A single traumatic event can occur almost anywhere. Prolonged, repeated trauma, by contrast, occurs only in circumstances of captivity. When the victim is free to escape, she will not be abused a second time; repeated trauma occurs only when the victim is a prisoner, unable to flee, and under the control of the perpetrator. Such conditions obviously occur in prisons, concentration camps, and slave labor camps. These conditions may also exist in religious cults, in brothels and other institutions of organized sexual exploitation, and in families.
People subjected to prolonged, repeated trauma develop an insidious, progressive form of post-traumatic stress disorder, that invades and erodes the personality. . . . Even after release from captivity, the victim cannot assume her former identity. . . . These staggering psychological losses can result in a tenacious state of depression. . . . The chronic hyperarousal and intrusive symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder fuse with the vegetative symptoms of depression, producing what Nederland calls the "survivor triad" of insomnia, nightmares, and psychosomatic complaints. The dissociative symptoms of the disorder merge with the concentration difficulties of depression. The paralysis of chronic trauma merge with the apathy and helplessness of depression. The disruption in attachment of chronic trauma reinforces the isolation of depression. The debased self-image of chronic trauma fuels the guilty ruminations of depression. . . . The intense anger of the imprisoned person also adds to the depressive burden. . . . The survivor may direct her rage and hatred against herself."
Some questions from kiparui
What was/were the cause(s) of your cptsd?
A violently abusive childhood, coupled with severe neglect. I'm going to put the autobiography at the end of this post; there's no way I can answer the questions after putting all that down on paper. (Well, onscreen.)
What different psychiatric approaches have you used to address your cptsd? What were the results like?
When Prozac first came out, I was in grad school -- I took it for about 8 months. Its only noticeable effect on me was to let me sleep, which I'm not complaining about; I'm a lifelong insomniac. For the past four years I've been taking Effexor; it has made an enormous difference in my daily life. It doesn't keep the depression away entirely, but it does moderate it. At one point a psychiatrist added Welbutrin to the mix, and I ended up a complete teary wreck. At work -- not good.
What different psychological approaches have you used to address your cptsd? What were the results like?
I've been in and out of therapy ever since I turned 21 -- it was my birthday present to myself. At that point -- 1980 -- PTSD was not well understood. As various issues came up, I would go back into therapy, dealing with the past and the present a chunk at a time. I've dealt with two well-trained pastoral counselors (ministers who also had degrees in psychology), a Jungian trainee, and various eclectic people. I'm more Jungian than anything else; Jung explains so much about who I am in ways that are much more accurate than Freud's formulations. If I were doing therapy as a professional, I would be eclectic too -- and I love narrative psychology; I've considered getting a degree in it.
As a result, I'm actually a mostly functioning person. I'm in a healthy, loving relationship. I have not killed myself. I mostly am fine. The PTSD comes back at times of stress, of course, but I live, love, work, and play. That's an amazing acomplishment.
Were there any approaches that worked much better or worse than others?
The drugs help. The various approaches have all helped, mainly because I've insisted on getting good, intelligent, skilled therapists, and I work damned hard. I do think that recognizing the PTSD component in this (maybe ten years ago?) has been very helpful. It made sense of so many things that otherwise just didn't fit.
What have been the most valuable things you've drawn from Herman's writings? Why?
Everything she says is something I recognize -- and having that external validation after such a brutal childhood has been incredibly strengthening. I can trust my own experience. I can see the ways through this.
The other thing I have to say: stories saved my life. I owe as much to certain authors, living and dead, as to my wonderful therapists. They gave me a family, ways to behave, hope that I could survive, strategies for dealing with the horror, a reason to go on -- so I could live to tell the truth. I would not be here without them.
Also, I am disabling comments on this post. You can email me if you really want to say something, or feel free to ask about PTSD in its many forms.
In the first five years of my parents’ marriage, they had four babies and moved 13 times, living in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and twice moving all the way to Florida and back. Even during her pregnancies, my mother was always working as an RN. The six weeks she took off when I was born was her longest break from work until she finally retired in her 60s.
It’s terrible to think of the chaos and stress of that early household: babies wailing, bill collectors calling, possessions lying heaped in boxes, my parents screaming at each other and us. When she was home, my mother took care of us; when she was working, my father and various babysitters did. Or didn’t.
The night I was born, while my mother was in labor, my father was flirting and playing cards with a student nurse. He rejected me instantly because I wasn't a boy - something I never heard until I was an adult, but I didn't need to know when it started. I knew from the beginning.
And the beginning was hunger. Something went wrong with my nursing, or never got started right. Maybe my mother was too stressed to have enough milk, maybe her and my father's heavy smoking affected it. It could be because I have a neurological impairment called dyspraxia ("clumsy child syndrome"), which makes me clumsy, uncoordinated, and physically slow. That sometimes causes problems with nursing, but there's no way to tell if it's a result of what was done to me, or was born with me. But from the beginning I wasn't getting enough food to live. It's impossible for anyone to believe who sees me now, but I was a small baby, and I stayed small and skinny right up through adolescence. I'm still almost three inches shorter than my mother, who is of average height. My father was almost 6 feet. Whatever the reason was, I was hungry and wailing in misery. And so when I was five days old, my mother put me on solid food. She started giving me what my 18-month-old sister Lisa was eating.
I couldn't digest it. I couldn't even really swallow it. It must have given me terrible colic; what my mother says is that I cried constantly for the first two years. Imagine that helpless creature, unable to ask for what I wanted, or do anything but hope and wait and need and suffer-and be grateful for what comfort I could find or gather by accident.
At the same time, there was what happened when I cried for other reasons. And this was what led me into rethinking my infancy, into facing in therapy these essential early bonds. I was talking with Jack (my most recent therapist) about something really painful, something where I'd failed another person, been self-destructive, all through procrastination. He asked me a question about it, and for once I just could not face it. So I said, "Please, can it wait?"
And something broke open in me. Suddenly I perceived how it had been. When I cried, I didn't get what I needed. I couldn't cry for food or clean diapers and get them. What I got instead ranged from food I couldn't digest to outright abuse.
Some of this wasn't news. I had already known about the very early childhood physical and sexual abuse. I have genital scars, as does at least one of my sisters (who needed surgery to correct hers). I have some very early childhood memories that are datable. I knew that when my father changed my diapers, he always grabbed the chance to hurt or molest me.
Suddenly, after 40 years, I comprehended my longing and my reluctance, my terror of my parents' rage finally overcome by simple need and followed always by regret and self-loathing. My infant self made procrastination a sacrament. I lay there and told myself stories, delaying as long as I could to acknowledge hunger or even wet myself, because crying-asking for what I needed-was only going to get me more pain.
I *had* to tell stories. Even when I was young, I felt dimly that (despite my father's admonition, "Never tell anyone what goes on in this house") I had something I *had* to tell. It was the purpose of my life. Later I saw writing as a sacred vocation. When I hit the Motherlode, I felt as though I had spoken the words at last, and I realized it was over. The eagle had dropped me. No more mission. The story had saved my life; there were plenty of times only the burning need to tell had kept me from suicide. Like Pheidippides, the first marathon runner, I had stayed alive long enough to gasp out the story, and now I could die. He did. I didn't - but my life is changed utterly.
Finally I could consciously feel and express that emotional stance, the life-shaping game of waiting and putting off. It explains so much: why even now I ignore my own bodily needs as long as I can, why I don't ask for basics that I need, why nerving myself to ask and then being mistreated is so crushing for me, what makes me feel like killing myself.
All through my childhood, I would have said that my mother was on my side, and my father was my enemy. They were locked in a death struggle with each other, and I was drawn into the center of the conflict: his favorite victim, the helpless and awkward scapegoat, her ally and protector.
But that view is simplistic. The relationships were more complex and considerably nastier than they appear at first. Ma wasn't just an overworked young mother struggling with an irresponsible husband, four kids under 5, and a full-time job. Daddy wasn't just a brilliant loafer who slept around, took drugs, and tortured his kids for fun.
I said to my very first therapist, back when I was 21, that my mother married Daddy because then she could always be right. Here was someone who would *always* fuck up. She looked like a saint in comparison. I suffered a lot from his wrongness, yes - but at least as much from her rightness. From her martyrdom.
My oldest datable memory goes back to when I was about a year and a half or two years old. I was lying in a crib in a hospital, crying, and a nurse came and stuck a bottle in my mouth. I was angry, because I wasn't crying from hunger, but because I missed Mommy and my big sister.
One important thing about this memory is that there is already a deeply encoded avoidance of my father. Yet he was the one who had noticed I was feverish and had taken me to the hospital. I was anemic from not eating enough. Still, at that age, I was already at odds with him-a powerful argument, as if I needed one, that the abuse and neglect had begun already.
My mother taught me to read out of the King James Version of the Bible, but TV actually laid some of the groundwork - the voiceovers and the printed tagline of commercials helped. And my mother did read to us when she could. I remember being angry when a story changed; there was a Right Version, the way my mother told it, and any deviation was dangerous.
By the time I was 4, I was reading books. Not just Dr. Seuss or Little Golden Books, both of which I loved. (I was especially attached to the picture of a volcano in my Little Golden Book of Geography; it started me on a lifelong passion for rocks and geology.) I was reading books by Grace Livingston Hill, who wrote Christian romances early in the century. Books were the ideal escape.
When Aunt Mabel (actually my mother's aunt) gave us the twelve-volume Reader's Digest Condensed Books for Young People, I was in heaven. That's where I first read Jane Eyre and so many other wonderful books. Jane Eyre is, of course, the story of a little girl who survives emotional and physical abuse. Matthew Arnold dismissed Charlotte Bronte's masterpiece as "rage, hunger, and rebellion." Yes, well. . . . that's why it meant so much to me.
We also had the Harvard Classics for Young People, a ten- volume set that included all kinds of stories, poems, and biographies. I loved them, too, and that's where I first heard of Joan of Arc, my lifelong heroine. The very first book I ever took out of a library was about her. We got library cards at the Bloomsburg library when Lisa started school in 1963. And my mother gave me what may have been her best gift of all: a copy of Little Women. She said, "This is about four little girls just like you and your sisters." It was explicit permission to identify myself with books, to find a world there. As the second of four girls, of course I identified with Jo, who wants to be a writer. (And becomes one.)
Little Women is astonishingly realistic about family rivalry, which is why the woman-centered, sister-centered world felt real to me; Alcott knew all about sister love and sister hatred. It's also full of hunger, physical hunger. And hunger is at the root for me.
I made endless mud pies, climbed trees, played with my sisters. We whirled until we were dizzy and did somersaults. We walked around the house holding mirrors reflecting the ceiling, using those as guides for where to step. I remember playing in the barn: jumping down into the corn from the stairs above, stealing corn to plant (it grew, too). I remember the sky and the fields, walking down to Zehner's bridge to swim in the creek, climbing the hill back home. I remember being utterly fearless walking along the narrow, humped porch railing. My sisters called me Brave Eyes because I could see in the dark and I wasn't afraid of anything. I didn't know yet that I was clumsy and slow, but I had problems getting my shoes on the right feet, and I was in third grade before I could tie my own shoes.
For church we went to the Catholic church in Bloomsburg. I remember the stained glass and Father Beeman's sonorous voice saying words that sounded beautiful but made no sense: the Latin Mass. He was a handsome redheaded priest, and I was a bit in love with him. Even then I was looking for substitute fathers: Father Beeman, Grandpa Belles, even John Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln, who were my own father's heroes. Unfortunately, Father Beeman was sent away from the parish for holding hands with my mother.
In those days (July 1961 to July 1965) my mother was working full-time on the 3-11 shift at Danville State Hospital, a beautiful Victorian complex on a hilltop. There were fine buildings of brick and wood, lawns and trees, sweeping river views, a working farm. Even the gates inside the buildings, by which you could shut down a dangerous ward, were of wrought iron, and some of the windows were stained glass. She also held part-time, fill-in jobs at Bloomsburg Hospital and as a factory nurse. My father was living in Philadelphia, more than a hundred miles away, going through nurses' training.
So who was taking care of those babies? Take a look at those dates in the Timeline. We were all tiny - three of us in diapers. Ma was working several jobs, trying to keep food on the table. At some point, Ma went to a home for the mentally retarded and hired Ethel Witter, who would live with us for the next eight years or so. She was tiny (4'8") and had the mental ability of a 10- or 12-year-old. She was just about able to do the job of changing diapers, heating supper, and making sure we didn't burn down the house. In terms of actual raising of children - well, she wasn't up to it. We raised ourselves and each other.
This was a blessing in disguise. The less we saw of our parents, the better. The enmity, the fear and hatred and loathing, that was between my father and me was still alive. I was always the one he picked on, the one he mocked and hated and scapegoated. One of my earliest memories of him was of him spanking me because the living room was messy. But my big sister and I had picked up our toys - the ones on the floor were my little sisters'. And spanking - that's not a word that conveys the difference in physical power between a toddler not three feet high and a tall man in his twenties. He didn't swat or smack - he battered, full force.
There was no sense of fairness, justice, proportion - no connection between what I did and how I was treated. (Later I would be knocked down and beaten by my father because he asked me who had written the Sherlock Holmes stories. Not because I had the wrong answer, but because I had the right answer. He didn’t want to hear that it was Arthur Conan Doyle.) I might be beaten no matter how good I was, and both parents sometimes overlooked or ignored misbehavior. They hit us when they felt like it, not when we had broken a rule. And their rage was terrifying - it was uncontrollable, out of proportion. My mother bragged about having broken a hairbrush on one of us when she was only two.
I couldn't hit him, but I could hate him. I wanted to kill him. I knew how, too; I could stick a knife into the back of his neck, up into his brain. I spent a lot of time thinking about doing that. Ma even used to talk to us about killing him, about ways I could kill him. I was chosen the family assassin, God knows why. Maybe because it was so clear that he and I hated each other.
When my father came home to visit, he sometimes brought friends; I remember having a crush on one of them. He even brought his girlfriends. Sometimes he came alone, and then he went hunting: shooting crows or woodchucks in the cornfield behind the house, hunting for deer. He did kill one in about 1964; not another for ten more years. Once my big sister and I rescued a wounded crow and tried to save it, but it died and we buried it in the ash heap. Another time I was out in the field with him, and he sent me running back for a 30.06. I staggered back outside with the first gun I saw (yes, they all were loaded, none locked up), and he hit me and told me how stupid I was for bringing the wrong one. I was four years old.
When he killed a woodchuck, Daddy would bring it in to the den where he had a makeshift desk of plywood on sawhorses. He also had a lot of books on shelves in there: mostly military history, and there were some picture books about places like Auschwitz. When I saw those pictures, I knew whose side I was on. He had a portrait of JFK, too, because my father was a good liberal all his life.
I'm avoiding this.
He would take the woodchuck in. I remember his excitement, his panting eagerness. He would get Lisa and me and make us watch as he sliced open the fur. His face would be bent close to the cadaver, ours were only inches away, at eye level with the knife and the guts. I remember the sound of the blade, the sucking as the skin was pulled away from the under-layer of fat, the stench of viscera, the surprising colors of the internal organs: bluish, leaden, red. The oozing of bile and blood. The ridges of the trachea, the spongy feel of the lungs as they were squashed in my fingers.
"Go on, touch it," he urged. He made us do it. He was armed, he was adult, he was crazy-violent, and the evidence of what he would do was right there, in front of us.
Once it was our cat, which he had run over in the driveway. Mostly it was woodchucks. And his excitement, his eagerness, those were the same as the times he had touched me and hurt me, beaten my back with a belt until I turned over to give him access. (That was consent, you see; he wasn't forcing me since I had turned over of my own accord.) What he did to the cat, to the woodchuck, he could do to me. It was only a matter of time.
This is one reason I don't eat much meat. It's cannibalism. I'm a dead animal too. I know what murder looks like, and it's meat. And I am always aware that there might be something funny in that food, something weird - a leftover from the spoiled bottles, the oral rapes, my father's little food experiments, of my earlier infancy, but also an identification with the stripped and ravaged corpses. I remember at about age 3 refusing to eat a chocolate Easter bunny: I was afraid it would gush blood, bile, organs. I'd still rather only eat chocolate that has nuts in it; then it isn't alive, see. One time he called me in when he was in the tub. He grabbed my hair and pulled me down over him. Suck or drown. He kept ducking me, I kept crying, snot and tears and cock all gagging me.
One day my mother took us to a Justice of the Peace. We played in his garden - a beautiful little walled garden with flagstone paths. She was discussing how to file for divorce. My father had gotten one of his girlfriends pregnant. (Yes, I have an illegitimate brother in Philly, though he may have died - I have heard contradictory things.) He was done with training, so he would be able to support himself.
He came home. He brought loaded guns. "Never point a gun at someone you don't mean to kill" - that's something he said a lot. He herded us into my sister's room, at the front of the house, and he kept us there, overnight, at gunpoint. At dawn Ma wrestled the gun from him. Ethel and all of us girls got out - we girls wearing the matching flannel nightgowns Mommy had made us when we all had chicken pox a little while before. My mother was trapped there, fighting him for the gun.
We were leaving the house, running barefoot down the flagstone path toward the road. I heard a shot, and the window smashed, and I could hear Mommy screaming, "Run! Run!"
I looked up. She was bent almost backward out the window. He had the gun now, or maybe it was a different one. I didn't see her any more. She was dead. He was aiming through the window. He shot. He wanted us like the crows, falling awkwardly. Like the woodchucks, slit and gutted on his desk. Like Mommy, lying dead in the room.
We were running down the road now, bare feet on cool asphalt, beside a plowed field. I remember the blue sky, the early-morning clouds lifting, the dark earth and the gnarled apple tree in the middle of the field. Then Carlton, the farmer who owned our house, came rattling by in his old truck. He let us all in. There was a twisted, splintered board on the floor of his truck.
He took us to his brother's house - not Herbert's, where we bought our milk, but his other brother's. They had a kitchen with a pass-through bar and three barstools. We had chocolate milk. One of the boys there had a Visible Man, a clear plastic man with all his innards showing. Nobody told us our mother was all right.
The next few days were idyllic. That time stretched in my mind - it seemed like heaven, it seemed to last, but it didn't. We went to see Daddy in the mental hospital - Danville, where Mommy was working. He bought us candy at the canteen. We had a little picnic under the trees.
He was arrested. Charges dropped. Committed for observation, No problem. In 1965 it was normal to try to kill your wife and kids if your wife was fool enough to file for divorce. Nobody did a thing to protect us - except take away the guns. The next time we were living with my father, though, he had them all again.
Sometime in here I was in the attic. I always loved the attic and rooting around in the boxes up there. They seemed full of treasure. I was playing with a glass jar. I dropped it, and it shattered against the windowsill - the window directly over my sister's room - and a fragment must have bounced. It cut my left wrist. It cut deep; my mother wrapped the wrist in a towel for a tourniquet and we took off for the hospital. Dr. Wright sewed me up. I watched the needle going in and out. I didn't cry a tear.
These are just the early years. I really can’t go on and tell it all here. This is excerpted from a manuscript I’m working on, and even getting it into shape for this post has been incredibly difficult.
I always carried the guilt of a killer. Because I had wanted to kill him. Because I had, in my infancy, collaborated in the soul-murder of my own infant self. When I was a little older, my mother and my big sister and I would discuss ways to kill my father; I was always elected the family assassin. It only recently occurred to me that a deadly confrontation between a five-year-old, an eight-year-old, even a skinny little 14-year-old and a homicidal, well-armed six-foot adult male was almost bound to end in failure, almost certainly in her death. That my mother was willing to swap my life for getting rid of him, and she could be free and be punished for freedom, or get divorced and have an unassailable reason for divorce. Even her fundamentalist parents would have agreed to that. But I would be paying the full price myself: jailed, battered, ruined, dead.
This -- like the rest of my LJ -- is copyrighted material. I am planning to publish this someday.