First, it helps to know the definition of PTSD. When you break it down, PTSD is excess energy caused by fearful episodes which have not been successfully processed. The excess energy, as a result, remains lodged in the body, and its presence in the body keeps your mind in a constant state of fight/flight.
The lack of processing usually happens because at the time of the abuse, the fear response overwhelmed us and we simply lacked the cognitive ability and support system to process it. Managing fear is a lifelong skill which needs to be taught gradually from early childhood. People with C-PTSD not only did not get a chance to acclimatise to fear, but were subjected to a constant stream of terrifying abuse. As a result, they do not have the confidence to ride out episodes of high fear which come up in the present.
When a person leaves an abusive relationship, often all they have consciousness of are the lingering adaptive behaviours which helped them survive the abuse.
The first symptoms to look out for are:
- Compulsive thinking: A person with PTSD is more often than not in a state of fight/flight. They have not yet learnt to use the ‘off’ switch. As a result, different situations will trigger varying levels of fight/flight, and to help the person cope, their mind goes into overdrive trying to find a solution for the underlying terror. The problem is that the situation that caused the fight/flight state to turn on is now gone, and the mind is trying to fight a demon that no longer exists, leading to most ‘ruminating’ being not helpful in the present moment. When you sense your mind going into overdrive, you need to become mindful of what lies beneath the thoughts: high arousal and an activated fight/flight response.
- Dissociation: To cope with the torrent of fear running through the body, a person will escape into their imagination, while the world turns into an abstraction. In short, they ‘check out’. This is the psychological equivalent of sticking your head in the sand to protect you from overwhelming terror. Dissociation numbs the fear but also disconnects you from having meaningful, emotional interactions with those around you. Dissociation also happens automatically, and like being a fish in water, can be hard to spot. A good exercise to check for dissociation is meditating with eyes open while focussing on a specific object/point. The dissociation occurs when your focus diffuses or you lose conscious grip of the object/point.
- Over-agreeability: In most situations, fight and flight are not feasible. They are primitive evolution adaptions which work only in high-risk situations. More commonly, a person with C-PTSD deals with the underlying fear that plagues them by becoming excessively loving to those close to them regardless of how they are being treated. Even with acquaintances and strangers, they generally maintain a strictly positive and agreeable stance. This ‘nice person’ persona is a way to numb fear with loving feelings. ‘Stockholm syndrome’ is another manifestation of this response. A person with C-PTSD usually has low boundaries and is afraid to say no or rock the boat. In reality, they are just terrified of what lies beneath the excessive agreeability.
- Numbness: C-PTSD causes a person to lose touch with their senses and their body. Often any part of the body below the neck effectively disappears from consciousness. Sensing the body in all its fullness and the fear which it transmits is necessary to have the full experience of life. Yoga, massage, humming exercises and somatic experiencing therapy are useful ways to re-integrate the body.
Coming back to your body and learning to cope with intense waves of fear and emotion is the difficult journey one must take to recover from C-PTSD. This involves getting support from a calm and capable practitioner, learning to spot the above symptoms and having a ‘hero’ mindset. Your journey into C-PTSD is like fighting the dragon. It is a harrowing and immensely difficult undertaking which, when you successfully navigate it (and you will), leads to the emergence of the person you were supposed to be; strong, all-sensing and wise. Finally, it’s important to remember that fear is more than a dragon. It is the lightning which illuminates our path forward. The more fear we allow, the stronger we become, the more insight we gain, and the more capable we become of channelling the hero energy which we lacked when in the abusive relationship but which we had inside us all along.
When you are very aware that PTSD has replaced the narcissist, it emotionally drains the target of any hope for being PERMANENTLY NARCISSISTIC FREE. We don’t want to be constantly reminded and aware of the person we escaped. We want to live freely, however symptoms, are a constant reminder that we DON’T.
Well, there are a lot. It is worth calling out that CPTSD can also result from long term exposure to physical and/or emotional trauma. The latter at least is a certainty in psychopathic/narcissistic relationships and at least some degree of the former is also likely. I describe some of what I went through, I still suffer some of it today but not nearly to the degree I did, nor do I still have all the symptoms occurring at all or as regularly as I once did. Things do get better.
These symptoms don’t all need to have happened to you. You may experience some or all of them differently than I did as well.
Update: you will see me refer to the relationship as a literal drug addiction. If that part confuses you, and you are interested in why that is true, then please have a look at my answer here:
Symptoms of PTSD
- Triggers to sights sound or smells that bring back memories of the trauma. In my case, my psychopath ex did not merely disappear but stayed around for almost 2 years to continue the torture and parasitic lifestyle after she discarded me before I wisened up to personality disorders and went as close to no contact with kids as you can be. She was obviously a trigger, as she kept the trauma bond very much alive and active. My kids who are also traumatized continue to be a trigger for me even now when I witness behaviors that are clearly a result of her abuse. I used to get triggered by old photographs or visiting places we used to frequent as well, but I am less triggered by those types of things now.
- Nightmares. These can be of old traumatic events, for me though they were contrived things. I used to have nightmares (or they were at the time) of her with different people going out of her way to eek all the sadistic pleasure out if it that she could. I also had nightmares of her killing me in numerous ways like poisoning me, pushing me off a cliff into a free fall, drowning me in a bathtub and suffocating me with a pillow, etc. I feel she killed me in about every way that my brain could concoct while I slept. I also used to constantly have nightmares of dying of a heart attack, to the point I was convinced I was going to. I still get that one occasionally.
- Flashbacks. Realistic mental snapshots of painful past events. There was a span of many months where I would constantly have these. I described them in great detail to my psychiatrist in an email I had written. It was like frame by frame playing through various events in slow motion. I could fast forward them and rewind them sometimes. These flashbacks actually were kind of the opposite of the amnesia I suffered and with hangout messages and emails helped me to finally figure out the truth of many events and discover personality disorders and address the massive amounts of cognitive dissonance that I had.
- Compulsive thinking. Repeatedly going over and experience in one’s mind. Shit, I used to do this for hours, sometimes I think hours would bleed into days. I would just hash and rehash until I figured something out or other times it was just some ‘good’ memory that I wished to hell at the time I would just forget.
- Anxiety. Feel anxious at the thought of having to experience an event. Anxiety does not begin to describe it, but anything to do with her was a trigger for massive amounts of anxiety. I still take Xanax for the occasional anxiety/panic attacks or severe anxiety symptoms.
- Stay Busy. Stay busy to keep from thinking or talking about an event. This one did not apply to me. It is all I thought about or wanted to talk about if I talked to anyone. I was the opposite, pretty much incapacitated by it all.
- Amnesia. Suffer memory loss about a painful event. It went beyond that for me. Part of it I am sure was sleep deprivation but I was losing hours and at the worst of it days to amnesia in the present time.
- Isolation. I am already introverted and part of their abuse is to isolate you from friends and family and create an emotional dependence on only them. Of course, that leads easily into continued isolation once they are gone, which I definitely did. I didn’t poke my head out of my bedroom unless absolutely necessary for a very long time. There was a lot of guilt, shame, and embarrassment. You just want to be a slug under a rock. I still find myself tending toward this behavior sometimes although not for those reasons necessarily, I do like my alone time though. The kids keep me from getting as excessive as I once was, however.
- Feel disconnected from others. That is an understatement. I was disconnected from anything at all that wasn’t her or my pain.
- Avoid seeking help. I did this. It was part of isolation I think. The two bleed together. When suicide ideation and symptoms started to become unbearable and she was still stacking more and more trauma on top of what was there on a min by min basis months after the discard, I eventually reached a tipping point and I went to see a psychiatrist on a weekly basis and got on the harder drugs to relieve symptoms. Even with those I still once blacked out for an entire 45 min session with him.
- Emotional numbing. I often felt like a husk of a man. I was numb to anything but pain and her. Even the kids, I had to fake it a lot. I didn’t realize at the time it was a withdrawal and the more trauma she provided the worse it got. I couldn’t “fall out of love” with her. lol It was never even really love, but purely addiction after the first year of marriage by my estimations.
- Loss of interest in prior activities. This still hasn’t righted itself after 3 1/2 years since the discard started. I have got some of them back, but it sucks. Anhedonia is a bitch. I tested positive for that when I took the MMPI inventory. Another symptom of drug withdrawal and addiction. Thanks, trauma bond.
- Paranoid. Always looking out for danger. I definitely had this too. I used to think she had people watching me. I think she probably did lol. She bought a gun to intimidate me as well. It worked. Then she would write texts saying how she was never afraid of me and I wasn’t worth it. Also true for her but pretty confusing for me at the time. It is all just mind and emotional fuckery.
- Is easily startled or frightened. Shit, I would go through the roof with a door closing like a gun went off. Talk about some shit to deal with when you have two kids fighting like they are in a cage match. I still get this occasionally and I can’t for the life of me determine what makes it happen.
- Suffers Insomnia or non-restorative sleep. I am still on meds for this. I can’t get a good night’s sleep for shit. The worst of it I think I was up for 3 days. I was hallucinating.
- Has difficulty concentrating. This one still hits me hard too when it comes to working. I was a top performer and just havent been able to snap back to it like I was. I have missed months of work due to this. Several months were consecutive.
- Irritable and angry. I think everyone knows the mood swings. Angry is an understatement. More like rage and wanting to even kill her at times was something I went through. This one is definitely back under control thankfully even despite all the stress of traumatized children.
The question didn’t ask about CPTSD but many of these apply even more to me. This is already a long answer so I will just outline the symptoms here for you all.
- Changes in emotional regulation
- Problems modulating anger: the person may alternate between eruptive and inhibited anger.
- Preoccupation with suicidal thoughts
- Self-destructive behavior: self-injury, excessive risk-taking, addictions
- Dysphoria: depression, anxiety
- Problems modulating sexual urges: the person may alternate between compulsive and inhibited sexual urges
- Changes in attention and consciousness
- Dissociative episodes: Disconnecting from mind or body
- Depersonalization: losing contact with personal reality, problems with perception, feelings of strangeness
- Numbing of feelings
- Reliving: Intrusive thoughts, preoccupation
- Changes in relationships
- Unable to trust others: belief that people are users and abusers, dangerous and self-serving
- Difficulty sustaining relationships: avoidance, problems with intimacy
- Isolation and withdrawal
- Re-victimization: always searching for a rescuer, failure to protect self
- Changes in systems of meanings
- Loss of hope and feelings of despair: believing one understands them or their situation, believing they will never recover.
- Loss of faith or prior beliefs
- Somatic and medical conditions
- Pain syndromes
- Medical conditions and physical injury related to abuse
- Digestive problems
- Sexual problems
- Changes in self-perception and self-worth
- Helplessness: lack of initiative
- Worthlessness: belief of being damaged goods or ineffective
- Chronic guilt and self-blame: feeling responsible for the abuse
- Disgrace: shame, stigma
- Freakishness: belief of not fitting in
- Changes in perception of the perpetrator
- Preoccupation with the relationship
- Adoption of perpetrator’s belief system
- Irrational attachment
- Submissiveness: giving perpetrator full control and power
- Acceptance of perpetrators’s rationalizations
- Preoccupation with revenge
- Gratitude toward perpetrator