One Man's Journey from Childhood Sexual Abuse to Healing

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Matt Carey

shares with us in this article what it was like to write "A Small Boy Smiling," a journey of deep pain, but also of hope and courage.

Finally, I have written my story in the hope that fellow survivors of sexual abuse, of which there are estimated to be well over a million in the UK alone, might find encouragement and strength to get the help they desperately need to heal. I am very grateful to Sarah Paton Briggs, my psychotherapist, who  has  written  a  later  chapter, Soulful Space: Reflections On  My Therapy  Work  With Matt.  Sarah  brings  her considerable  expertise  and  offers  a  professional perspective to my journey of healing, therapy options, and practical advice to fellow survivors of sexual abuse who may be considering professional therapy.

Writing About the Abuse

A close friend (a clinical psychologist, CSA survivor, and a recovering alcoholic), who has  supported  me  throughout  my  recovery  suggested  I  provide  a  description  of  the psychological and emotional process I went through to get the memories of the abuse from the mind to the page. She told me that when she read the abuse chapter, she sensed that I had dissociated from the trauma, which is true; I didn’t think I'd last five minutes without breaking down. During a traumatic event and throughout the emotional upheaval that often follows, dissociation is one of the mind's most common coping mechanisms in response to feeling a sensation  of  threat  or  danger.  Dissociation covers  a  wide  variety  of  experiences, from  mild detachment  to a complete  disconnection  from  all  conscious  physical  and  emotional experiences. It is also a common symptom of Complex PTSD.

Whilst I had spoken about the abuse in therapy for many years, writing everything I could remember about what happened made it feel so much more real, and this horrified me. To be able to get it on paper, I decided I had to deliberately suppress all my emotions, as I describe below. I'm not suggesting this is the best way to do it, but it was the only way I could find to be as brutally honest as I have been, dealing with the day-to-day challenges of living with Complex PTSD.

PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that may develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which severe physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include sexual and physical assaults, natural or unnatural disasters, accidents, or military combat. The term PTSD  was  first used  by  veterans  of  the  Vietnam  War,  but  the problem has existed for a lot longer and has had a variety of names, including shell shock, battle fatigue, combat stress, and post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS). One of the symptoms of PTSD is that I often go into shock as the memories come up, and whilst I feel hyper-vigilant and very anxious as soon as I have been triggered, there is delayed reaction to my feeling the intensity of the anger, shame and guilt until later that day.

The challenge was to focus all my attention on the writing whilst doing my best to ignore the emotional trauma that was building up inside of me. As I contemplated making a start, I felt the trauma had been triggered in my mind, and under my skin (the symptoms included physical tension in the groin and lower back, nausea in the stomach, and pain behind my eyes); mentally I knew I was very fragile. I knew this was an inevitable consequence of confronting my painful memories, and that I'd have to accept and work through them as best I could. I feared that if I attempted to write on my own, the shame and rage would attack me, and I wouldn't be able to get very far with the written work. It was also important to me that my new flat felt like a safe place, which hadn't been contaminated by memories of the abuse.

As odd as it may seem to some (but for me to feel more able to suppress the emotions and get everything I could remember on paper), I decided to write down the memories in several cafes across central and north London over a period of six months. I wrote brief notes which gradually  became  sentences,  which  were  then  revised  to  become  paragraphs  and  a chapter, and which were eventually sent to my editor, Tom Bartlett, for editing. Being in a public place, and having pride and an ego, helped to suppress the negative emotions, so I could ‘get the  job  done’.  I followed  a  schedule  of  an  hour  of  writing,  and  then  I  went  to  an  AA meeting, or for a long walk in Regents Park or across Hampstead Heath, during which time I'd feel the shock, and the shame, and rage come up, and during this I'd practice some helpful concentration techniques to make sure I didn’t fully dissociate. Depending how I felt, I'd force myself to do at least three hours of writing about the abuse for two days each week, and then I'd leave it to focus on another chapter.

After some writing sessions, I felt I might lose consciousness. Whilst I didn't have any physical warning (unlike with a panic attack, I didn’t have any palpitations, or shortness of breath), I'd suddenly feel very light-headed and my vision would become slightly impaired. If I was out walking, I would immediately find a wall or bench and hold on tight to keep myself bodily conscious until the experience had passed. I avoided traveling on the Underground when I felt like this, and walking near traffic, just in case my legs did give way. (There were several occasions when the flashbacks to the abuse, and the shame I felt, made me feel suicidal; I didn’t trust myself when it felt like this, and so there was another reason to avoid taking the Underground). The sensation was as if I'd had a sudden rush of oxygen to the brain. Perhaps it was that the writing had released a great deal of energy which had been locked into the memories. Later in the evening, the suppressed emotions (the shame, rage, and sometimes the tears) would finally hit me, and I would make sure I was in a safe place, which was preferably at home. I felt so desperately vulnerable at this point, I couldn't handle anyone else seeing me like this.

The whole process of writing the chapter about the abuse was mentally, physically and emotionally exhausting, but it has certainly helped me to release so much of the shame and rage. From start to finish, it took eleven months to write that one chapter.

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I do hope my story might offer some encouragement on your healing journey. It has been hugely important for me to know that I am not alone, and that there are professional organisations, charities and voluntary groups offering support.

The book also includes a chapter written by my trauma therapist Sarah Paton Briggs, called Soulful  Space:  Reflections  On  My  Therapy  Work  With  Matt, which  is  offered  as  a  free download  from  my  website. I invited  Sarah  to  pull  back  the  curtain  of  client/therapist confidentiality and write a chapter about my therapy sessions with her from the therapist’s perspective. The chapter offers a professional perspective to his journey of healing, therapy options,  and  practical  advice  for  survivors  of  sexual  abuse  who  may  be  considering professional therapy.

I welcome comments and feedback, in particular from fellow survivors, educators and mental health professionals.   Please feel free to contact me via www.mattcareybooks.com. 

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You may order Matt's book through his web site or from the OOTS Books section

Top 10 Practices for Navigating Complex PTSD - Part 2

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Pete Walker, author of Homesteading in the Eye of the Storm writes about his top ten practices for navigating Complex PTSD.

6. Meditation: There’s No Boogeyman in My Inner Closet

At my first ten day meditation retreat I was cooped up inside myself without distraction or diversion for ten straight days. Damn! That was intense. But it left me knowing at least most of the time – that there was nothing wrong with me – nothing inside me that I had to flee, hate or be ashamed of. Ten years later, during my second ten day retreat, I anchored that understanding by practicing… 24/7… this guidance from Galway Kinnell:

What Is
Is
Is what I want
Only that
But that

From that time on, I learned to use Vipassana to rescue myself from thousands of flashbacks. For me, the quickest way back to calmness is to fully feel what I am most reluctant to feel. Now when I get triggered into a flashback, my dominant urge is to find a safe place to meditatively feel into the sensations and emotions of my upset as fully as I can. Within twenty minutes, the flashback almost invariably resolves and I am once again at peace with myself. Stephen Levine’s Who Dies and Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart are two great books that teach this invaluable skill.

7.  Getting and Giving Individual & Group Therapy

I needed to be reassured by many good-hearted authors before I could face the fear of seeking help from a stranger. I was a client of various therapists off and on for twenty-five years. Without that experience, my effectiveness as a therapist would have been quite limited. Receiving and providing therapy have been the yin and the yang of my ongoing training…training that informs me about what can and cannot be accomplished in psychotherapy.

Individual Therapy

Numerous helpful short-term therapies, and co-counseling with my friends Randi and Nancy, made me want long-term, depth-work psychotherapy. As described earlier, my first foray with Kleinian Dr. L was awful. To avoid repeating this, I had test- sessions with seven highly touted therapists. In one interview-session after another, each renowned therapist tried to distract me from venting pain. It was so hard to believe. Each paid lip service to welcoming grief, but when my feelings surfaced, they apparently could not go where they had not been. 

After the sixth, I despaired about finding a therapist who would welcome my emotional pain. I reread some of the therapist-writers who insisted that shame about emotional pain could only be worked through with a supportive witness. I scheduled a seventh appointment and mercifully I finally found Gina. Hundreds of sessions with her over five years brought me profound relational healing. My toxic shame lost its life support system. My toxic critic became an endangered species, and at times I almost disliked automatically shooting it on sight.                               ~                    

Through my experiences as a client, I discovered in the laboratory of my own psyche what actually helps. What especially struck me was that all my helpful therapists reparented me to some degree. As an extra bonus, many also served as role models on how to do therapy. Thank you, thank you, thank you Derek, Bob, Randi, Nancy, Gina and Sara for your psyche-renovating help – for helping me truly befriend myself.

As a therapist I noticed that most clients suffer shame and self-hate over similar issues. I heard endless self-flagellation over the same minor flaws, “bad” feelings, taboo fantasies, and small potato mistakes. So many humiliated confessions about such common harmless human imperfections! How tragic that perfectionism shames us into hiding the same innocuous “shady secrets.” As I consistently felt no judgment about my clients “flaws”, the glacier of my own self-judgment gradually melted into a snowball.

I have facilitated more than thirty thousand therapy sessions, and frequently experienced healing in the manner I describe in Appendix 2. How blessed I am that I have had so many clients who I easily care about and respect. A great turning point occurred decades ago when I learned to quickly nudge bona fide narcissists out of my office. Dyed-in-the-wool narcissists do not seek transformation. They only want adoring listeners whom they can control and suck dry. Too many become even more entitled from the process of therapy – believing that everyone owes them fifty minutes of uninterrupted listening.

Group Therapy

What a boon that so many of my university courses featured group therapy. Sydney University was way ahead of its time. Antioch was the most profound. At Antioch, Will Schutz taught me to do anger work in a way where no one hurt themselves or anyone else. I often left group feeling purified by the cleansing flame of therapeutic angering. What a privilege to pass this gift onto others!                            

My disappointment in the poor quality of JFK groups was tempered by the sheer quantity of experience. JFK shortcomings matched the old saying: “Good and bad experiences are like the right and left hand. The wise person uses both to his/her benefit.” From JFK, I learned to avoid the mistakes that commonly spoil group therapy. I guarded my groups from being hijacked by narcissists. I immediately stopped shaming and scapegoating behaviors, and divvied up the time so that all members shared equally.

I was also a member of many support groups. Really liking and being liked by others with similar vulnerabilities helped pry perfectionism off my self-esteem. My men’s support group was the heart of my created family for fifteen years. My imperfections were met with nothing but kindness. I cannot thank you guys too much for your healing support!

This all culminated with an ACA/Codependency/CPTSD support group that I lead for twenty-five years. It was by far my most potent experience of the hub of mutual relational healing [see Appendix 2]. Members often grieved together about the pain caused by their selfish parents. They cried together and they angered together. They healthily blamed their parents for forcing them to fawn and abandon themselves – for making them easy pickings for exploitative narcissists. The group’s mutual empathy shrunk their inner critics and bred self-kindness. Most members went on to find at least one other island of human safety in the world outside of the group. I was not a “working member” of the group, but often felt vicariously comforted and healed by group commiseration.  I treasure everyone who “graduated” from this group. I wish I could name them for posterity, but of course confidentiality prohibits.

Sometimes when I flash back into alienation, I remember all the groups that gave me their esteem when “mortified” was my middle name. Accordingly, I often advise survivors to join a support group – on line or in vivo. Many respondents to my writings have testified to the helpfulness of such connections.

8. Self-Reparenting: Finding an Inner Mom and Dad

I am forever indebted to John Bradshaw for exposing the epidemic of traumatizing parents. Such parents create children who grow up developmentally arrested in myriad ways. Bradshaw gave us many reparenting tools to meet the unmet needs of survivors of such abandonment.

Over time, I also discovered tools of my own which I used to reparent myself and my clients. I taught many clients through modeling to take over the job of ongoingly mothering and fathering themselves.

In my own recovery, my critic upped its scoffing to a new level when I first heard about inner child work.  I had to bypass my inner child at first and just work with the concept of healing my developmental arrests.  Thankfully I eventually whittled down my critic and built a profoundly therapeutic relationship with my developmentally arrested, infant, toddler, preschooler, primary schooler and adolescent.

Through continually evolving my ability to nurture, love and protect myself and my various child selves, I customarily feel a sense of safety and of belonging in the world. [Guidelines for this process can be found in Chapters 8 & 9 and Appendix C of The Tao of Fully Feeling.]

9.  The Created Family: Healing the Loss of Tribe

The love of my grandmothers and my sisters, Pat, Diane and Sharon, helped keep my heart alive despite all the parental and clerical abuse. Growing up in New York City as a baby boomer gave me access to a wealth of kids on the street, and I had many safe enough friends, although I also had to learn to steer clear of numerous bullies. Moving to Dover, New Hampshire as an adolescent opened the door to more supportive friendships, especially the one with my lifetime friend, Bruce McAdams. Even the army brought me many good enough friends. I also met many kind and respectful people during my travels. All this gradually restored my trust in human nature.

Communal living greatly bolstered this trust. Fifteen years with kind roommates soothed me with relational healing. How lucky I was to come of age during the hippie times. I was especially fortunate to live for a decade in Australia while the Hippie Zeitgeist of loving cooperation still endured. During this time, many layers of my deep CPTSD fear of people dissolved. Empirical proof accumulated that destructive narcissists like my parents were a small part of the population. I bet they are less than ten percent. Sadly, communal living ended for me thirty years ago. Happily, it was gradually replaced with a looser sense of tribe. I experience my current clan as concentric circles of intimacy. My inner most circle is my wife, son and a handful of close friends with whom I can easily be my whole self.

The next circle is a group of old friends I see infrequently but immediately feel close to when I do. Outside that circle is less intimate friends and family members with whom I am usually comfortable via many years of safe interactions. A final superficial but warm circle is safe-enough acquaintances from my neighborhood, my son’s school and my membership in community organizations. Intermingling with various arcs of this circle are the many people I no longer see but still hold dear in my heart.

When I am actively engaged in flashback management, I sometimes visualize a human mandala of all these circles as Step 10 [Seek Support].

10.  Gratitude: A Realistic Approach

Yesterday I laughed aloud at a cartoon in The New Yorker. Moses, with the Ten Commandments in hand, was looking up toward God and calling out: “Now, how about some affirmations to balance out all this negativity.”

Twenty years ago I began my end-of-the-day gratitude practice. Upon laying down each night I spend five minutes using my breath to relax me. To better appreciate the day, I then recall ten things for which I am grateful. Even on gloomy days, I usually find ten worthwhile things. Usually it’s simple stuff: an especially sweet pear, something funny that Sara or Jaden said, a new flower that bloomed in my garden, a cloud with a striking shape, a sense of being healthy when I stretched, a dull radio background sound that suddenly morphed into a tune that begged for my accompaniment.

Gratitude is a thought-correction practice that gradually eroded the negative noticing of my toxic critic. Now, I refuse to let all-or-none thinking throw out the baby of daily niceties with the bathwater of normal disappointments.

Here is how I keep this practice fresh. I accept that I do not always feel gratitude while I am expressing it. As I argue in my first book, our feelings are rarely a matter of choice. But gratitude is more than a feeling. Gratitude is also a health-inducing perspective that with enough practice grows into a belief. So while I may not feel grateful for my wife while we are struggling about something, I almost always know she is a blessing in my life. And although life can bring unpredictable difficulties, bounteous wonder usually tips the scale and makes me grateful to be alive.

Sometimes I have difficulty with the homily “Stop and smell the roses.”  In my old all-or-none days, I was bitter when their perfume did not rescue me from feeling bad. Nowadays though, I still love flowers even when they do not move me. And, I still dislike it when someone tries to fast-fix my pain by pointing them out.

On a larger scale this is true of gratitude and love in general. At times Monet’s paintings, my favorite songs or even kindnesses from others do not impact me. Yet, in a wider spiritual sense, I am always grateful for these gifts because I know from experience that sooner or later I will fully appreciate them again. So, I accept the cyclical nature of feeling love and gratitude, knowing that I will repeatedly be moved by the bounty of the world. Color, flowers, nature, food, panoramas, music, movies, kindnesses, pets, and so on, will inevitably move me again even when they momentarily leave me cold.

Back in the late twentieth century, the practice of Be-Here-Now [based eponymously on Ram Das’s book] was considered to be the height of wisdom in many spiritual circles. Invoking “Be Here Now!” was supposed to make you instantly return to feeling grateful and loving. I soon came to hate this phrase however, because I hated myself for not being able to do it on command. Even worse, be-here-now was often callously shoved in the face of anyone who was having a hard time.

Once in a JFK group, a student sporting an ascended master persona told a woman distraught about the recent demise of her twenty year marriage: “If you weren’t so attached to the past, you wouldn’t be so upset. Try to Be Here Now!” Over time, “be-here-now” morphed into “just be grateful!” which in turn acquired a flight-into-light subtext: “If you just get your mundane head out of your unspiritual ass, and flip the gratitude switch, your pain will instantly vanish.” Unfortunately I still regularly see this shaming corrective use of gratitude…especially in Marin County, the nesting place of the world’s largest population of flight-into-lighters.

For my own use, I have ironically converted be-here-now from an elixir to a reminder: Be here now, Pete. Drop down into that pain and feel your way through it. Usually this soon restores me into authentically being here now.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff is a more modern version of be-here-now. It’s a great book title and idea by itself, but it’s instantly ruined by the book’s small print subtitle: And it’s All Small Stuff. Hopefully at this point I don’t need to explain the nonsense in that.

An anonymous reader sent me this poem.

In which I count to ten, grateful that:
Spider webs catch sunlight and moonbeams.
Long-lost lovers sometimes reappear.
Women make an art out of friendship.
Wisdom wanders the world planting stories.
People transform pain into blues.
Weather changes.
Sloths are not extinct.
Turkey contains serotonin.
Frequently accidents are not as bad as they might be.
Love abides.

Pete Walker is a relational therapist and author in California who both suffers from and treats Complex PTSD.  As many in the Out of the Storm community will attest, his books resonate deeply with those of us who endured trauma in childhood.  At the same time as he shares his lived experience with us in a way we can understand, he offers us personal and therapeutic insights into navigating Complex PTSD.   Pete's web site.

Navigating Complex PTSD through Art

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In her book An Artist's Travel Log: An illustrated memoir of exploration in a wilderness obscured by trauma, Martina Franklin Poole reflects on how art helped her to navigate Complex PTSD. 

“What am I supposed to do?” I asked her. She worked with women and children, victims of domestic violence according to the appointment reminder card in my hand.

“Some people like to hold an ice cube,” she said, more to her notes than to me. The previous week had yielded sage wisdom about feeling my feet, but without any explanation. I now had a diagnosis of PTSD and two coping tools. I thought of the noisy overwhelming public setting of my most recent embarrassing display of symptoms and wondered how I would ever find the mental clarity to look for an ice cube to ground myself.

It was the same year the news reported reuniting a kidnapped girl with her family. For 18 years she had been held prisoner and raped, even giving birth to two kids. For me it was 14 years and had one child, but I had signed a marriage certificate so it was hardly newsworthy. Yet there was that familiar feeling of detachment when seeing her story, watching it much the same way that I have always watched myself. I didn’t mention it to Ice Cube Lady. It didn’t really seem like she needed to know much about the actual violence, just that it existed. She didn’t seem to hear me and the sessions frustrated me. I decided I could manage on my own.

I was wrong. Fortunately, my next experience with therapy was different. After a brief intake interview I was contacted by a therapist who understood trauma. Marjorie was reassuring and infinitely patient. She had to do most of the talking for awhile, educating me about C-PTSD, practicing with me, and asking gentle questions. My vocabulary failed me. Perhaps my inability to identify more than three emotions helped her to discern that there was a long and painful childhood that I was escaping when I signed away my maiden name. She appealed to that invisible child with a handful of magic markers, and that is where my memoir begins telling the story, because that is when I started drawing again. I had difficulty telling her what I felt or what had happened to me, but I could hand her a drawing and respond to her. She would say “This makes me feel...” or “When I look at this I think of...” allowing me to agree and expand on the observation, to correct her and explain or to learn something about myself. Suddenly I had a language, and an ally.

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Broken Windows

It helps me to view complex trauma as an injury instead of an illness or condition. My childhood development was interrupted by my early experiences. That is why my flashbacks and feelings can’t be communicated with facial expressions and words. They can come out in colors on my page, and the relief of that discovery has produced a portfolio. When Marjorie suggested parts of that portfolio could be published to help others, it was neat to think that something positive could come from so much agony. I started writing.

The drawings for the book were chosen and arranged in chronological order. The narratives came to me in a more random order and surprised me as they came together. Early on I had given in and decided to trust her, even though I could not figure out how our time together fit into any logical plan of care. Writing the memoir gave me an overview of just how much we had accomplished. It also gave me a deeper understanding of the nature of emotional health and well-being. Therapy wasn’t about making some mysterious list of goals and checking off my progress. Marjorie was teaching me to identify what I was feeling, to know it was appropriate to feel it, to be able to endure it and even, hopefully, appreciate it. My emotions are not the source of my suffering. They are a temporary reaction to the suffering. Therapy was slowly teaching me to respond as an emotional being as I watched Marjorie allowing herself to respond to me.

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                                        Damage Undefiled

As a child I was carefully instructed that I was different and that others should never be expected to understand me. My body was somehow deformed or broken and couldn’t do what other kids did. I was only loved because they were my family and they “had to” love me. The words were reinforced with actions. It feels almost as though I was being specifically trained to have symptoms of C-PTSD. It’s not easy as an adult to replace childhood lessons like these. We need all the help and support that we can find. If my words or drawings help one other person to feel less alone or find words in therapy, then my book is a success.

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                        An Artist’s Travel Log: an illustrated memoir of exploration in a wilderness obscured by trauma is available on Amazon and can be accessed through the OOTS booklist.

A little about me: I live in the Pacific Northwest with my teenage daughter, two dogs and a cat. I work as a billing specialist for a medical group with seven clinics and a home health team. Our department supports both medical staff and mental health staff as we move toward providing complete patient care. I rely on my faith, my chosen community, my role as a mom, my creativity, my garden and my therapist to get me through each week.

Website: martinafranklinpoole.com               Twitter: MartinaFPoole                      Instagram: martinafranklinpoole

Complex PTSD, Radical Authenticity and Transcendence

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Leslie Browning, author of "To Lose the Madness: Field Notes on Trauma, Loss and Radical Authenticity"

Over the course of 3 years, my life has undergone the strangest and most beautiful of arcs, and I now find myself at the center of a surreal whirlwind….

A little background on me... my name is Leslie M. Browning. I am an award-winning spiritual author of eleven books and founder of the publishing house, Homebound Publications. In late 2015, I suffered the miscarriage of twins. This was but the latest trauma in a long succession reaching all the way back into my childhood. When the miscarriage happened, all the shock and pain amalgamated into a solid wall of denial. I'd suffered many traumatic events in the years prior to the miscarriage and this was the mental-last straw. I entered a severe depressive episode wherein I was suicidal. Later went on to be diagnosed with C-PTSD, Depression, and Mild Dissociative Disorder. I'd been in therapy only about six weeks when this formal diagnosis came. I was referred to a trauma specialist to start EMDR.

Long story short, the therapy didn't work. Shortly after starting EMDR, I began experiencing episodes of severe emotional flooding. In these episodes, I would go from being depressed to full tilt rage, to fight or flight, to crashing back down in the bleakest despair and exhaustion, and cycle back again. They happened on a biweekly basis for several months.

[Skimming over a very hard time in my life.] In order to transcend the meaningless loss and grieve for the life not lived, I processed the events the best way I could: through my pen.  Eventually, I took all of my journal entries from the time and put everything together into a personal essay and presented it for an advance narrative nonfiction class I was taking in college. At the end of class, something very interesting happened. One by one, my classmates started reaching out privately telling me of their own struggles with depression, grief, mental illness, and near suicides. It was as though my admitting that I wasn't okay gave them permission to admit that they weren't okay. My story seemed to tap into a larger conversation. Eventually, I decided to publish the story in a small book. Two years later, my cathartic writings have become a book entitled, "To Lose the Madness: Field Notes on Trauma, Loss and Radical Authenticity."

Unlike other books in my library, I wrote "To Lose the Madness" with absolutely no intention of sharing it with others; I simply wrote as a way to “process” this period in my life of severe mental strain and make sense out of the senseless.

The book gained momentum and as it did, I found myself flinching at the thought of revealing so much of myself on a public platform. Up until this point, only around 10 people knew of my breakdown and subsequent struggles. Just as I acclimated to the notion of my story being public, I was asked to give a TEDx Talk at Yale University's TEDx Conference on my story. In the talk I explore the philosophy of "radical authenticity" I mention in the book as well as my practice of transcending trauma. In the book, I also raise questions on what it means to heal. (In a society where we are socialized to "let go," what does it mean when we cannot? Does letting go equate healing or is it not more a processing of learning how to carry the load fate has set on our shoulders?)

After the miscarriage, I had dissociated—I couldn’t say the word miscarriage without having a breakdown, and there I was saying it to a room full of strangers, for a camera, for all the world to see. In some ways, giving the TED was freeing—to be “out there,” to be done with the denial, to own my journey (as I termed it in the book). And, in another way, it was terrifying. As a survivor of childhood trauma, trust isn’t my strong suit. I am trained to play things close to the vest—to hide anything that might make me appear weak. The TED Talk was like one public in-take with a psychologist—there was no denying it. I would be lying if I said the TED Talk’s release didn’t cause its fair share of panic attacks and moments of regret. I came face to face with the very philosophy I explore in my book that helped stabilize me: radical authenticity.

The reality of it all is settling within me as I ask myself the following question: Does my speaking publicly of the breakdown, the CPTSD, depression…make me weak or does it show a strength?

I have decided that this book, more than any other I have written, is a conversation starter and it is a needed conversation. So I―a notoriously private person―am going to share the story of my most difficult moments with the world. The prospect of this is both exciting and terrifying. Fear and trembling aside, I am 35-years-old, and I have come to realize that I have no answers―not one. I used to believe in answers but I don’t anymore. Instead, I have only my journey and the time has come to own it.

As those closest to me learned of my intention to release this story they asked me, "Why share all this with the world? Why put this much of myself out there?" The response: Because I’m broken. We’re all broken and right now we’re all isolated within that brokenness. The cure for the loneliness is connection—connection with that broken part of ourselves and with each other—and we can’t achieve that connection while pretending we are okay. We’re not okay. My previously published works were a lotus—an expression of hope—but I knew I had yet to speak of the mud—the darkness which makes these manifestations of hope an achievement of transcendence rather than simply one of literary merit. For me, leaving the story untold wasn’t an option. I knew I would have to tell everything that had happened not only for my own process of catharsis but for what I hoped to do as an author—to help highlight how we are all moving across the same terrain and suffering the same affliction, and in that, none of us are alone.

I don't know if my book will help others suffering from C-PTSD, depression, and Dissociation, but writing it, sharing it...helped me get through and take what was an unbearable journey and make it mean something.

I wanted to share my story with others who suffer from CPTSD because, more than most, I know they will "get" why I wrote the book and how hard it was to get up and own the whole messy ordeal.

Link to Leslie's TED Talk: https://youtu.be/a92jRPHu9wk
Link to her book on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Lose-Madness-Trauma-Radical-Authenticity/dp/1947003909
Link to her Website: http://lmbrowning.com
Link to the Radical Authenticity Community she formed as a blog for storytellers sharing their journeys in an effort to lift the stigma of mental illness: http://radicalauthenticity.community

Pete Walker’s Top Ten Practices for Navigating CPTSD: Part 1

Pete Walker, therapist, author and himself a survivor of childhood trauma has kindly agreed to respond to questions/comments about the first five of his “Top 10 Ten Practices for Navigating CPTSD” from his third book “Homesteading in the Calm Eye of the Storm,” and the remaining  five at a later date. We respectfully ask that you keep comments/questions general and do not include overly personal or lengthy information about your situation as this is a public blog and Pete has joined us to share his thoughts as a fellow traveler rather than provide therapeutic advice.   Thank you!


Many readers write to me asking about the key to CPTSD recovery. As I wrote in Complex PTSD, I think there are many keys. Here are the top ten practices of my ongoing recovery. Thankfully the amount of time I need to dedicate to them has steadily decreased over the years.  I use the words “practices” to emphasize that there are no fast fixes, singular solutions or final arrivals in CPTSD recovery. As unfair as it often seems, recovering is ninety percent perspiration and ten percent inspiration.

1.       Milking Self-Kindness and Self-Protection out of Grieving

I go on endlessly about grieving because it’s brought me unparalleled relief. Most of the silver linings that I discovered about my trauma appeared on the other side of grieving. I am often tickled by the irony that a good cry leaves me feeling stronger and more confident. For decades, my tears dissolved my fear and confusion, and left me with a clear and hopeful sense of direction.

When I was 29, I was devastated when I saw my beautiful black Labrador, George, die under the wheels of a car. George! How I wished back then for someone who felt as safe and comforting as him. Miraculously, the overwhelming pain of his brutal death was washed away by a monsoon of tears. George’s demise opened me to the value of emoting. Previously my emotions were a great source of fear and shame. I almost always avoided them with a desperate repertoire of tricks. When my tears sprung forth that day, I was baptized with the Holy Spirit of grieving. Never again did I resist my tears. From then on I hungered for them until they became easily accessible.                      

When I was 39, my mother and my best dog, Herbie, died in short succession. My grieving for Herbie, who unconditionally loved me for ten years, totally eclipsed my grieving for Helen. In the heart of my mourning, I wrote this poem.

Herbie died and left me to find a new ride…
Left me with a precarious lead off first base…
Left me yearning to be picked off.
I see the pitcher chuck a knuckler
And mesmerized, I watch its loco dance.
I hear the stitches tumble a tune upon the air:
“Hey Pete, it sure is sweet and free up here.”

I never dream of my mother, but my Dreamtime has been graced generously over the years with comforting visits from Herbie. I well up now with tears of gratitude for Herbie, my high-grade social lubricant. Kind people were continuously drawn to this boddhisatvic dog…this mottled cattle dog of alluring homeliness. Herbie helped me many times to connect easily with her admirers. A few tears escape their wells as I remember her being lost in transport on a plane. The Airline kept sending her to the wrong airport, and I goose-chased her for two days from city to city before we reunited. When I opened her kennel, she sped around the airport floor in circles, skidding on the slippery linoleum in long tangents…then scrambling back into circling. She ran in unbridled joy at our reunification. Unable to contain her feelings, she manically lapped the waiting area a half-dozen times.

As I write, I flash back with compassion to my six-year-old hyperactive self – running around a car for an hour to escape the bully, Michael Carmody. He couldn’t catch me and I dared to laugh at him in his frustration. Sweet tears of grief sweetened with relief hallow the rebooting of these memories.                          

My tears – from the first drenching onwards – reliably rebirth me out of flashbacks. Crying is my get-out-of-jail-free card. It still occasionally rescues me from the death-pall of the abandonment depression, and revives my appreciation for being alive. I’m sure that grieving saved me from an early grave. Before my tears were easily accessible, I only had “accidents” and risks gone bad to release my pain. As my knack for grieving grew, my recklessness dried up and blew away. Yet no matter how wise my choices, how mindful my actions and how supportive my friends, life will deal me, like everyone else, an unfair slew of upsetting surprises.

Grieving is my tool kit par excellence for dealing with fortune’s outrages. Over and over, I find refuge In the Calm Eye of the Storm…of tears.

2.       Whittling Down the Critic

My critic ruled the roost of my early life. Denial and minimization were its allies, until I realized I had become numb to its domination. In one transformative epiphany, I flashed:  Oh my God! This critic is so hellaciously huge that it is the boss of me! I am perpetually over-focusing on the negative! Something powerful awoke in me and I thought: This is unacceptable! I will take back control of my mind…become the captain of my brain…exorcise the internalized drill sergeants of my parents and the Catholic Church. I will no longer salute the twisted flags they have brainwashed me to enshrine! No more unconsciously locking into step with the critic’s commands and judgments. And NO to perfectionism and its all-or-none thinking! NO to all those false alarms of seeing danger everywhere! NO to only seeing what’s wrong with me, with others and with life.

Early on my rebellion against the critic seemed hopeless. For a long time it seemed that all my efforts were making it worse. In truth, I was stuck in a gradually unfolding process of discovering its enormity. Like many of my clients, this failure created new reasons to hate myself: “I can’t do anything right. What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I just choose to love myself.”  After breaking the record for spinning out in that nasty whirlpool, I finally saw my self-hate as my parents’ most poisonous legacy. Being continuously hated by them trained me to hate myself. “The gift that keeps on giving” has many references, but no “gift” is worse than being inculcated with an inner critic that eternally frowns at you with disgust.

During the early years of critic work, I gave up the fight many times. How could I hope to conquer this multifaceted foe! Maybe I should just go back to joking about being so self-critical, like Woody Allen and everyone else. Who could blame me? As my client, Mary Alice, once said: “That sucker has so many different ways of attacking you, it’s like playing whack-a-mole!”  Many tools eventually helped, especially grieving self-compassionate tears. But shrinking it was glacial until I shifted into angrily counter-attacking it whenever I caught it biting me. The success of this fighting increased dramatically when I started visualizing the critic as an ugly two-headed beast: Charlie on the left and Helen on the right. I brought in the big guns when I added disgust to my anger – imagining that I was contemptuously giving them back their shame as well as their intimidation.

Innumerable times, I “dissed” them scornfully: Piss off Charlie and Helen! You heartless a-holes! You’re a nasty pair of cowardly child-beating bullies. Shut The F UP! Over and over, I countered the critic with contempt, mostly in the silence and privacy of my own mind. Over and over I imagined myself screaming at the critic with my parents’ favorite insults.

Before long this practice spontaneously triggered deep empathy for my child-self. I then translated this empathy into contradicting their slurs. After a moment or two, I’d move from anger into compassion for myself. I uttered many versions of: I love you little Pete. You’re a good kid. You’re smart, witty, resourceful, and so on. I am here for you and on your side no matter what. I repeated versions of this two-step process full-heartedly at least ten times a day, and within months the critic began to noticeably abate. Within a few years it disappeared for lengthening periods. One day as it tried for an encore, I saw it as a one winged fly that could not lift itself off the floor. I laughed at it: You’re a pathetic envoy of Helen and Charlie. Do you really think you still have any “cred” with me!?

On another memorable morning, I awoke in an intense flashback of self-disappointment and was soon rescued by this unprompted self-defense: So Herr Critic, aka Helen and Charlie, you used to run the show all the time. Now you’re lucky to get a few seconds. You used to be a class-5-rapids, but now you’re a seasonal trickle in a place where it rarely rains! So, PLEASE, let me invite you to GET THE HELL away from me! And POOF! Like magic, I was back on my side again.

Now it is almost always easy to dismiss the critic. It’s so weak, I rarely need the empowerment of anger. When it occasionally rearises, my current favorite response is a condescending response: Oh! It’s Mr. & Mrs. SMALL POTATOES again…trying to make a crisis out of something minuscule…something that truly is just SMALL POTATOES. I co-opted this phrase from my mother who used it to put down anything I did well. I use it instead as a reminder that her criticism is next to nothing to me now.

O,  how far I’ve come! My mindfulness usually spots toxic criticisms immediately and I effortlessly let them wither away.  Simply noticing the critic lures it into the quicksand of my healthy self-protection. I have whittled it down from commander-in-chief of my psyche to a mere shadow of its former self.

Now and for the last two decades I almost always feel like a good enough person.

 3.       Flight-into-Light

Like many survivors, my recovery process began unconsciously with a spiritual quest. I needed to find something profoundly good about life to counteract the soul crushing effects of my family. But striving for enlightenment was a salvation fantasy, and only helped marginally with my CPTSD. My Icarus-like flights into the Light did however give me powerful subjective experiences of a Benevolence at the core of life. Trying to permanently merge with this Light however, melted my waxen wings and repeatedly sent me plummeting into the sea of my abandonment depression.  The Icarus in me won some and lost some. When I caught enough glimmers of the Light to know that an ultimate good exists, I felt buoyed enough to journey inside – to search for something worthwhile at my psychological core. When I finally learned to meditate effectively, I gradually found Spirit within. 

Now my flights-into-light are sojourns inside to find an inner glow. My ongoing meditative practice regularly brings me helpful insights, restores my equanimity and self-acceptance, and occasionally provides me glimpses of THAT which is so much greater. My ultimate flight-into-light was an eight hour Enlightenment experience with LSD – an experience of feeling transcendently at one with a loving God that permeated everything. [What a surprise years later to read that Freud knew of this experience: “…the oceanic feeling…the sensation of harmony and interconnection with the universe.”]

This LSD journey, described in Chapter 6, impassioned me to search for permanent enlightenment. Luckily my quest short-circuited two years later, but I had enough tastes of God as Love to convince me that life is a stunning gift from an unfathomable and generous Creator. Like Walt Whitman and other poets, I increasingly saw love and beauty in life’s ordinary and myriad details. Delusional or not, I feel lucky to believe in a Benevolent Creator. This is not a choice but a profound subjective sense of knowing. The years before my huge epiphany – especially the Catholic ones – were desolately empty without this deep sense of a Higher Power.

And even if in death, my light is completely extinguished, I gained immeasurably from this vision. It blessed me with an increasing capacity to appreciate being alive.

4.       Bibliotherapy

Books were my first teachers. They “introduced” me to compassionate adults who helped me with their wise and kind words. For decades I read my way into a better relationship with myself. The book that took the lid off my denial about my childhood trauma was Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child. Reading it also took the floor out from under me, and dumped me into the bottomless basement of my abandonment depression:

An emotional maelstrom
Squared, cubed and taken to the highest Parental power.
A childhood full of hunger
                unsootheable by food
                                      cranking in the canyon of my belly.
Hunger born in an emotional famine
                  suffered in solitary confinement
                                          behind the bars of a prison crib.                                               

As horrible as the discovery of this unresolved pain was at the time, the ensuing Dark Night of the Soul awakened me to the grievous damage caused my parents’ abuse and neglect. Denial died, and I was lost in a sea of overwhelm for months. Recovery by Gravitz and Bowden subsequently gave me a sextant to begin navigating this sea. John Bradshaw’s books and videos released the pause button on my arrested development. His PBS videos on the dysfunctional family and inner child work were like a series of waves that I rode deeper into recovering.

Working with this material helped me recognize how often I went down the rabbit hole of self-hate. How awful that this eventually devolved into hating myself for hating myself. Thankfully, I finally realized that self-hate had been a childhood requirement rigorously enforced by my parents and the clergy. No wonder this habit was so hard to break! Gradually it began to crumble as I forgave myself over and over for repeating their brainwashing, and then invoked unconditional self-acceptance.

Other recommendations that I have for Bibliotherapy are contained in Chapter 15 of my CPTSD book. Let me also note that I am sure that many other valuable trauma-recovery books are now available, but I have not had the time to explore them.

5.       Writing that Helped Me To Right Myself

Journaling was loving mothering and therapy for me. I could always bring my whole self – as small as it was as at first – to my journal and explore all my concerns. To this day, I still occasionally journal to plumb a gnarly issue. Journaling taught me to bear witness to myself – to validate that I was born innocent – unfairly deprived of a child’s birthright to be loved. Through no fault of my own, I got the joker from the parenting deck. Journaling helped me grieve this terrible loss. My four foot stack of journals is in many ways a history of how I reparented myself for fifty years.

 I love writing. It feels like flirting with the unconscious – and on lucky days connecting with the Higher Self. My Muse often surprises me with unbidden jewels. Occasionally, they scintillate and make me teary.  These wondrous and numinous tears feel like proof of God’s existence. A Jew or a Christian might say: “God created us in his own image…wanting us to also be creative.” Occasionally an inspiration makes me laugh aloud: “I didn’t know I knew that.” Wherever this inspiration comes from, I’m sure it’s not only my ego coughing up a new mixture of ideas it has heard before.


Pete Walker is a relational therapist in California who both suffers from and treats Complex PTSD.  As many in the Out of the Storm community will attest, his books resonate deeply with those of us who endured trauma in childhood.  At the same time as he shares his lived experience with us in a way we can understand, he offers us personal and therapeutic insights into navigating Complex PTSD.    Pete's web site 

"Fractured" - A Novella about Life with Unacknowledged Complex PTSD by Anna L. Bragga

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Fractured

is inspired by real life events and challenges perceptions about the impact of abuse amnesia and societal prejudices towards the maladaptive behaviours of victims.

As a psychological suspense novella written in the first person style of a journal, Fractured has been variously described as “pacey, accessible, brave and beautiful.” But beneath the ease and simplicity of the narrator's prose and the enigma of her disappearance, lies another more complicated story; the abstruse – outwardly imperceptible, shattering of her personality, while her actions become increasingly dominated by the need to avoid unpredictable danger triggers and flashbacks.

Deborah Rawlings is twenty-three years old when she suddenly flees her hard-won job as an outreach worker at Rainbows End Hostel in London, leaving behind a bundle of handwritten papers hidden beneath the floorboards of her old bedroom, only discovered years later by a plumber repairing a burst water main. Fractured is the result of the charity's decision to publish the papers in the hope of tracing Deborah.

The story of her life unfolds exposing fragmented, and, at times, startlingly vivid, memories, written with the calm emotional detachment typical in severely traumatised people who have numbed out and shut down their feelings in order to function in everyday life. 'Debs' has the added help of prescription drug, citalopram, to manage her moods as she delves into the past, hoping that writing and sharing her story will bring to light “the truth.”

We learn that despite her poor to average school grades, and the low expectations of her parents – who, according to Debs, “don't know her,” she's fiercely career-minded and determined to study A-levels and go to university, to do something worthwhile with her life. Debs has a true warrior spirit, and won't be beaten, despite the obstacles she faces, and the victimization she endured in her dysfunctional family home, nicknamed Colditz Camp.

In the pursuit of her cherished career ambitions, however, she is constantly assailed by the emotional battlefield that is the legacy of her childhood. This is compounded by disastrous encounters when she arrives in London to live with her cousin and work to save up for college. Nowhere feels safe, and one thing after another reinforces this belief.  To the casual observer, Debs may appear inept and naive in her decision-making, destructive in her actions, but anyone familiar with Complex PTSD will begin to recognise the unconscious survival mechanisms driving her, ultimately leading her towards unhealthy repetitions and re-enactments of past abuse, culminating in five tortuous years of captivity as the sex slave of a wealthy businessman.

By the story's conclusion, she seems to have found a way out of the nightmare, but has she? Is it possible for someone who has endured a situation where they felt no control over their body for a prolonged period to return to normal after a course of antidepressants and no counselling support, no validating response from another human being? And besides, what is normal anyway, if you've always had to deny your instincts and disconnect from yourself to survive?

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Toward a More Trauma Informed Future

Fractured has the potential to raise awareness and increase understanding of the life changing effects of suppressed traumatic memories and the exhausting, disorienting experience of living with the resulting hard-to-regulate emotions and feelings of alienation common to Complex PTSD. As the author of Fractured, it is my hope that this little book could just reach into vulnerable sections of the population and lead them to communities like Out of the Storm (OOTS) where they can receive support and guidance in the forum and information on the latest books and studies on trauma recovery and healing. There are certain topics that only a survivor can truly understand, and OOTS provides a safe space where feedback is grounded in experience and compassion. Indeed, connecting with others at OOTS can be transformative, as I have found, providing encouragement towards making bold, life enhancing decisions, and offering comfort on rough days. In the same way that stumbling across a survivor's site opened the door to knowledge and recovery to me twelve years ago, Fractured could just help someone find a way out of their own personal nightmare.

Child abuse, sexual violence and exploitation are endemic in our culture, it goes without saying, and ignorance and stigma have been used as weapons to silence victims for centuries, condemning people to a life on the margins and/or a shortened lifespan. Many young people, like Debs, are not even aware that their addictions, panic attacks, depression, self-harm, social withdrawal etc, may be symptoms of trauma which can be helped with the right approach. Too often, it's only when crisis hits later in life that the penny drops. Sadly, judging by the feedback in the OOTS forum, misdiagnosis is widespread and victim blaming common, with attitudes, even in the psychiatric community, still narrowly focused on correcting “faulty thinking” and suppressing unprocessed, overwhelming emotions and problem behaviours with drugs. Harsh judgement and the minimization of distress by professionals compounds a pre-existing sense of hopelessness and despair, feeding Big Pharma's parasitic grip on victims.

The relentless institutional pathologising of people with labels attached to symptoms of interpersonal trauma is partly to blame for the stigma. Thankfully, here at OOTS, there is a wealth of resources on trauma-informed treatments and guides to choosing an appropriate therapist to aid people in their recovery. Because, after all, let's not forget, Complex PTSD is not an illness, disease or even a disorder, it is an injury, as brain-imaging studies have shown (Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score, 2014). Parts of the brain change to adapt to persistantly threatening environments. Complex PTSD could more accurately be termed "Cumulative Traumatic Stress Injury (CTSI), as called for in a recent OOTS poll, because it occurs over a long period , generally years, and for many, this is an ongoing living situation with one or more abusers, rendering the word 'post' obsolete. 

“We are on the verge of becoming a trauma-conscious society,” writes Van Der Kolk, in his seminal work, The Body Keeps the Score. We still have a way to go, but we are getting there.

If you would like to comment on this article or ask the author a question, please use the "Comment" button on the lower left at the bottom of the page.


About the author

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Anna L. Bragga is the author of Fractured: Memories of a Survivor (Volume 1) available in paperback on Amazon, Kindle, and very soon via retail outlets worldwide. In addition to writing fiction, Anna also makes films and works as a freelance journalist. She founded UK-based Conscience Media in 2010.  Websitehttps://www.consciencemedia.co.uk/;  Email: anna@consciencemedia.co.uk;  Facebook: @AnnaBraggaAuthor; Twitter: Anna_Bragga.  Illustrations provided by UK graphic artist Steve Browne.

Fans and followers of Debs can find out what happens next in Volume II by keeping an eye on Anna's Facebook page and Conscience Media website.