Was I the Black Sheep? Discovering, Understanding and Healing my Trauma and CPTSD
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
I wake up and open my eyes, the sun shining brightly outside hurts my vision and I feel like absolute death. I stand up and I immediately feel dizzy. The feeling intensifies as I wash my face… but in my mind I say, “It’s no biggie, I ate a small dinner yesterday so it might be low blood pressure.” I hurry to the kitchen, prepare toast and coffee and quickly chomp down on my breakfast before heading back to bed in hopes I will feel better.
But instead of feeling better, I only get worse. I attempt to lie down and raise my feet over my head, but it doesn’t help. Panic sets in as I begin to shake, thoughts race through my mind as I try to figure out why am I not getting better: is my blood pressure still low? Is it low blood sugar? I am not particularly anxious so it can’t be that. I realize that if I don’t do something soon I might pass out, but I can’t do much by myself; I need help. The moment I break into a cold sweat I call my mom, who is sleeping in the next room over, to lend me a hand.
She helps me grumpily. “Mom I apologize, I don’t feel good, I have low blood pressure I think… I am very dizzy, could you help me make some breakfast?” She clicks her tongue, “of course you feel unwell, you barely ate dinner yesterday.” “I just ate a little and I still don’t feel great.” Suddenly, it clicks: “I think it’s a migraine,” I say. I have been experiencing period related migraines for a few months, since I turned seventeen.
“That’s what happens when you mess around and don’t eat enough! It’s your own damn fault for not eating!” She grumbles. As we get to the kitchen I lay on the floor and raise my feet above my head. I feel terrible. “I’m telling you I just ate…”
I barely finish my phrase when I suddenly puke while still laying on my back. My mother looks at me, disgruntled. She doesn’t attempt to help me or prevent me from choking on my own vomit. Instead, she steps over me with a disgusted look on her face and kicks me. “Oh, you were telling the truth,” she groans as she inspects the half-digested pieces of toast. “I guess you did eat something.”
As I open my eyes again, I bolt out of bed and stop myself from screaming. Suddenly I’m in an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar room. It takes me a few seconds to realize that I am not seventeen anymore and that I no longer live with my mother. It was just a nightmare, a flashback. I wipe the tears from my eyes as I climb into bed again, fully aware that I probably won’t be sleeping any longer tonight.
Since I moved away from home at twenty-four, a lot of my nights are like this. I am plagued by nightmares, with most of them sharing a theme: I am minimized, ignored, dehumanized. I am made to feel crazy; I am being constantly gaslit in these dreams, a reminder of my past. The themes of my dreams are honestly quite funny to me: back at home I was physically abused almost daily, but my brain decides to hyper-fixate on the feeling that comes along with abuse, instead of the abuse itself. The feeling that I am not enough.
Those lucky enough to never have experienced abuse of any kind are surprised when I tell them it’s the mental anguish that has carried into my adult life. They assume that physical abuse has the greatest impact. Gaslighting, manipulation, feeling like you are losing your mind infiltrates your system in a different way and leaves long lasting scars. My family made me doubt myself and my reality, they made me feel guilty, ashamed, insane, dehumanized.
If you have read up until now, thank you for staying with me. My name is Ana Isabel and I suffer from complex PTSD. Complex PTSD is a disorder that has only been recently included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In fact, a lot of psychiatrists do not agree with its definition and symptomatology, and the definitions and terms used to describe it are constantly being redefined to better describe and understand the complexities of this diagnosis. There is also little consensus on how to treat or heal it.
Complex PTSD is very similar to PTSD in that it is a disorder caused by extreme stress as the result of a traumatic situation. The symptoms are very similar too, but the biggest difference is that complex PTSD is not caused by a single event, but by repeated traumatic moments across a lifetime. In my case, it is caused by my abusive upbringing and the physical and mental harm from my family.
As I grew up, I always knew something was wrong with me. I felt like no one cared about me. No matter what I did, it was never enough. I was a polite, well behaved child with excellent grades but nothing I ever did was good enough for my parents, who were quick to paint me as “ungrateful, callous, and unloving.” My family was happy with this explanation: the problem was me, they were fine! How could they not be happy? It was easier than to admit that they, too, had had a rough upbringing and were experiencing numerous mental health issues as a result. It’s easier to continue the cycles of intergenerational trauma and abuse than to confront them. I became the scapegoat and I was eager to accept the “black sheep” label, that was easier than trying to confront my family’s problems.
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This label caused me to become cold, distant. I pushed everyone away. I tried for a long time to cling to my own perception of self as a saving grace; at least I knew that I always tried to be a good person. But trauma erases the version of self we once knew. The experiences I endured, the mistreatment from my family slowly eroded my confidence and personality. It wasn’t long before it was all replaced with fear, guilt, and shame; what if they are right? What if I am manipulative, and I just don’t realize it? Maybe I am indeed crazy and a liar. Perhaps, I am so far gone that I believe my own lies! What if I am indeed cruel and uncaring towards my brother when I shy away from his hugs because he hits me? What if I do deserve to be beaten up for my behavior?
That is why, when I had to pinpoint “the moment where everything went wrong” as I grew up, I always insisted it was when my brother was born. He was the light of my mother’s life, the favorite, he could do no wrong, which was demonstrated when he would regularly beat me up without my parents’ requital. I now know that this was what therapists call “triangulation,” and that my brother played the role of the “golden child” in the “narcissistic family system,” while I was chosen as the “scapegoat” because I didn’t take well to injustice. Having terms to explain what I went through makes everything a lot easier.
For a very long time, I thought it would never get any easier, terms or no terms. I felt weak, damaged, broken. It’s not easy to distance yourself from your family. Most people aren’t going to be supportive, many will think you heartless no matter how terrible the wrongs inflicted upon you were. What’s worse, my mental health confirmed that I was crazy: what kind of “normal person” does not find enjoyment in life? Surely only someone crazy can think life is not a gift!
How could I not believe myself crazy, if a character in a videogame saying “you know that I love you, don’t you?” to the daughter he abused was distressing enough to make me shake in fear and rage? How can I tell myself I am sane if merely writing these words makes my throat close, my eyes well up, my hands shake? How can I be sane, if I think of my existence as a prison of my own making that I am not capable enough to escape?
Yes, I am not sane, but that doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with me or that I am at fault. Just like you wouldn’t blame yourself for having a broken leg after a big fall, I cannot blame myself for experiencing these symptoms after what I was put through. A broken leg is a physical injury resulting from a big fall, and my mental illness is a mental injury resulting from severe mistreatment. Physical abuse, neglect, manipulation, deception, lies, coercion are only some of the things I went through. I am flooded with flashbacks and nightmares of these memories.
I did find my escape. I moved to another country, and I quickly decided to have no contact with my family.
Keeping them at arm’s length hadn’t worked; it wasn’t that long until they tried to manipulate me again. When I created distance initially from my family they pulled me back in so I could play the part they had reserved for me. This helped me realize I wasn’t crazy, that I wasn’t wrong for needing to cut my family off completely. Stopping contact with my family was the only way to end the cycle.
Many things helped me navigate this process, reading self-help books about how the narcissistic family system works and how to recover from this type of abuse, taking my recovery into my own hands, and of course plenty of support from others that have gone through similar experiences. All of these things helped me to understand my experience differently.
There are plenty of days where recovery feels insurmountable, where I despair over what was done to me and how I was made to feel small, ridiculous, powerless. There are days I fixate on how isolated I am. Recovery can look like one step forward and two steps back more often than not. Most of the self help books that deal with complex PTSD advise readers to forget about being “fixed” or “normal” but instead to find ways to cope.
But there are also plenty of days where I can put things in perspective and tell myself that this, too, shall pass. Approaching my mental illness like a mental injury that is the result of what was done to me, makes me feel less guilty and more empowered. Just as we can take steps to heal physical injury, we can take steps to tend to emotional ones. To me, it is about taking small steps to make my symptoms better, even if they will never fully disappear. Listening to my body, reparenting myself, reading self-help books and looking at how far I have come fills me with gratefulness and a glimmer of hope. I am mentally ill, I might never be normal… but I am recovering. I am healing. I am not powerless anymore, because I have escaped the situation that caused me to be ill.
And another thing that has helped me feel much better is breaking out of my isolation: finding that I am not alone in my experience, that there are other people like me, that share similar stories and that are on the road to recovery as well! I hope that my story, dear reader, has brought you some solace and the reassurance that there is hope and that you are not alone, no matter how “insane” you feel you might be. Thank you for reading.