When I was a kid, I wanted to escape my family more than I wanted anything in the world. I was away from home as much as possible, even before I started kindergarten. I escaped into fantasies, from books and from my own head. My favorite books were The Wizard of Oz series and Nancy Drew, because I could pretend to be the female protagonists.
The scenarios in my head involved running away from home and living in the forest with the animals (the Native American fantasy), and the ever popular "I'm adopted and my real parents come to take me away" fantasy, only in my fantasy my real parents weren't rich, they just weren't abusive. I even fantasized that my dad was a criminal, and the police would come take him away. Unfortunately for me, the police did not come until I was 17, and they took me away to a foster home. That was actually a huge relief, although I wish it had happened a lot sooner.
When I did leave home, I thought that since I had finally escaped the situation, it was over. I kept thinking that until recently. A year after my brother Jeff killed himself, I moved to San Francisco. I thought that if I got away from Seattle, where I lived when Jeff died, where I had so many memories of spending time with him, I would stop thinking about him all the time. Guess what, that did not work either. All this time I have wondered why I have continued to struggle emotionally with situations that are over.
I feel like I am constantly "pulling myself up by my bootstraps"; yet, I still feel the same. I was a high school dropout living on the streets of Seattle. I went back to high school at an alternative school, graduated, and got into UW. I graduated UW even though my last year was right after Jeff died and I spent my time between classes crying in the bathroom. I got into business school and got my MBA, yet I still feel the same. I got a professional job. I have tried to have as normal a life as possible, but my life is not normal.
I feel different from everyone around me. I feel like a fraud, because I try to pretend that I am just like everyone else. I still feel like the kid who was abandoned by everyone- my parents, my family, the neighbors and teachers who knew what was going on but did not do anything. I was abandoned by the police who talked about how they were going to help me, ooo'ed and ahhh'ed over my bruises and my black eye, and then dropped the charges against my dad and my great-uncle and tried to send me back to my parents. Even my brother abandoned me, who I thought would always be there. I still feel hurt, and raw, and alone, and trapped.
This week I started reading Growing beyond Survival by Elizabeth Vermilyea. It is a workbook for recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I never realized before that the most common cause of PTSD is child abuse. I am surprised that I would have never heard that considering that I have a psych degree. I guess I did not take that class.
Someone suggested I might have PTSD from my brother's suicide. I think that I do because I have symptoms related to that event such as sudden intense emotion, panic attacks, difficulty sleeping, conversion (of emotion to physical symptoms such as migraines and stomach problems), and poor concentration. I also have those symptoms and more related to the abuse, such as hypervigilance, exaggerated startle reflex (jumpy), dissociation (reduced awareness of myself and my environment, which comes from trying to get away from stress by escaping in the mind), numbing, and denial (refusing to acknowledge what happened or minimizing it. I do that a lot by telling myself it wasn't a big deal and I should just get over it.)
Certain factors tend to intensify the likelihood and severity of PTSD, which are repeated trauma rather than a single incident, the younger the age, human-caused trauma (as opposed to mother nature), and purposefully caused trauma vs. accidental. Trauma caused by a caregiver is especially bad. This does not mean that a single traumatic event caused by nature could not trigger PTSD, only that it is more likely if those factors above are present. PTSD happens when trauma overwhelms a person's natural ability to deal with stress, and the person develops coping mechanisms that end up being dysfunction or causes problems for the person once the traumatic situation is over.
Light goes on in my head, now I get it. Child abuse and PTSD go hand in hand not only because child abuse has all the factors that make PTSD more likely and severe. Your parents teach you how to deal with your emotions as you grow up and develop, and abusive homes are not loving, not supportive of healthy expressions of emotion and the self, don't model good behavior, and are inconsistent and unpredictable. Growing up terrified, treated with hatred, screamed at and hit does not make you feel good. Gee, now I finally understand why I feel this way.
I actually felt some fear after reading the beginning of the trauma book because I realize how bad of shape I am in and how much work I will need to do to overcome these problems. The book says I should expect to feel worse before I feel better. It does say that I will feel better, though. I know I will have to work through a ton of bad feelings, but I think I will have to do that one way or another, because I cannot repress these feelings any longer. So, I am going to do this so I can feel better someday.
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