The Monster in the Closet: Living with Complex PTSD
Thursday, July 5th, 2018
By: Rebecca De León, Communications and Marketing Manager, Casa de Esperanza: National Latin@ Network
**Please note this entry contains language and material that might be triggering for some readers.
It is important to note that although I have spent years studying both myself and my mental illness diagnosis, I am not a licensed psychologist. I am simply sharing my personal experience with Complex PTSD.
Both PTSD and Complex PTSD (PTSD is an acronym for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) are psychological disorders that develop as a result of a person’s mental, emotional, and physical reaction to trauma or multiple instances of traumatic events. Though they often have complementary symptoms, the primary difference between the two is that PTSD is typically issued to a person who has experienced a single traumatic event, and Complex PTSD is diagnosed in someone who has experienced repeated trauma over a lengthy period of time.
Complex PTSD is diagnosed in people who have been “held in a state of captivity, physically or emotionally.” Examples of such situations may include concentration camps, Prisoner of War camps, prostitution brothels and/or human trafficking situations, long-term domestic violence, long-term child sexual abuse, and other traumatic situations. As a result of years of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse that I endured throughout my adolescence and young adulthood, I developed Complex PTSD as a way to cope with the psychological trauma, and I have been living and dealing with its ramifications for 16 years. After I was diagnosed in 2010, I began life-saving treatment, because of which I have been able to hold down a job, maintain a healthy romantic relationship, and finish my education – all things I previously thought were out of my reach. However, Complex PTSD is not something that can be “cured,” and I am still constantly discovering new triggers that cause flashbacks and/or illness that can knock me off my feet for hours or days.
The best metaphor I can use to describe my experience with Complex PTSD is that it’s like living with a monster in the closet. In my mind, I live in my room. It is my sanctuary. I rest there, I create art, I learn, I develop my interests, and I only invite in people I trust. But I’m constantly aware that there is a monster in the closet, and I don’t want to let him out. That’s why I avoid my known triggers.
But sometimes, I can’t anticipate a trigger. Triggers are often innocuous and easily found in the mundane; they may be a word, a smell, a situation. Stumbling upon a trigger means an intruder bursts into my room and rips open the closet door. Then the monster is out, and I just want to close my eyes and hide in the corner until it goes away. In reality, this usually means I dissociate. Perhaps my eyes glaze over and I become quiet or I look like I’m concentrating on something repetitive, like a fidget spinner. I only hear voices as if they are far away, and I come across to others as ditzy or not paying attention. But really, I am reliving a flashback or trying to suppress the flashback — I am concentrating on getting the monster back in the closet.
A good example of this kind of situation is when I discovered that the word “promise” is a trigger to me. Once, my abuser told me that if I didn’t do what he told me to, he’d kill me. “And that’s not a threat, sweetheart. That’s a promise,” he told me. For years afterward, my Complex PTSD helped me forget that conversation had happened, as Complex PTSD often does to help me cope with trauma. I came across the word “promise” several times over several years, and never had a reaction to it. Then, one random day, I heard someone say that word, and all of a sudden, I was transported back to that dark room; I could see his face saying that phrase to me, I could smell his cologne, and I could feel the terror building up my spine as I realized he was capable of carrying out his “promise.” As is common with PTSD, this flashback then signaled my body to go into fight or flight mode, and I had an explosive angry outburst at my then-job. I was reprimanded, but what my supervisors and I didn’t realize is that I was fighting a monster.
Living with Complex PTSD is still difficult at times today because there are so many memories to repress as a result of many traumatic events that span a long period of time, so triggers manifest frequently and erratically. I still sometimes find myself confronted with a new trigger, sparking me to enter into a dissociative state, where it feels like I’m playing a video game of myself, but the controller is kind of broken. But thanks to professional intervention, I now know how to respond safely. I can recognize when I am experiencing re-traumatization and/or dissociation, so I practice grounding techniques. Sometimes I say out loud to myself that I am fine, I am safe, and I begin describing the things around me to keep me anchored in the present. I practice deep breathing and calmly remove myself from a situation as soon as possible. I have recognized over the years that I deal best with triggers alone. It is because of these techniques — and antipsychotic medications when necessary — that I am able to work in a field that surrounds me with triggers without resorting to self-harm or unhealthy coping methods. Because I sought help, it feels like I am armed with a sword and shield any time the monster jumps out of the closet. The fight doesn’t get easier, but if sharing my story can help someone else seek the help he/she needs for PTSD or other complications resulting from trauma — such as difficulty in relationships, depression, anxiety, etc. — there’s nothing else I’d rather do. Hopefully, understanding PTSD can help service providers and practitioners remain compassionate when a survivor suddenly withdraws or acts out in anger; chances are, they are battling monsters, too.
If you are in a crisis situation, reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.
If you are having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
For more information on how domestic and/or sexual violence affects mental health, visit the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health at nationalcenterdvtraumamh.org.
For more information on Complex PTSD, visit the National Center for PTSD.