“What My Bones Know”: Complex-PTSD Memoir

The widely acclaimed new book by Stephanie Foo, What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma, is bound to educate many about a type of PTSD we don’t often hear about—C-PTSD (complex PTSD). It can occur when trauma is repeated and prolonged.

Sarah McCammon, NPR, introduces Foo:

Stephanie Foo grew up in California, the only child of immigrants who abused her for years and then abandoned her as a teenager. As an adult, Foo seemed to thrive. She graduated from college, landed a job at ‘This American Life,’ became an award-winning radio producer, was dating a lovely man, but she was also struggling. Years of trauma and violent abuse as a child had left her with a diagnosis – complex PTSD, a little-studied condition that Foo was determined to understand.

C-PTSD, however, is not to be found in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). This, despite its widespread recognition among trauma experts since psychiatrist Judith Herman coined the term back in 1988.

And unfortunately, many of Foo’s initial treatment experiences weren’t too helpful. As she wrote in Mental Health Journalism:

I began to try everything: acupuncture, yoga, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing or EMDR, meditation, tapping my face, hyperventilating, researching Buddhism, microdosing on acid, megadosing on psilocybin, tracking my brainwaves, joining a support group. I began researching groundbreaking possible treatments, like wearables that predict future emotions or epigenetic treatments. And throughout this process, I struggled with the loneliness of my experimentation.

Foo then heard a podcast that featured a therapist who compared complex PTSD to the Incredible Hulk (NPR interview):

Because the Incredible Hulk was actually abused as a kid. His father was an alcoholic, and now he had a hard time controlling his emotions when he was angry. He would sort of literally not be able to speak well, and he would just focus on surviving. And that is exactly what having complex PTSD is like. But the Hulk is not a villain. The Hulk is a hero.

She eventually chose him as her own shrink. Although this has certainly been helpful, her course of treatment is about management, not cure—as is the case with most chronic conditions. As Foo told NPR:

…I don’t think that you ever totally heal from complex PTSD. It’s sort of something that you carry with you all the time. But I feel like if the burden, the weight of complex PTSD, is like a pack on my back, then the process of healing has made me stronger. Does that mean, of course, that sometimes the pack gets really, really heavy and I need to sit down and take a break and cry a little bit and figure some new stuff out? Of course. Of course. That’s what life is. But now I feel like I can hold the sadness and the anger and the joy all together.

Selected Reviews of What My Bones Know

Publishers Weekly: “What takes this brilliant work from a personal story to a cultural touch point is the way Foo situates her experiences into a larger conversation about intergenerational trauma, immigration, and the mind-body connection…This is a work of immense beauty.”

Kirkus Reviews: “As Foo sheds necessary light on the little-discussed topic of C-PTSD, she holds out the hope that while ‘healing is never final…along with the losses are the triumphs’ that can positively transform a traumatized life.”

Kathleen Hanna: “This book is a major step forward in the study of trauma. It’s also a huge artistic genre-busting achievement. Stephanie Foo’s brilliant storytelling and strong, funny, relatable voice makes complex PTSD enjoyable to read about.”

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