Like so many others with dissociative identity disorder (DID), I have comorbid posttraumatic stress disorder. But it isn’t the temporary response to short-lived trauma that most people think of as PTSD. It’s a deeper, more pervasive, and chronic response to life in general. This form of PTSD is called complex PTSD. And it occurs so often in conjunction with dissociative identity disorder, that I sometimes wonder if there’s anyone with DID who doesn’t live with this monster.
Complex PTSD Is PTSD from Repeated Trauma
Assuming I didn’t already have it, if I survived a serious, terrifying car accident I might very well develop PTSD. Let’s say I was just driving to work on a normal, inconspicuous day when suddenly a car swerved into my lane and sent me careening into oncoming traffic. In a matter of seconds, I traveled from every-day-okay to death’s door. If I began having flashbacks of the accident, and experiencing extreme anxiety and panic whenever I was in a car, I might be diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder.
But let’s imagine instead for a moment that I survived a car accident exactly like that once a week, on average, for the first 10 years of my life. Changes things significantly, yes? That is akin to what childhood trauma feels like for many people with dissociative identity disorder and it represents the essential difference between PTSD and Complex PTSD.
Living with Complex PTSD
When an event like a serious car accident teaches you that the world is unsafe, you may become fearful not just of cars and driving, but all kinds of things. A man who barely lived through a car accident might find himself afraid of fires too, afraid of drowning, afraid of being attacked on the street. He has learned not just that cars are unsafe, but that life is unsafe (Why PTSD Symptoms Flare Up in Unlikely Places). The difference between PTSD and the Complex PTSD that so many of us with dissociative identity disorder have is that we may never have experienced the world in any other way. We learned early on that:
- Horrible things happen all the time.
- There’s no way to prevent those horrible things from happening.
- At any moment, we may be annihilated by one of those horrible things.
- If we survive, it will only be to wait for the next horrible thing which will inevitably occur.
I don’t walk around consciously thinking those particular things. But those beliefs color my perceptions of the world, other people, myself, everything.
DID Helps Me Live with Complex PTSD
Complex PTSD is traumatic in and of itself. You can never escape the traumas that ended long ago because this disorder is always there to make sure they come to life again and again in everyday, benign circumstances. As I see it, I developed dissociative identity disorder to cope with overwhelming stress as a child. And as an adult, I have DID to cope with Complex PTSD.
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