Regarding PTSD

regarding-ptsdWhen I was growing up, I only ever understood post-traumatic stress disorder as a thing that I heard about in the news or on the radio, something that war veterans came back with. I wasn’t entirely sure was the ins and outs of the disorder were, but they didn’t sound very pleasant. Jumping at loud noises, getting random flashbacks and horrible nightmares, and an inability to respond to a stimulus properly among many other symptoms.

Now, I understand it perfectly.

I didn’t develop chronic PTSD because of going to war in another country, being caught in some sort of a natural disaster, nor thanks to a terrorist attack. My own seeds of PTSD were planted in my childhood and they were watered all the way up through my teen and adolescent years. This is now an accepted truth for many ACOAs and has been studied for decades.

“[Dr. Stephanie Brown] describes the traumatic family environment of children of alcoholics, and discusses symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder, and depression that are likely to result from growing up in such an environment” (1).

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me try to explain. Imagine you are a young child who falls and stubs his or her toe. What do you do? Most likely you start to cry because crying is a natural behavior for kids to exhibit when in pain. Perhaps a normal thing for a parent to do would be to soothe the child, make sure that the injury is cleaned and a band-aid applied, as well as assurances that it will feel better soon.

If you’re a child in a neglectful, addicted, or abusive family however, it is likely you got a very different reaction. Perhaps your parents laughed at you or made fun of you for crying over a small scratch when you were three or four. Maybe they told you to simply “get over it” or to “stop being a baby.” Perhaps they even punished you for crying and instead of tending to your injury, they ignored you completely, hit you, or sent you to your room without supper.

Look, I understand that there are times that kids cry for what seems to be no reason. I am not talking about ignoring them during those times. However, when there is a clear injury, problem, or something scary in the child’s environment, the child is going to turn toward their parents, seeking comfort from them. It is a natural human reaction.

When the parent constantly (either intentionally or unintentionally) is ignoring the needs of the child, the child feels isolated and alone. They feel unloved, un-cared for, unwanted. If this only happened once or twice in a child’s life, it is unlikely that said child would develop PTSD or dissociative disorder. However, if it happens over and over again, over years much of the time, the memories of such times are shoved into the unconscious because it would be too overwhelming for the conscious brain to process such emotions, especially as children.

“[Dr. Stephanie Brown] examines ways in which the traumatic environment necessitates defensive maneuvers, including denial, which characterize the family and interfere with the course of normal, individual development” (1).

Children who were exposed to abuse are also more likely to become substance abusers themselves, end up in prison or with a bad record, develop a mental disorder, and even have their own body and brain chemistry altered as a result of the abuse.

“Childhood maltreatment has been linked to a variety of changes in brain structure and function and stress–responsive neurobiological systems. Epidemiological studies have documented the impact of childhood maltreatment on health and emotional well–being” (2).

“But, you’re better now, right?” you might be thinking. Well, not really. There are many situations where such unconscious emotions are welled up and I either under- or over-react. Even something as mundane as a sight, scent, sound, taste, or touch can send me right into being that child again, crying for support and receiving none. Even little things can induce an anxiety or panic attack.

Some of my problems include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Loud noises make me jump visibly and make my heart begin to pound, my throat begin to close, and my body tense up, even if it’s a recognizable noise like a car horn.
  • I have nightmares where I am stuck in a room with my alcoholic mother again. She is screaming at me and I am screaming at her but somehow she always ends up winning. I try to leave but the room has no doors, no windows, no exits. {A recurring nightmare that I had all through my adolescence was one in which I was walking down a dark alleyway at night. Someone attacks me and throws me to the ground and I open my mouth to scream, but nothing comes out. I try over and over to cry for help but my voice has no sound, my body no strength. I would wake up in a cold sweat, my sheets soaked and my throat tight.}
  • Hypervigilance is a heightened state of sensory sensitivity with an exaggerated intensity of behaviors that are used to try to identify threats. Anywhere I go, anything I do, I am constantly studying those around me, wondering if they are going to try to attack me, rob me, or otherwise hurt me. Such continuous hypervigilance is very taxing on the brain and nervous system and I get fatigued easily in situations where there are many people around me because I find it hard to study them all. {I acutely monitor the words, actions, and body language of others because I am always ready for flight or fight.}
  • Mental disorders including depression and anxiety that made day-to-day functioning difficult.
  • Under- and over-reacting to situations that do not warrant such a strong response.

Are you an ACOA or COA (child of an addict)? Do you feel like something is just off somehow? You may be experiencing the delayed symptoms of PTSD. Talk with your doctor and/or therapist about finding out how to work through such memories. Remember, there is hope and you can make it through this.


(1) “Treating adult children of alcoholics: A developmental perspective.” Wiley series on personality processes. Brown, Stephanie. Oxford, England: John Wiley & Sons Treating adult children of alcoholics: A developmental perspective (1988). xxii 333 pp.

(2) “The enduring effects of abuse and related adverse experiences in childhood.” European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 2006, Volume 256, Number 3, Page 174.

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2 thoughts on “Regarding PTSD

  1. Pingback: The Gender of the Alcoholic Parent | Reflections of an ACOA

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