By Terry Lee Derrick
In a new book I am writing, and close to finishing, I explore, among other things, how a culmination of perceptions we as gay men and women take on about ourselves early on can create post traumatic stress disorder.
Post-traumatic stress is commonly associated with an “event” or events (sexual/physical abuse or violence) that lead to a list of symptoms including, hyper-vigilance (being hyper aware of ones own and others behavior) paranoia and an inability to form or maintain meaningful, healthy relationships to name a few. I have come to understand that an event or events is not the only way we can come to suffer from PTSD. An ongoing culmination of perceptions about ourselves at an early age about who we are, and not being worthy or loveable, can create PTSD.
I came to my understanding of this phenomenon through my own personal experience after a particularly traumatizing relationship. I was told by someone in group therapy that I was most likely suffering from PTSD from the emotional abuse I went through (and let myself in for) during and after that relationship. I went online and looked into PTSD and I came to realize to my surprise that I had actually been suffering from this disorder most of my life; it just came to a breaking point with this relationship which amplified all the feelings that were beneath the surface; far beneath the surface. Feelings of hurt, low self esteem and abandonment I had never been able to feel or heal.
Growing up gay in a society that generally looks or looked at being gay as something that was shameful, sinful and perverse is enough to traumatize anyone emotionally. I think we find ways to cope or survive, which is our human or animal nature, but what I don’t think a lot of us realize is that surviving is not living. Just because we can work, socialize to one extent or another and generally get by we are conditioned to think that is living; even if our lives seem empty or we have a hard time connecting on an emotional level in relationships. In order to survive I know I had naturally buried all the things that happened to me growing up; the dysfunctional family relationships, my discomfort about myself around my peers and shame, that not only came from my feelings about being gay, but were inherited from my family as well. Shame was a strong unspoken undercurrent in my family. It is so easy to minimize the ways we were treated or related to growing up because who wants to acknowledge possible feelings that we weren’t loved. As adults we rationalize that we are indeed loved by our families but as highly impressionable children we can take on others behavior toward as on a subconscious level that we are unworthy and unlovable. Couple that with rejection by society and religion and it is a recipe for serious emotional trauma that can lead to all kinds of perplexing, self defeating behavior. Sometimes, as in my case, some current trauma can present the opportunity to explore what makes us tick, feel all those hurtful feelings and heal.
So many GLBT men and women wonder why meaningful connection with each other doesn’t seem possible. So many wonder why self destructive acting out such as drug abuse and dangerous sexual behavior go on. Or we wonder why we feel used by others and sometimes seem to use others as well; objectifying ourselves and others. I now truly believe that great numbers of gay men, and women too, are suffering from PTSD. We have been traumatized by families and society and all of us are doing the best we can with what we have to work with. We have problems with sex, love and intimacy in our society on a huge scale regardless; but couple that with the stigma of growing up gay and that is what I can double dysfunction.
What we definitely need is more compassion for ourselves and each other and to find a willingness to address what actually ails us. Just say no to drugs and self destructive behavior or being judgmental toward each other is not a solution. We have to become willing to feel and heal the things that hurt us so deeply when we were growing up. Then we can start to connect with ourselves and each other and have the sort of emotional/spiritual fulfillment that we all truly need to be fully human; to live, love and move beyond keeping up appearances, destructive behavior, isolation and confusion. Twelve Step groups and therapy are good places to work on these and related issues.
I kicked the closet door open and came out at twenty three. But being out did not make me okay it just made me out. Out is a big step but being happy, understanding ourselves and connecting emotionally with ourselves and others can take some real time and work; but the payoff is enormous and worth the trouble.