An Asian American Mother’s Journey with Complex PTSD
By Audri Lu-Uhlken, Monsoon Community Health Outreach Coordinator
A persistent, dry cough has kept me sleep deprived for days.
My partner, Blake, is steady in my ear about what he could do to help me and asking when I will be ready to see a doctor. Asian Americans are the least likely racial group in the United States to have a personal doctor. I am that statistic. My trust in the healthcare system is weathered, and that hesitancy stems from being disregarded by the system in several past experiences. I wonder if this makes my professional work as a community health advocate more hypocritical or empathetic.
Home remedies like drinking hot tea with honey and gargling salt water has failed to soothe my cough, but successful at increasing my anxiety with racing thoughts. It says: This cough is hurting my children, I am incapable of taking care of myself, I am disappointing my husband, my house is falling apart because I cannot do anything right, my body is failing me. Blake’s supportive gestures are met with irritation and an internal pressure to quickly “fix” this on my own, shielding my discomfort from his attempting care.
The constant guilt, shame, and feeling of unworthiness is louder than any external source.
This is my ongoing struggle living with C-PTSD, or complex post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental health condition developed by reoccurring, prolonged trauma from which “escape is difficult or impossible,” affecting emotional regulation, self-perception and relationships with others, according to the World Health Organization.
The types of traumatic events that can cause C-PTSD include:
- Childhood abuse, neglect or abandonment
- Ongoing domestic violence or abuse
- Repeatedly witnessing violence or abuse
- Being forced or manipulated into human trafficking
- Torture, kidnapping or slavery
- Being a prisoner of war
Individuals are more likely to develop C-PTSD if:
- Trauma was experienced at an early age
- Trauma was prolonged
- Escape or rescue was unlikely
- Multiple traumas occurred
- The harm-doer was the individual’s care provider or someone close
In other words, my upbringing as a child of Asian immigrants and refugees primed me for C-PTSD. Even as I write this blog, my internal voice is shouting at me to stop playing the victim card. My childhood was lovely and my parents did their best. I am tough, resourceful and resilient because of how I was raised. Many others had it much worse than me.
All valid points. But so is my invisible battle with C-PTSD.
I was clinically diagnosed with C-PTSD by my mental health therapist in 2020 and my world unraveled in an attempt to make sense of it all. At the time, I had birthed my first child during the early onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a new mother, it left me isolated with nothing but my thoughts. Postpartum was spent physically caring for a newborn child (and myself), while emotionally dodging the onslaught of memories that rushed to surface.
Everything I touched in new motherhood was met with a flashback from childhood.
My baby’s cry was silenced by the voice of my mother yelling at me to “not be a wimp.” My body tensed up when I accidentally knocked over a bottle of breast milk, with the image of my dad screaming that I was “careless.” If I soothed my child by holding her close to my chest throughout the night, echoes whispered that I thought was “better” than my parents because I was doing things differently. I was alone, yet imprisoned by how I was parented. Meanwhile, my anxious-avoidant attachment style prevented me from owning my struggle.
June is PTSD Awareness Month. C-PTSD is slightly different from PTSD, which is defined by the Mayo Clinic as a mental health condition triggered by one significant event – either experiencing it or witnessing it. However, C-PTSD is not a standalone diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a manual used by mental health professionals to clinically diagnose patients. Results from field trials in 2022 indicated that the majority of individuals with C-PTSD also met criteria for PTSD. This information is newer to the field of psychology and mental health, which limits research to develop and test interventions that may be beneficial to individuals experiencing C-PTSD.
The “naming” of my struggle as C-PTSD was monumental for my healing.
Through unpacking it with my therapist in our bi-weekly therapy sessions, and seeing myself in books and articles written by other C-PTSD survivors, and speaking about it with other parents at Monsoon’s “Mothers of Monsoon (MoM)” parenting group, I have found relief in knowing I am not isolated, but in fact, a part of a greater community in healing.
As I wrap up this blog, a stream of hot water eases my throat as I sip on more herbal tea, followed by a round of relentless coughs. I am allowing the internal berating pass me by without engagement and reminding myself of this: You know your body better than anyone else, you are strong and healthy, your body is doing what it needs to protect you, you are the perfect mother for your children, you are a gift to your family, you are loved and supported, it is okay to ask for help.
Online Resources on C-PTSD for Asian Americans:
Book Recommendations on C-PTSD and Childhood Trauma for Asian Americans:
- What my Bones Know by Stephanie Foo. Radio journalist and former producer of This American Life wrote of her experience with C-PTSD as a child of Asian immigrants. This book resonated with me more than anything I have ever read.
- Permission to Come Home by Jenny T. Wang. A clinical psychologist wrote of the intersection of Asian American identity, mental health, social justice and healing.
- The Deepest Well by Nadine Burke Harris. A physician uncovers connection between toxic stress in childhood and lifelong illnesses in her research to understand journey to healing.
- The Pain We Carry: Healing from Complex PTSD for People of Color by Natalie Y. Gutierrez. A licensed marriage and family therapist provides tools for people of color to feel safe in their body and build self-compassion to reach good health and wholeness.