Note from the editor: Here at Still I Run we want to amplify the voices of those in the Still I Run community to empower those with mental illness and/or mental health advocates. Today we’re lifting up Dee Williams, an amazing Still I Run ambassador who struggles with C-PTSD. While their open letter to C-PTSD might be a hard read for some, in the author’s own words, they wanted to take this time to “humanize C-PTSD and mental illness by providing context and lived experience to destigmatize mental health diagnoses and inspire others who may be struggling.” This letter and the conversation they're bringing to the forefront is important and we hope you’ll take the time to read Dee’s powerful words.
Dear Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder ICD-11 Diagnosis:
There’s a line from a partial Rupi Kaur poem called “Not Your Hobby” that captures our relationship well. You’re like a substance-using lover that I am caught in a co-dependent abusive cycle with, except the last one called me a “crazy bitch” and threw things at me. They don’t remember, though. I wish I didn’t remember. I remember the things I want to forget, and I can’t remember the things I want to remember. C-PTSD, You and I, co-dependent lovers, we have played both our parts well. Where do you begin, where do I end? “You cannot walk in and out of me like a revolving door” —except, You do, all the damn time.
Except, this time I thought that You were in hibernation mode. I thought that, maybe, for once, the longer days, sun on my skin, and promise of spring meant that You would not return for a while. Things have been good. Things have felt good. I have felt good. Until suddenly, I didn’t. I laid down, closed my eyes, and willed the ground to swallow me whole.
I’m stuck in a hole. You snuck up on me, like You often do. Do You lurk in the darkness, awaiting the perfect opportunity to pounce? You feel like a predator in the night sometimes. How does it go? They say that when it rains, it pours. This time, I had a week of emotional flashbacks. I couldn’t untangle myself from Your binds in time. I didn’t even see You coming. You dragged me down into the darkness, the black abyss. C-PTSD, You are an invisible, ensnaring sepulcher. I am so tired.
I sat, tired in class when I saw him enter, unannounced and unexpected. I caught a glimpse of him. He’s a man in a position of power, though he rendered me powerless recently—violated my boundaries with sexually inappropriate comments. What number is he? I’ve lost count.
“Oh, I think I’ve met you before,” he casually commented before sitting across from me, legs splayed. I fumed. He never laid a hand on me, but he stole something from me. He stole a lot. They stole a lot. All those men who took advantage of their positions of power and privilege. Took things that didn’t belong to them. Stirred something animalistic and angry inside of me.
I couldn’t move. Wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. C-PTSD, You took me to the dark place. I sat in class, I had to keep my composure. “As smooth and calm as the surface of a placid lake,” I repeat to myself. I mask my panic and I mask my pain. I’m nearly 32-years old and sometimes I still feel like I’m that teenage girl. C-PTSD, You make me forget who I am sometimes.
I forget where I am sometimes. I sat in a coffee shop and heard the door open behind me. I should have known better, I usually do—I try to position myself in places where I know where all the exits are located—where I can glance up quickly to assess the situation. I didn’t do that today. I heard the door open behind me and caught a whiff of stale cigarette smoke. They say that smell is the strongest sense tied to memory. I think it’s true, for the good, the bad, and the ugly. The hairs stand up on the back of my neck and I feel like I need to run. I should have run, but I couldn’t. I was frozen and left my body behind instead. I’m not sure where my mind went. I think it hides sometimes. Isn’t that called self-preservation?
Is it self-preservation if I’m falling apart? C-PTSD, You make me feel like I’m being hanged, drawn, and quartered. I try to Frankenstein myself back together—all the broken pieces—but it’s so hard sometimes. I never did learn how to sew properly. I fear that people can look at me and know how damaged I am inside. You made sure of that, didn’t You? How could anybody love somebody so broken? And yet, somehow, when I catch a glimpse of my reflection as I walk past a mirror, I don’t recognize the person staring back at me. I look whole. Put together. I smile. Thailand is known as the land of smiles. My ancestors taught me the art of the smile well. Sometimes I feel like the saddest happy-smile you’ll ever encounter. As smooth and calm as the surface of a placid lake.
Talk about smooth. I’ve learned about the Japanese art of Kintsugi. I’ve even heard about it as metaphor for trauma. I’ve heard it all before. I get the metaphor, but when You’ve got me in Your clutches, it’s hard to see the good in anything at all. I’m supposed to be putting back the broken pottery pieces of my fractured whole with gold, right? But what about when you grow up money poor and you don’t have any gold to spare? By embracing flaws and imperfections, I’m supposed to create an even stronger, more beautiful piece of artwork? Nobody’s going to think I’m worthy if I’m shattered. I’m the artwork here. I get it. I rationally understand the metaphor. But when I hear about this, C-PTSD, it’s hard to see anything beautiful when the world feels so ugly. You’ve got me in a chokehold and I can barely breathe, much less comprehend words or metaphors in any way that feel meaningful and real.
I don’t feel real. You make me feel like I am unreal. I can’t breathe. I feel like I have an insufferable disease that I cannot contain. Will I infect someone? I don’t want this to spread. I am subhuman. Sometimes I feel like an empty vessel. You make me numb. I’ve stitched myself together time and time again. My handiwork is mediocre at best. Emotionless, and yet, sometimes it feels like You have me bursting at the seams. C-PTSD, you make me feel like I can barely contain this pain, and yet, my body has carried You for longer than I care to remember.
Carrying Your weight is so much. You make me feel I’m wandering through this world trying to make sense of it—trying to connect, never really feeling like I belong. An old partner once told me that I’m difficult to get to know, but in the same breath, said that I’m not a machine. So, which is it? Am I feeling too much, or am I an emotionless void? Am I even relatable anymore? I’ve learned about “thwarted belongingness” in my PhD program—I am familiar with this concept. I’ve lived my whole life somewhere in the space between “thwarted belongingness” and “perceived burdensomeness”. Maybe that’s why You make me feel like I want to die sometimes.
Sometimes I think about death. C-PTSD, you’ve come to me under the guise of suicidal ideation, Major Depressive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, possibly even Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. I didn’t have a name for You for so long. I didn’t see Your real form for so long. I didn’t see the real You. And yet, I’ve been so familiar with Your body betrayal over the years. I’ve cried so many tears over You.
You activate my sympathetic nerves, sweat pours from my pores and I swear it's the shame seeping out of me. I have so much shame. You’ve made me feel so damaged and fragmented, and yet, You protect me. The hypervigilance, the smell triggers, the visual cues that something’s wrong and I should fight—but sometimes You’re activated all the time and it's bad. I’m so tired. You drain me so, physically, and emotionally. Sometimes I am so depleted that I really do wish the ground would swallow me whole so that nobody would know. I love You and I hate You for so many reasons.
“Good reasons” for crying? I have them and sometimes I don’t. I’m driving and I hear a siren and suddenly I can’t breathe. I hear a siren and suddenly my face is wet with hot tears. I hear a siren and suddenly the intrusive thoughts bombard me. I see things I don’t want to see. I hear the wailing. There’s so much wailing. I blink and I’m home and I don’t entirely know how I got there, but I think my body went into autopilot.
C-PTSD, I’m on autopilot just to survive sometimes. I hate it when people tell me that I’m strong because of You. I wish that I didn’t have to carry You on my back. You made me Your beast of burden. You are a succubus. You steal my breath away. You come up when the sun goes down. You make me feel like I am a ghost wandering the plane between the living and the dead. I’ve been in living limbo nearly all my life, where do I go when I die? You’ve got my thoughts all jumbled. Things don’t make sense sometimes. Some days are easier than others, but I’ve been carrying You in my tiny body for over 22 years and the load just feels heavier. I’ve got no concept of time anymore. Won’t You ever leave me alone? Can I disentangle from You? I don’t think that’s how mental illness works. I’ll wear you like a scarlet letter until the day that I die—
But I won’t die anytime soon because I’m determined to be alive and to feel whole again. I’ll be whole again despite You. Just watch. You thought I was in hibernation mode. You thought that, maybe, for once, the shorter days, lack of sun on my skin, and deep winter frost meant that I would not return for a while. Things have been bad. Things have felt bad. I have felt bad. Until suddenly, I didn’t. I stood up, chose life, willed the sky to greet me as whole again.
If I am me, and You are You, and You are me, and I am You, I can still put myself back together—I think this is actually a letter to myself—to You—You’ve got this. You can be whole again. You are whole again. You’re gonna be okay. Just breathe.