Hidden In Plain Sight: What it’s Like to be a Woman with Complex-PTSD

Written by Naomi Bishop, NAMI Metro Suburban RSS and Program Facilitator at the Drop-In Center

Complex PTSD, or often called C-PTSD, is a version of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that is characterized by chronic exposure to traumatic events, as opposed to PTSD, which is generally characterized by one traumatic event. C-PTSD symptoms often overlap with the symptoms of PTSD, such as flashbacks and hypervigilance, but it also insidiously impacts the development of one’s sense of self. It ingrains feelings of shame and guilt into a person, making it difficult to differentiate the negative thoughts from reality. Some people will react outwardly to it with anger and aggression, while others, most often women and girls, will react inwardly, deeply internalizing guilt and shame, avoiding people and situations that could trigger these feelings. C-PTSD is not a diagnosis in the DSM; however, experts continue to debate whether it should be included. As of now, C-PTSD overlaps with the PTSD diagnosis.

Around 1 in 10 women will develop PTSD at some point in her lifetime. Women are 2x more likely than men to develop PTSD. (Cleveland Clinic)

As a woman diagnosed with C-PTSD, my early experiences with violence, neglect, and abuse were often stigmatized by the wider community, which made it harder to find the support I needed. There were questions of the validity of my diagnosis, and whether I qualified for the care I was seeking. This stigma greatly impacted my ability to come forward with what I had experienced and forced me into a culture of silence for over a decade. I was conditioned to bury my feelings of injustice, anger, sadness, and betrayal. When I sought some form of help, I was deemed ‘selfish’ or ‘too sensitive’ by the institutions who were supposed to provide me with support. Because of this, my personality completely changed. I was a gregarious, happy-go-lucky social girl, and then, like a drop of the hat, I suddenly became an insecure, shy, depressed, and scared girl. I stopped engaging in things that brought me joy, such as writing, art, music, and theater.

Keeping myself hidden kept me safe from further pain, but all it did was suppress the person I was meant to be. I wanted to explore things that made me happy, but my fear kept me hidden and isolated. I wanted to make the people I loved to be happy, too. But I could not contain the fire within me, part of me wanted to be connected to my loved ones for dear life, but the other part of me who wanted to be free to engage in my creativity and joy. Both could not coexist. If I engaged in these things, would I make life harder for others? Art lessons were costly, and I saw how hard my family worked to keep me engaged, despite their own personal struggles. Unconsciously, I took a step back from my desires and denied them. A void of darkness replaced these desires. Feelings of resentment, shame, and sadness grew instead.

Once I reached adolescence, the focus shifted from being a little girl, to becoming a woman. How I looked became more important than how I was doing in my academics. Society began to put more emphasis on how I acted. I needed to be nice to others, give to others more than I took, and care more about my appearance. Instead, I disassociated from the outside world, neglected my health, and continued to disengage in the things I wanted to do, because it seemed like whenever I do, it was ‘never good enough.’ Teachers belittled me for not doing well, and classmates, as products of their own socialization, bullied me and isolated me. If I couldn’t make others happy, then how important was my needs, anyway? I gave up and kept my distance. I did the bare minimum, went home, and disassociated into an imaginary world. I found solace in my online persona, where I kept myself hidden, but I was free to express my interests, away from the judgment of others.

Suddenly being faced with the world of teenagerhood, hormones ravaged my already dysregulated body. Now there was focus on heterosexual relationships, more emphasis on my physical appearance and the introduction into the world of drugs and alcohol. Adult men began to stare at my friends and I, often being catcalled in the street, as well as the sexual harassment in the school space was often excused as normal behavior from boys. My growing body was subject to others as a consumable object. Aggression from men and boys toward me increased, and I felt myself sinking in a world that I was not familiar with, and frankly, rather scared of. I had my own experiences of sexual assault, including repetitive sexual coercion, and physical violence, as many other women and girls I knew did as well. I no longer had autonomy over my own body. It was a vehicle of pleasure for others, and not something that belonged only to me.

At points in my recovery, I have hit obstacles, but I have also made great progress in my healing. Implementing coping strategies, such as yoga, journaling, art, and a spiritual practice have been beneficial to me, but I could not have done this alone. I cultivated healing in my family relationships, created a safe circle of friends I can trust, and formed positive relationships with my co-workers and supervisors, who create a culture of acceptance, encourage growth, and empower us to keep going, even when life gets challenging. Even in my role as a recovery support specialist and Social Work graduate student, I am still rediscovering parts of me that were suppressed in my earlier years. I am confronted daily with not only the wounds I endured as a young child, but the generational trauma my feminine ancestors endured at the hands of their own abusers. I, and many other female-presenting counterparts, carry a heavy responsibility to release these old paradigms that have ingrained in us since birth.

It is important that clinicians, recovery support specialists, and mental health organizations take the extra effort to listen and understand us. For women and other marginalized populations with C-PTSD, especially those who have early childhood trauma, it is important to remember that we may not fully understand why we react so powerfully to perceived ‘mundane’ events in our lives. We get continuously misdiagnosed and overlooked because of the complexity of our symptoms. Now that society is beginning to integrate the studies done on trauma survivors, I hope, that instead of placing blame on those experiencing symptoms of C-PTSD, we can collectively take responsibility as a community to initiate healing together. Healing cannot start with just the survivors; it must start within the community. When we open our hearts and listen to their stories without trying to intellectualize them, we can begin to shed old beliefs about women and other marginalized people. We can shift an entire generation of folks who have been forced to stay hidden in plain sight and create a world where all can live a truly free and fulfilling life.

References

Post-traumatic stress disorder | Office on Women’s Health. (n.d.). https://www.womenshealth.gov/mental-health/mental-health-conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder

Professional, C. C. M. (n.d.). CPTSD (Complex PTSD). Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/24881-cptsd-complex-ptsd

WebMD Editorial Contributors. (2009, April 15). What to know about complex PTSD and its symptoms. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/what-to-know-complex-ptsd-symptoms

 

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