living with complex trauma

*TRIGGER WARNING* This post discusses childhood abuse, neglect and abandonment. If you feel distressed at anytime, try reaching out to one of the support lines listed here.

I rang Blue Knot yesterday because I found them when I searched online to find a hotline for people whose loved ones live with CPTSD. Nikki’s not been doing so well lately and it’s beginning to take its toll on me. This is something that is hard for me to say and has been hard for me to accept: it’s taking its toll on me; my wife is living with complex trauma, and mostly we manage but sometimes I run out of the capacity to cope with the challenges that come with loving and living with someone who has experienced complex trauma. Our son Zane is also living with complex trauma from being in the womb when Nikki was being abused by his biological father.

On top of that, as I was reminded by the counsellor at Blue Knot, I have my own complex trauma to live with. 

I called them to get support as someone whose loved ones have complex trauma in their background, and was reminded that I need support for the complex trauma in my own background. 

There is a new-paradigm understanding of trauma emerging – thanks to the likes of Peter Levine and Gabor Mate – and in this view we understand that developmental and relational trauma can result from early-life experiences that were normalised in the suburban 80s when I was being raised:

abandonment, emotional neglect and/or emotional incest, being abused and belittled by your siblings, bullied at school, bashed by thugs as a teenager … these are all experiences in my background, and this list doesn’t even account for the birth trauma itself and the trauma of industrial postnatal care for babies. 

Blue Knot reminded me that all of this is real. The symptoms I described on the call were confirmed as trauma related, and I recall ticking many items on the symptoms checklist when I read Levine’s Waking the Tiger. It was affirmed on the call that as parents, we are often triggered when our children go through the age we were when we were traumatised, which is definitely happening as Zane goes into the early teenage years.

It surprises me that I know I live with complex trauma myself, yet it took me feeling my wits’ end in supporting someone else through trauma recovery to remember or have the fact of my own trauma validated. (I think there might be a spectrum distinction between “complex trauma” and CPTSD and I certainly don’t feel like my lived experience of trauma amounts to a disorder, but I certainly exhibit many of the traits.) 

That’s how it goes I guess. The call with Blue Knot reminded me that the trauma I’m living with is very innocuous and hard to detect because the causal events are so normalised in our culture. On top of that, there are no physical scars I can show to prove my trauma is real, and no single causal event that resulted in traumatisation … that’s one of the things about complex trauma: there’s no single event we can pin down as the cause. I wasn’t abused in the sense that is typically understood to result in trauma – a lot of us weren’t, but still we are traumatised. Says something about our culture.

For these reasons, this kind of trauma often flies under the radar, causing a low hum of very subtle misery that is difficult to detect. The lack of self-love and -worth that results from such trauma has also been normalised, like it’s the only way of being we’ve ever really known anyway. 

A similar phenomenon is operating when we compare workaholism to heroin addiction: the latter is very obviously a harmful maladaptive coping mechanism that warrants treatment and is probably a symptom of trauma; the former is a harmful maladaptive coping mechanism that warrants treatment and is probably a symptom of trauma, but fails to be recognised as such because work addiction is normalised, even celebrated, yet it can rob someone of their life the same as heroin addiction can. 

So a thing that I pledge as a central purpose of Heartwards is to help shed light on this emerging new-paradigm view of trauma, and to help individuals recognise and treat the symptoms of complex trauma they notice in themselves. 

If we keep just fumbling along with our pain buried in the unconscious like hands into pockets in the depths of winter, we are going to just continue running ourselves and the planet into the ground as we seek to numb the pain or fill the void by sucking the world dry in our pleasure-seeking avoidance. 

The counsellor on the Blue Knot call said something about the unconscious: how we repress our pain and shame and try to hide from it. 

We cannot run from it forever. I believe that if we do not embrace and heal it in this lifetime, we will just come back for another round, again and again until we learn. 

Even in this lifetime, if we retain the trauma in our body because we don’t learn how to release it, we can think we are successfully avoiding it until it recurs again through a phenomenon described by Levine as “re-enactment”.

I don’t properly understand what re-enactment is or how it works, but I’m going to ask when I call Blue Knot back. 

They are a team-based counselling hotline, which means I won’t get the same counsellor each time but apparently they keep good case notes to make up for this, and it means I’ll get diverse perspectives. Their catchphrase is “empowering recovery from complex trauma”.

The person I spoke to was really great, and I recommend getting in touch if you’re living with complex trauma or someone who is. Even if you’re not sure but you have a vague suspicion that something was a bit off in your early development or upbringing, I reckon it’s worth a call. You might find explanations for symptoms that have been bothering you for ages but were just kind of resigned to living with. The number I called was 1300 657 380.

The main thing I got from the call today was that we can’t support our loved ones through recovery from complex trauma when we do not have enough internal resources left in our reserves. The analogy the counsellor used was from a teacup: we cannot share tea from an empty cup. This backs up my oxygen-mask analogy: we can’t help others if we’re dead.

I have only recently been able to start refilling my teacup after a very challenging 18 months or so, especially in the last 6 months while we were living with the abuser who triggered Nikki’s trauma, which I wrote about in other posts. We resolved that we would not leave anyone alone with the perpetrator, in case she caught someone alone and took the opportunity to manipulate or concoct a story while there were no witnesses around. 

The main advice from the call today was that the best way for me to support Nikki is by first taking care of myself.

This is not indulgent or selfish, anymore than putting on the oxygen mask is selfish before we start helping others in a plane crash.

We cannot help others when we’re dead – or when our own nervous system is so frazzled that every minor tension creates a flee response. 

As I continue doing the work of healing my child self, I will become more able to be available for Nikki and others when needed. 

If I neglect the work of healing my own trauma, I will continue fucking out when others need me most, 

and worse – I will continue attracting myself to situations where the original trauma response is seeking to exhaust itself. (I think that’s the gist of re-enactment.)

Not “fucking out” … that’s the wrong language, when falling to my knees in despair is really what’s happening each time my own and others’ trauma feels overwhelming. 

If I neglect the work of healing my own trauma, I will stagnate among the low hum of misery that expresses itself like puss from the unconscious, and my purpose to help others flourish will languish unrealised. 

Yours too maybe. 

If any of this resonates with you, get in touch or have a look around at Kokoro 心 Heart, where I’m working to promote a healthy world arising out of healthy minds. 

This page of resources might also interest you meanwhile. 

the motes fleet again

Photo by Iva Rajović on Unsplash

I wrote recently about a problem we’re having with a housemate, and it’s become clear now that we are living with an abuser. It sounds drastic when I put it on paper like that, but it’s true. We have been repeatedly abused by a person who is deeply unwell. I’m writing here to get my head around it, and to see what insight I can glean for Kokoro about psychospiritual wellbeing. I wrote in the other post about how situations like these are symptoms of culture that is psychospiritually unwell, and in this post I’d like to reflect on what I’ve learned about the dubious role of justice and control.

I may never understand This Person’s behaviour. This case is like a photographic negative, starting with someone who is profoundly unwell to see what we can learn about wellness. I’ve done lots of journalling and talking around this, and I’m still confused, so my apologies if the following is not always coherent.

We were going to have our first full day at home since the Incident, but we chose that day to ask if she had found a new place, whereupon she finally admitted that she had decided to not move out. We had been waiting patiently, not wanting to poke the hornet nest, but the idea of her staying three months until the end of the lease was not acceptable. I asserted a boundary: we cannot continue to live with her unless she apologises and starts being accountable for the way she treated us.

Continue reading the motes fleet again