Ten years ago I wrote a post called “PTSD from Emotional Abuse” on O. M. Grey’s blog, a name under which I published Steampunk romance. At that time, I was writing prolifically about matters of mental health, psychiatric injury, and the effects of trauma, mostly to process and understand my own experience.
I wrote this during a time of devastating pain in the wake of sexual assault—the third in as many years. All at the hands of men I knew. It no doubt played a part in ending my marriage, for it also traumatized my husband, Ethan. We had both experienced childhood trauma, and I learned through extensive research that trauma is cumulative. The work of Peter Levine (which I highly recommend) covers this thoroughly. During this research, I also discovered something called Complex PTSD, or C-PTSD.
PTSD vs C-PTSD
When I wrote the original post, I didn’t know C-PTSD existed, but understanding the difference is both helpful and validating. PTSD is usually caused by a single or short-lived traumatic event, like war or the stereotypical stranger rape. C-PTSD is caused by sustained trauma, like abuse throughout childhood or enduring an abusive relationship, which could include sexual violence as well as emotional, verbal, and/or physical abuse. Even after one grows up or is out of the toxic relationship, the condition continues and is exacerbated by any new trauma. This is the case even if it’s a single event like those mentioned above. Trauma is cumulative.
I believe this is why so many people struggle in middle age. After surviving a lifetime of abuse, which often didn’t seem like a big deal because “many people have it worse,” one seemingly small thing can be the last straw. Even when we don’t consciously recognize our experience was traumatic, our nervous system knows. Add on decades, and the nervous system becomes exhausted from carrying around all that unprocessed trauma! Thus the “nervous breakdown.”
A quick note on the “others have it worse” argument: My trauma therapist Amy works with military veterans that have PTSD or have experienced Military Sexual Trauma. She told me that every trauma survivor reports their experience wasn’t as bad as what others went through. Even veterans returning from war with missing limbs believe that. It’s an effect of the trauma and a symptom of the PTSD. Traumatized people tend to minimize and even dismiss the effects of trauma. They often make excuses for those their abusers or blame themselves. If it’s their own fault they can be in control and keep it from happening again.
C-PTSD from Emotional Abuse
While I’ll let my first post speak for itself, I can’t stress enough that emotional abuse is real and so are the effects of trauma. At one point in the article, I wrote “the first step is recognizing the abuse as abuse.” This is key.
We (especially women) are socialized to question ourselves rather than the person doing the harm. We’re told from a young age that we’re too emotional, too sensitive, exaggerating, or trying to cause trouble. Frankly, people don’t want to believe horrible things, like someone they respect or even love is capable of abuse or sexual violence. It’s too difficult to process that. Instead they blame the victim for getting it wrong or for merely making them feel uncomfortable.
When someone has experienced ongoing abuse at the hands of someone they love (a parent, guardian, or partner, for example), their ability to see the difference between love and abuse blurs. When both things come from the same person, they merge. This often damns survivors to future relationships with similar people because they can no longer see the red flags. They don’t see the abuse, but it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
The first step is recognizing the abuse.
The same thing goes for more insidious forms of sexual attacks perpetrated by a loved or trusted person, which accounts for over 80% of sexual violence.
We doubt ourselves. We must’ve misunderstood. We somehow got it wrong.
It’s difficult to accept that someone who claims to love us would assault us, but it happens far too often. In part, it’s because the victims don’t recognize these encounters as assault. In fact, only 27% of women whose experience meets the legal definition of rape consider themselves a rape victim, usually because it doesn’t fit the stereotypical stranger-rape mold.
Sometimes it’s not overtly violent or brutal. Perhaps it was coercive or manipulative, leaving you not only with the primary trauma of the assault itself but the additional trauma of questioning yourself, blaming yourself, not knowing what to believe. Then comes the community response. Other people don’t want to believe it because they know this person, too. That’s secondary trauma. So just from this one event, you’re experiencing sustained trauma that’s accumulating, creating a deeper wound that takes much longer to heal. I’ll write more about this in future posts.
PTSD from Covid-19
This pandemic has been traumatizing on a global scale. Many people are experiencing depression and anxiety, both symptoms of PTSD and C-PTSD, and they don’t have the tools to deal with it. If you are experiencing these things since the Coronavirus hit, you may be telling yourself that it has affected everyone in one way or another, or “other people have it worse.” Please don’t discount or dismiss your experience. You are not weak. You are traumatized by a widespread plague-like pandemic, and it’s scary. Not to mention how our society as a whole has responded with more violence and the world (especially the USA) is more divided than decades, if not over a century. The effects of trauma are cumulative. The effects of trauma are real.
PTSD in the DSM-V
Although C-PTSD has not yet made it into the DSM-V, I’ve no doubt it will be in there before too long. This last edition already shows an evolving understanding of the role abuse plays in mental health. They’re starting to see that abuse can cause psychiatric injury, mental illness, and personality disorders. Keep in mind that the APA (American Psychiatric Association) is very, very slow to change. PTSD wasn’t included until 1980, 60+ years after WWI’s “shell shock” and nearly 40 years after WWII. It wasn’t until 1988 that Harvard researcher coined the term Complex PTSD, so in comparison, it hasn’t been that long.
Today, mental health has become a cultural conversation. The stigma around mental illness is lessening, and I’m truly amazed at how far we’ve come in the past decade alone.
Here is a link to the original post. It’s my most-visited post of all time with over 200,000 views, and people still contact me to share their stories. I’ve pasted an excerpt below. Seeing it now shows me how far I’ve come over the past 10 years in both healing and in understanding psychiatric injury, sexual assault, and trauma response.
Thank you for reading. May you all find peace.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, is mostly associated with soldiers returning from war. After the horrors witnessed in such an unnatural setting, many wo/men have a difficult time returning to “normal” life, often suffering from flashbacks, panic attacks, and severe anxiety.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Acute Stress Disorder (or Reaction) are not typical responses to prolonged abuse. They are the outcomes of sudden exposure to severe or extreme stressors (stressful events). Yet, some victims whose life or body have been directly and unequivocally threatened by an abuser react by developing these syndromes. PTSD is, therefore, typically associated with the aftermath of physical and sexual abuse in both children and adults. (Source)
Any traumatic event can trigger it. Rape, assault, acts of physical or verbal violence, even repeated emotional abuse or the sudden split of a significant relationship, especially if abuse was involved.
Repeated abuse has long lasting pernicious and traumatic effects such as panic attacks, hypervigilance, sleep disturbances, flashbacks (intrusive memories), suicidal ideation, and psychosomatic symptoms. The victims experience shame, depression, anxiety, embarrassment, guilt, humiliation, abandonment, and an enhanced sense of vulnerability. (Source)
Emotional abuse, like gaslighting as well as so many other insidious forms, is hard to recognize and even harder to prove. Often, the only indication that your partner is causing emotional damage is to trust yourself and how you feel.
- Are you asking yourself if you’re crazy?
- Are you questioning reality?
- Do you feel blamed for everything in the relationship?
- Do you feel unsafe to talk with your partner about anything?
Remember…is s/he charming? That is a huge red flag and a sign of an emotional predator. Certainly not all charming people are predators or abusive, but it is something of which to take note, especially if they are particularly charming. Please, please look closer, or perhaps, take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Find out about their past relationships. How many? How did they end? Do they take responsibility for their actions? Their words? Are they relatively consistent in their words/actions?
#1 indication: They don’t take responsibility for their actions.
The first step is recognizing abuse as abuse….
Research PTSD and Emotional Abuse. If you are exhibiting any of the signs, you might be trapped in a betrayal or trauma bond with the abuser. This makes it even harder to get away and heal.
Let us all learn how to protect ourselves from such people, for in this society, there is no other recourse. No way to prove it. No way to make them accountable for the damage they cause. Our only hope of defense against this type of abuse is to recognize the danger early, reinforce our armor, and get away before a trauma bond can be created.
Any ellipses (…) indicates a gap in the text. You can read the entire thing on O. M. Grey’s Caught in the Cogs; however, if you want to comment for support or to share your story, please do so below, as it sometimes takes me weeks or even months to see the notification from that old O. M. Grey blog.
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