Quarantine, with a Side of Complex PTSD

I snapped this pic recently during one of my early morning walks around the duck pond in town. The pond, which, incidentally, overlooks my old office building at SWAU, has been one of my rare quiet, calming places throughout the last six months.

Oh, dear friends and readers. Throughout this coronavirus saga, I have wanted to post an update blog often. I have tried a few times, but the whole quarantine/shelter-in-place situation has strained me, like it has so many others currently struggling with their mental health. I believe the Lord has been striving with me, as he is with the world right now, trying to get my attention—our attention.* What is he trying to tell you?

If I’d had it my way, I would have been running on all cylinders this summer, taking trips to see my Minnesota friends and family, taking more graduate classes, socking it to my dissertation, starting a women’s prayer group. But that’s not what God had in store for me. No, for me, He had a whole lot of sitting still planned­—even being knocked on my bum, quite frankly—due to anxiety which, I soon decided, was really a manifestation of complex PTSD. But more on that in a moment.

First, a brief recap of what’s happened since COVID-19 upended our lives.

March—May

My office at UTA, which is about an hour’s drive away. I have not worked on campus since March. Poor, unused office space!

I started the spring semester continuing fulltime doctoral work, as well as part-time tutoring for UTA’s writing center. But after spring break, of course, my kids and I were sent home to work and study within our own four walls. This arrangement would have been a disaster if not for my mother-in-law and husband. My mom-in-law (who was already their teacher) took on tutoring the kids a few hours a day, and my hubby took the kids in the afternoons, while I worked and studied in our bedroom. I can’t tell you how grateful I am that I didn’t have to figure out teaching my kids while doing my own work and school. God provided.

I should mention here, since I haven’t yet on this blog, that my latest book with Paul Coneff, Brutally Honest, came out within the past year. This book, like my memoir, explains why and how brutal honesty is so important when it comes to emotional healing. We actually did most of the writing of this a few years ago, before I was officially back at work. It was a fun and challenging project for me, because I had to create characters and a true-to-life, but fictional, storyline (we are calling it a parable) about people encountering the “angriest prayer in the Bible,” or Psalm 109, through a small group Bible study. With this work, I proved to my hubby that I can write about topics other than myself:)  (although a lot of the emotion in the book did come from personal experience:) As far as reader responses, Paul and I have had readers tell us the book is a page turner, reads like a novel, and has been a tremendously helpful resource for anger, anxiety, depression, and other emotional struggles. I hope you’ll check it out!

June

Noticing Patterns

Unfortunately, once school let out and I looked up from my studies, an old pattern resurfaced. I started suffering another ginormous bout of anxiety, which has been happening during my school breaks ever since I returned to work. Thankfully, God had already provided my friend, Naomi, to pray with me.

Journaling was a lifeline for me this summer. While the thought of blogging made me too anxious, journaling several days a week really helped calm my mind. (The positive benefits of journaling is one of my areas of doctoral research, in fact. Having so recently experienced the benefits myself, I sincerely and strongly recommend journaling as a therapeutic practice to my readers!)

(Quick aside: Naomi is a church friend from my time in Missouri who read my book Ending the Pain and subsequently requested prayer ministry. Since the beginnings of our friendship and my prayer ministry to her, in about 2016, our prayer times have evolved into reciprocal prayer support; now, I like to think of us as a two-woman support group, where we trade prayer sessions every other week. Last year, because I was so strapped for time, we would do these sessions during my commutes to and from UTA—not ideal, but we made it work, and God blessed with no car accidents:)

There Seems to Be a Root, Here

Through my biweekly prayer sessions with Naomi this summer, I was able to notice a striking pattern in my anxiety: it doesn’t happen at work or school; it only happens in connection with family or home settings. It also happened at church last year, especially during the brief stint when I taught in my sons’ Sabbath school class. The common denominator was being in a caregiving role with young kids, with the kids usually being mine (though, now that I think of it, I also struggled with anxiety years ago when I was a high school teacher).

Just days into my summer “break” (maybe I should say summer breakdown?) I found myself wound “tight, tight, tight,” as I wrote in my journal, and having so many weird reactions—startling easily at loud noises, angry outbursts, fantasies of running away—that I embarked on some internet research. I wondered: Was there a name for what I was suffering from, beyond just “Generalized Anxiety Disorder”? Because my anxiety seemed way too specific to be called “general.”

Discovering Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD)

My research led me to a condition called complex post-traumatic stress disorder, or C-PTSD. After an hour of internet reading, it was clear to me that this was probably what I had. But I needed to understand it better. So, I went to my recently reopened public library to do more research.

Reading Pete Walker’s semi-autobiographical book on complex PTSD in late June was healing; I cried as I read passages that mirrored my experience of struggling so badly in what seemed like simple, normal circumstances. I reread my emotional eruptions and recurring fantasies of escaping not as evidence that I was a horrible wife and mother, but as examples of what Walker calls the four F’s: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn (fawn refers to people-pleasing). I understood that my desperate feelings (and sometimes desperate actions) were tied to emotional flashbacks rooted in complex trauma; that is, prolonged trauma that occurs over a period of time, usually in childhood. I understood that my childhood development had been arrested years ago, and that was why parenting these days was so hard: because, while trying to parent my kids, I was still trying to parent myself.

For those readers who can’t relate, I know this might sound like psycho-babble mumbo-jumbo, but for me, Walker’s insights came as sparkling revelations. I sobbed with relief to know that there was a name for what I struggled with.

As Fred Rogers famously said, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”

New knowledge in hand, I was ready to get help and move forward. But I didn’t quite know how. As Walker and other psychology professionals note, C-PTSD is a relatively new concept in the field, and as yet does not hold its own entry in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), or the Bible of psychology; rather, it is a subcategory of PTSD, and one that many professionals in the field are not aware of.

So, I started by sharing my revelations with a couple close girlfriends who, I believe, also may suffer from C-PTSD. (At first I puzzled over why so many of my friends, and readers who have reached out to me, seemed to share this diagnosis. Then I realized that my prayer ministry and writing projects are designed to draw exactly this kind of crowd. No shame, ladies and gentlemen. We are all in this together, seeking healing for the crummy hands life dealt us.)

July

Old Prescription: Prozac

Taking seriously the magnitude of what I was struggling with, at the beginning of July I put myself on Prozac to help manage my immediate anxiety, until I could get help for my deeper issues. From what I’ve read, depression and anxiety are often secondary to trauma…so if I get help with the trauma, I’m hoping the anxiety will decrease.

(Second aside: I had a leftover, unused supply of Prozac from when we moved to Texas in 2018. In anticipation of our move and gap between jobs and health insurance, my then-doctor had prescribed me extra meds, which I didn’t end up needing once I started work. Go figure.)

Anyway, for the next five weeks, Prozac helped settle me down and sit with my family; it calmed my incessant urge to escape. On the mornings I could beat my kids awake, I sat in the pre-dawn quiet reading the book of Matthew, Message translation. This modern translation made the reading fresh and surprising, and I found myself meditating anew on the life of Jesus. His was a life of suffering and self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice, in fact, came up prominently in my prayer sessions with Naomi.

New Prescription: Self-Sacrifice

During my July 11 prayer session, after an uncomfortable hour praying through my anxieties without much relief, I asked Naomi to pray for blessings for me. But after she prayed, no discernible blessings came to my mind. Instead, the words It’s not about you came up. Huh? I asked Naomi to pray one more time for clarity, because I didn’t understand. At first I thought maybe God was telling me “This summer is about God and what he’s doing, even if I can’t see or sense what He’s doing.” I think that statement is true for the Christian life in general, but another round of prayer gave me more clarity on my particular situation: namely, God showed me that, while I didn’t feel like I was being blessed in this season, I could play a part in blessing others right now, primarily Buc. That was a pivotal moment and perspective-changer for me.

This was one of my husband’s ideas of a fun quarantine project: get six chickens and build a chicken coop. Ain’t he creative? This structure was built out of an old trampoline frame and got the attention of some morning walkers, who called me over to the fence and asked me to take pics of the thing with their phone, so they could build one, too!

From that prayer session on, I took serving others as one of God’s prescriptions for me during this painful time at home. Of course, serving others is just part of living the Christian life, but sometimes we need a reminder. For the next month, with the help of Prozac and God’s prescription, I laid down my hyper-planning, hyper-anxious personality and worked at being here for a friend who needed childcare. I aimed for acts of service that would bless my hubby—namely, feeding our new chickens and weeding the garden (his idea of fun summer projects, not mine). I made a few meals for extended family during their painful moving process. I prayed with a couple readers who reached out to me. I hosted some stuff at my house. And I tried to give my best to my children, even if my best wasn’t all that impressive.

And the work I put into others came back around. Friends, my hubby gave me the best birthday gift ever at the end of July: he converted a previously unused, nasty backyard shed into an office for me! What sweet relief to again have a quiet space to call my own! Thank you, Honey.

In the past two years, I have been ousted from two office spaces at two universities (first, by hiring freeze, second, by COVID-19). These were places where I found my sanity after four years staying home with the kids, suffering anxiety that I didn’t know was really a symptom of complex trauma. More recently, COVID-19 took even coffee shops and libraries from me…and Texas heat took the outdoors. Sorry to be so dramatic. I’m just trying to say that this office space means the world to me. Buc saw what it meant to me the day we moved my furniture in. I set down the boxes I was carrying, looked up, and suddenly saw the ghost of my former office at SWAU (I think it was the “Be strong and courageous” sign). Then, I broke into tears. God provides.

August

Antidepressants Are Great…Until They’re Not

On August 6, I wrote in my journal that, while Prozac had allowed me to feel calmer and less reactive, I was also starting to feel drugged. So, after praying about it with Naomi, I decided to drop the Prozac. God helped me see that with my next semester of grad school coming up, I need my mind sharp. He also assured me that if I need meds again in the future, I can take them. And He told me I was not a bad Christian for taking them–even though some Christians are anti antidepressants. (Readers, please make those decisions with the input of your doctor, and your Creator.)

Back to School…Back to Therapy

Sam (middle) is 6 1/2 and starting first grade; Seth is 4 1/2 and starting preschool. I am so thankful for my sons’ teachers and for their school reopening in-person. God bless all the teachers and school personnel out there!

As of last week, my kids have re-entered school, in person, thus relieving a major trigger for me. And, in light of my summer struggles, I have taken seriously that I have some un-processed trauma to contend with­—some problems that Prozac, and perhaps even prayer ministry, can’t fix. As such, I have started some over-the-phone therapy with a new counselor who is trained in treating trauma.

But even though I have only had one counseling session so far, I am encouraged by the healing that has come from simply getting informed about complex trauma, and owning that I suffer from it. Take this reflection from my June 22nd journal entry, for instance, which I wrote after reading Pete Walker’s book:

“I feel really hopeful that I am turning a corner. It makes so much sense that what I’ve been experiencing is flashbacks to trauma, and re-traumatization once I became a mom, especially after baby #2. My anxiety was second to my trauma and my triggers.

“Walker says that recovery, and shrinking the inner and outer critic, depends on 1) angering at the appropriate targets and 2) grieving. In other words, cognitive and emotional work: ‘Cognitive work in both cases involves the demolition and rebuilding processes of thought-stopping and thought substitution, respectively. And, emotional work in both instances is grief work. It is removing the critic’s fuel supply—the unexpressed anger and the uncried tears of a lifetime of abandonment’ (Pete Walker, Complex PTSD, p. 207).

“I feel like I’ve done a lot of the cognitive work because of my conversion and then Straight 2 the Heart prayer ministry. But it appears I have more grieving and emotional work to do. On one hand, it’s hard to realize I’m still grieving. On the other hand, it’s freeing to realize there is a reason I am the way I am. [As one book on complex trauma puts it, It’s Not You, It’s What Happened to You.] Perhaps I’ve suffered from what Walker calls a ‘salvation fantasy.’ Christianity teaches that in Christ we can become a new creation; the old things have passed away, all things have become new. But maybe we can be born anew and still suffer flashbacks to trauma. It doesn’t mean we’re not born again, or that we’ve failed. It means we were hurt by our sinful world, and there are lasting consequences.”

Takeaways: If You Need Help…

  • Pray
  • Journal
  • Seek Counseling
  • Talk to Someone You Trust
  • Research Help for Your Mental Health Symptoms

 As I wrap up this post (which I have been trying to write all summer), I feel grateful, and my mental health feels good. That’s why I am able to publish this right now. But I know tomorrow I might feel different, unable to write for the public; besides that, I also know I’m about to get very busy with work and school again.

So if I don’t post on here for another six or twelve months (grad school is a lot of work, y’all), I want to shout this out to my readers: Friend, if you’re in a desperate place, reach out. Seek help. Your kids will thank you later. If you don’t get help now, your kids will suffer, now and later! (I am living proof of this unfortunate reality.)

If you don’t know who to reach out to but are open to working with a Christian counselor, I highly recommend checking out the Abide network, where I have found my new counselor, who I am working with over the phone (she Zooms, too!)  (FYI, I have some roots with Abide, because I formerly blogged for their website, and Paul Coneff, my Straight 2 the Heart prayer mentor and co-author, is one of their counselors.)

If you’re struggling but not down for traditional counseling, I encourage you to seek counsel in other ways. Spend time with your Wonderful Counselor, Jesus, through reading the gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Spend time listening to Him in prayer, preferably with an open journal to write down what He tells you. Or, simply take a walk in nature and ask Him to meet you there. Or, spend time with a friend and ask Him to meet you through her. (Good and godly friends can also be wonderful counselors—wonderful with a little w:)

Here is a pic with my bestie from Minnesota, Samantha (we both live in Texas now…you’ll have to read Ending the Pain for the story:). We had not seen each other since last Christmas, but we finally made it happen for my birthday in July. It was so wonderful (and therapeutic) to see my sweet friend again! Love you, Sam! (And yes, my firstborn son is named after her!)

Bottom line? Our Wonderful Counselor will meet you wherever you are, if you simply ask. I believe He sometimes even meets people through mental health research, meds, and/or therapy, if need be. Bottom line? God has innumerable ways to speak to and/or reach you in your particular situation, like He did for me this summer. You just have to ask…and be willing to get quiet and listen for awhile. Happy new school year, Friends. Here’s to a new start.

End Note

* I belong to a church that believes Jesus is coming again soon. I’ve heard speculations that COVID is a warm-up to “end time events.” These are big buzzwords in my faith tradition. My husband has been studying things out pretty seriously (he was doing this even before the coronavirus). I’m not as into studying Bible prophecy—preferring as I do to study the more microscopic topics of human psychology and the heart. But I am paying more attention to world events and enthralled by the hope that our time on earth could be short. I am praying to be ready, and asking the Lord how He wants to use me. If you’re new to the Bible but interested in learning more, I recommend these Bible study guides, which answer some of humanity’s biggest questions about God, the devil, death, prophecy, and more.

3 thoughts on “Quarantine, with a Side of Complex PTSD

  1. ccyager August 23, 2020 / 5:39 pm

    I’m very glad to hear that you’ve sought counseling for your anxiety/depression and understand the need to process the trauma and your emotional and psychological responses to it. Remember to be kind to yourself, be gentle with yourself, and know that you did the best you could under the circumstances. As for COVID, we’re stuck with it now forever. I’m not a subscriber to the end times beliefs, but I do understand that new beginnings arise from endings, both literally and figuratively. Good luck with your healing, Lindsey, and know that you are in my thoughts.

    • lindseygendke August 23, 2020 / 6:05 pm

      Thank you, Cinda. Knowledge (and honesty) is power in the case of trauma recovery. I appreciate your encouragement. Regarding COVID, I definitely still feel uncertain about what our lives will look like in the near future, but my worldview helps me not panic. My pastor has been saying that the Bible promises that things will get a lot worse, and for us, that is not crushing news, because of our ultimate hope. But the current (and coming) difficulties do wear on the nerves and push many of us to seek out extra help and resources to cope. I am hoping this is the beginning of the end…but I understand many don’t have that view. In that case, I hope COVID-19 has occasioned a beneficial period of reflection for all, and somewhat of a new beginning, living life for what truly matters most. All best to you!

  2. Paul Coneff August 24, 2020 / 4:32 pm

    Really appreciate your authenticity and holistic approach to healing and freedom. I’ve already shared this article with a number of people, knowing that it offers hope in the journey.

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