Tag Archives: PTSD

Friday Fiction: The Toughest Battle (Yet)

First entry          Previous entry

The triumphant heroes took their bows and the screen faded to black. Wu shook zir head. “That was…”

“Classic.” Trevor spoke quietly, trying not to wake the child curled up in his lap.

“Not the word I was looking for. And I’m not sure how it got on your ‘Evil Overlord’ list. That trash compactor was never intended as a death trap.”

“Come on, the explosions? The laser beams you could see? The aerodynamic starships? You don’t see vids like this anymore.”

“For which blessing, I will make a large donation to the next artistic fundraiser that hits you up for money.”

“Ha.”

Trevor shifted, preparing to stand.

“Would you like me to take them to bed?”

Trevor shook his head and pushed himself up out of the person-eating couch. Ho’neheso stirred, opening their eyes to look at him a moment before snuggling back into his arms. “You’ve stood in for me too often the last few years. I’m grateful, but Ho’neheso needs me to step up and be their father again.”

Wu followed him as he carried them carefully to their new—and well protected—bedroom. “You never asked them to change their name.”

“No.” Trevor laid his child on their bed and pulled the covers up. “They lost so much already. As long as I could keep them hidden and out of the limelight…”

“And what of you? You no longer need to hide who you are.” They started back down the hallway towards Trevor’s rooms. “Taking an Anglo name made sense when you wanted to move unnoticed in North America. Even with the First Nations reclaiming so much of their land, Anglo is still the ‘norm’ north of Mexico.”

Trevor grunted. Wu only stated the obvious when zi was building towards something big.

“You will be remaking the world in a new image. As you once remade yourself. But is Trevor Frederickson the man who should be remaking the world? Or Ma’evoto?”

“Does it matter? I’m me, whatever I call myself.”

Wu shook zir head. “Deborah has some interesting things to say on the importance and meaning of names. And I believe some of the First Nations have similar beliefs.”

Trevor let himself collapse on his bed. ”Wu… just drop it. I can’t think about this right now.”

Wu said nothing. Trevor’s thoughts circled endlessly. Setting up ‘Trevor’ as a fake identity. The last time his saw his father. The day he read his obituary. The… No matter how hard he tried he couldn’t push the pain and the memories away. A sob caught in his throat.

With hard learned patience, he steadied his breathing. I control nothing if I cannot control myself. Stepped back from the painful memories and watched them. Looking for the meaning that tied them together. The belief behind the pain.

“Ma’evoto is dead,” he finally whispered, “They named him dead and did the rites. I walked away from that name, from that life. I killed him. There is nothing to go back to.”

“We live in an age of magic. Your servant would be honored to find a necromancer to resurrect him.”

“Ha. Ha.”

Wu knelt beside him, hand outstretched. Trevor sat up and rested a hand on Wu’s head. “What would you ask?”

“Only this. Does your soul does bleed for the loss of who you were? Tell your servant it does not and I swear by the heavens I will never speak of it again.”

“I…” Trevor couldn’t say it. “I can’t answer that.”

Wu’s head bowed further, hir hand pulled back to hir heart. “As you will.”

Trevor’s fingers tapped against the bed, quick and discordant. Never before had he refused Wu an answer. It was his right. But he had never…

He pushed himself up and began pacing the room. On his third circuit, Wu stood.
“With permission,” the dragon said, “your servant will retire for the night.”

Pacing wasn’t helping. The buzzing in his head grew worse. “Yes, go.” Another circuit before Wu reached the door. Quickening his steps brought him to the door as Wu opened it. “I’m sorry.”

Wu bowed. “Your servant will do all zi can. But I cannot fight your demons for you.”

“No.” Trevor smiled. “Zi can only precipitate the battle.” He stepped back from the door. “You can go if you want. But I would rather have you with me while I fight them.”

Wu closed the door. “Then I will stay.”

Next entry

Living with an Abusive Metamour (Guest Post by Liz Gentry)

This week Liz Gentry of Learning Many Loves has chosen to share her experiences of living with a mentally ill and abusive metamour. Many thanks to Liz for opening up about this difficult experience.

Don’t forget to stop back next week, when we’ll be taking a close look at the intersection of abuse and mental illness.

First, a little background: I met my partner Jon a couple of years ago. Jon was dating another woman, Lora for about nine months before Jon and I started dating. A few months into Jon and I dating, Lora moved in with Jon. After dating Jon for a bit over a year, the three of us moved in together. We lived together for about fourteen months before Jon broke up with Lora. His reason for breaking up with her was (as he has told me) the abusive cycle that their relationship followed.

In writing about a day in the life of my experience living with someone who is verbally abusive and emotionally, the first thing I need to say is that what I expect from the day varies greatly with where we are in the cycle. The beginning of the cycle has no abuse. Lora and Jon would get along fine. Then small instances of verbal abuse and control would begin to creep in. Those instances would escalate over a several month period. Then there would be a huge screaming fight where Lora was repeatedly verbally and abusive towards Jon. The week after the fight, there’s a period of constant low-level fighting with a lot of controlling behavior and attempts to impose control through badgering, gaslighting, black and white thinking, and threats. Eventually, a resolution was reached, and there would be a honeymoon period again, with no abuse for some days to a few weeks before slowly beginning to escalate again.

The hardest thing for me (being a metamour living in and observing this abusive dynamic) was watching someone I love be abused, ridiculed, mocked, screamed at, and badgered. I am definitely someone who would rather be hurt myself than see someone I love being hurt. For all that experiencing this second-hand hurt, as I was not the one being abused, there was a deep sense of powerlessness about this. I couldn’t control my partner’s boundaries about what behavior he would accept. But I did need to figure out where it was appropriate for me to draw my boundaries, without becoming controlling or coercive myself. Although I viewed Lora’s behavior as abusive, Jon didn’t always agree at that time (later, he painfully came to the conclusion on his own that her behavior was really abusive many of the times when he said that it wasn’t). This put me in a very uncomfortable spot – if he doesn’t believe the behavior is abusive, is pushing him to understand that it is gaslighting? Even if I’m doing it out of pure concern (we could say “for his own good”), do I have a right to push until he agrees with me?

I think the answer to that is no. Even if I’m doing it out of concern, forcing Jon to agree with me about Lora abusing him is still forcing Jon to do something, and that is abusive. He had to come to his own conclusions, and live his life accordingly.

But trying to let him live his life, and live with him and his abusive partner was incredibly hard. It was scary. It was enormously stressful. When Lora was gaslighting Jon, I doubted my own ability to evaluate situations for harm. I repeatedly went to my friends and asked “Is this normal? Is this healthy? Jon doesn’t seem too upset about it, so maybe I’m just causing problems by being upset by it. Maybe I’m not really poly. Maybe this is a way that jealousy is manifesting itself and I’m really just trying to get rid of Lora so that I can have Jon all to myself. What is wrong with me?”

Admitting to myself that Lora behaved abusively took a long time, because I didn’t want to have an abusive metamour. I didn’t want to believe that my partner was willingly being in a relationship with someone who was abusive. Complicating matters were Lora’s diagnosed mental illnesses of PTSD and anxiety disorder. Was a behavior really abusive if it was fueled by those mental illnesses? Having gone through several hard times with depression myself, not cutting Lora slack with her mental illnesses felt hypocritical, shitty, and like I was being a bad metamour and a bad person.

Inside myself, there was a cycle of anger, fear, guilt and doubt. Anger at the way Lora treated Jon. Fear at seeing how it impacted him and wore him down over months. Guilt for not cutting Lora some slack and being more understanding, given her mental illnesses. Doubt that I was really poly, doubt that I was overblowing things, as I seemed to be the most concerned of the three of us, when it came to Lora’s behavior and the impact it had on Jon. But then, that doubt would give way to anger the next time I heard Lora and Jon fighting and she told him that he was as abusive towards her as her drug addicted ex had been.

Lora’s ex used to do things like “punish” Lora by having unprotected sex with other women, and then telling Lora that he’d done so while he and Lora were having sex the next day. Knowing this about Lora was painful and evoked a lot of sorrow in me for what she went through, while simultaneously enraging me that she would compare our loving, supportive partner to such a dirtbag. Who wouldn’t get angry at that and think to him/herself “No matter what is going on with me, it is WRONG to say that to a loving partner in a fit of anger”?

Living with Lora was also hard because I didn’t know how to treat her. She seemed to like me. She claimed to want to have a closer relationship with me. She wanted us to be close friends. In theory, I wanted that too, but seeing how she treated Jon…did I really want to get closer to Lora? And as time went on, she slowly began to treating me in ways that concerned me deeply.. She didn’t hear that I said to her, and attributed behaviors to me that I’d never do, but she would. For example, one day, I was getting home from work as she was leaving to go to the store. She said to me “Jon is a little sick, and he’s sleeping. I wanted you to know so that you don’t get angry with him that he doesn’t come and greet you as soon as you get in”.I have never been angry at a partner for not coming up and greeting me as soon as I got home. But a long-standing fight between Jon and Lora was that if Jon didn’t drop whatever he was doing and greet Lora when she came home, it was a sign that he didn’t really love her. Because Lora felt that Jon should always be excited when she gets home, and eager to greet her immediately, if he really loves her.

There’s a lot in that paragraph, that describes the level of control and expectation of behavior that Lora had towards Jon. It’s also a good example of the kind of difficult situation I was in. We all have our quirks and vulnerabilities. Was Lora feeling strongly about Jon greeting her as soon as she gets home just a little quirk? If Jon agreed to do this, then did it mean it wasn’t controlling? Did I have any right to judge or have an opinion about these things?

I didn’t know the answers to those questions. I did know that if getting closer to Lora meant that she would expect the same of me, then I didn’t want to get closer to Lora. I’ve never expected such a thing from a partner, and I didn’t want to be close to someone who would have that kind of expectation of me.

Because of the number of things that Lora could take offense to, coming home slowly become stressful and unpleasant. I never knew what small thing would send Lora into an enraged tailspin. I never knew when a quiet night would turn into a stressful night, as Lora found fault with something that Jon said or didn’t say, did or didn’t do. There were many instances where it seemed like Jon couldn’t win. When he wasn’t being berated for saying something Lora didn’t like, he was being berated for not talking to her enough.

While these fights fueled by Lora’s insecurity and masked as problems with Jon’s behavior raged on, I would think to myself “What does he see in this relationship? Do I have the right to judge it? What do I do about this? Can I do anything?”

This is a glimpse of what it was like, living with an abusive metamour. The self doubts, the anger, the hatred, the fear…it was all terrible. It took a toll on my health, my sleep, my ability to function at work, my ability to trust myself. I restarted therapy to work through these problems.

I’ve become passionate about having a dialogue and creating some form of action plan for other metamours who find themselves realizing that their hinge partner is being abused by another partner. I believe it’s very important to address controlling and coercive behaviors as soon as they begin and to push back against them immediately. I think that – had we all been willing to open our eyes and admit that Lora’s behavior was abusive earlier – it’s possible that our relationships could have been salvaged. By denying the reality of her abusive behavior for so long, I hit a point of no return, where I cannot have anything to do with her. Likewise, Jon (who is still in contact with Lora) isn’t certain if he’s able to have her in his life in any capacity. He’s trying to figure that out, but he’s said that it would have been easier to stay a part of her life had the abuse not escalated to the degree it reached while they were together.

The abuse of one partner by another will reverberate into the relationships with all other partners. I think we owe it to ourselves, as people committed to multiple loving relationships, to figure out different ways to handle this kind of situation. We need to work through finding the tools to do what we can to combat abuse, while respecting the agency and humanity of all those involved. Doing so would reap enormous benefits not just for the poly community, but potentially for our other friends and family members who may be dealing with abuse.

Liz Gentry is a pragmatist disguised as an optimist. In addition to her day job as a corporate desk-jockey, she specializes in hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. Though of a poly-friendly mindset all her life, she didn’t start living polyamorously until about five years ago. She chronicles her polyamorous journey at https://learningmanyloves.wordpress.com/.

This post is part of the Abuse in Polyamory blog series. It is related to Polyamory and Mental Illness.

Want more great articles? Support Polyamory on Purpose on Patron.

Polyamory and PTSD (and other trauma and stress related disorders) Part 2

Part 1

Ways to Manage Trauma and Stress Related Disorders in a Poly Relationship

Okay, I said this about anxiety and the same goes here:

If anxiety manifests in ways that look like jealousy or controlling behavior, do not follow standard poly advice for dealing with jealousy. Learn to tell the difference between anxiety-induced and jealousy-induced behavior. Treat jealousy like jealousy and anxiety like anxiety. Your partner has tools for managing anxiety for a reason. Use them! Treating anxiety like jealousy just compounds the problem.

Similarly, treating PTSD like abuse just compounds the problem.

When someone’s trauma causes them to act other unhealthy manners—including abusive manners—treating them like an abuser doesn’t help. That doesn’t mean their harmful behavior should be allowed to pass. But telling someone in the middle of a triggered response to past trauma that they are guilt tripping you and you won’t stand for it doesn’t help anyone.

Similarly, calling someone out for gaslighting and telling them that you aren’t going to put up with this shit, does no good when they honestly believe what they are saying.

This is also a good place to link to an old rant of mine. At some point in the healing process, people with trauma and stress related start to recognize that their thoughts and feelings are distorted. “I know what I’m feeling isn’t real, but I can’t stop feeling this way,” or any similar statement is not an invitation to tell your partner all the reasons why they are wrong to feel that way.

Managing trauma and stress related disorders starts with everyone involved learning to recognize what is the real person and what is the disorder. This can be as simple as not taking it personally if a partner needs to cancel a date because they can’t drive that night. It can also be as complicated as learning to recognize the unintentional gaslighting of a partner who honestly remembers things wrongly.

You can’t deal with the disorder until you can recognize when the disorder is fucking with things.

Next, focus on small steps. If the very idea of polyamory is triggering flashbacks of past betrayal, scheduling your first date next week will not work. In fact, this is one of the rare situations where I would actually encourage a couple to date together. Either both date the same partner or double dates with both their partners. Yes, this is completely against The Big Book of Poly. Explain the situation to potential partners, be VERY aware of the difference between a triangle and a T, and it can work.

Another option, if you are living with a partner and that partner going out on dates is triggering is for your partner to try having “date nights in.” I hope it goes without saying, but this absolutely needs to be your partner’s decision. Date nights in is something I’ve done a fair bit of in the last few years. Not because of mental health issues, but because my most entwined partner is disabled and we have a young child. Leaving my partner who sometimes couldn’t stand up w/o help alone with a young child (or worse, infant) he might or might not have been able to take care of was not something either of us were comfortable with. So poly partners and potential poly partners would come to our home, usually after the kid was asleep for the night. My live-in partner would put on his headphones and lose himself in a computer game or video. My visiting partner and I would have a “date night” on the living room couch, bed, or front porch.

Now, moving slowly doesn’t mean refusing to make changes. You can start out dating together or having date nights in to reduce the amount of triggering someone in your polycule is dealing with. Eventually you will want and need to move towards dating separately/having date nights out. Exposure is a big part of treatment for trauma and stress disorders for a reason—the only way to heal is to slowly push the boundaries of the disorder. Note, NOT your boundaries, but the boundaries imposed on you by the disorder. And ONLY at a pace you agree to. Note also, I didn’t say “a pace you are comfortable with.” When it comes to trauma there ain’t no such thing. Like doing physical therapy for damaged muscles, if you stick to what is comfortable you will not heal. But it needs to be your pace, and no one else’s. Poly partners can support, encourage, suggest, or set their own boundaries on what they are and are not willing to deal with. They can’t set the pace for you.

Once the effects of the disorder are recognized, everyone involved needs to be involved in setting ways to work around, with, and through these things. For something like not being able to drive, or needing to avoid dogs, this can be as simple as making alternate transportation available.

For problems directly triggered by polyamory it can be more difficult. I suggest having two levels of response for most trauma related problems. “This is triggering me but I can deal with it (maybe with a bit of support.” and “OMFG help!!!”

If a poly partner recognizes signs that someone’s reaction or action is due to a disorder, point it out. “Hey love, it sounds like this is triggering you. I get you are angry and scared. How do we deal with this?”

If there are things that can make it easier to deal with your partner leaving, ask for them. If there is nothing that will help, but now that you recognize being triggered you can deal with it, this is a good time to try to push through. There may be backlash later but you can probably manage until your partner gets back from their date—tell them that. They’ll go out, and you’ll deal as best you can until they come back, and when they come back you can ask for whatever aftercare you might need.

If you absolutely can not deal, tell your partner. DON’T assume that they know how badly you are doing. Have an “OMFG help!” response you’ve discussed and agreed to try ahead of time. Maybe your partner doesn’t go out when you are doing this badly. Maybe they call their partner and switch to a date night in. Maybe your partner doesn’t leave you alone, but helps you contact another partner, friend, relative, etc, to come over and be with you while they are out.

Trauma and stress related disorders that are severe enough to regularly impact dating and relationships—especially if dating and relationships are triggers—definitely need to be discussed upfront. And that doesn’t mean just the person with the disorder discussing their needs with potential partners. It means their partners discussing it with their potential partners. Everyone who might be impacted by the disorder needs to know what to expect. Otherwise they do not have the opportunity to give fully informed consent.

Okay, But What If I’m Just Starting to Date Someone with a Trauma and Stress Related Disorder?

The above discussion is mostly directed at people with trauma and stress related disorders and their long term partners. If you are just starting to date someone with a trauma and stress related disorder—or if you are starting to date someone whose entwined partner has a trauma or stress related disorder—you are in a very different boat.

But it starts out the same. Learn as much as you can about their disorder, how it affects their behavior and how it affects you.

There is a line from the musical Rent that is very relevant here, “I’m looking for baggage that goes with mine.” As I’ve said before we all have baggage. Mild trauma and stress related disorders, especially when they are largely under control, can go with most people’s baggage, as long as you are willing and able to work with them a bit. Severe trauma are stress related disorders are a very difficult type of baggage to match. If your baggage doesn’t “go” with he baggage of someone who has a trauma or stress related disorder that’s okay. But if you find them attractive, interesting, and generally someone you’d like to be in a relationship with, and they tell you some of their baggage is labeled “PTSD” or “Acute Stress Disorder,” don’t give up on them just based on the label. Get to know them and their baggage enough to see if maybe their needs and challenges can actually fit with yours.

Be prepared for an adjustment period. Dealing with something like severe PTSD has a steep learning curve, and like I’ve said before flashbacks can be horrible to watch. In general, the longer its been since the trauma that caused the disorder the better a grasp your potential partner will have on it and the better they will be able to tell you what they need and how it affects things. But that is only “in general” because everyone, and every trauma, is different. My experience has been that trauma from a single incident (bad car accident) causes a smaller range of problems than trauma over a long period of time. That isn’t to say that trauma from a single incident is easier to deal with—but trauma related to a bad car accident will usually only have triggers related to cars. Trauma related to single incident of rape will have triggers associated with that single incident (where it took place, what was done, sex in general). Trauma from a long term abusive relationship can be triggered by a wider variety of things. The trauma isn’t just associated with being in the car—it’s associated with being in bed, and sitting down to dinner, and saying something foolish in public, and the smell of burnt bread, and the scent of the abusive partner’s shampoo, and broken dishes, and, and, and, and…

So depending on what caused the trauma (and how severe it is), a potential partner may not be able to tel you everything about how the trauma affects them. They may not realize that the smell of burning bread triggers them until you get distracted in a make out session one day and they forget dinner is cooking.

What they can and need to tell you is a general idea of how severe the problem is, what areas of life it affects, what they need from you if they are triggered while you are together (or triggered when you are supposed to get together), and as much as they can of their major and common triggers.

Once you now what you are dealing with, it’s a matter of patience, flexibility, and awareness.

When Disorders Become Abusive

I said before that treating a partner with PTSD like an abuser when the disorder causes them to say things that are gaslighting or otherwise abusive doesn’t work. But what does work? How do you respond in a healthy manner when negative thoughts start to sound like a guilt trip?

First off, you need to be able to recognize what is happening. If you can’t recognize 1) what my partner is saying right now sounds like gaslighting and 2) they are saying this not to manipulate me, but because they really believe it, you will not be able to deal with it. And dealing with this is, at least initially very much on the ill person’s partners. Why? Because you can’t even begin to fix something you don’t realize is happening. And from the perspective of a person with a trauma or stress related disorder, all they are doing is expressing ho they feel. Polyamory is supposed to be about communication, right? So why do people keep getting angry when they try to communicate how they are feeling or the way they perceive things?

Once you recognize what is happening, you need to NOT address it right away. Instead you need to address what is under it. Let’s say a partner with PTSD says that obviously they aren’t important, they don’t matter, they might as well just die for all anyone cares about them.

You recognize it as a potential guilt trip. But you also recognize that your partner is genuinely hurting and is really attacking themselves, not trying to get a reaction out of you. What do you do?

In my experience the best way is to address it head on. “I’m sorry you feel that way. I love you very much, and I love having you in my life—even when (you drive me crazy/things don’t work out/we have a fight). I’m sorry I can’t (give you what you need right now/make this right/etc).” If you can do something for/with them, “How about we do X for a while, I think that might cheer both of us up.” If you need to take care of yourself or need to get out the door, “I really need to do this right now, but maybe when I get back we can do X.”

Reassure, offer support, and don’t let their negative thoughts/outbursts/etc keep you from doing what you need to do.

Later, when they are in a better place mentally and you are calm, is the time to bring up. “When you get upset and say things like that, it comes across as a guilt trip/manipulative/emotional abuse. I know you don’t mean to or want to do that. I need you to be aware of the way you say things.”

It will take TIME to make a change. Because they are not fully in control of themselves, because their thoughts and perceptions are distorted, and because they are dealing with psychological arousal, they won’t be able to “stop and think before you speak.” But if they aware of the problem, they will work to be aware of how they communicate and get better. It will probably start with their saying something about it after they calm down, “Hey, I shouldn’t have said that before, I’m sorry.”

I have had PTSD, I have had a long term partner with PTSD, and I have had a metamour with PTSD. Of all the mental illnesses I have dealt with, PTSD is the most difficult in a polyamorous relationship (or, I believe, any relationship). The flashbacks, dreams and memories are horrifying, but at the end of the day they are just a thing. You get through them. The psychological arousal combined with negative thoughts are destructive. Both destructive to the person with the disorder and destructive to the people who care for them.

Mild trauma and stress related disorders aren’t easy to deal with. But most people I have known who are willing and able to do the work involved in polyamory have also been full capable of doing the work involved in maintaining a health relationship while dealing with the disorder. Severe trauma and stress related disorders demand a huge amount of time, energy, and compassion. Polyamory can work with severe trauma and stress related disorders—in fact, a healthy polycule can make the disorder easier for everyone involved and help the person with the disorder heal. But it is definitely not a relationship that is right for everyone.

 

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.



Polyamory and PTSD (and other Trauma and Stress Related Disorders)

This post and others discussing specific mental disorders will reference the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Psychiatry and Psychology, Edition Five (DSM-5). Apologies to my international readers, I’m just not familiar enough with the ICD to use it as a reference.

Trauma and Stress Related Disorders

  1. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  2. Acute Stress disorder
  3. Reactive Attachment Disorder
  4. Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder
  5. Adjustment Disorder

PTSD is the best known of the trauma and stress related disorders. In the US it is widely associated with military personnel and the psychological damage of military service. However Trauma and Stress Related Disorders, including PTSD, can be caused by any type of trauma. Car accidents, abuse, natural disasters, and high-stress jobs such as working in an ER or fire department are only a few of the possible causes of trauma and stress related disorders.

PTSD and Acute Stress Disorder are can be caused by trauma that has happened in the past or long term ongoing traumas.

Reactive Attachment Disorder and Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder are childhood disorders. From what I can find they result from trauma related to loss of caregivers or damage to a child’s ability to connect with their caregivers. While these disorders develop in childhood, they don’t magically disappear when people become adults. Residual effects can cause difficulty with social interaction or forming attachments to loved ones.

Adjustment Disorder is a (relative) mild disorder caused by ongoing life stress. These stresses don’t need to reach the level of trauma. Anything from a family illness, to job instability, to loss of a relationship, can cause adjustment disorder. An important facet of adjustment disorder is that it is not an ongoing psychological condition. As soon as the stressor causing adjustment disorder is removed, the disorder will go away on its own.

Symptoms of Trauma and Stress Related Disorders

Symptoms vary a great deal, and everyone’s experience of trauma and stress related disorders will be different. However most symptoms fall into a few general categories:

  1. Re-experiencing the event—flashbacks are the best known form of this. Literally reliving the event or events that caused the trauma. However it can also take the form of dreams, obsessive thoughts, or disturbing memories popping up out of no where. One note about flashbacks: most people assume flashbacks are either visual (seeing the event again) or full-sensory (experiencing it with all your senses). However flashbacks can take other forms. A person may suddenly feel their abusers hands on them, reliving the physical feeling of the abuse. Of hear screaming or other sounds associated with the trauma.
  2. Heightened arousal—Arousal in the psychological sense is not the sexual arousal we usually associate with the word. In fact, arousal in psychology is a lot closer to what laypeople call the “fight-flight-freeze” response. In a state of arousal, everything is more intense. Arousal can lead to everything from aggressiveness to impulsiveness. It often causes hyper-vigilance and sleep disorders.
  3. Avoidance—someone with a trauma or stress related disorder will often go out of their way to avoid anything that reminds them of or is associated with the trauma or stress.
  4. Negative thoughts, mood, or feelings—this can take a lot of forms, from negative thoughts about yourself, to negative thoughts about the whole world. At base it is a distorted perception caused by the trauma or stress. Someone with adjustment disorder related to job loss might think that there is no point in trying to find a job. Obviously they just aren’t worth hiring. An abuse survivor will often expert other people to act like their abuser did. Etc. Memory loss from the trauma is also associated with this symptom.

Treatments for Trauma and Stress Related Disorders

Medication

There are no medications specifically for trauma and stress related disorders. Unlike many mental illnesses, with these disorders there is a very clear, non-biological cause. Effective treatment needs to address the experience and associated feelings.

That said, medication is sometimes used in association with other treatment. Anti-depressants, anti-anxiety meds, and sleeping medications are sometimes used to treat the symptoms, especially with PTSD. These medications can help a person with a trauma or stress related disorder to continue with as close to normal life as possible while they heal.

Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often cited as the most effective treatment for trauma and stress related disorders. Exposure therapy—gradually exposing yourself to the trauma and things that remind you of the trauma in a safe place—is often used and can be very effective. Even more than other forms of therapy, exposure therapy requires the right therapist. You NEED to feel safe and secure in order for exposure therapy to work. Support groups for survivors of various traumas often include unofficial exposure therapy, as people discuss their own experiences with others who they know will understand.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a relatively new approach to trauma therapy. Ever notice it’s easier to talk about hard stuff if you have something to distract you? A lot of people like to have “something in their hands” when discussing emotionally difficult topics. This is because having something benign to focus on helps distance our emotional reaction. EMDR uses this tendency to help trauma survivors face and deal with their trauma without the extremes of emotional reaction. There is still a lot of speculation about how and why it works. It does seem to allow trauma survivors to better cope with their trauma, reducing symptoms and speeding healing.

Alternative Treatments

I don’t know of any alternative treatments that I would trust which are specifically for trauma and stress related disorders. That said, herbal calmatives may help reduce arousal symptoms, meditation can also be helpful in dealing with negative thoughts and gaining space from strong emotions, and I personally have found that Massage Therapy can be a huge help in healing from trauma associated with sexual abuse.

When Trauma and Stress Related Disorders and Polyamory Collide

Some problems that come with trauma and stress related disorders are obvious. I’ve had flashbacks, and I’ve held loved ones while they relived the worst experiences of their life. I honestly can’t tell you which is worse.

Other problems are both more subtle, and more frustrating.

Someone whose trauma or stress was related to betrayal, abuse within a relationship, abandonment, and similar issues will find themselves triggered by many things that are a normal part of polyamorous relationships. And constantly waiting for your current partners to abuse you/betray you/abandon you like the people who caused your trauma never does good things for a relationship. In a poly relationship, your poly partners spending time with someone else—or even just the expectation of them spending time with someone else—can definitely be triggers.

Worse, the combination of psychological arousal and negative thoughts can come across as anything from a jealous rage to a guilt trip to gaslighting. (Remember—distorted perspective. Someone with a trauma or stress related disorder literally doesn’t see the world the way it really is.) And while the person lost in their trauma doesn’t intend or even realize that this is how they are acting, the people around them can still be hurt by it.

Let me note that this level of problem is not universal with trauma and stress related disorders. Please do not assume everyone with a trauma or stress related disorder will be affected this way. This is the most damaging effect trauma and stress related disorders can have on relationships—that does NOT make it the most common.

Other types of trauma can cause other types of problems. Trauma from a car accident may make riding in a car difficult to impossible—which interferes with going on dates, poly meet ups, or just picking a visiting partner up from the hospital.

For partners who don’t understand the impact trauma and stress related disorders can cause, refusing to do something that seems simple to them can cause other problems. “Why do I always need to come visit you. It’s just a short drive!”

Because of my specific trauma, I used to get flashbacks eating certain foods. The consistency and texture of food is a big meal to me, which many people have never understood or accepted. Being invited over to dinner was a mine field. I would struggle to navigate trying to be polite, trying to avoid conversation ending-explanations, and trying not to trigger myself. So as awesome as it might sound for a poly partner to offer to put together a picnic for us…

And of course, having a panic attack, flash back, or other trauma related freak-out as your partner is walking out the door to go on a date—no matter what the trigger or cause—is not only disruptive to your own relationship, but to your partner’s relationships as well.

Part II on ways to manage PTSD and other Trauma and Stress Related disorders.

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.