Friday, April 19, 2013

Fighting Complex PTSD

(Note: For a list of practical resources, please see the Dealing with Anxiety, Panic, and PTSD post.)

I withdrew from my Spanish II class in February. After spending hundreds of dollars in doctor and therapist appointments in just three weeks and spending a week on the couch shaking from unrelenting panic attacks, the tuition money seemed less significant.

I should have dropped the course after the first night. I did send the instructor an email* before the second class, expressing how I felt his attempts at “humor” demeaned women in general, and his wife in particular. Though he never responded, I felt better for speaking up. The professor’s misogynistic attitude, compounded by cultural insensitivity, frustrated me more each week. Several of us female classmates would roll our eyes at each other when he would start telling his stories, and every night we would curse our bad luck. 

Memories of the kind and gifted linguist who had introduced us to the course the previous semester only made us feel worse. Gaspar was native to Mexico, but could do impressions of any Hispanic accent. Gentle, generous, open-minded, and a natural storyteller, Gaspar quickly gained our confidence. Learning to communicate with him was easy, and fun. 

This man, a retired Air Force navigator, had once substituted for Gaspar during that previous semester. We were not impressed. We would never have registered for any class we knew he would be teaching. (The college website had only listed “Staff” every time I checked.)  Many of us would not have endured five minutes in his presence in any other context, but we had paid for the course and the materials and adapted our schedules and we wanted to learn the language, after all! Had he been a preacher or Sunday School teacher, I would have walked out on him the first night. He liked to tell us about practical jokes he found funny, “jokes” that had caused other women a lot of anger and hurt. 

Language learning is an intimate process, involving deep emotional involvement as well as new brain connections. Each night I found myself more agitated as I tried to overcome self-protective emotional barriers in order to practice the vocabulary with this man. As we moved from career choices and educational goals to emotional states and personal grooming habits, this quickly became an exercise in cognitive dissonance. I thought I was managing to cope with the additional stress, but my body called my bluff.

I began having panic attacks on my drive to campus, then anxiety in class. The instructor’s attempt at Valentine’s inspiration (reading English translations of French poets) was the last straw, and when he stood blocking the doorway and the lightswitch for the final 15 minutes of class while he showed us a Spanish show in the dark, years of suffocating trauma from my past resurfaced and I felt trapped. The next day I fell apart and called my doctor.

The month that followed was a very rough road, but I got back into therapy and started fighting back. With time, my nervous system is recovering and I’m a functional mom again. Looks like I'll complete my biology class (at a different campus) this semester, though future educational goals are indefinitely on hold. 

The bright side is that by triggering PTSD from my childhood and my years in the cult, this horrid professor inadvertently caused an earthquake that loosened up all kinds of shit that had been buried deep inside me. Now I get to deal with each piece as it surfaces: all the times I felt helplessly trapped--in rooms, cars, buildings, institutions, belief systems, relationships. The many, many episodes when adrenaline coursed through my system, preparing me for action I was unable to take, leaving me shaken and vulnerable.

Now I can act. I can build a new life, take responsibility for myself, and leave behind unhealthy relationships, experiences, and beliefs. I can flourish and be happy. One little step at a time. 

*The note I sent to my professor at the beginning of the semester:

Señor W-----,

I am looking forward to another semester of studying Spanish. But I would be contenta más  if you would omit the jests regarding marriage, divorce, women, and your wife. Maybe that kind of humor worked among the guys in the Air Force twenty years ago, but in a classroom filled with women who are paying to listen, it comes across as unintentionally offensive. 

Perhaps I am overly sensitive, but too many of my friends have had to leave homes, husbands, and financial security to protect what mattered more: their sanity, their self-respect, and their children. By talking about divorce/marriage as a matter of economic benefit, you trivialize the tough choices women are making every day.

I hope you and your wife are actually very happy together, and that the attempted humor is not a playful band-aid covering a serious wound. I would be humiliated if my husband spoke about our relationship in the same way. 

Thank you for your time and I’ll see you en la clase!


  1. Beautiful, J. So beautiful. XOXO My earthquake was last year and although it was terrifying at the time, I'm so grateful for it now. Each aftershock brings up something new, but in a way I can handle. Love you and continue to wish you so much courage, strength, and healing. XO

  2. I wonder if it would be better for you to seek out classes with female professors?