Home Opinion It’s all in my head: Carrying childhood trauma into post-secondary education

It’s all in my head: Carrying childhood trauma into post-secondary education

It may seem like I have it all together but my trauma would say otherwise

by Duaa Rizvi
Photo by Volkan Olmez on Unsplash

For as long as I can remember, my automatic reaction when someone screams at me has been crying.

I always present myself with a tough exterior, but the moment someone raises their voice towards me, I start crying. I’ve never known why. 

This reaction may be something you expect from a child or an early teenager. I’m 20 years old and it’s still real for me. 

I didn’t make the connection that this could have stemmed from childhood trauma until I noticed that it would manifest itself in anxiety and unhealthy work habits. 

Any time I hear my family speak an octave too high, regardless of the situation, it causes me stress.

It starts as a ball in my throat and I feel like I can’t breathe; then tightness in my chest and finally the all-too-familiar knot in my stomach.

Somewhere inside me, I think they’re fighting, even if I know for a fact that they’re not. 

It was a feeling I couldn’t explain too well, but according to my mom, it’s something she says she’s noticed since I was an infant.

My parents lived in a toxic environment and I was witness to a lot of screaming, arguing and borderline abuse that came from outside my immediate family and was aimed towards them.

Despite being less than two years old, I picked up the cues.

Since then, I’ve cried anytime someone has been upset with me. Even just my family speaking too loudly puts me on the borderline of a panic attack. 

Now, 18 years after my parents removed our family from the traumatic situation, that same trauma will manifest itself in different forms.

While the same triggers are present, they have evolved into a fear of disappointing people, leading me to form unhealthy work habits.

Since I was young, my brain has associated anger with work and education: if I don’t perform well academically in school, someone gets angry with me.

While my parents did what they could to curb that, I went to private school and had some bad teachers. Pushing myself past my breaking point became normal for me.

Once I was past that breaking point, I would keep going, because taking breaks felt like I was slacking, and slacking meant someone would be disappointed in me. 

After my first year of undergrad, I quickly learned I hate breaks. Statutory holidays, long weekends, reading week, Christmas break and the dreaded four-month-long summer vacation.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not because I love school — in fact, I usually hate it — but school gives me something to do. For as long as I can remember my motto has been, “be too busy to let the insanity get to you.”

School distracts me from the very possibility that has haunted me since I was an infant: is someone mad at me?

In my mind, if I was academically successful, then it was one less thing people could hold against me. 

In 2018, I was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD). I exhibit some triggers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) along with additional symptoms, including the inability to control my emotions and negative self-perception.

The difference between PTSD and CPTSD is the former comes from one traumatic event, while the latter comes from repeated traumatic experiences.

It started when I was a newborn and then continued with the abuse I experienced from third grade until I graduated high school.

That, coupled with my diagnosed major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder made me feel like I was damaged and would never be good enough. 

I spent the next few years piling things onto my plate, like extracurricular activities, classes, commitments and responsibilities.

I was known as the girl who did everything — all to prove that I was good enough, despite everything I had been through.

It hasn’t been until now, in my fourth year, that I realized by doing all of this, I was reinforcing everything that my illness made me feel.

Even now, I’m juggling five courses, I’m on a newsroom masthead, I’m president of my program’s student union and I have two part-time jobs — all while I try to handle the looming fear that graduation is seven months away.

It feels like everyone expects me to do big things, but I think I’m going to disappoint them all. I need to stay busy because if I’m not, I’ll have the time to realize I’m not OK. 

I’m in the final year of my undergraduate degree at 20 years old. Most people may think I skipped second grade but in fact, I completed high school in two years and eight months.

The average high school student takes four courses per semester and eight in a school year. I started off taking five in a semester and one in summer school. In Grade 10, I took eight courses per semester and four in the summer.

That amounted to 16 courses in 10 months and another four in the next two months. In total, I took 20 high school-level courses in one year.

Some may think I did this because I’m a stereotypical private-school prodigy.

But after that summer, I went into my first day as a high school senior thinking, “This is finally the year everything is going to be normal. I’m not going to need any extra courses and I can be a regular high school student.”

I sat down in my homeroom class and the school director asked if anyone was graduating early. I confidently raised my hand, and in front of all the same people I had known since third grade he asked me, “Are you willing to put in the work?” 

That moment is something I’ll never forget. Even now nearly four years later, thinking about it is a sucker punch to the gut. I gave up my high school experience to show that I was good enough.

I did everything I could to make sure no one got mad at me for not excelling, yet here I was. That was the breaking point I could not just push through.

I lost all motivation and drive for school, and everything else with it. I was convinced I wasn’t good enough and I deserved what I got.

Despite all that, I did not allow myself to stop and breathe. I graduated high school and left behind everything I thought was holding me down. Or so I thought. 

Unfortunately, there is no happy ending to this story. It’s just the cold hard truth: students carry childhood trauma into post-secondary education.

It might get better or might not; that’s not something I know right now. What I do know is that I’m not the only one like this. In fact, more people in your life experience trauma-controlled responses and coping mechanisms than you realize.

I’m in therapy now and have the ability to gauge when it’s time for me to take a break, but I’m still very much exercising unhealthy coping mechanisms. Like most students experiencing something similar, I’m very good at hiding it.

The moral of the story isn’t to practise self-care and take breaks, despite how much I wish it was. It is to remember that more people are struggling than you realize; that trauma is very real and it’s damn good at hiding itself in everyday life.

I am my own worst critic and I fear people being mad at me. But all this time I was just scared of realizing my fears are not real and it’s the trauma talking.

This article may have been created with the use of AI software such as Google Docs, Grammarly, and/or Otter.ai for transcription.

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