How I Discovered I Had Complex PTSD
It’s said that travelling has the ability to expand our horizons and change us. Well, in February 2009, during a one-week stay in Sarajevo I unexpectedly bumped into my trauma. Its battle scars from the siege of the mid-1990s triggered in me three inexplicable panic attacks and a constant feeling of being overwhelmed.
Once home I felt stuck, depressed and frustrated in ways I hadn’t experienced in a long time and decided that if my life meant anything to me at all it was time to seek serious help. Previous to this I had dipped my toes into the waters of equine-assisted personal development (powerful first step), art therapy and counselling with a social worker. Now it was time to take the plunge. Sarajevo provided a major wake-up call for which I’ll always be grateful.
I found my therapist through a local magazine. Two names came up. A family member double-checked with his therapist to see if she was familiar with either of them. As it turned out she knew one of them distantly, so I decided to start there. I made an appointment and the night before my first meeting I had a dream featuring a deer, a symbol of gentle self-care. At the therapist’s office the next afternoon I noticed a framed print of a deer. I don’t believe in coincidences. To me it was a clear sign I was in the right place.
When I told a friend I was about to start therapy she quipped that most people stop by the sixth week. I can be contrary by nature so determined that was not going to be me. It was a relief to start unloading emotional and mental burdens I’d been carrying my entire life; to be able to talk with an objective third-party, my guide along the road less travelled, whose only agenda was to hold space and help me through the healing process. Nevertheless, as I was dealing with huge issues of trust it took a long time for me to open up. Learning to feel and understand my emotions and their source required a vulnerability that was terrifying. It took even longer for me to see myself as someone other than the broken down, abused, exhausted woman I had become, and to recognise and honour my achievements.
Our sessions have morphed over the years from intense psychotherapy to meaningful conversation. The routine of visiting once a week with someone who helps me to see myself beyond the issues I came in with is healing and reassuring. As well, very occasionally I will bump into an old trigger that still has the power to undermine my wellbeing. Knowing I have someone to talk with about it, so I don’t have to burden my family or friends, is a great comfort. Between sessions I keep a journal of events or dreams that I want to discuss at my next session. Plus, I am aware that there are still issues lurking in the depths which, when I’m ready, will ask me to take a conscious look.
Eventually a diagnosis of complex-PTSD reared its ugly head and adrenal fatigue – a natural consequence of constantly living in flight/fright mode – took me down. This was complicated by early onset menopause, so taking care of the needs of my physical body while healing my emotional life also became imperative. (At age 47 a clinical saliva test indicated I had the adrenal function of a 70 year-old woman.) To help address the physical I enlisted the services of a hormone therapist (who advocated I have a psychotherapist while working to heal my beleaguered adrenals. This only underscores the need to address the mind/body connection. Fortunately I could tell him I already worked with one.) I also worked with a naturopath, chiropractor and osteopath. My life became very small and anti-social for about five years as I endeavoured to heal my overwhelmed nervous system. I adopted a low-key regimen of self-care that respected my body’s need to rest and heal. Working with my therapist through this unexpected challenge helped me to understand my life wasn’t falling apart and that my body had a need to heal from trauma as much as my mind and spirit did. I’m pleased to say my resilience has rebounded and I’m more active again. To date I continue to work with the hormone therapist and chiropractor, and plan to work with a naturopath again soon.
As I’m not content with just scratching the surface and hoping for the best, I’m still on the healing journey. The fact is a series of events, including the adrenal issues, have triggered trauma responses that required an even deeper level of commitment to identifying the root of the complex trauma patterns that had become my default programming. So, nine years later I’m still going to weekly sessions and growing in self-awareness as we tackle certain deeply held issues that continue to influence my life. Complex-PTSD is just that … complex. It’s important to note that four years ago, on the advice of my GP, equine experiential learning became part of my therapy program. I enrolled in an intensive six-month certification course which not only took my healing to an even deeper level, but put me in a position to help other since I was certified. Taking what I learned in those powerful moments with the horses back to my therapist for further exploration proved invaluable. Two years later I furthered my training and became an advanced practitioner of the FEEL Approach (www.horsespiritconnections.com). This work is based on the teachings of Linda Kohanov, a pioneer of equine-assisted psychotherapy and a best-selling author on the subject.
In therapy, I’ve learned that I have the right to step out of the shadows of others’ pain and dysfunction and into a light where I can get a proper understanding of my own truth. That I’m powerful and strong enough to override the default program of abandonment, rejection, guilt, shame,(self-)sabotage, etc. I experienced as a child that has dominated my life causing me to feel stuck, unworthy, invisible and sad. I’d love for people to understand that the inner journey is, perhaps, the most exciting adventure they will ever take with the potential for the greatest treasure they will ever find … personal truth and freedom. Free from generational and familial trauma, prejudice, and ignorance. The trek we make into our own unknown world, under the expert guidance of someone we trust, is more empowering than anything else we will ever do.
Like all epic journeys into the unknown the healing journey requires a commitment to see it to its natural conclusion. We must be willing to face whatever comes; to be honest with ourselves; to be vulnerable in the face of our ugliest truths and slay those egotistical monsters; to release the old, broken patterns of behaviour that get in the way of our ability to fully live in every moment; to let go of toxic relationships that tear us down, and invite onto our path those who buoy us up and help us to blossom and grow and return to our authentic selves.
Therapy is about finding the inner peace that is so important to creating the outer peace the world craves. Most people mistakenly believe that never admitting you’re broken or need help is a demonstration of strength, and then fight their way through life to prove it. The fact is our true strength lies in our willingness to accept help, and it grows only in direct proportion to our ability to feel vulnerable in the company of someone we trust, a therapist, to guide us gently through to the other side of our pain. The choice is simple - we can choose to heal, or opt to suffer. I chose the healing path on the inner journey. A road less travelled, and this has indeed, to quote Robert Frost, venerated American poet, made all the difference.