Working Backwards: CPTSD

Chronic emotional abandonment devastates a child. It naturally makes her feel and appear deadened and depressed. Functional parents respond to a child’s depression with concern and comfort. Abandoning parents respond to the child with anger, disgust and/or further abandonment, which in turn exacerbate the fear, shame and despair that become the abandonment mélange.

Overreaction to depression essentially reinforces learned toxic shame. It reinforces the person’s belief that he is unworthy, defective and unlovable when he is depressed.

Deep level recovery from childhood trauma requires a normalisation of depression, a renunciation of the habit of reflexively reacting to it.
– COMPLEX PTSD: From Surviving To Thriving, Pete Walker

My shiniest, newest “fix myself book” is this one by Pete Walker (I say “fix myself” satirically, of course).

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“How was your Saturday night?”:

A friend said to me a while ago: “Do you ever just take a break?” As in, from healing modalities and psychoeducation. At that point, I’d just gone through a period of stagnancy with regards to healing. I was just “being”. Or trying to. And I mentioned this to her. But these periods of “rest” don’t tend to last very long with me because in essence, I am a highly emotional person. It’s compulsive for me to try and figure out what’s going on in my head and my heart because of how painful it can all feel sometimes. So I regularly seek out new healing modalities and psychological theories as a method of pain relief and also from a place of pure fascination and inquisitiveness. So here we are again.

Back to the quoted text, “normalisation of depression” is more or less what I’m going for at the moment. And not normalisation in the sense of talking about it every 2 minutes as if it’s an erupting wisdom tooth, but normalisation in the sense of not being too alarmed about it. I’m trying not to respond with alarm or urgency or quick fixes or beration. I won’t go into much more detail about this because a) I can’t be bothered (helloooooo, I’m depressed!) and b) because I already covered this in depth in this post.

Why I’m bringing this up, then, is because it relieved me to see this perspective expressed in this book I’m reading. And also because this idea of “abandonment depression” as the first depression, occurring in childhood in response to some form of abandonment such as emotional neglect, is a completely new one for me.

Pete Walker mentions at one point in this book that few of us have memories of childhood before the ages of 3 or 4 but that most attachment trauma occurs when we are toddlers. How then to determine the extent and nature of any possible trauma? Through monitoring and acknowledging the presence of potential symptoms of CPTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder), it seems (of which I have many, it turns out).

I can’t be certain if this initial “abandonment depression” actually took place with me in childhood but I have multiple reasons to believe that it did. Firstly, I have always had a fairly melancholic disposition, even in childhood. Secondly, I do have tangible memories of my distress being responded to as if it were an unwarranted inconvenience. Also, the plummeting deflation and loneliness I felt whenever I was regularly humiliated by my Dad could potentially have manifested into this “abandonment depression”. In addition to this, both of my parents have struggled with addiction throughout my lifetime. Is it possible that at certain points as a toddler, I had no one to turn to because whoever was caring for me was intoxicated and emotionally unavailable? Maybe.

And then, most obviously, I have had recurring bouts of depression for almost 10 years now. I’ve gotten past the point of hoping that fixing it once would fix it forever – that’s obviously not its purpose in the trajectory of my life. Hypothetically, these bouts of depression could partly be echoes of the initial “abandonment depression” that I potentially experienced; and could explain why these recurrences have been as persistent as they have. Because of unresolved and unacknowledged CPTSD.

Grappling with the idea that I might have CPTSD is a bit difficult for me because a big part of me feels like I haven’t had it bad enough for this to be the case. You know, I was never hit. I was never told I was a waste of space or a piece of shit. I’ve never had a near-death experience or experienced colossal grief.

Minimising of emotional neglect is apparently very common with CPTSD survivors and a large part of the healing process involves de-minimising this in the first place, Walker says.

Most people remember little before they were four years old. And by that time, much of this kind of damage is done. It typically takes some very deep introspective work, to realise that current time flashback pain is a re-creation of how bad it felt to be emotionally abandoned.
– Pete Walker

I mentioned earlier that I identify with some symptoms of CPTSD. One of these is “emotional flashbacks”.

Emotional flashbacks are intensely disturbing regressions [“amygdala hijackings”] to the overwhelming feeling-states of your childhood abandonment. When you are stuck in a flashback, fear, shame and/or depression dominate your experience.

These are some common experiences of being in an emotional flashback. You feel little, fragile and helpless. Everything feels too hard. Life is too scary. Being seen feels excruciatingly vulnerable. Your battery seems to be dead.
– Pete Walker

The most obvious way in which I identify with this concept is during relational conflict. It has truly terrified me in the past. Even now, having to say how I feel during a spat with a loved one sometimes petrifies me. This obviously depends partly on how “safe” the other person feels to me. Regardless, the disproportionate terror is almost paralysing. I feel small, wringing my hands, wanting the ground to swallow me up – as if I’m being seen through the most unforgiving magnifying glass. And it comes from a place of fear that if what I say angers the other person, they will abandon me; and that this will confirm some entrenched belief I have that I am unlovable the way I am. That having a contrasting opinion or an “inconvenient” need is cause for contempt.

This couldn’t have come from nowhere.

I called this post “working backwards” because reading about CPTSD has so far taught me that healing requires feeling into present moment emotions to inform us as to what happened when we were small.

Lastly, another reason why the idea of CPTSD has resonated with me so much is because of the trauma types: fight, flight, freeze and fawn and how two of these in particular are trauma responses I identify with heavily. This is something I plan to explore in depth in my next post.

Thanks for reading. Does any of this resonate with you? Let me know in the comments!

– SMUT. ❤ xxxx

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