Complex trauma is an amalgamation of long-term abuse and neglect, and therefore when trying to understand a traumatic past from an adult perspective it reveals itself as a confusing mosaic of multi-layered events, scattered along our timeline from the non-verbal stage of life to the adult now. It is only when we can begin to join our awareness of what is arising, and be with dissociative episodes and flashbacks with compassion and self-love, (and without self-criticism and judgment) that we can begin to find a finger-hold on mitigating and understanding complex trauma, and how it is infiltrating and affecting our lives.
The definition: Complex PTSD happens in response to chronic and repetitive neglect, emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse, usually occurs in childhood, and is typically deeply interpersonal within the child’s caregiving network. The child has no way to escape, or survive without the parent(s) or caregiver(s), and endures a cruel and imprisoned world of abuse and neglect with no empathetic witness to help or validate the child’s feelings or what’s happening. Often siblings are recruited as proxies to the abuser(s) adding to the vast interpersonal web of perpetrators. The child alone in this situation can endure predatory behaviors such as: scapegoating, gaslighting, stalking and bullying, humiliation, neglect, physical and sexual abuse, withholding of love and attention, making love and affection conditional, and total invalidation of the abuse, and needs of the child. The child has no safe space or family member to retreat to which increases the view of the world that the abuse will never end. Because the brain is still developing and the child is just beginning to learn about the world around them and who they are as an individual in that world, as well as developing first relationships – severe and repetitive trauma interrupts the entire course of their psychological, and neurological development.
When you’re born in a burning house, you think the whole world is on fire. But it’s not.
The child who endures this type of trauma begins to cope by going into survival mode and developing deep-seated survival strategies such as giving up and losing their sense of self to try and find a way to appease the abuser(s) and mitigate the trauma, becoming highly adrenalized, hypervigilant, hypersensitive, and hyper-intune to the harasser(s), the environment, and the telltale signs of looming abuse. The child’s brain begins to develop entrenched neural pathways that create survival mechanisms that become the first responders to recurring traumatic events, and the brain is left to fracture and compartmentalize to save and secure the parts that need safety and protection, as well as create parts that mirror the abuser(s). The child’s mind only knows survival under these circumstances. Logic, understanding, reasoning with the perpetrator(s), or speaking to another adult about what is happening is not an avenue for a baby or young child. There is no concept for anger, hatred, being abused, or neglected from a child’s perspective nor the ability to describe what is happening – the only understanding is confusion and the downward spiral to self-hatred, unworthiness, feeling unloved, unloveable, disconnected, separate, unwanted, and constantly under threat. This is the primary reason why abusers choose children because they are easy targets and there are generally no witnesses, or the mechanisms in place to fight back, understand or escape. As the child grows the brain is set up for survival and begins to meet life from this debilitating place of untrustworthy broken relationships, lies, betrayal, lack and scarcity, shame, low self-worth, and a menagerie of inner self-critics on steroids.
Self-hatred is only ever a seed planted from the outside in.
The adult survivor therefore must contend with a brain that is still functioning through the lens of survival, and continuing to meet life and all of its challenges and burdens with the limited scope of survival strategies, avoidance, and fear of connection to others, overwhelmed by a nervous system caught in fight-flight mode, and trying to make sense of a patchwork of years of trauma. The healing journey for complex trauma is not an easy one. Finding the right trauma-informed therapist or mentor can help, and having trustworthy friends or loved ones to reach out to that can hold the space for you and love you through difficult times is also essential, and as you heal and integrate you can begin to do this work led by your heart, awareness, compassion, and love for yourself.
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Ultimately, the way to healing is to first begin to understand that you are not broken, that none of what happened to you is your fault, and that you have entrenched ways of coping that need your exploration, compassion, love, and awareness. Becoming mindful of each moment, beginning to develop self-care rituals that connect with a heart-centered approach to your life and how you live from there is where you can begin to build a bridge back to a place of self-love were feeling your worthiness, abundance, grace, and wisdom can be seeded, bloom and blossom, and be celebrated.
As I wept
In the arms of darkness,
I heard the voice of my grandmother say,
Nothing stays the same, darling,
Not even pain.
Life is a path of change.
Of ecstasy and ache.
So, no matter what the storm claims,
Let love light the way.
From the deepest part of myself, I can say that I have found enormous healing through the challenges and overwhelming chaos of CPTSD, what it made me face, and how I had to meet myself every single day, and accept every single moment. This healing did not happen overnight, nor was it easy, gentle or kind. There were a lot of tears and tissues on this path to healing, with plenty more to come – I’m sure. I sought so many avenues of healing and found bits of help, wisdom, and hope along the way that helped me keep going but the elusiveness, scope, and magnitude of complex trauma are monstrous. After having tried just about everything possible to heal but still falling short I surrendered to my usual frustration, and that was when I finally realized that the only time I felt my mind clearing and feeling ok to be in my body was when I was in the moment, and open to a practice of self-care and self-love. The only way forward for me was to learn how to love myself even when I did not know what that looked like or felt like. I had dismissed my own needs and wants as part of my survival so I had to begin to understand and learn what my needs were, what I wanted, and what self-love was so I could begin to build my own safe and unique path back to loving my lost and frightened self.
For those anchored with complex PTSD trying to find remedy and healing can be a caustic and soul-aching journey. It is hard to find the words or the fortitude to explain this complicated and layered condition but the simple truth is when one hurts we all hurt, and when one suffers we all suffer. Finding a way to create a safe space, bring self-care, healing, compassion, community, connection, and courage, and bring more self-love to our aching hearts and traumatized soul is the only way forward. This is the reason I began the essential and loving work of HeartBalm, in hopes of sharing my story, my understanding, my love, and bringing balm to all hearts and souls who find their way here.
It is a gift of long-term survival that one becomes highly functional in the midst of a body and nervous system that is continually hijacked. It takes so much courage, mindfulness, acceptance, and loving yourself completely – warts and all to continue on, to keep trying, breathing, and living. If you are reading this and have endured amid trauma, abuse and neglect I bow to your bravery and courage, and willingness to be here. I see you and I honor your grace and wisdom for continuing, and joining me on this warrior’s journey to meet the self exactly where you are – here – now.
It was when I stopped searching for home within others and lifted the foundations of home within myself I found there were no roots more intimate than those between a mind and body that have decided to be whole.
Whether you have been on a healing journey, know deeply about the depths of your wounds, or are just beginning to prioritize your healing know that you are deeply loved and begin to step into the wisdom of your own divinity and grace. Let this lead you to open a heart path back to yourself. This commitment is for no one else but you sweet one. The way to peace, self-love, and safety is with the vast and infinite source of love within you. When you begin to witness all aspects of who you are in a safe space of awareness, with self-love, self-compassion, and acceptance you begin to heal. When you prioritize a heart-centered way of living and creating space in your day, in your moments that allow you to pause and be with what is arising then you begin to heal even more. Naturally, over time these spaces begin to expand and become more of who you are and bring peace and fullness to your daily life. Living with complex PTSD can happen, and can become healing of contrast and magnificence that has no equal, and can show you what a precious life this is, and how complete you make this world by simply breathing and being a part of it.
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Sunny Lynn, OMC is a spiritual counselor, writer, poet, photographer, meditator, and nature lover on a mission of transmuting complex trauma through self-love, healing, and bringing balm to hearts everywhere. She has a blog and podcast – HeartBalm at heartbalm.substack.com that speaks on the topic of self-care and self-love, mindfulness and healing while living with CPTSD.