Book Review: Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving (by Pete Walker)

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I finally finished reading a most wonderful book sent to me by my friend and fellow blogger, Linda Lee. It’s called Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, written by Pete Walker, himself a sufferer of C-PTSD and narcissistic abuse survivor. He is also a therapist who works with others with C-PTSD.

Walker’s book is incredibly readable and tells you everything you need or want to know about C-PTSD, a subcategory of PTSD that isn’t (but should be) included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the bible of the mental health profession. Complex PTSD is similar to PTSD but there are several important differences. The recognized diagnostic category of PTSD describes a disorder that is caused by one traumatic event, such as a rape or combat in a war. PTSD itself wasn’t recognized until psychologists noticed that many Vietnam war veterans were suffering from a group of similar symptoms including, but not limited to, loss of memory, dissociative episodes, panic attacks, general but severe anxiety or depression, inability to cope with day to day challenges, impaired ability to regulate emotions including anger, impaired ability to relate to others in a healthy way, nightmares, flashbacks, and physical pain with no medical causes. C-PTSD has a similar set of symptoms, but is “complex” because of its cause–instead of being precipitated by a single traumatic event, it’s caused by an ongoing series of traumatic incidents and also usually (though not always) begins during childhood. Very often it’s a result of being “cared for” by narcissistic or sociopathic parents, who are actively abusive or neglect their child. Unlike most self-help books, Walker covers the nature of narcissistic abuse and its soul-murdering effect on a child, and how this can lead to C-PTSD and its various manifestations.

Walker breaks down C-PTSD into four “types,” each one corresponding to a different type of defense mechanism, which he calls “The Four F’s”–Fight (the narcissistic defense); Flight (the obsessive compulsive or “workaholic” defense); Freeze (the dissociative defense); and Fawn (the Codependent defense). Most people will have a combination of these, but usually one will be dominant over the others. I find it intriguing that Walker describes the narcissistic and borderline personalities as manifestations of C-PTSD (BPD is a Fight-Codependent hybrid), because I also think that’s exactly what they are.

Walker doesn’t think that any form of C-PTSD is untreatable or necessarily permanent, although some forms are more difficult to eradicate than others. People with severe C-PTSD may spend most of their time in a “flashback” without even knowing that it’s a flashback. For example, if you are continually depressed and anxious without being able to pinpoint why, you may be in a flashback to a time when you were made to feel shame as a young child. Any sort of invalidation or reminder of the shame, no matter how small, could have set off the flashback.

Also discussed is the importance of nurturing your Inner Child, and Walker shows you how you can begin to do this on your own. He also explains why people with C-PTSD have such a harsh Inner Critic (which is the internalized “voice” of the abusive parent that relentlessly continues to shame the Inner Child) and how how re-training your Inner Critic to be less, well, critical and more supportive of the Inner Child can do wonders for your self esteem and help you begin to heal. One of the most important things that must happen in order to heal from C-PTSD is to be able to grieve the lost or wounded inner child and also to be able to feel and express righteous anger toward the abuser (while being No Contact with the actual guilty party, of course).

While Walker encourages therapy (and states that in severe cases says it may be the only way to heal from C-PTSD), he recognizes that it may not always be appropriate or possible for everyone. For example, some C-PTSD sufferers (usually the Freeze/dissociative type) are so hypervigilant and uncomfortable relating to others that they can’t begin to trust a therapist enough to make any progress that way. Such people may do better on their own, at least to begin with. He points out early on that even if you skip around in the book (because not everything in it may apply to everyone) that you can still be helped. He gives the reader helpful things they can do on their own, such as positive affirmations, self-mothering, self-fathering and the “Time Machine Rescue Operation,” mindfulness skills, thought-stopping the Critic, thought substitution, recognizing signs of being in a flashback, how to grieve, and finding “good enough” relational help, among many other tools.

At the core of C-PTSD is the “abandonment depression,” a feeling of terrible emptiness that the Four F’s have been used to avoid confronting. Walker explains how to cope with the abandonment depression without denying that it exists or using the Four F’s as defense mechanisms against it.

Finally, Walker includes a list of books–which he calls “Bibliotherapy”–that he and his patients and visitors to his website have found useful. He wraps things up with six easily referenced “toolboxes” the C-PTSD sufferer can use as adjuncts to their recovery.

Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving is intelligently and empathetically written, and easy to read without being condescending or dumbed down. Its chapters are organized in an understandable and logical way, and subheaders are used throughout to make it possible to read the book in easy to digest chunks. This book has helped me immensely so far, and takes the complexity out of this “complex” disorder.

You can visit Pete Walker’s website here:
http://pete-walker.com/

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Book review: Confessions of a Sociopath (M. E. Thomas)

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A couple of weeks ago I went to a yard sale and a book caught my eye, because of its subject matter–a copy of M. E. Thomas’ autobiography, Confessions of a Sociopath: a Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight.

Ever-fascinated with all things Cluster B, including first-person accounts by narcissists, psychopaths and other antisocial types, I got busy reading that same evening. It took me two weeks to finish the book, when normally I’d devour a book of this length and subject matter in just a few days.

I’m sorry to say, this book was a disappointment. It was a long, painful, boring read. First of all, Ms. Thomas isn’t a very good writer. Full of run-on sentences and endless, dull descriptions of how great she thinks she is because she lacks empathy and a conscience (she seems to think of these as traits only weak or stupid people have, reminding me of Ayn Rand without an iota of the latter’s intelligence), Thomas comes off more as an obnoxious, self-centered, common narcissist than a true sociopath.

Thomas (who owns the website Sociopath World) is not a criminal. She may well be sociopathic in that she seems to take pleasure in cheating, manipulating, hurting, and discarding others, once gleefully watched a possum drown, and admits she enjoys ruining the reputations of people she has worked with. She clearly has no empathy and seems to have no emotions. She crows on endlessly about how her lack of a conscience or any empathy has freed her from having to worry about what others think and therefore indicates what she thinks of as her superior intellect. But like the narcissist she really is, she overvalues her achievements and intelligence. She works as an attorney but doesn’t seem to be able to stay employed for long, and really doesn’t have any other impressive achievements under her belt. Her “theories” about sociopathy are nothing more than rehashes of what other people have already described in psychology texts, and less readable than theirs. Overall, Thomas comes off as self-congratulating, obnoxious, unlikeable, and very shallow. She also comes off as rather dumb.

M. E. Thomas is clearly a malignant narcissist, but by calling herself a “sociopath” you feel like you’ve been the victim of a bait-and-switch (which is in itself sociopathic, I suppose). The cover of the book is a picture of a sinister female mask on a white background, and you open the book expecting something more than you actually get, at least some sort of depth or insight into her own behavior. But Thomas has no real insight and the book reads more like a resume of her fake “achievements” than a dark psychological memoir. She talks about her family, who she describes as neglectful, but she doesn’t seem to think they were particularly abusive. She takes arrogant pride in her “sociopathy,” repeating the word again and again throughout the text, as if to drive home the fact that she really is one, when it seems that she “protesteth too much” and underneath all that bluster, suspects she may not be. That kind of insecurity over the possibility of not really being what one says they are is a lot more typical of NPD than psychopathy or sociopathy, who don’t care what others think of them. Thomas also talks about wanting to have a family and her religion (Mormonism) a lot. Maybe her religion keeps her from acting out against others in more heinous ways and gives her a sort of “cold” conscience that keeps her out of prison, but I sure hope God doesn’t let her have children. She doesn’t seem capable of maintaining a relationship, so that doesn’t exactly work in her favor.

Although narcissists are thought of as having no emotions, it isn’t really true that they don’t, and there are narcissists and sociopaths who have been able to write about themselves in an emotionally engaging, albeit dark and depressing, way. There is rage and hurt and despair seething behind the surface of their words. But Thomas writes in a cold, emotionless way, probably because she’s such a bad writer. As a result, you feel about as excited reading her “memoir” as you’d feel reading the most boring high school textbook–and learn a whole lot less.

The only reason I didn’t feel completely ripped off was because the yard sale copy of this book set me back only $1; if I’d purchased it at full price, I’d be pretty annoyed right now. It was all I could do to even finish this book. It was that boring. Don’t waste your time. If you want to read a good book about sociopathy, read Marsha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door instead. If you really need to read something that comes “out of the horse’s mouth,” you’d do better with Sam Vaknin.