One of my earliest memories is of my father and me play-wrestling in the living room of our house. I was about four years old, and I laughed happily as I tried to pin my nearly six-foot-tall father to the carpeted floor. I was having fun, and I felt completely safe.
At one point there was a lull in the action, and I had the random urge to watch a scene from a movie, and I told him so. The movie in question (which my dad had not seen) was from the VeggieTales series, “Rack, Shack and Benny,” a cute kid’s take on the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the Bible.
The scene in question was the Bunny Song. The context of the scene: the three heroes’ mean boss wants them to worship a huge chocolate bunny of his own creation, and prove their devotion by singing the Bunny Song – literally a song about not loving anything except this enormous chocolate rabbit. The three heroes balk at this request, since they worship the god of the Bible, and they reason aloud that singing the Bunny Song would be bad.
My four-year-old mind easily grasped all of the above concepts. And it also found the Bunny Song itself strangely mesmerizing.
So my dad, having no idea what I was talking about, followed me upstairs to where we kept our videos. I pulled the VHS out from the bottom shelf and eagerly said, “Let’s watch the bad bunny song.”
My father exploded. He smacked the VHS from my small hands and screamed at me for wanting to watch a scene with a “bad” song, and that God would fault me for wanting to sin. His previously smiling face had turned to an expression of snarling rage.
I can’t remember how long he screamed down at me, towering over me as I cringed on the floor next to the shelf. It couldn’t have been more than a minute or so, but it felt like an eternity. I also can’t remember what happened directly after the incident.
What I do remember is that such incidents were commonplace growing up with my father, and that I quickly learned to examine every single word of a sentence before I said it to him, to check my tone of voice and demeanor around him, and to be afraid.
Growing Up in an Abusive Household
I was raised in an isolated, conservative Catholic family – and my father was unpredictable. He would be jolly and affectionate one moment, and then suddenly the slightest action would turn him to anger. One time, around the age of six, I wondered aloud what I might name any children I had when I grew up – and my father growled that I should be considering religious life instead. My mother would complain about a difficult coworker, and my dad would abruptly cut her off and criticize her for speaking sinfully. We would watch a movie, and the mildest curse word from a character would prompt a sudden loud torrent from my father: “Blessed be God forever, blessed be his holy and glorious name…”
We never mingled with anyone at church; my dad would pull us to the car directly after Mass and drive us home. My dad had no friends, and neither did my mother, who handled all of our household chores and worked from 3 pm to 12 am. He would say sometimes, reflecting on the fact that I was usually alone in the house apart from himself, that I needed “camaraderie,” but this camaraderie consisted only of being taken to the park to interact with children I had never met before and would never see again afterward.
Every private Catholic school I attended as a child, I was pulled from after no more than three months because the education wasn’t up to my father’s standards. From age 9 onward, I was homeschooled. I joined a series of religious homeschooling institutions when I was 13, and then started going to community college at 18 – yet most of my time was still spent in the house. I wasn’t allowed outside, even in the neighborhood, without a chaperone, and I had to be supervised by my mother even visiting what few friends I had from my homeschooling co-op. I spent most of my teenage years in my room, to avoid my dad as much as possible.
Everything was controlled. Every movie I watched, every song I listened to (“rock’n’roll,” as he called any music with a hint of a fast beat or electric guitar, was sinful), the clothes I wore, the books I read, the emails I received – everything had to be vetted by him.
I somehow persuaded my mother around the age of twelve that he didn’t need to know everything. When we started listening to pop music on the radio in the car whenever she and I went out to buy groceries or run other errands, it felt like the most rebellious moment of my life. Eventually I also convinced her that he didn’t need to know that our errands included the library, which led to me sneaking in such forbidden entries as “Harry Potter” and “Pride and Prejudice.”
I lived in a constant state of anxiety. I had to keep on top of my schooling, walk on eggshells around my father, keep my hobbies hidden from him, keep my conversations with my friends hidden from him, and think of ways to keep my increasingly divergent beliefs hidden from him.
PTSD is often associated with a single traumatic experience: a sexual assault, a violent attack, a soldier surviving a battle, etc. C-PTSD (complex PTSD) is a condition brought on by prolonged, repeated trauma over a lengthy period of time. I can’t remember having a life without C-PTSD. There was no point in my life before age 19 in which I didn’t experience pulse-pounding anxiety about commonplace things, and it’s difficult to relate my unique experience to people.
It’s difficult to describe having a panic attack because you thought you’d be caught uploading Linkin Park albums into your iTunes account.
It’s difficult to describe depersonalization – a protracted, uncontrollable out-of-body experience that feels like there’s a veil between you and everything you touch, a window between you and everything you see, and ten extra feet of distance between you and everything you hear – to someone who’s never experienced it. It’s difficult to tell people that I randomly and frequently experienced it as a child and a teenager, and still sometimes do, and to see their confused and worried expressions.
It’s difficult to describe growing up in terror that your father might see you merely walking next to one of your few male friends, or discover texted conversations about TV shows and harmless plans to see movies with male friends.
It’s difficult to describe what it’s like to wonder if you’ll ever achieve the easy level of social grace other people seem to have, and if you’ll ever live a life where your every movement isn’t controlled and you don’t have heart-pounding fear over the simplest academic mistakes.
Although I moved out when I was 19, and my new environment was welcoming and afforded me the freedom and emotional support I hadn’t received growing up, I still felt all of the physical symptoms of C-PTSD that I had experienced in my parents’ house. I wasn’t terrified of being caught doing normal things anymore – but I sometimes still felt my heart-rate increasing and my pulse pounding through my veins, and I couldn’t think clearly why it might be happening.
My nightmares were infrequent, but every one featured my father – and in every one I was doing something harmless: watching a movie he didn’t like, talking to a male friend, listening to music, and then I would realize he’d been watching me the whole time, and he would start screaming at me. And occasionally, when I stressed about school, or work, or anything going on in my life, I would depersonalize.
It wasn’t until age 21 that I fully accepted the fact that I have an anxiety disorder. A year after that, I started going to therapy. My therapist taught me the word “depersonalization,” and after a few sessions diagnosed me with PTSD.
The journey to healing has been slow. I’ve learned techniques to manage the occasional anxiety spells, and how to explore some of my harmful behaviors and thought patterns that originated from my childhood with an abusive parent. I can better articulate my emotions and delve more deeply into my thought patterns, and slowly I’m learning to separate my experience of anxiety from my identity.
It’s a difficult process. At age 23 now, four years after moving out, C-PTSD is no longer a matter of reacting to the immediate abuse and toxic environment perpetuated by my father, but a matter of unlearning the thought patterns and behaviors that I used to cope while I was still living with him. It’s about recognizing that I still have a habit of conflict avoidance when it comes to authority figures, even though I would never dream any of them would treat me the way my father did.
It’s about realizing the extent to which my heart will still pound and my blood pressure will still rise when I have an anxiety attack – and about realizing the frequency of my anxiety attacks and discerning a pattern. It’s about recognizing my own paranoia when I have obsessive thought spirals about everything that could go wrong with a situation.
Most of what I’ve learned in therapy has been the idea of grounding myself in the here and now. My childhood environment taught me that whatever was causing my anxiety was urgent, all-consuming, and had to be dealt with immediately, and to always look for threats and ways things could go wrong.
So now, instead, if I sense my anxiety is rising, I try to remind myself that the cause is not as urgent and all-consuming as it feels, and I do a physical grounding exercise (e.g., trying to find all the colors of the rainbow reflected in my environment: red lipstick, orange-ish brown chair, yellow post-it notes, etc.). If my thoughts are spiraling out of control, I try to halt the spiral as much as possible, step back and address the concrete facts that I know. If I start depersonalizing, I find something I can touch or grip and drink something hot or cold.
And there’s been progress. Being able to separate myself from maladaptive thought spirals and knowing the cause helps to shut them down when they happen, and helps to forestall them when I realize that I’m heading in that direction. Sensing the physical signs of an anxiety attack building allows me to recognize it, take a step back from whatever I’m doing or thinking about, and engage in breathing exercises. And the more I learn about where my behaviors come from, the more I can change them into healthier behaviors.
Healing is a very slow process. I still have occasional nightmares, I still have anxiety attacks, and I still catch myself with old, familiar thought patterns. I still have paranoid thought spirals, and I still overanalyze situations and fixate on minute details that could turn a situation bad. But there’s also been growth.
A year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate any of my thought patterns or behaviors in this manner, or associate them with C-PTSD. My anxiety attacks are less frequent, and I can more easily catch my own paranoia. I’ve learned that healing isn’t linear – it has its ups and downs, and what really matters is maintaining an ongoing forward trajectory.
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