For My 34th Birthday I Got a Trip to Disneyland and a Complex PTSD Diagnosis [TW — self h*rm, SA]

I’m not sure what I expected thirty to be like, but it certainly wasn’t anything like the media and “old people” made it out to be. Thirty felt like any other birthday, other than my new ability to look at the “youths” and say phrases like, “I’m thirty fucking years old. I’m not dealing with this shit.”

What I didn’t know, was thirty represented the beginning of the beginning for me.

You’re probably thinking, “Amber, it’s not beginning of the beginning, that’s not the phrase.” Believe me when I say that’s exactly the right phrase.

You see, I’m a sexual assault survivor. Something I’ve carried with me since I was eighteen years old. I wore it like a badge of sisterhood, and yet, it never felt important enough to mention it to my various therapists — and believe me, there were dozens. Finding a therapist is like finding a life partner. The sea is more full of goldfish than dolphins, and maybe that’s why the scope of my mental health issues flew under the radar so long.

When I was thirty, I was pill free, therapist free, mental breakdown free, and proudly telling anyone who would listen that my mother had made up my mental health issues in her never-ending quest to be the best mother on the planet.

By thirty-one, I was agoraphobic, drowning in suicidal ideation, and had parted ways with my steady teaching job because I couldn’t stop feeling like I was under emotional assault by my boss and coworkers.

At thirty-two, the pandemic and quarantine made it all too easy to lean into my isolationist, agoraphobic tendencies more than ever. 2020 was the year I lost both of my remaining grandparents, one (my grandma) who was like a third parent to me. It was also the year I went nine months without leaving my house.

Nine whole months indoors that were totally separate from COVID-19 concerns. Nine months where I didn’t do any grocery shopping, didn’t walk outside for fresh air, didn’t see friends, (not that I had any left post teaching departure), and my family had moved out west so I had no pressure to see them either.

By 2021 my mental health was at an all time low, and for the first time since I began self harming at fifteen, I did real and permanent damage to my arms. I will never, in all my days, forget what it looked like — what it felt like — to realize how deep I’d cut and start screaming for my partner. The way I could see into my skin and couldn’t stop the blood.

That was when I knew it was time to really figure out what was going on with me. I wasn’t going to make it another year if I didn’t act now.

It started with a whisper. A tiny voice that had been with me my whole life, commenting on things I did or said. Male in nature, I rarely had any thought to the fact that my internal dialogue was told through the voice of someone who referred to me by my full name and always sounded stern but calm. This “guide” had always been with me and, therefore, never triggered any kind of signal that something wasn’t quite right.

But in 2021 that voice gave itself a name. He gave himself a name.

I thought I was going crazy, completely ignoring the signs that I’d been there all along, and I was even more surprised when another voice joined in. This voice was softer, more gentle, less gendered and distinctly had the poshest English accent I’d ever heard. He was the fun one. The one who kept my heart going when it felt like the end of the world.

My partner was the first one to notice — I sure as hell didn’t tell him that I was hearing voices. Surely, I was just a creative individual with a vivid imagination. But when he told me there were times when I didn’t seem like myself, things I couldn’t remember happening, it became apparent that something bigger was at play here. Something I couldn’t name and something that was quickly consuming my every waking thought.

I slowly became more aware of just how little short and long term memory I had. I thought it was normal not to remember what you ate for your last meal, not to remember your wedding, not to remember what you wore to sleep. I thought everyone experienced moments where you “spaced out” so hard you left your body and found yourself floating somewhere between reality and non-existence. It didn’t phase me that I was thirty-three years old and still running to jump into my bed because I was certain that something was gonna grab me. I’d gotten comfortable with the idea that my husband was definitely going to murder me in my sleep.

These were normal thoughts, right? I’d lived with them so long that I’d convinced myself they didn’t affect me.

It wasn’t until a third, then a fourth, and then a fifth voice joined the cacophony that was constant in my head that I couldn’t normalize it anymore.

I began the journey to find a therapist which, if you’ve ever been through it, you know is like pulling teeth sans Novocaine. As I searched, a sixth voice joined the full house that existed in my brain twenty-four hours a day.

By the time I found the one, these assholes had been commenting on everything I said and did for a whole year. Not only that, but what had started out as a small aversion to saliva had developed into a full blown OCD nightmare. Cleaning my ears fifteen to twenty times a day, inspecting every piece of dining ware I used like the head chef of a Gordon Ramsey establishment, and most notably, my constant aversion to sitting on the toilet (yes, you read that right.)

By the time I saw Cathleen* for the first time, she rightfully so looked me dead in the eyes and said, “How long have you been living like this?”

“Pretty much my whole life,” I reported. “I thought these things were normal. At worst, possible side effects of the roaring Borderline Personality Disorder I clearly have.”

Cathleen looked at me again, not judging or calculating, but trying to make a connection.

“You don’t have BPD,” she said.

“Sure I do,” I insisted. “I’ve got all the signs. Sensitivity to sensory issues, lapses in memory, extreme empathy, perceiving myself as having ‘different personalities’”

“You don’t have BPD,” she lobbied again. “you have complex PTSD.”

“PTSD? Like what soldiers get in war zones?”

“Not really.”

She nearly lost me there. PTSD was for army vets and survivors of school shootings. I was normal. Or… normal adjacent.

“Sometimes things happen to people that their brain can’t handle so it causes them to develop coping skills that they may never know about.”

“Like voices in my head that appear all of a sudden at thirty three years old?”


“Like not being able to remember… well anything?”


“How could I have this shit rattling around in my head all this time and not know?”

“That’s the nature of the beast, I’m afraid.”

“Well happy fucking birthday to me, eh?”

“Actually, yeah.”

“Excuse me?” Surely she wasn’t implying that finding out I’ve spent the last thirty four years of my life in a delusional false state of security was a gift.

“Today is your first day,” she replied.

“Cathleen, the problem is that this is decidedly not my first day. So what happens now? I’m just a weird, fucked up, trauma riddled psychopath who has multiple personalities?”

“First of all, psychopath isn’t a real diagnosis, and complex trauma often causes a person to develop definitive separate parts who exist to help you deal with life and the trauma you’ve been through. But… yes. And now we learn how you’re gonna live with that.”

“That sounds like you’re gonna have great job security.”

“I’m happy I can be here to help you work this out.”

As I left her office that day, my birthday, I walked into a brave new world. One where the blindfold had been removed and I could see the way things were instead of the way I believed them to be. It was terrifying, possibly even paralyzing, and I’m a long way off from “normal.”

But she was right. That was the day of my birth. The day I started to take care of the wounded inner child that has been waiting in the dark for so long, and the day I finally listened to the voices in my head.

And boy, did they have a lot to tell me.


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