Recognizing Complex Trauma | Psychology Today

Recognizing Complex Trauma | Psychology Today.

It is essential for them to understand that their symptoms come from somewhere, so they can have compassion for themselves …

Developmental Trauma Disorder, Frozen Trauma, Complex Trauma, Attachment Disorder — whatever it’s called, it’s been a long time coming for the weight and the cost of repeated childhood trauma to be given its proper weight.


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For Carl

my new private balcony

my new private balcony


A new era has begun in my life, with a move from the place I moved into 2 months ago, to a place that is … well, it’s a little piece of heaven, with a fellow recovery woman.

It’s on a river. The sound of the river permeates the entire property and house. My room is on the 2nd floor, with my own private balcony. The house has several skylights, wood floors and trim throughout.

The property has several gardening areas for vegetables and flowers, grassy nooks with chairs, fruit trees, and a gazebo on the river. There is also a workshop and an art studio.

Both my roommate and I feel that this is a place that wants to be a vessel for healing. It wants to provide a safe, affordable and soul-nourishing haven for people who need it, in order to do our work, the work of the soul and spirit. The rent is super cheap, and the location is a few minutes walking to down town. We want to host healing circles and various healing modalities here.

My arrival here happened suddenly, removing me from the danger inherent in living alone. I had been isolating and not eating, in and out of various states of dissociation and paralyzation. A friend of mine asked me why i was remaining in this harmful situation. I realized I had not made it real in my mind that it was a harmful situation. I was still holding on, trying to convince myself that it wasn’t happening, that really, I was fine; I was just thinking I wasn’t. When the landlords there gave notice they were returning to the Valley, this new place emerged. After my friend asked me why I was staying, I checked out moving earlier, and was given the green light. I moved the next day.

The previous roommate here was a beautiful, bright, gay man who was the keeper of the space and property, loved gardening, home repairs and landscaping. He also lived with OCD and Bipolar Disorder. He chose to leave this world by suicide last month. As he had promised to his friends, he waited until he was happy for several months before leaving. He sorted his things and arranged for them to be dispersed, cleaned the house, made soup for the woman who is now my rooommate. Everyone knew that his leaving was imminent, and when he was all set up to facilitate his departure, he emailed my roommate, who was out of town at the time. It took him two consecutive attempts to leave.

His body was found in his room. He died a happy, loving and giving spirit; at peace in his surroundings and with his friends in this life. His passing has brought me here, and so I write this as an offering of gratitude and appreciation. I feel his presence, and that he is a kindred spirit. I regret that I did not get to know him while he was still here.

For Carl. For all your journeys, sorrows, joys, achievements, struggles, and losses. And for all the great love you gave to this world. May you be in peace in the afterlife. May your spirit soar on, always and forever free.

beside my pillow, the sound of the river surrounding.

beside my pillow, the sound of the river surrounding. words and cards by a fellow aca member. amethyst heart stone from fellow coda member, crystal from dear friend in my previous city up North. I am not alone on this journey.

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step four — july to november 2010, the nose of the ship begins to go under

my post step four introduction is the context for this series of posts.

the form of the space and how all my things went with his furniture seemed so perfect. my heart sang to have a home space with my things in it. it seemed like the final landing place for the next era of being a student on a national leadership award. we called it the Zen Palace. I could finally grieve and recover from all of the upheaval in my life because I thought it was over.

On the plane to the leadership conference I attended in November as part of the award, what was on my brain to write about was my new roommate. we’d been roommates since July, and had entered an agreement to have a “jock & ben” (from the Haven) kind of friendship, where we practice radical honesty with each other in order to work through some of our issues around connection. I had come from the previous winter in a trailer park, then a basement suite sleeping on a massage table and living out of President’s Choice reusable shopping bags, then finally a local B&B in exchange for caretaking, to this beautiful appartment, shared with my Haven friend.

From my notes during the conference of speakers and workshops and such:

Meaningful service:
  • positive contribution
  • solves a problem, fills a need
  • meaningful to you, your passion, your goals
  • spark / inspire action in others
  • far-reaching, long lasting.

Depth & Breadth — breadth is the degree that it pushes yourself, and to which you engage others.

These notes were followed by pages of brainstorming on how I could make change in my community.

Looking at these notes of busy-ness, what they make tangible is the degree to which I pushed myself. How hard I tried, and how much I was trying to do, all at the same time, as an intensely sincere, thorough, thoughtful and hard-working person.

Upon my return from the conference, and only four months after I’d moved in, my new Haven roommate became emotionally cold, and informed me he didn’t want to have a roommate in his space any more and that I had to move out. This was the point at which the boat really started to go down. The feelings of being isolated, forgotten and ashamed were so intense that I found myself sobbing at the bottom of our empty bathtub after a bath. My chest throbbed with the kind of pain that is emotional and physical all at once — the kind that radiates down my arms right out to my finger tips.

I had exhausted all my friends couches, massage tables, trailers, basements and b&b’s; and I felt I had exhausted my friends themselves. The world was a cold hard, empty bathtub; I was naked inside, and clinging desperately to a  disintigrating mask of a national leader.

I declined to attend an awards ceremony because I couldn’t stand the thought of standing alone, not having anyone there with me, being an outsider. I just said I couldn’t go.

I had begun seeing the school’s free psychologist, but even she did not see the drasticness of the actions that were required. I did not sleep or eat properly again until arriving in the hospital 6 months later. By then, my stint of homelessness had seen me on a basement mattress for December, and into the school’s mature residence in January.

a handwritten note on a recipe card I found on the windshield of my car after work one day over the summer. Though I’d been reluctant to admit it, the car had become a real beater, with rust and a faulty muffler. It was the car of my marriage that I was still driving, while negotiating the sale of our house and working as a cashier; which, in a small town where I was previously famous, was the most humiliating thing I have ever done. At the time, I endured, thinking all would be well once school began in the fall. You know it’s time to get a new car if complete and total strangers begin leaving messages like this one on your windshield.


identity confusion / unstable sense of self

This morning, I woke up with this image in my head, and immediately went about creating it:

Illustration of Identity Confusion

Here is a collection of writings from this site on the topic of this aspect of bpd:

identity confusion

Walking the line in flip flops

crazy for thinking I’m crazy

inconsistent soul

Hello world

to my therapist – “titanic”

meandering identity

precocious ego development

trusting perception + trauma is trauma

deprived heart

dialectic gems (or pebbles)

dialectics, again + confirmation: i am not faking it. i am not a fraud.

Related Articles from others:

Reinventing self … The BPD unstable sense of self and identity rears its ugly head again (

Constant career changes … the BPD unstable sense of self and identity (

Borderline Personality and the Unstable Sense of Self (


dialectics, again + confirmation: i am not faking it. i am not a fraud.

enabling vs. support

isolation vs. time alone to feel

relaxation vs. laziness

overcoming fears vs. entering unsafe situations and betraying ourselves.

extraordinarily gifted vs. disabled and less-fortunate

young woman or old hag

young woman or old hag (unknown artist)

the trigger

I spent the weekend with a group of fellow ACA members (Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families) at a ski resort several hours away from where I live.

Having known several of these folks as an off-and-on member of their recovery group for the past year, I didn’t think twice about spending several days with them in a remote location.

They were safe, they were friends and fellow survivors; and as such, their friends were my friends.

I had what could be called by the psychiatric profession an episode (?). I yelled and swore and sobbed hysterically for over an hour, and was left alone in this state, but in clear ear shot of the 9 other members in the house.

I had become exhausted skiing and had not headed my instinct to rest. I had then become over-stimulated and gone into a state of extreme shyness, insecurity, social phobia.

Unable to join the group at dinner upstairs, I stayed in my bunk downstairs after a nap and phoned a friend with trauma and ptsd experience. I didn’t feel able to hide what was going on for me, but I also didn’t know how or if to share it with the group. She helped me identify that I was approaching a potential crisis state, and we decided that I would call up to the woman who had invited me to be there that weekend and ask if she would bring me some food in my bed.

The crisis became full blown when this request triggered the woman who owned the house to come storming down to my bedroom and inform me that there was no room service in her house. When I told her I had a medical condition that prevented me from coming up to the living room area, she demanded to know what it was, saying she had a right to know because it was her house. When I told her, she said that I should have thought twice about coming there in the first place; that her house was a place of joy and community. When I asked to speak with the woman who had invited me to the weekend, the owner of the condo said that she would not allow it, that she would not allow her friends to be burdened with negative feelings while they were staying in her house. That I could come up and join them when I felt ready to be in a positive space.

In the midst of all that, I had began to cry, then sob, then yell and swear at her through my sobbing, while covering my face and curling into a ball before becoming completely inaudible in my efforts to defend myself.

She personified my initial wounding. Then, the rest of the group personified it by the fact that despite my loud and uncontrollable sobbing went on for over an hour, no one came down to be with me. I was left alone, in shame and exile for how I was feeling. I phoned my ptsd friend again, and we decided that I was not in a safe place, and that I needed to find a way to get out of there as soon as possible, all through the sobbing, the whole conversation quite audible to the rest of the group upstairs if they had stopped to listen. I have no idea. From the snippets of sound I was hearing from them, it sounded as if they had simply continued with their evening, laughing and joking and being the happy recovery family. I then called my CoDA sponsor, who was sympathetic and actually in shock to hear what was going on with this group of ACA members, but completely stand-offish when it came to action, such as driving to pick me up or speaking with another member there at the house with me. She told me I would have to call on my higher power like never before to endure and survive and reminded me that I was physically safe.

When the rest of the group left to go tubing down the hill that night, I was alone in the house. I called two more CoDA people, who made me laugh and start to feel like myself again. I tried to find out if there were any shuttles out of there sooner than my ride with the others down the hill the following afternoon, but to no avail. So I packed up my things from the common living space and prepared to spend the next 12 hours in my bed, reading, writing, listening to music and anything else to forget where I was.

When the group came home, there was not privacy. I was sleeping in a bunk with one other, tucked in a passage way from the boot room of the house to the basement stairway. By now, I had calmed down and was able to accept the reality of being there, having to honour myself and my experience and relate to the others in the way that the situation needed me to in order to survive it. Two women ended up in my room with me, and after I joined into their banter about what had happened on the tubing hill for a few minutes, they asked me how I was doing. I told them that I was ready to go, simply passing the time until the next day when I could go home; that I did not feel welcome in this home. I told them what had happened for me, and that I had never lost it like that in front of others (in retrospect, I don’t think I’d actually lost it like that, period). They fostered the viewpoint of objectivity, understanding and non judgement, and encouraged me that everyone else was also of that mindset and that they would be happy if I was able to come up and join them for the evening.

And so I did. Without betraying my own reality, and with a bubble of protection from those I had spoken to on the phone, I was able to be present with myself and with the others. I endured until the next day and made it home.

In the car, it became clear that no one was going to bring it up. That if I remained silent and removed for the rest of the trip, that was going to be how it would end. So, I came out and asked for a clearing about what had happened and they engaged willingly.

They identified that the condo owner had been triggered, which had disrupted the interaction of me asking for help, and expressed sadness that I had had a traumatic experience this weekend. They told me that the condo owner had witnessed the woman I’d asked to speak with in a suicidal state, codependently wrapped up in other people’s dramas, and that this was a life-time pattern of hers. They said that if I had included in my request for some food, the reason why I was requesting it, that the exchange would also have gone quite differently. That when there was no explanation for why, it seemed strange, and they didn’t understand. The unspoken general response from the group became that I was being manipulative for attention, and that appeasing my request would be an act of what the 12-step community calls ‘enabling.’ In the 12-step sense, enabling describes the situation of bringing a six pack of beer to an alcoholic, in essence, enabling the dysfunction to continue. So to their minds, their response (or lack of) had been coming from a loving and compassionate place.

In that clearing in the car, another member related to the state of intense social phobia — the intense feelings of shame and shyness, and feeling unable to be around people. Her response however then went into how she had learned that if she was able to find the strength to ‘fake it until she made it’ she was almost always fine, and the fear diminished.

In the moment, I said nothing. My face glazed over and I stared far out into the distance through the car windows.


Since I’ve been home, I have been sleeping very little and processing a lot, alternating between empowerment & revelation and overwhelm & shame.
I feel like an outsider of the world.
Faking It

Faking It (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Part of my digestion was also around this notion of ‘faking it ’till you make it’ and realizing that once again, this approach is the opposite of healthy for me. I faked it till I made it in every moment of living for the first half of my life, and did it so well as to land myself in situations of impossible and unsustainable expectations. ‘Faking it ’till I made it’ betrayed myself, so long that it became a trauma in itself. I was untrustworthy. I was untruthful. I became exhausted, increasingly depressed, increasingly disconnected from myself and others. The greater the disconnect, the greater the over-compensation. My sense of self disintegrated and all that was left was a hollow shell and a scam. I was living a lie.

‘Faking it …’ is a death potion to me. The ultimate rejection of Self, a kind of suicide. That my strength must be real and authentic, or not at all, is a matter of life or death.

This process of radical honesty in order to heal means being at times awkward — strange — inappropriate. My understanding of 12-step fellowship was that we can accept this about each other and not react with suspicion or avoidance as others who are not in recovery often do.

In our pain, fear, confusion and over-compensation, we can hurt others just as we have been hurt ourselves so long ago. And so the initial wound lives on, passed on, from one wounded soul to another.

'Cracked' by Stephen Kline

‘Cracked’ by Stephen Kline

There’s a basic human instinct that tells us to help someone who is in distress. Of all the places I’d expect that to be missing, ACA is the last. Ironically, I don’t think anyone in CoDA would have left me to sob loudly and hysterically for an hour while carrying on jovially. Nor would they have pretended like nothing happened for the rest of the weekend until I asked for a clearing about it in the car. Even then, I don’t feel they got it. They felt proud of how their little recovery family had handled the situation because no one had acted codependently. no one had rescued anyone else. No one had been enabled.
If a man is dying on the side of the road, do we expect him to ask for help as we pass by? Are we enabling his dysfunction by helping him without his direct request?
So in the attempt to end codependency (and enabling), we can become the source of the initial abandonment and shame for others. And so the legacy continues, the wide pendulums from one extreme to another that bounce and ricochet down the tree of generations.
My trauma friend says that her and many of her peers have experienced this with 12-step groups — the hyper -vigilance and -discipline that can re-traumatize someone in trauma recovery. People in her trauma treatment program avoid 12-step work for the very experience I have had — the tragic and ironic absence of basic human compassion and caring that is the reason we are all here in recovery.
In the effort to rid ourselves of addiction, the heart gets thrown out with the bath water.

In recovery, it takes a lot to love ourselves. It is our life’s journey in getting well. And just as it isn’t easy to love ourselves, it is sometimes just as hard to love each other.

And yet, this is our only hope. If we cannot love ourselves and each other, who will?

I am no longer sure of the right healing place for me to be. I’m not sure if ACA is a safe place for me to be. I am floating in the ether.


9_fence_posts (unknown artist)

enabling vs. support

isolation vs. time alone to feel

relaxation vs. laziness

overcoming fears vs. entering unsafe situations and betraying ourselves.

extraordinarily gifted vs. disabled and less-fortunate

We live on these fence posts because of the split that our dysfunctional upbringings created in us. The chronic doubting of our own impulses and inclinations, the questioning of what is real, the unrelenting base of confusion, the existential angst that rots our foundations like a termite. We abandon ourselves and each other. Mistrust ourselves and each other.

From the perspective of my diagnosed illness, this situation is a stellar example of it. That I can have that kind of experience — externalized or not ,– that I can lose control of my emotions to such an extent, and then talk about it so sanely and with such clarity is an illustration of the split in me between my mind and my heart.

I believe it is a distinct characteristic of my illness.

It is an illness because it confuses people. It confuses me.

I get mis-diagnosed and mis-understood.

People think I am being manipulative for attention.

And in my own confusion, I feel like a two-faced fraud.

Related articles


Mental Health Writers’ Guild

Mental Health Writers Guild 2012 MembershipI’m glad to find this project, and happy to be a new member.

The Mental Health Writers’ Guild is a new site to connect bloggers, share information, raise awareness, promote understanding and transform stigma on the subject of mental illness.

We are all in this together people. Check out the site by clicking on the Membership image to your left.




authentic living


'You are Your Path' by Michael Leunig (enhanced by Underground)

'You are Your Path' by Michael Leunig (enhanced by Underground)

It has been a time of relative balance, which is, of course, always precarious. I don’t think I have changed so much as how I have reacted to what I have learned about myself–how I have started to live my life accordingly.

The things I would say that are different now, from before my diagnosis are:

1) I can’t do as much as I used to do. I need more time and space to process thoughts and experiences.

2) I am easily and severely exhausted, requiring extended periods of home time — reading, cooking, cleaning, walking, watching tv, playing games, crocheting, writing and napping.

3) Little tiny stressors or worries can build up in me and cause a crisis — this is still hard to recognize before it hits.

4) I get stressed and overwhelmed easily if there are too many things on my brain to do; I can carry much fewer things on my list than I used to.

5) I need regular, meaningful human contact, via coda, or a growing list of like-minded friends or I will start to feel isolated and forget that it’s ever felt different.

6) I need to write and pray daily to maintain a humble stance — that I can be my best when I accept my eccentricities. Lose the ego that wants to be a star, impress or be anything extraordinary. I am a sensitive person whose well-being is delicate. I need extra care (which I can give to myself).

7) I still struggle with self care and regularity. I don’t do the grocery shopping, which means I have energy to self-care and have some remote resemblance of a social life. I cook infrequently and still rely a lot on my family to make sure I eat semi-regularly.

8) I rely on sleeping pills to sleep, often and especially if there is anything in particular to anticipate the next day. I find it difficult to relax enough to sleep, let go of the external stimuli of books, tv or Internet and retreat into the sleeping state.

9) when things are relatively stable, I feel confused or unsure of reality. My sense of self is blurred, and this causes some anxiety and/or depression.

quote by John Wesley