As a licensed mental health professional, I regularly work with people who have experienced varying levels of trauma. Sometimes it’s an intense trauma they can pinpoint, such as a sexual assault or a tour in Iraq. Other times, the trauma has been ongoing, which can lead to Complex PTSD or C-PTSD.
While it’s easy to draw a conclusion between a corresponding event and the diagnosis in theory, the reality is that PTSD doesn’t always present in a way that makes a whole lot of sense.
I know this from experience.
It doesn’t make sense when I’m home from work making dinner, eyeing the pack of cigarettes in my purse. It feels like there’s speed in my veins, although I couldn’t tell you why. At least, not at that moment. All I can tell you is how good a cigarette is when I’m anxious. I know it’s a bad habit, and I know they cause cancer, but when my hands have been trembling for three days and I can’t will them to be still, a cigarette is good. I continue to cook, and one moment later I can tell you exactly why it’s felt like there’s been speed in my veins for days, since Saturday. My ears buzz so loudly I clutch the sides of my head.
Saturday night there was a party, and at the party was a couple. Newly married, seemingly happy, but I know better. I’m too smart for that, to trust in that display. I study people for a living, and I can see past their brand new gold bands. I’ve been trained to see past things, to see through things. You might think it was in grad school, where I read textbooks on human behavior, but that’s only part of it. I learned to study people a long time ago, back when I learned that some people don’t mean what they say.
So I’m watching this couple, and the subject of her ex comes up, and she shrugs and laughs, and a dark cloud goes over the face of her husband. He grits his teeth and says something only she can hear, but I can hear it too. I can hear it in the way her face falls, in the way the shame rises to her cheeks. The way he says loudly, “He’s nothing to follow up.” The way he spits out the words like venom.
I observed that on Saturday and felt sick for the rest of the party, which I chalked up to eating some of the dip that had been sitting out too long. I felt sick the next day too, blaming it on the late night and crappy sleep. On Monday, I felt sick and blamed it on, well, Monday. I drank and smoked seven cigarettes and felt sick. Which I blamed on the alcohol and the cigarettes.
Tuesday I felt sick. I cancelled my first patient. Then I willed myself out of bed and saw the rest of my patients and did good work with each of them. Work that I’m proud of. I was only able to do the work by reaching inside my brain and turning down the volume of my own anxiety and turning up the volume of other things that remind me of my abilities as a counselor. It’s a trick I learned early on, and without it I would be very unemployed.
But when I left the office, the volume of my anxiety turned back up, and it wouldn’t go down. Not after a cigarette, or a Taylor Swift song, or a call to my sister. I felt it as I bought items to make dinner–tortillas, avocados–and when I started making tacos. You know, it being Tuesday and all.
As I continued to make dinner, I knew exactly why the volume knob to my anxiety was all the way up. I clutched the sides of my head and remembered it, like it was yesterday, even though it was nearly ten years ago.
I was a newlywed, at a party with my own shiny new ring and shiny new husband. Everything looked just right, all smiles and cheek kisses. He loved to show me off.
A friend of mine from out of town was there, and another friend of a friend had shown up, in hopes they might be a match. I stood between the two of them, trying to find ways to help them stick.
My friend turned to get herself another drink and the music was so loud. The guy leaned in to ask me about her–what her family was like, or something. Even yelling right in each others ears we could barely hear each other.
I don’t know how it happened, but suddenly I was being dragged away from my friend and the guy.
“HOW DARE YOU,” my husband snarled at me through gritted teeth. “How dare you embarrass me like this, by flirting with someone right in front of me.”
Shame rose to my cheeks, and I could feel the tears beginning to form. My friend followed me to the bathroom and we sat on the floor of one of the stalls, trying to figure out what had happened.
It’s easy for me to sit across from someone, in the therapist’s chair, and pinpoint exactly why they are feeling overwhelmed, paranoid, terrified, or depressed. I’ve been through numerous classes and internships in order to be able to confidently assess and treat my clients.
It’s a little more difficult when the trauma is something I’ve trained myself to minimize, to ignore, to grit my teeth and get through. Compartmentalization is a necessary skill for survival, but what do you do when the trauma won’t stay in its assigned compartment?
This is where I must accept that the therapist needs a therapist. I need someone who will show me what I’m missing, help me identify my triggers, and remind me of the coping skills I teach to others.
When I recommend counseling, when I tell them how much it helps, I’m speaking from experience. I’m thankful to have found an excellent therapist who is helping me process and cope with my complex trauma.
If you’re experiencing trauma, complex or otherwise, I urge you to please do the same. Please seek professional help. With some difficult work and the right kind of help, you can begin the healing process. I can. My patients can.
You can get help. You can. You just have to ask for it.
To find help in your area, please visit our FIND HELP page.