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  • Mary Kalbach

How I Fully Recovered from Complex PTSD

I frequently get asked is it possible to get better if you have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Complex-PTSD (referred to throughout as C-PTSD)?  Now I am not a doctor or therapist so I am relating here only my own personal experience. I cannot predict anyone else’s outcome or claim to treat or prescribe anyone else’s mental health condition.

I simply hope to describe my own experience and introduce you to the tools I used to fully recover from this life-crippling condition because if this describes you, my heart goes out to you.  You don’t have to live this way! I’m walking, skipping, grounded, regulated, proof of that!

I honestly don’t remember a time in my childhood when I wasn’t experiencing some signs and symptoms of a traumatized brain.  As a child, young adult, and then young mom I experienced:

  • Medical trauma

  • Many experiences of sexual abuse of self

  • Repeatedly witnessing sexual abuse of someone close to me

  • Repeated and prolonged spiritual abuse

  • Psychological/emotional abuse

  • Emotional neglect

  • Continual Retraumatization through parenting adopted kids with trauma history


It wasn’t until I was in my 30’s and already a mom to many that I was officially diagnosed with Complex PTSD from all of these experiences.  I was seeing a wonderfully kind, caring and skillful cognitive (“talk”) therapist who was helping me strategize ways to manage the behaviors of our adopted children.  


As I worked with that therapist he helped me to identify the many symptoms I was experiencing as clear markers of well-developed C-PTSD.  These symptoms included:


Vivid, horrifying nightmares that often ended in screaming, thrashing and sometimes inadvertently attempting to harm my husband

  • Nearly constant flashbacks - sudden and detailed re-living in my mind past experiences of abuse throughout the day with no warning


In other words, I had about every symptom in the book that indicated both PTSD and Complex PTSD.  

When those fits of rage became regularly directed toward my husband and children, I was convicted that something had to change.  My family had become the unwitting victims of my own childhood abuse. That cycle had to stop. It was simply unacceptable to continue on without caring for my own inner condition and highly destructive outward behaviors.  

This journey was not easy.  It took many years, some financial commitment, a huge dose of humility,  and lots and lots of self-reflection and willingness to doggedly dive into the most difficult experiences of my life.   I was dedicated to getting better and willing to try just about anything to make that happen. My family was worth it. I was worth it!


As much as I loved and respected that cognitive therapist, after ten years I hadn’t made a whole lot of progress in actually kicking the trauma to the curb.  I had learned a LOT - about myself, about relationships, about psychology and how people tick. I had tamed many of my “triggers” and the symptoms had become more of a constant background noise.  But they were still very much there. I had talked about them for ten years and they weren’t going anywhere.


I decided I needed to try some new things.  Here’s a loosely organized timeline of my C-PTSD recovery journey:


Cognitive Behavioral Therapy - Also known as “Talk” therapy, this was my starting point.  I spent over ten years (and that many thousands of dollars) with this same therapist and made some progress but I ended up feeling stuck in that progress for the last couple of years with him.  I wish I had discovered these other tools much sooner. I could have saved time, money and sanity.


Essential Oils - This was my first foray into alternative therapies.  My first shift with essential oils came when I opened up a bottle of a blend called “Trauma Life” and inhaled deeply.  I immediately felt a shifting in my brain - as if a grip that had been holding it was releasing. I started to experiment with more and more essential oils and every one I tried continued to help my brain feel more free and release some of the gripping emotions.  The nightmares settled down a bit, as did the flashbacks. My therapist began to notice a calmness and groundedness which he knew was not due to his efforts. He encouraged me to continue to work with the oils. The oils jump-started my recovery but were not the only tool I needed.


The Body Keeps the Score - I’m not sure what made me pick up Bessel Vanderkolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score but this book became central to my full recovery.  I suggest anyone on a recovery journey from PTSD read this book.  This book shifted my understanding of PTSD from a condition of the mind to a condition of the brain and physiology.   Reading this book was hard for me - it was as if Dr Vanderkolk were writing a biography of my personal trauma experience.  He seemed to understand my body intimately and what was going on within my skin, bones and organs.   I finally understood why I couldn’t talk my trauma away.


Dr. Peter Levine -  About the same time I discovered Dr. Vanderkolk’s book, I also stumbled across some videos (search on YouTube) created by Dr. Peter Levine where he demonstrates his work with war veterans.  He was able to show in those videos how his work with clients actually helped them physically shift the trauma out of their bodies.  He worked first to raise awareness of how the body experiences emotion and the fight/flight/freeze response and then helped his clients physically move their bodies to release that primitive trauma response.  His book Waking The Tiger helped me put what I saw in those videos to work in my own body.


Emotional Freedom Techniques (aka as EFT or “Tapping”) - After discovering Peter Levine’s and Bessel Vanderkolk’s work, I began to search in earnest for body-based therapies I could teach myself.  


On a chance visit to my chiropractor, we were talking about my trauma history and he had one of his office staff tap with me.  She was inexperienced and naive and that first tapping session was brief, emotionally painful, and left me triggered and dissociated for days afterwards.  It was a horrible introduction to tapping for trauma!


However, I became curious about this body-involved technique which could arouse such strong feelings so quickly and I  began to seek out everything I could find by its founder, Gary Craig. Eventually I would go through all his materials and then go on to become a certified Clinical EFT practitioner (Clinical EFT is what you need for trauma recovery!  Watch out for amateurs who aren’t prepared to handle the deep issues!) through EFT Universe.


Once I learned how to properly tap through my trauma history, I began to experience rapid recovery.  I experimented with Tapping with essential oils and found I no longer needed the boost the oils gave me.  In the process of certification, I was mentored by a Clinical EFT practitioner who uses EFT in her work as a trauma therapist.  Our work together was the final boost I needed to launch myself into a place where I could maintain a feeling of safety and groundedness on my own, by tapping as needed.  


Movement Therapist -  When essential oils and EFT began to help me take off on my recovery, I decided it was time to say good-bye to my beloved cognitive therapist.  I turned to a beautiful soul of a woman - a dancer and therapist who labels her work “movement therapy”. She helped me listen to the trauma signals my brain was sending to my body and locate areas of my body where I was physically holding on to my traumatic experiences.  In the spirit of Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing therapy, she helped me literally move the trauma out of my muscle memory and out of my body. In the six months I spent working with her, I accomplished more trauma recovery than I had in the 10+ years in Cognitive Therapy.  She helped me gain a sense of agency over my own body and my own recovery process and taught me how to listen to and communicate with my body’s distress signals.  This was essential learning.


Qigong - This movement therapist introduced me to the Chinese yoga form Qigong (pronounced chee-gong if you’ve ever wondered!).  This is a slow movement form which links breath to movement and is amazing for body awareness and feeling grounded and connected.  I have worked with trained instructors only a handful of times and learned quite a bit from YouTube (I don’t recommend this, especially if you have no body work background - I happen to have a lot of acting training).  Even with that limited amount of exposure and practice, Qigong has been central to creating positive daily habits and helping me feel safe in my own body. I continue in my education of properly learning this form.


Mindfulness Mentor - At the same time I was going through the rather exhaustive certification process for Clinical EFT, I was also meeting regularly with a mindfulness mentor.  My mindfulness practice is now embedded into my daily life almost as naturally as breathing. The ability to stay present in each moment and not allow my thoughts to bang about in past regrets or future worries has been the underlying thread that has tied together all the other pieces of my recovery process.  The role of mindfulness in my own recovery was so compelling that, again, I took the time to become certified as a Mindfulness Mentor to others.


This list represents the most used vehicles that moved me along in my journey out of C-PTSD.  Along the way there have been other influencers who have clarified my understanding and helped me to teach others about their own relationship to the traumatic experiences in their lives - people such as Dan Siegel, Dawson Church, Lissa Rankin, and many others in the trauma research field.


If I had to point to any one part of this that I could not have recovered without, it would be understanding that my traumatic experiences themselves do not matter.  The trauma theory I’ve studied that teaches me that the brain always responds to threats to life and safety in the exact same way - and then embeds that response in the body - was the central idea I needed to build my own recovery toolbox.


Just as I listed what C-PTSD looked like for me, let me joyfully share what my recovered experience looks like:


  • No more nightmares or flashbacks - ever

  • Relaxed, connected time with friends in public places

  • Responding to my children, husband and others out of love, kindness and thoughtfulness

  • A visceral sense of grounding and peace from deep within myself

  • Feeling present and connected to most situations

  • Physically healthy

  • Strong sense of agency and control over myself and situations in which I find myself

  • Responding with curiosity and healthy detachment to new and old situations and emotions without judgement

  • Willingness to accept responsibility for my actions and formulate a plan to change when needed

  • Free from feelings of dread, doom, depression and shame

  • Deeply spiritual connection to a physical body I love

  • Equipped with many different types of resources to use - and the determination to use them -  whenever I begin to stray backwards on my path


Not everyone’s journey will look the same.  Some journeys take detours through addiction, or personality disorder, or physical illnesses, or co-dependent relationships or a myriad of other complications that require an extra layer of work and self-reflection.  The key to beginning any Trauma Recovery journey is to begin with self-reflection about how your trauma has shaped the way your body responds to it.


The tools I used and listed here are the ones that I felt divinely led to explore and master.  They were exactly what I needed in order to fully recover from the symptoms of C-PTSD. Your journey is bound to be equally as unique and varied.  I share my journey to show that it can be done! You don’t have to live like the person I described in the beginning of this post. You can live like the person I described at the end!  Please, don’t give up on yourself!


Please know I am here for you to collaborate on your personal journey.


You are so darn worth finding the right path for your recovery journey!

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