Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (published JUNO Winter 2020)

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When my first child was born I was so ready for him and longing to meet him. My body however
wanted to freak out and be taken care of so it generated a uterine infection that left me sweaty
and comatose for the first 5 weeks of my son’s life. This was the exact duration I had spent in an
incubator, separated from my mother when I was born.
Fast forward a year or two, being with a toddler felt mostly intolerable. The months blurred by,
but the days were each one an epic, painstaking marathon, that required seemingly impossible
levels of determination. The only thing preventing me from enjoying this sweet little, curious,
funny person was an internal chasm of latent, unresolved feelings which made a normal day
feel like I was drowning.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is usually something we associate with war veterans or
people who have witnessed shocking events. But Complex PTSD is something slightly different.
It can occur through a longstanding sense of not being seen and upheld by those around us
when we were growing up, or an accumulation of relatively minor but frightening, neglectful or
confusing experiences. Things that we tend to normalise like a parent becoming scary when
angry, or never being allowed to express our emotions, or not receiving the attention and delight
that we really needed, can all become internalised as complex trauma.
Flashbacks are less visual and more visceral than typical PTSD flashbacks and we often don’t
realise we are having one. The limbic system (emotional brain) gets activated and feelings from
the past pervade our thinking. When in a flashback we might feel inexplicably distressed,
anxious, depressed, irritable, ashamed or alone, even though our current circumstances are in
actual fact safe and favourable. Indeed, it’s when we feel safer and more resourced as an adult,
that we are able to open up these old feelings.
I see this all the time in my work with parents. Parenting is already exhausting and isolating in
itself, but if you’re feeling wretched and trapped, I’d suggest these feelings are not just about
what’s happening now. When hearing the baby cry is unbearable, it’s possible that it’s reminding
us of times when we were left to cry alone and it didn’t feel safe. When we just can’t seem to
make friends, or feel connected to anyone, it may just be that we are re-experiencing the
isolation we felt as a small one, when caregivers were preoccupied or less attuned than we
needed them to be. When a day with a toddler feels endless and we don’t enjoy and delight in
our small beloved even though we fiercely adore them – it could be a sign that their gestures
and behaviours are stirring up feelings that remain unresolved from this time in our own
childhood.
Nobody warns you that becoming a parent is a major trigger for CPTSD and that if your start in
life has been difficult in ways you might not even be aware of, your bundle of joy is going to bring up

in you equal amounts of hurt as pleasure. We treat pregnancy as this ‘glowing’
experience, yet for many of us, it’s a time when we have to face deep rooted feelings. We don’t
always feel like having someone pat our bump as though we are guaranteed to be in some
unfathomably blissful state. Pregnancy can be deeply introspective, disturbing and fraught at
times. It requires a lot of soul searching. I suspect much of postpartum mental illness arises as a
result of complex trauma being triggered.
And then comes the baby. At a time where we are wide open to a ‘re-experiencing’ of our early
hurts, the relationships with those around us change or become challenged and we are faced
with deep readjustment to this new role and our new place in society. Suddenly we are excluded
from places or activities we once enjoyed. It can feel like support and community drop away at
the time we need it most and as nobody is talking about this, each of us believe we are the only
one who feels this way and there must be something wrong with us.

I discovered Hand in Hand Parenting 7 years too late, when my eldest was 6. Things had gotten
rather rough by then so I dived in; most especially with the tool we call Listening Partnerships,
where you exchange ‘listening time’ with another parent. Here I finally found an outlet for all the
feelings that had been stirred up since pregnancy, which I discovered were all stemming from
my own early experiences. Going back through each of the scary or hurtful memories of being a
child was revolutionary. As I cried and raged and shook and sometimes laughed, I released this
old, stored up tension from my body and mind. And everything started to change.
Neurobiologist Dan Siegel talks about the importance of creating a ‘coherent biological
narrative’. In other words, when we have leftover, unresolved issues from childhood, we tend to
be fairly jumbled in the way we tell our life story. As we systematically attend to these (and
Listening Partnerships are an excellent way to do this) we develop a sense of coherence in our
story. This allows us to be more available for connection (researchers found they could predict
with 85% accuracy a child’s attachment status by their parent’s life story coherence).

When childhood issues are left unexamined, we tend to either act on autopilot the same way our
parents behaved, or we don’t want our child to be hurt the way we were, so we overcompensate
and respond the opposite way. Either way we are acting on a hurt driven compulsion. As I
started to recover from these old hurts, I noticed some of my staunch beliefs around parenting
melt away. Finally I could see the sweet little people that were in front of me instead of these
two child shaped matrices of projected upset. And playfulness and joy ensued that I’d had no
idea could be underneath all those yucky feelings.
See how we have it all back to front when we try to change children’s behaviour? Most often it’s
our response to the behaviour that needs to change. This happens without effort when we can
attend to our own childhood trauma – with oodles of gentleness and self-forgiveness, for of
course, none of this is our fault.
I dedicate this article to all the mothers and fathers, devoting themselves tirelessly each day,
whilst wading through a quagmire of their own difficult feelings; often giving a quality of care and

attention we ourselves never received. It is admirable work to re-parent ourselves alongside
parenting our real-time children. The good news is, how secure our children feel in relation to us
can change as we lift out some of the emotional debris that stands in the way. And our
enjoyment of our kids can soar!

 

If you think you might be experiencing Complex PTSD here are some ways to work with it:
– Become trauma informed; it’s less scary when you understand it. I’d recommend reading
Complex PTSD: from surviving to thriving by Pete Walker, Waking the Tiger by Peter
Levine and Parenting from the Inside Out by Dan Siegel.
– Start a Listening Partnership. This peer to peer practice for emotional hygiene and
connection is literally invaluable. For more info on this check out the Hand in Hand
Parenting site. https://www.handinhandparenting.org/article/the-one-basic-secret-of-
reducing-parenting-stress
– Recovery takes time. It often feels very unsettling to feel feelings that we have stashed
away since childhood. Progress can feel slow. We doubt our okness. Keeping the faith
and surrounding ourselves by people who see our wholeness are key.
Managing an emotional flashback:
– Educate your loved ones on complex trauma flashbacks so they can help you spot when
you are in one. Clocking what is happening is the first step in recovering yourself from
one and reaching out for caring support allows an opportunity to counter the abuse and
neglect we once felt.
– Contain the fearful or negative thinking that you’ll spiral into when under the grip of an
emotional flashback. Your mind will make up stories (most likely about yourself or your
loved ones) that match the intensity of the feelings you’re experiencing. Don’t take these
at face value and instead inject plenty of kindness towards yourself.
– Cry if you can. The body recovers through releasing emotion. Listening Partnerships are
a clever way to access this inbuilt recovery system.

 

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