Facing Complex Trauma as an Adult

I’ve blogged in the past about my journey living with mental health diagnoses and trying to access resources for support. For many years, I’ve been dealing with the dual diagnoses of a major mood disorder and anxiety disorders. And I’ve referenced growing up in a neglectful family surrounded by addiction, untreated mental health issues, chaos, violence, etc. It is a lot to unpack and even more difficult to talk about because these topics make most people uncomfortable.

This past year, I’ve gained a new tool aka diagnosis that I’ve been diligently working to address – a trauma diagnosis, specifically complex trauma. I had previous been diagnosed with PTSD resulting from some very specific incidents. But no one had ever connected the dots for me, leaving me to feel somewhat like I was prone to lots of bad luck and probably because I deserved it. That’s a lot to carry around.

Complex trauma describes both children’s exposure to multiple traumatic events—often of an invasive, interpersonal nature—and the wide-ranging, long-term effects of this exposure. These events are severe and pervasive, such as abuse or profound neglect. They usually occur early in life and can disrupt many aspects of the child’s development and the formation of a sense of self. Since these events often occur with a caregiver, they interfere with the child’s ability to form a secure attachment. Many aspects of a child’s healthy physical and mental development rely on this primary source of safety and stability.

For many years, I sorted my life experiences into the bad things that had happened to me, the bad choices that I made, and a few fleeting good experiences. Life was something to be endured and when I bumped into something that felt purposeful or even good and fun and joyful, I was shocked.

I have always known that I was separated from my mother soon after birth because she was hospitalized. It wasn’t something we spoke about so I don’t have many details, but because I was placed with family members who were considered ‘safe’ – it never occured to me that this had an impact on my attachment and bonding or my mental wellness. It was only when I began to unpack the experiences of learning these were not ‘safe’ people that I began to connect the dots between that disrupted bonding period and the rest of my life. It got worse when I realized that my mother had been victimized and assaulted so we weren’t separated just because of her illness, her health was violated by someone she trusted and it had devastating consequences for both of us as we had to be around these people until they both died. This is just one example of how something I’ve always known has taken on new meaning in light of new information about myself.

I was fortunate to have some great therapists along the way, but it took me a solid decade of working to stabilize my mood to then have this out of control anxiety spiral into my daily life and then working on that led me to a therapist who saw the patterns and helped me realize that no matter how hard I worked on managing my mood disorder and anxieties, I had this severe underlying trauma that was omni-present. My ongoing physical manifestations weren’t just my body giving out on me, it was my body trying to absorb and process the trauma.

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One reason I’ve been crusading so hard about recent changes at Persad Center is because they have one of the only LGBTQ culturally competent and trauma care certified therapists in the region – who is also attached to a clinic with a psychiatrist. There are multiple incarnations of therapist with 2 out of the 3 of those things, but I think I deserve all 3 at this point in my treatment and life.

I’ve been slowly making my way through the book The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk M.D.  Slowly is key because my capacity for reading complex books has been askew for awhile. I don’t know if it this new conscious awareness of trauma or the intensity of the topic or what.

I do know this – this is lonely work. I am very fortunate to have a supportive partner who is an active participant in my treatment and I do have friends who strive to supportive. But I’ve found that when I disclose to other people, I tend to unwittingly invite them to disclose back to me and that’s tough, going from a deeply vulnerable moment to having to be a mature empathetic caring adult. I understand that people are trying to relate or harboring trauma of their own, but that’s a tough space to navigate.

Here are some things that work for me

  • Ask me before you disclose to me. Please don’t just do it because I cannot promise I will be in the emotional space to respond appropriately. Please do not assume that my disclosing to you, however remotely, is an invitation. Tread carefully so it is a constructive exchange for both of us. And by all means, stop me from my own disclosure if its unsafe for you.
  • Think about the language you use. Am I an intense, demanding person? Yes. Is that useful language to have a conversation? Probably not. Are those silencing terms? Sometimes. If your goal is to accurately describe how I move through the world, you do need to acknowledge my trauma. If you goal is to control what I say or how, you can use that trauma to help you along the way. That’s the double-edged sword of trying to talk about difficult issues, you give your critics ammunition and rely only on their decency to hold them back.
  • Helping someone cope with isolation doesn’t always mean deep meaningful conversations about heavy topics. You can suggest lunch or even a quick FB messenger chat on important, but not heavy matters.
  • Living in a region that is in early days of wrestling with a vast conspiracy to cover-up the sexual violence inflicted on thousands of children and young adults (aka the Catholic Church) is really hard, no matter your background. Further disclosures about other Christian denominations is going to require that we have some ugly, painful conversations about religion and trauma, things that often underly the other hard conversations about sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, child abuse, and religion, especially Christianity. That’s going to be a decades long conversation. Buckle in …
  • I am a “rip the bandaid” off type of person because the silence throughout my life protected the abusers from the consequences of their choices – the priests, the teachers, the family members, the neighbors, the older boys, and as a general rule, the white folx who refuse to talk about the realities of our anti-Blackness and racism. I am not exempt from that scrutiny, but I am also a believer that shining a light on the ugly and vicious and hurting parts is an important healing tool.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of the casserole – the universal symbol or gesture of support for someone struggling with a health crisis or a family crisis. Casserole might mean doughnuts, a Starbucks, a GrubHub gift card, etc.

Laura was away this week helping a family member. It was a difficult time for me and I was inartful in asking for support. I’m very grateful to my friend Pam who spend hours online with me, talking and doing some mutual online shopping. It was a perfect way to be helpful.

I’m writing this blog post so my friends and readers living with Complex Trauma diagnoses can see that they aren’t alone. And we aren’t doomed to be stuck in this horrible spiral of awfulness forever. We can seize joy and peace of mind and fulfillment. Or we can find a way to make do and get through and carry on if that works for us. There’s no perfect solution. But we deserve to respected, valued, and to feel happy.

If someone doesn’t allow for your experiences of trauma, that’s on them. Trauma should be part of all public conversations – it impacts education, health, housing, environmental policies and more. When we do acknowledge a systemic source of violence, we scramble to distance ourselves from the pervasive nature it implies because we have inadequate tools to keep our world safe, manageable, and predictable. Trauma survivors know that that the violence and abuse are quite predictable.

When I look at the posts I wrote in the past few weeks – posts documenting giant racist billboards glaring over the community of Worthington Borough in Armstrong County, the white supremacy within the LGBTQ community, the City of Pittsburgh’s failure to manage simple communication processes after 250 years of practice, medication shortages due to federal failures in responding to natural disasters, Democratic men who sue women claiming they’ve been sexually assaulted, brutal cold weather, late work hours, the untold stories of the Holocaust and more – it is easy to feel defeated. Sigh.

I hope Persad Center will strive to become a fully trauma informed provider which would require a massive cultural and infrastructure shift, but I can’t think of any communities who deserve this more than LGBTQ folx, queer folx, trans folx, QTPoC, those living with HIV, and the many marginalized people in our communities. That’s on my wish list! Right now they have two trained therapists, but that’s a start.


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