How I Turned My Emotionally Crippling Complex-PTSD Into a Force for Good

How I Turned My Emotionally Crippling Complex-PTSD Into a Force for Good

On the surface, I achieved the common external measures of success and happiness. I had a successful career in biotech, a wonderful wife, a beautiful house, and many of the comforts life had to offer. I had come far from being a high school dropout raised by a single mom who made ends meet waiting tables.  Ski vacations, spa days, designer jeans, and nice dinners out with friends were the norm. Yet, I was unfulfilled and had a nagging feeling that something was off.

I covered my ears when I heard the whisper in my gut that said, “something is wrong with you.” And, as soon as a difficult emotion came up, I choked it back down through avoidance and distraction. Like running a marathon, overwork and achievement were coping mechanisms that also provided external validation. External validation meant that I was okay. Maybe even good.  I was trying to outrun my own shadow, but I couldn’t outrun the hands of time.

On my 40th birthday, I paused, standing on the heated marble floors of my bathroom, and looked in the mirror. Where did the time go? How did I get here? Do I even like it here?

I wasn’t happy. I was out of touch with my wife and myself. Although I invested in my 401k, I had not invested in my friendships and regularly lost touch with people I cared about. And, I hadn’t succeeded at what was most important to me on the inside, at the core of my being, which was to have kids.

About a month later, I hit a breaking point when the cell therapy start-up I worked for was acquired by a large biotech firm, which made me wonder if I would lose my job.  My job was a disproportionately large part of my identity at the time. On top of that, I had a sudden and unwanted crush on another woman, which opened my eyes to my marriage was in serious trouble.

Instead of navigating regular life and marriage challenges in an emotionally open and mature way, I shoved my emotions down like I always had. But, they wouldn’t stay down. They erupted and overwhelmed me. I abruptly walked out of the marriage and hid out in an Airbnb. The only way I knew how to deal with my marriage and emotions was to be alone and avoid dealing. Of course, running away didn’t work. Anxiety hit me like a semi-truck. I could barely eat and started having apocalyptic nightmares. After waking up one day soaked in a cold sweat, I reached out for help.

I called my hippie mom, who, unlike me, lived her life by the seat of her pants. “Mom,” I squeaked. “I separated from Elizabeth. I am totally lost.” My mom hopped on the first flight she could to visit me in Seattle. It wasn’t only my mom and her bright purple suitcase that arrived. She also had a bag of childhood letters and memorabilia that I had saved for almost three decades.

She handed me a tattered plastic grocery bag and proclaimed “all of the answers” were in this environmentally hazardous bag. As I sorted through it, I saw her eating a cookie she pulled out from her purse in the corner of my eye. Oblivious to what was in this time capsule she brought me.

I caught the headline of an article in 1990 that read, “Suspect Surrenders in Fatal Shooting of Oceanside Girl.” At the time, I was 13, the shooting victim was 14, and we lived in the neighborhood. My heart raced, then quickly froze; ice fell over my body. I couldn’t feel anything emotionally.

I glanced over at my mom, who was nibbling her cookie. Frantically, I pulled more documents out of the bag: letters, cards, poems, and paper memorabilia from my childhood. I found a letter a classmate had written me expressing sympathy for losing my friend (the girl who was shot) and support since I had been at the crime scene. I didn’t remember the girl or the crime that sadly ended her life. I drew a total blank. I found letters that I wrote to the dead girl, apparently my friend,  apologizing for running when she was shot. I had no memory of this event and was freaked out. What else had I buried and left unresolved?

This jolted me into action to get hardcore therapy from an expert in the field of trauma. In addition to potentially forgetting a shooting, I had experienced abandonment and neglect as a child. I had always assumed adversity was a good thing that simply made me stronger. But, it was clear to me that I couldn’t achieve what I wanted most in life if I didn’t deal with my issues.

After an exhaustive review of my history, my therapist diagnosed me with Complex Post Traumatic Stress disorder: a form of PTSD caused by chronic or prolonged traumatic stress often occurring in childhood when the brain is developing. Examples of C-PTSD can include horrific tragedies (e.g., kidnapping), the chronic stress of having a caregiver who abused alcohol or drugs, and neglect - that is, a child not having had the stability of a caregiver consistently emotionally or physically available. Unfortunately, these are common occurrences in our society, experienced by many. Complex trauma is a condition that is underdiagnosed, undertreated, and stigmatized and, even years later, it can wreak havoc on our lives if our wounds are not dealt with and processed. According to the CDC, 61% of us had an “adverse childhood experience,” traumatic events that can leave a permanent imprint on our brains, nervous systems, and lives.

Healing and changing was a three-year journey instead of the silver bullet I had hoped for.  I had the privilege of seeing top experts in the field of trauma and receiving specialized treatments, including memory reprocessing (EMDR), neurofeedback, and Internal Family Systems. I supplemented this work with meditation, exercise, and writing. Later, I was lucky to find social support through storytelling at the CPTSD Foundation.

Before dealing with my past, I didn’t see the point. The message we are bombarded with is “children are resilient,” While that is true, this is only true to a point. Too much adversity can be damaging. For me, the problem with sucking it up, and leaving the past in the past, was I cut myself off from the emotions that I didn’t like and deemed “bad,” like sadness or anger, which, on the flip side, also cut me off from my “good” emotions like joy—shutting off emotions shut off connection with other people. How could I have meaningful relationships with others if I couldn't connect with myself? I had to learn to identify, sit with, and manage my feelings which opened the door to harnessing the enormous power of all of my emotions for positive purposes.

For three years, I stayed the course through trial and error and took steps forward and backward and ended up in a beautiful place where I feel fully alive and whole. I wake up in the morning, pick my son up from his crib, and light up in fulfillment. I use some of the tools from my healing journey to parent, such as really attuning to my toddler’s emotions and helping him regulate them, giving him consistency and protection while balancing this with enabling him a developmentally appropriate level of space to explore his world and staying centered by employing stress management practices I learned during my PTSD treatment.

While I cannot say I’m cured, I can say my trauma has been transformed into a source of knowledge, power, and love. I continue to plug away and learn and grow. I’ve moved beyond healing myself to focusing on service to others. The journal I kept throughout the process of getting better became the foundation for my memoir, Mending My Mind, about my battle with complex PTSD. I decided to share my story because, in part, it was a constructive avenue for me to take accountability for my past mistakes and, mostly, with the hope it may be helpful to another person. I believe if we heal ourselves, we can heal our world. And live more fulfilling lives.

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