C-PTSD and Anger
The Ugly Underbelly of Complex PTSD
April 22, 2021
Today I am talking about anger and if you have C-PTSD, then you know anger. It’s not that you feel angry, but more that you look beneath your anger to the vulnerable parts of yourself. Today I try to give you an idea of the roots of my anger and the impact of growing up within an incest family. There is surprisingly little written on the relationship between C-PTSD or PTSD and anger, even though angry outbursts are part of the diagnosis. I find that only a little bit odd.
Well, here are some websites that may help you with your own concerns or you are concerned about a loved one. Regardless, check these sites out. Maybe you will find them useful.
It’s good to know what your footprint is when you are triggered. Do you fight? Do you flee? Or Do you freeze or fawn? We tend to be in one of these categories.
Pete Walker is a guy I have stumbled upon who has built up a very nice library of articles, books, audiobooks focused on Complex Post-Traumatic Stress. I highly recommend you check him out.
Here’s Pete’s website.
Here’s an organization I have just begun a relationship with. Look for my articles on their blog page coming soon.
There are 3 types of anger associated with Post-Traumatic Stress. Roland Bal suggests an interesting approach to taming the anger within you. Learn more about this by clicking on the link below.
C-PTSD and Anger
The Ugly Underbelly of Complex PTSD
April 22, 2021
Hello and welcome to Out of My Mind in Costa Rica. I’m your host, Ray Erickson. I hope you are ready for this week’s episode on Anger because I have no idea how this is going to play out today. As I began preparing today’s program, I found myself struggling with what to focus on and then, like a bat out of hell, anger came up and I said, “Eureka, that’s it!” Anger it is. Hopefully, it will not turn out to be a 30-minute angry rant at all the injustices throughout the world. No, hopefully, I will be able to talk with you about the role anger has played in my life and its brutal consequences.
Anger has been there from the beginning. I was born into an angry family. All incestuous families are angry. Beneath the veneer of polite citizenship, there raged a caldron of righteous anger. Your underlying pain and vulnerability are defended, sometimes, to the death, by anger and rage. That is their job. These powerful emotions do the heavy work of protecting our heart. The anger in my family had to be overwhelming for everyone. I know it was for me. Otherwise, I would not have dissociated. If you want to know what is behind anger, you need not go any further than to look into your own vulnerabilities.
We know that bullies, under their anger, feel powerless, which defines not their anger, and it identifies their victims as well. When you mix sexual abuse and incest into an already volatile environment you get a powder keg ready to explode and explode it did. Many times. Not in ways that cause passersby to stop and gawk with curiosity at the turbulence going on inside. No, anger was not permitted to be expressed in our family. Oh, I take that back, my parents could express anger and they frequently did. To the public eye, however, our family was a model family, well, with the exception of John, who was an angry child and acted out his anger on a daily basis. John must have had ADHD in addition to his acting out his outrage at being abused. Needless to say, he was what they called, “a handful” for my parents.
My parent’s vain attempt to control him failed on all counts and he was out of control for most of my childhood. John was 4 years older than me and a little more than 5 years older than my younger brother, Tom. He also towered over us because he was a big kid. Tom and I were literally half his size from the time we were born until we entered Junior High School. We were constantly under the threat that John would hurt one or both of us. He was the family scapegoat. Scapegoats, overwhelmingly act out the unspoken anger within dysfunctional families and all incest families are dysfunctional to the max. John was also the identified offender in the family, although it was never spoken.
As the scapegoat, John sounded the alarm that there were problems in the Erickson clan, but in the 1950’s children were considered the problem and the family was rarely held accountable for the child’s behavior. Things have changed since then, in a good way. There were no social workers in my home town and there was nowhere to go if a child experienced abuse. Everything was bottled up, all neat and tidy, with a ribbon tied into a bow. No problems here. What can we do? The kid is out of control. John remained at large and was considered a juvenile delinquent or a “hood” as they were known. John knew where to draw the line and had few encounters with the law, which consisted of two people, the Adams brothers.
By the time I arrived, John was deeply entrenched as the family scapegoat. The way I have that story was that John was a “busy” child which meant that he was difficult for my parents who were quite young themselves. My mother was only 20 years-old when she gave birth to John and my father was 23. I was born at a good time which meant there was an opening for a Hero child, and I was immediately hired, so that’s what I became. The family Hero. This meant, I had to be a good boy and a good boy I was. I was the epitome of a good boy. I heard stories of how happy I was as a baby and how I never cried, and how I slept through the night; a complete 180-degree shift from my parent’s experience with John. I was the golden child.
I was incredibly good at being the hero child. I never got angry. I never made toddler demands. I never violated the rules. This was because I was terrified. Terrified by my parents, who frequently yelled at us and terrified of John because he was just plain mean. I have no pleasant memories of my brother John. Hell, I have only a few pleasant memories of Tom and I, even though, we shared a bedroom for our entire childhoods. How the hell does that happen? How can you live with someone for 18 years and not have much of a connection and virtually no memories?
There was only one way this could happen. Dissociation. I must have dissociated during my childhood, but this sounds absurd. How could that happen? As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Sacramento, I had the opportunity to treat a few people diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder. This can be a very trippy experience but working with this population helped me come to terms with the possibility that I too, dissociated as a child. Not to the degree that part of me splintered off and became a functioning personality, no, the dissociation I experienced seems to be related to what I remember and what I do not remember.
I remember mostly good things. Period. What can I say? I have only a handful of distressful or bad memories. This act of survival in a hostile environment acted as my savior by blocking all memories of abuse and abandonment while simultaneously organizing my pleasant or good memories along the lines of a popular television program at the time, “Leave It to Beaver”. I am dead serious when I say this. It has taken me a lifetime to figure this out. This information was hidden from me until I learned I had Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder a few years ago. That means, I am relatively new in understanding what happened and what I need to do to heal from experiences, I don’t remember.
I am grateful for this amnesia because, I believe, my acting out may have been a lot worse had I known the truth about my family and carried the memories of the abuse and abandonment. By not remembering the traumas, I remained pure, you could say. I was untainted by the abuse which meant my role of Hero child came natural to me. It fit me like a glove. I could go forth and defend the family honor by proving to the world that my family was alright. Pay no attention to John, look at Ray. Look at how good he is. We are so proud of him. I was a true method actor. I believed the stories I was told by my parents and because I embodied the role, there was no abuse in my perfect, TV family, world. None. Zero. Nada.
So, where’s the anger coming from. I literally told people I grew up in the Cleaver family and I was not joking or blowing smoke. It was real to me. I believed in my denial with every breath I took, with ever beat of my heart, I was deeply engaged in my role. Nothing could get in that was not already scripted for me and Ttere was no script of abuse in my make-believe world, so there was no abandonment and abuse in my family. Hell no! We were a model for the entire town…as long as you ignored John, who somehow managed to clean up his act enough to graduate high school and join the Navy. Thank God.
I was safe as long as John was in the Navy and this suited me quite well. I felt safe, to some degree for the first time in my life. I remember high school fondly and gathered a large number of friends and good memories even though I glossed over the awkwardness of adolescence. I came of age in the 60’s. It could have been worse. Much worse, but for me it was great. I was a medium big fish in a small pond, which suited me well. I could stand out and be hidden at the same time. The family secret was safe with me because I had no awareness, whatsoever, of any abuse, physical, emotional, or sexual. Hell, how could that happen? We were the Cleavers, and we were America’s perfect family. What you see is not what you get.
Denial is not just a river in Egypt. It is a real experience for those experiencing true clinical denial. Clinical denial is a complete and whole life perspective. To the person in denial, it is real. It is a psychological drama that is played out in real life. We all experience denial when we experience loss, but the denial necessary to make the most hideous experiences completely invisible is, to say the least, a really big deal. Denial to most people means a cover-up, a lie, a misrepresentation, or a fraud. Which means it does not have a life of its own. It is made up. Clinical denial is denial that is completely enmeshed into the false narrative and the falsehoods become the truth in every way imaginable. The experience of denial is real, concrete, and indisputable. Dissociation is like an extreme state of denial. In my experience, I lived as if there were no incest, no abuse, and no abandonment. In my denial, my parents were loving, but not doting. I enjoyed every possible perk that could be afforded the Hero child which meant, I was the mortal enemy of the scapegoat, my brother, John.
The most callous conscious memory I have of my brother was being “hogtied” with my hands behind my back and my feet tied to my hands. You know, like a hog. My brother and his friend left me in this predicament, gagged with a handkerchief for, I have no idea how long. I do remember the two of them having a good time tormenting me and leaving me tied up in his room. I don’t remember how long I was tied up or how I ended up being freed. I think I was maybe 10-11 years old. I was still quite small, compared to John. I believe this kind of thing happened on a regular basis. Something happened to cause my brain to cut me off from certain types of memories. Whatever. I’m OK with that. I don’t need the memories to know something happened.
What about my brother, Tom? Well, he became the Lost Child. Almost invisible was Tom. He was like a chameleon and blended into the woodwork you might say. One barely noticed Tom was even there. He made no effort to stand out but chose to blend in which was how he survived. I’m afraid that Tom is the kid in the family who may not have been spared the memories of the abuse. So, he learned early on, that keeping a low profile would be a good policy if you wanted to survive in this family. I don’t know about Tom. He may or may not be an offender. In 1988, when I learned about the incestuous nature of my family, his response to my efforts to get the family to acknowledge John’s abusive behavior was unsettling, at the least.
When I told Tom what our mother had shared with me, of the abuses John perpetrated on his daughters, Tom’s response was, “Yeah? So?” I was dumbfounded and didn’t know what to say so I said nothing. Here was even more evidence for how entrenched sexual abuse had become in my family. It stuns me to this day as I tell you the story. I don’t like to think too much about this stuff as it makes me feel a tremendous amount of grief. And the story of my nieces, Wendy and Michelle It’s even more tragic. This is so sad. So incredibly sad. I know Wendy is dead, but I have no idea where Michelle was at. The last I heard, many years ago that she was pole-dancing in Texas. I wouldn’t be surprised because that is what happens to untreated victim of sexual abuse.
So, where’s the anger? As you can see, I have plenty of reasons to be angry and it is there alright, locked up in my consciousness where it is heavily guarded. Anger, as you know is a secondary emotion and its function is to protect us from vulnerability. Anger is like your big brother, a healthy big brother that is, who has your back and is he is there for you if you were to get into a scrape. Anger is a natural response to feeling vulnerable. When you are angry, you do not feel vulnerable. No, on the contrary, you feel powerful and strong and righteous in your anger. Hell yes! My anger does not work or play well with others. It is a raging madman filled with the piss and vinegar of decades of denial and abandonment.
In my family, anger was not expressed by the children. Adults could express anger, but not the kids. So being the good kid that I was, I never expressed anger unless it was socially sanctioned, like being angry at my opponent in a sporting event. Never in hostility. This was my moral code while at the same time living with a brother who regularly expressed hostility towards me. If I told (tattled) on John it did no good at all because, he would blame me, claim innocence and I would be punished. I learned at an early age, not to protest. Whatever you do, don’t make waves.
So where was my anger? What happened to it? Nothing really, it sat there, beneath the surface and every once in a while, when I could not take John’s meanness any longer, I exploded with anger. I stamped my feet. I shook my fists and screamed at the top of my lungs. Only to be shamed and punished for making such an unsightly scene. I didn’t know what was happening at the time, but now, I look back and realize that I was acting out a trigger. I had had enough. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and it was always directed at my brothers. I was the kid who got into trouble for reacting to being bullied. The bullies were not held accountable, only my shameful outburst. I learned pretty quick that it was just best to let things roll off my back, like water off a duck’s back. This turned out, not to be a particularly good strategy.
Shame was rigidly attached to these outbursts, so I did everything in my power not to let myself be provoked and for the most part I did pretty well. It also helped me to be extremely active and involved in competitive sports all year long. Sports saved me from a lot more acting out because I was able to act out my aggressiveness in a socially acceptable way. Sports helped me survive my family at a number of levels. I spent most of my day out of the house and when I was at home, it was usually only for a few hours.
Through sports, I learned how to make friendships and I had a large and supportive peer group all the way through high school. Although when I hear stories from my old classmates, it makes me wonder how much of the time I was actually present. There were reasons I was not invited to those parties. I would not have approved. I was such a prude. That was the way of the Hero child. All principles and no balls. I was terrified of getting into trouble and I toed a very straight line. The hero child could not, for any reason test any limit or boundary. Nope, not me. No way. That would have to wait until after I left for college.
As I wandered my way through adolescence, at times, anger began to overwhelm me, and I didn’t know why. I just knew it felt horrible, and I did not want to feel that way. It was the late 1960’s and all hell was breaking loose and the world was a mess. When I was in high school, I was blind to the turmoil in the streets. I was too busy playing the hero to pay much attention to events that didn’t affect me. Which was most things. The news was on TV, but it was not happening in my little town of Montrose, MI. No, we were spared the race riots, the unjust treatment of African Americans by the establishment and Anti-War protests. No all of this stuff was in a land far, far away and existed only on the television. Even the war was a surreal news report on one of only 3 television networks.
We were innocents, many of whom were plucked from this blissful small midwestern town and thrust in to the jungles of Vietnam. It was also a brutal time for many young men. Me, I got lucky. I drew #236 in the draft lottery and was spared involuntary military service, which was just fine with me. I don’t think I would have made a good soldier. Who knows? I know, at the time, I didn’t want anything to do with going to war.
While in college, anger continued to bubble, just below the surface which drew me to become active in the antiwar movement on campus. The war in Vietnam gave me an outlet to express my outrage. It was a perfectly acceptable expression of anger within the context of the late 1960’s to the early 1970’s. No, I didn’t really have much of a problem with anger in college because I was actively dissident. I made sure not to stick my neck out there too far. I kept it low key. I was a chanting carrier of signs and an occasional saboteur of busses.
This anger became a big problem for me when I fell in love and I was in relationship. Not just any relationship, but real love relationships. This all makes perfect sense to me now, but at the time when I became triggered, usually in the face of massive confusion and fears of abandonment. I had no idea what was going on. I just knew that I felt completely vulnerable, and I could not stop myself from going into a rage filled rant, begging my love to not abandon me.
I felt powerless and abandoned by the one person I had put all of my trust into. You can probably guess that these triggers were not pretty. Triggers, by definition are a horrible experiences for both parties. The person who becomes triggered and the person who becomes the target of the trigger. It is all ugly and there is no way around that fact.
Relationships get wounded deeply when complex post-traumatic stress is triggered. Triggers are a way-overkill-reaction to what most people consider a small thing. What most people unfamiliar with CPTSD do not understand it that the flashbacks we experience overwhelm our sympathetic nervous system. The amygdala sets up a hormonal cocktail that get shot into our brain when it senses a need to fight or flee, freeze, or fawn. Boom! In go the chemicals and I am off and running. The anger and rage swoops in and I am enraged, like a six-year-old, outraged. I am acting out the anger and the rage of the part of me that never had a voice. That 6-year-old boy who was abused and then silenced, now has a voice, and in my case, that voice had a Master of Social Work and 30 years of clinical experience. This 6-year-old was a formidable foe. Certainly, too much for my partners and more recently, my wife.
This is how anger was expressed in my family, through various types of triggers. As a hero child I learned to tiptoe through the mine field because I knew where the triggers were located. But I never learned where those same triggers were located in me. I am now clearer on where my triggers are and as long as I avoid intimacy, I am trigger free, but I cannot live in a world without intimacy, which means relationships, and this is where it gets complicated.
Well, I think I have rambled enough for today. I’m not so sure I managed this rant very well. As always, I go into each episode with no plan, no grand vision, no outline of how things will flow. I just put it out there and today, I may have come up short on telling you everything there is to say about anger and C-PTSD. It’s a big topic and may take several episodes. As the hero child, most of the anger has been misdirected at myself and a few others, mainly people I have loved and cared about deeply. This is one of the saddest things about C-PTSD. It puts you in a position of sabotaging your deepest and closest relationships. This kind of anger and rage only gets triggered if the stakes are high enough, where I am committed 100% and if I am triggered, it is as clear as daylight to me that I am about to die. What’s it like for you at that moment of triggering?
Three years ago, I wrote a poem called, “I Am Angry”. I wanted to create an expression of my anger but emphasize the underlying emotions. The angst and the pain I felt at the time are deeply present as I juxtapose the feelings of empowerment and the underlying vulnerability. It goes on for a bit, so bear with me. There is a lot of anger there. I have learned if you practice having awareness of your secondary emotions, you can interrupt your triggering cycle. You will also develop more empathy and feel more at peace. By embracing your pain, your disillusionment, and your grief, you interrupt the pain-shame cycle and little by little, you begin to feel safe. Now with no further ado here it is, my poem:
I Am Angry
I am angry (sad). Really angry (really sad). I’ve been angry (sad) my entire life.
I am angry (dejected) that my family used threats, violence, and shame to control.
I am angry (broken-hearted) that my parents served us (my brothers and I) like a Christmas ham to be sexually abused by my grandfather.
I am angry (devastated) that at the age of 6, I was forced to abandon my true self for the safety and security of denial and compliance.
I am angry (disheartened) that my family chose to reject me instead of getting treatment for the incest.
I am angry (demoralized) that my life has been a lie. A lie I told myself to feel safe. A lie I lived for most of my life.
I am angry (shaken) that it was so easy to betray myself to protect those who did not protect me.
I am angry (mortified) that it took me so long to see my truth.
I am angry (humiliated) to have lived so long in my fictional world.
I am angry (unhappy) that the world is as fucked up as it is.
I am angry (disappointed) with my generation. My generation has fucked the world and everything on it.
I am angry (disconnected) and I feel so alone in a world with 7 billion people.
I am angry (exhausted) that I had Attention Deficit Disorder all my life and did not know it.
I am angry (discouraged) that my efforts to be good and do good did not produce better lives for others.
I am angry (vulnerable) that I feel powerless and helpless to change my life for the better.
I am angry (overwhelmed) that I have lived most of my life with Complex-PTSD and did not know it.
I am angry (worn out), that the CPTSD continues to be triggered, causing my inner rage to escape.
I am angry (heartbroken) that all the help I have sought and received has not diminished the rage.
I am angry (powerless) when I feel so vulnerable.
I am angry (exhausted) that I hold onto the pain.
I am angry (disgusted) that I don’t create more art.
I am angry (dissatisfied) that I do not write much anymore.
I am angry (disparaged) that I let my life slip by, like clouds passing in the sky.
I am angry (weary) that my life has been filled with drama.
I am angry (ashamed) that rage has undermined my relationships.
I am angry (lonely) that nearly everyone I have loved, are no longer in my life.
I am angry (terrified) each time I get triggered that my wife will leave me.
I am angry (regretful) I had no children and I am relieved I had no children.
I am angry (disappointed) that I never played in a rock-n-roll band.
I am angry (self-loathing) that I do not play guitar and explore my art every day.
I am angry (depressed) that I feel sad and lonely so often.
I am angry (lonely) that it seems, so few people seem to care if I am dead or alive.
I am angry (disillusioned) I have not impacted the world.
I am angry (disgraced) that I feel like a failure.
I am angry (remorseful) that I have so little to show for my efforts.
I am angry (unhappy) that I have wasted so many years.
I am angry (guilty) that I don’t work harder to learn Spanish.
I am angry (demolished) that I feel so insignificant and vulnerable.
I am angry (disparaged) that I am an old man, and I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.
I am angry (embarrassed) that I do not take charge of my life.
I am angry (shocked) that life has passed so fast.
I am angry (demoralized) that my efforts to be good, nice, pleasant, funny, clever, and sweet has brought no relief.
I am angry (saddened) that dogs are better people, than people.
Well, that’s it. Let me know if you too have a cauldron of anger that is about to bust loose. If so, then it is definitely time to start loving yourself. Don’t let anger keep you from living the life you were meant to live. Let it go. Breath out Anger and Pain. Breath in Peace and Calm. Repeat as necessary. Also, if you don’t mind, please give Out of My Mind in Costa Rica a big thumbs up or make a comment or do a review if you listen on a platform that allows you to do such a thing. Send me an email at: [email protected]. I will get back to you right away. If you know people who would benefit from listening to Out of My Mind in Costa Rica, then please share it. Sharing is caring. Thank you.
So, until the next time. Be Courageous. Be Strong and Be Kind. I’ll catch you later. Bye.