This is part of a larger series of writing around my recovery from Complex PTSD. I developed a tool kit of healing methods treating the root cause, not merely the symptoms. I charted my journey in a series of essays. I’ll be writing bi-monthly articles, publishing podcasts, and hosting workshops on healing, recovery, and the root causes of pain. Twice a month, I send out a personal story of healing. Sign up for two stories per month, that’s it.
“Ryan, I think you have a form of insidious ongoing childhood trauma called Complex PTSD. Let’s talk more in the next meeting.”
Towards the end of the couples’ therapy session, our social worker looked at me and said those exact words.
That first sentence rocked my world.
I was shocked, surprised, and scared.
What does insidious mean?
What does it mean to have trauma?
I had the pressures of a family, work, and being a dad.
How would I go through trauma recovery?
I felt desperate. After years of following the traditional rules of mental health: chatting about my feelings on therapy couches, ingesting mood-stabilizing drugs like candy, and trusting medical doctors’ advice—I felt that Western medicine abandoned me.
Since college, I ran the gauntlet of mental health professionals. I saw a therapist, psychiatrist, group psychologists, cognitive behavioral experts, and many different doctors. I accepted that I was in pain and had to manage it. I knew there was a better way to live, yet no one showed me how to get on that path.
Healing trauma with ancient methods
To heal my trauma I went against traditional health advice. I sought out the wisdom of fourth-generation sound healers, and connected with some of the best breathworkers and meditation leaders in the United States. I experimented with psychedelics, plant-based medicine on the bleeding edge of mental health, dove into an emotional balance workshop through the Dalai Lama, and met with modern-day shamans to build myself back up. I conversed with the legendary Buddhist trained monk Jack Kornfield, learned Vipassana meditation with Mingyur Rinpoche, studied Pranayama breathwork meditation under David Elliott, and worked with sound healers who liberated my body with Tibetan singing bowls.
Now a year later, I’ve survived to live another day. By the grace of God, I finally found the healing practices of thousand-year-old eastern traditions. Many of these practices are from India, pre-colonial America, and indiginious tribes around the world. These ancient methods helped solve my modern mental health problems. Resiliency came through my bones. My healing work culminated in a series of mystical journeys that changed my life.
How We Treat the Symptoms, and Not the Root Cause
I’m grateful that my wife and I opted into marriage counseling. On that day we were in a dimly lit room, sitting next to one another on a small couch. While in the offices of a clinical social worker Dr. Julie Hoine, Wally, her service dog, ran around the floor. Julie sat across the room, on a sturdy black office chair, with a desk and an Apple computer behind her.
I always seem to misremember things. However, I would not soon forget this day. I had been taking a drug called Lamictal for well over a decade. On the surface it stabilized my mood. In addition to therapy, I had been seeing a psychiatrist for years. While the drugs treated depression/anxiety-like symptoms, they also covered up the root cause of my pain. I recall specifically crying during one therapy session over a painful childhood memory. The psychiatrist’s solution to my grieving was a prescription for an antidepressant. I began doubting this psychiatrist over the past year. Like many Americans, I numbed the symptoms of my problems, while living in denial that there was an actual root cause.
Julie told me something that shook up my life, my family, and my mind forever.
“Ryan have you ever been diagnosed with trauma?”
“No. What do you mean?” I replied.
“You sound like you’ve been through trauma, would you like to go through a trauma checklist with me?”
After hearing this, I stopped breathing. In utter disbelief, I agreed to do a trauma checklist with Julie. She asked my wife if it was okay for us to go down this trauma rabbit hole. She said yes.
Julie spun around her chair to her computer, and searched online for a trauma checklist. I had no idea what she was doing, and was equally curious and shocked. In my decades of searching for answers to my symptoms of depression, anxiety, frustration, sadness, relief and anger, I had not heard the word “trauma” any time in any doctor’s office.
What is Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Complex PTSD)?
Wally was now on the floor resting on her back, no longer running around. The room was calm and we waited an eternity for Julie to pull up the complex trauma checklist. She then asked me if I sometimes felt like I had:
- A lack of emotional regulation
- Changes in consciousness (dissociation)
- Negative self-perception (extreme guilt or shame)
- Difficulty with relationships (lack of trust)
- Loss of systems of meanings (feeling hopelessness and despair).
I barely recall my answers. My mind felt blank. Complex PTSD is the result of prolonged exposure to trauma over long periods of time, often during the formative years of childhood. It’s different than PTSD, which is often a result of one single traumatic event. C-PTSD is a result of ongoing and long-lasting trauma. The trauma can last for a series of months or even many years. C-PTSD is repetitive trauma, and if left untreated the effects can last a lifetime.
Some of the most common aspects of C-PTSD are:
- Memory issues (often blocking out reminders of the traumatic event)
- Heightened irritability
- Decreased interest in once-enjoyable activities
- Dissociative flashbacks (oftentimes emotional flashbacks)
- Severe feelings of guilt and shame
- Difficulty maintaining close and trusting relationships with others
Suddenly I felt exhausted. I learned from my therapist that Complex PTSD and complex trauma is under-diagnosed. To which I said, “No shit.”
Since graduating from college, I’ve been on as many different pharmaceutical drugs as you can imagine. Feeling like a human guinea pig, I’ve been prescribed antidepressants, anti-psychotics, and mood stabilizers. None of them has completely worked.
Past doctors diagnosed me with depression, anxiety, and other normal-ish symptoms around mental health, but never trauma. Complex PTSD sounds like something that military veterans and survivors of sexual assault have, but I had experienced neither. I was a father and husband with a career, and I was floored by the diagnosis. I thought to myself, “WTF?”. I felt totally f*cked. I asked myself, “what does recovery even look like?” I wondered, “How am I going to meet my client deadlines next week?”
How Recovery Works
Now I am in recovery; something I will gratefully continue for the remainder of my life. In the coming series of essays you’ll hear how, why, and which ways I’ve healed. I merged Eastern and Western treatments to get better. Rather than return to the well of psychiatric and psychological evaluations, I forged a new path. I’m the happiest I’ve ever felt. I have to thank entheogens, breathwork, meditation, practicing gratitude, journaling, therapy, support groups, and yoga for some of this continual effervescent feeling that I have. Now in retrospect, I understand what worked for me. Equally as important, I learned what did not work for me. I’ll share my results, as I experimented with many different types of healing methods. I waited decades for my oneness with the world to bubble up to the surface from down below. I genuinely feel whole, connected to people, and believe that my best days are ahead. This feeling is a stark contrast from how I felt just a year ago.
I want to share with the world the story of how my final trauma therapy uncovered the truth. I would like no one else to go through the decades of pain that I felt. What many people call healthy isn’t necessarily right. Rather than fighting a traditional mental health system of what we define as healing, I invite you to follow along so that you too might chart your own path through the recesses of the mind and psyche. The needless suffering that I went through must end now, and we can all collaborate to work on a more human experience to help people who’ve been traumatized. There are more people like me —zombies living with unknown pain, looking for answers to questions that they don’t even know exist. I invite you to follow along so that you too might chart your own path through the recesses of the mind and psyche. This is the journey to getting unf*cked.
Big thanks for edits from: Ross Gordon, Stew Fortier, Tom White, Joel Christiansen, Drew Stegmaier, Sara Campbell, Richie Bonilla, John McGarvey, Chris Holinger, David Rosenblatt, Lyle McKeany, Steven Ovadia, Charlie Bleecker, and Joshua Mitchell.