Last week, in response to a post I wrote on how being listened to helps one get better (which followed an article on how talking helps one get better), a reader posted the following:
I would love it if you could write some on CPTSD. How does one heal from a horrific childhood and stop destroying everything that means something. The feeling that the real you gets pushed aside and another destructive personality takes charge, leaving you to pick up the pieces."
This is my attempt to answer this query, though it will be more general and shorter than I'm sure will be satisfactory to the person who asked this.
First of all, I'm assuming the initials CPTSD stand for "childhood post-traumatic stress disorder." This suggests a condition where because of childhood abuse the adult has disproportionately strong reactions to objectively mild triggers. For example, a partner or a boss becoming upset might trigger what seems like a life threatening situation where the person feels at risk of complete annihilation. This could then cause what the writer describes as "the real you gets pushed aside and another destructive personality takes charge." While I understand the import behind this description, I suggest different language: "the adult you gets pushed aside and the young child inside you who feels threatened does whatever it feels is necessary in order to survive."
I do not know of any way to heal from a horrific childhood besides doing long term therapy. There are many ways to cope with the wounds such a childhood creates, many positive strategies one might attempt. But to actually heal from such a situation, it requires re-visiting the scene of the crime (your childhood), re-experiencing the original trauma but with adults on board to protect you -- both your therapist and your adult self. This is not easy or pleasant work. It definitely is not something you should try to do by talking to a friend. It requires the setting I've been describing in recent weeks and no friend will have the stamina or know-how to take on something like this. You'll end up getting re-traumatized and losing your friend as well.
One important thing to remember is that you have already survived -- it's just that the young child in you doesn't trust that. All the countless times the young child was forced to squash feelings, pretend things didn't hurt that actually did hurt, sacrifice personal desires to take care of others (parents) who should have been taking care of you: none of this goes away, it only goes underground and it looks for opportunities to resurface. You either spend all of your energy keeping it under wraps or you spend your energy looking for a way to work through it.
The good news is that it is never as hard or as painful as you fear it will be. A piece of what makes people afraid to go there is because of their memory of what being there was like. It was awful. But it is never as bad visiting that place from an adult perspective as it was experiencing it as a child. You have more protection now, more resources, and again, you are no longer in actual danger unless as a result of this abusive programming you are choosing abusive partners or dangerous situations.
Another reason people are afraid to open up long locked doors is they fear being overwhelmed once they let the door open a crack. This is a by product of the pressure they feel from keeping things tamped down. Many clients who are afraid to get in touch with their anger, for example, fear that they will become murderers, rapists and pillage whole cities if they even touch the rage inside. This is never, ever the case in my experience. It's just the pressure and the fear of the repressed anger make it seem more dangerous than the actual anger turns out to be.
The overwhelming majority of us (like 99%) are basically good and healthy people and even the things about our behavior that seem destructive have good intention behind them if we can trust ourselves enough to understand the method to our madness.
To the reader who posted the question last week: thank you for asking it and feel free to e-mail me at the address below if you would like help finding someone to meet with to do this necessary work.
Do you have a question about struggles with your partner or within yourself? Is there a particular topic on relationships or individual psychological issues you would like addressed in this blog? Ask Josh in the comments below or email him at email@example.com.
Josh Gressel, Ph.D., is a couples and individual therapist based in Pleasant Hill, CA. Visit his website at joshgressel.com. He is accepting new referrals.