The child informs the adult

I came across this image on my Facebook news feed the other day. 
Now, for transparency’s sake, I confess that I haven’t done my due diligence to research the statistics. The main reason is that, for anyone experiencing PTSD, statistics don’t mean a damn thing. It doesn’t matter to the people who live with a person experiencing PTSD symptoms, whether their loved one is in a larger percentage category or a smaller one. The fact of the matter is that PTSD (and other mental health issues) impact our relationships with ourselves and others. Period. Dot. The End.

The reason why this image resonated so strongly with me is because I was diagnosed with PTSD a year and a half ago. Subsequent counseling has helped me to understand that I, more than likely, entered adulthood with PTSD. While I’ve experienced more than my fair share (as if there IS a “fair share”) of traumatic events which could trigger PTSD, those events probably both reinforced the PTSD I unknowingly already had and were exacerbated or amplified by pre-existing PTSD symptoms. Additionally, there is an extreme probability that both of my adult children entered adulthood with PTSD, primarily as a result of having me as their mother. No mommy guilt, just a statement of fact.

Over the past few years I have found out more about my mother and her life’s experiences, primarily through a first cousin of hers who knew her as a child, adolescent, and young adult. One of the things I discovered was that not only did she grow up almost as rootless as I did, she also grew up living in the volatility of domestic violence, the kind where a wife feels the need, for whatever reason, to pull a gun on her husband. I also found out that she displayed many behaviors, starting in early adolescence, which are indicative of Bipolar Disorder with Schizophrenia. Based on this knowledge, in combination with what few memories I have, and what we are learning about mental health disorders like Bipolar, Schizophrenia, and PTSD, it’s very likely that she did experience PTSD, in addition to the other things she experienced throughout her 28 years on this earth. 

She was an emotionally unavailable person, as a parent. So was I. She often made drastic and dramatic changes, such as in relationship choices and “running away” from her life in one location to another. I did this as well. She experienced low self-esteem and extended periods of depression…another thing we had in common. 

The childhood I experienced was one lacking in emotional nurturing, meaning I never formed healthy and secure attachments with consistently “safe” people. This is the same kind of childhood my two oldest children experienced. So, as might be expected, the choices and experiences my children made and had in their adolescence and early adulthood were as chaotic and crisis driven as those of my mother and myself, sometimes to greater extremes and with worse consequences.

The three of us, my children and myself, are all in much better “places” in our lives than any of us ever have been before. My son is surrounded by and grounded in the center of two very loving families who are committed to loving and accepting him, no matter what. They have already proven that multiple times. They consist of his adopted family, who adopted him as an adult, and his wife’s family, which he’s been part of for two and a half years. My daughter has two healthy and thriving children, almost 16 and 4 months, respectively. Both of these babies have formed strong attachments to both parents. My granddaughter, who is the oldest, has also formed a strong bond with me. My daughter has also gone through a long and challenging process to turn her life completely around from what it was three to five years ago. She’s working two part-time jobs, one with a traditional career track and the other with a proven track record for enterprising entrepreneurs who are interested in franchising. She and her boyfriend have worked through and are continually working through any relationship difficulties which arise. These aren’t insignificant due to similarly difficult and challenging histories. However, their commitment to each other and their determination to do differently and better for their children than what they experienced are their driving forces.

As for me, the thought of permanently losing relationship with my children and never having an opportunity to be in relationships with my grandchildren was profoundly motivating for me. Before that, though, the determination to raise my youngest child, who is now six and a half years old, in healthier ways and with more stability to, hopefully, give her a better fighting chance to not enter adulthood with as many of the same kinds of issues that her sister, brother, and mother did was also a driving force in my life.

I had advantages my mother didn’t. I grew up in and entered adulthood in an era where things like child abuse and domestic violence were becoming less accepted as the societal norm of what goes on behind closed doors staying behind closed doors. Counseling services for survivors of childhood abuse and sexual abuse were available. Research and understanding about mental health issues was advancing and growing. New kinds of medication to treat Depression, Bipolar Disorder, and Schizophrenia have been developed. We now have healthcare available for those experiencing poverty which enables us to receive mental health services and treatment. Faith systems and communities are recognizing that, while there may be spiritual influences and factors involved, mental health issues have biological and neurochemical components which can and should be treated medically. These things are advantages for my children, as well. 

However, two of the biggest advantages for me (and for them) is that the degree to which I have experienced Bipolar Disorder is less than what my mother experienced, by all accounts. I also have never experienced a schizophrenic episode. I believe these are two of the biggest factors in me living past the age of 28. Being able to live long enough to experience the access to mental healthcare and the beginnings of the destigmatization of mental health illnesses and disorders in our society have played a huge part in my recovery from my past and in my increasing ability to engage in healthier relationships with loved ones and strangers alike.

Now, please imagine how the effects of unidentifiable, undiagnosed, and untreated PTSD from childhood abuse, sexual abuse, and trauma manifest in the lives of those children once they become adults. What kinds of interpersonal and professional relationships do they experience? How does it show up in ways our society judges and ostracizes? What kinds of self-harming behavior are engaged in? Do they get medicated by a physician for depression and/or anxiety instead of referred to mental health treatments like CBT/DBT? Are addictions and compulsive behaviors become part of their future?

Will they be judged by their symptoms?

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10 comments

  1. Dear Lillian,
    One needs great courage to share their traumatic experience and past. I commend you for that. My aunt had a traumatic past and still is facing emotional and mental torture. Financial positions force her to be in that place. She lacks confidence and denies my opinion of visiting sessions of therapy.
    Thanks for sharing and will share this with my aunt. 🙂

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    1. Ramya,
      Thank you! Your aunt and others like us are who I’m hoping will benefit most from this. It is also my hope that it increases understanding, destigmatizes behaviors and circumstances which are often signs and symptoms of unidentified and undiagnosed issues like PTSD, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, and Depression. No one chooses these conditions. Yet, often, the associated behaviors, thoughts, and life circumstances which result from them are treated as things which are chosen, when they actually are not.

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  2. I have long suspected that my sister has PTSD from an incident in her early childhood. She denies it, but her intimate relationships are difficult because of her lack of confidence in her own opinion and experience of life.

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    1. It wouldn’t surprise me. I’m not sure how old your sister is, but, it can be very difficult for members of prior generations to be in denial of mental health issues and resistant to seeking help. The stigma was so strong and bad things, like institutionalization and social isolation, regularly happened, so, admitting to emotional instability or mental imbalance was anathema to so many. It may be one reason my mother didn’t get access to the help she needed. My grandmother was from Alabama AND from the “Don’t talk, don’t tell” generation. So, family business stayed in the family. It was terribly distressing to her that I took on the philosophy that keeping secrets and not telling our stories was the surest way to become a target for those who wanted to hurt through shame.

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      1. Ah, yes, the Southern connection. My sister is older by 3 years, so her trauma happened in the early 60s. It was within the family, a very Southern family and one with much experience with mental illness, including some spectacularly dramatic incidences and institutionalizations. My maternal grandmother was institutionalized at Georgia State Hospital in the late 40s/early 50s. At the time, it was the largest mental hospital in the country. They used EST extensively, including on my grandmother. So, a traumatized child who grew to be an adult with that background? Perhaps I can begin to understand her a bit more.

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  3. Lillian, thanks for sharing your experiences and insight. It really is powerful and moving to hear your story. I know that it will help somebody else. Thank you for being willing to share so eloquently. You are amazing!

    Dave

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  4. As a survivor of both domestic and sexual abuse – at a time when I wasn’t supposed to “air dirty laundry” or talk about such things – I found your blog incredibly relevant and insightful. Thank you for sharing so much!!

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