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Hey readers, here is a special post-Valentine’s Day treat. You get to learn all about relationships, and just how extra screwy they get when dealing with PTSD!
I don’t really participate in Valentine’s Day. I consider Valentine’s Day to be an invented holiday, one which both upholds and is upheld by capitalism; one which aims to make the single and the poor feel inadequate, and encourages the wealthy and coupled to spend. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I had fun helping my daughters craft glittery, sticker-crowded paper hearts for each other, but that is about as Valentinesy as I get. My husband spent the evening of the 14th cooking meals for other couples (and probably making bank in tips), and I messed around on social media and Netflix after putting the girls to bed.
Nonetheless, there’s been a lot of social media talk about Valentine’s Day. And a lot of pink, heart-shaped decorations everywhere. It is not really possible to both live within society and completely ignore Valentine’s Day. So, while I did not particularly celebrate, or want to celebrate Valentine’s Day, the atmosphere this week has me thinking about relationships.
Where to begin?
I know that human relationships are super difficult for pretty much everyone. Full of pitfalls, and disappointments, and addictive joys; human relationships are one of the most stressful, and most rewarding aspects of human existence. But let me tell you, having PTSD basically boobytraps all relationships, big or small. Especially when that PTSD is the result of domestic abuse.
One of the major markers of domestic abuse is social isolation. Abusers often keep victims from seeing and bonding with friends or family. The Ex was no exception. He accused me of having sex with girlfriends, he accused me of having sex with guy friends, he accused me of having sex with gay friends. And I wasn’t even out as bi yet! In other circumstances this may have been simply annoying, but with him it was terrifying. My imagined infidelity was one of his most common reasons for beating me, which meant that any time I went out with a friend, I had to weigh the pleasure of hanging out against the likelihood that I would be beaten for it later. The Ex also made enemies of my parents and complained that I was betraying him if I didn’t hate them too. He made absolutely sure not only to expose me to trauma, but also to destroy any possible support system which could have helped me recover.
I am no longer in that relationship. But a lot of the other relationships I had during that time were severed. Many of the ones which remain are strained by my PTSD.
Let’s take a look.
Romantic relationships are the most difficult relationships to maintain when living with PTSD. Especially when that PTSD is the result of relationship violence. When I re-entered the dating scene after leaving The Ex, I had a ton of baggage.
For me, that baggage came in the form of extreme attachment.
When I say extreme, I mean extreme.
Think about the circumstances. The man who I fell rabidly in love with, during those tender, chaotic years in which teenagers are most prone to wild love; the man to whom I lost my virginity; the biological father of my firstborn child, returned my love with abuse. Physical, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse. For four years. I had some unmet needs.
This attachment manifested in various ways. One, which is unfortunately super common for survivors of domestic violence, was that I got myself into another abusive relationship. For several years again, sadly. Now, don’t get me wrong. The abuse was not on the same level. The Ex, you know…THE Ex…is psychotic. Like an actual, diagnostic sociopath. He abused me on a level which is extreme even within the world of abuse. Prosecutors in my county knew him as “the biter.” But this other guy was still abusive, mostly emotionally and verbally, occasionally physically; never sexually, thankfully.
It also manifested as me becoming overly attached to some guys who were not that into me. That didn’t feel too good. I could go into some particularly grimy details about some deliberate cruelties committed against me by one of my grad school cohorts, but I’m going to skip that for now.
Let’s move onto the big romantic relationship. My husband, Ricardo. Rick, for short.
My husband also has PTSD. Which complicates things even more. I mean, we kind of bonded over it. ‘It’ being our shared craziness. I really think that our common grief has helped us to better understand, and better forgive, one another. But it has also caused some awful problems. PTSD does not manifest the same way for every person. There are some ways in which our respective symptoms are totally at odds.
Where I attach, he runs. Where I isolate, he seeks affection. I prefer to erase uncomfortable events from my memory; he is more prone to repeatedly over-analyzing them. I don’t know how we lasted the first months of getting to know each other. We got into vicious fights. Fights loud and deranged enough to incite one particularly awkward roommate to lay next to my door with her ear next to the crack, trying to get the scoop. Fights that would end in me desperate to keep him near me, and him threatening to leave me forever. It was insanity. Somehow, we made it through. The amazing sex certainly helped.
What exactly do I mean by ‘made it through’ though? We still have problems. We are married. We have kids. We love each other. But we have both come so close to leaving each other.
Sometimes it seems like even just coexisting together is an impossibility, much less remaining romantically involved. Sometimes the exact thing which he needs in order to feel comforted, like sex or even just a really affectionate hug, is the exact thing which is going to trigger me. It is a really hard, complex relationship to navigate. More than once I have felt like the difficulty was not worth the reward.
But those times when our conversations flow liquid with laughter; when my embrace fits with his just so; when we’re both coping and we’re working together, those times are something special. Those times keep this whole mad thing going.
As every mother knows, each mother+child relationship is different. I hold my eldest child and only boy in my heart differently than my dramatic middle child, and both differently than my sweet youngest child. I could write a lot about my individual relationships to each child, but this post is about the effect which PTSD has on my relationships.
What has PTSD added to my relationships with my children? It has added fear. It has added tremendous anxiety. It has gouged a painful distance between my children and I which I labor each day to overcome. I have written before about cherophobia, the fear of happiness which is one of the nastier side-effects of PTSD. Can you imagine the impact cherophobia has upon the mother/child dynamic?
All of us know the awesome terror that comes with the knowledge that everyone who we love will die. When that knowledge is coupled with the belief that feelings of happiness are portends of tragedy, love is terrorism. I have to actively work, all day, to ward away the feeling that by loving my children I am killing them. When I was with The Ex, he would habitually harm me days or even hours after I had done something especially kind for him. I think that my cherophobia stems from that pattern; unfortunately, PTSD is the result of emotionally charged events being trapped within the body. Knowing where these feelings come from, knowing that they are irrational, does not eradicate the impact.
I love my children more than anyone in this world. If they were in danger, I would not pause before sacrificing myself for them. I do sacrifice myself for them in small ways every day, as does every loving parent. Outwardly I show them an abundance of love and affection, always. Inside I am constantly doing a tug-o-war between my love and my PTSD. Sometimes, I have to affect love, not because I don’t truly love them, but because I love them so much I am afraid to give in to the feeling, lest my misfortune target them next.
I wish I could love my children as other parents do. I wish I could love my children with fearless abundance. I wish I could feel myself worthy of loving and being loved by these miraculous little people. Perhaps one day I will. For now, PTSD has the upper hand on this one.
I have two parents. They are both alive. When it comes to emotional support, however, I consider myself an orphan.
I have not spoken to my father in years. He was not my custodial parent. He had another family, four other kids who he had to raise alone after his wife died of cancer. I visited him on Thursdays and every other weekend, and lived with him for a couple years when I was a teenager. I loved my dad. I really did. He was a writer, he was an actor, he could and would talk to me about philosophy and religion and literature. I admired him for a really long time.
But he was also extremely condescending. He never attended my plays, neither the ones in which I acted or the ones I wrote and had produced. He belittled my academic achievements, and mocked my burgeoning sexuality when he read my diary without permission. He abandoned me, literally, when I was being abused.
I have heard similar complaints from a lot of people about their fathers. I probably could have forgiven him these things. For a while I did. Three years ago, however, when I was walking alone at night in Boulder, Colorado after having celebrated my graduation from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics’ M.F.A. program, a stranger overtook me. He wrapped one hand around my mouth as I tried to scream, dragged me to the ground, and lifted my shirt to grab my breasts.
I don’t doubt that he planned to rape me.
My husband is a medal placing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighter. He taught me some of his techniques. Just basic ones, but coupled with my intense, combative rage, I was able to thwart my attacker. He ran away having taken only my cellphone and wallet. When I told my father about the attack, he demanded to see a police report, and claimed that my story was “a scam.”
I have not spoken to him since. Perhaps I would be more able to forgive him if I did not have a history of sexual abuse; a history of sexual abuse which my father did nothing to protect me from. I don’t know. All I know is that, because I am a survivor, having my father discredit my trauma is a crime which I cannot forgive. I have no plans to ever speak to him again.
I visit with my mother weekly. I don’t know if that would still be true if she were not taking care of my son. I know that some people find it shocking that I don’t revere my mother simply on the grounds that she has given my autistic son a loving, stable home for the past five years. Make no mistake: I am grateful and admire her for this. But it does not erase the resentment I hold toward her for abandoning me when I needed her most.
My mother-in-law thinks that I was raised without love. I don’t agree. My mother loved me when I was a child. I was bright, and affectionate, and extremely talented. She was proud of me. When I began to manifest symptoms of depression, however, she did not know how to respond. I get that it was confusing and scary for her. What I don’t understand is why she never tried to educate herself. Why she wouldn’t listen. There were so many times when I tried to talk to her about my feelings and she turned away or picked up a book to deliberately ignore me. So many times I heard the words “You need to talk about this with a therapist.” All I wanted was to know that I was loved. That I was heard, by someone who wasn’t paid to hear me. This would have made all the difference.
I can’t let go of that. I have tried. If I didn’t have PTSD I am certain that I could forgive my mother. She is so very human; I see that now even if I didn’t when I was younger. But PTSD is a disorder which arises not only from experiencing trauma, but also from not having a support system after that trauma. My mother never left the state like my father did, but she abandoned me in her heart. I live with the consequences of that choice every day. How do I forgive that?
I don’t know how things would have turned out if I had never been abused, if I did not have PTSD. Probably my father’s misogyny would have manifested in other ways. I may have still disappointed my mother’s high expectations of me and disearned her love anyway. Or maybe I would still have my family. Maybe I would still know what it is to be cherished by my parents, to be beloved upon this earth. Maybe I would still have a home in my family.
Well, I’ll say this about friend relationships: I don’t have a whole lot of them left.
When it comes to friend relationships, PTSD is like a fucking drone; bombing with cold, indiscriminate force whenever the trigger gets pushed. I have destroyed more relationships with friends than I care to admit, and all because of the hotheadedness that comes with untreated PTSD. I don’t think that I have lost a friend since starting therapy, but when my PTSD was still untamed, it ate a whole herd of friends who, quite frankly, I still wish I had.
One of the symptoms of PTSD is limited access to emotions. PTSD has shortened my spectrum of emotions, and because it is shortened due to trauma, the positive end gets the hack. In my post about going to the Seattle Womxn’s March, I mentioned that anger is my most vivacious emotion. This has impacted my friendships really badly. I have blown up on friends for not including me in random events, for denying favors they never owed me in the first place, for forgetting things about me that I’d forgotten about them too. Even when I have a legitimate reason to be upset, I tend to react with disproportionate rage, or in a too-thoughtless, sometimes public manner. I have lost some really good friends to this behavior.
Take for example Leslie. Leslie was a good friend. She was supportive, she was fun to hang out with, and she was pretty non-judgmental. We had known each other since elementary school. Over the years we developed a close friendship. We traveled together. We partied together. We shared really dark secrets with each other. We collaborated on writing projects together. We coached each other through bad breakups. There was a long, long time when I thought we would always be friends.
But where I was plagued with misery and bad luck, she was amazingly fortunate.
And I. Could Not. Handle It.
It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t her fault that she never had a bad word to say about her upbringing, or that her parents always had enough money to help her when she needed it. It certainly wasn’t her fault that she got to be the editor of her college paper, and I missed the opportunity to even apply for mine because of the year I took off to have Robin. It wasn’t her fault that she landed a great, degree-related job after college and I got stuck canvassing on a street where a murder took place just feet from me. It wasn’t her fault that she had the big tits I always wanted. It wasn’t her fault that after she left the crappy-but not abusive-boyfriend, she found a really nice one. None of these things were her fault, and they weren’t mine either. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was trash and she was a sparkling gem, and I couldn’t bear to watch her glitter so high above me. So I got bitchy and passive aggressive. Each time it went too far I apologized. Each time I apologized she forgave me.
Until one time, I decided not to apologize. I decided that she was too good for me. I figured she was better off not forgiving me. Better off living her glittering life without the tarnish of my friendship. When I did, finally, apologize to her about a year ago, via messenger, she sent me a polite note back making it clear that she didn’t hate me, but she also didn’t want me back in her life.
I fear that all of my friendships will one day end this way.
I hope they won’t.
I hope those old, old friends from childhood will always be my friends.
But I have already felt the distancing between some of us. The jealousy. The shame of being so much less than. The anger, at not getting the attention I need.
I hope I get to keep these few remaining friends.
But it’s them vs the PTSD, and though I’m in therapy, the outcome is still uncertain.
Oh, holy hell. Roommate relationships are the worst. I could probably write an entire novel about the horrible events that have passed while living with roommates. But this post is long already, so I will just describe for you how each roommate relationship ended.
By the way, I have never completed a lease in a roommate situation.
The first time I had roommates was in Boston. I was attending Emerson College after having completed a year at Seattle Central Community College to make up for dropping out of high school. The Ex and I had been on and off the entire time. He had eventually come to visit near the end of Spring Semester. He hadn’t beaten me (there had been too many people around) but he had still caused as much drama as he could muster in seven days. Which is a lot.
After he left I was pretty depressed. I spent a lot of time by my door, listening for my roommates to leave the apartment so that I could go to the bathroom or the kitchen without having to see people. I hadn’t been diagnosed yet, but the PTSD was gaining traction.
About a month before the semester ended, and two days after we had all gone to the landlord and signed a lease extension, my roommates gathered before my door.
“Are you busy? Or just hiding?” asked Jake, the snarky ringleader.
“Um, both.” In fact I had been sitting on my bed, holding a bottle of buprenorphine pills that The Ex had groundscored and left behind, contemplating swallowing the whole thing.
“Can you come to the door?”
When I saw the trio huddled outside my door, Jake glaring, Malia scrutinizing her nails, and Lukas looking down, I knew something bad was about to happen.
“We don’t want you to come back next semester,” said Jake. No one else spoke throughout all this.
“Too much drama. That guy was too much. And even if you break up with him, it’ll just be another guy. We can’t have it.”
I began to feel the flickers of rage. “I just re-signed the lease. You can’t kick me out.”
“We already talked to the landlord. He’ll let you out.”
“Legally though,” I responded, crazy. Why would I even want to live with people who didn’t want me?
“Then we’ll leave.”
So that was that. I ended up never going back to Boston anyway, so I guess it didn’t really matter.
The next time I had a roommate, he was literally my roommate. As in we shared a room. Angelo had been my co-worker until he’d gotten fired for reasons I never fully understood. He was a gay guy of mixed ethnic origin, so we kind of bonded over the awkwardness that comes with being mixed. He was also a writer, though I would come to learn that he was absolutely terrible. I would also come to learn that he was a narcissist.
He was also a misogynist, and abusive to his friends. Even though he was on unemployment, he called himself a “fag of leisure” and would buy dinner and jewelry for his friends–so long as they did whatever he commanded. I had been controlled by The Ex enough. I wasn’t going to let this guy do it. That pissed him off, so he let his dog chew up my new shoes, let some random heroin addict sleep in my bed when I was away, and began talking to me like I was garbage. He even found a way to turn my housemates against me, because they succumbed to his impoverished charisma and I didn’t. In the end he called the police on my boyfriend at the time (the lesser abuser) while he was helping me move my stuff. My boyfriend hadn’t done anything, but Angelo knew he had an unresolved warrant. My boyfriend heard him and got away, but I had to call another friend to finish moving my stuff under the police officers’ watch.
The final roommate situation also ended with police. This was in Boulder, while I was attending grad school. I had two other housemates, though thankfully we each had our own room. One of them was also mentally ill. I am not certain exactly what her diagnosis was, but Marge was obsessively clingy to the other roommate and myself. She made rude, awkward comments, like once telling me that I looked like a rat. I grew to hate her. As did most of our cohorts. I’ll be honest: we were cruel. We warded off her constant attempts to follow us everywhere by making fun of her. It was ugly.
But it did not justify what she did.
On Halloween night, she called the police and told them that I had threatened to kill her. I wasn’t even home; I was out with Rick, who I’d recently begun dating. Marge and I had gotten into a fight and I was very upset with her. But not homicidal. Even the responding officer tried to get Marge to drop the charge. In fact, he refused to file it. He told her to think it over for the night, and to call him in the morning if she still wanted to file.
When I declined her invitation for coffee in the morning, she filed.
The charges were ultimately dropped because, well, they were ridiculous, but the house dynamic had been completely shattered.
I reacted really badly. I have actually had my life threatened. Her accusations were extremely triggering, and since I was not yet in therapy and not yet clean, I behaved in a really vile manner. I did things like calling her a “c*nt” whenever I saw her. I like profanity, but I usually draw the line at misogynistic lexicon. In this case, I was beyond angry. I had a son. I had aspirations to be a teacher for at-risk youth. And here she was jeopardizing all of that with a lie. I never became threatening or violent though.
The other roommate and I tried to end our lease, but the landlord said we could only do it if Marge was on board. Which she was not. Odd behavior for someone who believed her life was in danger. One day, when she was snoozing on the living room couch, we woke her and basically demanded that she agree. Finally, we were able to part ways. I moved in with Rick and have not had to navigate a roommate relationship since. Thank Cthulhu.
I guess I’ve taken two big lessons from these roommate experiences. One, that my long trauma history has left me prone to being around negative people because I am more comfortable facing conflict than peace. And two, that I have too great a need for attention, and too low a threshold for other people’s BS, to be a good roommate.
This picture says it all.
I keep my distance. Even around really nice, cool people like the grad school cohorts in this photo.
The trauma I experienced leaves me with a constant feeling of being covered in filth. Like there is a layer of grime embedded into my very cell structure. I approach every encounter as an inferior. Even when I can recognize that I am, say, smarter than an acquaintance, or have better linguistic skills, I will still find reasons to think that person is inherently better than me. I can’t help it. This is what years of repeated exposure to violence does to the brain. So I keep my distance. I try not to turn acquaintances into friends. I decline invitations. I avoid.
PTSD is a cruel shadow to carry.
All in all, I still have friends. I still have a husband by my side, and three beautiful children who give me hell on a daily basis, but also fill me with pride. PTSD has dimmed, or at least delayed, a lot of my potential. It has robbed me of a lot of relationships, but the ones I have left, I value. The ones I have left are the ones I wear like armor against the hurt and ravage of everyday life with PTSD. They are the ones who I know are truly there for me, and will be, through all of it.
Are you curious about the way my PTSD affects other types of relationships, or have any of your own relationship difficulties to confess? Let me know in the comments…