My Story: You Don’t Have to Go to War to Get PTSD

To the outside world I came from a ‘respectable’ lower-middle-class family in Australia. But behind closed doors within the ‘safety’ of home the violent explosions of war between my parents terrorized me. Horrified and deeply shocked and traumatized, I watched my out-of-control father kill a boy he’d brought home from an orphanage. And when my father repeatedly told me that he had run away, I began to doubt my senses. Beltings with a strap, and sexual and emotional abuse were a ‘normal’ part of my early life.

Rarely could I figure out what I had done ‘wrong’ so I could avoid such ‘punishments,’ so I always tried hard to be ‘good’. And always, it seemed to me, I failed.

When I was ten, my drunk and angry father raped me with the blind hatred he felt towards my mother the night she collected her things and left. But it was not only my body he raped. He raped my mind and soul and I turned his hatred upon myself. Such soul murder, I now know, creates poverty on every level of being. When an adult uses a child’s body for their sexual pleasure, or as a dumping ground for their frustration and anger, it dehumanises them, and it forces a child to shut down their feelings in a multitude of ways. The way I shut down was to ‘bury’ all memories of trauma and abuse and create fantasies that I had the most wonderful father in the world.

But by the time I was sixteen I was depressed and didn’t care whether or not I lived or died. I began having blackouts (later diagnosed as epilepsy) and couldn’t sleep at night. By the time I was eighteen I was taking sleeping tablets.  I had begun studying to complete my final years of high school by correspondence while I worked, aware that there was a huge, invisible elastic band tied around my waist, the other end attached to my past and stretching tighter with each forward step I took. I had PTSD then, but didn’t know it.

Later in my thirties, stress or depression was the usual diagnosis from my doctor, who prescribed anti-depressants. But over time the depression worsened and I floundered in constant grief after an accident involving my son triggered memories from my past.

In 1986 when my marriage ended, my husband used the fact that I had seen a psychiatrist about depression to win custody of our two children and, in the eighties, the stigma alone of such a visit – for whatever reason – was evidence enough of mental derangement. I lost my case and, traumatized by all the lies, began a downward spiral that would eventually see me psychologically bouncing off walls. My brain’s ability to protect me as a child by hiding all my memories and using dissociation as a defence mechanism to blunt the harm of abuse, began to work against me as an adult by recreating in the present, the traumas and abuse I had experienced in the past.

It wasn’t until June, 2003 that I discovered by chance I had all the symptoms of PTSD. I was studying art therapy at the time, and preparing a talk for a phenomenological research proposal on depression. The research I planned would require me to delve beneath the surface of my paintings and writing, where I hoped to find the cause of my depression.

While doing preliminary research, I discovered that PTSD can often underlie depression. I glossed over it. My notes were getting out of hand and my mind had become jumbled trying to work within a tight time framework. I tossed and turned for hours at night, unable to get back to sleep after waking in the wee small hours. When you are depressed, I guess the last thing you want to do is study it. But because there was so much anger underlying my depression, I was determined to find its cause – no matter how painful that might be.

As I began to see how I could use my paintings to show my track in and out of depression over the years, I started to gain a better understanding of how they revealed the violence I had lived with during my early childhood.

It is interesting how things unfold. Because of a change in time-tabling I had an extra day to work on my presentation and, following a gut feeling that I needed to have another look at PTSD, I went in search of more information. It was then I discovered I had all the symptoms. Like the card that slots into place in the computer game ‘Freecell’ causing all the cards to flip into suit, the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of why I was depressed slotted together in rapid succession.

My anger suddenly made sense. I understood why and how relationships went wrong in my life; why there is so much violence in the world…and so much more. I stumbled around the house sobbing in acute agony, realizing that having PTSD had completely derailed my life, causing me to lose everything and everyone I had once dearly loved.

In The Science of Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Mood, Stephen Braun wrote: “Anger is triggered by perceptions of unfairness, cheating (in the largest sense), and spiteful threats to harm another person.” The perception of ‘fairness’ within a child is finely tuned. They know the rules and they play by them, and are quick to point out when someone is not, making them very vocal and angry.

However, like so many children, I was punished if I dared to voice to my anger. “Children should be seen and not heard,” was the repeated message during my childhood, along with “Do as I say, not as I do.” I was not permitted to hear what I heard, or see what I saw. I was wrong. And being wrong caused chronic toxic shame that told me I was ‘bad’ and didn’t deserve to be happy.

So when my father sexually abused me it was because he “loved” me and I was his special “princess”. He taught me that love equals sex. Being ‘wrong’ forced me to swallow my anger and remain silent. With my anger silenced I was then vulnerable to be re-abused throughout my life. Freud called it the ‘compulsion to repeat’ the original trauma. Child abuse had destroyed my boundaries, and without boundaries, I had nothing to protect me.

Then finally the day of my presentation dawned after a long and exhausting night. It was my chance to break the silence. In front of four lecturers and nine fellow students, I spoke about the impact of the abuse I suffered, the PowerPoint presentation magnifying paintings containing the symbols of my abuse across the end wall in the lecture hall. One lecturer made it obvious from the start she hated the paintings and sat glaring at me as if to say, “How can you publicly humiliate me like this?” Behind her, another lecturer leaned forward on her chair and nodded.

“One of the symptoms of PTSD,” I said, “is anger.” My voice had involuntarily slowed and I accentuated the word from between clenched teeth, suddenly aware it was there, yet at the same time trying to hold it in. My mouth went dry, but inside I was calm and determined. I showed some of my paintings and their connection to the abuse in my life. The time zipped past like it was on fast forward. I had to finish. Everyone filed out immediately as if in desperate need of fresh air…

Afterwards I sensed that I had finally stood up to my father and reclaimed the right to have my feelings, and tell him about the damage he had caused and how it impacted my life. However my talk divided the small group as if I had revealed all to my stunned and disbelieving family, and their instant reaction was to disown me.

And so I learned another truth: that abuse remains a dark secret locked in a family’s closet when no one wants to acknowledge or take responsibility for the harm and damage it causes. This retraumatizes the victim who often becomes the family scapegoat or the ‘black sheep’. Both were roles I played in my family…and I was about to play them again.

But before that happened, I was given a short respite when three fellow students gathered around me during our lunch break and asked me to finish my presentation and show them the rest of my paintings, for they were concerned about the way one lecturer had constantly interrupted me and another had abruptly told me to finish.

This was a priceless gift and helped to buffer the shock of failing the presentation miserably with lowest mark I had ever received: a zero. The college suspended me some weeks later after I voiced my concerns about the treatment I received in a confidential report.

These actions impacted me as if someone had bellowed through a loudspeaker to make sure I heard that society was not ready to hear about how violence and child abuse within the home impacts the health and well-being of its members and the ripple effect it causes within our communities.

Still in a state of shock, I received another little gift to help me deal with the experience. A courier van pulled up to deliver a book I had ordered, Writing the Memoir, by Judith Barrington. On the very first page was an account of what happened to Virginia Woolf when she embraced the Bloomsbury Group’s goal of “absolute frankness” in memoir writing by reading aloud her autobiographical essay, 22 Hyde Park Gate (published much later in Moments of Being), in which she exposed her half-brother’s incestuous relationship with her and her sister. Woolf later wrote in her diary that the experience left her “most unpleasantly discomfited.” “I couldn’t help figuring…a kind of uncomfortable boredom on the part of the males, to whose genial cheerful sense my revelations were at once mawkish and distasteful. What possessed me to lay bare my soul!”

The incest tormented Virginia Woolf for the rest of her life. Society was not ready then, as today, to listen or hear about how sexual abuse impacted the life of one person, let alone countless victims assumed to be safe within their own homes. Wherever there are dark secrets, I have found, sooner or later they will express themselves through illness, broken relationships, a need to have control over others, greed and avarice to fill the inner emptiness such secrets create, violent criminal behaviour, a compulsion to do good and help others, promiscuous acting out, bullying, and other negative behaviour. Dark secrets can become the puppeteer that pulls our strings. When this happens, fear drives us into a struggle to survive, at which point we become spiritually bankrupt.

I saw the out-picturing of this in San Francisco in 1989, where a homeless Caucasian Vietnam War veteran sat cross-legged on the pavement holding a sign that said, “Vet. Will work for food.” It is a chilling reality that a huge amount of human potential is lost in a battle with PTSD caused by the impact of an outer war waged in destructive ways against oneself.

Today I still suffer bouts of depression, and I still have all the symptoms of PTSD – even after finally being able to release much of the stuffed anger and rage in 2008 that was destroying my life. The healing process continues. Although my symptoms of PTSD may never fully remit since they have been chronic for most of my life, I am learning to manage them by minimizing stress, getting sufficient sleep, feeding my mind and body healthy food and thoughts, doing creative work, and exercising every day in nature.

Critical to this continuing healing process and maintaining optimum health has been having a purpose in life. Without it I would have been like a ship at sea without a rudder; lost and unable to steer in any direction. And I would have given up on life. Writing and sharing what I am learning has got me through my darkest, darkest hours and days and months and years. It had been my greatest gift.

Back in 1974, a friend wrote to me quoting Shakespeare: “Nothing is good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.” With this in mind, I can now sit on the fence and see clearly that on one side, yes, there is wreckage strewn as far as my eye can see – like in the aftermath of war. Yet on the other side there is the possibility that this website can create greater awareness of the hugely damaging impact of violence in the home, enabling the sowing of new seeds of peace if enough people make this pledge:

The buck of violence stops with me.

Perhaps by making such a commitment, new family ‘heirlooms’ of love and peace instead of violence can pass to future generations.

You might also like to read:

Resources – more information on PTSD
PTSD Posts
Art Therapy Posts
The Importance of Loving Yourself Unconditionally

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