The Invisible and Debilitating Impact of Complex PTSD [The Lived Experience]

In 2013, I broke down and I did not recover.

I lost my mind, and all sense of reality – I lived in a psychological nightmare that nobody I knew or was connect with, had experience in and could help me with – including the medical professionals.

I was diagnosed after I began going to a new medical clinic complaining of not being able to sleep, being exhausted but also feeling… strange. I couldn’t put my finger on what I was feeling, except I was tired, angry, exhausted, hyped, and stressed. The Doctor didn’t think I needed to see a Psychiatrist, but after several discussions, they wrote the referral and off I was to see the Shrink.

During appointments with the Psychiatrist, he often asked me what I hoped to gain by getting a diagnosis – why did I need a label for myself? I answered, “Because this isn’t me, something is really wrong.” I was prescribed anti-depressants, given a report and sent on my way.

You might be thinking, if you’ve been lucky enough to be untouched by any kind of mental health issues, exactly what it’s like and how people are able to still function, or at least appear normal, right?

Well, here’s where and why mental health is such a tricky thing: it is unique to the person experiencing it. It is often a private affair, being that it occurs primarily in the mind and we live in a world where telepathy is still relatively an untapped and unperfected art.

During 2013, the Mental Health Crisis Assessment Team (CAT) frequented my home several times – their job to make sure I wasn’t about to harm myself, or anyone else, and if need be, take me to the hospital for a stay on the psych ward – I refused every time they offered to escort me there, adamantly. Hospitals terrify me, the psych ward more so (thanks, American Horror Story).

Complex PTSD differs slightly from run of the mill PTSD in that there are usually multiple events in one's life, rather than a singular. For example, in my own life C-PTSD arose as a direct impact of multiple rapes by different men, family violence, mental and emotional abuse, and the sudden suicides of three people I was close to in high school. Each of these events carries its own extended baggage of issues – it’s a big ol’ mess.

Usually, with PTSD, it’s caused by a singular event – a sudden car accident, kidnapping, rape, just to name a few. Not everyone with PTSD or CPTSD has been in a war zone, or is a refugee or ex-soldier. PTSD and CPTSD both stem from events where your life is at real risk and you may die – and it is not what you see in the movies.

CPTSD for me surfaced the moment I felt a little safer – when I moved back to my hometown in a place I knew I had people to support me. It surfaced first with an inability to relax fully after work, leading to disrupted sleep which meant my mood dropped, I was irritable, tired, and running on adrenaline and caffeine. It then moved into intrusive, sudden and repetitive memories that were unpredictable in nature.

You might have heard of these and be thinking, why can’t you just choose your own thoughts? The point here is, you are quite literally unable to do so. There is no control. You do not know how or when these will appear, and they are debilitating. You re-live the events each time the memories come, your body and mind fully believe it is happening to you, again and again, every time – even if you’re standing in the office lunchroom making a cup of tea or driving your care to Coles. Each memory is re-traumatizing and devastating.

As a result of these memories and experiencing such an involved response, the body often has “side effects” – your survival brain is triggered into action and it prepared your body to survive, at any cost. Like any animal human or hippo, you drop excess weight to flee – diarrhea is common, complete with belly cramps and frequent urination, as well as vomiting.

Your muscles are flooded with hormones designed to give them the boost of energy they need to help you flee or fight off the attacker – but in reality the attack never comes and your muscles are hardened for extended periods of time. Imagine tensing your calf muscles for hours on end, with no break to rest? Could you do it? Probably not. This happens to muscles all over the body – the buttocks, stomach, biceps, shoulders, thighs – every muscle is tensed for hours and to assist in our survival, we are thankfully, numbed to pain by our body. This leads to, I’m sure you can imagine, many problems with energy production, weight loss or gain, hormonal balance, nourishment, menstruation and fertility, and a huge host of other health problems.

For me, this meant an extreme weight gain. I went from being about 80 kilograms to 137 kilograms in a year.  My menstruation was extremely painful, to the point of not being able to move and I lost too much blood which left me depleted of essential nutrients each month. I also have extremely low energy, to the point of not being able to do a simple 10-minute walk most days – my body is too exhausted and it hurts everywhere much of the time.

PTSD and CPTSD impacts your ability to think too – when the survival brain leaps into action, it literally takes your thinking brain offline and redirects that energy towards survival – so you make silly mistakes, forget things, or do things you wouldn’t normally – like spending all your money, getting into debt, forgetting important events like a birthday or office occasion. Because your body and mind are engrossed in your survival, anything outside that falls away – wearing clothes that make you feel sexy, beautiful, professional? Gone. Makeup? Gone. Hairstyling? Gone. The only track of any thought you can muster, centers around food, sex, water, sleep – your basic survival needs, and it comes in different ways: you might become addicted to foods or sex, sleep too much or not enough, or abuse alcohol.

To the outside world, it might look like your going through something, but in your private world everything is on fire, all the time, and there is no water to put it out.

I experienced vivid, violent and gruesome night-terrors that left me afraid to sleep at night. I avoided sleep as much as I could until I collapsed from lack of it.

I also experienced a sort of paranoia – the repetitive thoughts that arose were my own voice in my mind, sounded the word “rape” over and over again in the same tone, at the same pace and not only was that maddening, but for a little while there it was difficult to know if it came just from my mind, or if I was saying it aloud, and if anyone was listening.

This was the crisis period of my life. I was in extreme distress many times, I did not see a way out except for a sort of death – I begged whatever God I thought might be listening to ease my pain, to grant me some sanity and relief, but to those on the outside, I was just Ashleigh, sitting at her computer at work typing away, talking to customers on the phone – another day, another dollar, nothing special.

This is the disconnect between what you see on the outside, and the hell experienced on the inside of CPTSD - the next time someone discloses to you they suffer from this injury, I urge you to lift your judgment because what you see on the outside is not the lived experience. Have a little kindness and compassion - it can make all the difference to feel accepted or at the least, human. 

Ashleigh Rae