Breaking Like Glass: A Story of Complex Trauma and Healing
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
At thirty years old, I stand at my kitchen counter scrubbing dishes. A normal everyday thing that I don’t pay much attention to—or so I thought. My mind begins to drift and then just like that, I am back in my childhood room, sitting on the edge of my bed—waiting. My father is angry. When I say angry I mean he is PISSED. Something has happened at school, although I can’t quite remember what it is. What I am certain of, is that I am about to pay dearly for it. Though I am back in my childlike body, every nerve is alive. My miniscule hands are sweating, and I am tapping my leg so furiously I’m surprised the entire house isn’t shaking with its action.
I can hear him, his heavy footsteps are coming down the hall. When he finally enters my room I don’t look up to meet his eyes. I don’t want to. “You wanna explain what the hell happened today?” My brain tries to come up with a response but I am too afraid. All I can manage is a shrug of my shoulders. He HATES this. “Your teacher called, what the hell were you thinking?” Again he is met with my silence. My body is frozen in place, fingernails digging into my Little Mermaid comforter. Perhaps Ariel will reach through and pull me down into the ocean. Not likely, my entire nervous system has decided that holding completely still will lengthen our chances of survival. My anxiety taps me on the shoulder, telling me to look up. I sneak a peek and catch a glimpse of the infamous wooden paddle that he keeps just for occasions like this. “ANSWER ME!” He yells and I jump. I hate when he yells. He does it all the time. “I swear to god if you don’t start talking…” “I don’t know…” I stutter, wrong answer. This sends him over the edge. He starts yelling louder than before but my brain is no longer registering what he is saying. He is hammering the wooden paddle down on my dresser like a stubborn nail that won’t go in. The paddle shatters, and he stops yelling. I cover my face so I don’t have to see anything more.
I am standing at my kitchen sink again, cup and sponge still in hand. Only now I notice the tears streaming down my face. I want to wipe them away because they make my eyes burn, but I let them flow the way they need to. This isn’t the first flashback experienced around this event, nor will it be the last, about this event or the other traumas I’ve endured. My brain has permanently blocked out certain actions and events due to the traumatic impact. When I have flashbacks sometimes they end abruptly. In this instance I could only recall covering my face because in my tiny child mind if I didn’t see it, it didn’t happen. Then I am transported back to thirty-year-old Kiersten. Like a cramp that has finally let go.
The thing is, I don’t always remember the events that the flashbacks are trying to convey. It’s like watching someone walking ahead of you on a foggy trail. You’re trying to focus to see them, but every time you get closer the fog envelops the person walking.
Most of the time I rarely remember that these events portrayed in my flashbacks even occurred. My body, however, never forgets. Every once in a while, usually when I’m doing something mundane or perhaps nothing at all, a memory is triggered. Boom, just like that it’s as if I am right back in the thick of it. I am a scared little kid or an angry teenager without a voice. I am the girl whose family has gaslit and manipulated into thinking her experiences are not real. “That never happened.” “I didn’t say that.” Or my favorite one to date “honey, you don’t have to make up lies just for attention.” My own mother said this to me when I tried to warn her that her husband was sexually abusing me.
Just to clarify, telling someone about any kind of abuse is not FOR attention. It’s like, alright yes I’m telling you something that has rocked the proverbial boat here. But the reason I’m bringing it up is because I want you to PAY ATTENTION. Your husband is hurting me and I need your help.
Small is the best way I can describe the feeling caused by my family’s treatment towards me. I had myself caught between thinking that my reality didn’t match THE reality. At the same time I had a gut feeling something was off. Was I being too sensitive? Or was my family just trying to fit me into a box that was more comfortable for them.
On top of that, I still had love for my family and it perplexed me. Are people who love you supposed to tell you to “grow up” at nine years old—when you have no clue what being a “grown-up” even means? Is it okay for loved ones to laugh and ridicule you while you’re crying and hurting? It’s no wonder I didn’t share my feelings. It’s no wonder I tried to smooth things over for everyone else. The core power is fear.
Being a child in a state of constant fear causes near irreparable damage. The terror is palpable and the loneliness unbearable. As an adult it has instilled a sense of betrayal and mistrust in me so great that I have had to jump hurdles to be in relationships with others. Imagine being in your thirties but so frightened of people yelling at you or touching you, that you “leave” your body. Your co-workers are having a tennis match of who can be the loudest and you freeze. Now you don’t want to go to work anymore. Perhaps a family member or friend says something off the cuff. Maybe they meant it as an attack—maybe not. But your flight or fight response has chosen both options today. You start screaming, slamming things around, and then abruptly leave. THIS is what C-PTSD is.
If you have made it in my journey this far, hello, welcome I’m grateful for your compassionate heart. Just a tid-bit about C-PTSD to keep you in the loop, C-PTSD stands for Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is a cognitive mental health disorder that describes the consequences of ongoing, inescapable, relational traumatic events. In plain English, it’s abuse and trauma that occurs over, and over, and over again. It may stop for a short time and then start up again but always for an extended period and usually involving people you know.
We as humans NEED safe people, places, and things during our childhoods and adolescent years. If one does not receive these things in an appropriate manner, it can have life altering effects on the individual. Without being able to understand the things that have happened, you grow up living in the same state of fear and hyper vigilance. Even though the danger itself has changed for the most part. I grew up in a home that made sure I felt uncomfortable. I constantly felt I had to watch my back so I didn’t get groped while doing the dishes. I worried about whether or not my bedroom door would be locked, trapping me inside my own room. I sat at the dinner table alone and hungry because my father decided if I didn’t eat my green beans I “could sit there all night.”
Adult survivors, like myself, often suffer from amnesia, chronic physical pain, re-victimization, flashbacks, nightmares or night terrors, depression, the list goes on. When I was younger I thought I was “crazy” or a “liar” because my family enforced this idea into my mind. When you are told something time and time again, especially as an impressionable child, you start to believe it. All these people are saying it, so it must be true right? When I grew up, I had no confidence in my own opinion. Instead I thought, “everyone else knows better than me and I know nothing.” I had relied on the opinions of others because I had been molded to believe I was unreliable.
8 Tips for Telling Your Own Story
Do you have a story to tell? Chances are, you do. This free guide will walk you through our Editor in Chief's top suggestions.
Kid me was not equipped to handle the things I experienced at the hands of my family: a narcissistic father who CLEARLY didn’t want her, an emotionally immature mother who still had no grasp on life, a physically, mentally, and sexually abusive step-father who could talk his way out of hell, and a family who never believed a single word she had to say. Tiny Kiersten felt like living in two separate bodies. When I was with my grandma, I could talk for hours. I felt safe and secure in her home. Outside of that, thinking back on it now, it felt like code switching. Soft, playful Kiersten hid behind a curtain. While daily Kiersten was stiff, angry, and constantly acting out. Like a magician—now you see me, now you don’t.
Teenage Kiersten was not any better off. Already suffering the side effects of C-PTSD from childhood, I became extremely temperamental and mostly unpredictable. Let’s just say I had an archive of anger with no-where to go. If you said hello to me too early in the morning…I got mad. If you tried to guide me on how to do things…I got madder. I stole things just to get a rise out of people. The list goes on and on. As if that wasn’t enough, my mother’s “accidental overdose” when I was seventeen became the icing on the cake.
Losing mom was the second most gut-wrenching event I had endured in my lifetime. The memory is foggy now, but I can still feel it sitting next to me. I had been a junior in high-school when it happened. A fellow student had come to retrieve me from class and take me to the guidance counselor’s office. I figured I was in trouble for a fight I had been in days prior. I saw my dad standing in the lobby of the office with a strange look on his face. Not sad and not happy…just strange. “What’s wrong?” my words had seemed so far away. “I’m so sorry kiddo.” His voice made me panic. “Why what happened?” He hesitated before answering me “They found your mom this morning.” My entire world came crashing down around me. I still remember the look on the young man’s face who had escorted me to the office, pale and sad.
I can’t recall driving to my grandmother’s house for our family grieving session. I don’t remember much of planning her funeral, except fighting with my step-father about her arrangements. I barely recollect the time after her passing until I graduated from high school and life spiraled out of control. Was it days, weeks, months? I didn’t know if I was coming or going and quite frankly I didn’t care.
I did not cope with these thoughts, feelings, or experiences well.
Now, I sit staring at the piece of paper in front of me and the pencil that refuses to move. My coffee is cold—this is harder than I thought.
Breaking Like Glass
I was twenty-two years old when it finally happened. After several years of erratic behavior, late nights drinking, emotionally unavailable relationships, and irate outbursts, I finally got help. No more late nights unable to take all the emotional build up and deciding instead to go out drinking until I blacked out. No more taking my hair pins and scraping them across my knees just to find some relief. No more chasing after people who only used me as a scapegoat. No more screaming at innocent people just because they wanted to help. No. More.
I talked about these realizations with my grandmother after a long bout with self harm. I confessed to her my struggles. I didn’t want to live the way I was living anymore. I wanted out. I had hit rock bottom, although I didn’t want to end my life, I wanted this nightmare to stop. I needed to get better, breaking like glass. My parents didn’t care one way or the other about what I did, regarding my health. My partner’s biggest concern was that I wasn’t going to them to vent about my problems. Grandma had always been my rock.
After careful deliberation about the first steps around receiving help, my Grandma escorted me to a mental health facility to talk with a professional. They gave me paperwork to fill out and after answering yes to the famous “Have you thought about hurting yourself or anyone else in the past forty-eight hours?” They saw me immediately.
They have to of course, it’s protocol. Luckily I was elected into outpatient care where I would come to see a psychologist twice a week. This also came with a set of rules: talk therapy sessions became a requirement, I was not allowed to have hair pins anymore, and I was to remain in my grandma’s care. Also, they don’t mention the part where they call you randomly to see how you are.
Talk therapy felt grueling to say the least. I hated it at first. My therapist was a wonderful woman who did everything she could possibly think of to get me to open up. In my first session I said absolutely nothing and we stared at each other. From that point on, she chipped away at my armor until I was able to take it completely off. She used drawing, song lyrics, reading, and writing to lure me out of the dark. All things that I loved and am good at. It helped me to begin expressing myself.
It took time and a tremendous amount of effort. There were days when I was willing to talk about what happened. Likewise, there were days I would scream and call my therapist a fraud, begging her to leave me alone. In her eyes though, as long as I wasn’t sitting in silence like we had at the beginning, we were getting somewhere. I wish I could tell her how much I appreciate her. We had several sessions and even to this day I still see a therapist to keep myself in check.
If you look through the window of my life today you would see someone completely different than the person I’ve written about. As I’ve mentioned I still attend therapy sessions, though now they are once a month. I take medication for my depression and anxiety. I do somatic breathing techniques with my yoga, which is highly recommended to anyone with PTSD. I quit the soul-crushing job that I’d been at for so long and became a full-time writer. I do things slowly and with care now. In other words, I take care of myself in the way I wish someone had done when I was young. Someone is paying attention to my pain now.
Life’s a Marathon, Healing is a Journey
If someone went back and asked twenty-two-year-old me, “Do you think you’ll make it to thirty?” Most likely she would laugh in your face. Life has not been kind to me, but then again life has not been kind to many others. I am at a place now where I can look back and say “Wow, what a ride.” I never thought in a million lifetimes that I would make it to this point. Here I am. I am grateful, not for the things I have been through, but for my strength to get through them. My resilience, and that of so many others, amazes me. I just want to say that even if it seems dark right now, the light at the end of the tunnel is there. Just keep looking. I promise. Life’s a marathon, healing is a journey.
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: Gabriel Nathan | EDITOR: Laura Farrell | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | SITE ORIGINATOR: Bud Clayman