In Part One of this series, I shared the spiritual abuse I endured over the course of years. Here in Part Two, I share some of my more acute symptoms of my CPTSD engendered by this abuse. Please know, however, that trauma does not affect everyone the same way.
In his groundbreaking book on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk describes one of his trauma patients as “living behind a glass wall.” I cannot think of a shorter, more apt way to describe the symptoms I’ve been suffering from these last few months. I am not a wall-builder, and so I sure as heck don’t want to be living behind one, but CPTSD has trapped me in the past, and sealed me off from others and myself.
What It’s Like
My memory gets taken hostage by past abuse. I can be doing the dishes, helping the kids with homework, watching a show, driving my car, or having a completely unrelated conversation, and all of a sudden one of these traumatic episodes will wipe everything else out of my brain and demand my full attention. When I’m driving, my survival instincts kick in and they get kicked out. If we’re talking, I’ll freeze, my countenance will change, I’ll start stammering, and will just stop my story, and often just retreat either into myself and/or out of the room. But, if I’m washing the dishes or doing some other mundane task, it’s not until I realize that my pulse is racing or that I’m throwing the dishes around like they did something wrong that I can snap out of it.
The worst are the nightmares. Before the trauma, I didn’t have (or at least remember) them. Now, I’ll have several every month. Everything from being summoned back to the church to be ridiculed and shamed, to losing my wife and kids in a crowded and hostile space, to being locked in a room with a cobra. Have one of those at 3:30 in the morning and try to go back to sleep. My brain is clearly trying to work through some of the memories, and I’m grateful for that, but man do they put me through the ringer.
I find myself unable to make new relationships or deepen already-existing relationships with others. I’m not an extrovert who enjoys making a friend every hour; that emotionally drains me. But now, when I’m in a crowd I’m hypervigilant, constantly looking for the next threat. I keep my head on a swivel, can feel my mouth dry up, and my heart pound. I feel trapped, and go into full flight mode.
I’m an introvert who enjoys finding someone interesting to really talk about life with; that used to fill me up. But, CPTSD has cut the bottom out of my bucket. Those interactions do nothing for me now, and God have mercy on my friends who have to interact with me. You ever seen a movie where people try to teach an alien or a robot how to act human, and they can’t quite figure out how to do it convincingly? That’s me. I am lost navigating social interactions and can’t connect with other people in any meaningful way. Even with my wife and kids. It’s horrible. I love them, but can’t get closer to them no matter how I shift my approach. CPTSD has robbed me of my family and friends.
It’s also robbed me of myself. That includes interests, hobbies, and joys, but it goes way deeper than that. I don’t really feel my emotions anymore: whether good or bad, big or small. It’s like I cognitively know I’m happy or sad, but I don’t actually feel the emotion. But my loss of self goes even deeper than that. By and large, I don’t think of my self as…well…a self. There’s a persistent state of wondering who I am now on the other side of this trauma, and a lot of “Man this stuff has really f%$#ed me up.”But, there are also entire days where I don’t have a strong feeling that I exist. Like I’m just a spectator who isn’t really here. So, when I go to the grocery store and someone moves their cart out of my way, I might think, “Oh, they can see me.” Or I’ll make a funny comment and someone will laugh, and it will surprise me – like mild shock – that I exist in such a way that I can affect my surroundings. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Brandon’s off his rocker,” I don’t blame you; I feel that way a lot. However, thanks to a friend (who happens to be a freaking neuroscientist!) that this is a measurable phenomenon in the brain. Along the midline of your brain is your Default Mode Network (DMN), and it’s the area of the brain where you store facts, traits and emotions about yourself. In the repeatedly traumatized brain, this part doesn’t work so well. So, an honest answer to a simple “How are you?” for someone with a DMN like mine is “I really and truly have no idea.”
Even though CPTSD can be largely explained and measured by psychology and neuroscience, actually living with the symptoms – the hijacked memories and the estrangement from others and myself – is a life-altering challenge for me and my family. There are days still where I find myself in utter disbelief that it’s happening to me. How is it possible that I can’t make deep connections with other people? With my wife of 16 years? With my kids? That’s who I am in my core. Why do I have to be vigilant for intrusive thoughts? How can I be surprised that I am an “I”?
And then I remember the years of spiritual abuse that preceded the diagnosis, and it all makes sense. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but this has been a living nightmare.The wounds themselves may not be visible, but the symptoms of spiritual abuse very much are.
Whether it’s driving on public roads or living through a pandemic, we are reminded time and again that we are connected to one another. If we abuse others, whether intentionally or not, we put them behind a glass wall, able to see, but not feel what is happening around them. We also place a glass wall within them so they can be close to their emotions and sense of self, but not really integrated with them.
Before experiencing it, I knew traumatic experiences were hard to heal from, but I never had an idea of the real damage they do. If you are suffering from any trauma disorder, know I see you and I believe your description of how it has affected your life. If you are co-suffering alongside a loved one, I know it at times seems impossibly hard, but I’m a few weeks into EMDR therapy (which is some serious stuff, by the way) and I can feel and see improvement in a lot of areas, so please know healing is not hopeless.
In the third and final part of this series, I drill down on one symptom that I haven’t spoken about here, but has dramatically affected my life. I describe what it’s like for me – a Christian who spent 40 years in the church – to live out my faith having experienced spiritual abuse.
8 thoughts on “The Unmaking of Me | Part 2 How to Disappear Completely”
I can’t imagine the pain. I see you. I love you. I stand beside you
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Brandon, we had no idea! Please know you will always have our love, admiration, and prayers to help you heal. If we can help in any way, we stand at the ready to help support you and your family! Love you, Carolann and Vic
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We are ready as well
You are a much loved man
Know every reply on Facebook, every card, every visit, and every call comes with a prayer for you and your family. We all love you and you have so much to offer the world.
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Brandon, we don’t know what you’ve been through, but we know you for the man who lived, cared, taught and led us at Woods
All of God’s blessings to you, Erin and the boys. Kt
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Brandon, thank you for sharing your pain
I’m so sorry you have gone through such ugliness. Peace and healing to you.
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Sending you love and healing prayers!!!!