How to explain complex PTSD to someone who doesn’t have it?

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Oh, sorry, is my trauma not big enough for you to believe I have PTSD? | Photo Credit: ©EvgeniyaPorechenskaya / Adobe Stock

How to explain complex PTSD to someone who doesn’t have it?

This article explains how to explain complex PTSD to someone who doesn’t have it based on personal experience. My PTSD is not from war. It came from a much closer darker place: my childhood.

I turn over towards him in the bed as he asks ‘So…why do you worry so much?’ I tell him, same as last night, ‘That’s kind of a loaded question’. We had discussed insecurities and self-esteem and things before sex, but we hadn’t really touched on the big stuff.

‘I have PTSD. Well, C-PTSD. It’s basically the same except it’s not from just one thing, it’s from lots of things, or like…being in a difficult situation for a long time.’

  ‘Fucking hell, so what’s that from, then?’ 

‘Just…I have an alcoholic mum, and things got really bad, like she was abusive, not physically, just verbally and emotionally. It wasn’t great. Now I can get thrown back to that time pretty easily. I don’t get flashbacks as su…’

  ‘Don’t you think that’s a bit extreme? Like this woman, I work with has PTSD but she was an aid worker, she helped orphans and kids who’d been through acid attacks and that. You’ve not been through anything like that, right? I just mean, don’t you think it’s a bit much? Your PTSD is bullshit.’

He smirked as he said this last part. If I remember rightly, I said ‘Look, just trust me, I’m fucked up.’ and then I kissed him. I really wish I had called him on it. 

Oh, sorry, is my trauma not big enough for you? Who are you to tell me that what I’ve been through couldn’t have been that bad? You prick. — But no, I kissed him. 

And then I dated him.  Well, I guess I am kind of fucked-up.

(In the end we only dated for a few months. Clearly dating someone with complex PTSD wasn't his thing.)

This is how to explain complex PTSD to someone who doesn’t have it

Nowadays, most people have heard of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Usually, when people think of PTSD, they think of war zones and flashbacks. Guns and bombs, and strong, broken men afraid of fireworks. And yes, that is PTSD, but so is what I have. 

People can end up with PTSD after being in all sorts of situations — war, crises, car crashes, and terrorist attacks, but also sexual assault, abuse, medical procedures, activism, and advocacy, to name a few. Having C-PTSD, or Complex post-traumatic stress disorder means that you weren’t traumatized by a lone event, but by an ongoing situation

"PTSD is not about the gravity of the situation. It’s about the fear, the stuck-ness, the inability to extricate yourself, the inability to make things better."  Click To Tweet

What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma

The Pain We Carry: Healing from Complex PTSD for People of Color

In my case, it was emotional and verbal abuse from my mother and the slow dissolution of our family due to her alcoholism. 

It was being woken up by someone shouting at me at 3 AM the night before an important high school exam. It was hidden bottles catching you by surprise in shoe-boxes, in wardrobes, behind desks, and under beds. 

It was the accusations of sleeping with my father, of being a slut, of being a lazy, ungrateful, selfish c**t. It was all that and more. Or at least, I think it was. 

Sometimes I remember so little of it that I worry I’m making it all up. Other times I am plagued by an unwanted groinal response triggered by sexual intrusive thoughts about my dad.

Why is C-PTSD caused by childhood abuse so difficult to accept?

That’s what makes it so hard to handle someone questioning my trauma, the gravity of it — because I already do that myself. Swirling around in my head all day is the thought ‘Did I overreact? Am I just a drama queen? A snowflake? Did it even happen at all?’

One of the chief symptoms of PTSD caused by childhood abuse is this kind of self-doubt. 

I have had so many fucking conversations with myself, and with other people, trying to justify my condition — trying to show that I deserve to be the way I am now. 

A worrier. A 22-year-old who can’t do nightclubs without panic attacks. A girl who, when she hears a loud drunk, shuts down and starts to cry. Who self-harms. Who stays up wondering ‘If my mum dies, will it be my fault? Was all of it my fault?’ Who can’t listen to songs from her childhood, or watch Disney movies without throwing up? 

A great anxious mess of a girl. 

"This is how to explain complex ptsd to someone who doesn't have it!" Click To Tweet

PTSD usually comes from a feeling of helplessness, and its symptoms can take you back in time. Anyone stuck in a frightening situation they can’t easily escape from can develop it. It’s not about the gravity of the situation. It’s about the fear, the stuck-ness, the inability to extricate yourself, the inability to make things better. 

When it comes to complex PTSD our bodies can’t tell the difference between traumas — fear is fear is fear — whether you’re under fire or ‘merely’ being shouted at, your body processes it as a danger to your life with no clear way out. And that can seriously mess a person up.

With PTSD "fear is fear is fear"

And still, I find myself struggling with how to explain PTSD to someone who doesn’t have it. I keep having these conversations every time I mention my PTSD. Recently, a doctor, who I was seeing for my knee sprain saw my file and laughingly said:

‘PTSD, huh, what’s that all about then? Didn’t get it from twisting your knee I hope!’

I tried to explaining my PTSD, and he laughed some more, gave me a quizzical look. And then he didn’t say anything. I walked out of the appointment teary-eyed and feeling stupid. I know I’m privileged, I know I’m lucky in many ways, I know I haven’t been to war or seen anybody die.

Sometimes I really feel like I don’t ‘deserve’ this  PTSD diagnosis. When I start thinking like that, I try to look back and trust myself, despite my mis-rememberings, and despite what people might say to me now. 

I try to look towards my 16-year-old self — my dad tells me that she cried more than usual one night, that she told him she needed to get out, that he needed to get her out, and that they left for good reason.

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Article by
Miriam Swallow Adler

Miriam Swallow Adler is a tired young person who writes, sings, and illustrates things while moonlighting as an Oxford University student.