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Welcome To This Brand New Section Of My Site!

Living With Complex PTSD: A Personal Account. 

I will be adding to this section frequently over the coming weeks and months.

NOTE: Although this account will be less formal and less academic than my blog articles, I  will provide links (shown by underlining) to relevant blog articles for those who want more detail about particular topics, concepts, ideas, theories, etc. that I mention during the course of this account.

INTRODUCTION:

Whilst my own condition is linked to my adverse childhood experiences, this account does not seek to blame parents (any more than, because I am essentially a determinist, were I to be struck by lightning I would seek to make the lightning bolt personally accountable or, were I to be buried under 100 foot of snow in an avalanche, I would accuse the mountain of having acted out of spite). As Larkin points out in his famous poem This Be The Verse,

‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad…but they were fucked up in their turn…’

To paraphrase: our parents were damaged by their own adverse childhood experiences.

However, I did not always take such a charitable attitude, not until I learned the true meaning of Mark Twain’s aphorism: ‘Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.’

Having said this, it is glaringly obvious though that there is a vast gulf between not blaming parents and claiming they had nothing to do with their child’s development. Notwithstanding this, many doctors, I think, shy away from scrutinizing their patients’ childhoods and how they were parented in case this is taken to imply that the parents are to blame for their offspring’s psychological suffering. (Some theorists though, perhaps most notably Alice Miller, take the view that  suppressed rage towards parents exacerbates mental illness and that sparing parents should not be ‘our supreme law.’)

Complex PTSD

I have written extensively about complex PTSD and related topics in my blog and, for those who are interested, these articles can be found in the complex PTSD section. Alternatively, for a recap of some of the many symptoms those suffering from complex PTSD may have to contend with, see the list below (adapted from MIND, NHS, and WebMD):

 

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Living With Complex PTSD: A Personal Account. 

 

Why My School Teachers Thought I’d Gone Deaf.

In my fourth year at prep school (this was before my parents’ divorce when the family finances were still sufficiently healthy to pay the fees), although I have no memory of it (I have two or three memories from my first year there, but almost none from my second, third and fourth years), according to people I knew at the time, I apparently stopped responding to the teacher whenever he called my name. I was especially unresponsive whenever anything to do with family life was being discussed.

At first, it was assumed that I had developed some kind of hearing problem so I was sent to have my ears tested. The tests revealed that my hearing was, in fact, perfect.

Apparently, once this was discovered, someone realized the problem was psychological. In fact, because whenever talk of families and related issues took place in the classroom it seemed it was evoking in me such a state of mental distress that I was, as psychologists refer to it, ‘dissociating.’ In layman’s language, I was retreating into an inner world of my own as a defense mechanism to protect myself from becoming psychologically overwhelmed. This, of course, all happens on an unconscious level. 

Despite this, it seems I received no psychological counseling as a result whatsoever. Indeed, this is borne out by my medical records (which I recently obtained from my GP) which, for this period of my life, simply records I was wetting the bed and showing psychosomatic symptoms. This is a single, brief entry on my notes and the passively recorded information it contains is encapsulated in a short sentence. There are no follow-up notes or any indications of referral for treatment. Indeed, the notes don’t resume until I’m in my late teens.

Of course, it could be argued that, in the mid-seventies, children’s mental health was not taken seriously. However, my suspicion is that my parents avoided presenting me to a therapist for treatment as this may have involved intrusion into how they were behaving towards each other and me at home. Indeed, as will become apparent later, I have strong reason to believe that, as a child, my psychological condition was hidden from the appropriate professionals due to fear it may result in a spotlight being shone onto aspects of family life which my parents preferred to keep shrouded in darkness. Outward appearances needed to be kept up, more or less, it now seems to me, at any cost.

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A Paucity of Early Memories

I have very few memories of the first eight or so years of my life (my parents got divorced when I was this age) and, whilst of course it is axiomatic that nobody can prove it, I believe those to be due to the fact that I have repressed much of what I must have been exposed to during this early period of my life; my mother was prone to uncontrollable hysterical outbursts of screaming and aggression. 

My first memory comes from when I was about five years old: the memory is of my mother, presumably after one of her terrible arguments with my father, running from the house declaring that she was going to kill herself. 

Distraught, I rushed to the window looking out to the front drive to witness her getting into the family, olive green Saab car and reversing at speed and clearly sobbing.

I remember intently staring to see, and to try to understand, quite what was going on, my nose literally pressed against the window. 

Whilst her threat of suicide, I assume, was mainly for the ears of my father at this stage in my life, as I got older she would announce her plans to kill herself (usually, she informed me, by means of taking an overdose of the valium upon which she so heavily relied), for the dubious benefit of my own tender young ears only. I will write more about these suicide threats later.

Like all of my very few early memories, I only recall this fragment of the incident. I do not recall waiting to find out whether or not she would return nor, indeed, her actual return.

It is one of the hallmarks of traumatic memories that, due to the brain’s inability to effectively process them and integrate them cohesively in long-term memory, they haunt the mind in a fragmented, disjointed, jumbled, disorganized, and confused manner and may intrude upon consciousness in the form of flashbacks and nightmares as they have done in my case, again, more on this later).

My second memory, probably dating from around the same time, is of my mother, collapsed and prostrate, in the hallway. It’s unlikely she was drunk as she was not a big drinker. It may have been as a result of too many valiums but, most likely, she had simply collapsed to the floor as a result of one of her periodic hysterical attacks. 

For some reason, perhaps because he had become habituated to such episodes, my father was ignoring her and, rather than going to her aid, busied himself by supervising me and my brother clearing the dining-room table (an evening ritual).

As we were taking the dirty plates, cutlery, etc. from the dining room to the kitchen via the hall, this involved walking past my mother several times. 

Again, I imagine my father had instructed us to take no notice of her, or else I, a highly sensitive child, surely would have gone to her aid. 

Sadly, as with the first memory I recounted above, the recollection of this event is nebulous and fragmentary.

Memories following this time are even more foggy and blurry. I do, however, remember sitting at the top of the stairs when I was supposed to be asleep in bed listening to my parents arguing. 

These arguments invariably involved shouting and screaming from my mother. I suppose I was trying to make sense of what was going on but have no memory whatsoever of the content of these confrontations to which I bore witness. 

No doubt, anyway, as I would have only been six, seven, and eight years old (as I have already stated, my parents separated, and later divorced, when I was eight-and-a-half) I would not have comprehended properly what was being said. 

Occasionally, my mother would somehow realize I was on the staircase listening (perhaps I would gradually descend the stairs so as to hear better, only to come into her view or range of hearing) and, rather than resolving to calm her passions so as not to further disturb me, she would scream at me to stop eaves-dropping. Bewildered and terrified, I would scurry tearfully back to bed.

I should say that, during this first eight-year period of my life, because my father earned a relatively high income (essentially he sold life insurance, but described himself as a ‘financial advisor’ which is arguably not a great improvement) we would go on annual holidays to places like Portugal, Switzerland, Austria, and France (continental holidays were rarer in the early 1970s than they are today). Whilst this implies that my mother and father were capable, for short periods, of conducting their relationship with each other within the realms of relative normalcy, even this implication is undermined by the rather worrying fact that I have absolutely no memory whatsoever of any of these trips.

This strikes me as unusual and I can only wonder why my brain has so entirely repressed memories of events which would, under normal circumstances, I assume, stand out (for good reasons) in a person’s lifetime set of recollections.

Separation Anxiety, Ambiguous Attachment, and Disorganized-Insecure Attachment

Given my mother’s instability, hysterical outbursts, dramatic mood swings, and unpredictability it is hardly surprising that, as a young child, my attachment to my mother was what John Bowlby would categorize as ‘insecure,’ ‘ambiguous’ and, possibly, even as ‘disorganized.’

A memory now spontaneously springs to mind that, I think, saliently reflects the insecure state of attachment to my mother. The memory must date back to when I was about five years old and still living in a pleasant detached house that looked out over a very large expanse of grass known as The Green. My mother sometimes (when she was not suffering from agoraphobia of which she had experienced serious episodes) liked to go out for walks and, not wanting to do so alone, would take me.  I recall that whenever there was even a hint of blustery wind (and I really do mean only a hint, we are not talking gale force winds here) I would panic and try to cling on to my mother’s hand for fear that the wind would carry me away and separate me from her forever.

 An (almost certainly) related fantasy also used to seize me and hold me in the grip of terror (when I would have been around the same age) when I was lying in bed at night and trying to fall asleep. In a kind of slightly delirious, half-sleep, and half-waking state I would have a vision, or, more accurately, sense, of two objects. One infinitely large in the form of a giant rock, and the other infinitesimally small, like a tiny fraction of a single grain of sand. It surely does not take Sigmund Freud to infer from this that the giant boulder represented my controlling, overbearing mother and the grain of sand my vulnerable, insignificant, and powerless self.

When my fear of being separated from my mother (as represented by my anxiety induced by windy conditions whilst walking with her) and my fear of being in her presence (as represented by imagining myself as a grain of sand and her as a giant boulder that could crush and destroy me at any moment) are considered in paradoxical juxtaposition it also now, as I reflect on this, seems possible, too, that I may have been caused to suffer from disorganized-insecure attachment or ambiguous attachment.

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Divorce, Magic, and Meteorology

My father and mother separated when I was 8  and my father went to live in Bakers Street, London, taking up residence in an attic room. It was closer to his work (also in London) and my parents decided to tell me it was this proximity to work which made him move out. They believed this would be less upsetting for me than telling me the truth. I remember my mother saying that if my father found he preferred this new convenient place to live he would make it permanent and never return to the family house. I recall meeting this piece of news with a kind of dazed, numb confusion.

In those days, in order to get a divorce, the Court needed to be given a reason. Later, my mother told me that in order to do so she had a brief affair with our next-door neighbor, a vision mixer for the BBC who was married to a heavy drinking, French teacher wife and had two daughters of similar ages to my brother and me.

At this stage in my life, I was still very close to my father and the Courts provided him with fortnightly access to my brother and me so every other weekend, once he’d saved enough money to move out of his Attic flat and back to the area, my brother and I would stay at his newly acquired three bedroom maisonette.

These fortnightly stays were a great relief from the depressing and despairing atmosphere that constantly pervaded my mother’s house. My father never talked about his own problems and was generally cheerful and optimistic, making sure that my brother and I enjoyed ourselves by taking us swimming or to play badminton or table tennis.

Also, because, I think, I was the younger, more sensitive, and more emotionally vulnerable child and due to my father’s own deep sense of guilt, on the weekends we didn’t stay with him, he would take me (not my brother, who preferred to stay home and play with friends – he was always much more popular than me) to Hamleys to buy a toy.

The contrast between being with my father and being with my mother meant that whenever my time with my father came to an end (after the alternate weekend stays or after the Hamley’s visits) and I returned to my mother’s house I would shut myself away in my room and cry hysterically and for very long periods of time.

Living with my mother was very unpredictable. One morning I might wake up and she’d be crying, on another, she would be spiteful and viscous and on yet another (but more rarely) she might be oddly manic, singing one of the songs from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas (before we moved to the semi she had been part a local Amateur Dramatics Society getting bit parts, forcing us to come and watch her and behaving as if she was some Oscar-winning Broadway Actress).

Because of this unpredictability, I wonder if the two hobbies I developed at this time were entirely coincidental. The hobbies I refer to are those of magic (especially sleight of hand) and meteorology. 

After all, with magic tricks, one creates the image of being able to exert special control over things that, under ordinary circumstances, one couldn’t influence (like making the ace of spades turn into the king of diamonds). 

Similarly, when it came to the weather, I would religiously record the daytime temperature and the amount of rainfall (I had a special rain gauge for this which my father had bought for me at Hamleys and which I set up at the bottom of the garden).

Also, I would get up at 6 am every morning, before my brother or mother were awake, creep downstairs as silently as possible in bare feet and, again as silently as possible (my mother would have become incandescent with fury had she caught me) phone the London Weather Centre’s recorded weather forecast for the day. 

This was before the internet, morning TV, mobile phones, or even push-button phones (in our house, anyway) so I had to dial the number as quietly as possible using the dial. This was very difficult to do and involved slowing its return rotation after every dialed digit by keeping a slightly resisting finger in one of the dial’s finger holes. 

It seems to me now, looking back, that this meteorological obsession was subconsciously serving the purpose of imposing order on a chaotic system, the weather, which represented my mother’s volatile moods, and trying to make it as predictable as possible (phoning the weather forecast every morning). 

I will be adding to this account frequently over the coming weeks and months.