Relationship PTSD: What It Is, and How I Survived It
PTSD & Me
The thing with unhealthy relationships is that they creep up on you. For me, it started like a dream, and I felt like I was in the opening sequence of a Colin Firth romcom.
However, through a series of various issues, twists, and turns that would make M. Night Shyamalan proud, it quickly dissolved into heartache.
To this day, I don't believe he meant to cause me as much harm as he did. However, it doesn't change what happened, or why I'm where I am now.
In short, the relationship involved the most intense, emotionally and psychologically traumatic experiences that I would never have imagined could be part of my life, and I ended up devolving into a shell of the woman I used to be.
It left me with disturbing emotions, thoughts, memories, anxiety and relentless depression. I ended feeling numb, disconnected, dissociated, and unable to trust other people.
For years, I found myself reliving certain events, with memories of the trauma consistently rising randomly, bringing with them the anxiety and soul-crushing horror of equal intensity to those of the actual triggering events.
I also avoided anything that sparked memories of the trauma---shunning, talking, or thinking about it altogether.
Looking back now, I realize that these are all symptomatic of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Schools don't teach you how to have a healthy relationship.
I used to think that trauma and PTSD applied solely to war veterans.
It seemed silly to think that my seemingly trivial relationships problems could even deserve the recognition of PTSD.
While many people with PTSD are veterans or members of the military, many more are not; PTSD is not just confined to horrifying combat experiences.
The top reasons people have PTSD include: rape and sexual molestation; combat exposure; childhood neglect; physical attacks; childhood physical abuse; and being threatened with a weapon. (source)
70% of adults in the US experience some form of traumatic event at least once in their lives. Up to 20% of these people will consequently develop (PTSD).
An estimated 8% of Americans (equivalent to 24.4 million people) have PTSD at any given time.
Since coming to that realization, I've spent a long time letting go of the anger I held against myself.
My trauma was legitimate and scarring, and I was only in my late teenage years.
At that age, I had minimal previous experience to guide me as to how a relationship was meant to 'work,' or what form it was supposed to take.
I was full of naive hope and optimism.
Although I never was never really into Disney, and thus avoided the 'Disney Delusion,' I thought that a boyfriend was the answer to all my self-esteem and confidence issues.
I had high expectations of simplicity and ease.
The battle of emotions, fear, and love was my combat zone.
Growing up, my grandparents had always been in an unhappy, abusive relationship for years. It was evident to everyone in the family, including me.
The day my mum compared my relationship to theirs was the catalyst for my wake-up call.
It was outrageous. I was shocked. How could she think that? Every relationship has its ups and downs; surely mine isn't comparable to my grandparents?
That comparison rattled me.
I began researching other people's experiences of unhappy relationships and their stories online.
I took solace in inspirational quotes from Instagram, applying a band-aid to a gaping chasm.
It was only when I began to open up to my best friend at the time (and her subsequent reaction as I didn't hold back any details) that the doubt started to take hold.
She couldn't believe, or understand, why I stayed in the relationship, and she begged me to leave.
That's when I truly appreciated the extent of how toxic my relationship was, how it was severely impacting my mental (and physical) health.
One of the bravest decisions you can ever make is to finally let go of what is hurting your soul.
It took me far longer than it should
Even now, looking back, I have trouble thinking clearly about it.
I wish I had realized sooner that I couldn't fix myself while holding onto the person that broke me and continued to impede any attempts at progress.
What are traumatic experiences?
PTSD is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events (NHS).
Trauma, all levels of it, can have a severe impact on our lives. Trauma is... traumatic. There is not a more apt description.
Everyone reacts to situations or events very differently. PTSD develops in about 1 in 3 people who experience severe trauma (NHS).
Everyone has their own risk and resilience factors, which can determine how they cope and deal with trauma.
What is discerned as "no big deal" to you, might be someone else's reason why they can't sleep, eat or function normally.
Any incident that causes someone physical, emotional, spiritual or psychological harm can be deemed as 'traumatic.'
What are PTSD symptoms?
While the relationship between physical trauma and PTSD is well documented, the link between the disorder and psychological trauma has been given significantly less attention and understanding.
PTSD symptoms are acute enough to disrupt one's life and pose difficulty in continuing with daily activities.
To be diagnosed with PTSD, an adult must have all of the following for at least one month:
• At least one re-experiencing symptom - flashbacks and bad dreams
• At least one avoidance symptom - avoiding places, events, objects, feelings and thoughts related to the traumatic trigger
• At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms - being easily startled, feeling tense or on edge, difficulty sleeping or angry outbursts
• At least two cognition and mood symptoms - negative thoughts about oneself or the world, distorted feelings of guilt and blame, alienation from friends and family
PTSD & relationships
It is thought that PTSD is likely to be more severe and longer lasting when the stressor is of human design (according to the DSM-III-R's discussion of PTSD).
So as humans, toxic and traumatic relationships can make us more susceptible to the disorder when compared to non-human design trauma.
Humans are social animals, and we naturally seek companionship as part of our wellbeing. It's nature's way of safeguarding that parents are committed enough to children to raise them to adulthood, and children to powerfully attach to their parents for safety and security.
Our relationships are survival bonds, and when they are damaged or ruptured, it is the fallout that can be traumatic.
The relationships we make from birth to death may prolong our lives; nurturing and encouraging personal growth and health, or they may be abusive, destructive; impairing mental and physical health.
Toxicity can seep into in all types of relationships, not just romantic.
In the case of relationship trauma, it is often a repeated, painful series of events that occurred over a long time. Very recently, this cumulative effect is identified as complex PTSD, rather than a one-time shocking event resulting in PTSD.
A typical version of PTSD might be exemplified by someone breaking a bone badly. In the worst case, they may never walk again, or they might eventually walk but after intense physical therapy. They end up carrying a limp with them for the rest of their life.
With relationship PTSD, the effect is more like constant and continuous fractures. Eventually, you learn not to use that limb; it's weaker, maybe even slightly deformed and a continual source of pain, that you somehow to get used to as time goes on.
By the end of my relationship, I ended up feeling like a worn-out puppet - chained toxically to a person who controlled me not through, orders or physical acts, but through emotional manipulation.
In this type of relationship, you might always feel you have to be careful what you say and do, even if they have the freedom to do and say as they wish.
You tiptoe, consent, sacrifice, be mindful and always acutely attentive. When you associate with them, you feel as if your free will has been taken away from you.
After ending a toxic relationship and surviving something emotionally, psychically, or mentally traumatic, it will always have taken its toll, as your body and mind struggle to adapt and heal.
It doesn't mean you're wrong, broken, overreacting or hopeless - it is a normal reaction to abnormal circumstances, and we all deserve care.
There are a few shared experiences to watch out for after a toxic, physically or emotionally abusive relationship:
1. Fear of making another commitment
2. Feelings of worthlessness and lack of confidence
3. Feeling relief, then profound guilt
4. A sense of intense isolation and loneliness
5. Cycles of falling into other unhealthy relationships
6. Difficulty letting go
7. Intrusive and obsessive thoughts
8. Distrusting in new relationships
9. Your old habits die hard, e.g. unnecessary apologising
11. Flashbacks and nightmares
It suffices to say that these experiences are aftershock impacts from your relationship, and if you identify with any of the above, you are still struggling to heal from the trauma you've experienced, and you need to address this.
Realizing there is a problem is the first step to solving it.
How to move on
I let it hurt, I let bleed, I let it heal, and I'm moving on.
I don't know when I'll get to the finish line, I may never, but every day makes it easier, every month makes it dimmer, and every year replaces old negative experiences with new positive ones.
The biggest takeaway from my experience is this: never give your days and nights away to remorse.
Good things in life will find their way back to you. Keep your eyes affixed on the horizon ahead of you.
Look at your relationships, I mean really look at them.
Are they healthy?
Do you spend more time-solving problems with them than you do enjoying yourself?
Do you feel trepidation when arranging to meet up?
Are you relieved when people cancel at the last moment? Isolate those that are negative and fade them out.
If things have been the same for months or years, then they are not going to change. It's time to move on. Know when to walk away from desperate circumstances and toxic people.
Things that didn't work
I don't find it helpful to harbour resentment, anger or hate. I thank them for teaching me where to draw the line between what I can forgive, and what I know I deserve.
I understand anger is part of the grieving process, and I admittedly went through a very angry period, but in the long run, it prevents you from moving on.
Be careful who you open up to and trust as you heal. Smile and walk away from those who belittle your pain and tell you "get over it already" - you're allowed to take as long as you need to.
That being said, living in the past and never moving forward is not going to help you.
What did work? - Growth and recovery
While the symptoms of PTSD and related disorders are severe, you can heal. Hearts aren't handcuffs, and people aren't jail cells.
The primary treatments for people with PTSD are medications, psychotherapy, or both.
Every person is different, and PTSD affects everyone differently, so treatment is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It is, however, essential for anyone suffering from PTSD symptoms to be treated by a mental health provider.
Doctors and patients can work together to find the best medication and/or therapeutic combination.
For me, the first step in addressing PTSD was to come to the understanding that it existed, and I needed to fight it. Through a mixture of therapy and medication, I slowly but surely built up the strength to start over.
When I loved myself enough, I began leaving anything that wasn't healthy. This meant people, jobs, my own beliefs and habits, anything that kept me feeling small. When I started, I felt unfaithful and disloyal. However, now I can finally put myself first.
To this day, I sometimes feel the anxiety creep up on me again, and I have recurring nightmares and flashbacks, but it fades far quicker these days.
I will never forget what I've been through, but it came with a lot of learning and growth. I can't get rid of that chapter of my life, but I can become a stronger and more resilient woman as a result of it.
Every day I feel my strength gain momentum. I hold it close to me, I nurture it and let it grow, and I'll never let anyone take it from me.