Guest Blog: Taking control of my C-PTSD with trauma informed therapy
Hannah Garrow’s journey through Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) has been one of confusion, resilience, and ultimately, hope. In this guest blog post, she shares her experiences of C-PTSD, the path to finding the right therapy, and finally embracing the hope of healing. Read Hannah’s story of transformation and the importance of creating safe spaces for healing.
“When I look back on my life, I can see that I started developing Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) from a young age. I have had C-PTSD for roughly 20 years, and I am currently 24 years old. It’s amazing what kids can adapt to. When I look back, I’m baffled that I managed to live like how I did for so long. That’s the problem when you grow up with C-PTSD. If it’s not caught early, the symptoms like constant anxiety can be mistaken for shyness, and a sudden change in social behaviours can be mistaken for a “typical teenager”. I can see so many symptoms of C-PTSD looking back but unfortunately there wasn’t enough awareness of C-PTSD when I was growing up.
Over the course of my life, I have had what I call “episodes”. These vary in intensity and symptoms but what I mean by episode is that I’ll go through a period of time where everything feels harder to cope with and do than before. In January of this year, I had the worst episode of my life. It lasted 4 months at its most intense and would lead me to trauma informed therapy and realising I had C-PTSD. I felt like I had completely broken. I was having flashbacks daily; really graphic nightmares, intense dissociation, struggling to eat and on some days I couldn’t speak. As a result of all these things, I ended up quitting my job. I couldn’t escape or ignore what was going on in my brain and body; I was terrified. At the time it felt like that episode came from nowhere but what I realised recently is that for 3 months prior, I had started to talk about some of the things that had happened to me with a new therapist. With the knowledge I have now, I know it was not in a trauma informed way. I was just saying what had happened to me without any nervous system regulation, discharge, or self-care. I thought I was healing myself, but I was actually reliving my past and activating my nervous system. By the time January rolled around my nervous system was completely dysregulated, which is what I believe caused the intensity and all-consuming nature of that episode.
While at the time I didn’t know I had C-PTSD, I knew I needed a trauma informed therapist whose approach was both sciences based and holistic. I took to google in February and feel very lucky that I found someone as quickly as I did. As a teenager I tried many times to get help from the NHS but never got very far due to a lack of resources. As a result, I went private and was with a therapist for 3 years, who in hindsight only further exacerbated my traumas. I had resigned myself to the fact that maybe therapy didn’t work for me in the way that it worked for other people. I made the decision to go private again this year because I knew I couldn’t wait on the NHS.
When I found my current therapist, he told me at the start of our sessions “You can get better.” I remember hearing him say that and thinking “Aye right, here we go again.” A few weeks later I was in one of our sessions and I got super overwhelmed and started to cry. He let me cry and then took me through the steps of nervous system discharge and grounding. If I had gone through that overwhelm on my own, I would have been dissociated for weeks. He showed me how to work with my emotions and my body and he helped me calm down in 20 minutes. That was the moment that I believed I could get better. I still didn’t feel good, but I wasn’t consumed by emotions. It was a proper “Aha” moment and I knew he wasn’t lying when he told me I could recover.
My therapist uses the Integrative Trauma and Attachment Treatment Model and having a treatment that works with both the mind and body has been life-changing for me. I sometimes feel that the term “mental illness” is really a discredit to what many of us deal with, especially in my new understandings of trauma. Trauma affects everything in the mind AND body. You cannot fully heal your trauma without looking at how it impacts your body. He is also the first professional I have been around who noticed my C-PTSD symptoms. After years of having no relationship with my body, constant up and down emotions, periods of terror for seemingly no reason, hearing the term C-PTSD next to my name allowed me to exhale. It wasn’t just my personality. There was a reason why I was the way I was but with my therapists help I could find out who I was at my core.
I started running in April to gain a sense of control back after being consumed by really intense emotions for months. I used to run as a kid and felt this strong flight instinct kick in, so I decided to work with it rather than against it. I was completing the Couch to 5k app, and I looked up races in Glasgow and found The Great Scottish Run: Half Marathon. I had never trained for a race before and I needed something to work towards after such a rough start to the year. This run means a lot to me. It’s about claiming my autonomy back and finding joy again. I am so grateful to be doing this run and to be raising money and awareness for PTSD UK, a charity that helps so many people like me.
I have now been with my current therapist for seven months and when I think about how far I’ve come in that space of time, I get quite emotional. I cannot accurately describe how I feel other than I’ve spent most of my life feeling heavy and I only know that now because I feel lighter. I’ve found my sense of style; I’ve started wearing colour again. I’m more outgoing in things that I love, like singing and acting and I’m starting to let people in after years of either over-sharing or shutting people out. I used to be the kind of kid who always stood up for what they believed in, and I lost that for a long time but I’m finally starting to get that back. Opening up about having C-PTSD has been very healing for my inner child, as well as scary, but it’s a good kind of scary. Scary on my terms. Some days I honestly feel like I’m living a miracle. After years of lows neutral emotions are still so new and exciting for me, never mind positive emotions.
I still have a way to go, and I have had many setbacks over these last seven months. Trauma informed therapy is the best thing I have ever done for myself, but it is also hard and exhausting. For me one of the hardest parts was finally being able to start creating the life that I wanted and then having my symptoms increase and feel like I was losing my progress. But I have come to learn that this is a very normal part of the recovery process and as hard as it is, I know it won’t last forever. When the hard days inevitably come along, I now have tools to use and the language to understand what is going on in my body. For example, when my mouth goes dry, and I feel sick, I know that it’s likely because of cortisol or adrenaline. I can work with that rather than freaking out about what’s going on in my brain and body. I can name what’s happening and then go to the list of coping strategies that I have on my bedroom wall and phone, which has been revolutionary. I carry essential oils everywhere with me, grounding tools and anything I know will help me when I’m out in the world. Initially, it was quite hard admitting I needed extra things to help me cope compared to other people my age but I’m at a point now where if I know something will help me and make my life easier, I will use it.
For the first time in my life, I have hope. Hannah hope. It’s no longer hope that I’ll survive it’s hope that I’ll live and live a life of my design. To anyone out there who relates to anything I’ve said I hope you know that C-PTSD is a normal biological response to trauma. C-PTSD is a very human thing to experience. It is undeniably terrifying and horrible but know C-PTSD is not a failing on your part. Your brain and body are trying to cope with things it can’t process in its usual ways. In the context of trauma, C-PTSD is a very understandable outcome, and I wish society would view it as such, instead of stigmatising it or pretending it doesn’t exist. If you’re in a position where you’re on a wait list or don’t know where to go for help I recommend looking into nervous system regulation and containment exercises. Find a breathing exercise that works for you and learn some of the science behind trauma. It has been so helpful to know not only what is going on in my body, but also why certain things are happening. If you’re in a position to try therapy, whether that be with the NHS or private make sure you feel safe around that person and that they show you consistently that you can trust them. A healthy therapy dynamic is crucial. You deserve to heal; you deserve to be heard and respected and I am so sorry so many of us who want help don’t receive the care and respect we deserve. In a world that is so quick to tell us that recovery isn’t possible in C-PTSD; know you can heal yourself at any point in your life and you can do it on your terms in a way that is healthy for you. Healing is possible. We, as a society need to cultivate more safe spaces to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to heal. Going forward in my life, that is one of the many things I want to do. I want to help create a society that not only sees trauma but understands the importance of healing it.”
. Hannah Garrow
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