Run, Girl, Run

What it’s like experiencing an emotional flashback from C-PTSD

To call it a meltdown would’ve been an understatement.

I liquified.

And I’d gotten so good at holding it together.

I heard his words. They entered my brain in his intended neutral state and, once inside, mutated into a threatening, heaving monster. The creature, with its gnashing teeth and rancid breath, was the only thing I could see. So I flipped the switch, and the lights went out. Just like that.

I have always been scared of the dark.

I felt my grip on reality slipping — fingers on a cliff — like it had so many times before. And just like every time before, I felt powerless to hang on.

Because I am.

So, I let go.

How do you deny gravity?

How do you resist a force born of the instinct to survive?

I fall, or I die.

So I fell.

My thoughts raced toward the inevitability of abandonment like a landslide, through a rut in my brain that developed long before I knew what a brain was: an unnatural neural pathway, connections soldered together by neglect and self-loathing. Brain damage.

Next came the rubberneck of negative emotions choking out all rational thought: terror, anger, pain so deep I grasped at my chest. They were alive: a rat king, bound and sick, pulling in different directions, re-opening scars with dirty, deformed claws — shredding my heart in real-time. I felt them pulling me apart — being dismembered.

He will leave me so I will leave first.

“Run, girl. Run now. It’s your only chance. It will hurt far less if you break your own heart. That you can survive.”

I’ve been my own punching bag for almost four decades now. The blows don’t hurt, but the bruises still show.

So many times, during the calm between my storms, I promised that I wouldn’t allow myself to be overcome next time. Next time, I wouldn’t give in. My brain would finally beat my emotions. I am strong. I’m self-aware. I’m smart. There’s a dragon in me somewhere. I’ve had no choice but to be a warrior — a tribe of one — because up until a year ago, the only person I had learned I could count on was myself.

Until He came along. He was there. He stayed.

Sometimes He seemed so real. I felt Him with my fingers and my lips and my body. Sometimes He was a mirage, and I would reach for His hand, only to grasp at a warm mist. Sometimes I couldn’t see Him at all because it was too damn dark.

But now He’s not there at all.

Because now it's over. I said words I couldn’t take back. And I didn’t stop myself. Partly because I couldn’t and partly because there was relief in the cleaving.

Relief in being the army of one again. Relief that no one can reject me.

Relief that the lies I tell myself to stay alive can only hurt me now.

Was I trying to save Him or save myself?

I believe the answer is both.

I loved Him as a verb. I always will.

Leaving was love.

It was saving myself, and I was saving Him from me.

Henry Harlow, an American psychologist, is best known for running isolation experiments on Rhesus monkeys that made clear the importance of caregiving and companionship to social and cognitive development.

While pursuing my Bachelor of Science in Psychology, Harlow was required reading and the first time a slide from one of his projects was shown in my Psych 101 class, tears immediately began pouring down my face. I was so grateful the lights were off.

Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) develops from chronic traumatization, usually in childhood.

These individuals, more often women than men, are left to fend for themselves emotionally, and sometimes physically.

They must learn how the world works without anyone to guide them. The people who are entrusted to love them and keep them safe are either unable or unwilling to do so and the trauma they endure changes the way their brains develop. These children must construct a method to find safety in themselves. They have no experience to draw on and are forced to create an immature, dysfunctional, self-preserving paradigm.

Or they die.

If they survive to adulthood, they continue to function in a shitty operating system, full of glitches and errors, that is perpetually set to threat level: Imminent. They run on broken, reactive code and experience “emotional flashbacks” that make them feel hopeless and helpless…just like they did as children.

They have brain damage from a childhood of neglect.

I was one of those children.

I used to think I suffered Borderline Personality Disorder.

Over time, I have realized that I have C-PTSD, not BPD. It's true that I was at one time an out of control teenage girl, but am now a functional grown woman. Most people would describe me as uncommonly stable and rational. One main difference between C-PTSD and BPD is stability. CPTSD sufferers are generally stable, in both behavior and sense of self, until they encounter external triggers for their emotional flashbacks. BPD sufferers are marked by internal instability and impulsivity that distinguishes it from C-PTSD.

The distinction is important for both self-awareness and treatment modality.

And its a relief for me to understand why I’m okay 99% of the time and yet feel completely out of control the other 1%.

There are characteristics at my core that I don’t believe can change, but which I have either decreased my susceptibility to, modified the behaviors associated with, or have transformed altogether to design a Me that is functional out in the world.

I don’t have many friends, but I am not an introvert. I get energy from interacting with other people. It’s the close relationships with which I struggle. I want them but, when I court them, I can’t maintain them. I don’t know how and they scare me because of the way I cater to everyone around me in an effort to mitigate threats. I have a pattern of trusting untrustworthy people, in part because I don’t know any better.

Relationships are tough. I morph myself into what I believe people want me to be out of fear of rejection or criticism. Rare is the person to whom I actually get attached.

And I still cling to the belief that I am unworthy and broken and defective.

And I struggle to live in a shell that I can only describe as feeling empty.

That’s the core of C-PTSD…knowing something is missing an not being able to put your finger on it.

The “something” missing was a childhood.

So that brings us full circle to now. I’m better, but not good and certainly not yet immune to the reactive drives triggered during emotional flashbacks.

I succumbed today, and I lost the love of my life. The compulsion to run was too strong. I gave in to the fear. I listened to the voices.

And I ran like hell. Right off the cliff.

Maybe one day I will find that dragon I keep imagining is inside of me. She will be beautiful and strong and wise and know her worth. She’ll be big and spread her sturdy wings and fly; the world will be her kingdom.

Or maybe I’ll remain a little baby monkey at the back of the cage — shivering alone in the corner, biting hands that try to feed her — never daring to crawl through the door that has recently been opened — just a crack.

Me, at 3 years old, and a baby Rhesus monkey from one of Harlow’s experiments.

Right now, I can’t tell.

Right now, I can’t see.

Right now, there’s only darkness.

Mama, writer, lover, fighter — I wear my heart on my sleeve because my pants pockets are too small.

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