Untangling my brain: the relationship between childhood abuse and mental illness
For years, I thought of myself as a person who suffered from chronic depression. Anybody out there with it knows the drill: you have better days and worse days. Days when you feel great, days you can sort of muddle through while you shove down the empty sadness, and days when depression claims you so entirely, mind and body, that there’s no other option but to concede defeat, go to bed, and wait for it to pass.
I learned fairly early on to stop talking to other people about it, because frankly, nobody wants to hear it, and I don’t blame them. People with depression are bummers. We are. Hell, I don’t want to listen to depressed people drone on and on and on about their depression, and I am one. And depressed people can take down others with us, whether we mean to or not. A depressed parent, for instance, can be devastating to a child eager for love, acceptance and a sense of self. How can a depressed parent build a solid emotional foundation for a child when her own emotions are self-sabotaging?
Sure, I suffered from anxiety, too, but that was an afterthought. I never had full-blown anxiety attacks … it was just a sense of uneasiness that gnawed at my guts, most days. Again, like the depression, it waxed and waned, some days making me feel so edgy it made me want to crawl out of my own skin because being inside me felt … wrong.
I went from therapist to therapist, trying to unravel the puzzle of my own brain, but I never could seem to get a solid diagnosis or reliable, lasting methods for dealing with my depression. I didn’t talk to therapists about the anxiety a lot because again, it seemed secondary. It was the depression that caused most of my day-to-day struggles.
As I reached my 40s, I realized I had a third symptom: Anger. A deep, burning anger that would sometimes take hold of me so completely it felt as though someone was plunging my brain into a vat of lava. Forever, I thought I just experienced the regular, garden-variety anger everyone else did, and I could always pin it on something that seemed appropriate. Eventually, though, it dawned on me that some days I just woke up angry. It wasn’t necessarily a reaction to an catalyst, sometimes is just was, all on its own, and nothing I did would make it stop. Other times, I would have an irrational overreaction to something small. Eventually, I understood I was overreacting, but I was unable to stop it. I began withdrawing from my family, afraid I’d explode at them for something minor. They reasonably interpreted my angry withdrawal as a punishment I was inflicting on them, when in reality, I was just trying to shield them from my fury.
A few more years went by and it dawned on me that maybe other people didn’t feel like an emotional wreck all the goddamned time. Every day of my life has been an emotional surprise, going back as far as I can remember, about the age of three. I never know if I’ll have an emotionally stable day (a good day) or a day when I’m doing everything I can to hold myself together and not let my emotions — whether they be depressed, angry, anxious or some combination thereof — affect my ability to function, not to mention my relationships with other people. But because I focused on the depression and worked so hard to hide, or at least ignore, my other symptoms, I wasn’t getting the help I needed.
“I just don’t see you as a person who has trouble with your emotions,” my sister-in-law told me recently. But that’s because I work so hard at trying to at least appear somewhat normal, even when I feel like a complete freak. My husband knows — he sees the mood swings, and he’s as baffled by them as I am. “What’s wrong?” he’ll ask, on a regular basis. I used to find some trivial thing to pin my emotions on, because there had to be something causing them. “I don’t know,” is the answer I give now, because it’s the truth. My close friends know the mood swings, too, and they’ve seen my blowups and meltdowns.
The closest I ever got to a real diagnosis was that of Bipolar 2, which was suggested by a couple of therapists, but then we never really followed up on solid therapy for that, and eventually, I got frustrated and stopped going.
In the last couple of years I figured out many of my issues could be explained as PTSD, except that’s not quite the right diagnosis either. Then I came across a newish diagnosis called Complex PTSD, otherwise known as C-PTSD. C-PTSD is a long-term condition caused by long-term abuse, as opposed to PTSD which is generally caused by an isolated or short-term trauma like war or a disaster.
This is the list of C-PTSD symptoms is from the U.S. Dept. of Veteran’s Affairs website:
• Emotional Regulation. May include persistent sadness, suicidal thoughts, explosive anger, or inhibited anger.
• Consciousness. Includes forgetting traumatic events, reliving traumatic events, or having episodes in which one feels detached from one’s mental processes or body (dissociation).
• Self-Perception. May include helplessness, shame, guilt, stigma, and a sense of being completely different from other human beings.
• Distorted Perceptions of the Perpetrator. Examples include attributing total power to the perpetrator, becoming preoccupied with the relationship to the perpetrator, or preoccupied with revenge.
• Relations with Others. Examples include isolation, distrust, or a repeated search for a rescuer.
• One’s System of Meanings. May include a loss of sustaining faith or a sense of hopelessness and despair.
Holy shit. There it was. That was me. That is me. All of it.
This might be a good time to mention my brother and I grew up in an abusive home. We’re not talking cigarette burns or broken bones. We never had bruises or marks on us we didn’t cause ourselves, from falling off our bikes. (Or to each other, since we used to beat the shit out of each other regularly, which I can’t help but think was rage brought on by our environment.)
My brother and I suffered twisted mind games, put downs, belittling and a tightly controlled environment. And I got hit a lot, since I have always been bull-headed and was disinclined to follow the rules, especially where my mother was concerned. She was liberal with her physical discipline of me, which she applied religiously, often citing the “spare the rod, spoil the child,” wisdom of the Bible. To this day, I cannot stand for people to have their hands close to my face, since growing up, my mother slapped me, repeatedly. From the time I was in diapers, she hit me: with her hands, hairbrushes, wooden spoons and fly swatters. The one that hurt the most was the yard stick, which she once applied after chasing me through the house and cornering me in my bedroom. In her defense, my mother’s upbringing was also physically and emotionally abusive, and her mother was also abused.
My mother stopped hitting me when I reached the age of ten or thereabouts, I think because by that time I was taller than her, outweighed her by a good twenty pounds, and she was afraid I might start hitting her back. In fact, by then I was so used to being hit it didn’t even really hurt anymore, and thus it ceased to be an effective punishment, anyway. But the mind fucks, verbal and emotional abuse have never stopped, from either of our parents. You might think it should’ve been fairly obvious to me this was the root of my mental illness, but when you grow up in that environment, it all seems normal. After all, our parents always told us they loved us … it took years before I realized their actions didn’t match their words.
My self esteem has always been in the toilet, but again, I always chalked that up as “normal.” After all, what woman in this world doesn’t have low self esteem? But my friends’ admonitions over the years haven’t ever let up, even though these days, I’m closer to 50 than 40:
“Why can’t you ever accept a compliment?”
“You need to have more confidence.”
And a million other variations on “How can you possibly think so little of yourself”? Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because that’s how I’ve been trained to think since the day I was born.
It has been a long, torturous journey toward figuring out what the fuck is wrong with my head. And I don’t necessarily think C-PTSD explains it all. I wouldn’t be surprised if I exhibit co-morbidity with other mental illnesses, probably a personality disorder. However, untangling the whole mystery isn’t really something I can afford. Also, frankly, I’ve thought about this so much over the years I don’t even know if I really want to think about it anymore.
Today, I’ve cut off contact with one parent and have limited contact with the other. My husband is a fantastic partner. He’s supportive and patient. We have a great kid who’s a wonderful person. I have great friends, though I will say that my mental illness has kept me from fully trusting my friends most of my life. But I understand that now, and I’m grateful for their kindness and support, and for sticking around even when I’ve been a gigantic pain in the ass.
I am grateful that I didn’t marry someone like either of my parents. For some reason, though there were so many things I didn’t understand, I knew to my bones I didn’t want to continue the chaos that was my childhood. My brother and I are close. We’re a pair of survivors who’ve come through the storm, and most importantly, we know we can trust each other.
Of course, figuring out what he fuck is wrong with me doesn’t mean I’m fixed. But at least I have understanding. When my emotions go sideways, I can generally figure out why. And even if I can’t, I can identify when my emotions are lying to me. I’ve learned that stress is my enemy, regular exercise is my friend, and regular contact with the people who love me is necessary, though sometimes what I really need is to be alone.