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What is cPTSD?

cPTSD is Complex Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Most of us have heard about PTSD and we know that soldiers come back from war with a degree of this. But PTSD and cPTSD are not only reserved for people of war. People who experience a traumatic accident or an earthquake can experience PTSD. People with repeated trauma such as emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and childhood traumas are likely to experience symptoms of cPTSD.

cPTSD is much like PTSD but with additional symptoms that are often misdiagnosed as something else.

Complex PTSD is a mental health condition that can develop if you experience chronic (long-term) trauma.

I have bouts of incapacitating anxiety, depression, and anger. I have cPTSD.

I’m free from abuse. I no longer am married to an abuser. I no longer am dating an abuser. I live alone and share custody of my young son. I have good friendships in my life. I am fulfilled at work and run my businesses. I am part of a church community as well. I travel, lecture, and work hard no matter the task. I’m passionate about being a mother and I focus most of my energy on raising a young man. He’s doing great despite my shortcomings. And yet, I have cPTSD.

I have bouts of incapacitating anxiety, depression, and anger. I have cPTSD. 

cPTSD symptoms

  • Lack of emotional regulation
  • Negative self-perception
  • Difficulty with relationships
  • Interruptions in consciousness
  • Distorted perception of the abuser (such as feeling positively towards an abuser, viewing them as all-powerful, or being obsessed with “getting even” with them)
  • Loss of systems of meanings – Hopelessness, despair

PTSD symptoms

  • Reliving the traumatic experience
  • Avoiding certain situations
  • Hyperarousal (jumpy, hard to concentrate, impulsiveness)
  • Anxiety or panic attacks

Sometimes people with Complex PTSD have been misdiagnosed with various anxieties and depressive disorders, as well as bipolar, narcissistic, codependent and borderline disorders because they look very similar depending on the cacophony of symptoms. People with cPTSD do not always have all the symptoms, and in my personal experience, these symptoms only occur when there is a triggering event, (and that may not be true for everyone).

cPTSD triggers

  • specific physical sensations or pain
  • intense emotions like fear, sadness, or anger (an argument, for example, or a wrong-doing, a perceived loss of some kind)
  • a breakup or divorce
  • specific smells, sounds, or tastes
  • a month, date, or time of year, birthday, holiday, anniversary of a significant event
  • reading a book, watching a movie or documentary that makes you think of the trauma
  • specific places, like the dentist’s office or church

My experience with cPTSD

Let me state it simply: with cPTSD, when I am triggered, I am filled with intense emotions that are sometimes all-consuming and incapacitating. If stress levels are high, the smallest thing can set me off. I see “red” in seconds.


If my ex-husband does something to trigger me, I can cry for two days straight, non-stop, and feel like the biggest loser, despite my many accomplishments (i.e. negative view of myself).

In the past, when the narcissistic boyfriend gave me the silent treatment, I would be sick to my stomach for days and text him obsessively. If I am not triggered, I can think logically. “He needs space, I’ll let us both cool off,” or “This is not cool. I do not deserve to be stonewalled.”

Being flooded with panic or intense fear doesn’t happen often in my case. But it comes on quickly and it often catches me by surprise. I’ve become much more capable of handling my reactions (no more obsessive texting) but I’m not so good (yet) at the fear and distorted view of myself part.

These bouts take a huge toll on my work life; I’m not able to focus on the tasks at hand. Working for myself has been a Godsend because it’s easy for me to take a day off, or if I do have a deadline, I can meet it from the comfort of my own home.

The debilitation has given me pause to think about applying for disability at times. It can be that destructive.

It affects how I parent my son as well. I have tried to always focus on my kiddo and place other distractions aside. This has allowed me to build a beautiful bond between my son and me. We have a tight relationship (I don’t want to mention here what both of my abusers have called it, but they certainly do not see the bond in the same way I and many others see it). I cherish the moments with him and we have a lot of fun. We have a lot of teaching moments too.

Symptoms come on quickly and often catch me by surprise.

My triggers

Stress is one trigger. Anything having to do with my ex-husband is another trigger and it’s especially bad if I suspect he will get upset or angry. He had displayed extreme degrees of anger and hostility when he left our home and for two years could not speak to me with kindness or compassion. He was extremely angry and anything I did that didn’t please him caused him to lash out at me. I was 3 minutes late meeting him and I was met with rage for causing him to be inconvenienced. I wanted him back desperately at that time and internalized his anger. “I’m always late and he’s sick of it. I come from a family of tardiness. I cannot be on time. I’m stupid. I’m a loser. This is why he left me.”

When my home becomes cluttered, I feel like a failure, because my ex did not like clutter and constantly criticized me for it.

With c-PTSD, when I am triggered, I am filled with intense emotions that are sometimes all-consuming and incapacitating. If stress levels are high, the smallest thing can set me off. I see “red” in seconds.


Dysregulation is a result of having cPTSD. When I am triggered in a heightened state of fear, anxiety, and anger, the ability to see things logically diminishes to the point where I am not able to control my response. I become dysregulated, my body fills with adrenaline, and my anger surfaces. These moments are few and far between, but they do occur and I have to pick up the pieces once the bouts are over. My therapist calls it getting dysregulated.

How I react

He also told me he knew my “insides” and that is why he is leaving me — my insides were toxic. Instead of being angry and standing up for myself, I internalized that. “I’m ugly on the inside; all this work I’m doing to make me look great on the outside is useless because the bottom line is I am garbage on the inside and no amount of make-up, hairstyle, perfect body, sexy clothes will make any difference. I need help for my sick head.” I did need help, but not the kind I thought. Never not once did I feel he was wrong for saying that, as evidenced in a letter I sent him telling him I was a lousy wife, and for that, I will be eternally sorry. He rewarded me with a date after I sent that letter but even that night, he refused to let me know where he was living or bring me home to his place lest I “blow up his car” (his words). We made out like a couple of teenagers in his truck and then he left. Maybe I was not the best wife. But I did not deserve to be told those things and I sure did not know how to not internalize them. I had been so hurt by his leaving and was desperate to have him back.

When he left, he took very little. I asked him why. I don’t want clutter. Today when I see clutter in my home I think it reflects poorly upon me. If I am to step into my ex’s house and it’s clutter-free, it can be a trigger. These are just some of the ways that the trauma from divorce and abuse hurt me. Before being married, he was physically violent with me. He did sleep with my best friend. He stole money from me and he continued to steal from me and my son after we were married. Much of this he blamed on his alcoholism and it is true after he was sober he was not physically violent with me, except for one shove while I was pregnant. He has a big porn addiction that continued throughout our marriage and even after he left. I know he’s a pathological liar, even after he got sober and was working an AA program.

So the list goes on. cPTSD didn’t come just from being around my ex-husband, which alone would be cause for it—but even more happened to me before meeting him. There are many incidents in my life — rape, gang rape, attempted rape, and many more significant things, some small some quite large. Then, two years after we separated I met a man who gave me all the love I had been missing in my marriage. Unfortunately, within three years he proceeded to do exactly what my ex-spouse had done to me, within a shorter period.

It took a couple of years to recover from the last relationship. I have been alone for over 4 years; some days I’m lonely, but mostly I am too busy to date. I want to have the cPTSD under control before I bring any other person into my life. I owe it to them. I owe it to myself. cPTSD is not easy when I get triggered. And it’s extremely disruptive to my life.

How cPTSD affects my child

Kids know. When my son sees his mom angry or suspects I’m hurting or been crying, he doesn’t understand why. I try to hide this from him most of the time, but there have been times he sees me at my weakest.

When I have a cPTSD trigger and I have my son with me, my focus is split. I force myself to stay in the moment, but it is very very difficult. My sensitivity is heightened, no matter how much I focus on the moment, and I try to keep my emotions down. Little things will seem big, immeasurable, insurmountable. He can tell something is going on, so I often tell him I have something on my mind. I always tell him this has nothing to do with him. Sometimes he will bring one of his animals to my side, sometimes a couple of them. I know it’s his way of caring for me. He needs to control the situation somehow, and his menagerie of Jelly Cats are his team of champions. He cuddles with them when he feels sad, and so sharing them with me is his way of comforting me. He doesn’t pry. He won’t ask questions. Sometimes he might ask if this has to do with his dad whom he loves very much. I don’t want to take that away from him — his love for his dad.

On my good days, I know it’s important for him to have that relationship with his dad. I want him to have it and I try to encourage it even if sometimes my brain is screaming, “Your dad is a jerk! Do you know what he did to me? Do you know how bad he hurt me? Do you know that I am where I am now because of what your dad did to me? Do you know he got off scot-free? Do you know he has everything and I have nothing because he stole and hid money during our divorce? And..he’s love-bombing his new wife! Do you even know what that means? Do you know what a narcissist is? Do you know his new wife has no clue about the real him? Do you know he didn’t even want to see you when he first left because he was busy chasing women?” (Obviously, I still have work to do around this.)

I can’t. I should not say that. It’s really hard not to when I’m badly triggered. I want him to hate his dad, the sick angry part of me wants him to hate his father. Part of me wants to protect him from his dad too, lest his dad ever reject him for any reason. But I know that is not right; my son needs his dad and he needs to have a relationship with his dad and it’s not my job to tear that apart, no matter HOW much I am hurting. His dad is a part of him and if I tear down his dad, I tear down my son. I love my son too much. There have been times I slipped and when I have, I do my best to mend things. I am not afraid to apologize to my son, and damn straight I make sure not to make any of the same mistakes again.

My son needs his dad and he needs to have a relationship with his dad and it’s not my job to tear that apart, no matter HOW much I am hurting.

I’ve also taught my son not to always say, “It’s OK,” after I or anyone else apologizes to him. It’s great to forgive, but sometimes the behavior hurts exceptionally. When it does, it’s great to get an apology, but it’s also good to say, “What you did really hurt me,” or even just, “Thank you for apologizing.”

My son is loyal to his father; he has a fear of losing his father so he is very careful about how he acts around him. My son behaves around his dad and rarely if ever acts up. He’s on his best behavior. My ex-husband chalks this up to him being a great dad. It’s not that. It’s that my son watched his father leave, day after day, screaming for him, pleading with him to come back, sobbing in my arms with a broken heart. I would rock him for 30 minutes each time after his dad left; he’d always want to breastfeed at that time too until he would stop whimpering and his body would relax and let go. My son was 2 when his dad left. This child cried often over his dad, so much so that he chased his daddy’s truck down the street as he drove away. His father asked me not to share those stories with him. He said he didn’t want to know.

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