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How the recent conviction of Cardinal Pell can trigger Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

When we think of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, we often think of soldiers who have seen and experienced horrific things. Usually coupled with depression and/or anxiety, it brings images of our brave defence force personnel dealing with the condition when they return from war.

However extreme trauma or life events can lead to a diagnosis of PTSD. Complex PTSD is often hard to diagnose at it can be very much intertwined with other illnesses such as Major Depression and Borderline Personality Disorder.

The symptoms of "complex PTSD" are often caused by ongoing or repeated trauma where the victim has little or no control and no real or perceived hope of escape. These experiences can lead to deteriorated self-esteem and having to cope with intense emotions throughout life.

In recent days the conviction of one of the highest members of the Catholic Church has been a wave of graphic news of Cardinal Pell's terrible crimes. It is hard during such a high profile news story to escape the cavalcade of information and details relating to his offences.

Male Sexual Assault Survivor
Male Sexual Assault Survivor

This triggers the aspects of PTSD that are incredibly hard to escape and control. As a 16-year-old, I was traumatised in the worst possible way. My sexual assault was not only violent and terrifying during the moments it was happening but installed a sense of fear that I have never really been able to shake right into adulthood. The feeling of anger that my life has been so difficult, my attempts at suicide, my self-harm and addictive behaviours to escape how I was and am feeling are a daily battle that rages every single day of my life.

When such a high profile case such as this floods the mainstream media, for me, it immediately triggers the memories I try so hard to fight off. Seeing in recent days people like our longest serving Prime Minister, John Howard defending the character of a convicted child abuser rubs salt into the wound. It seems incredulous that anyone could defend someone who has been found guilty of such horrendous crimes and provokes so much anger that it has been hard to control.

Whilst there is a heavy focus on the Catholic Church and the Royal Commission into child sex offences, for any sexual assault survivor it only triggers the memories of our own experiences.

For me, nightmares are a constant in my life, which makes going to sleep something that I don't at all look forward to in times like this. It is like my brain unleashes a flood of feelings and memories that are so incredibly painful that it is difficult to wake up in the morning with a positive outlook on the day.

The common symptoms of living with complex PTSD include but are not limited to;

​* Difficulties expressing emotion – High emotional sensitivity and a reduced ability to respond to situations in a manner that is socially tolerable.

* Negative self-belief – A perception fostered by the opinions of others and negative experiences, leading to feelings of worthlessness and shame.

* Problems maintaining healthy relationships – Difficulty feeling close to another person and a general feeling of disconnection, distance or being cut off from other people.

During times where so many people are disgusted and angry at what George Pell has done can lead to a sense of isolation of my own experience. It's probably the first time where I find myself lost for words. I can only tell myself that of course, it is going to trigger memories, but the lack of control over that feeling is very difficult to put into words.

I am sure there are many people out there like me, who despite our sense of relief that justice will be served, are struggling with the trigger that has been activated by such a high profile case in the media that has been almost impossible to avoid hearing the intricate details of Cardinal Pell's crimes.

I hope in the coming days that people like me, who couldn't and never did report the crimes against us, feel empowered that this man will suffer the indignity of a jail sentence. However, it will take time for me to be able to calm the distress levels I am currently feeling.

To every survivor out there, I hope you are strong and are dealing with this the best way you know how. It is an extremely personal journey for every victim and I hope that this case can strengthen our resolve to not let our part destroy our future.

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