American Trauma

CPTSD. A set of initials that stands for complex post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Five letters that I wrestle with every day.

CPTSD differs from PTSD in that it is generally caused by ongoing, repeated, inescapable trauma … the kind endured by prisoners of war, the incarcerated, and abused children. I fall into the last category, a subject I don’t normally discuss, but find it necessary to do so now. 

My parents were wonderful, highly intelligent, unique and progressive people, whom I loved dearly and miss daily. But my father had been abused—severely—as a child by his father, who, from what I can learn from distant family lore and genealogy, was almost certainly mentally ill and probably abused by his own father. My dad lost his mother at twelve, never had a chance to acculturate socially, and was on his own from the age of fourteen. His early childhood—if one could call it childhood—was fraught with inescapable danger, alcoholism, ignorance, fundamentalist religion and abject, starvation-level poverty in the coal fields of eastern Kentucky. 

My father was never able to escape the horrific wounds of his own CPTSD and, like the majority of abused children, was abusive himself. The fact that he never strayed into criminal behavior and that his brilliance allowed him to accomplish meaningful things despite no opportunities for even a basic education (he was essentially an autodidact) is testimony to his innately gentle nature and desire for peace both inwardly and outwardly. But without help—without some external resources and guides and intervention for both my parents and me—the pattern repeated. 

My CPTSD is triggered, unsurprisingly, by danger from which escape is difficult or impossible. It was triggered by Trump’s election and has not relented, in its physical, psychological and emotional toll, for four years. 

One of the side effects of CPTSD (which is like having “fight or flight” turned on every minute of your existence) is the adrenaline rush that propels the “fight or flight” response. On November 9th, 2016,  I saw and felt the pain and suffering around me—from friends and colleagues who are NOT suffering from PTSD or CPTSD—and envisioned a way to channel all of our collective misery and my CPTSD-fueled energy into something positive. Nasty Woman Press was founded that day.

With the energy, hard work, commitment and generous financial support of like-minded friends and the amazing law firm Davis, Wright, Tremaine, Nasty Woman Press became a 501 (c)(4) non-profit, with its first anthology, SHATTERING GLASS, poised to release on June 16th, 2020. All profits will be donated to Planned Parenthood.

It was difficult to decide on the theme and beneficiary of this, our first release. There are so many, many problems we face in this country and globally … racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, homophobia and transphobia, xenophobia, environmental degradation … a long, long list of ills and viruses far more deadly than even the unprecedented pandemic of COVID-19. And racism, for as long as I can remember, has been the particular sore that has wracked me, affected me on a guttural level. I’ve spoken about it on numerous occasions, during speeches and panels and lectures; I write about it in every one of my novels.

And it has struck me, through therapy and self-realization, why … first, because of my upbringing and experiences and empathy and morality and passion for justice and actual, real equality under every system, everywhere, but secondly because in America, being a person of color means you’ve been subjected to systemic racism, which in itself embodies all the trauma and causes of CPTSD.

Persistent, inescapable victimization? Check.

Humiliation and abuse and complete denigration of identity? Check.

Trapped in a situation where no one hears or sees your pain or chooses to deny or ignore it? Check.

Completely powerless and at the mercy of figures of “authority” who use their power to abuse (and often kill) you? Check.

Wanting to be hopeful but unable to be because things never change? Check.

In other words, though I will never experience racism because of white privilege—and therefore can never truly know its abject pain and hurt and denial of self and the absolute evil of being inflicted by it—I can still recognize it, still call it out, still scream and cry and feel this injustice of injustices like a knife to my throat. Most importantly, I can fight it with every fiber of my being. 

For me, my CPTSD has made me feel, so keenly, the horror story of both history and contemporary events: from Auschwitz to ICE “Detention Centers”, from “White Christians Only” in want ads to Stephen Miller whispering in a would-be tyrant’s ear, from the myth of “we hold these truths to be self-evident” to the reality that the rights of women to own their own bodies are being destroyed while the “rights” to own a machine of war and house it in your garage are well-funded and strident. 

CPTSD is always self-destructive but is often outwardly so as well. For me, because my exposure to diversity early in life, coupled with my parents’ principles and dedication to social justice, shaped me as much as it did, I have been able to channel it into trying to help victims and take down villains—both in my fiction and in real life. Despite growing up as an only child in many rural and out-of-the-way places, I knew Native Americans, African Americans, Latinx and Asians from a very young age. Both my mother and father were progressives, though majority society didn’t call them that back then.

My first babysitters were an elderly African-American couple. I still remember the soft mints in the candy dish by the big leather chair, the smell of pipe tobacco and the kindliness and quiet of their house.  

When I was five or six, a white girl came to our house to baby sit me. She was probably about twelve or thirteen, the daughter of a distant neighbor (by this time we were living on a ranch outside Tacoma) or possibly part of the 4-H group my mother was teaching to knit. I remember her trying to install hate in me … a bewildering, confusing experience. She used the n-word, which I’d never heard. And when my parents came home, I asked them about it.

Diahann Carroll, 1968, Julia (NBC)

By the time my father had hung up the phone with the girl’s parents, telling them, among other things, to stay away and never come to our house again, I understood how serious a violation this was, how wrong. And then he and my mother took me aside and told me that while there were words that some people found offensive, there were other words that had only the purpose of hate and hurt, and that those words—the word the babysitter had used—were the truly bad ones that no one should ever say. 

When I was seven, we moved to rural northern Florida, and I was able to witness that hate and hurt first hand, even if my mind couldn’t fully recognize what it was as yet. I experienced the smell of endemic, racism-engineered poverty; I tasted the gross inequalities of what was, in 1972, a region of enforced Jim Crow segregation.

My father helped a Black man whose truck broke down on an old back road in rural northern Florida. I didn’t understand until later why the man seemed so frightened when my dad stopped to help. He and his family stayed with us for a day or two. My father received death threats at his job.

My mother tried to pay a hospital bill and was ushered into a separate (and nicely furnished) waiting room that was “whites only.” When segregation was supposedly illegal. It was one of the rare times in her life when she exploded with anger. She called various entities, but in northern Florida, in 1972, racism was in full flower and full power. 

I remember when we moved to Colorado (we left Florida as soon as possible) and my mother had to explain to me why her friend, who happened to be white and happened to be married to a Black man, was suffering. When I was older, and had long made California my home, I remember learning about friends, who happened to be Black men, who were routinely followed by police and followed around by shop owners or workers. 

By Thomas J. O’Halloran, U.S. News & World Reports. Light restoration by Adam Cuerden .

I remember all of these things and much more, watching Diahann Carroll on Julia and probably being the only little white girl in Port Orchard, Washington, who owned a Julia lunch box; Shirley Chisolm running for President and Barbara Jordan during the Watergate hearings … three women, three heroes. And I also remember the hope and pride—actual pride—I felt for the United States of America when Barack Obama was elected President. And then—the shame, the ineffable shame and horror when in 2016 they elected a racist and criminally malignant narcissist whose worst impulses are only held in check by his incompetency. And for that, we must be thankful. 

I am thankful, too, for something else—something that my experience in northern Florida gave me. For a short time, we lived in a little town named Quincy–traditionally low-income, traditionally Black. I attended what was essentially an all-Black school. And I was welcomed and learned and grew … much more so than in the essentially all-white school I eventually had to attend when we moved closer to Tallahassee.

My second grade teacher in Quincy was an African-American woman of quiet strength, gentleness and gentility. It was she who put the first mystery book into my hand, from the sparse little library the school had to offer. She gave me The Ghost of Blackwood Hall, my first Nancy Drew. I wish I could find her and thank her for changing my life in such a profound and important way.

We are all the sum of who we meet, what we see, what we are told. How we listen, absorb, learn. Hate is taught and so is love.

Yes, I contend with CPTSD from a damaged childhood. But even that has made me better understand the traumas I don’t experience and will never experience because I was born white. And until that ends—until there is no American trauma by race, by gender, by sexuality, by religion, by economic class–I will be doing my best to use my own trauma to fight against the traumatization of others. 

#SayTheirNames #BlackLivesMatter #JusticeForAll #NastyWomanPress #ShatteringGlass