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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Can People Have PTSD Without Even Knowing It?

Some may forget painful memories while also unconsciously holding on to them.

Key points

  • After treating PTSD for over 25 years, I found out that I had PTSD from 40 years ago.
  • I thought I was accepting my traumatic upbringing but realized I was actually unconsciously minimizing and denying it.
  • Facing buried memories delivered profound joy and vibrant energy.

The mind has an amazing ability to forget painful memories while also unconsciously holding on to them.

Last year I found out that I carried post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from over forty years ago. As a psychologist, I have treated PTSD for over 25 years, so it’s hard to believe I wouldn’t know I had PTSD. I thought I had accepted my childhood, never thinking my childhood should have been different. I could not empathize with my sister’s anger and resentment about our upbringing. I thought I was accepting what happened, but now see I was actually unconsciously minimizing and denying it.

My parents’ psychiatric struggles, hospitalizations, and incarcerations filled my childhood with loss, poverty, and other hardships. I changed homes nineteen times before I was 18. The worst times were when I was abandoned during a trip to Mexico at age 7 and went into foster care at age 9. Somehow I became an emotionally stable, high-functioning adult.

Last year I worked with a patient, who I call Zebra, who was suicidal because her children were removed from her care after she was falsely accused of child abuse. My unhealed emotional wounds resurfaced when I saw the similarities between their trauma events and mine. Zebra had fostered and adopted many children with complex medical issues, and when her children’s medical problems unexpectedly worsened, doctors accused her of intentionally interfering with their medical care.

Like most cases of Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome, there was no scientifically credible evidence. World-renowned expert Eric Mart estimates that about 80% of Munchausen cases are falsely accused. Zebra carried overwhelming grief as well as shame from being labeled a monster. Her two youngest children were put into foster care and told that Zebra tried to kill them. I decided to swoop in and save them.

My strong connection to her and her children was partly because I identified with them. Zebra and I had both been in the same foster care transitional facility in 1973. Her young son looks like me—we were both biracial boys who lost our white mothers. Her daughter was in the hospital when she lost Zebra, and I was also in the hospital after the first time I lost my mother. I told Zebra that I was healed from my childhood traumas, but she had a feeling there was quite a bit unsettled behind the stability and intellect I displayed. By saving her children, it felt like I would save myself from another childhood abandonment.

We were fighting against the hospital, social services agencies, and their powerful legal teams trying to cover up their illegal and unethical behaviors in creating a case against her. We held on to the belief that our tenacity and justice would, and should, prevail. I had the apparently simple task of confirming that she successfully completed therapy, which usually results in a family reunification plan. I assured Zebra this simple task was a “slam dunk,” and we aimed to go further by discrediting the Munchausen diagnosis.

The Day of Reckoning

At the courthouse, I remembered that I had been there at age 9 when custody of me was being decided after being in foster care. When I met Zebra’s daughter there, standing where I stood almost 40 years ago, I felt a strong wave of sadness and couldn't stop crying. I felt like I was Zebra’s daughter as if I was going to court to lose my parent. I began physically shaking when we entered the courtroom, knowing that I had been in that exact room years earlier seeing my father in his prison clothes after our long separation.

When I took the stand, everyone saw me shaking and heard my voice quiver. I was supposed to say whether Zebra demonstrated insight into why she abused her children and if she corrected those problems. I tried to tactfully say that she did not do any Munchausen therapy because she could not fix a disorder that she never had, but emotions clouded my thinking. I was also too nervous about asserting that I thought all of their ideas about her were wrong. I waited for Zebra’s lawyer to ask me, but he never did.

Court was a disaster. Zebra said my testimony was why she would never see her children again and why she would now plan her suicide. She said I betrayed her. Her daughter felt betrayed, too, falsely believing Zebra made no efforts to get them back. The reality was that her public defender did not prepare me for court, and he did nothing in court to clarify my statements.

I went into court believing, and wanting to say, that her therapy participation was the most stellar that I had ever seen…and that there was zero evidence for the diagnosis about deliberately harming children. Instead, my words made their abandonment trauma much worse. It was a tragic irony that I somehow recreated trauma that I first experienced several decades earlier. This time, I was a perpetrator and also, through my empathy, a victim. My PTSD set me onto this mission to save them and was also to blame for why I did the opposite.

Redemption and Healing

Zebra and I eventually reconnected and cried together. She quickly forgave me for my mistake, showing profound empathy for my PTSD reaction in court. This prompted me to get therapy for my PTSD now that I was finally aware of it. I healed myself by using a scientifically supported approach called prolonged exposure.

Facing my buried memories transformed me, bringing profound joy and vibrant energy. I am now clear how childhood trauma can affect a person for a very long time, even when it is deeply buried beneath a good life and a thick layer of denial. It's never too late to heal from childhood trauma and fully wake up to the joys of living. I only hope Zebra’s children have the same opportunities to heal.