Persistent neglect in childhood can lead you to believe that you don’t deserve to be loved or cared for. This idea begins to define you: you are a person who ought to be treated badly.
When we think of people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a specific list comes to mind: soldiers returning from combat zones and police officers connected to terrible incidents in the line of duty; victims of sexual trauma and women who were beaten by their partners; the families who stood on the roofs of their houses in the aftermath of Katrina and those who managed to walk away from the horrific South Asian tsunami in 2004. We are right to think of these people and to recognize their experiences, but there are many others living with an equally damaging — yet much more invisible — condition: complex post-traumatic stress disorder or C-PTSD.
The psychological community credits Judith Herman as the originator of this diagnosis. She first described C-PTSD in her book 1992 book, Trauma and Recovery, complementing the diagnosis of PTSD that had been added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 12 years earlier, noting that trauma-related disorders weren’t only the result of one intense, acute crisis, but also through chronic, subtler experiences of pain.
In 1992, I was four years old and my path toward a C-PTSD diagnosis had already begun. My mother had filed for divorce when I was two after years of enduring my father’s emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. I don’t remember that time in my life, but I’ve since learned that doesn’t matter; according to Lise Eliot, Ph.D., author of What’s Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, if a baby is exposed to inconsistent care or abuse, “he’ll fail to develop the confidence and emotional security that are so essential to a healthy psyche…For even though the child will never remember the specific events at any conscious level, his lower limbic system — and the amygdala in particular — does store powerful associations between an emotional state, like fear or pain, and the person or situation that brought it on, associations that may be indelible.” In other words, I can’t remember the specific things that my father did to my mother when I was an infant and toddler, but the part of my brain responsible for emotion, survival instinct, and memory retains those experiences.
By the same token, the more times I experienced fear or pain, especially as a small child, the more my brain came to believe that the world was inherently cruel. As a result, I slowly developed more and more symptoms of C-PTSD…
How does post-traumatic stress disorder from an acute crisis differ from that which develops after chronic, even subtle experiences of pain? Find out in the original article How I’m Recovering from C-PTSD at The Fix.