Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

It always helps me to put a name on things, what I'm going through, and complex post-traumatic stress disorder is the name that fits best, although I don't recognise myself in everything either.

Pete Walker writes: “Minimization about the debilitating consequences of a childhood rife with emotional neglect is at the core of the PTSD denial onion. Our recovery efforts are impeded until we understand how much of our suffering constellates around early emotional abandonment – around the great emptiness that springs from the dearth of parental loving interest and engagement, and around the harrowing experience of being small and powerless while growing up in a world where there is no-one who’s got your back. Many survivors never get to discover and work through the wounds that correlate with this level, because they over-assign their suffering to overt abuse and never get to the core issue of emotional abandonment. As stated above, this is especially true when they dismissively compare their trauma to those who were abused more noticeably and more dramatically. [This is particularly ironic in light of the fact that some individuals can suffer a modicum of active abuse without developing PTSD, if there is one caretaker who does not emotionally neglect them]. Traumatic emotional neglect occurs when a child does not have a single parent or caretaker to whom she can turn in times of need or danger, and when she does not have anyone for an extended period of time who is a relatively consistent source of comfort and protection. Growing up emotionally neglected is like nearly dying of thirst just outside the fenced off fountain of a parent’s kindness and interest. Emotional neglect makes children feel worthless, unlovable and excruciatingly empty, with a hunger that gnaws deeply at the center of their being, leaving them starving for human warmth and comfort - a hunger that often morphs over time into an insatiable appetite for substances and/or addictive processes.

I can understand my question of whether or not I was sexually abused as a child as this minimisation that Pete Walker talks about. I have no memory of sexual abuse, or other very strong abuse; only of some episodes of violence from my mother, or, more correctly, I know from my father that my mother beat me sometimes when she was overwhelmed and didn't know what to do with me when I was very young. Although I don't know where this very strong fear of my childhood home comes from, of which I don't have any memories either.


I remember very well the hunger for human warmth, a hunger so strong that it destroyed my first sexual affectionate relationship. I also remember my inability to relate, to open up, to trust. In this first relationship I never felt safe of myself, nor of the relationship, which in the end ended after a year, and I returned to loneliness, to emotional abandonment. I had some friends, but I was not able to trust, to become intimate, to show myself with all my fears and all my vulnerability. I learned to listen to other people's problems, but I was never able to talk about my deepest, most intimate problems, nor do I know if I really understood my problems at this time. I listened a lot, but shared very little. It was clear to me that I needed to stay away from my parents, and I cut off contact for the first time still in Germany, probably in the second half of the 1990s (it was a serious mistake to allow contact again a few years later at my sister's insistence). It was clear to me that I really had run away from my parents' home when I went to study. I had a narrative of my life that began with "I really started living when I left my parents' house..." But my body armor was still pretty intact, and very strong, and I wasn't at all in touch with my body or my emotions. My strategy of disassociation was mostly militancy. Fortunately, in groups where personal relationships, mutual care, mattered.

Again Pete Walker, here about his own experience: “It was not until I learned to assign the pain of numerous current time emotional flashbacks to the abject loneliness of my childhood, that I was able to work effectively on the repetition compulsion that kept me vacillating between long periods of isolation and relationships that were never safe enough to reveal my whole self. It is important to emphasize here that real intimacy, and the healing comfort it alone can bestow, depends on showing up in times of vulnerability – and eventually, and most especially, in the flashbacked-times of feeling trapped in the fear, shame and depression of the abandonment melange.

I feel like I'm getting to this point now. I can name and identify my emotional flashbacks better, but, above all, in the last few years I have built friendships that allow me this true intimacy that Pete Walker talks about, where I can show myself vulnerable and find comfort, where I can reveal my whole being. It's something I've learned since my first breakdown four years ago, when for the first time I really started to open up, to show myself with all my vulnerability, because I instinctively understood that it was the only way to survive.

That now, in this period of confinement that has triggered retraumatization and that I live almost as a long emotional flashback, I have not felt the fear of abandonment seems to me a very important advance that tells me something about the friendship relationships I have now.

I am also helped by some of Meg-John Barker's texts and zines, especially about self-care, staying with one's emotions (which was hard to read, and caused me very strong emotions), or about Plural Selves. I am identifying my neglected, abandoned selves, such as my childhood self, playing self, among others. Identifying these abandoned selves does not automatically mean that I can now accept them, I can be this child, play, make fun of myself, etc., but I also see it as a first step in reconnecting with my other selves.

Although I disembarked late on this journey (four years ago), I am now on the journey to my recovery, and I feel the advances especially in these times of confinement that are so hard for me, as they have triggered another retraumatization. In the last few weeks I have reconnected first with the pain and loneliness of my adolescence, and then also with the pain and abandonment of my childhood, and although I am living through sometimes very painful times, I feel stronger and more capable, with more tools, to face the pain, to stay with my emotions, to release the pain that has been blocked for years, to liberate myself from the fear of the first 20 years of my life. I have not yet achieved this liberation, but I am on the way. There is hope again.