Have you ever known someone for a very brief moment in time that meant the world to you? Whenever you think of this pivotal moment in your life, you think of that special person who stood with you at a crossroads and helped you choose the right path.
I don’t know the name of my special person. Perhaps I did, once, but the nature of my need for her and our relationship has meant it’s a detail I no longer hold in my memory. She was a therapist who specialised in domestic violence and she was essential to my recovery. Through a series of eight sessions at a Women’s Aid centre in North London, this woman provided me with the key I needed to unlock a mental illness that was rendering me near childlike and unable to function.
I came to those first few sessions barely able to talk coherently and frightened of the boogie man who lived under my bed. I had stopped being able to work and many days, I couldn’t leave the house as any kind of stimulus rendered me unable to find my way back home.
On more than one occasion, my new partner had to come find me where I’d called from, crying that I couldn’t read street names anymore and was hopelessly lost. On one particularly bad occasion I failed to recognise my own face in the mirror and jumped when I moved. My life was a living nightmare.
I couldn’t work out what had happened, having escaped the abusive relationship nine months beforehand; on paper, I was safe. I was moving on with my life, safe from the coercive control and constant threat of violence, financial manipulation and gaslighting* that made me unsure of my own thoughts and ideas anymore.
Within two sessions, my therapist said something that absolutely shaped my recovery, “You’re not mad. You have post-traumatic stress disorder because you’ve been in the fight of your life. And you are going to beat it.” It was a game changer. I suddenly understood the fear that had taken a hold despite living safely, very far away from my tormentor. I wasn’t a victim, vulnerable and ripe for further abuse. I was a survivor and I could recover.
Many of us know the term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in relation to war veterans, however, ‘Complex PTSD’ may be diagnosed in adults or children who have repeatedly experienced traumatic events, such as violence, neglect or abuse. It is a common outcome for those who experience domestic violence but without correct diagnosis and treatment, is often lumped into anxiety or depression, all of which would seem very normal after such an event.
As I recovered, I learned that symptoms such as the dissociation I’d felt that day in front of the mirror are common and the challenge I found in controlling emotions, maintaining relationships and concentrating were part of this condition. Equipped with this diagnosis, I was able to use targeted therapy to put things back together.
It’s been seven years since I was diagnosed and supported in that tiny room in North London. I’ve since had a daughter, returned to almost full time work and most days, PTSD isn’t something I have to actively manage anymore. In fact, I’ve come to think of my condition as a warning flare, highlighting when I am in a situation that might not be best for me. Each time I feel that flash, I think of us two women, sat together with nothing but mutual respect and I dearly wish I could express my gratitude to her.
*Gaslighting is a form of manipulation, intimidation and abuse that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a victim, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity.