Blog

Apr9
2015

Being Real About Trauma Symptoms

By Christine Cissy White

The following post involves themes of sexual assault and child abuse. Please take caution when reading. A version of this post was originally published on Role Reboot. 

“If I was dissociating, I wouldn’t feel so anxious,” she said.

“Or you might, but you just wouldn’t know it,” I replied.

We laughed the PTSD laugh.

This is how survivors talk to one another. We don’t flashback together or complain about our parents. We talk about how our present-day symptoms (numbness, anxiety, nightmares, and fearfulness) are like gum in the hair, leaks in the roof, and jackhammers to the nervous system that won’t be ignored.

Developmental trauma is a newer phrase, like Complex PTSD, and it means the trauma was repeated at the hands of loved ones throughout childhood. In short, it’s complicated.

I say abuse was the peanut butter of my childhood and neglect the jelly.

Adverse childhood events and the lasting toll they take on mental and physical health throughout life are now well documented in the ACE STUDY. However, while childhood abuse is common, honest conversations about the struggle to live, love, and parent well after being raised in hell are rare.

So meeting a woman to talk to about writing, life, and surviving is still exciting for me. We were going to a bookstore coffee shop to share techniques for clearing the never-ending sink full of dirty dishes in our brain.

A panic attack took precedence. She called to cancel and apologized as though her panic was an insult to me. It wasn’t. I was impressed that she didn’t make up a lie. I know it’s hard to be that honest.

Coping well and being calm during a crisis are often looked at positive things. It’s difficult to give that up because the perks of being accomplished and productive are so good, and the rewards for nurturing the self are so invisible and low.

To be emotionally available and responsive to others, it turns out I have to be emotionally present and responsive to myself. This is not necessarily good news, and I recoil a little inside every time I remember. The spilling of actual emotions is as appealing as letting snot leak from the nose. My default setting is to greet my feelings with the same “What the **** do you want?” response I received in childhood.

But I’m not a child anymore.

The only abuser left in your life,” a yoga teacher once said to me in a private session, “is you. You need to parent yourself the way you wish you had been parented.”

Now, I only slip into high self-hate and low self-acceptance when I’m post-traumatically stressed out (parenting, in a relationship, having menopause symptoms, or when a relative dies). Emotional health requires staying present at least some of the time. Staying present is a challenge for even the most seasoned meditators staring at sunsets and sunflowers. For those who were helpless children, staying present can be impossible. We learned how to do the opposite: We rock at staying absent.

As a child, I air lifted myself out of my body and right into my brain. I played dead or became one with the ceiling. It felt like hiding in a corner while the house was robbed. I was the house. Relatives were the robbers.

Now I am learning to give up my favorite coping skills. And when I do, all of those old sensations are stored in the stillness. They waited for me to mature and center. That seems so mean.

But this is the work, and sometimes it pisses me off that my energy is spent on this. I often look for an easier way. I wonder how old I’ll be when I’m done unraveling the knots in my nervous system. I’m sick of being sick of the process.

I’ve been an adult longer than I was a child, and I don’t want to be impacted by my past anymore. Can’t I at least circle new drains or upgrade the scenery on this repeat track? I don’t want to have to do regular exercise to keep off the emotional pounds. I feel burdened, exhausted, and martyred at times, wearing an itchy wool coat I can’t disrobe.

It is not just the presence of bad (abuse) but also the absence of good (love, attachment, boundaries, modeling) that injures children into adulthood. Most of us have learned not to drink too much, abuse others, or be violent (yay us!), but the more subtle aspects of self-care and recovery are healthy nurturing, interdependence, and making time for love and joy. Those can be mysterious.

What I know is talking to other survivors helps the most. We can laugh about missing the “ease” of numbness while knowing the agony of being emotionally blunted isn’t worth the trade off. We can share how strenuous the process feels and is. And we can learn from each other.

This new friend risked being authentic and vulnerable, let down her walls and defenses, and showed me what intimacy is.

Talking with her, I was reminded that survivors have symptoms. They can linger for a long time. That’s just how it is. I don’t think any less of her. I felt no judgment. We helped each other. Most days, we are high-functioning warriors building and rebuilding lives and selves. On those days, there is no shortage of people to talk with and relate to.

But on the days we feel tipped over inside by trauma, we need one another, people who get it as though we are sharing the same orange and saying, “It’s juicy, tangy, messy, and sweet.” It’s a sensory, tactile knowing, not theoretical or abstract or requiring a co-pay or short educational asides.

I crave more of this. I have always craved this. I want to be able to say and hear others talking about the important and unglamorous healing of developmental trauma. I want to hear people who document and describe what breaking the cycle actually requires.

We aren’t children anymore, but we are never too old to be reminded we are not alone.

In light of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we’re working with RAINN to highlight survivors and their stories. If you need help, please visit our FIND HELP page or call 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area. You can also find RAINN’s online hotline here

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Comments (49)

  1. Melodie Dillon

    I am not sure what to say…thank you. Reading this has given me some hope. It can be/feel hard to find someone you can talk to honestly about the “now” of it.

    Reply  |  
    1. christine cissy white

      Melodie,
      Wanting to help and speak to others was my intention while writing. I’m glad it makes you feel hopeful. It’s what I’ve craved too & doesn’t happen enough. There’s a growing community you are welcome to join at http://www.healwritenow.com if you want. No cost. Just writing, quotes & resource sharing. Cissy

      Reply  |  
  2. Anon

    Thank you so much for posting this. Outside of my actual therapy, I feel like no one around me understands the sheer pain and complexity of developmental trauma/C-PTSD. Most information/treatments for PTSD mention childhood trauma but then go on to discuss the goal as “return to normal.” But with those of us who grew up in such toxic environments, this has always been our normal and we have to shape a new, healthy life. There’s no baseline to return to; our brains developed under these traumatic conditions. Yes, it does take years to learn how to function outside of the rabbit hole that was our entire childhood (and usually beyond). Thank you so much for your honesty and bravery in sharing. This has been so validating for me today.

    Reply  |  
    1. christine cissy white

      I’ve said the same thing – the focus on life before the trauma is so not helpful and doesn’t speak to the reality of our experiences as survivors. It’s not like all was great and there was just this one bad day when something happened – it was the environment that allowed or made it possible as much as what actually happened. I’m glad you found validation because I know how healing that can be. Thanks for commenting. I appreciate it.
      Cissy

      Reply  |  
  3. Heidi

    Such great writing!
    “We rock at staying absent.” So simple, yet so profound.
    You’re touching more people than you know, with every published piece. So, you Cissy White, rock at being a voice.

    Reply  |  
    1. christine cissy white

      Thank you so much HEIDI!!!!!

      Reply  |  
  4. Anonymous

    Thank you for writing this. While I may not of experienced what you have I do have PTSD and it is so hard for me to explain my symptoms to anyone. How many nights I lie awake with the thought that the anxiety is never going to go away. How sometimes its hard to explain why I don’t want to hang out today. So thank you this is exactly what I needed.

    Reply  |  
    1. christine cissy white

      And I am SO GLAD it helped. SO glad. The feeling that no one can or wants or does get it is hard. And I agree – the cause of the PTSD doesn’t always have to be to the same. Some of it’s universal to traumatic stress. Although I like to give voice to developmental trauma as well. But the bigger picture is that we are in this together!!!!! Thank you!

      Reply  |  
  5. Melissa Sadin

    Thank you for sharing your story. I’ve dedicated my life to advocating for and educating people about kids with Developmental trauma. My son has dvelopmental trauma and as you say, is more comfortable absent than present.
    I am currently producing a webinar series on parenting and educating children with trauma. Would you be interested in being a guest? As an educator my focus is on schools. Teachers need to hear your story. They need to understand what would have helped you in school. Please contact me if you are interested in participating.

    Reply  |  
    1. christine cissy white

      Dear Melissa,
      I’d LOVE to participate and I have lots to say about schools. Schools saved me. It was the one safe, predictable, routine and orderly way of life. That said, when teachers did try to help (and a few did) I ran from them so fast, felt overwhelmed or unfamiliar with concern and honestly it felt intrusive. So, how to approach kids and notice and make impact is important too. I’d love to learn more and participate. My website is http://www.healwritenow.com and it has ways to contact me. I’m so glad for the work you are doing! It’s wonderful to hear of other activists and activists! Warmly, Cissy

      Reply  |  
  6. Alyson

    Thank you so much for writing this. Healing from developmental trauma is so difficult and lonely sometimes. There aren’t many people in my life who I can talk to about it, so I appreciate well written accounts of what other people go through, it validates my struggle and reminds me I’m not alone. So much of what you said resonated with me, it was like you were describing my life as well. Again, thank you for sharing, I really needed to read this today.

    Reply  |  
    1. christine cissy white

      Alyson,
      Thank you for writing. I have a website, TOTALLY FREE, and while it’s a one-woman effort it will/can remind you that it’s not just you. Please visit if you’d like. There’s a small facebook community too and you are welcome. Thank you for telling me you were touched. Cissy
      http://www.healwritenow.com
      and if you have quotes or go-to resources or anything, share them, and we can help build more hope, break silence and isolation and the cycle!

      Reply  |  
  7. Kami C

    Thank you for your perspective on such a complicated issue. I am a counselor and work with young children and families who have experienced trauma. Hearing your perspective helped me see things from the lens of an adult and gain more empathy for the parents I work with who have experienced similar things. Your insight helped me gain more understanding of how to help the adults I work with. Thank you for sharing your story. I passed it on to my colleagues as well… I hope that was ok.

    Reply  |  
    1. christine cissy white

      Kami,
      I’m so glad it was helpful to you in your work. And if you feel it’s useful to pass along to others, please do. I’ve “come out” as a survivor now so I’m o.k. using my full name and hoping whatever I can share it helpful for others. Thanks for commenting.
      Cissy http://www.healwritenow.com

      Reply  |  
  8. Jen

    Thank you for this. I’ve always thought ptsd wasn’t an issue for me, but I’ve never figure out why I’ve been so emotionally shut down. Reading your description- well it’s like you could be describing me, so I’ve got another path to explore now, maybe this one will have some relief.

    Reply  |  
    1. christine cissy white

      Jen,
      Go easy on yourself too. And the fabulous thing about not being shut down, as it’s possible and we’re ready, is that it brings some scary feelings (at least at first – for me) but it also brings boat loads of joy and more and more over time. For me, that’s the relief and pay off! Thanks for commenting. cissy

      Reply  |  
  9. Margaret

    Cissy,
    You guys are the rockstars. The courage it must take for you to tell your story and work towards hope and a better life is unparalleled. No, we are never alone. Keep on keeping on. And keep on being a light to others – people like you make this screwed up world just a little bit brighter.

    Reply  |  
    1. Christine Cissy White

      Thank you!

      Reply  |  
  10. Ann Gazlay

    How did you crawl inside me and find those words?

    Reply  |  
  11. Sandy

    I completely related to this article and appreciate you sharing what is so hard to put down in words.

    Reply  |  
  12. Jaysa

    OMG!! this story has really lifted my hopes of finding hope, something like this happen to me when I was 8years old and it was one of my family remembers.. but thank you 4 this story and I would like to thank you also 4 the hotline you put up there, they really care and want to hear your story! THANK YOU!

    Reply  |  
  13. Rav

    Thank you. Just thank you.

    Reply  |  
    1. Christine Cissy White

      Ann, Sandy, Jaysa & Rav,
      THANK each one of your for commenting. It IS better knowing we’re not alone.

      Reply  |  
  14. anonymous

    thank you so much for writing this. by far the hardest part of life for me is learning how to NOT compartmentalize my feelings, having to actually FEEL them and not “control” (ignore) them. i so relate to your statement about it being as appealing as letting snot leak from the nose. if i’m being completely honest, i think i would rather be physically beat up than acknowledge my sadness or disappointment in front of someone else, or even myself. so learning to do just that has been a scary and often confusing journey for me. but i want to believe that it will be worth the pain and hard work someday — that someday i feel be able to feel connected to someone, present, open, and vulnerable, without also feeling panicked.

    all the same, the road to getting to that place is hard to share with others who have never traveled it. when intimacy has always meant love and comfort and safety to someone, it can be really hard for them to understand how it can mean the opposite — destruction and danger and fear — to someone else. the most valuable people in my life are those who will be patient and show grace when I am not as connected as I should be in our relationship, even though they haven’t experienced trauma themselves. but it’s always nice to read others’ stories and know that I am not alone in this – that there are other people out there who are trying to put the pieces of themselves back together too and are finding it to be a slow process, so much slower than anyone ever wants It to be. thanks for making my day brighter. 🙂

    Reply  |  
    1. Christine Cissy White

      It can certainly feel slow even when there’s movement and progress. I’m glad I brightened your day. You brightened mine by letting me know.

      Reply  |  
  15. Tim

    I first thought I had found love at 19. A girl I knew from my teenage years. She was comfortable with me and she was very physically engaging, and more experienced than myself. We were together for about 8 or 9 months. After the breakup I was on the rebound and determined to get back on the horse and date someone else. I just started to look for sexual partnerships that were masked as relationships often rushing into situations that might of been one night stands that I just kept calling back. And they kept taking me back. I was becoming addicted to the short time frame relationship of in for a good time and as soon as some hiccup came up, which could of been caused by missing a few dates or not liking each other’s friends, we’d often end it quickly and hatefully. Listed a post mortem yellow pages of why she wasn’t good for me.

    I ran through all kinds of characters on that 8-9 year span. Damaging myself more each time. Confusing more of what physical love was with what a real emotional connection felt like. In that time I would spent no limit of money I didn’t have to keep the good times rolling only to always realize as soon as the music stopped that we didn’t know how to interact without distractions around us. I would emotionally shut down and wait for there lashing out at me to come. Waiting almost for an opertunity to hear a misspoke phrase or turn of words. I would use there weakness against them. And then I turned into a critical monster that wanted nothing to do with being a supportive partner. Often only realizing what I had done months later after thinking the situation through. I would become so emotionally weighted by them that as soon as they wanted to alter the sexual relationship and cut into my addiction I would fight them at any turn to give me back my drug. I didn’t want to be there for them. I only wanted sex. It never drove me to physically cheat, but I would relish the opertunity to flirt with a new female that kened my interest. Jumping from one to another. Having slumps of depression and anxiety when I didn’t have a prey to pursue.
    I realized about three years ago it must of been some form of mild addiction. When something would dictate my emotional state so strongly that I would pursue a short term relationship just to crash and burn. Leaving more hollowed out and more disconnected than a normal human could feel. When I met someone that started to identify with the same scenarios as me I wouldn’t even realize it. I told them, stop being a victim. And that was terrible response. Self repair starts with diagnosis. And admitting there is something. The battle heats up when you want to fight it. The fight feels hugely rewarding though. The spoils of war become yours to enjoy. I would think these things came easy to those with strong resolve. But those with a strong resolve face hard winds of change to deal with from within.
    Being set in what had to come next often let opertunity for personal and professional advancement be halted. Dead stop. I had to be back in a relationship, and had to be fucking someone again.

    I’ve taken myself countless times in the last two years out of a situation to say ” no the situation must stop” . I don’t have a happy ending for this blog yet. Just an on going one. A year from now I’ll understand my situation better. And I understand where I was one year ago. It’s just always taken time to develop the 20/20 hindsight effect.

    Reply  |  
    1. Christine Cissy White

      Tim,
      Sometimes identifying the issue is the place to start the stopping. I know people who have found comfort and support in Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous groups as well for better understanding/grappling with some of the themes you mentioned.
      Cissy

      Reply  |  
  16. Dollie

    Thank you for posting this, for stating the fact that recovery is unglamorous. So many people just wish to believe that turning your life around is easy. That being normal shouldn’t be difficult. But having been raised one way, only knowing abuse and anger, just to grow up and realize that isn’t actually how life is… I still don’t know how I’m supposed to look at life and be okay. Two years away from any type of physical abuse and my body still craves it because that is what I always knew. It is so hard, but life keeps going and so must I. To know that other people struggle with similar things makes me a bit at ease. And thank you for sharing what your yoga teacher had said. “The only abuser left in your life, is you. You need to parent yourself the way you wish you had been parented.” I never thought of it that way and that spoke VOLUMES to me. I don’t have abusers left in my life, I finally corrected that. But I’m still looking to abuse myself, and I don’t think I would’ve seen that so clearly if I hadn’t read this. Thank you, so very much.

    Here’s to survivors helping survivors!

    Reply  |  
    1. Christine Cissy White

      So very yes to survivors helping survivors Dollie and making the way a little easier for one another if we can.!
      Cissy

      Reply  |  
  17. anon

    Where I am in my journey at the moment, I can barely think straight, or process my thoughts. If this article was a book I couldn’t have faced reading it. Everything feels so overwhelming. Hearing myself you would think this is a new trauma or low patch; but this is my existence so far. I generally hold it together, but sometimes I can’t anymore. The words in your article feel like they could have come from my own heart. Thank you for your honesty and being real. It’s not pretty but it et’s people like me know that we’re not the only ones.

    Reply  |  
    1. christine cissy white

      Dear Anon,
      I’m sorry you are struggling. Honestly, I write exactly because it’s real and what people deal with and because it doesn’t stay in that awful place forever which is pretty hard to believe when in it, right? And so often when we feel better we’re so relieved we don’t want to talk about the high stress or high symptoms. And then people feel alone and that’s no help. Hang in there! Thank you for commenting. You are not alone.

      Reply  |  
  18. Salem

    How amazing this blog post is… not only does it speak to me because of issues I have dealt with-and still deal with-, but it also reminds me how TWLOHA brought my friend and I together at a Move Community Conference, and this post relates so much to finding a relationship like this, and not feeling so alone. I hope that all of you can find that supportive person in your life to help you. I hope you are the person in their life that helps them. After all- people need other people. Thank you, Christine, for this wonderful post.

    Reply  |  
    1. Christine Cissy White

      Dear Salem,
      THANK you for writing and for your support and encouragement – not only of the writing but of building community. It’s so important and I hope that part of what happens as a result is just that! Thank you so much! And I’m glad you’ve found and are working on community building too! Inspiriting! Cissy

      Reply  |  
  19. Maria

    Hi Christine, I am 52 years young. I have been healed 20 years now. Mainly from depression. I may have moments of anxiety, but her wings have been clipped and she whimpers about. But I am reading your post and thinking about how even after being healed. And that’s a long story I won’t get into at the moment. Because it was literally a miracle, and non other. But there are other areas besides that of the emotional realm that needs to be healed. So I realize. I call it the “how to’s” in life. Things no one taught me. Playing catch up. I found that after my healing at age 32. I played catch up a lot. It’s like I checked out of life, and now checked back in. You see until age 32, I was in turmoil. Deep depression, anxiety, hopelessness, all of these emotions in my gut. Always there. Always taunting me. I’m sure you know too well. But when those emotions where gone for good. What is left is the inability due to lack of basic skills children learn during childhood. Such as expressing myself verbally took almost the 20 years since healing. Seems like I had to go through my teen years while in my 30’s. And I went through my 20’s while in my 40’s. That’s just as hard as getting healed. Seems like I got my miracle. And then, I had a personality shift. The suppressed me beneathe all the sadness bloomed and came out. Then, I didn’t know what to do with her. It’s like trying to write a book. But I don’t know how to read kind of a thing. Now I’m 52. But I’m more like 40ish in the development of me. At least the good part. As hard as it is to go through the development phase. I’m no longer hindered nor impeded by the deep depression that I once was enslaved to. I don’t know what that feels like. I have no flashbacks. And when I remember. I feel no pain. I feel good. Now I’m not going to say that I never get bummed out. Or never sad. I’m human. Life happens. But it doesn’t control my soul. It doesn’t interpret who I am.
    I am.
    Don’t know if this was of any help. It’s what I thought of reading your blog for some reason. Take care. And believe!
    Healing is real. I’m living it!

    Reply  |  
    1. Christine Cissy White

      Maria,
      What a wonderful post. So honest and encouraging. I know EXACTLY what you mean. I too feel free of much of the symptoms but feel like I’m in a second adolescence catching up on all those developmental things I missed the first time around. So I think that it’s necessary for those of us who found some solid footing to share, both our struggles and success, because it is so isolating while post-traumatically stressed to both bear symptoms and feel all empowered and hopeful. Thank you for sharing your hope and optimism and lived experience of healing!
      Cissy

      Reply  |  
  20. Angie

    i so so relate. today is one of those upside down can’t get off the floor screaming for help but no sound comes out kind of days. this blog reminded me i am not alone. i needed that. thank you.

    Reply  |  
    1. Christine Cissy White

      Angie,
      I am so glad you are reminded and can feel that you are not alone but I’m sorry it’s an upside down kind of day. Warmly, Cissy

      Reply  |  
  21. Kassie

    this is my first time on this website, but this was too touching and close to my heart to not leave a reply.. so I apologize if I am doing this wrong… but i needed to read this today. It gave me comfort to know that i wasn’t the only adult struggling with the feelings of my youth.. thank you.

    Reply  |  
    1. Christine Cissy White

      Oh Kassie,
      Thank you for replying. Thank you so much. YOU ARE NOT THE ONLY ONE. AT ALL. I’m glad your heart was warmed! I may put heart warmer on my resume 🙂
      Cissy

      Reply  |  
  22. Matthew James Berkes

    I’m so happy to have this. There are other people like me. What it must be like to talk with them. Thank you

    Reply  |  
    1. Christine Cissy White

      Matthew, Thank you for writing. There are plenty of others! Plenty! Cissy

      Reply  |  
  23. Renee Killday

    What I have learned during my journey is that not everyone can comprehend the amount of time it takes to heal. It is a long painful journey that loops back on it’s self constantly. You are starting a long overdue conversation, thank you.

    Reply  |  
    1. Christine Cissy White

      Renee,
      Thank you. I know I would have been comforted hearing more earlier in my journey and my hope is that it helps others! Thank you for writing.
      Cissy

      Reply  |  
  24. Kristy

    I admire your boldness and how open you are in this post. It has defiantly helped me, thank you!

    Reply  |  
  25. Pingback: Developmental Trauma: When Lived Experience is Considered Expertise Everyone Benefits - Heal Write Now for Trauma Survivors & Adults Abused as Children

  26. Patty Cogen

    Dear Cissy,
    I don’t recall that I ever read this essay, although I remember well the day it happened and how we talked and that you asked if you could write about us. Thanks for doing this—I loved discovering myself through your eyes. It was great to meet such a brave honest person. If only I could feel like that from the INSIDE—hmmmmm. I recently read a quote from a poet named Larry Levis that went something like this: “I want to tell you about myself, but I have to become someone else to do that.” Which is kinda like what you did for me…through reading what you wrote about me I could enter into you (become someone else) and see me for who I was from an entirely new perspective. WOW! Thanks, Cissy.

    Reply  |  
  27. sarah

    I read this the other day and it rocked my world. I had never put it in that perspective and I’m marinading in it and it’s already changing my present and future. Thank you.

    “The impact of abuse and neglect is not in the pain that was done but in the joy that was not.”

    Reply  |  
  28. Etta

    Hi. Very uplifting just having read this. One thing you wrote that I have never heard being said to me is, parenting ourselves as we would have been wanted to be parented. This is quite insightful and must say I am certainly going to start doing that for myself. Thank you.
    I can do honestly relate to how tiresome it has become to play that tape over and over and over. It just invades from nowhere and always seems to want to drag us back, to the memories of those people that hurt us. But we are no longer that child, still yet we hurt. Will we ever put do far behind, and able to make it a tiny dot of a memory that eventually just is that a dot . So faded, we can let go. Our anxiety will come and go. It is or may be a part of who we are, and so what? We are allowed to be who we are, in our heart.
    We are in no way defined by our pasts. Yes it is a challenge, for me, almost every day, but I like who I am, and that matters to me, and that’s good enough. The world will not stop if we have obe of “those days”, but it’s ok, just be today, just be today. Here’s a poem I would like to share:
    Humanity: These collective lives of people in need. In love, in search.
    Our brokeness chases us, to define who we are
    But we are not found in the darkness that we endure
    But in the Light that guides us,
    And our stories matter.
    Etta. Peace&Light

    Reply  |  
  29. Melinda

    “As a child, I air lifted myself out of my body and right into my brain. I played dead or became one with the ceiling. It felt like hiding in a corner while the house was robbed. I was the house. Relatives were the robbers.” I relate so much, dissociation is one of my most troublesome symptoms. Thanks for explaining it so clearly when I struggle to understand it myself.

    Reply  |