Editor’s note: Resource Perspectives features articles written by members of Lovefraud’s Professional Resources Guide.
Sarah Strudwick, based in the UK, is author of Dark Souls—Healing and recovering from toxic relationships.
Re-traumatising and PTSD
(Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)
By Sarah Strudwick
Everyone always writes about the positive aspects of coming out of a relationship with a psychopathic personality. You read things about how as a result of being in such a toxic relationship, it empowers you and teaches you how to recognise and spot predators. If you have never learnt how to have boundaries in the past, you learn how to have them. You learn about healthy self-respect and self-love, and most people decide, if they have had proper counseling, that they will never come have this type of relationship again.
When it comes to future dating, if you have never been able to spot the warning signs of what could be a relationship based on power and control, you learn those, too. That way you never enter relationships that are likely to harm you again.
There are many, many positives that come out of the relationship with the narcissist or the psychopath, but what is the downside of having had a relationship with a psychopath? And do people really understand how the relationship has affected its victims?
Few therapists really understand what goes on with a psychopathic personality and the damage they can do to their victims. Chances are, the abuser will often turn the tables on the victim and try to blame them. Sometimes they might even tell the therapist that the victim is crazy, and being such charming, convincing characters, it’s not long before the therapist is on the narcissist’s side, questioning the sanity of the victim.
Most victims of psychopathic personalities suffer from PTSD long after the event. It takes many forms, and it needs a very understanding therapist to understand exactly what is going on, and to not judge the victim for being triggered. It could be something as small as a smell that triggers them, or the fact that they bump into someone in the street who looks like their abuser. If a victim has had a history of attracting abusive types throughout his or her life, then the victim may start to develop the “girl/boy who cried wolf” syndrome, whereby if they want to tell the therapist something, they feel the therapist won’t believe them. Perhaps the therapist may appear to be disinterested in what the victim is telling them. They will say things like, “Well you should be happy, after all, think of all the positives.” “You have a nice job now, things are going good aren’t they?” “Think how lucky you are to be rid of (fill in the blank).”
A small trigger like the above is fairly easy for the victim to deal with. But what happens if something more serious happens within a few years of leaving a psychopath? Say, for example, you are put in a situation where you meet another psychopath who threatens your safety. This is challenging enough for anyone who has never even been in relationship with one, but its even more challenging when you have already had a relationship with one. Victims are often left hypervigilant, and know exactly how to spot abusers far better than they did before. So when another abusers slips through their radar, the victims will immediately blame themselves, and say things like, “Why didn’t I spot them?” “Why didn’t I see it coming?”
Why? Because the person doing it is a psychopath, and they can trick and con anyone. Even with the best tools, experts get conned by these people day in day out. My friend is an “expert” on psychopathic personalities, and yet she still got caught out again by these insidious individuals. The therapist, on the other hand, may just pooh pooh it, and think it’s just another trigger.
My friend’s experience
Most recently a friend contacted me who was unfortunate to have had a run-in with another psychopath after her relationship with the previous psychopath had ended. It had been more than two years, so she was already well on her way to being completely healed.
What happened was pretty disgusting and would have been enough to upset any normally stable person, but this particular situation sent my friend into a tailspin. The therapist, not recognising that she had PTSD from her previous encounter that was re-triggered by this new event with a different psychopathic person, decided to prescribe her antidepressants. As a result of her interactions with the therapist, when she eventually went back for counseling she decided to tell the therapist she was okay and that nothing was wrong.
Nothing could be further from the truth. But what happens is that victims may start to feel like there is no point in even telling their therapist anything, because they just don’t get it. The therapist may put the victims reaction down to being “hypersensitive” or “reactionary.”
To change or not to change
I have been in a similar situation myself and it puts the target in a difficult situation. They don’t want to go and see another therapist, because the new therapist will ask why the victim has left the previous therapist. If they do find someone else it, then means churning everything all over again from the past that isn’t necessary, and that the victim doesn’t particularly want to talk about, thus reinforcing any old traumas that may well have been dealt with. The therapist may blame it on the victim’s old pattern, and not even understand that this is a “brand new trauma” with a “brand new psychopath,” complicated by the fact that they are also dealing with re-traumatising and probably a bit of PTSD thrown in for good measure.
(Notice I use the term target, as pyschopaths will target both people who have been victims of psychopaths and those who have never had the misfortune of meeting them.)
As a result, the target feels helpless and victimised again, and although, like any normal person, they may wish to seek help because of their previous experiences, they are left with a couple of options.
1) Sharing their experiences with people who have been through the same, i.e., other victims/targets. This can be okay, but sometimes this can prolong the healing, especially if they go on forums where the victims actually enjoy being stuck in victim mode and then they have to churn up all the old stuff again, which they don’t want to do.
2) Sharing their experiences with friends and family, most of whom do not understand at all and really don’t want to hear it all again, least of all that the victim may have met another psycho.
3) Internalising it and trying to figure out for themselves why they are being re-traumatised again, and dealing with it the best way they can.
The third option is okay IF they have done enough healing and had a good therapist in the first place. But what if the therapy they got in the first place wasn’t enough? The victim is back to square one, and may have to start their healing all over again.
My hope is that one day, therapists really start to understand what it feels like to be in a relationship with a psychopath, and not just to lecture their clients about what victims should and shouldn’t do. Most therapists may have had a few run-ins with the odd narcissist, which although unpleasant enough in itself, compared to the psychopath is pretty easy to spot and a walk in the park to some degree. However few, if any, therapists have ever had to deal with a true psychopathic malignant narcissist.
Having had more than a few run-ins with psychopaths, when I wrote Dark Souls it took me many months after thinking I was completely healed to realise that PTSD was what was keeping me stuck, and not that I was some kind of psycho attractor. A colleague finally reminded me that the only types of people who are likely to read a book like mine are those who have been victims, or those who are psychopaths thinking they are buying a book that will teach some new tricks. Sadly for them, my book is to empower victims of psychopaths, not the other way around.
The general public is not aware of psychopathic behaviour. Very few therapists, on the other hand, understand psychopathic behaviour at all ,unless they have worked directly with them, or been on the receiving end of one of their scams.
There is no quick fix when it comes to getting over a psychopath and you will only heal as quickly as you allow yourself to. The good news is that therapy works for neurotics who have been victimised by these people, so by seeking therapy you are on the first step to recovery. My advice to anyone seeking help, if they have been with someone they know to be a psychopath, is to make sure you seek someone that understands their disordered personalities and has dealt with victims of psychopaths, sociopaths or narcissists, or you could be in for a long bumpy ride.