3 Lessons I Learned from Growing Up with a Mother with PTSDNone By Ellen Gregory
The last time I returned home, my mother was rail-thin and had sunk into deep despair. Growing up, these bouts were common. They were marked by days, weeks, and often months spent locked away in her bedroom. Eventually, she’d emerge, cadaverous, mere bones beneath worn flesh from being trapped in her own torment.
As children, my brother and I didn’t have the capacity or awareness to comprehend her break with reality and the jarring disconnection between who she was at her best, and who she was at her lowest. We were completely dumbfounded by her bewildering behavior, incomprehensible responses, and often frightening reactions to innocuous moments. One minute, she was present, interested in our stories, and responsive; then, without warning, she would recoil if we went near her, or she would completely shut down.
More often than not, my mother’s past was more alive and vivid than the tangible environment, and anything could be a trigger. Without warning, a tone of voice, a whiff of cumin, or the scent of freshly cut grass could cause a visceral reaction and an intrusive emergence of painful memories without an anchor or tools to properly cope.
At 17, I left home in an attempt to escape my chaotic upbringing, and to find normalcy and stability. I thought the physical distance would give me the space to heal, forgive, understand, and move on. Eventually, I moved to Taiwan and limited my communication with my mother, but it still wasn’t enough.
It was during this time that I finally understood that these accounts were a manifestation of trauma, and that she was fully entrenched in traumatic events and experiencing intrusive flashbacks.
Painful memories don’t always diminish with time. They can remain submerged in years of silence, eluding us for years, staying dormant undetected, until they violently take hold. My mother’s memories haunted her every move, welling up like a tidal wave and forcefully ripping her strength out from beneath her.
Rather than running from the pain, I’ve found that rewiring outdated thought patterns, moving through the difficult aspects of my upbringing, and recognizing the strengths it gave me has helped me to heal and lead a more healthful, meaningful life.
Vulnerability and Trust
“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” —Brené Brown
For most of my life, my natural instinct has been to shut down, build walls, and keep people at a safe distance. This reaction was so automatic, that I wasn’t even aware of the ways I protected myself, blamed others, and victimized myself. Over time, I realized how closed off I was, how easily I shut down in emotionally vulnerable situations, and how the fear of being vulnerable was preventing me from living. My fear of being hurt kept me from making meaningful connections and left me isolated.
PTSD leaves sufferers extremely vulnerable to invasive and traumatic memories. Witnessing my mother’s hyper-vigilance and acute anxiety in the face of vulnerability caused me to have a visceral aversion to strong emotions. Whenever anyone exhibited a strong emotional reaction, I would feel my body tense up as if it was trying to close in on itself, as well as an overwhelming impulse to physically distance myself as much as possible.
Although it's still a work in progress, I’ve learned how to acknowledge, access, and embrace vulnerability with a few select people that I trust. Rather than shutting down, I actively strive to stay present and lean into vulnerability. Learning how to trust, to be vulnerable, and to lean on others for support has been as painful as it has been rewarding. With practice, I’ve learned it's essential to reach out, to build a strong support system, to forgive, and to love wholeheartedly.
A Complicated Acceptance
My relationship with my mother evokes a mixture of complicated and contradicting emotions, spanning fierce loyalty and love to bitter resentment and pity. The PTSD episodes were invasive, unwelcome, disruptive and boundless, all at the least expected moments. For this reason, my mother was simultaneously the person I sought and needed for protection and support, and the person that brought fear, uncertainty, and instability into my life. Between episodes, I remember the kindness, courage, love, patience, humor, and her devotion to us.
For years, I questioned my contradicting emotions and memories. The guilt of feeling fearful, distant and angry weighed heavily on me. I knew the suffering she felt was unbearable, and that the pain inflicted on us had not been intentionally cruel. Nevertheless, things that were said or done left wounds. For years, I ignored those feelings and memories and refused to address the persistent pain. Eventually, I conceded to a complicated acceptance.
It’s been difficult and painful to reconcile these feelings, but over time, acknowledging the emotions, thoughts, and wounds without judgment has put the pain into context. Acceptance doesn’t justify or diminish the events, but it has let me move past some of the pain. It’s empowering to accept it. With that, I can make a conscious effort to not be defined or victimized by the past, and can maintain a more honest relationship with my mother.
It's difficult to articulate how it felt to be a child navigating that environment. I often felt overwhelmed by an indescribable feeling of darkness, and by inevitable chaos. There are still days where I feel lost, disconnected, and powerless—just like I felt growing up. Even with my father’s help, being raised in the care of my mother was difficult. But it taught me to be resilient and resourceful and to rise above the unintended hurt that ensued.
Understanding my mother did her best as a parent and a person struggling with a severe and unrelenting mental illness, within the context of my upbringing, has been a vital part of reshaping my perspective and taking ownership of my life.
Throughout our lives, we all experience periods of darkness and light. Those extremely raw and painful dark moments can be powerfully life-changing and give us the opportunity to foster meaningful connections, purpose in our lives, and resilience. I cannot undo the past, but I don’t have to be in constant fear of repeating it, nor do I need to live in the past or be defined by it.
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