Watching Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s explanation of how the Capitol riots impacted her mental well-being and compounded the trauma of a previous sexual assault felt like watching my own life on replay. Not because the Capitol riots personally affected me, but because I am a survivor of multiple traumas and I understand exactly how it feels to have PTSD retriggered.
In response to her raw testimony, many have cast doubts on the validity of Ocasio-Cortez’s retriggered trauma, some even disbelieving her experience of sexual assault outright. Despite what some people may think, retriggered complex post-traumatic stress disorder is very real and sadly not uncommon.
There are three types of trauma: acute, chronic and complex. Acute trauma arises from a single stressful or dangerous event, like a car crash, chronic trauma results from repeated and prolonged exposure to highly stressful events, like domestic violence, and complex trauma is inflicted by exposure to multiple traumatic events.
I have endured a variety of traumas and every single one has compounded the complex PTSD I still live with today. Sometimes the weight of these cumulative traumas has made recovering from C-PTSD feel like an impossible task.
When what is happening around you in the present day calls up echoes of previous trauma, it places a chokehold on your entire being because it’s happening again ― you are being traumatized and retriggered.
For me, living with trauma began when, as a child of 7, a family friend began to groom me for sexual abuse. The abuse continued for several years and the trauma laid roots in my mind, the deepest of which I am still trying to dig up today.
As I endured trauma from a very young age, I have sometimes been told that it must get easier for me to handle because I have experienced so much of it. I wish this was accurate but the opposite is true. Every additional trauma holds more weight than the one before because it does not dissipate over time; it accumulates power.
For example, one study showed that participants who had only one type of trauma exposure had 0% likelihood of current PTSD, whereas those with six or more trauma types had 12% likelihood.
Society’s tendency to measure trauma’s impact by an assumed weight, as well as disbelieving victim accounts, makes acknowledging the impact of layered trauma even more difficult. The type of trauma we experience individually does not make it any more or less impactful than another person’s because every brain responds differently to traumatic events. Everything from a divorce or a bad breakup to bullying or sexual violence can be traumatizing.
In my brain, which has collected scars like trophies, every additional trauma adds another stone to my emotional baggage, dragging me back to the bottom of the healing ladder to claw my way back up the rungs again.
The first time my C-PTSD was retriggered was during my parent’s divorce at age 12. We all lived in the same house for over seven months while trying to get our lives back on track. Needless to say, we were wrecks by the end of it and I had buried my trauma under the same mask I’d used to conceal the sexual abuse. On the outside, I appeared fine, but under the facade, deep cracks were forming.
When you have been through trauma and go through another, it often reignites any symptoms you may have had under control. It feeds on the old trauma like a leech, using the existing layers to bolster its strength and feed an uncontrollable sense of instability.
I began to regularly dissociate from reality, eventually becoming so emotionally detached that I struggled to identify between genuine emotion and my carefully honed mask. Nightmares plagued my sleep and I fell into a depression so dark that I never thought I’d see color again. Every single day was dominated by hyper-vigilance, so I was in a permanent state of fight, flight, freeze or fawn. My every move was dictated by the trauma that had staked its claim on my brain.
Still undiagnosed, I coped by abusing alcohol and drugs, obsessively self-harming and working hard to convince everyone in my life that I was just fine, especially when the abuse came out shortly after the divorce was finalized. I could not face inflicting more traumas on my loved ones, or myself, so I buried it.
These symptoms were also exacerbated by a series of medical problems that began at age 14, when a severe throat infection hospitalized me. I am still living with multiple medical conditions triggered by this particular event. Although symptoms of C-PTSD flared with a vengeance, I shrouded them with denial and forged ahead, yet again choosing stubborn ignorance over addressing the wells of unresolved trauma spilling out of the cracks.
I kept the full extent of my mental health struggles under wraps for the next eight years, rocketing between depression, anxiety, and all manner of C-PTSD symptoms. I normalized obsessive lock-checking, dissociative states, night terrors and terrifying flashbacks because it was all I had ever known.
In time, I began to live a relatively normal life and even did some transformative counseling that I hoped would be enough to keep the trauma at bay.
I firmly believed that nothing would retrigger the C-PTSD because I still had no inkling of what my brain was actually dealing with. Then, the trigger of my worst nightmares happened. After coming home from work at age 22, I checked my phone and saw a notification from LinkedIn saying that someone had viewed my profile. When I clicked on it, I realized that I knew this person well; after all, they were still regularly guest-starring in my night terrors.
It was my childhood abuser and now they knew exactly where I worked.
Within seconds I had blocked the account but just seeing their name retriggered countless horrifying memories and I felt unsafe at home, at work, and even in my own body.
Obsessive safety checks, dissociating, emotional detachment, panic attacks, nightmares, and flashbacks returned with cruel speed and efficiency. The mask of pretend happiness I had applied so artfully in childhood became my new normal again. I went to work convincing myself that the event had not impacted me. But another trauma was just around the corner, ready to crush any semblance of wellness.
I was violently sexually assaulted a few short months after my abuser found my LinkedIn. As a result, my C-PTSD symptoms not only resurfaced but went on a poisonous magic carpet ride through my brain, spreading paranoia and terror to every corner. Dissociation took control and I dug my way to rock bottom with the ferocious and relentless energy of a pneumatic drill.
After crawling around in the dark, desperately trying to survive, I finally went back to therapy where I was given the diagnosis that allowed me to make sense of the twisted mess inside my mind. I had complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
However, being able to name the condition was only the first step in an agonizingly long journey. Even when you have already faced up to your previous experiences, new triggering events are difficult to manage, but when you have not healed the old traumas, or even acknowledged their impact on your life, their powers of devastation are unrivaled.
I lived with C-PTSD for nearly 15 years before it was diagnosed after being retriggered by a double billing of trauma, so facing it required drawing on every ounce of strength I have ever possessed.
The process is exhausting and I’m not sure I will ever truly be finished because my C-PTSD has been retriggered multiple times. When trauma has already planted countless toxic seeds in your life, every unhappy event feels like a bomb waiting to go off inside your brain.
Each time I’ve broken the surface of an ocean of trauma and taken in my first lungful of clean, healing air, another barrel of toxic sludge has been tossed in my face and the desperate swim for survival has begun all over again.
I am healthy right now but there are still days given over to wrestling with the toxic tendrils of C-PTSD that fight for control of my mind, body and soul. And the hardest to keep at bay is the one hanging overheard, waiting to crash down with another of life’s traumas.
But there are also rays of sunshine amid the darkness and, although I’m devastated that Ocasio-Cortez has to wrestle with retriggered trauma, I am also fiercely proud of her for making a public statement on the impact that repeated traumas can have. It has given me hope for a future where we can discuss the impact of complex and retriggered trauma in an open and honest way.
My healing is far from over and we as a community have a lot to learn, but there is a light at the end of this very long, dark tunnel. I am doing the work every day, so that future traumas ― which are an unfortunate inevitability of life ― may not call upon the darkness of my past to fuel them.
As a society, we can only support one another in our healing by acknowledging the impact of retriggered trauma and responding with loving empathy, so that people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and myself can heal in peace without having to prove how heavy the weight of our traumas are.