Out of My Mind in Costa Rica-Living with CPTSD

C-PTSD and Shame - A Heavy Load to Bear

December 17, 2020 Ray Erickson Season 1 Episode 7
Out of My Mind in Costa Rica-Living with CPTSD
C-PTSD and Shame - A Heavy Load to Bear
Out of My Mind in Costa Rica-Living with CPTSD
C-PTSD and Shame - A Heavy Load to Bear
Dec 17, 2020 Season 1 Episode 7
Ray Erickson

The decision to talk about shame today came about as a result of being called out by a social work friend.  She was absolutely right, I had fucked up. Fortunately it was easy to fix. All I needed to do is delete some footage and edit a couple of paragraphs out of the transcript. Piece of cake, right?

Not so easy when you have PTSD or C-PTSD. In my family, mistakes were dangerous and I tried really, really hard not to make mistakes. Which was impossible, of course.  In today's episode I talk about my family and the roles we were all forced to to play in order to survive. 

Shame played an integral role in my parent's lives and it played an integral role in my and my brother's lives.  I talk about the impact of shame on development and how shame is an incredibly power tool to manipulate and control people.

Here are a few




Show Notes Transcript

The decision to talk about shame today came about as a result of being called out by a social work friend.  She was absolutely right, I had fucked up. Fortunately it was easy to fix. All I needed to do is delete some footage and edit a couple of paragraphs out of the transcript. Piece of cake, right?

Not so easy when you have PTSD or C-PTSD. In my family, mistakes were dangerous and I tried really, really hard not to make mistakes. Which was impossible, of course.  In today's episode I talk about my family and the roles we were all forced to to play in order to survive. 

Shame played an integral role in my parent's lives and it played an integral role in my and my brother's lives.  I talk about the impact of shame on development and how shame is an incredibly power tool to manipulate and control people.

Here are a few




C-PTSD and Shame
Wrestling With a 500 Pound Gorilla

 Hello and welcome to Out of My Mind in Costa Rica. I’m your host, Ray Erickson

This week I received a message from an old friend I have known since graduate school. She called me out on a boundary violation in my last episode, C-PTSD, Dissociation and Love. When I checked into it, she was right. I did violate confidentiality. If anyone should have recognized this, it would be me. She reminded me it’s OK to tell my story, but it’s not OK to tell other people’s stories. I agreed and I made the appropriate edits to the audio and the transcript. I thanked her for the heads up and told her how much I appreciate her bringing this to my attention. This is what friends do.” 

She was right, I’d screwed up and I felt bad about what I had done. That information was shared with me in confidence and I violated that confidence in an effort to make me look better. That’s bullshit and I know it. I began to feel deeply ashamed about this mistake. I knew I had crossed a line and I had trouble sleeping that night.

The following morning, I made Gallo Pinto and while I was preparing this traditional Tico breakfast featuring rice and beans, my mind wandered back to the message I received from my friend. I immediately began feeling sick to my stomach. My heart pounded, and I became flushed with shame. It stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t expect this.

Reactions like these usually happen after I have been triggered, after I have acted out my dysregulated emotions. Following these triggers, I would be hit with a tsunami of shame. It could be days where I stumble around in this toxic turbulence. Along with feeling flush, I had a golf ball sized lump in my throat, my stomach was to churning and I felt like vomiting. My legs became weak and I reached out for the stove to steady myself. It wasn’t a feinting feeling, but rather, an overwhelming and overpowering eruption of shame. I felt as if I was drowning. Afterward, I was exhausted.

After breakfast I gave into the shame and moped around the house, snacking on carbs, chocolate, and coffee. I watched movies until the afternoon. I went back to bed because I didn’t have enough energy to remain a sitting position. Nothing was getting done that day anyway. It had been windy all day and I don’t do well in the wind so I laid down. It felt good and I let my body relax. I don’t remember falling asleep, but I woke up 2 hours later and it was nearly dark. I felt some relief, but I was still lethargic and opted to have a bowl of cereal for dinner. Later on, I fell asleep on the sofa during a movie that wasn’t particularly good in the first place. 

Shame pounded down on me all day. It was like the throbbing pain of an impacted tooth. I knew this overwhelming shame I felt was out of proportion to the actual event, but my amygdala doesn’t know the difference yet. It sounds the alarm at the slightest hint of shame, BOOM, I am flooded with truckloads of shame and chemistry. I feel hopeless, powerless, and depleted. I know this is a $10 response to a $2 problem. I know this, and still I become overwhelmed and shut down until the tidal wave of shame passes by. Even though the shame subsides, it leaves its mark. I can still feel it vibrating deep within my body. I am getting better at pulling out what I call Shame Spirals. Time and experience have taught me that it is best not to fight it. Fighting it just increases the shame. Eventually, the shame passes, and I am back to normal, whatever that means. All of that drama, simply because I was caught in the act of being human. This is what trauma does to you.

People don’t talk about shame. It’s one of those taboo subjects. But all of us carry shame from our past. There is just no getting around it.  However, people with PTSD or C-PTSD carry an insurmountable amount of shame. I know this is true for me. Shame is a really sticky emotion. It is extremely difficult to process and get beyond. This is the very nature of shame. Here’s how I look at it. 

Shame compels you to keep quiet. To keep it a secret, close it off and lock it up. Shame shuts you down and it sits there like a hairball until the day it is purged. Guilt, unlike shame, compels you to say or do something to make amends in order to release your guilt. When you act in response to guilt you feel better about yourselves and your life. Shame prevents you from acting, and you feel worse about yourself and your life.

Shame feels so bad that most humans bdo anything to avoid the feeling of shame. It’s ugly and horrible to be in a state of shame. Shame has nearly killed me several times in my life. For me the key to breaking the Cycle of Shame is to speak out. Tell your truth. Let your voice be heard. Shed light upon it. Be courageous and let one human being in on your dirty little secret. It does no one any good to keep it inside.

I grew up in a shame base family and that meant feelings were never discussed. Sure, we could talk all day about, the weather, the Detroit Tigers and what’s for dinner, but when it came to problems and feelings, especially shameful feelings, not a word was spoken. The Don’t Talk rule was firmly in place. We were masters of small talk and politeness. One of my mother’s favorite sayings was: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Incest families take this literally. I look back and I am astounded as to how good we were at presenting a picture of a normal, small town, American family. 

There was a darkness lurking behind the closed doors of the Erickson family, and nobody was talking about it. Shame was firmly in control of my family. In fact, I did such a good job of avoiding shame that I was blind to anything shameful going on in my home. My mind did an amazing thing. It plucked me out of the real Erickson family and gently placed me in the care of a TV family. Shame? What shame? There ain’t no shame around here. I was able to pretend to live a normal life I think this may have saved my life.

My parents did an incredible job in cultivating an image of a nice couple with a nice family. Sure, everyone knew about John, but nobody talked about him. Remember, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all? Montrose was a small community with about 2000 inhabitants. Everyone knew everyone and for the most part everyone loved Bob and Aggie. You can ask any of the old-timers who knew us, and they would likely say something like, “What wonderful people they were. They were always friendly and had a great sense of humor. My parent’s shame was safely locked up in the vault.

High levels of shame are common for people with C-PTSD. Shame was a favorite method of control in my family. That along with intimidation by my father, threatening to tell my father by my mother, sarcasm, and mean teasing by my brothers. Shaming was by far the most effective tool my parents used. Sarcasm was common because it was shame disguised as humor. I don’t remember much in the way of physical violence and I don’t remember any of the sexual violence. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel the shame and powerlessness of those experiences. 

The shame I felt following my social worker friend’s appropriate and necessary confrontation stems from a legacy of failed attempts to be perfect. Being perfect meant being safe in my family. Don’t make mistakes and you will be alright. Don’t make waves and don’t bring unwanted attention to the Erickson family. Image is everything. The Erickson’s projected themselves as a happy, middle class family but every day, the secrets held by all of us threatened to destroy this delicate façade.

Shame held our family together. My parents were overflowing with shame. Stemming from their own experiences of being humiliated and/or abused by their parents. Their shame became the nucleus and foundation for our family shame. As a social worker, I studied families just like mine. Family systems like ours, that are bound together by shame, become rigid and inflexible. Family roles, like Hero, Scapegoat, Mascot and Lost Child become frozen and permanently assigned to family members.

In healthy families, these roles are flexible, and everyone gets to play any one of the rolls. One day you are the Lost Child, another day you are the Scapegoat and yet on another day, you are the Hero. It is a free-flowing system that nurtures and allows for differentiation and increases harmony. Flexible family systems encourage growth, good communication and healthy relationships. 

This doesn’t happen in families that are bound by shame. In shame-based families, these rolls are rigid and inflexible. And are assigned. You don’t get to choose which role and when you are assigned a role, it is for life.  Here is how this played out in my family.

My older brother John became the Scapegoat early in life. What I heard about my brother as an infant and a toddler, left me with the impression he was “difficult”. My guess is, he may have had some type of impulse control problem, like Attention Deficit Disorder or maybe PTSD, you think? Given the fact that both my parents didn’t know squat about raising children and given the strong likelihood that both of them were traumatized as children, they did what they thought was best. In their minds, they closed their eyes and believed they did the best they could. Shame bound families don’t like to look very deep.

John was a particularly challenging child and he got into trouble often. My parents desperately needed to project a positive social image, but John was out of control. In the 60’s children were expected to be well behaved, but John was not. In fact, I’m sure his misbehavior was the only thing my parents could see. They didn’t know anything about parenting, much less how to deal with a provocative and oppositional child. They grew up in a world where children were seen, but not heard. My brother must have worn them out in the 4 years prior to my birth. By the time I came along, John had cemented his role in the family as the Scapegoat.

Then I happened along. Stories about me as an infant and toddler were just the opposite of my brother’s stories. In my case, I was the chosen baby. What I mean is that I was a planned child. The only one according to my mother. My entrance into the world brought a new and unexpected dynamic to our family. But, unlike my older brother, I was compliant. I was easy going and I rarely cried. This must have been a relief to my beleaguered mother and father. I was “good” from the get-go. In my parent’s eyes, I became the golden child. Because I didn’t fuss about and I did what I was told. I rebalanced a family system that was unstable because of the chaos created in their relationships with John.

That’s how I became the Hero Child. I had no choice; it was the only role available. The role of family scapegoat was already occupied by my older brother and the only role that would rebalance the family was the Hero. So that’s what I became. The Hero Child.

Fifteen months after me, Tom, my younger brother was born. The safest role for Tom was the Lost Child. It was a neutral role and it helped him to become invisible. What could be better? Tom was barely visible on the radar. He stayed to himself and didn’t say much. You barely knew he was around. He tried to stay out of the limelight, blending into the woodwork you might say. Tom’s neutral stance helped stabilized the volatile and delicate balance between John and I.

The Hero Child and the Scapegoat Child get all of the focus in high functioning dysfunctional families like mine. John’s oppositional and defiant stance poised against my strong need to comply and integrate. John got the crap, and I got the treats. We were polar opposites, like oil and water or bitter and sweet. While all the attention was on him or me, Tom flew under the radar.

John was the child who was always in trouble, not caring if he made a mistake and me, I was the child who never got into trouble because I was terrified of mistakes. We were yin and yang, Cain and Abel, fire and ice. The two of us, balanced the family dynamic perfectly and together, in opposition to one another, ran interference in the community at large, protecting the dark, horrifying secret, keeping where it would remain safe. Because John lied all the time. even if he did speak out, no one would believe him.

And me? I had dissociated, so had no memory of any darkness that lay within the Erickson household. So, there was no way I could betray the family. By dissociating, I rendered myself powerless to disrupt the status quo. My parents often said to me, “What you don’t know won’t hurt you” this being a euphemism for, “Mind your own business and get out of here.” The truth is, “What you don’t know, does hurt you.”

The Hero Child was the best possible position a kid could have in a dysfunctional family. The Hero Child is trusted. The Hero Child always is honest. The Hero Child does not rock the boat, does not make waves and he definitely does not betray the family. I played my role to perfection. Everyday, I was out there, trying my best in school, on the football field, in the concert band, on the basketball court and on the baseball diamond. I was the public face of the Erickson family. I had to be good. As long as I was good, I was safe. 

I saw the violence that happened to John and I felt the pain and the hopelessness of his misguided efforts to regain the love and attention he needed. He failed because his role demanded he fail. The Scapegoat Child cannot succeed and cannot be a hero. The Scapegoat Child is the cause of all the family problems. As long as John is the problem, Bob and Aggie are off the hook. If John would just get his act together. John played his role perfectly. He did the best he could to be as bad as he could. All the negative attention was focused on John. 

In America, in the early 1950’s, male and female roles were well defined and if you were striving for middle class in the United States, there were certain social expectations men and women needed to conform to. My parents assumed classic 1960’s American family parental roles. In my deluded eyes my parents were just like Ward and June Cleaver; witty, understanding, accepting and supportive. As a child, I could not see that my TV parents were nothing like my real parents. My parents banked everything on the hope that their secret will never be exposed. 

This is the sad, sad, sad legacy of Bob and Aggie Erickson. They did their best, but their best did not protect their children from sexual abuse. My parents were like the parents of the young sex-offending boys I worked with. Each parent in our program brought with them their own stories of abuse and abandonment.  Sexual abuse had permeated multiple generations of their families. When it comes to sexual abuse, the nut does not fall far from the tree.

Myrtle and Jack Berwick were of Scottish and English heritage. What I do know about them is they ran an upholstery shop in a large room attached to the back of their house. There were tools and stuff I could play with and every Tuesday night, I would sleepover. This routine was kept until I was in high school. They were always there, and Grandma Berwick always had some cookies. I know nothing of their relationship or how they raised their children.

My mother had two older sisters, Marion and Mabel. I knew them both, but not equally and my favorite was Aunt Mabel. She and her husband, Stan, a long-haul trucker, were a lot of fun to be around. They liked to party and were the life of any party they were at. My Aunt Mable contracted lymph cancer when I was in high school and died. I was one of six poll bearers who carried my aunts coffin to her grave. This was my first experience with death, other than losing a pet and it has stayed with me my entire life. She died way too early, and I miss all of the good times we would have had, if she had survived. Back in the 60’s the cure rate for cancer was pretty bad.

Aunt Marion was the oldest of the Berwick girls lived in Montrose. She lived in a dark and dank ranch home on a corner 2 blocks from the house she grew up in. She was always bashful and reserved, but her husband, Uncle Pete was a son-of-a-gun. He owned a tiny filling station and garage in the center of Montrose where the town’s lone streetlight was located. Uncle Pete had a boat load of stories of his adventures in the merchant marines but that is about all I knew of his life. They had two children, David and Mike or Mikey. David was two years older than John and Mikey was Tom’s age, a year younger than me.

There were also twin sons born to the Berwick’s somewhere in the middle of the pack of girls, but the twins did not survive for more than a day or two. This was a loss that my grandmother, without saying a word, carried to her grave. The “Don’t Talk” rule was fully in effect in my mother’s family as it was in my father’s family and as it was in my family. And the conspiracy of silence goes on.

My father escaped the abuse in his family when he was 17 and a senior in high school where he had been an athlete and played the clarinet in the high school band. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 6, 1941, like many young men his age my father enlisted in the US Navy. He never spoke much about his service during WWII and I knew better than to pry. 

My father’s father, Nels was the original offender. There will be a separate episode on him. He and his wife, Mary immigrated from Sweden in 1921. She was originally from Wales. They settled in Aurora, IL 50 miles west of Chicago. Here they raised 2 sons, Alvin, and Robert and 1 daughter, Grace. I rarely saw Uncle Al and I never met my aunt Grace and her family. I have no idea why we never met my father’s sister. This remains one of the many unsolved mysteries in my family. Nels was also a serial predator sex-offender who ultimately abused all of the Erickson children.

Uncle Al was a wonderful man. I loved him. He was kind and generous and a musician who taught organ lessons in Cedar Rapids, IA. He talked of playing at a church in Cedar Rapids that is known for its grand pipe organ and he showed my pictures of him sitting at the organ. Every couple of years, without warning, he showed up and stayed for a week or so. He was one of the sweetest men I have ever known. He died many years before the secret was divulged. After the incest was revealed, my family remained in deep denial, claiming the real secret in the family was that Uncle Al was gay. I laughed at that revelation. Of course, Uncle Al was gay. He wore his gayness like Liberace wore a tweed suit. (Google that reference.) and you will get the idea.

I have no idea why we never met my father’s sister, Grace. She and her husband Jack, another WWII vet, lived in St. Louis and on occasion my parents would take a week and drive to Missouri to see them. I think they had 2 children; Isn’t that sad. I can’t even tell you how many children my aunt and uncle had. I know for sure, there was a boy, Bobby who was older than John and maybe there was a girl. I’m sorry, but I don’t remember. Never meeting this family was strange to me. There had to be a reason for it. 

So, this is my family in a nutshell. There is nothing overtly noteworthy about any of their stories. But when you look deeper beneath the façade of “normal”, then the picture begins to get murky. I haven’t been back to Montrose, Michigan since Christmas 1987. And I have not spoken with any family member since early 1989 when the family, as a group, ceremonially catapulted me out of the Erickson clan. I was guilty of heresy. Families like mine devour their young. What I mean by that is: families where sexual abuse and incest occur do not think twice about sacrificing a child or two or a relative or three who do not toe the line, who do not maintain the silence. If you break the sacred “Don’t Talk” rule you are out. Gone. Dead. I was breaking this rule and exposing their shame and their pain. This could not be tolerated for long, so they killed me, metaphorically.

This is the foundation for my shame. When you look at the family in this way, as an adult, it is overwhelming. As children, what could we do? Nothing. There was nothing any child under these circumstances could do. We did whatever it took to survive. John did what he needed to do to survive. I did what I needed to do to survive and Tom did what he needed to do to survive. And that’s the way it’s been for generations in my family. 

I hope this background helps you to understand why I felt so ashamed in response to my friend’s confrontation. My response was an 8 out of 10 for a 2 out of 10 problem. I was exhausted and feeling depressed. 

Because of the shame I’ve carried, I have always been sensitive to criticism. Most of the time if confronted with a mistake, I am embarrassed and I feel ashamed. For years I would explain, or rationalize or make excuses, but the[RE1]  truth was, I screwed up. I made a mistake. And another truth I didn’t accept was, I won’t die because of the mistake. I know this intellectually, but emotionally, the jury is still out. 

The ability to accept criticism is a pre-requisite for a healthy relationship and if one person or both people have problems accepting criticism, then the relationship will have difficulty surviving. I want my friendships to be comfortable with calling me on the carpet when I am wrong. I need this from my friends. Many times, my own self-guidance systems have been compromised by the Complex-PTSD.

People with PTSD and C-PTSD frequently have trouble setting limits and boundaries with others. My disability in this area springs from a lifetime of people pleasing that started as a child when it was necessary for survival but continues to this day even though it no longer work for me. To thrive beyond the impact of C-PTSD I must become better at hearing criticism.

There is a way out of this spiral of doom called shame. For me, the key to busting shame is to shed light upon it. Open it up for inspection. Look it over and see what it’s all about. The chances are the shame you feel at this very moment is not even your own shame. Well, maybe some of it, but it is not a life sentence. 

First, you need to acknowledge the original source of the shame. Most of the time it will be your primary care givers when you were a child. Chances are your parents, themselves are innocent victims of the projected shame of their parents and so on, for generations. I know this is the case for my own family.

Each of you are fully equipped and capable to explore the dark and at times. seemingly dangerous territory of shame but healing requires you to not simply acknowledge this shame but embrace it. Your shame has contributed significantly to the person who you are now. You don’t have to re-experience it. You don’t need to feel it all over again, but you do need to acknowledge and validate those painful experiences whether you recall them or not. Your experiences are valid, and they need your acknowledgement. Once upon a time you were that small child who, in your unique genius, figured out a way to survive because at the time, there were serious and dangerous things going on. Shame is at the core of C-PTSD.

Give yourself a high-five, a pat on the back and raise a glass to your ingenuity and brilliance for surviving and arriving to this point in your life. Now that you are conscious of some of the factors that shaped your development you can now create a new plan for your life. If you decide to walk the road less travelled, be patient with yourself. It took a long time for you to get to this point, it will take you awhile before you are able to live with your truth and maintain self-compassion consistently. This is your Hero’s Journey.

As usual, I have provided some website for you to checkout. There is more and more information available online when it comes to understanding shame. Try not to get overwhelmed in your quest for truth. You deserve to know what you are up against and who your allies are.

Until next time. Be Courageous. Be Strong and Be Kind. I’ll catch you later. Bye