Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.

Agate generously supports MinnPost’s Mental Health & Addiction coverage; learn why

In a compelling memoir, Minnesota author details how childhood abuse sparked PTSD

Carter McNamara had associated PTSD with military veterans until a therapist told him, “You were in a war and you were only 10 years old. And when you looked behind you there were no other soldiers to back you up.”

Carter McNamara
Carter McNamara
For decades, Carter McNamara experienced the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — hyperarousal, flashbacks, headaches, night terrors — but he never thought his traumatic childhood experiences qualified him for the diagnosis.  

It wasn’t until 1992, when McNamara, a Minnesota-based author and organizational development expert, finally saw a therapist who specialized in PTSD, and realized that his horrific childhood was the cause of the many troubles he’d faced in his adult life. 

At their first appointment, McNamara said, after the therapist listened to the story of his childhood and the symptoms he’d experienced for most of his life, she said, “You have PTSD.” 

Because he associated the disorder with military veterans, McNamara’s response was disbelief. 

Article continues after advertisement

“I stood up and started walking out of her office,” he recalled. “I said, ‘I was never in the military.’ She sat me down in a chair and rolled her own chair over to me. She said, ‘You weren’t in the military, but you were in a war and you were only 10 years old. And when you looked behind you there were no other soldiers to back you up.’” 

This response sent McNamara down a road of treatment and recovery from a terrifying childhood in rural western North Dakota in the care of an impoverished single mother, a woman with severe mental illness and addiction who let her demons loose on her children. For most of his life, McNamara kept his childhood terrors to himself, but the mental pain the experience caused eventually trickled into all of his relationships — even the ones he cared about the most. 

Years later, when his wife threatened to take their two children and leave if he didn’t get help, McNamara finally agreed to see a therapist. Learning that people who’d been victims of domestic abuse often suffer from PTSD was an eye-opener for him, and with help from his counselor and a PTSD therapy group, he was eventually able to become a better husband, father and friend. 

Though he never physically abused his wife or children, McNamara believes that the wounds from his own childhood trauma caused him at times to be emotionally abusive. 

“People think trauma is beating up someone until there’s blood,” he said. “But most trauma in dysfunctional families is emotional trauma: emotional abuse, lying, detachment, moodiness, put-downs, mean jokes.” 

For years, McNamara told himself that his family relationships were solid. But the reality was that he was causing harm to the people he loved the most. “I put my wife and kids through emotional abuse for about 20 years,” he said.  And he avoided all talk of what was really causing all this pain: “If my wife ever mentioned my childhood, I’d change the subject.” 

Now, with years of therapy under his belt, McNamara has written “Wolf,” a memoir that details his childhood trauma and his slow recovery from the experience. He said the self-published book was written as a “family-legacy,” a way for him to safely share this painful part of his history with his loved ones.  He saw “Wolf” as part-apology, part-explanation: He didn’t plan to write it for an audience of strangers. 

“I wanted to write for my wife and two kids,” he said. “When you are writing a book to publish it’s like walking into a room of 100 people and standing behind a podium. In this book, I wanted to be as honest as possible.” 

Carolyn Holbrook
Carolyn Holbrook
But McNamara’s friend and colleague, Carolyn Holbrook, educator and author of multiple books, including, most recently, the memoir, “Tell Me Your Names and I Will Testify,” thinks that “Wolf” deserves to reach a larger audience. 

The book is too important — and helpful — to be limited to only a handful of people, she said. “I think it is a remarkable book. His story is just so compelling. I hope that maybe a publisher will buy it at one of the auctions.”

Article continues after advertisement

Revealing a painful past

Most people think of domestic abuse as physical, with slaps, punches and kicks, but the kind of abuse that McNamara experienced at the hands of his mother left wounds that went even deeper than bruises or broken bones. 

“Childhood trauma is of two kinds,” McNamara said. “There is physical abuse, and then there is childhood neglect. I was neglected. My mother didn’t look at me. She was gone for days at a time. She didn’t feed me. She’d usually be drunk or high or in a state of mental breakdown.” McNamara skipped a lot of school. And he was often hungry. 

His older siblings also felt the abuse and left the house as soon as they could, leaving McNamara alone with his unstable mother. With no one around to protect him, he was left to deflect his mother’s barrage of verbal abuse and insults, find food and clothing for himself and keep their crumbling house from falling down.

Wolf memoirThough she belittled him and raged against him, McNamara’s mother also depended on him for her physical care. “I was doing my mother’s enemas when I was seven,” McNamara said. Ashamed of the dark reality of his life, he never told anyone at school or in town about these painful experiences. “People don’t talk about their traumas,” he said. “They don’t want to be judged. They don’t want to be pitied.”  

But keeping his traumas to himself didn’t make them go away. Years later, when McNamara moved out of his mother’s house and left North Dakota for good, he still carried the emotional scars left by his childhood.  

Like his mother, McNamara struggled with addiction. He made it through two years of college until, in 1973, his addiction forced him to quit: “I was big into speed and pot and drinking,” he said. “By 1974, I was homeless. I was in alleys, soup lines.” By 1975 he went into addiction treatment, where he was incorrectly diagnosed with schizophrenia: “They said, ‘Your biggest problem is you have attachment disorder. You were raised in a cage with wolves.’”  

Even after he’d met and married his wife Teri, these experiences continued to seep out of the edges of McNamara’s life. 

Article continues after advertisement

“I had night terrors,” he said. “When I was a kid, my mom used to come in my room with knives. She said she was going to kill rats.” These incidents were delusions, he explained, caused by mental illness and addiction, and for McNamara, they left behind deep trauma that was hard to keep under wraps. One morning, after a particularly bad night, he found his wife sitting on the couch in their living room. “She said,” he recalled, “‘You need therapy.’”  

McNamara agreed to go to therapy, but his heart wasn’t in it. “I faked it for about eight years,” he said.  But when his son’s normal childhood illness triggered a major PTSD episode, he realized that he had to make changes or he’d lose everything he cared about. 

When he was  boy, McNamara said, his mother’s drug and alcohol use often ended with her vomiting and defecating everywhere. McNamara was forced to clean up the mess. Years later, when his young son caught a stomach bug and vomited on the floor, McNamara lost it. 

“I had a PTSD episode that was like a bomb in our family,” he said. “I blanked out. I left the house and walked away to a park.” Later, when he returned, McNamara recalled that his wife was, “sitting with a child under each arm. She said, ‘You get serious about therapy or we’re out of here.’ I went to a therapist and I completely surrendered.” 

McNamara’s surrender included a deep apology to his wife, who went to therapy on her own, where she learned to establish boundaries that helped keep their marriage alive. They’ve now been married for 41 years. He also apologized to his children. It took time, he said, but both eventually accepted his apology and have welcomed him back into their lives. 

For McNamara, ongoing PTSD therapy has made life livable. “I liken it to water babbling over a rock for centuries,” he said. “It eventually  takes all of the sharp edges away. It makes it so much easier to be honest. And so much easier to be happy.” 

Writing as recovery

Writing “Wolf” has been another form of therapy for McNamara, who believes that by recounting the most painful events of his childhood and their continuing impact on his adult life he has been able to bust myths about the causes of PTSD and who can claim the diagnosis. 

According to Partners for Peace, a national advocacy group for people experiencing domestic violence, the prevalence rate of PTSD among domestic violence survivors is between 31% and 84%, compared to about 3.5% of the general population. McNamara hopes that his story will help other survivors of domestic abuse get the mental health treatment they deserve.

“That is why I wanted to write a story about recovering from PTSD related to domestic violence,” McNamara said.

Article continues after advertisement

As a memoirist herself, Holbrook said she understands the positive mental health impact of writing. “Stuff comes up when you are writing a memoir, stuff you may have forgotten about,” she said. “It comes up and kicks your ass. I’m just a real strong believer in the healing power of telling your story.” 

Though it can be painful, the act of sharing your story, of getting the words out and into the air can have a positive impact on your mental health, Holbrook added.  

“There’s a lot of shame around the stuff we go through. We tend to think we are the only ones who are going through this stuff, but, as Carter has found out, we have more in common than we know.” McNamara has begun to share “Wolf” with people outside of his family, she said, and the response has been positive: “He’s gotten a lot of really important comments from people who say, ‘Oh my God. Thank you for sharing your story.’”

McNamara credits Holbrook with encouraging his book’s raw honesty, including a moment in his childhood, when, in desperation, he tried to poison his mother. In earlier versions of his book he held back some of the most difficult stories. “Carolyn said,” McNamara recalled, “‘You are lying to your readers.’ I got angry.  She said, ‘Your readers know you’ve got something you are hiding.” 

He’s happy that he finally followed his friend’s advice and laid all his cards on the table. He hopes that his book — when and if it sees a larger audience — will provide help, support and inspiration for others. 

“At the very broadest level,” he said, “I would want this book to help people who were abused as children be inspired by at least one story of how facing that can change your life — and improve your relationships.”