Betsy | Developmental/Complex PTSD, Anxiety

When Betsy was 25 she was mugged while walking to her car at 2 PM which triggered an off the charts response where afterwards she felt unable to leave the house and her heart was racing constantly. She had been in therapy for about a year when her therapist asked her what was going on and she remembered a childhood memory that she had repressed. As a child Betsy would often stay with her grandmother who babysat her and one afternoon when she was 4 years old two men with guns broke into her grandmother’s house and threatened her and her grandmother, but their hysterical screams startled the attempted robbers and they left. “I actually looked at the guy with the gun at one point and asked him ‘please don’t kill my grandmother!’” This was the first memory of many that was triggered during her therapy. She also remembered that when her mother was pregnant with her brother that both her mom and brother almost died due to birth complications. Another memory that came up was that at a young age her father left hot oil on a stove when he left the house which started a house fire and her family had to live in a hotel for a month. After the fire she began rolling her fingers, grunting, touching the ground while walking, having tics and panic attacks–which are classic childhood presentations of trauma responses. At the time she saw a childhood psychiatrist who said something to her that stopped all the symptoms until she was mugged. At that time she was diagnosed with delayed post traumatic stress response, PTSD, and generalized anxiety disorder. Around this time is when her therapist pieced together that as a child Betsy was probably angry about having a new baby in the house and that she believed that her anger caused the traumatic birth. Her mom almost died once more when she was 8, when they had to do exploratory surgery due to malignant cancer. As an empath, she didn’t have the capacity to handle all the adult emotions in her childhood. She was often told she was a drama queen, too sensitive, overreacting, etc., which were all trauma responses.

As an adult Betsy maxed out on cognitive behavioral therapy, went out of therapy for a while and then began meditating every single day for a year. “When you meditate like that it's designed to allow your armor to melt a little bit and what you uncover is your trauma.” She then began dance and movement therapy which helped in a way she cannot explain. “The way you survive trauma is to minimize it.” After her father survived a near death experience where he spent 2 months in the hospital she returned to therapy. Now she does brain spotting therapy, an offshoot of EMDR, which uses bilateral sound and visual movement to locate the spots in the brain where the fight or flight response is not completed and let them loosen up. When the pandemic started Betsy began to follow scientists closely. Because her trauma started so young she does everything she can to prevent further trauma. Since COVID-19 began she has not eaten at a restaurant, visited many friends, or gone on airplanes. Feeling unable to travel she has not been able to visit her parents, though if her father goes off dialysis she will muster up the courage because he will have less than 2 weeks to live. She lives alone so she has a lot of control over her environment and she feels this control helps keep her from being triggered. “How do we reconnect? How do we find the inner sense of safety again?” As a mental health professional and trainer, she realizes that while she may have had anxiety without the trauma, she wouldn’t have a mental illness without it. “I live with a mental illness, and a lot of my life is organized around it.” After mass events it triggers a trauma response for her. For example, after 9/11 it gave her a fight or flight response that lasted for 3 weeks. Another time, about 11 years ago, her car was broken into which was a direct trigger, whereas COVID-19 is a systemic trigger. She also has immediate triggers, such as anything medical; even a standard medical appointment causes her extreme anxiety.

Even though Betsy has experienced many traumas in her life she has been able to turn it around and into a fulfilling career. She has been a social worker for decades and uses her own trauma to help others understand complex trauma. “When I teach, I tell people that I have PTSD and I assume everyone has trauma. When we create systems where we believe everyone has trauma, that’s trauma informed care.” She’s also done 20 years of acupuncture, she’s a yoga teacher, and a writer. To this day she’s still prone to panic attacks, but her ability to deal with them has grown better. She has found ways to survive and thrive through activities like hiking; she describes being outside as being her reset button. Being able to find ways to cope is imperative for surviving a mental illness, and her willingness to teach others about trauma through her own experiences is an example of her resilience and strength.

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