I decided to write this post because it always annoys me to hear people telling you that ‘you have to forgive your parents’ and that if you haven’t done that and you are dwelling on whatever transgressions they committed against you in your childhood, you are somehow wrong.
People who dispense such advise have a misguided idea that if only you forgive and let go and focus on the future, you would be able to lead a perfectly happy life as if the bad stuff never happened.
I really want to make a very clear point here that this is not true.
I am not talking about some petty grievances in families that otherwise function well, where parents fulfil their parental roles and provide stability, love and nurturing to the children. I am talking about families with pervasive dysfunction, about parents with various degrees of personality disorders and other mental illnesses, where there is continuous neglect, emotional invalidation, unpredictability and abuse of any kind and that includes psychological and emotional abuse (a lot of abused children are stuck in the ‘I deserved it’ mindset, essentially a Stockholm Syndrom situation, into which they were thrown by their parents. The worst abusers are either not aware or not willing to admit that their behaviour is abusive and have to rationalise it for themselves. Hence the blame the victim mentality that the child victim very easily absorbs).
For a child born into such an environment, there is no healthy before. There is no healthy reference point before the trauma happened where you could return to and start rebuilding your life from. It has been sufficiently backed by science now that people who have experienced a higher number of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) are considerably more likely to struggle in life, suffer from mental health problems and have a way higher likelihood of developing all sorts of diseases including cardiovascular diseases and cancer. The nervous system of such people is wired all differently. It’s wired for a constant fight or flight, it tends to be in a constant survival mode, it is wired to expect put-downs, attacks, betrayals. That’s how the person has been trained since their first breaths and that’s how he or she relates to the world. On the genetic level, complex childhood trauma shortens telomeres and affects the epigenome. These are some really bad cards to be dealt without your own choosing.
So let’s have a look at my life. I was born a very energetic, vivacious and capable child. I was able to walk at eight months old, I remember riding a bicycle at three without side wheels, school was easy, everything went straight into my brain. I remember that I didn’t have to put much effort in and I was actually super motivated. On weekend mornings, when my parents would be sleeping out their last night’s party, I would take a book and read aloud to myself. Soon, I was best at reading in my class.
However, by the age of 12, I started unravelling. First, came the eating disorder and self-hatred, then came suicidal ideation and self-harming. Throughout high school I still had that amazingly functioning brain that could take in and figure out just about anything. But it wasn’t to last.
At 21 I had a big breakdown that I had to pull through totally by myself and shortly after developed severe insomnia that has plagued my life ever since. Whilst my peers were enjoying their carefree twenties, I was popping sleeping pills and doing a lot of yoga and relaxation to make up for all the lost sleep and anxiety. I still did quite well and finished both of my degrees but it was becoming more difficult. When I started my first job, I remember frequently plodding through days after sleepless nights with a terrible amount of brain fog. I was scared people would see that I couldn’t perform and extremely stressed by the whole situation. I was self-conscious, struggled to cope with criticism of any kind and constantly thought someone was after me.
I pulled through my twenties, stopped drinking and smoking, which I had started in my teens.
By my early 30s, my body started to show signs of accumulated stress. My hair loss got worse, I got diagnosed with a gynaecological condition. The sleep got somewhat better but still, there were periods when I could hardly sleep for weeks and struggled through the days. A lot of my memories are marred by the cloud of brain fog after a sleepless night. Enjoying work was difficult because I frequently had to push through the days. Enjoying life was difficult too.
There were good periods too, such is the nature of the complex post traumatic stress disorder. It’s a constant up and down, but the downs do eat out quite a lot of your life, they steal the enjoyment. And sometimes you get to some really dark places with full blown panic attacks, self-harming and anxiety.
Then came the narcissist. Another near breakdown and almost two years figuring out what the hell had happened. Today I know that I got enmeshed with someone who was pretty much a vicious combination of both of my parents. I didn’t see it coming despite all the red flags, that much did I consider toxic my normal.
I lead probably the cleanest life one can think of, with meditation, the healthiest food I can find and lots of other healthy habits. Yet, even after five years of intense self-work and four years in therapy, I still struggle with periods of heavy triggering that leaves me in extremely unpleasant states sometimes for weeks. I have processed a lot of my childhood trauma and have grown tremendously from it. Sometimes, I think I have done it all. I have periods of great productivity and enjoyment. And then another thing comes up that sends my brain into a state that I can do nothing with, just wait for it to subside. It’s not happening just in my brain. My entire body feels ill during these periods. It’s impossible to focus on anything, no self-help hacks work.
I often wonder how much better I would have fared in life if this trauma has never happened. If I had just slightly more normal parents. Everything would have been different. I would be different. Sometimes I am angry. I lost the best decades of my life under this post-traumatic stress cloud. I used to blame myself for it, just as I was trained to do in my childhood.
Despite my healthy habits, I still struggle with health issues from hair loss to IBS to endometriosis. Insomnia, is still a regular visitor and so is anxiety and panic attacks.
I have done everything since I became an adult to get better. I have done nothing to deserve it. Yet I get frequently blamed by the uneducated members of the public when I express my upset about the ordeal and my family history. As if I had no right to speak the truth about my life.
I would like to urge anyone who has a need to patronise people who speak about the damage caused by their parents to think again, educate yourself and think what you could do so that no more children turn into CPTSD-riddled adults. It’s not just CPTSD, mental health conditions such as borderline personality disorder are a a result of child abuse and neglect too. Sometimes, an abused and neglected child turns into an avenger that punishes the entire society for what happened to them. The story of Andres Breivik is one such terrifying example.
I am on the path to forgive my parents. I understand that they had and still have some serious mental limitations that prevented them from developing proper parenting (and human) skills and relationships to their children. But it’s hard to cope with the fact that no one ever intervened while very many people knew I was struggling as a child. It seems to me that using this experience and turning it into something that can perhaps help others is the only possible way to find any purpose in it.