Dance Instructor for Senior Citizens and Public Speaker
Living with Complex PTSD

Although Phyllis Rittner had a troubling childhood, today she says living with C-PTSD has made her a far more empathetic and compassionate person. For Phyllis, living well means being able to challenge her old negative beliefs and gently pull herself towards growth opportunities, even when they might be scary. She believes the only way to combat mental health stigma is to begin having normal conversations about it. And those conversations can be lifesaving!

Phyllis’s Story

Briefly, how has your condition impacted your life? When were you first aware of it?

I never knew I had C-PTSD until late in my recovery. I was a super anxious, perfectionistic people-pleasing kid growing up with two parents who, due to the shame and stigma around mental health, chose never to receive help for their mental health conditions. I was the parentified child, calming down a father with severe OCD and paranoid delusions and comforting a depressed mother. I thought if I could hide my family secret and move away to college, I could forget my past and find a “normal” way of living. Unfortunately, during college I developed severe panic attacks. Back then I didn’t know it was due to family trauma. I struggled for many years working at a law firm with a body in constant fight-or-flight and hyper-vigilance, desperate to fit in and ashamed of needing medication to sleep. In my thirties I felt desperate and alone and contemplated ending my life. That moment (although awful at the time), was a turning point in trusting my own instincts and reaching out to a colleague who led me to find the right help that changed my life.

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

My life has flipped a complete 180 in terms of self-awareness. After decades of hiding, I’ve found validation and support for my mental health. Now I can finally own my truth without shame. I know living with C-PTSD was never my fault, so I’ve stopped blaming myself for it. Living well is being able to live compassionately with myself, to challenge my old negative beliefs and gently pull myself towards growth opportunities even when part of me is still afraid. As an In Our Own Voice speaker for National Alliance on Mental Illness, I’ve found my true voice. I’m now passionate about educating others about mental health, dispelling myths, and fostering empowerment and empathy in the workplace and the community.

What help or specific strategies helped you to get well and move to stability?

There are so many techniques I’ve used over the years: everything from Gestalt therapy to bioenergetics. Most consistently helpful are weekly therapy sessions with my amazing psychologist, including modalities such as EMDR and Internal Family System (IFS). Also helpful is medication for sleep, EFT (Tapping), practicing self-compassion, and support from solid friendships.

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

C-PTSD will always be a part of my life, however I am now keenly aware of identifying my triggers and adopting appropriate coping skills when needed. I know what people/situations I should embrace and which ones I should walk away from. I know there is no shame in asking for help and that vulnerability makes me stronger. I try to establish a daily routine including healthy eating, daily exercise such as gentle yoga, and listening to calming guided imagery and soothing music when I am especially anxious. As a writer, dancer, and performer I know that my soul yearns for creativity, so I try to seek out opportunities to foster that.

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

Absolutely! In college I couldn’t look my therapist in the eye. Now I’m speaking to hundreds about my mental health condition! Educating myself about C-PTSD has helped me understand so much about developmental trauma and how mental health issues can re-generate in families if not addressed. My years of therapy have provided me with the language to communicate a complicated upbringing to others who, just like me, need support but are perhaps hesitant to come forward due to stigma. Living with C-PTSD has made me a far more empathetic and compassionate person and my work life now reflects that.

How has your condition impacted your work and your career?

For 28 years in the law firm I worked hard to keep my severe anxiety secret. I was afraid I wouldn’t be valued or appreciated as a star employee if they knew I was suffering. But as the work environment became more toxic, I knew I needed to listen to my gut and make a choice to honor my mental health and my creativity. Now I run my own business and feel comfortable disclosing my condition if asked. Also, choosing to be a mental health advocate and telling my story regularly (especially in the workplace) has been incredibly empowering. It allows me to hold space for others, to help break workplace isolation and share resources for education and support.

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

I would say I understand how overwhelmed or frightened you might feel right now and that is absolutely okay. I would also say that having lived through C-PTSD myself, you are certainly not alone. In fact, it is highly likely that someone you have encountered recently may also be silently struggling with a similar mental health condition. I would also suggest that you take one brave step today by telling just one person that you need support. Trust your good intuition on who that one person might be. Know that asking for help is never a weakness, only a strength and your bravery could change your life in infinite ways.

What motivated you to join The Stability Network? What do you hope to get from it?

I wanted very much to be surrounded by people who live every day with a mental health condition but don’t let it define who they are. I like the idea of networking and supporting a group of people who advocate for decreasing the stigma around mental health (especially in the workplace) and who are committed to unabashedly telling their truth to the world.

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

So many!
The Tapping Solution by Nick Ortner with basic videos on how to tap.
The Dare Response (for Panic Attacks)
Memoirs/Fiction regarding mental illness/trauma: Uneducated by Tara Westover, Let the Tornado Come by Rita Zoey Chin, I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb
CD’s for Anxiety/Panic/Sleep: Liquid Mind by Chuck Wild (on YouTube, as well)
Best Guided Imagery Meditation: Your Present: A Half Hour of Peace by Susie Mantell

Is there anything else you want to share?

The only way to combat mental health stigma is to begin having normal conversations about it. And those conversations can be lifesaving! It’s never too early to talk to your children about anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions in ourselves or others. If we remember that brain health is physical health, that the mind and body work together in tandem, we can begin to understand that conversations about mental health conditions are no different than conversations about diabetes, cancer, or any other health condition.