On Saturday I was exhausted and binge-watching the new Netflix drama Unbelievable when I was hit by an enormous wave of another level of painful realisation about how and who I am, and the accompanying grief left me sobbing and fragile. It came to me so strongly that not only was I abused and neglected and abandoned, but that I have spent my whole life so far trying to cover up that fact and live the life I could easily have had if this had not been my childhood. It takes all my energy trying to hide my pain and pretend I am not traumatised and dissociated and a person who is enormously triggered by other people.
Yesterday’s therapy session, for all it’s painful feelings of disconnection, did involve some very open discussion around this, and interestingly ended right where it began. Near the start I told K what happened whilst watching Unbelievable, about how some victims are believed and some aren’t, and about how not being believed has been such a constant theme for me, in part because my Mum seems so normal and generous to the untrained eye, and in part because my life looks so ‘successful’ in many ways. And I talked about how no one at work or in the real world would believe me if I disclosed complex-PTSD and a dissociative disorder and chronic pain because I function SO WELL (ironically because of the dissociation and my ability to push huge levels of pain to one side to get done what needs doing, and to almost dissociate from the heavy fog of dissociation in my head so I can carry on working). No one would believe how intense my symptoms are, how I am on sensory overload nearly all the time due to hypervigilance, or how I am half a world away most of the time. And at the end I was talking about work and the possibility of getting a referral to occupational health so adjustments can be made and the reason I am SO RELUCTANT to do this is because I DON’T WANT ANYONE TO KNOW WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME. And there I was, back where I started – spending my life desperately trying to hide the impact attachment trauma has on me, to the point I won’t tell anyone even if it might make my life easier.
And that is the crux of the issue. I have never allowed myself ANY dispensation for the legacy of my childhood or the fact I am a single parent. I submitted my PhD in 3 years and completed within 4, just as everyone is expected to do (and many don’t), despite having a young child and, at that time, a diagnosis of fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue. At work I have not taken a single day sick ever because of pain or emotional flashbacks and attachment trauma (though I have many days where I am not as productive as I would like to be). Within Extinction Rebellion only one person knows I have complex-PTSD (I told her last week) and the thought of other people there knowing, seeing me as vulnerable and broken, horrifies me. I so desperately want to be ‘normal’, or some version of it at least. I am so incredibly ashamed of the physical pain I experience. And I also get triggered when I do disclose and people don’t understand just how much pain I experience (because how could they, when I function so well in spite of it?).
I don’t know what I’m afraid of happening. I can see that a referral to OH is needed now. For a long time there was always a reason I was struggling. I was taking too many drugs. My friend had killed herself. I was having memories resurface of abuse when I was a child and teen. I was realising my Mum is seriously mentally ill and abusive to Nina and I needed to reduce contact with her. I was deep in attachment trauma therapy and constantly in crisis. I had recently become estranged from my Mum. It was Christmas. It was winter. I was struggling with climate breakdown. I was doing too much. I was moving house. I didn’t give myself a break over summer. But last week at work was just a normal, very full, week, nothing extreme happened, just the usual frustrations on top of my anticipated workload, and yet the state I was in by Friday – dissociated and over-stimulated and utterly overwhelmed – was extreme. It’s not even the busy time of the term yet. K said yesterday how she knows other people who do what I do who struggle at this time of year, working evenings and weekends and finding it really tough. ‘Your job is hard’ she said. And at the time I took it to mean ‘everyone struggles, it’s not just you’ but I see now that’s not what she meant. What she meant was it’s a full on job, even without solo parenting and complex-PTSD. I pointed out to her that I’ve now reached a point in my career where it is manageable for most people, after the intense first few years of targets and other things I can’t go into without giving away what I do. For the first few years I was working late and most weekends, but that is not how it is now for the most part (although looking ahead I can see it will be the case this term as I have so much to do). I have significantly cut back on what I do now also, saying no to more, expecting less of myself. And yet it is still not sustainable for me.
I’m not cut out for it. I see that now. As I pointed out to K yesterday, other people struggle but can still have a life outside of it because being with people soothes and resets them, they can socialise in the evenings and unwind, they don’t have to strip back their lives to the bare minimum to make the job even partway manageable. And I could list all of the things I did last week, and how full each day was, but the truth is this is part and parcel of being in the job I am in, and those that cope with it most likely don’t have the struggles I have. K said on the phone this evening [yes, another last minute crisis call] that she is amazed by how much I do at the weekends, after a full week of work, but it makes me sad and resentful that I have to give up those things in order to feel well enough to work.
For a long time I’ve held in mind that as Nina gets older my life will get easier and more spacious. However, we now know the speed at which climate and ecological breakdown is happening – in 6 years time when she is 18 and old enough to leave home I highly doubt we will be living the way we are now. K told me last night how much easier things are when children are grown up, but I had to cut her off – I became a mother at 23, knowing my daughter would be grown up by the time I was 41 and I would have some time and freedom then, but this is not the world we will soon be inhabiting. Things are going to get fucked up beyond all recognition and I cannot spend the next few years comforting myself that things will get easier as Nina grows up because it just is not true. And I cannot sustain another 6 years of this. I did email Occupational Health today and I said that I’d hidden my struggles (my disability, really, isn’t it? This counts as a disability under the Equality Act) for 9 years and that I just couldn’t do it anymore. My workload is increasing, as is everyone’s, but also so is my knowledge and expertise, so I am in demand and invited to be on committees and other things. I cannot keep going like this. And it is clear that even without regular attachment crises my work is making me ill.
I don’t know what to do. It breaks my heart that I can’t do this work without it really impacting on my well-being because I love it. I love (most of) the young people I work with. I love my research. I love sharing my knowledge and expertise and wisdom with others. My traumatised body-mind just cannot deal with it though. My brain cannot handle the amount of information that it is required to hold onto and process each day. During the busy time of year it is just more human interaction than I can cope with. I am on sensory overload all the time, and it does not take much to send things spiralling out of control. Someone at XR said they couldn’t do two back-to-back meetings and it hit me how much I do – my days at work are back-to-back meetings for the most part, during the busy 6 months at least. And even positive and inspiring and light-hearted interaction with other humans leaves me depleted and over-stimulated. And my brain cannot cope with the sheer volume of different things I have to hold – it’s not even the amount of work I have to do, it’s that my attention is split between so many different demands and there is always some issue to firefight.
I feel utterly trapped. I have a mortgage, I still have £8500 in debt, I have no savings, I pay £300 a month for therapy, I have to run a car to get to therapy. The fear of having to stop seeing K is huge, even though she says we’d come to an arrangement like a LETS scheme and I would do her garden or other household things. And I could get 6 months paid sickness absence, so that is maybe the worse case scenario for now, 6 months to rest… But it would have implications, it would let people down. I don’t want to do that. Within the next month or two I can put in to come off probation as I’ll have met my targets a year early. I hope this will take some of the pressure off, enable me to say no to more things without the constant worry it will stand against me. But ultimately I need to start to accept that I have complex-PTSD, that I cannot do the things many others can do because of trauma. And that is really, really hard because I am still so ashamed and I still don’t want people to know. I still expend so much energy keeping my symptoms and brokenness hidden. The thought of telling people I have complex PTSD and pain and need adjustments at work and need people to support me makes me feel actually ill. I think maybe I wanted to get so well that I never had to tell anyone how damaged I am.