Brain on Fire: Detaching from Trauma and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Over the last couple of years, I feel like I’ve gone through an enormous internal metamorphosis. Most days, I wake up brimming with positivity and gratitude, and sometimes even a sense of self-actualization. I truly do feel like I am the best version of myself that I can be, and even when I make mistakes, I try to be gentle and forgiving with myself.

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I wasn’t always that way. Middle school and high school, the most formative years of my life, were turbulent and full of dark negativity. I constantly found myself plagued with anger, confusion, self-doubt, self-deprecation, a sense that I was a bad person or a broken person, and a tendency to exhibit fawning behaviors (common with survivors of verbal and emotional abuse.) I was extremely anxious and highly sensitive to loud noises, confrontation, and raised voices. If someone even criticized me a little bit, and particularly if they spoke loudly, my ears would begin to hum and vibrate. I shared several of my childhood memories with a therapist in high school, including the time I was dragged across the carpet and spanked as a child, screaming, and how similar memories tended to pop into my mind like uncomfortable flashbacks. I told her about my notable (but not alarming) social delays, my broken confidence, my damaged relationships, and my extreme discomfort with certain areas of my body. She swiftly summarized my case as C-PTSD, otherwise known as Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. C-PTSD is commonly diagnosed in individuals who grew up experiencing repetitive, prolonged abuse, usually as a child. One of the most common experiences for young adults with C-PTSD is growing up with a parent who exhibits narcissistic tendencies, which is what my family agrees probably happened to me from my father. As a result of disconnecting from him, I went through a very mournful period of traumatic grief. 

What may be normal and surmountable to some children could be extremely difficult to others. Many kids grew up with unhappy childhoods and ended up fine, but for me, growing up afraid in my own household and dealing with anxiety through the roof, panic, and fight-or-flight sensations permanently altered my brain chemistry. As the therapist described it, my brain was “on fire,” constantly lit up with a life-or-death panic and ravenous will to survive.

There are still foggy patches in my brain, and sometimes, I lay awake and think, What happened to me? Most of the time, however, I put those worries to rest and allow the unknown to be unknown. At 20 years old, I still have several unrecovered memories that I choose to leave unearthed.

After I was put on a standard dose of escitalopram (which I continue to take to this day), entered college, and became estranged from my biological father, something surprising happened to me: I have seemingly recovered from my initial C-PTSD diagnosis.

This raises two questions. 1) Is it possible to recover completely from C-PTSD? Also, 2), did I ever actually have it? Do I simply have a ‘mild’ case of it? Am I just exceptionally lucky?

Honestly, I have no idea, and I almost don’t care to know. I do know that my trauma still impacts my life in several ways, but it’s not unmanageable and detrimental like it was a few years ago. It’s almost as if I’ve learned to love that part of myself, and nurture it back into a state of healing. Additionally, as I emerge into adulthood, I feel like I have become very comfortable with self-regulating my emotions, particularly since I have such a strong support network now. 

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I am a highly sensitive person. I still catch myself exhibiting fawning behaviors from time to time; particularly recently when I was going through a difficult period of anger and conflict with a close friend of mine. Rather than being angry, however, I am learning to self-sooth and forgive myself for the things I cannot control. I can truly say that I love myself and I’m enormously proud of the progress I have made.

When I feel my weakest, I remind myself that I am actually made of strength and perseverance. 

When my heart begins to cloud with fear, as it was a couple weeks ago with my friend, I had a sudden moment of clarity and peace that enabled me to write this article in the first place: I am not a broken woman, I am not a bad person, and I am NOT going to push myself into a state of grief over privations when I can use this situation instead to love, forgive, and grow.

Like I said, I wake up every day full of gratitude and fullness for the beauty of my life. I wish it were easier to put this feeling into words, but truly, I feel such a sense of clarity and excitement about the beauty and complexity of the world. Having gone through difficult things, kindness and compassion are even more present in my life than they ever were before, and I think that juxtaposition is a beautiful thing. Please don’t ever destroy yourself over things that are out of your control; forgive yourself for the cracks in your soul and learn to nurture those patches, too.

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