An Analogy: the Wetsuit

When you grow up in a minefield, it seems normal.

People often find it difficult to explain, or to understand Complex PTSD. I often find myself falling into metaphor or analogy to explain the experience. The reason for using an abstraction is because in Complex PTSD the particulars from one person to another vary – greatly. I have found that trying to paint a detailed picture often results in becoming lost in the need for exactitude. It is impossible to be be ‘exact’ for everyone. Enter the analogy.

One question I have seen repeatedly about Complex PTSD is “Why am I having to deal with all this NOW? Why not when it was happening? Why 10/20/30/40 years after the fact?”

In the past I have often explained that when disfunction is your norm – you don’t see it as dysfunction.

Recently I thought this idea needed to grow. While comparing the environment to a minefield works it doesn’t go far enough. The minefield only addresses the environment, while Complex PTSD is the product of how we adapted to that environment.

Think of all those adaptations we learned or created to keep us safe as a wetsuit. See it in your mind and make it as thick or detailed as you like. Maybe you have one of those ‘survival suits’ for the North Sea, light blinking on the top and bright orange. Perhaps your wet suit is more like the body glove of neoprene we often visualize on Navy Seals and Frogmen.*

No matter how you envision your suit to look it all served one purpose – to preserve your life in a hostile environment. By ‘hostile environment’ any diver will tell you – you don’t need sharks to make the water dangerous. The water itself – everything surrounding you – is quite capable of ending you.

That is the mental state in which many of us grew up. Life itself, our most immediate environment posed an imminent threat to our survival. Perhaps there was a shark – a person(s) with the ability to harm you. Perhaps there was not – but your surroundings were as cold as Arctic waters. And some of us endured both.**

To survive we adapted. Those adaptations became the ‘wetsuit’ we wore to help us survive.

Our ‘wetsuit’ served us while we were in those dangerous places. But as we grow, age, we leave the environment(s) that caused us to make those adaptations.

When we no longer need that wetsuit because we have left the freezing water we don’t abandon it. Primarily because we are unaware of it. Those adaptations are integrated. Our ‘wetsuit’ is an intrinsic part of who we are.

Over time, out of that hostile environment, that wetsuit – our adaptations – no longer serve us. The neoprene becomes hot, binding, restrictive, and could even become more than an impairment, but a danger. ***

It is not a sudden appearance of Complex PTSD. We have carried it with us since we entered that hostile place. The reason for the sudden appearance is not because the wetsuit has changed, but because they have changed their environment and no longer need it.

Now – comes the work of peeling that sucker off. And that’s part of the reason you always have a dive buddy. It is easier to get out of the wetsuit when you have help.

At least, that’s one way to think about it.


*Note: I met one of the original ‘frogmen’, once, years ago. His stories were beyond impressive.
**Note: Just imagine a shark wearing a wooly knit jumper.
***Note: Good friend went to a Halloween party dressed as a ‘diver’ – full suit 5mm – almost cooked himself into heat stroke.


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