Names have power. A queen saved her first-born child because she called out, “Rumpelstiltskin!” Odysseus escaped the cyclops’ wrath because he says his name is “No Man.” Every culture, throughout every age, has tales that demonstrate how something as seemingly innocuous as a name can completely change one’s life, for better or worse. If you know something’s true name, you can control it and even defeat it.
For me, the one name that I needed to learn and to say aloud was C-PTSD.
Growing up, I’d always felt different from other children. It was as though a pane of glass stood between me and them, permanently dividing us. I could look through the glass at them, watch them, copy their movements, smile when they smiled, laugh when they laughed, but I never felt like one of them, and so I always felt alone. I didn’t know why the glass was there. Nothing I tried made it go away. So my child’s brain decided that it must be my fault. And when I went home after school and was beaten and molested by my older brother or called a little bitch by my mother, the idea that I was to blame for my strangeness, my wrongness, was hammered deeper and deeper into me, until it became my reality. I was a bad girl. I was stupid and ugly and broken, and I deserved every bit of abuse that I got.
Years passed. The glass divide grew thicker as I grew older. I was angry now but only knew to turn that anger inward and let it eat away at me. I fumbled my way through high school and university and then entered the workforce still very much a child in most respects. I was stuck. And I was tired and getting sicker by the day. I would go to doctors and tell them that I had no energy, no motivation. Each one would test my blood, tell me all my values were within normal range, and send me on my way. The child inside me echoed my mother’s words: “See, Sarah? See? Everything’s fine. You’re being dramatic. You just want attention, don’t you?”
I started throwing up each morning before work. I couldn’t sleep at night. I ate everything in sight. In hysterics, I admitted to my husband that I wanted to smash my face into a mirror because I couldn’t stand to look at myself anymore. He took me to the ER, and doctors finally started to do more than test my blood. They prescribed medication after medication after medication. I was either a zombie or high as a kite. I still couldn’t look into mirrors. I had to quit my job and stopped doing anything other than eating and crying and hating myself. One doctor told me I was Bipolar. Another told me within five minutes of meeting me that I had Borderline Personality Disorder. I was so desperate for a cure that I accepted these diagnoses without question, even though they didn’t really fit with what I was experiencing.
Then I finally heard the name C-PTSD, and everything suddenly started to make sense. C-PTSD (the C stands for Complex) is an anxiety disorder that results from repeated trauma rather than a single instance. For example, you might get PTSD from a car crash, but C-PTSD comes from things like living in a war zone, being held captive, and long-term abuse or neglect.
The emotional, physical, and sexual abuse I endured throughout my childhood interrupted my development. To put it simply, it changed my brain. It cut me off from some emotions and made me a slave to others. It was the thing that put the pane of glass between me and other people. It was the face I hated when I looked into the mirror, and now that I’d learned its name, I would no longer let it control me. Knowing what I was dealing with meant that I could get real help. I sought out therapists who specialized in trauma, joined support groups for women who’d gone through similar experiences, and I started to give myself what the broken little girl inside of me never had: Patience, kindness, forgiveness, love, and above all else, acceptance. It hasn’t been easy. I am far from cured, but at least I am healing. I can see all the progress I’ve made and can honestly say that none of it would have been possible if I hadn’t been properly diagnosed. In fact, I might not even be alive today without it.
Too many people, particularly women and especially women of colour, face an uphill battle when it comes to healthcare. Our pain, be it physical, mental, or both, is brushed aside, minimized, and outright dismissed. We’re told that it’s all in our head, that it’s a flaw of character, not an actual disease. How many of us suffer in silence simply because we cannot name the thing that’s hurting us? If there’s anything my journey with C-PTSD has taught me, it’s that we must fight for ourselves just as fiercely as we would our loved ones. Make your voice heard. Demand answers. Learn your enemy’s true name, scream it aloud, and take back your power.