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Stephanie Foo went through hell, finally coming to terms with C-PTSD

Stephanie Foo went through hell, finally coming to terms with C-PTSD.

Stephanie Foo is not a trauma theorist.  She is a radio journalist and author of an account of her journey through C-PTSD, What My Bones Know.  Not always well-written, it is a horrifying story of her childhood, her encounter with at least a dozen unavailing therapies, and finally finding one that worked.  It includes her account of intergenerational trauma in general and her family in particular.  Her use of intergenerational trauma theory is deeply touching and theoretically unsophisticated. 

In another post I’ve discussed the definition of C-PTSD.  Complex PTSD refers to long-term exposure to trauma, usually beginning in childhood and continuing for years.  Often it involves sexual abuse, but not always.  Almost always there is no escape.  Dissociation is a predominant coping mechanism.  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM 5tr) does not recognize C-PTSD.  The International Classification of Diseases (ICD 11) does but limits it to those already suffering from PTSD, a compromise that has never made sense to me.    The psychiatric community generally seems less interested in the diagnosis than do those who suffer from it.  Foo, like so many, was relieved to find a diagnosis that helped make sense of her experience. 

A childhood in hell

It’s worth spending a little time with her story in her own words.  Her abuse was spectacularly awful, becoming worse as she entered puberty. 

A few times a year, my mother would get so tired of me that she decided God should take me back forever. She grabbed my ponytail at the top of a flight of stairs and used it to hurl me down. She raised a cleaver above my wrist, or she pulled my head back and pushed the blade into my neck, its cold edge pressing into the softness of my skin. I’d apologize frantically, but she’d scream at me that I didn’t mean it, to shut up before she sliced my jugular open. I’d fall silent, but then she said I was never repentant. So I’d start to apologize again, and she said my apologies were worth nothing, plus now my tears made me so ugly she was certain I had to die. So I stayed quiet until she screamed at me to speak again. We’d sit there, trapped in a senseless loop for hours. (p 13)

How did I feel about the fact that my mother blamed her suicide attempts on me? I couldn’t tell you. Those would be some very big feelings for a very little girl. But I do know this — that every night before bed, I kneeled and said the same prayer over and over like a mantra. “Please, God — let me not be such a bad girl. Please let me be able to make Mommy and Daddy happy. Please make me into a good girl.” (p 15)

Her father was no help.

“It’s not her [mommy’s] fault. It’s just that I’m bad, I’m awful, I’m evil,” I told him, and he believed me. “Why do you have to be like this,” he’d ask. “Why can’t you just be better?”

Worse was what she calls her father’s car terrorism.

My father didn’t hit me once after my mother left, but he was a fan of car terrorism.

“It’s time for both of us to die,” he’d sing, smiling. “I’m going to kill myself because I’m tired of this life, and you’re a fucking bitch so you’re coming, too.”  He almost killed us a dozen times; each time, I’d beg and plead and placate him, feeding him reasons why we needed to live. (p 34}

How did she survive?

Though she doesn’t linger on it, Foo seems to attribute her survival to her hatred. (p 30) Hatred that she put into practice after her mother left, and her father took over her abuse.

Then I heaved the ax up above us in a graceful arc that would end on his balding skull. And I started to scream .  . . . “ How do you like it? ” I said quietly, in that same chilling, deadpan, serial-killer tone I knew so well, and it felt delicious in my own mouth. “How does it feel to be on the other side of things? To be inches from death? How does it feel when someone wants to kill you?” (p 35)

“Okay, then let’s get one thing straight. You are never going to threaten my life again. NEVER. Do you understand me? ” “Yes.” “I SAID. DO. YOU. UNDERSTAND. ME.  “Yes!” “You will never grab me. You will never touch me. You will never go over the fucking speed limit. You will drive right. You will never use your car to punish me. Do you have any idea what growing up with a constant fear of death has done to me? It has turned me into the fucking monster you see right now. This is happening because you did this to me.” (p 35) 

Her anger, I believe, saved her from psychosis.  She cossetted her nascent self in rage.  “My anger was my power.”  But her rage only bought her time.  It didn’t heal; it only protected her fragile, broken self from obliteration.  That was no small thing. 

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