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Living With PTSD - Who Am I Behind This Mask?

Peeling it away meant admitting to a past I had denied all my life

“So, tell me a little about yourself.”

Do you dread hearing these words?

Do you avoid meeting new people because of where a simple introduction might lead?

Do you run through a list, built unconsciously yet painstakingly over a lifetime, of all the subject areas you can’t discuss? Do you imagine verbal exchange scenarios like myriad paths through a maze, desperate to avoid the wandering monsters hiding in its dark passage ways? A wrong turn here, a mistaken doorway opened there, and you’re trapped.

I did. A shy and timid boy, I grew into a pathological loner. Silent, sullen and wearing a perpetual frown like razor-wire, to keep the real me locked inside, and to keep others out.

I couldn’t even allow my closest friend, the man I now think of as my brother, to know me fully. I’ve been married twice and neither wife really knew me either. I didn’t, couldn’t, let them.

Don't Look At Me - Photo by Paul Fjelrad

Hearing it now, you’d think this is something I was doing on purpose. As if it were a choice I’d made to hide who I was from those closest to me. Unless you’ve been through this yourself, and probably been through the years of therapy necessary to peel away layer after layer of shields and armour that you’ve surrounded yourself with, you’d think I was deliberately lying to everyone.

However, in that case you perhaps don’t understand the secret to telling a really good lie.

First you lie to yourself, then everyone else is easy. Secondly, live in an alternative reality, where you don’t even know you’re lying.

I began lying to myself before I even knew what truth was.

I hid my past behind a mask

Once I had escaped the hell of my childhood home, and moved into university accommodation, I felt free for a few brief but shining months. Unfortunately, I then came to understand that I’d taken the prison walls along for the ride, as the denizens of my new environment wanted to get to know me, yet really didn’t want to know the truth of who I was.

Worse than that, deep down I didn’t want them to know me. If I let down my shields then the consequences would mean revealing my fear, my shame, my abuse. But first, it would mean admitting the truth to myself.

This I could not tolerate.

During my university years, I began to learn the art of talking about myself without ever revealing anything. It became my new survival skill. Then, the most unexpected thing happened. I met a girl, I fell in love, and more bizarrely she fell in love with me, we married and my daughter was born, all within the space of 15 months. I then moved to Denmark after my final exams and perhaps began to believe that finally my real life could start, as I was now free of the nightmares of my past.

What I had not understood, is that if you never let anyone around you see the real you, then no one can possibly love you.

They love the idea of you. They love the mask that you are trying so desperately to present to the world. They love a fictional character, not the reality.

My mask protected me until I was forced to face myself

I did not admit to myself that I was abused until my mid-30s. I was in couples counselling, endeavouring in vain to save my second marriage. At the first session the counsellor asked whether we had anything in our pasts or from our childhoods that we thought might make it difficult to build a successful relationship, express love or be intimate. My then-wife immediately responded, “No”, then looked over at me as if silently saying, “Well? Just say no so we can get on with this.” My immediate thought was;

She’s not going to say anything? Her father was a vile, violently abusive man who battered both his wife and two daughters and was unrepentant even as her mother died from cancer when she was 15. And she’s not going to say anything?

As she continued to stare at me, now somewhat quizzically as I still hadn’t responded, a second train of thought hit me. An internal voice was now asking me questions that until now had been forbidden;

Did your mother not convince you that you were dangerous and capable of murder age 7?

Do you remember she said God put all the bastards in one family so they could suffer together?

Do you not believe that you are cursed? That you have a monster chained up inside you, only restrained by the force of your will?

Did your mother not make you watch as she removed your grandfather from your life at age 7, so the next time you saw him was in a coffin after his suicide? Which your mother made sure you knew was because your grandmother caught him masturbating and then tormented and shamed him until he took his own life.”

Your brother is dead after your mother and father conspired to blame him for the violence and abuse in your house. Did they not put him away in a home for disturbed children after she threatened to burn him alive if they didn’t take him away?

Did you not spend every day of your childhood in either pain, fear or shame, from the physical and psychological abuse that was your only constant companion?

Have you not lived all these years with the knowledge of your father sexually abusing your sisters, probably with your mother’s knowledge if not consent, and you didn’t tell anyone?

This is your second marriage that is failing! Honestly do you even know what love is or how anyone is ever meant to love you if they knew what you’ve got bottled up inside?”

If you’re going to lie now then isn’t it just better to end your marriage right here rather than carry on this charade?”

Both my wife and the counsellor were now staring at me. The look on the counsellor’s face was clearly communicating that she knew what my answer was, but was just waiting for me to say the words. The frustration was growing on my wife’s face by the second.

Out of nowhere, I heard myself saying, “I think there are some things I need to tell you about myself.”

Windows to the soul — Photo by Paul Fjelrad

The path to healing is never simple

For the first time I was going to peel back the mask. For the first time I was going to use the A-word.

Unfortunately this path ended before it really got started.

My mother died, my second marriage ended and my counselling with it, I then went on a 5-year bender of self-destruction that only ended after a night in a police cell. I had gone from thinking that I had nothing left to lose, to realising that at the end I could lose myself, and start to become the very thing I despised.

As Nietzsche said;

He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

Seven years after this first counselling appointment, I was living in Spain and working as a sailing instructor when my 17 year-old daughter reached out to me after 13 years apart. After that, I started to try and put myself back together. Not much later, after my daughter’s subsequent suicide attempt had shattered me into a thousand pieces, and only after I had hit the absolute rock bottom facing whether I would end my own life, I went and sought help.

I was diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, that in my case was so severe and started so early that I had no pre-trauma identity, and began a 3 ½ year climb back from that abyss, to discover who I was, heal the injuries that could be healed, and learn to adapt and live with the scars that would remain.

But here is the truth of it, at least in my experience. Contrary to popular belief, therapy doesn’t remove a single traumatic experience, it doesn’t expunge a single horrific memory, erase a single self-destructive act. It does not, in any way shape or form, change your life.

But it does change your perspective.

You peel away all the masks, the shields, the armour and come to terms with who you are and what happened to you. It gives you the opportunity to choose who you want to be, what you want to believe, and how you want to act. From a skewed set of perspectives, that bury you under a trash-heap of lies, you get to be yourself and have the choice about who that is.

From the ashes I rise — Carving out my identity on my skin — Photo by Paul Fjelrad

You carve out an identity, and then when someone asks you, “So, tell me a little about yourself”, you can actually answer. And if they don’t like it, well that’s their problem and not yours.


Story & Photos sent and written by 'Paul Fjelrad'.



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