Complex PTSD II

Note: This text too was written first in English and then translated into Spanish and (maybe) German.


Less than a month ago I started to name what I’m living as complex trauma, or complex PTSD. Going back to the symptoms as summarised by Meg-John Barker in a blog post on Trauma and cPTSD 101, I can identify all but one in myself:

  • Emotional flashbacks
  • Being highly critical of ourselves and/or others
  • Toxic shame
  • Abandoning ourselves
  • Anxiety and/or struggles around social situations or relationships
  • Loneliness and/or feeling abandoned
  • Dissociation (feeling checked out and/or distracting yourself/numbing with food, drink, worrying, working, social media, TV, etc.)
  • Feeling bad about ourselves from low self-esteem to self-loathing
  • Big mood changes and struggles with feelings
  • Difficulties with relationships
  • Being easily triggered into the 4Fs

The only one I can’t identify (yet) is toxic shame, all others are clearly there, to different degrees.


Looking back at my life through a complex PTSD lens, many things start to make sense and fall into place, which is, I think, the reason why Pete Walker’s book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A Guide and Map for Recovering from Childhood Trauma often moves me so much.

Pete Walker adds to the list of symptoms suicidal ideation, which I have known all my life, mostly in the form of passive suicidal ideation, which, according to Pete Walker, “ranges from wishing you were dead to fantasising about ways to end your life.” … “Passive suicidality is typically a flashback to early childhood when our abandonment was so profound, that is was natural for us to wish that God or somebody or something would just put an end to it all.

How well I know this, and I can now see that this has been especially strong when I was feeling bad, possibly in an emotional flashback triggered by something. The last time was possibly in January/February this year, after my Christmas Blues (which I now also identify as an emotional flashback), when I slowly started to accept that my community in Sevilla is no longer what it was, but also when funding applications for this year were coming back rejected, and I felt a deep failure (the inner critic speaking).

But I had this so often in my life, that I wouldn’t be able to count. And I can go at great length fantasising about ways to end my life, ways that don’t cause pain, ways that won’t be noticed, that is, that would make me just disappear without a trace, without anyone knowing. Rarely has it gone beyond passive suicidality. The only times I remember were once during another pretty heavy episode of complex PTSD about four years ago, when I was in bed and started to think of the knives in my kitchen, and got so scared I left the house. Luckily I met a friend on the Alameda, and she probably didn’t really know what to do, as I started to cry. The other time was recently, about six weeks ago, when I was taking a bath and started to think about cutting my veins with a broken glass of wine.

My Christmas Blues at the end of last year was clearly triggered by feelings of loneliness and feeling abandoned, and I was flashing back to the loneliness and abandonment of my childhood and youth.

I recently wrote about my struggle with relationships, so I won’t go into this here. This is also related to anxiety around social situations, and a lack (until a few years ago) of more profound and intimate relationships.

I know only too well the problem of low-esteem. I don’t think it goes to the point of self-loathing (and certainly no toxic shame, at least not recently), but even though mentally I nowadays know what I’m capable of, emotionally I still don’t trust myself, and feel unsure about the outcome until I get positive feedback. I know I can write good articles, I know I can do training, I know I can do programming for Drupal, I know I’m good at a lot of political organising/strategy thinking, but that doesn’t mean I really feel it.

That brings me to my inner critic. Until very recently, I thought that was a part where the symptoms don’t fit me, but I now realise that my inner critic is actually quite powerful, and often so good at it that I don’t even notice them at work. On the one hand I can see this at work emotionally. A few days ago I quoted Pete Walker in one of my blog posts: “Hence when an individual, emotionally abandoned in childhood, has an incipient upwelling of core emotional experience, like sadness, anger, depression, etc., the inner critic reacts to it instantly with fear and shame preventing the individual not only from expressing it, but often from even becoming aware of it in the first place. Tragically this prevents the individual from communicating from the deeper levels of vulnerable experience that are necessary for a deeper, more sustaining kind of relating.

That’s pretty shit, but I know this well, and it is related to my tendency towards a “fawn” response (the 4F), that is, I often don’t even become aware of my boundaries being overstepped, or my needs being ignored in group settings, and so the emotions go unnoticed and accumulate, until they become overwhelming. Once it gets to that point, the inner critic gets to work again and I start to blame myself for getting to that point. In the past I then usually left, but recently I started to fight back. Late, but better late than never. Although the results of fighting back have been mixed in terms of the outcome, they have been overwhelmingly positive in terms of people’s reactions and understanding.


Dissociation is probably the theme of my life, either in forms of day dreaming (as a child or youth), escaping into books, or into hyper activism or work (or both). I’m also aware that I used alcohol often in social situations to relax, and in recent years also more on my own. And especially in recent years I have become aware that my alcohol consumption increases when I’m not in a good shape – possibly in some kind of flashback, even though not always such a profound flashback as now. I have learned (with exceptions) to stop drinking alcohol when I realise that this is what is happening, as I’m very aware that it doesn’t help at all. It usually makes things worse.

During this profound emotional flashback triggered by the confinement I clearly have been abusing alcohol, and it is only now that I feel I can see light at the end of the tunnel that I feel able to stop drinking or at least to reduce alcohol consumption (that is not to say I got drunk every day. But I got to the level of at least half a bottle of wine every day, limited to the evenings).


A few days ago I read in Pete Walker’s book the part about re-parenting. The re-mothering part to build up self-compassion didn’t move me too much, but to my surprise I had to stop reading and had to cry when I read the bit about re-fathering and building up self-protection. Even though I understand fathering and mothering as psychological/social concepts independent of gender or sex (here my queer background comes in), it made me think of my father, which I hadn’t done much before. I know that I “always” (not sure from when on, but my father also said “always”) rejected my mother, thinking of my father mainly draws a blank. I can remember very few occasions – my father going with me to a football match, which I couldn’t care less about, or my father threatening me with forcefully dragging me to the hairdressers to cut my hair, which I was then growing long. Little more. Did I fear my father? I don’t really know. I guess to a degree yes, especially when I was younger. Did my father protect me? Certainly not. He kept me as emotionally abandoned as my mother did, both probably more due to their own incapacity.

But while I still hate my mother, and I don't know how often I have wished her dead, I don’t feel the same hate for my father. I just don’t care about him, and prefer not to have any contact with him (nor do I have contact with my mother). And, in a way, when I sometimes imagine them being dead, it is usually accompanied by a feeling of relief.

I feel during this episode of acute complex PTSD I’m especially re-mothering myself, that is, I have been working on self-compassion, putting self-care at the centre. I’m not so sure yet about re-fathering and self-protection.

I’m still a long way off from recovery from the complex trauma of my childhood and adolescence. But at least I feel I’m getting to understand myself better, understand what is going on. And I feel this understanding is helping me now to get out of this episode of acute complex PTSD, to be able to not just survive but live my life again. It is likely that this won’t be the last emotional flashback, or the last episode of acute complex PTSD. But from now on I hope I will better be able to identify when this is happening, and I also hope it won’t be as bad again, and that I will be able to better cope with it when it happens.

The road to recovery is still long. Naming what is happening is only a first step.