I have to confess that on my personal journey through Complex PTSD I had no sense in the early days that any therapy would work. The effects of my trauma had led me to a core belief that all adults were sinister and dangerous and the worst of the lot were the theoretically trustworthy ones. Without getting into too much detail and recrimination, my father was the cause of much of my trauma at an early age. Father was erudite and friendly outside of the family home but a control obsessed tyrant inside the house, with a vicious trigger temper to boot. No surprise then that I adapted my view of the world to see all adults as equally untrustworthy or unstable. Your primary caregiver gives you the learning you need for life and you can only hope that the learning is positive. Mine wasn’t, in that way, although I did learn a lot.
Cue many years of abuse and control which, had I actually trusted someone to diagnose me, would have surely led to a diagnosis of PTSD of the enduring kind – Complex PTSD. The road to health and transformation for me was arguably, not one of the many available these days and not just because of mistrust. There is so much more knowledge and research available these days that simply wasn’t available at my time of worst need. In many ways there is so much choice out there these days that the decision about which helpful path to take is a nightmare in itself!
When I became old enough and had overcome some of the fear of trusting someone in authority I used to go to the Doctor for my symptoms. I would describe my sudden onsets of rapid heartbeats and being frozen on the spot. My heart was checked and listened to and pronounced workable with a diagnosis of occasional arrhythmia. No link was made to the idea of panic attacks, and I don’t blame the medical profession here – I saw nothing on the phenomenon anywhere else either. Talk of nightmares was met with the offer of sleeping pills. Perhaps it was a simpler time, or perhaps more accurately I didn’t describe my symptoms well enough? It is possible. The cultural climate at the time also has to be taken into consideration. The key moment for me was when I had mentioned how strongly I wanted to kill myself and witness my parents finding my gruesome corpse. “Would you like to be able to talk to someone about these things?” I was asked. The answer was yes and after a long wait I found myself sitting opposite a therapist who described his approach as Gestalt. The idea of talking to someone seemed ridiculous in that first session because he barely said a word. He just kept sitting there half smiling in total silence. I could also do silence quite well – one of my adjustments, stay silent and don’t trigger father. The end result was long silences for a while but eventually I gave in and started asking questions. His answers would be redirect the question to me and ask me to reply using “I” statements, such as “I feel tired today” or “ I don’t like these silences” I learned that the idea was to take ownership of my thoughts and ideas which made for a more authentic dialogue. It helped me become aware of where I avoided truths to myself about how I felt or thought in order to protect myself. Because Gestalt focuses on moment by moment interaction your awareness increases about how you are in the world with others. Equally the relational dialogue aspect and authentic sharing from the therapist – example: “When you said that to me I immediately felt something in my stomach clenching and my eyes started to tear up” has the effect of letting you inhabit a more relational world than you might be used to. For many years the survival effect meant I shared almost nothing with anyone. This is quite a burden I realised – but only when I felt safe enough to trust my therapist and let it out there. The well know empty chair technique associated with Gestalt was also useful for working through difficult stuff. Imagining my father in a chair opposite me (and with the added support of my therapist behind me) I could tell my father exactly what I thought of his abusive treatment of me. This was all very releasing for me and I certainly felt improvement in my way of being in the world. I felt more empowered I think is a good phrase to use. Role play was also useful in working through my issues. My Therapist could adopt the role of my father, mother, sister, brother etc and increase my awareness of the powerful effect they had in my life and also how I had learned to adapt to them in the family situation. My experience with Gestalt therapy was so powerful that I ended up training in the modality and became a Gestalt Psychotherapist but I have to say that my journey didn’t end there.
Gestalt took me so far but there were still deeply embedded survival patterns in me that I thought could never be removed. Hypervigilance is an obvious one – constantly on the lookout for danger.
Physical response triggers – if someone behaved like my father used to I would go into a shutdown mode, my muscles would freeze up and I would just go very still. Also – the opposite side of things – if I saw someone being weak and frail I would feel rise up in me the desire to hurt them. I always fought against this and managed to not go with the impulse but it was strong. Anything that caught me by surprise would instantly trigger what I realised was the fight flight – fast heart rate, tense stomach, narrowed vision. So all of those (essentially evolutionary) survival mechanisms which are the physiological responses in the body to perceived danger, triggering biochemical reactions, were still operating beautifully despite the danger being many years in the past. This was the one thing that the Gestalt therapist could only come with me so far on my journey with.
The rest of my journey was made with what seem to be called embodied approaches – of which I will maybe write more later but the Gestalt pathway formed a structure around which I could then go on to do the more deeply embedded in the body work. I’m happy to say that I found an answer to all of my questions eventually but it wasn’t all in one place and it wasn’t all at once. One thing seemed to lead to another and I couldn’t go forward in one part until I’d done the work in an another part. Hope this is a useful snapshot into the world of a Complex PTSD sufferer and how the choices aren’t always obvious but then we are all unique so our paths are necessarily unique as well.