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'Nothing was ever your fault': living with PTSD and complex PTSD

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Jess stands outside smiling with hands in pockets

Sophie and Jess, two SANE Peer Ambassadors, chat about living with PTSD and complex PTSD. They want everyone to know a meaningful life is possible, and they have hope and love for anyone going through post-traumatic symptoms. 

How did you receive a diagnosis of PTSD or complex PTSD?

Sophie: I was in a major car accident when I was younger. It was after that I received a diagnosis of PTSD. I was having nightmares about the accident, or being in another accident. I had a panic attack straight after the accident, and I kept having panic attacks whenever I heard cars slam on their brakes or beep their horn.

A few weeks or so after the accident, I was walking down the street, and heard a car crash into another car behind me. I had a panic attack from hearing that noise. Nearly two years after the accident, I had surgery on an injury I sustained from the accident. When the surgery wasn’t successful, the panic attacks started again.

Jess: I had started seeing a new therapist for a flare up in my eating disorder symptoms. We were discussing how this was likely from unresolved and unrelenting trauma. As I began to trust her more, I opened up more and more about my experiences. One day, she brought up complex PTSD quite casually, without making it sound scary.

I had never heard of complex PTSD in my life before. She told me about some of her other clients who had this diagnosis, and asked whether I related to these stories. We delved a little deeper and I then knew that my collection of symptoms had a name. I suddenly felt like I made sense and felt less alone too.

How does PTSD or complex PTSD affect your everyday life?

Sophie: I can’t drive. I did so much work with a psychologist to help me with my fears surrounding traffic, being in a car, even being a pedestrian. It was so helpful, but the one fear I cannot face is being able to drive. Personally, I don’t feel that it’s such a big deal. I’ve had to make some changes, such as living near public transport, which is easily done.

I also live within walking distance of so many things, such as grocery stores and my psychologist. I just can’t drive. I never got my P plates, so I don’t feel I’m missing out. I sometimes feel it’s others that are more affected, or shocked, by me not driving. Sure, maybe I can’t just get in my car and go for a drive somewhere. But I live near the beach, and can go for a walk to the beach.

Jess: Complex PTSD affects every element of my life. I struggle to trust people. And my emotional outbursts often frighten and confuse the people I love. The kind of flashbacks I experience aren’t always visual. My Art Therapist calls them ‘embodied re-experiencing’. This means that if something comes up which reminds me of my trauma it is like I am literally that child again, mentally, spiritually and emotionally.

I also dissociate a lot to escape from these strong feelings, often feeling like my body is not my own. I have nightmares all the time and I avoid people and places that remind me of my trauma: I don’t even go to the part of Melbourne where I grew up.

I am always anxious and hypervigilant, particularly in social situations. This makes me experience chronic pain because my muscles are always so tight. I experience overwhelming amounts of shame and self-loathing whilst often putting my abusers on pedestals.

Sophie sitting outside on a balcony, smiling as a cockatoo sits on the rail nearby

What has helped you manage symptoms of PTSD or complex-PTSD?

Sophie: Just breathe. A major symptom for me living with PTSD has been panic attacks. The number one way to get through a panic attack is to regulate my breath. It seems simple, but it seemed so hard at first.

The first few times I had panic attacks, it was like a python was wrapping itself around my chest; I thought I would never get a full breath of air again. With the help of my psychologist, I was able to regulate my breathing when having a panic attack. I now know a panic attack isn’t the end. I can get through it, and I will be able to breathe again.

Jess: Honestly? Cutting my perpetrators out of my life. I’ve done every therapy under the sun for complex PTSD and they have all helped me. But one therapy, Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, helped me the most by giving me the realisation and the tools to end my relationships with my family of origin.

With them no longer in my life I feel sense of control over my own recovery that I never had before. In the past, I would make all of this progress in therapy and then see my family… It would be like an elastic band that just snapped me back into negative thought and behavioural patterns I didn’t want to do anymore. And it would destabilise me for months afterwards.

I am not saying this was an easy decision or is the right decision for everyone. But I know that this decision saved my life.

Is PTSD or complex PTSD a big part of your identity, how you see yourself or how others see you?

Sophie: I feel like so many people see not being able to drive as a big deal. I have radically accepted that I’m never going to drive, and I’m ok with that. I have adapted my life to living in places where I don’t need to drive. I have been ok with traveling for work. I’ve made it this far without needing to drive, I’m sure I can make it through the rest of my life without needing to drive.

I just want others to accept that I’m ok with this, and for them to be ok with it too. This will make it a lot easier for me.

Jess: I identify as disabled because my complex PTSD symptoms make it very difficult to navigate the world as it is currently designed. I actually benefited from the pandemic because suddenly so many of my access barriers were removed.

For instance, most of the time I can’t go out by myself, especially after a really bad nightmare. Because if someone gets in my personal space on the street I may react as though they mean me harm. Social distancing made leaving the house on my own suddenly accessible for me.

I experience the world so differently to non-disabled people. Every time I leave the house has to be thought out and I lack the privilege of spontaneity in my life. Through NDIS supports I have started building independence. I am starting to shift my identity from someone who has complex PTSD to someone experiencing post-traumatic growth. 

What advice would you give someone who thinks they may have PTSD or complex PTSD?

Sophie: The first step, the biggest step, is asking for help. Ask someone who you can trust, and follow the next steps. If you’re not already in contact with a psychologist, make an appointment to see a GP and get a mental health care plan.

You can even take a trusted support person along to the appointment. Find a psychologist who you trust and can open up to. They can help you build skills to help you navigate your way through, to be able to live well with PTSD. I know it sounds scary, but I hold hope that you can do it.

Jess: I know your life is exhausting but trust me when I say there is absolutely nothing wrong with you. You are a product of awful experiences no one should ever have to experience. Anyone would react the same way as you when put in your circumstances.

Nothing was ever your fault. You deserve love and respect, from others and especially yourself. This shame is not yours to carry. You are remarkably strong, brave and have the power within you to live a better life when you are ready.

People are often going to misunderstand you. But over time, when in touch with good support people, you will develop ways of telling your story that allow people to meet you in the middle. It is probably going to get worse before it gets better. But that’s okay. Because I deeply believe that even if your life is incredibly painful it can still be incredibly meaningful.

Where to from here?

  • Reach out to our free counselling service on 1800 187 263 or online, Monday to Friday 10am-10pm AEST/AEDT.
  • Chat to people who understand what you’re going through on the SANE online forums.
  • Read more about PTSD and complex PTSD.
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