Complex PTSD, Attachment, and Trauma

I saw A yesterday. And it was an intense session for me, but not on purpose. I feel like I’m finally accepting that I’m attached to her. And I believe I’m finally accepting that I am dealing with complex PTSD, that came on through family and what should have been (but weren’t always – hence insecure attachment) caregiving relationships as a child and adolescent. And I think I’m finally understanding it through the lens of trauma. And how all of it is connected. 

I’m no means done my journey, I think I have realized that this will be a marathon, not a sprint. But I’m doing research and I’m embracing what is a really complicated and not necessarily well understood process. And as I learn, I’ll share. 

In my session, I started to talk about attachment, reading a note I had written – and how I felt wrong, and bad. We talked about attachment and shame and how I get all these conflicting feelings about attachment. And she was like – you give voice to all of those feelings, except the one that wants to be attached. Let’s talk about that part of you. She was right – I talk about all the parts that absolutely do not want attachment. The critical voice, the scared part of me, the angry one, the hurt one, the grieving side, the suicidal one. But I never talk about the part that wants to show up. So I said how I want to be there so badly but when I leave I have trouble holding that – and then inevitably, about 20 hours after therapy, become full of shame and grief (right on time), and decide to sever the attachment because it hurts too much. Pretending I can sever the year we’ve spent together, creating something only we can make. As if that connection just disappears.

And she tried to hold us there, talking about our connection, and I tried to move on, and she brought it back and I shut completely down. It was involuntary and it happened SO fast – I didn’t even realize – and I’ve NEVER had anything like it happen before. I wanted to cry, and got really cold, like, freezing, and then I wanted to run away but I was stuck, and suddenly she was SO unsafe. And I was reminding myself I was an adult and could leave but I felt frozen, and I just couldn’t explain it. And A was like “something just changed really fast.” And she was like “you’ve shut down over there, haven’t you” and I nodded yes and she said “something I said or did touched a nerve, I think” and I shook my head no, and she said “are there words for what’s going on? I can see something big” and she kept gently coaxing I kept shaking my head but inside I was screaming and I felt such white hot cold terror from deep within and all of it happened within 30 seconds to a minute.

And eventually I looked away from her and closed my eyes and took deep breaths and was able to round myself back – it caught me SO by surprise. Usually I can see disassociation coming, and I choose not to fight it and ride it, but I’m still in control. But this was involuntary. I had no control. It was all amygdala – all fight or flight. All instinct. And nothing – and nobody – was safe. Once I found my voice again, she asked what happened and I said ‘I don’t know. But I’ll try to explain it’ – because I really needed that reassurance. I told her all of what I just wrote to you (but more scattered), like I was there and fine and listening to her and then suddenly SO scared and she wasn’t safe and I needed to leave but felt frozen. And how I got so cold and trembly. And how I was still cold. And she offered me the blanket and asked if it was OK for her to put it on me and that felt really good and like being tucked in – and then I was able to keep breathing. But I told her it was like 0-60, so involuntary. I still don’t know exactly what happened. She asked how it felt, and got me to keep talking to her – she was like “within your capability, cause we don’t want to go back there, let’s talk about this.” And I told her I didn’t know and was still terrified and she said “I know, we can slowly explore this together.” I couldn’t figure it out and so she was like ‘this is my thought and it’s just a guess‘ – she kept emphasizing that it was her interpretation and if she was wrong to tell her – “my guess is that something I did or said caused you to have a really severe trauma response. Trauma lives in the body, it’s somatic not cognitive, and that’s what that looked like to me.” And I told her I couldn’t really pick out anything she had said.

And then I told her, five or so minutes later, after I had calmed down a bit, cause fuck that was scary, that when I went away I could see and hear my mother yelling at me, in the room. And I couldn’t find the connection between A, and my mom yelling at me. I didn’t want her to think I associated her calm and loving presence with a horrible memory (even though clearly I did at some point for some reason draw that connection). And how in an instant everything went from being okay to everything being awful. 

And she told me a bit about trauma. She called what happened fascinating at first and then was like “oh, no, I don’t mean to minimize your experience at all” and I was like “no, that was fascinating, although I would prefer it wasn’t me.” (we share a love for psychology). She talked about how complex trauma, that happens over time, especially when it happens in relation to an attachment figure or caregiver, often lives in the same place as any new attachment. Where one is fully 100% associated with the other. Attachment has never been anything but scary – so the more you become attached to someone in a caregiver-esque role (aka a therapist working with you on an attachment based model), the more likely you are to trigger a memory. She said it’s likely because she interrupted me and told me “no, we need to talk about this,” and that that bore too similar to something my mother (the only other ‘caregiver’ type person I’ve had in my life) said and it transformed into that experience instead.


“You’re becoming more attached to me, and as you start to see me as a caregiver type of person in your life, the more secure our attachment becomes, but the more I remind you of caregivers who failed you in some way. And as the more I remind you of people who failed you, the greater that possibility becomes that you’re going to feel these things, because in your head you’re expecting me to fail you too, and these things are going to come up. The trauma and healing attachment are combined, and sometimes, like today, it will surprise us.” 

She said the goal is never to go into the memory and have the trauma come up like it did but that it will happen sometimes, if she misjudges or I misinterpret. And she applauded me for grounding myself back. Hell, I applaud myself. That was fucking insane. 

It was crazy. It felt nuts. I felt small and terrified and simply wanted comfort. But I get it more now, the connection between trauma and attachment and the connection between attachment and healing. It’s intense. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. And that sucks. 

And if that 30 seconds of terror was anything like what I felt like sometimes as a child – we have a lot of work to do. I was so motherfucking lonely. Trauma doesn’t become traumatic unless nobody is attending to you… and while my parents attended to me a lot, there were enough times they didn’t for me to get this way. The good news is it can be managed and healed to an extent – the bad news is it’s going to take many more intense and painful and healing conversations to get there (according to the research I’ve immersed myself in since yesterday). 

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19 thoughts on “Complex PTSD, Attachment, and Trauma

  1. I experienced this about 10 days ago and it took a long time for my therapist to pull me out of it. I had not idea how I got there, but it was intense and It’s taken me this long to feel a “normal” feeling again. I have been researching complex trauma like a mad woman and I think I finally understand (accept?) that this is an actual thing for me…that I’m not crazy and I’m not making it up, and there is so much work to do to heal from this. This post popped up in one of my searches to find more information and I was happy it was you because I’ve found a lot of relatable things in your writing recently. I appreciate so much that you shared this experience. There’s a lot more meaning in it for me coming from someone else who also feels/has felt these things rather than from a book or youtube video or whatever. You are now a significant part of my healing journey, helping me accept what it is I’m dealing with. Thank you.

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  2. wow pd, so scary and you are so brave. I am glad you are allowing the attachment without forcing the parts of you that aren’t ready. Really impressed with your strength and will to push forward through all of this painful stuff.

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  3. PD – I have been on that journey recently with my therapist as well. I actually dissociated for about 5 minutes and really struggled to bring myself back into my body…my mind stayed really foggy for awhile afterwards. I also can relate to that overwhelming sadness and loneliness, but as you learn about these triggers and experience these flashbacks, your window of tolerance to sit in those feelings gets bigger and it gets a little easier. Thank you for continuing to share the hard work you are doing and the feelings associated with it.

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  4. I totally relate to this (triggered and going 0-60 without even knowing why in session) so all I can say is that while this sucks, you’re not alone… and I’m completely amazed at how you grounded yourself. Do you realize how mature / strong / amazing that is?

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    • Thank you so much Lily. I really appreciate both the things you said. I actually hadn’t thought about the fact that I grounded myself as being any of those things!! But they are, and it’s so different from before when I needed a lot of help to come back. Thank you.

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  5. Oops sorry didn’t mean to send yet!!

    I feel like we are on a VERY similar journey! I have only just accepted my attachment to my T after nearly 3 years and now the breaks have become painful. I am scared she will make the same mistakes my caregiver did too. The terror feelings can knock you off your feet, it’s bloody scary! I get emotional flashbacks and recently write a sentence very similar to you – if that felt the same when I was a kid, I’m surprised I even survived! Sounds dramatic I know.

    Anyway, well done and keep going even when you want to run, I think me and you will change our lives completely if we stick with this process.

    Go you!! Routing for you x

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  6. This is such a beautiful description of the process that happens when you have complex PTSD and get triggered. I have found Pete Walker’s writing about “emotional flashbacks” to be particularly helpful in explaining this process. He refers to what you experienced as your amygdala getting “hijacked.” Good for you, PD, for allowing yourself to be this vulnerable with A! Now that you are getting clear about what is going on, and have a secure attachment within which to feel and process the feelings, you can begin to truly heal. I’ve never said this publicly, as I am not blogging anonymously, but I can personally relate. It gets better, PD. I promise…healing is possible!

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    • Thank you Sharon. So much, because it’s such a hard process or moment to describe (it really is felt and not cognitive at all). I love Pete Walker’s writing, and it is hijacked – such a good word for it. Thank you for sharing about how you relate – and that healing is possible.

      What I didn’t write here was after all this I fully admitted my attachment, that I wanted to curl up on her couch and never leave. And she told me that was a good thing, and normal, and she applauded it because it meant our relationship was secure. Even though it brings me shame – I’m attached.

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  7. Wow, PD, what a session. The suddenness and intensity of the traumatic response sounds terrifying. It sounds awful in the short dose you had, as an adult, having learned some coping skills and with a trusted therapist in the room. I can’t even imagine those feelings in a small child without any of those supports. It makes me so sad to think about that.

    You have made so much progress; it’s very apparent from reading your blog and always impresses me. Even though you say that you “have a lot of work to do,” I have already seen that you have the courage and willingness to show up and do the hard work. I have so much respect and admiration for you.

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    • It was terrifying, but I think the grief is worse. With nobody available to attend to me at some times I really needed it, it’s so hard to acknowledge. Thank you for saying that I impressed you and recognizing my hard work Q, it means a lot.

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