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The Wisdom of CPTSD

For a moment, imagine that you are a child again.

Imagine that this child that you are is growing up in an environment that feels consistently unsafe, insecure. Where you know that the attention you get will be another wound left unattended. The emotions you feel coming from your parents are stress, overwhelm, fear, guilt, shame, and anger. You feel these feelings in every waking moment when surrounded by your parents. You reach for a cookie and get blasted with stress. You fight with your little brother and you are annihilated by anger. You use a ‘bad’ word and the wrath of shame cascades over you as a parent cuts you to the bone not with their words, but with the emotional resonance behind their words.

As children we are naturally enmeshed in our environments and we don’t know any other reality than that with which we are enmeshed in the day to day of our homes and caretakers. These caretakers are our whole world and we have the innate ability as children to absorb everything around us. As children our filters are down, we have not yet learned to distinguish heavy feelings from light.

In dysfunctional homes with emotionally immature adults, children get an overflowing spoonful of the heavy, with little of the light. When mental health issues crop up, simply existing in such a home can feel like a minefield when the emotional resonance switches from manic to depressive or passive to aggressive in an instant.

My mother had a rocking chair. This rocking chair was her mother’s. If I had access to it today, I would burn it. My grandmother was known as ‘Mean Grandma’ by the elder grandchildren in my maternal family. This is the chair where my mother would grieve and pull in a little five year old boy to shelter and comfort her grief. As this unprocessed grief poured from her she unknowingly sparked a chain of childhood perceptions that have cascaded through my life. I see this rocking chair as the carrying forward of my family’s transgenerational trauma, the malingering and unspoken pain of prior generations brought to the present.

Someone, my mother, whom I loved was in pain. I could see and feel this pain. I did what I could to comfort her and have a single memory of genuine compassion as she rocked in this chair, tears streaming down her face. Yet this pain that welled up in her eyes was relentless and insatiable. It came now and again and again and again as she cycled through a memory wiping denial, then optimism, then mania, and back into existential lovelessness. I eventually decided that I could not fix or help her, and that this was my fault for not being enough. The spark of a lifelong inadequacy that has overcome me at times, despite having learned how to fix computers and diesel engines and broken farm equipment and busted dogs. At the tender age of eight I took my daughter out to work on our youngest piece of equipment, a 1980 686 International tractor, with the lesson, “We fix what we have, we don’t need to buy new.” Yet for all of the fixing I’ve done I now see the externalization of an inner conflict–I couldn’t fix you, but I can fix this or that or them.

I then went about my days attempting to perfect that which was imperfect, the world around me or my partners or ancient, auction bought farm equipment. I built an island on a farm that could fix all of the imperfections in my world. The food was clean, the rows straight and the process systematic. Onions went before greens to clean the field of weeds. Squash followed heavy feeding of tomatoes to give the soil a rest. The fall broccoli and cauliflower and napa and carrots were planted shortly after the 4th of July each year, ensuring an ample market stand from the first of June through Thanksgiving. The internal storms came and went, yet every Thursday and Friday morning during the growing season found me harvesting arugula and mizuna and baby kale and lettuces at 7 AM for 20 years.

I have attended thousands of farmers markets and grown food for tens of thousands of forks and tables, yet it was never enough. The systems could always be improved, my knowledge of the climate or bioregion could always be expanded, and I could always find another way to buy more worn out junk to fix at auction to grow more veggies better.

At times I feel it is a cruel joke that I have to continuously repeat misguided perceptions of my childhood, like a hamster wheel of activity driven by my inner five year old that had no hope of satisfying the mile wide hole in my mother’s heart. Yet here I am, my mother’s son, attempting to perfect everything around me because I cannot dare to look within to see and then feel the patterns I was handed by the so-called adults in the room I know as mom and dad.

For childhood survivors, CPTSD means two things behind the mask of a five letter abbreviated label. The first is having your core sense of self violated before you had any idea what violation was. The voices in your head cease to be your own as your abusers’ voices supplant your own innate intelligence and insight. This creates a sense of internal conflict because your own will has been stripped from you, and your compromised will now comes back as a fog of regret, inner turmoil, and conflict because you were trained from a very young age to accept unhealthy behavior patterns that confused pain with love. Two of the mountains a CPTSD survivor has to overcome are reclamation of sense of self and a great untangling of crossed mental and emotional wires that lead one to equate sex as love, healthy receiving as inadequacy, or love as pain.

For as many times as I have turned away from this readily apparent fact, I choose now to look long and hard, then lean into it. I have climbed high enough to know that I am worth the effort of self-reclamation, and I have seen far enough not to rest when the inherited crescendo of voices in my head attempt to claim me in their Mitote. At my core, I know that I am neither judge, nor victim. I know that I have inherited a thousand voices, yet they are no-thing compared to my own clear, true voice. I know that recovery is possible, that we can get clear, and that we have to fight for it.

In healthy human development, the blank slate of the child has the opportunity to engage with their environment and learn from parents who choose to guide instead of devolving into stick and brick authoritarians and emotional terrorists. Yet many of us came up in the old way, the way that left lacerations on our bodies and minds and hearts. With perspective and healing and time I have come to believe there is beauty in having lost my sense of self.


The beauty of a mama bear with a rage filled kid with big emotions wrapping him in her arms and loving him despite his challenges.

It is the father that knows his own challenges, reflected back through his daughter, and provides the care, support and insight so that she can learn for herself how to move though this world.

The woman who knows her wounds so intimately that she will never allow another to feel unwelcome.

It is the voice within all of us that chooses to stand up to the unfairness and injustice within and without and say, “never again is now.”

For some of us, this still feels like a lonely row to hoe in the back forty. For others, there is the knowledge that we are supported within and without by our chosen tribe. Whether we walk alone or in tandem, we know we stand in choice and we wouldn’t choose another way because the choice to defer or abdicate what we learned from our parents would mean sacrificing all that we know ourselves to be.

When a child loses their sense of self they unknowingly open a door to later remediation. Having had their thoughts and feelings and identity suppressed then supplanted, there is opportunity to choose anew one’s character and values, then make new choices. With choice and discernment these brave souls have the opportunity to redefine for themselves, standing in their truth, defining where their compass points, and whether they wish their lives to be ruled by control, shame, inappropriate guilt, or betrayal. The choice to choose a life guided by unity, resolution, empathy, resilience and strength is equally valid.

For those of us that bore witness to the dysfunction of our families there is a cost. That cost is the fog of inherited fear, obligation and guilt that was never ours to bear. We were indoctrinated into a system of being that does not serve us, our communities or our kids. To recreate our trauma for another cycle of the generations is not a possibility we are willing to consider.

“When we know better, we do better.” – Cal Banyan

The quote above implies that knowledge and understanding, along with insight and perspective is inherently empowering. We can do this and we are doing this, because the choice to turn away is a road we cannot walk. Never again is now.

We chose to reconsider our perspectives and turn towards ourselves.

We choose to call the silence of abuse into question and let our feelings rip through us with courage.

We choose to question each and every voice in our mindspace and dump our toxic inheritance into the void of renewal, knowing that with each victory over what was stolen from us is a step into our own self-realization.

We choose to treat others with the kindness and compassion that bypassed our upbringings.

We choose again, how we want to move through this precious life.

about author


A dad, a kid, a kelpie and two cat brothers rubbertramping around the country doing our best to live authentic lives while awakening to our birthright. 

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