It took me 21 years to get my degree. This is what trauma looks like.
Now, I use my trauma as my motivation.
I first tried to get a tertiary education in 1998, fresh out of high school. I have been studying for more than half of the 21 years since then, but have only graduated for the first time this year. All those times when I was studying unsuccessfully, and told myself I was weak, unfocused, lazy, useless or stupid, added to the effects of the trauma, repeating messages I’d absorbed from my abusers, and keeping me in a state or helplessness. It was only when I was diagnosed last year with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) that I began to understand why I hadn’t been successful in the past. Learning about how repeated trauma affects the brain helped me stop blaming myself, and start looking for ways to change the situation.
What is C-PTSD?
Complex post-traumatic stress disorder is a form of PTSD that occurs when a person has been repeatedly exposed to trauma from which there is little chance of escape, such as domestic violence or being a prisoner of war. Along with the usual symptoms of PTSD, such as reliving traumatic events through flashbacks, anger and being easily startled, additional symptoms occur like difficulty in emotional regulation and relationships, distorted view of self, particularly around helplessness, shame and guilt, and distorted cognition, such as dissociation or having no memory of the trauma. Originally identified by Dr Judith Herman in her 1992 book, Trauma and Recovery, C-PTSD is now recognised by the World Health Organisation and mental health practitioners across the world, although it has yet to be included in the psychiatric diagnostic manual, the DSM.
What all of this means is that survivors of trauma develop different ways of coping with the world, and this can persist long after they are out of the traumatic situation. For example, if I see or experience something that reminds me of a past trauma, I can dissociate, disconnecting from the world around me in order to survive the moment. I experience a physical floating sensation and a loss of all emotion, as if I’m not really there. Over time, and with therapy, these dissociations have gone from lasting a week to lasting only an hour or so. Likewise, as a survivor of domestic violence, I can fall into a shame spiral at the drop of a hat, which then turns into a kind of mental paralysis. These things and other symptoms like depression and anxiety have stopped me so many times from finishing assignments — or even caring. What point is study if you’re certain you’re going to die?
Healing from C-PTSD
Although the traumatic memories might never go away, recovery from trauma is possible. Through therapy, with the processing and integration of the trauma back into everyday life, it’s possible to regain a sense of control. Triggers, flashbacks and panic attacks may still happen, but in my experience, they come less frequently, and don’t last as long as they once did. In Trauma and Recovery, Dr Herman identifies the importance of first establishing a sense of safety. You can’t begin to heal when you are still in survival mode — which is probably why my earlier attempts at therapy never worked. This time around I began from a solid base; a safe, stable, loving and understanding relationship. I also have a therapist who specialises in trauma, and who I connect well with. Without these things, I can’t imagine I would have been able to process the amount of trauma I have in the last year, nor make plans for moving forward with my life.
How I finally got my degree
Somehow, the drive to study was always inside me, even if I wasn’t always able to do the work in the moment. Once I began to heal from my trauma, I found it became my motivation: if I could survive all that, what’s one little exam? If I’m strong enough to have made it through, healthier, happier and more stable than I could ever have imagined myself being, why not use that strength to fight back against the causes of the trauma?
And so I am. I pushed through and finished my degree this time, so that I could use that as a stepping stone into a research degree, where (if I get in) I am going to be examining consent and creating a vision that we as a society should work towards. I finished this degree even though when I began it, I was in an abusive relationship, and when I finished it I was deep in therapy dealing with the after effects. I was able to do this because I am now, for the first time, genuinely supportive relationship.
I am one of the lucky ones who made it through to the other side, and now I am using that gift to help create the world I want to see; a world free from gendered sexual and domestic violence. I’m not fully ‘cured’ of my trauma. It will be with me forever, and sometimes the most random of things will trigger a flashback or panic attack. But the more I work on getting the symptoms under control, with faster and faster come down time, the better able I am to get on with my life and do good in the world. First, however: my next degree.