For a second let’s take a pause from the car accident. We will circle back to it. First let’s go back to the beginning of the story.
So how did I end up living with trauma? I’m not sure if that is a simple story. Yet, had it been a simple story I believe I’d find myself living a different life. I think it was more of a combinations of events and circumstances that were traumatic. There was no single one event that did it; mine is not that kind of PTSD.
What is PTSD? PTSD is the result of exposure to a traumatic event. It can be any number of things. Each person’s experience is different. We all have different lives and different triggers.
I’m not am expert by any means. Im not a doctor. I haven’t studied it for years. All I have is my experience of living with it.
What is PTSD? Well in dry basic clinical terms, listed below are some of the symptoms.
Symptoms of intrusive memories may include:
- Recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event
- Reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again (flashbacks)
- Upsetting dreams or nightmares about the traumatic event
- Severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds you of the traumatic event
Symptoms of avoidance may include:
- Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event
- Avoiding places, activities or people that remind you of the traumatic event
Negative changes in thinking and mood
Symptoms of negative changes in thinking and mood may include:
- Negative thoughts about yourself, other people or the world
- Hopelessness about the future
- Memory problems, including not remembering important aspects of the traumatic event
- Difficulty maintaining close relationships
- Feeling detached from family and friends
- Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Difficulty experiencing positive emotions
- Feeling emotionally numb
Changes in physical and emotional reactions
Symptoms of changes in physical and emotional reactions (also called arousal symptoms) may include:
- Being easily startled or frightened
- Always being on guard for danger
- Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much or driving too fast
- Trouble sleeping
- Trouble concentrating
- Irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behavior
- Overwhelming guilt or shame
– according to mayoclinic.org
Somewhere among my research on PTSD, staring at a list of symptoms as listed above, and questing to figure out what it is that was wrong with me I came across Complex Post Traumatic Disorder. C-PTSD unlike regular PTSD results from continuous exposure to trauma instead of one single traumatic event.
So what did this mean for me? You see I hadn’t always lived drowning in anxiety, panic, and dread. My PTSD wasn’t triggered until senior year of college: a time when I was severely stressed out about graduation, finding a job, terrified of having to return to live at home, a ghosted boyfriend, and friends that all of a sudden pulled away. When that trigger was set off I was flooded with memories of the time I lived with my grandmother.
My mother and I immigrated from Europe and from the time I was eight to the time I was eighteen we lived with my mom’s mother. My grandmother had married well. Her goal in life was always to move to America and marry rich. Mission accomplished. My mother just wanted what was best for me so we lived with her mother to save money while she went to school to get a degree. When I was little, it was normal to me to have my mother and grandmother fight. It was just how life was. I didn’t understand what it was about and generally it didn’t affect me.
When my PTSD was triggered I remembered those years leading up to my high school graduation. It was a time when I lived in my grandmother’s house and in fear. My grandmother was very controlling. It was her way or the highway and when I or my mother didn’t agree with her on something she would threaten to evict us. It would always be the same fight: “This is not your house.” ” You are ungrateful.” “You have no right to be here.” “If it wasn’t for me and my husband you’d have nothing.” “You should do everything we ask to repay us for our generosity and kindness.” Round and round we went.
A particular memory stands out to me of an afternoon when my mom was getting ready to take me to ballet class. I must have been around the age of 10. My grandma and mom had a huge argument, I don’t remember what about, but as we were getting ready to get in the car, my grandmother screamed “Don’t you dare come back. You don’t live here any more. I won’t have you here.” I was so young. I was so afraid and upset that we would have nowhere to live. I tried my very best to behave so that we wouldn’t get thrown out. As I grew up I began to understand that the threats were empty. I learned to just sit there and take it while my grandmother spewed vicious comments until it would be over.
At some point, around the time I was 14 or 15 I became afraid to leave my room whether it was to go to the kitchen to get something to eat or to even go across the hall to use the bathroom. Our house was very echo-y and all sounds could be heard throughout. I was afraid to be noticed, because if I was, my grandmother would either 1. Comment on what I was wearing 2. How I was behaving or 3. Assign a chore.
I was a ballet dancer and danced somewhere around 20 hours a week depending on if we were in rehearsals. I gained a lot of weight after I stopped dancing due to an injury. Later to find out a big part of it was also due to hormonal changes and PCOS. Yet to my grandmother I was a disgrace. Even when I had lost the weight I was still fat in her eyes. She would often comment on how I needed to get into shape, how I was fat and ugly. “Do you want to look like that? You should really do something about it otherwise you’ll never have any friends and you’ll never find someone to love you.” “You think I need a granddaughter like you? Look at your friend, I’d be better off having someone like them. They are pretty, polite, and obedient.” She would become obsessed with the newest diet or health fad and force it on me and my mother. She would tell us that we had parasites, needed to fast, or to detox. She even took my mother and I to a fasting clinic for a week one time to help us cleanse.
I did lose the weight once my hormones balanced out. I looked great, or so I understand that now. I always struggled to be comfortable with how I looked. I struggle with it now; I think many of us do. I always took great care with my hair, makeup, and outfits. I’d get spooked if anyone told me I looked pretty or something on me was nice. I thought they were laughing at me. I thought they were just being polite. Yet even on days when I felt confident, comfortable and excited about my appearance, my grandmother would tear into it by calling me a whore, a slut, or bringing into question my sexuality and behaviors outside the home.
At some point I became very withdrawn from the family and my grandmother would comment how I would always have a bad attitude. Which I did, because I was so tired of dealing with her shit. I did my best to stay quiet to avoid being bullied.
As far as her chores went: my grandmother was a big fan of chores, but taken a little bit to the extreme. These were great big projects. “Go weed the entire garden” she’d say… all some thousand square feet of it. “Go wash all the floors”… with chlorine in the giant multi story house that was all mostly tiled. It was hard to get that task done with breathing in the chlorine, sometimes bleach, and living in the time before the swifter. If I missed a spot I’d have to do it all. “Unload the dishwasher”… but I wasn’t allowed to wait until the dishes cooled, so I’d burn my hands. Our front yard was under the cover of palm trees. The seeds would get stuck in between the brick driveway. It would drive my grandmother crazy. So with a fire hose I’d have to wash down the driveway until every single seed was gone. An hour later after I’d finish my grandmother would come to inspect and berate me for not doing a good job, because more seeds had fallen in that time.
I did my best to survive. I had pretty good friends in school that were my escape. With them I could just be and when I got a car at the age of sixteen it was easier to escape. Yet when I’d come home, my grandmother would tell me how these kids were taking advantage of me, how I shouldn’t trust them, that they were trying to corrupt me, and that they didn’t really care about me. My friends in school were good kids; they didn’t do drugs, didn’t party, they were into art and literature, into baking and creating, into movies and comics, and I could trust myself to trust them. They all had their own demons, their own difficult situations, so we had a mutual understanding that we got one another.
How else did I survive? By going back to my home country to visit my father and the rest of the family. My parents divorced when I was 4 and we left for America when I was 8. Afterwards I went 6 years without seeing my father due the inability to travel without a green card. Finally when I was 15, I got the necessary documentation and I began going back home once a year.
My grandmother hated my father. I don’t know why to this day. So she would tell me he didn’t love me, that he didn’t care about me, and that he now only cared about his new family with my half-sister and step-mother. She told me that I wasn’t safe with him. She would say how much better I am than my sister. She would put her down in the prospect of raising me up. Our house was big, we were rich, we had great connections, so we HAD to be better than them. In that moment I understood that money could not provide security, safety, love, or respect. My grandmother kept trying to poison me against my father and his family but it backfired, because when I would visit them, I’d feel free and safer than ever before. My step-mother and I were really good friends and we’d have amazing bonding sessions with long philosophical conversations. She, my father, and their side of the family would do their best to build up my self confidence. To them mistakes were opportunities to learn not proof that I was worthless. To them I was beautiful no matter what and that gave me hope.
Yet my mindset was already warped by that point. I thought that if I’d do better in school, or if I was thinner, or if I dressed better, or if I was stronger, or if I was more reserved and stoic, I’d be loved more, that my dad would finally come to America to visit, that I’d stop being yelled at by my grandmother. In my head the truth was that if I’d be better then that would get her to stop saying all these things. It was an un-achievable goal that was set before me. I would berate myself when I’d get a B on an assignment in class, or when I was having an off day and looked fat in the mirror. I’d be particularly down when a birthday, a holiday, or when graduation came around and my dad wasn’t there to celebrate with me, I thought that I hadn’t done well enough for him to come out and be proud of me. So I worked doubly as hard.
The amount of pressure I put myself under started to make me crack when I went off to college. Against my grandparents approval I didn’t become a doctor at the college of their choice. After freshman year I decided it wasn’t for me. So I packed up my things, moved across the country to attend culinary school. It was something that I could see myself doing and be happy. My father and his mother advised me to do go after what feels right. From as far back as I could remember the best times I ever had in life was with them or with friends in the kitchen cooking.
So with my maternal grandparent’s threat of being disowned, which I was, having no clear plan for the future, being told I was going to fail, but with the physical support of my mother and my father’s moral support from his home in Europe I was able to make the transition. With their help I was able to find the freedom to follow my dream, to take my life in the direction I wanted even if I wasn’t sure about it. In the 3 years that followed where I battled through culinary school, my anxiety grew. Years of my grandmother’s words sank in deeper and deeper. With every struggle, I felt like a failure, and every bump in the road would justify how my grandmother told me I am and would be a failure, that I am worthless, that no one would ever want me. So I would fight harder. Yet the harder I fought the harder I felt I failed. Every holiday that I came home my grandmother would tell me that perhaps I should switch majors, that she would pay for it, and that then I wouldn’t have to do servants work.
I didn’t care what it took but I vowed to myself that I would never go back to that house. That was the biggest stressor. I couldn’t go back. I wouldn’t go back to the house in which I was afraid to live, in which I was afraid to leave my room in fear that I would be verbally attacked.
These all were the beginnings of my PTSD leading up to the big trigger.