I didn’t know I had Complex PTSD until I was 36 years old. I deliberately turned off my trauma – tossed it, pretended it never happened – when Social Services removed my sister and I from our mother’s custody and placed us with our newly sober and forever ex-criminal father. We never talked about our mother except when our step-mother would ask us about her. She apparently thought mother was a bigger part of our consciousness and hearts than she was. At 10, I just wanted to pretend this pretty, stable, non-abusive stepmother was my real mother. And that was it.
I met my soulmate when I was 17. He was 25. We had the instant connection you would expect of soulmates and saw the world and everything in it from the same vantage point. I realized too late that this was because I had been abused, neglected and abandoned as a child and he had been serially molested as a child. We were both from traditional (dysfunctional) Boston-Irish families, both city kids, both smart and both tough. We exchanged our stories, internalized them, and never spoke of them, except to joke. We didn’t need to discuss our experiences, we had a mutual understanding and it meant permanent validation and unconditional love.
We had a wild ride of 15 years. There was drug abuse, cheating, gambling. There were hundreds of hours of conversation, we loved the same things, were passionate in our identical politics. There was the joy we took in raising our children and giving them an ideal life for a while. And then something happened with his bipolar disorder and alcoholism that made him not just an angry drunk but an abusive one.
By the time I was 32 I had a great job and two wonderful, smart, independent daughters. And I had new health problems due to being abused verbally and emotionally every weekend of my life. Health problems that were causing me to get into car accidents, poor concentration at work, blood pressure so high that a dentist almost sent me to the ER. I decided I was worth more and we split, I took my daughters and moved on.
But I was emotionally vulnerable and I quickly met the man who would become my second husband. Before I had ever mourned my previous relationship. Just like I had as a child, I turned the suffering off. So I launched myself fully into this new relationship – we moved in together, I became pregnant, all while my Henry was falling apart – stalking me to the point of restraining orders, losing weight until he looked like Charles Manson instead of Robert DeNiro, drinking and driving, terrorizing our daughters when drunk, harassed by the local police.
He died on December 14, 2007 – choked to death on steak tips while “acutely intoxicated”, according to the Death Certificate. The Cambridge, MA Fire Department was heavily represented at the charity dinner he was there for but no one could do anything – the meat (bolus) had lodged in his recessed voicebox and the professionals couldn’t dislodge it. He would have joked about it – we had become vegetarians early on in our girls’ childhood and he hadn’t eaten beef in about 12 years. The girls and I, all having the same sense of humor, noted that this was an especially vengeful steer he’d happened upon that day.
He was gone and I was starting a new family and I didn’t know how to mourn within those confines. I cried incessantly and violently for two weeks, my boss gave me the week off and I had already taken Christmas week off. During that time I developed the flu and bronchitis and needed even more time off but on New Years Eve I picked up a pregnancy test. Things became more complicated emotionally. Again, I didn’t mourn.
I woke up one morning six months later and couldn’t go to my office in the city. I didn’t know what was wrong, I just became leaden and fearful of leaving the house. A week into my unplanned, no-fun vacation I had some communication with a coworker and found out that my boss was angry and the thought that he was talking about me to a coworker infuriated me. In a fit of Borderline fury I e-mailed him something inappropriate and quit my job. He tried to get me to stay, noting that I had three months paid leave coming when my baby was born, but I wasn’t seeing clearly and I quit. Burned a bridge with the best practice in Boston. Nonetheless i enjoyed my summer and was freed up a little emotionally. I saw a therapist weekly and started to take a mood stabilizer.
I started to unravel. After the initial glow of birth I became afraid of my new daughter. My older girls felt threatened by her and while I spent most of my time in bed, poor Eva was relegated to be raised by my inexperienced husband. We moved to western Massachusetts, a pastoral community in the Berkshire Mountains where we had no cell phone service but a brook in the back yard with a quaint bridge over it. I thought the setting would help with my depression. I thought a change of careers might help me move on. Not so much.
I gave birth to our Sofia in the fall of 2009 and shortly thereafter got a job as a counselor in the most difficult residence at Berkshire Meadows, a group of 11 properties caring for severely retarded, non functional adults and children. The residents at the house I worked in had PICA (in which the patient might eat anything he or she come into contact with, including your hand), were confined to wheelchairs and had to be restrained on a vertical board for part of the day, had constant seizures, were tube fed, etc. I loved my job, although the focus was more on the logistics of the lives of the residents than the quality of their lives. I felt very attached to the residents.
During my training, I had occasion to bathe the company’s poster child, Leon – a large black fellow who couldn’t move at all, had his tongue loll out of his mouth all day yet appeared to be smiling, and had an affinity for The Dukes of Hazzard (how the staff discovered this I can’t imagine, but he had a TV with VHS mounted on his bedroom wall and part of his care was to strap him onto his vertical board and put on the Dukes for him to enjoy).
Bathing Leon involved unstrapping him from his wheelchair and lifting his large, limp body onto a metal bathing table. The other counselor and I undressed him with some difficulty, and while I tried to get the water to an appropriate temperature, she grabbed the bathing supplies out of the cabinet. We bathed his front first and then with more difficulty rolled him onto his side so that we could finish.
I was horrified. His back was covered in scars and welts. I had noticed a little on his front but didn’t think anything of it but the back was like a canvas of abuse. When I started, my trainer told me that Leon had been especially cruelly abused as a baby – thrown against walls regularly by his mother. He was taken by Social Services but a judge sent him back to his abuser until she had permanently damaged him – his brain, his body. I couldn’t imagine such evil and on the day that I was assigned to Leon by myself I put him off, taking care of all of my other residents first. I finally got to him but the manager had noticed and him being the favorite she was mortified that he was just being gotten to (I wasn’t very good or quick at the logistics of the job, I was too busy bonding with the patients).
I apologized but what I was feeling – fear, agitation, fight or flight, inadequacy – I had to quit right there. The manager was furious that I would just walk out but I couldn’t handle what I was experiencing, I didn’t recognize it, I didn’t know what to do with it, all I could do was run. Another bridge burned.
The morning after my failed attempt to hang myself, the doctor on the psych ward took a quick inventory of recent events and my history. He easily diagnosed me with Complex PTSD, Major Depressive Disorder and Anxiety Disorder. An extensive personality test would alarmingly but tellingly reveal Borderline Personality Disorder.
I have been medicated but have yet to fully snap out of it. Henry’s death left that void of our connection. Even if we weren’t together, there was someone on the planet who knew me, understood me to the core and loved me no matter what. His death left me abandoned and susceptible to my rejection complex. Leon triggered the abuse that I had long buried. I’ve been living with it all ever since, I can’t shake it.
Anyway, as inarticulate an ending as it is – that was how my PTSD and it’s cousins were brought to life after years of repression.