On Childhood Trauma, CPTSD, And Finding A Path To Healing
by Terry Heick
Last January, I couldn’t get out of bed.
I don’t mean I physically couldn’t. And I don’t mean that I couldn’t motivate myself or was having a bad day or was sleepy or especially emotional or ‘down.’
I mean I could not get out of bed.
For context, I was a teacher for six years and left the classroom a decade ago under more than a little pressure from school and district administration who I butt heads with constantly. I loved my first year as an English-Language Arts teacher. I had to split my time between teaching ELA and math (even though I wasn’t certified in math) but I loved every minute.
My second year, I started seeing problems: so many students couldn’t read or worse, didn’t want to. Many struggled with confidence. Teachers didn’t have enough time to plan and were under pressure to join committees, arrive early, stay late, and fulfill district initiative after district initiative.
Every year there would be a new push with too little training that was wrong-headed to begin with–at odds with everything else the school and various departments were designed for and already overworked and struggling to integrate. It wasn’t good for teachers and worse, wasn’t what students deserved either.
It wasn’t at all what I had in mind as a professional.
And so for the next ten years, I developed TeachThought as a response to what I experienced as an educator. The name states the concept: shift from teaching content to teaching thought. Help students learn to think critically and then nurture their tendency to do so.
I also started homeschooling what would end up being four children (who now range in age from 6 to 23). Every year I was living my dream of helping teachers and students navigate local requirements to teach well while spending each day with my children, helping them learn, play, and grow.
What Depression Feels Like
But every year, day over day, I was more and more tired. Really, really tried. I was also emotionally numb. Very little joy or spontaneity. Difficulty sleeping–and when I did sleep, it wasn’t restorative.
I would learn years later that this was depression. I thought being depressed meant sad or feeling worthless, unmotivated, etc. I realized a better definition was suppressed: that your natural human form and expression are suppressed by something (or many things).
That you’re not you.
So back to the idea of ‘not being able to get out of bed.’ Before I experienced it myself, if you’d have told me someone ‘couldn’t get out of bed,’ I would assume they were over-indulging something–sadness? Too little motivation? But I know understood what it was like firsthand. I felt like my soul was depleted. I had nothing–not a lack of energy. I couldn’t imagine even beginning to face the day. Parenting my children seemed overwhelming (something I never thought in a million years I’d experience).
Running TeachThought? Writing? Even leaving the house seemed like an insurmountable task.
My Experience With Ketamine To Heal Depression
After doing a lot of research–and having tried SSRIs and therapy and countless other methods to ‘feel better’–I decided to do psychology-assisted Ketamine infusions. Ketamine is a “dissociative anesthetic used medically for induction and maintenance of anesthesia. It is also used as a treatment for depression…” (source). It has psychedelic-like effects and like other psychedelics, is gaining traction as a powerful tool for treating a range of mental health conditions. The research results were promising (here and here, for example), and desperate for relief, received seven IV infusions over the course of two weeks, each infusion accompanied by a psychologist during and after the treatment for integration.
Ketamine helped me understand that I ‘have’/suffer from complex PTSD–or CPTSD.
What Is CPTSD?
The American Psychiatric Association defines PTSD as a “psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, series of events or set of circumstances. An individual may experience this as emotionally or physically harmful or life-threatening and may affect mental, physical, social, and/or spiritual well-being. Examples include natural disasters, serious accidents, terrorist acts, war/combat, rape/sexual assault, historical trauma, intimate partner violence and bullying.”
In contrast, CPTSD is more complex, usually caused by events over a period of time–anywhere from months to an entire childhood. These events are usually far less intense than those that cause PTSD but have a similar or more intense (or at least more complicated) effect. The best way I’ve heard it described is ‘death by a thousand cuts.’ I never felt safe as a child with my parents constantly fighting, my mom leaving my dad, and taking us with her at two am trying to find a place to sleep. The next night, my dad would be drunk and after years of learning how to stay quiet and out of his way, I’d go to my room and listen to the fighting and try to fall asleep. Years later, my mom would leave my dad (and me) and marry an emotionally abusive man. (One night, after hours of increasingly escalating fighting, I would have to intervene to keep her from stabbing him–I was twelve years old at the time.)
So, Ketamine, then.
The first infusion was very relaxing, and the second one was as well. I had trouble talking during and the walls were breathing and light looked like a bridge and eventually the *me* would disappear and I’d come out the other side an hour later when the infusion drip would complete. They kept gradually upping the dose (though I playfully/politely protested, assuming they knew what they were doing). After each infusion, I’d go home and crash–just exhausted/’done’ for 4-6 hours.
See also What Anxiety Feels Like
After the fourth infusion, as the infusion wore off, I was bawling like a baby about my parent’s divorce, my childhood, their constant fighting, etc. I hadn’t thought of the divorce in years but there it was. Ketamine is, among other things, an emotional excavator–or for me, a trauma excavator. I had memories of childhood trauma I’m not sure I’ve *ever* thought of–being hit with a belt, an image so vivid I could remember how the buckle felt when it made contact.
The actual shape of the buckle.
It wasn’t just difficult, it was debilitating.
It’s only in the last few months that I have begun to feel better now than before the Ketamine. Every day was so hard–so many of my symptoms were physical–some anxiety but more heavy, heavy brain fog to the point it was disorienting, some leaden paralysis, difficulty talking (hard to explain), a huge ball of fuzz in the pfc right behind my forehead, night sweats, and a lot more. Mood was part of it, but it was just so visceral and physical I had trouble believing it was ‘trauma.’ I thought I was dying–some days I could only eat, do a few minutes of yoga, then ‘collapse’ and lay on the floor (not literally collapse but re-enact and freeze/collapse response to the trauma I experienced as a child).
I was convinced the Ketamine made me worse but what it did was, as my somatic therapist put it, put me through a ‘trauma vortex.’ I essentially experienced all of the implicit trauma all at once when I was most raw. It is hard to put into words.
And TeachThought, in turn, has been negatively impacted. After almost a decade of producing a post every day (sometimes two or three), I’ve produced very little over the last 18 months. This has made things even more difficult in a range of ways, but I believe in myself and will not be deterred in my journey to heal which will allow me to return to the work I love and have given so much of myself to create.
So what I learned, I guess, is that the years of ‘sleepiness’ was depression from suppressed childhood trauma I had no idea I had experienced. I am now healing and though I have a long way to go, I feel like I now understand why my brain ‘hates me’ (this is how I used to describe my ‘bad days’) and see a clear path forward.
I had no idea mental health could cause such extraordinary physical effects, not to mention its effect on mood, productivity, joy, and general well-being. Mental health is far more complex and nuanced than I understood (and I think most people understand, as well).
I am curious about, and an advocate for, the human condition (including the source of suffering). TeachThought was created not just for teachers and students but rather a larger effect: help make the world a better place by emphasizing inquiry, affection, empathy, rationality, and critical thinking.
I will write more about the bits and pieces of it all. I am entirely transparent about everything I’ve experienced and learned and hope it can help someone else who has experienced or is experiencing a mental health ‘challenge’ of their own.
There is hope.
There is healing.
There is love.
There are answers.
You’re not ‘broken’–there are causes and effects for well-being (and a lack thereof) and, when scrutinized, analyzed, and understood, can lead to recovery.