This Is What It Feels Like to Be a Mom With Complex PTSD

Heart pounding, I startle awake at 4 am. I am panic-stricken and consumed with terror.

My bedroom is quiet. There are no intruders, only my faithful furry friend Winston, slumbering quietly at my feet.

I wonder if I had screamed and scared any of my children.

For 5 minutes, then 10 minutes my heart continues to pound as I lie, terrified in my darkened room. I try to decide if I should call an ambulance… perhaps I’m having a heart attack.

I am both afraid and confused. I know that I am safe in my room, that there is no immediate threat, but my body and emotions are hijacked, and without my consent I find myself immersed in past horrifying events.

I am forced to wait it out.

Thankfully I do know now, from more than 5 years of experience, that a panic attack will eventually pass.

It feels like it’s going to kill me, but it won’t.

I have PTSD and Complex PTSD (CPTSD).

While PTSD is typically the result of a specific, horrifying event, Complex PTSD is the consequence of numerous traumatic events, over a longer period of time. CPTSD is frequently caused by childhood abuse and neglect or, in my case, being trapped for many, many years in a very abusive marriage.

Complex PTSD and PTSD share symptoms, but there are some symptoms unique to CPTSD. If you are interested in a somewhat detailed list of symptoms for both PTSD and CPTSD, you can scroll to end of this post.

I have had the hardest time coming to grips with the fact that I have both PTSD and CPTSD, even after repeated official diagnoses.

When I look objectively at the symptoms of PTSD and Complex PTSD, I can check off 99% of them (anger isn’t a symptom for me) but still I try to live in denial that I have CPTSD… until I am triggered and panic so badly that I am struggling to speak or I have a terrifying middle-of-the-night panic attack.

Why I’m Writing This

When I first escaped my 27-year long abusive marriage I found myself unexpectedly blindsided by the overwhelming symptoms of PTSD and CPTSD. I spent a lot of time searching for information, resources and hope online. I had no idea that I could end up with PTSD after being trapped in an abusive marriage. I was afraid that I was going crazy.

I am going to share some details of my struggle with PTSD/CPTSD, not so that you can compare your situation to mine ~ there will always be someone who has lived through more horrific trauma than me, and those who have lived through less extreme situations and everyone’s reaction is different. Please own your own story.

Imagine that you knew someone who had cancer… you would be horrified if they told you, “Yeah, I’ve got cancer, but look at this person! They’ve got a different, scarier type of cancer. I don’t know why I’m struggling so much!” No! You’d almost certainly remind them that cancer is awful. Period. It doesn’t matter what type of cancer you have.

It’s the same with the fallout from abuse. No matter what the details of your story are, if what I’m writing resonates with you, then please offer yourself compassion, not comparison.

I am writing with transparency here to provide information and hope for others.

I am writing to let you know that you are not alone…. or crazy.

I am writing to remind you that God can redeem even disastrous situations.

This is what my PTSD/ Complex PTSD looks like

Every morning I wake up and begin my day with limited emotional energy. (Perhaps you have read about the “spoons theory?” I start my day with fewer “spoons”)

My children are my priority so I do everything I can to work around my limitations with PTSD to be available for them.

I carefully plan my schedule to avoid crowds when I have to shop.

I can make myself to go to one of my boys’ sporting events or a band concert, but I attend knowing that I am likely to panic and have to leave early.

One crowded, overwhelming event can sideline me for several days afterwards, so I choose my activities carefully, mindful of the probable fallout.

Still, 5 1/2 years after escaping my abusive marriage, I have nightmares and panic attacks, on almost a daily basis.

I have huge gaps in my memories of the 27 years I was married.

I avoid eating out.

I avoid places where “bad” things happened to me in the past.

I haven’t been able to sit through a whole church service in several years, partially due to the spiritual abuse that we all were subjected to.

CPTSD is basically an emotional injury ~ an invisible illness. Since it isn’t as tangible as a broken bone I frequently have to remind myself that living so much of my life on “high alert” and in “panic mode” is both emotionally and physically exhausting. I am learning to be compassionate with myself.

For me, being triggered causes a level of overwhelm that is very difficult to describe. PTSD research has shown that when someone with PTSD is triggered and panics, the right half of the brain “takes over” and the logical, thinking left side of the brain is sometimes almost totally “shut down.” When this happens to me it becomes almost impossible for me to speak and I can’t think. All I am aware of is the panic and a desperate need to escape.

The best analogy I’ve come up with for explaining what it’s like to be triggered is this: I often walk and ride my bike on a trail that parallels two sets of busy railroad tracks. When a train passes while I am on the trail, the noise is so loud that I am consumed by it. If I were walking with someone else, we would have to stop talking until the train passed because there would be no way to hear each other over the noise of the train. For the minutes that the train is roaring past, there is only train. I am totally consumed by the noise and vibrations of the passing train.

Being triggered is like that train. I don’t usually know in advance what will trigger me and when it happens, I’m totally overwhelmed and consumed by the panic of past events.

I can’t reason my way out of it, any more than I can order the passing train to stop.

We each have a unique story and recovery timeline

Please don’t compare your story to mine and be discouraged that I am still struggling this much, 5 1/2 years out. I’ve been told repeatedly that in many ways my situation was (and continues to be) somewhat extreme and unique.

  • I was tremendously isolated for 26 years
  • I was pregnant 14 times (I had two miscarriages), had 12 children (including one very early preemie) ~ *please know this: as challenging as a large family is, I wouldn’t change a thing about the size of my family though.
  • the nature of my abuse was not only all-encompassing (emotional, physical, sexual, psychological and spiritual) but extremely insidious as well, which left me constantly questioning my perception of reality.
  • When I first left my abusive husband, I still had 10 children living at home with me.
  • 6 of my 12 children have been diagnosed with serious anxiety disorders, fallout from so many years of abuse by their father. I have spent a huge amount of time and energy the past 5 years trying to obtain help for them.
  • One of my boys almost died in a suicide attempt last fall. Thankfully he is recovering, but that has been horrifically stressful in ways that I can’t even begin to articulate here.

I don’t say this to point out how terrible my unique situation is, but rather to offer hope and encouragement and suggest that you give yourself grace as you recover.

Your timeline for recovery will be as unique as your story.

Ways I’m Improving

There’s no way around it: PTSD sucks.

Susan Moore
Susan Moore
Susan Moore is an advocate for those recovering from trauma and writes to share hope and encouragement. Long outdoor workouts, photography, and creating art  make her smile. She lives with the youngest 6 of her 12 children and Winston, her labradoodle sidekick. You can find her at

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