Putting off PTSD: Addictions and Distractions for Plurals
by the Crisses
PTSD & Plurality
Plurals — those who are "many" inside — do not need to have been created by trauma, but this does not prevent many plurals from having experienced trauma in their lives, and often that trauma leads to PTSD. It does not matter whether the plural system in question qualifies for a DID or OSDD diagnosis; when a plural has PTSD or C-PTSD the symptoms are disruptive and deeply troubling, and can easily last years or decades making it seem that there's no end in sight.
Many people, plural or singular, turn to a variety of "distractions" to help alleviate, avoid, or delay PTSD symptoms. In discussing distractions from PTSD, it doesn't matter whether the trauma is from childhood, something more recent, a recurring trauma, or a single incident. PTSD can be pervasive and can easily take over your waking time as well as disrupt sleep. Disruption from PTSD symptoms is demonstrable and causes hospitalizations, wrecks lives and relationships, and can take away every peaceful and enjoyable aspect of life.
It's absolutely no wonder that we need these distractions. So let's discuss what they are, when they become problematic, and how these distractions affect plurals in particular.
Avoidance & PTSD
Why do people with PTSD, both singular and plural, often struggle with addiction, addictive behaviors, obsessive thoughts, escapism, habituation (with various substances or sensory inputs), etc.? And what are the concerns and potential additional harmful effects to plurals with PTSD, C-PTSD, OSDD and DID when it comes to these behaviors?
A cornerstone of all these behaviors is that they have the benefit of temporarily setting aside PTSD symptoms by way of avoidance. But to put it into less clinical terms lets call all of these various avoidance behaviors "distractions" because these behaviors lessen the PTSD symptoms at least for a time, but the distraction has to be continued in some way to have this benefit.
There are many ways to disrupt PTSD cycles/symptoms without resolving PTSD. What we think of as PTSD includes a cycle of brain chemicals, cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline), and can become a relentless catch-22 as thoughts, anxiety, hormones and bodily signals like muscle tension or sensory inputs bounce off each other. The result is a constant rollercoaster of ups (flight, anger, anxiety, hyper-vigilance) and downs (depression, shutting down, freeze response, avoidance behaviors). These can be interrupted with many types of distractions that break into the chain of signals and disrupt the panic response cycles. For many PTSD victims, this is a very welcome relief.
Note that avoidance — whether of triggers, or of PTSD symptoms overall — is so common and usual for PTSD victims it is also a diagnostic criteria of PTSD. No one is a bad person for avoiding PTSD symptoms. They're so grueling and unrelenting it's normal to try to avoid them.
Addiction and Habituation
When a distraction is chemical, it can lead to habituation (the body adjusting to the chemicals, requiring more to get the same effect) and addiction. Chemicals subject to habituation can be externally or internally produced, and many of our emotions are tied to internally regulated chemicals. Dopamine is especially habituating requiring more frequent "hits", and is a neurotransmitter we normally get from any small or big "wins" in our life, including purchasing something, racking up game currency or levels, popping bubble wrap, or winning a bet at a casino.
To use a stereotypical or classic example, there is the "adrenaline junky" archetype -- thrill-seeking behaviors such as dangerous or reckless behaviors, speeding on the roads, going to adventure and amusement parks for the most "energizing" thrills, or seeking out dangerous or reckless sports like mountain climbing, skydiving, car racing, etc. This archetype seeks out an escalating menu of danger to purposefully elicit "excitement" (dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, adrenaline/epinephrine, etc.) and becomes addicted to the "high" of thrills and danger. The stereotype includes that the thrills must escalate and the reason for this aspect of the stereotype is because the theoretical person has become used to their own body chemistry changes and needs "more" thrills or more danger to get the same "high".
The same habituation can happen with drugs and medications, requiring more chemicals to elicit the same level of distraction from other issues including PTSD symptoms.
Distractions can include avoidance/escapism like binge-watching TV shows or movies, gaming, and reading. They can include substance abuse like alcohol, drugs, and medications. They can include sex and love addiction, thus addiction and habituation to oxytocin, hormones, neurotransmitters, and endorphins produced during love and sex cycles all of which are naturally produced by the brain and body (but can lead to a constant need for "new relationship energy" and bouncing between partners, or seeking sexual release in a reckless and endangering fashion). Distractions can be food-related, such as binge eating and potentially lead to eating disorders. It also includes many other self-harm or self-injury behaviors.
Please note we are not judging people for using distractions or saying these things are all bad all the time for all people. We're pointing out that when PTSD is involved, these distraction behaviors may have the "additional benefit" of blocking PTSD issues and some by their very nature will require an escalation to remain effective against the PTSD issues.
There's a definite place for various distractions. Plurals with PTSD can (and maybe should!) have a menu of distractions at their disposal and use them to manage PTSD symptoms. Also, one may work today and not work tomorrow, but may work again next week or next month. And one they tried and didn't work today may work for them in the future. It's important not to give up on good distractions or on expanding their menu. But do be careful about sticking to one or two exclusively, or continuing to use distractions long after they are ineffective. Distractions can become bad habits and addictions later, or some other type of problem in itself.
In the interest of personal disclosure, note that when discussing distractions, mindfulness, presence and grounding counts! It definitely falls under the distraction heading even if it's the best thing since there was a sale on fresh blueberries. This has been our distraction of choice for many years. There's no panacea when it comes to PTSD other than actually resolving the core issues.
We have used mindfulness to push away feelings, thoughts, insomnia, anger, depression, anxiety, etc. We didn't have to deal with our PTSD if we were being fully in the present: we could put things off almost indefinitely (it worked for about 8-10 years). We thought it was the best thing ever; look at us we're so present. It had a lot of benefits: we were able to run our business and take care of our children, but we were still being avoidant and having issues in spite of how good we made it look. We didn't deal with onboarding children who were holding trauma, we mindfully watched our business tank, and mindfully became homeless (while still in a panic if you can picture being mindful and panicked at the same time).
If we had dealt with our PTSD a decade earlier, maybe we would have mindfully gotten a job and not become homeless. We were disabled and hid from it behind a smokescreen of being mindfully present. We were present to our crumbling finances and our avoidance and our lack of taking good financial care of ourselves. It was not helpful. So we want to add mindfulness to this article to call ourselves out on it too — we are guilty as charged (only charged by ourselves, no one else would ever accuse us of hiding from our problems with mindfulness and presence. But here we are saying "Yup. We did. Let's air it out.").
We did ourselves great harm by avoiding our PTSD, and cost another decade of our life shackled to yet another way of covering up our problems, pretending we were functional, and avoiding dealing with traumatic memories and trauma holders in our system. It was a good illusion, but it was just an illusion.
Distractions give a brain and body a much-needed break from constant traumatic intrusions, depression (that often comes with PTSD), flooding, anxiety chemistry, and cortisol. Phew! It's really good to get this break, let the body go into healing mode, repair damaged tissues, enjoy being able to think and strategize, and get that toxicity out of their (physical and mental) system.
Sometimes making things better during the day can help increase the restfulness of sleep at night. In some cases, the distractions fail at night, and they still are stuck with nightmares or insomnia — essentially the PTSD finds an outlet around their distractions and leaks into life anyway.
Distractions may make them feel better about themselves, more in control of life, and may help others in their life feel they are doing better so that the pressure of external concern reduces. Some of us are very triggered by too much external attention, so seeming to do better can be a boon in itself as well, in terms of avoiding unwanted scrutiny.
Reduction of symptoms may also placate health care providers, such as scoring better on PTSD symptom measurement instruments. It may make talk therapy providers think that just talk has helped reduce their client's symptoms. They usually won't ask about how their client spends all their time, or scrutinize how they're distracting themselves to avoid PTSD symptoms. So there may be a side benefit of "pleasing your therapist."
Ever hear of "too much of a good thing"? Where our mind and body can use a vacation, there's a problem when we like the vacation much more than our usual daily life, especially if the choice of vacation is less than healthy (or a specific problem for this plural system, even if it's OK for everyone else). Some problem distractions are obvious like too much alcohol, or using it in the wrong way, can lead to liver failure. They can use any distraction in a way that is toxic and covers up problems, allows them to think they're doing great when they're actually doing harm to themselves, can interfere with their relationships, distract them from goals, and steal their collective's dreams.
So for example, a person can play games to take a break from PTSD, or they can obsessively play games and forget to shower, miss appointments, use the games to hide from their relationships, put off projects they once wanted to do in order to game, and so on.
We're not trying to pick on gamers, it just happens to be a distraction we struggle to use as a light distraction rather than a constant addiction. Other distractions we struggle with are reading (fiction/sci-fi/fantasy) and binge watching TV or movies. We periodically purge distractions from our life (but failed to recognize the mindfulness/presence distraction as noted) such as quitting Netflix & Hulu, or putting aside games for months at a time.
Here's the compilcated bit for plurals.
We're not alone in here. That's "plural" defined - the experience of being many. And I'd wager that if a system still has active PTSD chasing their collective ass around that there are people (or parts or fragments or others) in their system who are not fully in the here & now. The PTSD is a symptom of traumatized people in their system ("trauma holders") who are stuck in trauma time or stuck in the "There & Then" as we like to call it.
So what's happening if they distract themselves from their collective's PTSD symptoms?
Here's our experience: the PTSD symptoms are the result of a (current) host/fronter actually being able to hear, on some level, the trauma holders in a plural system. It's a type of communication. When it boils down to it, it's a cry for help — but I think that's the end result, not the intention. They're feeling that pain whether or not anyone can hear it. But when front is not distracted, they can see hear and feel the trauma holder's pain, too. And the more of the system that is co-conscious, the more of them that can also hear/feel it.
This is on some levels a really good thing. Being able to hear/feel it means that there's a chance of rescue. A chance of more communication, of the trauma holders eventually becoming aware of and living in the here & now, healing, and becoming a member of their co-conscious group, etc.
In other words, unless they know it's front's PTSD — i.e. the trauma holder is fronting — these unwanted, painful, distracting, troubling symptoms are a sign that there's others in their system (whether they know who the persons leaking PTSD are or not) who are in need of rescue from their own PTSD symptoms.
The problem we Crisses can see, and have definitely created even in our own system with our own distractions, is that the distractions put these people and parts off until later. It puts barricades up. Communication no longer happens between the trauma holders and the co-conscious distracted "fronting" group.
I think everyone would be understanding about needing a break for hours, days, even a few weeks. It's totally normal to want to be out of pain. This isn't the problem. We're asking plural systems to consider being compassionate to those being shut out. It's when it becomes months and years that we find it troubling on their behalf. Our doing this has taken what could be 5 or 10 years of recovery to the point of 30+ years. So we have the hindsight (and the trauma holder's anger) to see what we've done, and want to let other plurals know this is definitely an issue for some systems.
So, worst case scenario is that fronters need to get out from under the PTSD symptoms, but the symptoms the only cry for help that trauma holders can get through to front. Pushing the PTSD symptoms away may seem like a message to the trauma holders that they're unwanted. That fronters don't want to hear the message or even know they exist. But we're pretty sure this is not the message anyone wants to send them. We don't think systems do this on purpose. We get caught up in the "We need a break." and the break becomes so comfortable it ends up sending a message something like "We're putting you on hold for a year."
We are so absolutely guilty of this; it's hindsight, and it sucks. It was not the message we wanted to send to our hurt children. We tried taking care of them in 2003-4, and here it is and we finally rescued them in 2018 and are struggling to onboard them with all this additional hurt and resentment. What a mess — 15 years delay on the rescue while we worked, and pushed aside PTSD, and covered up the symptoms with mindfulness for the last 10 years of that.
So we say to them, "It's not that we didn't want to hear you. It's not that we didn't want to rescue you. And we are so sorry that you took it that way. We're sorry we didn't rescue you sooner."
Anyone in a System May Have PTSD
Anyone in a plural system may have their own PTSD or C-PTSD on their own, as individual system members. PTSD in its own way creates "parts" of people (Theory of Structural Dissociation). So their people can have their own emotional parts (which would be aspects, facets or fragments of themselves as an individual). Thus they each can be distanced from parts of themself as individuals within the system.
A singular person with PTSD can still apply this idea to themself. Many singular people have "an inner child" or a "hurt part" of themself. The same issues, overall, apply.
Distractions distance us from the parts of ourself (or the trauma holder headmates in our system) that are experiencing PTSD symptoms. It becomes a barrier to communication, to rescuing parts into the here and now, and, if it's about one's own individual parts, it blocks merging with them.
Back to the overall gist of this article: distractions are still a good thing and we need them like we need water. The problem isn't having distractions; it's using them masterfully to ease suffering without allowing them to overwhelm the process of healing, delay building communication and community, and put off facing the truth of what's gone on in our life, processing the issues, and thus abolishing the anxiety so we get back to living our life with true choice and freedom.
The recovery community knows about the monkey on our back when we're addicted to something. Chasing the next high, waiting for the next drink, needing a substance, or even like the Crisses clinging strictly to a daily regimen of being 100% in the present to the exclusion of all else is something that can be habit forming, addicting, and can put off dealing with reality and life. "All things in moderation (including moderation)" applies. It may be good and necessary to "take a break" from PTSD, but true freedom from PTSD lies on the other side of it, not in trying to cover it up and bury it and pretend it's not there. If a plural can't stop the distractions or else the PTSD returns full-force or with a vengeance, then they're not free. They're trading problems and creating new issues, which may include harming their headmates by neglecting them or putting them off.
We put our headmates off for decades, and we pay for it now. Don't be like us. We used our business and work, mindfulness, sex/love, polyamory, gaming, medieval re-creation, exercise, binge watching videos, arts and crafts, and much more as distractions to excess. Some of these are great distractions as a break from the hard work that we should be doing onboarding trauma holders, and give our body a rest, etc. But when they allowed ourselves to bury trauma holders behind walls of "too busy" and "too distracted" to listen to them and take care of them, we did them a great disservice. Nikki is most resentful of it. We can't blame her. It's neglect and we are truly sorry.
What does a system do?
We know it's hard and it feels impossible, but it is so important to do the impossible-seeming work of resolving PTSD. It's also important that between the work, say therapy sessions digging at trauma, a plural team uses safe and healthy distractions as respite from facing the weird, wild, horrible, outlandish, gobsmacking past. It will not be easy facing it, working through it, getting past it and distractions prevent flooding, give their body a break, may help alleviate the nightmares or insomnia, but the distractions do not resolve the PTSD.
We've had times where we were so well distracted throughout most of the day, and running ourselves ragged so we slept like a brick but we could not turn off the radio in the car or else the flashbacks and intrusive thoughts would start. They would catch up with us in the shower. Any time we had down-time. That's was a loud sign that our trauma holders were done with waiting and being ignored.
We suggest being real and authentic and facing up to what's been going on. If you think that distractions may be preventing you from working on your PTSD, you can ask yourself some questions: How far have we been pushing the problems away? How long? Do we have help to get through the PTSD and resolve it? Can we take care of the issues rather than putting them off?
Also be gentle with yourselves. This isn't about a guilt trip, it's about understanding the unfortunate fact that distractions aren't a solution. We do wish they were a solution — then we'd all be set for life, easily free of PTSD. No need to dig through the awful stuff. No need to resolve anything. That would truly be wonderful. We'd love to SIMS it all away, then get back to living and working and living out our dreams. But our dreams are not to play the SIMS all day — so it just doesn't work that way. We want to help people, and write books. We don't escape our PTSD that way.
The word "distraction" is so fitting because these things are really taking us a little at a time away from the path to recovery. Sometimes it's necessary and good. Sometimes we realize we've been distracted too long and it's time to go back to healing and recovery. It's for each system and their headmates to figure out the delicate balance of what's not enough distraction, what's enough, the timing, and the length of how long they're willing to put things off. It's not for others to judge this. We just wanted everyone to be aware of this as an issue, to make it explicit so that others can make it a conscious choice. It really sucks to figure this out later and look back and say, "Wow, I wasted years…"
So if you think this is an issue for you or your system, please take everything slow and be compassionate with yourself and your trauma holders. If you do nothing else, get some help with your PTSD. Make sure you're seeing a trauma specialist and try to be honest with yourself and your specialist about your distracting and avoidant behaviors, and any addictions you may have so you can work your way out of it. But mainly, we hope you take great care of each other, even those you have yet to meet or who are still experiencing the problems of the past.