“This summer has been an interesting journey,” I remark to Rafiki.
We haven’t had a chance to talk much in the last week due to using my vacation to catch up on life and getting my girls ready to start school again. Where did my vacation go?
Speaking of which, where did the summer go?
“As I’ve researched more about PTSD and I’m working on forgiveness,” I continue, “I’ve become more aware of how many of my emotional struggles are also due to trauma triggers.”
“Awareness is like flower petals slowly opening, full of fragrance and beauty.”
Awareness is like flower petals slowly opening, full of fragrance and beauty. Click To Tweet
“It’s frustrating though,” I complain. “I mean, didn’t I already do the hard work? Shouldn’t the triggers just be gone by now? Why do they have to keep creeping back in?”
“Phoenix, you have done a lot of work and you’ve come extremely far.” Rafiki has a way of knowing how to hear me and validate my truth. “The tricky thing about triggers is, we have no control over when they’ll come back. They just do. The question you need to ask is, what are you going to do to inevitably take care of yourself when your trauma triggers hit you like a tsunami?”
The tricky thing about triggers is, we have no control over when they’ll come back. Click To Tweet
I hesitate. I’ve been so busy running errands, doing things for my daughters, trying to be there emotionally for my former spouse by supporting her on a topic that has been one of my biggest interpersonal struggles and I realize I had not been taking care of Little Phoenix.
“This week?” I mumble and look away. “Ah…I didn’t do much at all. I can say it was because I was busy. I mean…I was. But that’s just an excuse. I spent a lot of time in my head instead of taking care of me.” Being honest is tough and yet, liberating all at once.
“I think the work you’ve been doing to understand PTSD for a partner of a sex addict is having a deeper meaning than you expected. By learning about your own trauma triggers, how they affect you emotionally, how they sneak up on you out of the middle of nowhere, how crippling they can still be, even after all the therapeutic processing you’ve done, you’re finding how much energy and effort it takes to take care of your inner child, while at the same time stay present in the world when a trigger occurs.”
Whoa! That was a mouthful. I stop Rafiki and ask him to repeat that again, slower this time though.
“Many people don’t understand that managing trauma is a full-time job. They just assume you’re crazy. And, in the middle of a traumatic experience, you are a bit crazy. Over time, it gets easier, but even time won’t erase it all. When you’re hungry, you eat. When you’re thirsty, you drink water. When you’re tired, you go to sleep. When you become triggered, you need to take care of your inner child. If you don’t automatically pick up the tools that work for you to take care of yourself, not only will you continue to hurt, but you’ll hurt others around you.”
“Yeah, I know that one,” I exhale. “It’s easy to forget that when I’m in the mist of it.”
“Of course, it is. Unfortunately, when it comes to emotions, we believe avoiding it means to focus on the painful emotion to make it go away. That only exasperates the pain. We need to first identify it as a trigger, accept that hurtful emotion, then pull out the tools we have in our toolbox to manage it. This can become a habit and I know you’ll make it a habit. In the beginning, changing habits takes a lot of work. Continue to learn and grow so not only will you be able to parent Little Phoenix, you can also learn to have compassion over what your actions did to your former spouse.” Rafiki takes his staff and nudges mine, “I think you need to talk about what you’ve learned.”
It’s time to take a deeper plunge in awareness about PTSD and how it affects partners of sex addicts.
I hate to do this, but I think it’s important for me to write a disclaimer. I’m not a therapist or a doctor. What is written below is from my own research and my own personal experiences. In no way is this a diagnosis of myself, or anyone else for that matter, just another possible way to look inward towards the issues that some of us struggle with. For more information about PTSD, see the links I have available at the end of this blog.
Whew! There…I said it.
What is PTSD?
PTSD as defined by Dr. John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is defined as a debilitating mental disorder that sometimes follows when a person has directly experienced or witnessed an extremely traumatic, tragic, or terrifying event. People with PTSD usually have persistent frightening thoughts and memories of their ordeal and feel emotionally numb, especially with people they were once close to.
Most people that have PTSD repeatedly re-live the trauma in the form of nightmares and disturbing recollections during the day. The nightmares or recollections may come and go, and a person may be free of them for weeks at a time, and then experience them daily for no particular reason.
A person with PTSD may also experience sleep problems, depression, feeling detached or numb, or being easily startled. They may lose interest in things they used to enjoy and have trouble feeling affectionate. They may feel irritable, more aggressive than before, or even violent. Seeing things that remind them of the incident may be very distressing, which could lead them to avoid certain places or situations that bring back those memories. Anniversaries of the event are often very difficult.
PTSD can occur at any age, including childhood. The disorder can be accompanied by depression, substance abuse, or anxiety…In general, the symptoms seem to be worse if the event that triggered them was initiated by a person.
Ordinary events can serve as reminders of the trauma and trigger flashbacks or intrusive images. A flashback may make the person lose touch with reality and reenact the event for a period of seconds, or hours, or very rarely, days. A person having a flashback, which can come in the form of images, sounds, smells, or feelings, usually believes the traumatic event is happening all over again.
Discussion With Rafiki
“Whoa! Rafiki, maybe I’m not crazy.”
“I’ve been trying to tell you that for a couple years now.” Rafiki gloats. “What’s this new insight?”
“There are times when I feel like I have everything all worked out. I’m present in life. I’m grounded. I feel, without a better way of explaining this…I feel sane. I feel normal. Then out of nowhere I have a flashback and my body goes right back to the way I felt as a child, to the way I felt in my marriage. When that happens, I instantly judge myself because I thought I should’ve already gotten this.”
“You shame yourself for not being perfect,” Rafiki adds. “That’s the thing you must remember about trauma. It’s not about being perfect and it’s not about not having triggers, it’s about how you manage the triggers.”
Trauma is not about being perfect or not having triggers, it’s how you manage the triggers. Click To Tweet
“Seriously, Rafiki, after eight months are we really going back to the second paragraph of my first blog: It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters?”
“Some of us are slow learners,” Rafiki starts laughing hysterically. I glare at him. “I’m only joking Phoenix.”
Rafiki gets serious. “You started blogging to find peace and to stop falling back into the same behaviors that kept you stuck. What you’re learning is, even though the past will creep back up into the present, especially when the past has trauma attached to it, it’s how you react to that trauma that will determine your present state of happiness. And that present state of happiness will also affect those around you, which will, in turn, either bring you more joy or cause additional pain. Unfortunately, you don’t have a choice to being triggered. You do have a choice, though, with how you take care of yourself when you do.”
How you react to your trauma will determine your present state of happiness. Click To Tweet
And my blog comes around full circle.
“Hey, Rafiki,” I joke. “My blog is like the Circle of Life.”
“Trauma,” Rafiki jabs back, “Is the Circle of Life; we just keep traumatizing one another because of our own trauma.”
Trauma is the Circle of Life – we keep traumatizing one another because of our own trauma. Click To Tweet
Symptoms and Diagnosis of PTSD
Therapists use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as a guide to help understand symptoms and diagnose mental ailments. In the most recent edition (5th edition, 2013), PTSD was moved from a type of anxiety disorder to a “Trauma and Stress-Related Disorder.” Instead of being anxiety related to mental illness, it is now looked upon as a disorder connected to an external event.
The criteria used to determine if someone has PTSD is as follows (found on the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Website):
- Trauma (big T-traumas) survivors must have been exposed to actual or threatened:
- Serious injury
- Sexual violence
- The exposure can be:
- Indirect, by hearing a relative or close friend who has experienced the event
- Repeated or extreme indirect exposure to qualifying events, usually by professionals
- Little t-traumas can also be a cause of stress (although don’t qualify for the PTSD diagnosis)
- Complicated grief
- Non-professional media exposure to trauma
- Childhood emotional abuse
Intrusion or Re-experiencing
(these symptoms are the ways that someone re-experiences the event)
- Intrusive thoughts or memories
- Nightmares related to the traumatic event
- Flashbacks, feeling like the event is happening again
- Psychological and physical reactivity to reminders of the traumatic event, such as an anniversary
(the ways that someone may try to avoid any memory of the event)
- Avoiding thoughts or feelings connected to the traumatic event
- Avoiding people or situations connected to the traumatic event
Negative Alterations in Mood or Cognitions
- Memory problems that are exclusive to the event
- Negative thoughts or beliefs about one’s self or the world
- Distorted sense of blame for one’s self or others, related to the event
- Being stuck in severe emotions related to the trauma (i.e. horror, shame, sadness, fear, guilt)
- Feeling that the world is dangerous and you can’t trust anyone.
- Feeling numb or find it hard to feel happy
- Severely reduced interest in pre-trauma activities
- Feeling detached, isolated or disconnected from other people
Increased Arousal Symptoms
(the way that the brain remains “on edge,” wary and watchful of further threats; hyperarousal)
- Difficulty concentrating
- Irritability, increased temper or anger
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Feeling jittery or always alert and on the lookout for danger
- Being easily startled
Other problems associated with PTSD include:
- Feelings of hopelessness, shame, or despair
- Depression or anxiety
- Drinking or drug problems
- Physical symptoms or chronic pains
- Employment problems
- Relationship problems, including divorce
“I can relate to a lot of those symptoms. Especially that jittery, hyperarousal state I feel build up inside of me, followed by the thoughts that go around and around in my head and then finding it hard to sleep.”
“Phoenix, I don’t know if you realize just how far you’ve come?” Rafiki looks me deep in the eyes. “Yes, you still get triggered. Yes, you still forget to manage those triggers. Listen closely. You are nowhere near where you were a year ago. Keep your focus on where you want to go. If you keep looking over your shoulder, next thing you know, you’ll be back where you started. Use your staff to help you walk towards your goal, not constantly stopping to swat at the bees of your past. Keep doing that and you’re bound to get stung again.”
If you keep looking over your shoulder, next thing you know, you’ll be back where you started. Click To Tweet
If you swat the bees of your past instead of moving forward, you’re bound to get stung again. Click To Tweet
PTSD in Adult Children of Alcoholics
ACOA is a 12-step program focused on trauma caused in childhood by dysfunctional families. The following was taken from the www.adultchildren.org website.
- “PTSD may be the most common disorder that befalls adult children of trauma.”
- “Most ACA members have some form of PTSD, which is often expressed in our hyper vigilance of our surroundings or our acute monitoring of comments or actions of others. This behavior is a carry-over from growing up on guard much of the time.”
- “Many adult children constantly survey their homes or relationships, looking for situations that could lead to shame or some other public act of criticism. In addition to fearing shame and abandonment, our hyper-vigilance is intensified by what many therapists call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is most often associated with combat veterans or survivors of a traumatic event such as a car wreck or a catastrophic event. However, adult children suffer from PTSD as well. A PTSD event or events produce such a high state of threat or danger that experts believe it changes the body chemistry. Long after the threat has passed, the PTSD sufferer remains on “alert” to ward off future events that could re-trigger the fear of the previous fearful event.”
- “Physical and emotional abuse can both produce post-traumatic stress disorder or stored fear. They create the same wound whether hitting is present or not.”
- Many adult children have PTSD and are able to recover in ACA.
The following was taken from a Huffington post article about ACOA and Trauma:
“Old pain that gets imported into new relationships is the hallmark of the ACoA trauma syndrome. The past we thought we’d neatly left behind once we got tall enough, old enough or smart enough intrudes onto our present and we are returned, in the blink of an eye, to childhood states of emotion and along with them floods of feelings and images that we “forgot” were there.
Confronted with an angry spouse, a critical boss or a tantrumy child, the ACoA may overreact to a present-day circumstance that somehow mirrors one from the past. Unaware that hidden childhood wounds may be causing us to react more intensely than is right-sized for what’s going on, we get caught in a mind/body combustion in which pain from the past is creating pain in the present. We get tight guts, we hold our breath and we wait “for the other shoe to drop.” We brace ourselves and wait for something bad to happen, just like the way we did when we were kids. But we don’t know that’s what’s happening. Then we swing into defensive strategies, we explode or implode, we get aggressive and defensive or we disappear and withdraw. We stand at our full adult height, but on the inside, we’re that freaked out little kid all over again. In this manner pain from the past bleeds into the present. Seamlessly old hurt, anger and fear move from one generation to the next, because unresolved pain, anger and confusion don’t really disappear; they live within us, in a quivering silence that longs to make itself heard and known.”
“It’s been almost a year since you guided me to consider ACOA,” I reminisce.
“That was the turning point for you, Phoenix.” Rafiki responds. “When you realized that it was normal to have physical symptoms accompany emotional thoughts and feelings and that you weren’t alone in your struggle, your focus turned inward instead of blaming your former spouse, your Higher Power, and the world around you for your pain.”
“At the time, I didn’t realize that there was a similarity between my triggers and the triggers I caused in my marriage.”
“Most relationships don’t see the pattern.” Rafiki looks heartbroken. “Many times, when we are in our emotional turmoil, we not only can’t see what the other person is going through, but we’re blind to how we are also the cause of that chaos. Many people focus so much on their own internal pain, that there’s no way they can see the pain in their partner. Without acknowledging one another’s pain and struggles, a coupleship will find it difficult to survive.”
“Yeah,” I sigh looking at my feet and twiddling my fingers. “I said I’d be there for my former spouse. And I try to be. But when my triggers get activated, I end up going into survival mode. All I can think of is to protect myself.”
“That’s human nature, Phoenix.” Rafiki sits up straight. “How can we give to someone when we can’t even give to ourselves?”
A light goes off in my head. When my former spouse is struggling, she’s doing the same thing, just trying to survive. It’s not that she doesn’t care, it’s that she’s in survival mode. She can’t see I need help nor does she have the resources to do that when she’s in a triggered state.
“The interesting thing about relationships,” Rafiki continues, “is that the people we are closest to, many times, are the ones who trigger us the most. And rarely, is only one person triggered and the other in a calm state. Usually, both partners are triggered at the same time reacting to one another.”
“How do relationships work then?” I want to know the trick. I don’t want to make the same mistake in the future.
“It’s a constant give and take,” Rafiki answers. “The most important goal is loving yourself. When you love yourself, you know how to nurture and parent your inner child. Which means, you are self-aware of what you need or want. When you know what you need and want, you learn to communicate that to your partner. It’s important to be aware of where you are emotionally and when you feel triggered, communicate that to your partner so they aren’t trying to figure you out. Most people can’t figure another person out anyway, so why set your partner up for failure?
“The key is, both partners need to be willing to put their all into the relationship. A one-sided relationship will never work. And we aren’t just talking about romantic relationships. Friendships can’t be one-sided either. Unfortunately, many people have superficial one-sided relationships until they fall apart and later reconnect in a similar one-sided relationship only recreating their trauma all over again.”
Treatment For PTSD
There are different kinds of treatment for PTSD. For many people, these treatments can get rid of symptoms altogether. For others, they find that the symptoms become less intense after treatment or they have fewer symptoms.
Cognitive Processing Trauma
Cognitive Processing Trauma uses a narrative to expose an individual to their trauma. This exposure can be done all at once, which is called “flooding” or it can be done gradually to build up tolerance, called “desensitization.” These narratives are done verbally, with images, or other forms of art. Using this form of therapy teaches you a new way to handle the upsetting thoughts.
Reprocessing is better known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). This is the only intervention that allows an individual to reprocess memories and events. It allows an individual to access the relevant memory and uses dual awareness with bilateral stimulation and images, thoughts, emotions, and body sensations to move through the traumatic experiences that aren’t resolved. A great analogy about using EMDR is the comparison of storing memories like putting away groceries. A traumatic event was stored by shoving a bunch of stuff in a cabinet and anytime the cabinet is opened, the stuff falls on your head. EMDR allows you to pull everything out in a controlled manner and then put it away in the organized way that non-traumatic memories are stored.
Somatic Experiencing uses the body to process trauma and is based on Peter Levine’s observations of how animals recover from traumatic events. Peter Levine found that when an animal’s flight or fight survival response to a threat is not an option, they freeze, “play dead.” This makes the animal less of a target. Eventually, the trauma needs to run its course and the massive energy that was prepared for fight or flight gets discharged through shaking and trembling. If the immobility phase doesn’t complete, then that charge stays trapped, and from the body’s perspective, it is still under threat. Somatic Experiencing works to release this stored energy and turn off this threat alarm that causes severe dysregulation and dissociation. This method does not focus on the story, rather it focuses on accessing the body memory of the event. That’s because, based under this theory, the traumatic event isn’t what caused the trauma, it is the overwhelmed response to the perceived life threat that is causing an unbalanced nervous system.
Mindfulness practice is a way of thinking and focusing that can help you become more aware of your present experiences. Research has not yet studied the effects of mindfulness in helping PTSD, however, mindfulness has been shown to be helpful with other anxiety problems. It has also been shown to help with symptoms of PTSD, such as avoidance and hyperarousal.
Mindfulness has two key parts:
paying attention to and being aware of the present moment
accepting or being willing to experience your thoughts and feelings without judging them
What is important for someone recovering from trauma is to help the survivor develop new coping skills related to their symptoms. These skills include:
relaxation and mindfulness techniques
psychoeducation about symptoms and issues related to the type of trauma the individual experienced
The Rafiki Chat
“I’ve done pretty much all of those modalities,” I say. “And still, I struggle.”
“If you still find yourself struggling, imagine how tough it must be for someone who hasn’t worked through the trauma; who doesn’t have the tools you have.”
My former spouse has done some of the above therapies, however not to the extent I have. In fact, when we first got into treatment, there was no support to help her deal with the trauma I had caused. Instead, the therapeutic community labeled her as codependent and unhealthy because not only did she chose a man like myself, but also because she had enabled my behavior. That must have added more trauma on top of what she already had due to my actions.
“I see you’re starting to have more compassion for your former spouse,” Rafiki adds. “Recovering from a traumatic event takes a lot of time and effort to work through it. For you and your former spouse, both of you had to deal with your own individual traumas. And until both of you get your traumatic reactions under control and learn how to recognize, manage, and take care of yourself, you can’t learn how to take care of each other in any kind of relationship. If one of you gets triggered, that triggered response only re-traumatizes the other, and the cycle starts all over again.”
“What’s the key to healing?” I ask.
“My recommendation is only that of a silly baboon. Not only am I not a therapist, I’m not even human,” Rafiki chuckles. “From what I’ve seen, if both partners are committed to the coupleship, with the help of a couple counselor, they can learn how to support one another as they heal through the trauma. There’s definitely give and take when working together. However, in the early stages of recovering from disclosure of sex addiction, the partner needs more support from the sex addict. Eventually, as the deeper issues are revealed and the partner starts to heal and trust again, recovery in the coupleship becomes a mutual balance. The key is awareness of self, learning what one needs to parent their inner child, and learning how to communicate those needs to one another. This is a complete overhaul in the relationship and a deep commitment to both partners to do the work. It’s not easy, but the end result could be an amazing transformation and a deeper connection then they ever imagined.”
“What if a partner isn’t committed to the coupleship or an addict won’t do the work to stop the addictive behaviors?”
“If someone wants to heal, they will end up doing the work. It’s what’s necessary to heal. It’s important to remember, if the work is one-sided or if a person finds that they’re still getting triggered by the other and both partners aren’t committed to working together to manage each other’s triggers, it’s time to put up boundaries and take care of yourself.”
“That hits a little too close to home, Rafiki,” I sigh.
“I know.” Rafiki’s voice softens. “The key to loving yourself is to take care of yourself. If you keep putting yourself in situations that hurt, situations that cause your trauma to start all over again, you haven’t gotten to the point of taking care of what you need. You are too focused on the external and the illusion of some end goal that may never happen. It’s hard to hear this, but I think it’s slowly starting to seep in.” Rafiki jumps up and clicks his baboon feet. “You see! There is hope for you yet!”
In the next blog, I’ll take a deeper look at how disclosure to a partner of a sex addict causes trauma in their lives. Remember, this is not to cause the sex addict to go into a guilt and shame spiral about what they did to their partner. And this is not about the partner pointing the finger saying, “see how bad you screwed me up.”
This is about understanding the cause and effect of trauma in sex addiction.
This is about awareness, the blooming of our beautiful flower.
This is about learning compassion for our partners so we can help them heal from our actions.
This is about understanding that we sex addicts medicated in the first place to avoid our own traumatic emotions.
To heal yourself, you need to learn to parent and nurture that special inner child who is worthy of your personal love. Love yourself! Together You Can Heal.
To heal the relationship, the couple must come Together to Heal.
And through those rough patches of black ice and continual spinning out on the road, we have a community of others who know they aren’t alone so that Together We Can Heal.
May my Fledglings rise from the ashes, become reborn, and learn to soar with the eagles!
Check out the following links to help you find more information about trauma and PTSD: