Living with CPTSD: Overcoming Stigma and Finding Hope

Content advisory: This article discusses sensitive topics related to CPTSD and abuse.

When I was a teenager, I felt as though I had fallen overboard. A whirlpool of trauma sucked me under those tumultuous waves before I had a chance to gasp for air. I was drowning and believed it to be my own fault for falling overboard. When I reached adulthood, I realized that I had never fallen. I was pushed into that stormy sea and left to fend for myself until I was strong enough to build a raft. I feel this is a good metaphor for CPTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder). I may not be sailing through life on a yacht, but my raft keeps me afloat, and any time I come across new tools for coping, another piece gets added to my raft.

Overcoming the Stigma Around CPTSD

My abuser prevented me from speaking out, and for a long time after the abuse was over, I was still too scared to talk about it. This is unfortunately a very common experience for those who have been abused. While some things have gotten easier over time, others have not changed.

One of the first steps towards healing was learning to accept that my feelings were valid. For a long time, I was terrified of feeling anything, and I became numb to all my feelings as a result. I thought that I had to push down my feelings the moment they came bubbling up to the surface because that was what it meant to be “strong.” However, the truth is that embracing your feelings, no matter how intense they are, is where true strength comes from. To look at fear and say “I accept you” instead of “I defy you” is one of the hardest things I have ever done. In doing so, I had to accept that there are no “good” or “bad” feelings. They are just feelings, and they are all valid.

Practicing Radical Acceptance

As difficult feelings popped up along with the triggers, I tried my best to sit and listen. Sometimes I would need a loved one to sit with me so that someone could be there to help ground me in reality if it got too overwhelming. The more I practiced radical acceptance, the less overwhelming it got. I gave myself permission to remember and to feel the emotions the memories brought up. In doing so, I would feel a sense of peace wash over me after it passed.

Looking at not just my past but also the person I once was helped me feel less alone. Sometimes it feels as though my inner teen is still screaming and begging for someone to notice that something isn’t right, and I acknowledge and validate that part of me by calling back, “You’re right! This is not okay! None of what you’re going through is okay!”

As I give myself space to feel and process despite the stigma, I no longer feel an urge to find validation about my past from outside sources because I already feel seen. Something that I cannot stress enough is that it is okay to be afraid of the past. It is just a matter of taking that fear and allowing yourself to feel it instead of pushing it away for the sake of being strong. True strength comes from feeling.

Supporting Individuals Living with CPTSD

I find that a lot of people in my life have a hard time understanding the true impact CPTSD has over one’s life. Life does get easier to navigate, but there is no cure for CPTSD. I will always have my struggles, but they start to become manageable instead of debilitating as I continue to heal. I found that the best support my loved ones could give me was patience.

The Importance of Patience

Patience is vital in supporting someone with CPTSD because it can take a long time to work through the many complicated feelings that trauma brings bubbling to the surface. I didn’t want to be alive in a world where so much evil can go unchecked. I tried to escape the world by sleeping because I didn’t have the means to take my own life. Nothing anyone could have said would get me out of that place. I had to go through that because it was part of my healing process. Now that I have moved past that headspace, I now realize it is common for people with CPTSD to enter that state after escaping abuse because it is the first time in our life that we can truly rest.

Something my sister did was sit by my side and scroll on her phone while I lay in bed. Simply having her present was a huge support for me because it reminded me that I wasn’t alone in this and that I was loved. You don’t need to do anything grand to show someone with CPTSD that you are here for them. Being there to remind them that they are loved and safe can be a huge game changer for those struggling. I have felt broken beyond repair, and by having people in my life who accepted me as is, I was able to learn to accept myself, too.

Finding Hope

I have been free from the abuse for 4 years, and yet I am still deeply affected by my trauma. I tried to die many times and would spend days at a time in bed, doing the bare minimum to stay alive. But I realized that after all I’ve gone through, I deserve double the good in life to outweigh all the bad I’ve had to experience. I had to accept that I would get no help from the justice system. There was a lot of anger that I had to work through to reach this acceptance. When I did, I decided that I would be my own justice system. The fact that this abuse could not dull my light is the justice I will get for myself. I will do my best to live a happy life because that will be my victory. CPTSD is one of the hardest things to live with, and it takes a lot to decide every morning that I am going to get out of bed and start my day. If you’re struggling, just know that getting out of bed is a victory.

It is terrifying living with CPTSD, but we get by being kind to ourselves and finding reasons to keep going every day. My biggest reason to keep going is so that I can grow into the adult that I needed as a child, so I can be that person for someone else. I want to bring as much good into the world as my abuser has brought pain to cancel it out. That is how I live to be my own justice. You can live to be your own justice, too, whatever that means to you.

By: Bree (Hannah) Bruins

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