Writer and IT Consultant
Living with Complex PTSD, anxiety, and depression

After decades of working to manage anxiety and depression, Laura gained clarity and understanding of her symptoms when she received a Complex PTSD diagnosis in 2018. She has long been passionate about advocating for others experiencing mental health conditions and believes that efforts to advocate for and support those with mental health conditions will lead to more openness around the topic. “It’s all part of the human condition, and humans are all connected.”

Laura’s Story

When were you first aware of your condition? 

I started to experience symptoms soon after I left home at the age of fifteen and was diagnosed with anxiety and depression in my twenties. The C-PTSD diagnosis, which has massively improved my understanding of my symptoms and approach to treatment, came in 2018, just months before my fiftieth birthday. With that diagnosis, suddenly everything made so much sense.

In my late teens and early adulthood, panic attacks would strike daily at school, work or in a social setting, and the shame (and agoraphobia) that came with them affected my depression. As a Canadian, I had access to mental health care without an out-of-pocket cost, which literally saved my life. I needed a lot of time with therapists in those years.

In my late 20s, I fell into major depression for a year, which included brief and voluntary in-patient treatment, and culminated in a five-week medical leave from my job as a project planner for one of the engineering contractors on the Vancouver SkyTrain line. It was a pretty terrible time, as I wondered if I would ever recover and resume my career. (Spoiler alert: I did.)

How has your condition impacted your life?

The most significant thing for me is that I do an enormous amount of mental gymnastics prior to an undertaking, whether something as simple as organizing my day or more “stretch” like starting a new job. There’s a lot of weighing options, noting exit doors, sweating about sweating, fretting over outcomes, self-flagellation, etc. And then, of course, there’s the post-game analysis. Sounds fun, right? I’ve kind of had to come to accept that from a young age, my brain was trained for survival, and it has hung on to that. I don’t know how much it will change (neuroplasticity, please do your thang!), but I’m strengthening my awareness and ability to manage the impacts.

What is your life like now?  What does living well look like for you?

For me, living well is simply about achieving balance and feeling good so I can be engaged and fully present in the moment. When I’m thriving, I almost forget that I have anxiety and depression. Let me say that I expect to feel fear when I leave my comfort zone—that’s normal, and I leave my comfort zone a lot, because living well also entails growth.

I “do all the things:” work, travel, exercise, maintain healthy relationships; however, it requires ongoing effort to keep a healthy balance. Lots of self-awareness and self-care. There are aspects of C-PTSD that are always with me, because childhood trauma has altered my nervous system, and it can be taxed sometimes. That means in order to live well, I need to be kind to it by grounding myself in nature, meditating through yoga, and using calming body therapies like massage and acupuncture, to name a few examples.

Who in your life or what specific strategies helped you to get well and move to stability?    

This could turn into an Academy Awards speech. I don’t think I have space to name all the people who have been integral to my healing. Let me just say that if I found something (or someone, like a practitioner) didn’t work for me, I kept trying other options. Or I combined tools and treatments. It’s like a skincare protocol: start with facial cleanser, then toner, add serum, finish with moisturizer. Layering. There’s a lot of layering. 

To be a little more specific, I’ve always found talking to a therapist is an especially important lifeline, both in times of crisis and stability. I started seeing a new one in 2018 specifically for trauma-informed therapy and I love her. I’ve also taken medication since the 1990s; it has required several adjustments along the way because our bodies change so much over time.

What do you do to manage your condition and stay healthy on an ongoing basis?

I would be lying if I said I exercised enough—I’m prone to spending free time gazing into my pets’ eyes, which is also therapeutic — but I have found yoga to be a phenomenal aid. Diet modifications have been more effective than I expected them to be. I cut gluten and reduced sugar and sweeteners, and I’ve become more aware of how I feel after I eat certain things. I’m listening to my body more. 

One of the hardest things for me to do is reach out to friends and family when I’m starting to feel low, but I’m practicing, because I find there’s nothing better than human connection to help me feel better.

Are there positives that have come from having a mental health condition?  If so, what?

One positive is that it’s given me a deep sense of compassion toward other humans, especially those who are struggling or are in pain. Through all the reading and therapy work, it has also helped me develop better self-awareness than I might have otherwise had, and I think that is fantastic for relationships and people skills.

What words of encouragement would you give to someone struggling with a condition similar to yours?

Even when it feels like there’s no solution, no way to get better, please keep going, because the world needs everything that we all have to offer. Second, in order to keep going, ask for help. Getting better is so much easier with a support system. We don’t have to do it all on our own.

What motivated you to join The Stability Network?

Several things. A strong motivator was when I thought about what it felt like to return to work after taking leave to recover from major depression twenty years ago. My supervisor was supportive, but in general, almost everyone in our tightknit office of 80 just kind of avoided the topic. Compare that to when a colleague in a different workplace returned from time off for cancer treatment. People celebrated with balloons and gifts and hugs. There’s work to do to improve people’s comfort level with talking about mental illness and folding it into our everyday experiences.

Another motivator is that I’ve repeatedly heard from people that they didn’t know what C-PTSD was until I mentioned it. It isn’t in the DSM, and most of the research on it has been post-2000. My sense is that it’s more prevalent than we understand, but that people – practitioners, patients, family – haven’t connected the dots between ongoing long-term trauma (usually from childhood) and its impacts.

As a personal motivation, I’d find it so gratifying if people connected with me after a talk to say, “your story impacted me,” whether that’s in the context of changing a belief, gaining hope, feeling less alone, or learning how to build bridges with those who are affected by mental illness.

Are there resources (books, videos, websites) helped and/or inspired you that you would recommend to others?

For understanding the impact of trauma, the book I’ve recommended most is “The Body Keeps the Score” by Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, followed by “Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors” by Janina Fisher. I also love everything Dr. Brené Brown puts out into the world. Her first book “I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from ‘What Will People Think?’ to ‘I Am Enough’” is fantastic.

On the web, I’ve found two great sites related to ACEs, the groundbreaking Adverse Childhood Experiences longitudinal study, and they are ACEsTooHigh and ACEsConnection.

Is there anything else you want to share?

From both me and on behalf of my mum, I’d like to extend a deep and heartfelt thanks to everyone who is working to support mental illness recovery, including mental health consumers, advocates, friends-and-families networks, practitioners, researchers, coworkers and colleagues. My mother developed schizo-affective disorder in the 1950s, when she was about nineteen. For various reasons, including the fact of how mental illness was viewed by our society at the time, she was unable to access the help she needed. Her life potential was enormous – she was brilliant, funny, warm – but she never recovered from her illness. Efforts to facilitate, recognize and sustain recovery will contribute to an environment of openness around mental illness. I envision a time where we celebrate mental illness recovery like we do for cancer and other illnesses. It’s all part of the human condition, and humans are all connected.