Post Traumatic Stress is far from an unusual experience for those of us who have been through significant and protracted abuse. It seems to matter little whether the abuse was physical, or emotional/psychological, or a mixture of both. Psychic trauma is every bit as devastating as physical trauma, and for those who have experienced both, the effects of the former often outlast and outweigh the effects of the latter. Recovery is laborious when you’ve been at war with a phantom; a poltergeist that wrecked your world while no one else watched. Yet there is scant recognition of this very real phenomenon experienced by targets of verbal and emotional abuse, even among psychologists and counselors with years of experience under their belts.
Let’s take a brief look at Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which can develop following any traumatic event or series of events that threatens your safety or makes you feel helpless. If these events are unpredictable and not under your control, as happens when you live with an abuser, you will also experience the loss of hope. It may take months or years to develop into full-blown PTSD, particularly if the abuse is covert, ie not physical, and escalates over time. (And abuse always get worse over time.)
Following any kind of trauma it is normal to feel frightened, disconnected, shocked, numb and even crazy for a short period of time. It is a normal response to an abnormal situation and is usually time-limited. After the threat has been removed however, if your symptoms don’t gradually ease over a number of weeks, and particularly if you feel yourself growing even more agitated, frightened, stressed and confused, you may be locked in a state of psychological shock.
Symptoms of PTSD may be of sudden or gradual onset and may also fluctuate in severity from one week or month to the next. Sometimes particular symptoms are triggered by an event or experience that reminds you of the initial trauma. It may be a sight, sound or even a smell that evokes an irrational fear. For me, it was the mere thought of driving onto the property I shared with my abuser; hearing a Bee Gees song; having to recount the details of my situation to my solicitor; seeing my husband’s name on a letter, email, or even on my cellphone contact list. Oddly enough, the most potent and disabling fears arose before I opened my eyes in the morning. My body began each day primed and ready for fight or flight from years of waking up in the morning, not knowing what his mood would be like or what I would be blamed for that day, or how sadistic the disparagement of my soul might become at a split second’s notice – without warning or rational explanation. It would take me an hour to stop shaking, two to stop feeling sick and calm the erratic beating of my heart.
Briefly, the symptoms of PTSD can be broken into three separate categories:
1. Re-experiencing the trauma:
Flashbacks (feeling like the trauma is happening again)
Upsetting, intrusive memories of the trauma
Feelings of intense distress when reminded of the trauma
Physical reactions to reminders of the event – sweating, nausea, rapid heartbeat, trembling, muscle tension, shallow and rapid breathing
2. Avoidance and numbing
Avoiding any reminders of the trauma ie places, feelings, thoughts
Memory loss about important aspects of the trauma
Loss of interest in life and normal activities (like depression)
Feeling detached or numb
Sense of hopelessness about a limited future
3. Increased anxiety and emotional arousal
Irritability and angry outbursts
Difficulties with concentration and memory
Hypervigilance (you are constantly on the ‘alert’)
Easily startled and jumpy
(Thank you to Helpguide.org for this definitive list.)
If any of these symptoms continue unabated for longer than a couple of months, please seek help from a qualified mental health professional. Ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or counsellor who specializes in trauma and PTSD. True Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not a condition you will likely face down and beat on your own. I have personally witnessed strong young men who have returned from Afghanistan with completely changed personalities, severe anxiety and depression, and with their personal and family lives disintegrating around them.
It may seem an exaggeration to compare the inflicting of psychic wounds with the experience of war, yet the effect on one’s spirit can be all-too-similar. When you’ve been singled out as the prime target of an emotional abuser, you’ll soon become hypervigilant, waiting for a scathing sniper attack at every turn, expecting to step on a psychological grenade every time your foot connects with the floor, and like a prisoner of war, unable to exert control over the details of your own life. You will be ordered, punished – often with solitary confinement – and verbally bombed by a skilled psychological terrorist. If my words resonate with you; if you have been through what I have, I urge you to treat yourself as you would a victim from a war zone.