It’s Monday, and today Monday means yesterday was Mother’s Day, and now it’s over.
Is anyone else glad about that?
Don’t get me wrong…it wasn’t a bad Mother’s Day…my husband made me fancy-ingredient gourmet waffles and changed (most of) all the diapers; my mom and son came over for Cuban congri and yuca (and pork, for them) that didn’t quite match up to what my Abuelita would have made, but it had the general flavor. So overall it was nice.
I don’t want to ramble too much on a post that really isn’t about me, but let’s just say that holidays in general give me problems, and holidays in which I am the sole or partial focus give me even greater problems. So externally, it was actually very nice, but interally, I still had a difficult and depressing weekend. I’ll miss the gourmet meals and lack of poop cleaning, but I won’t miss the soul-sucking, vertiginous depression.
Today we continue the celebration of mothers with Sheila from Parallel Dichotomy. You may also remember her as the author of the Trauma Informed Care piece I ran earlier. In that piece she talked about a positive model for trauma treatment. In this one, she gets more personal, discussing what it’s like to parent after trauma.
Sheila has been through a lot of really serious trauma. Trauma can’t be quantified by length of experience-we hear that all the time-but I do think the fact that most of her life has been in an abusive environment plays a factor in the extent of her trauma. She struggles a lot, understandably, but in this interview she also demonstrates a host of coping skills and the ability to talk about her experience in a cogent, intelligent manner. I was able to relate to a lot of her answers (a lot), but something I could not relate to was the level of self-support she has, and most especially, the level of outside support she has.
As a society, we applaud trauma survivors who care for themselves; who pick themselves up and heal and get themselves to the place where they can feel and behave and react appropriately. And that’s a great place to aspire toward…but I think it’s really important to remember that as much personal strength and toil it takes the survivor to get there, and as much as she does deserve accolades when she does and while she tries, it also takes a lot of outside support. There is a huge difference in outcome between trauma survivors who have caring, sustained support, and those of us who don’t.
In this interview we see the struggles of a woman who has experienced much, much more than her fair share of hardship, and who is still learning how to be a mom while caring for herself properly. We also get a glimpse as to how trauma survivors should be supported. Hopefully, reading this will help people understand the importance of support in healing; as well as the need for compassion towards mothers who have experienced trauma.
Parenting with Mental Illness
Before getting into the interview I want to say one final thing (final, I promise)! Some of you may have been seeing the acronym “CPTSD” floating around. It stands for Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and is not, as of yet, an official DSM-grade diagnosis, but probably will become one. It is the result of prolonged trauma, and is basically supposed to be a stickier and more difficult form of PTSD. I probably have it too; my abuse certainly qualifies me for it, but I refer to myself as having PTSD because a-that’s my diagnosis, and b-I actually had not heard of CPTSD before starting this blog. Okay, on to the interview:
Tell us your name?
How many kids do you have?
Just the one. Little miss Katie, who’s 5 years old.
How did you acquire PTSD?
I am living with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which is the result of chronic exposure to trauma. I grew up in a chaotic home in which I witnessed frequent domestic violence against my mother and experienced child abuse by my stepfather. I was the oldest child, so I was also in a “caretaker” role for everyone – I protected my brothers, supported my mother, and tried to regulate my stepfather’s emotions to prevent dangerous situations from arising. I moved straight from that into an abusive marriage, which I just escaped in November. So, my “chronic trauma” was a straight 28 years of chaos and abuse.
How long have you had PTSD?
My full blown PTSD symptoms emerged in November after my husband left; however, hypervigilance, anxiety, and depression have been present since I was 12 years old. I would occasionally have implicit flashbacks during fights with my husband that would result in me being a sobbing ball on the floor without me fully understanding why. And, of course, my relationship with my husband was me reliving childhood trauma. Sometimes, he would intentionally say or do things that he knew my stepfather had said and done, and use my PTSD reaction as a form of emotional control to bully me into submission. So aspects of the disorder have definitely been present for many years, not just since my husband left.
How has your CPTSD affected your parenting and your relationship with your daughter?
I definitely have many moments of high anxiety, which leads to irritability and having a “short fuse” with my daughter. I feel terrible after snapping at her, and then I think that I’m going to screw her up the same way my parents screwed me up. That’s my greatest fear in life. Also, I am SO hypervigilant toward any bad mood I might have, that I tend to overreact and overestimate the impact it has on her. I don’t know what “healthy” parenting is, so I feel like I’m just flying by the seat of my pants and praying that I’m not screwing her up. Because I’m so hypervigilant to my own feelings and any perceived feelings of hurt or sadness in her, I also sometimes struggle with discipline in any form. I’m definitely still navigating the balance between “discipline” and “punishment.” I know I never want to punish her for anything, but a parent’s role is, in part, to discipline their children. I have a hard line no-spanking policy, and I don’t like sending her to her room, either, because of my own traumatic memories. So, learning how to address misbehavior in a healthy, non-hurtful but also effective way is something I’m still working on.
How does having PTSD affect your daily life outside of parenting?
When my full blown symptoms emerged, it resulted in a hospitalization. I lost my job (which was in a group home through a mental health agency) because I could not stay in that environment (with sometimes violent clients) if I hoped to work through my PTSD and get healthy and stable. Some days, being out in public is still too much. Anxiety and hypervigilance come and go. I can be completely fine grocery shopping one minute, and the next minute it’s like all the noise and the sheer amount of people and commotion around kick into High Def and I can’t take the over stimulation. Some days, I’m so depressed I can’t get out of bed. Hypervigilance and nightmares have resulted in bouts of insomnia, which then impact my diet, my ability to focus, and my ability to function and cause a downward spiral. The trauma and recent emergence of full blown PTSD has also lead to substance abuse issues. I never understood I was self-medicating to shut off the hypervigilance and to calm the anxiety. Happily, though, I haven’t had a drink in over a month now!
What are your most difficult triggers and symptoms?
Yelling, a perception of tension/anger, loud noises (particularly dishes slamming), Journey (the band – my stepfather used to listen to their albums while he was drinking), difficult conversations with people, having people too “in my bubble”, big crowds.
What are your best coping skills?
Most effective coping skills long-term are definitely the healthy ones: mindfulness, grounding exercises, talking to safe people in safe environments about what you experienced/ what you’re struggling with, getting exercise to burn off some of the stress hormone, massage for muscle tension, etc.
Short-term: On really bad days I do struggle with unhealthy coping mechanisms, like binge eating, self injury, staying in bed all day watching Netflix, alcohol consumption. In the short term, these do help ease the pain, but in the long term, they aren’t good for me. On really bad days, though, sometimes it is just about picking the “healthiest” of the unhealthy coping skills and being gentle with yourself – even if you “slip up” and use one of the really unhealthy coping skills. I like the mountain analogy. We’re all climbing a mountain towards wellness. Sometimes, we fall and slide down the trail a little. That’s OK as long as we don’t pitch a tent and live there. We’ve got to acknowledged we slipped, tend to any injuries, and then start climbing again.
Are there supportive people in your life who help?
I do have some amazing supports in a lot of different areas. My friends are huge supports for me. When everything was first starting to hit the fan, two friends in particular were calling and video chatting just about every day. One friend came from California to spend about a week with me at what was essentially the peak of all the PTSD symptoms, less than a month before I went to the hospital. She helped me deep clean and redecorate my whole house. We got my daughter involved too, so it was like a cathartic “this is our house now” sort of situation. She also walked me through grounding techniques I had never used before when I was panicky or having a flash back and that was so helpful because I honestly needed a bit of guidance at the beginning there. Then, my best friend since 7th grade never said no to me going to visit with my daughter on weekends and she was the one who got me to the hospital and literally handled everything from calling my work to coordinating care for my daughter while I was hospitalized to visiting me while I was IN the hospital to picking me up when I was released and letting me spend that night at her apartment to put a little space between hospital and “real life”. Then, my mother has been immensely helpful with Katie and with lifting the stress of potential eviction as Katie and I adjust to this new life. She’s really been very helpful in the whole process.
Sometimes people get a little *overly* supportive, if you know what I mean. Like, freaking out if I don’t answer a facebook message in the middle of the day and worrying that maybe I’ve hurt myself or whatever… but, really, I’m nothing but grateful. Even in those instances. I’ve started just responding to overly worried phone calls and such with “I love you too” because, really, it’s all coming from a place of love and support.
How has blogging about your trauma affected you?
At first, I think it was just a way to air everything. But it’s grown into a mixture of “this is something that’s happened to me” and “this is a really cool resource that you might find helpful!” So, at first, I was pretty in depth with some of my traumatic experiences, but now it’s more tangential. And, honestly, that’s more comfortable for me. Trying to think of specifics of some of my traumas and then write them in any sort of detail tends to be triggering (for obvious reasons). But connecting with others and helping to take some of the stigma and mystery and rumor out of living with mental health diagnoses and trauma has been pretty therapeutic for me, too. And this response has been nothing but supportive, which is also encouraging and healing in it’s own right.
Can you talk a little about any medications you take and their effects?
Yes. I’m diagnosed with PTSD and also diagnosed with Bipolar Affective Disorder, so I have a little bit of a daily cocktail I take. Mostly, it’s been good. Some meds are kind of sedating and taking them at night seems to work well as long as I am able to get 8-10 hours of sleep. If I can’t, then I’m sort of a zombie the whole next day. The most helpful thing for the PTSD symptoms has been a beta blocker that helps reduce nightmares as well. It’s certainly helped. It’s not a silver bullet, but it definitely put a dent in some of my symptoms.
Are there any ways in which having PTSD has made you a better parent or person?
I’m very in tune with my daughter’s emotional state, and therefore can talk to her about how she’s feeling better. (kids sometimes don’t have words to name emotions, and I’ve become pretty good at helping her put names to and voice her feelings, which is helpful in her healing from the divorce.); I definitely keep my daughter safe from harm! Maybe I’m a little too much of a “helicopter parent”, but I’ll tell you, no one is ever going to hurt her while I’m with her – and I don’t allow time alone with any relatives other than my mother, because I know she’ll be safe with her. But, beyond that, visits with loved ones are always with me present; I’m better able to have the difficult conversations with her with compassion – the divorce was (and is) a big one. But I’m just saying and doing the things I wish adults did for me when I was a kid. Telling her it’s ok to feel sad and angry and confused and scared, reassuring her that both mommy and daddy love her very much, snuggling her when she wants it, leaving her alone when she wants it, etc. I used to joke that the greatest thing my upbringing taught me was “how not to parent”, so I just continously try to do the opposite with her. Hopefully, my theory is correct and she’ll end up a happy, whole adult.
If there were one public misconception you could change about PTSD, what would it be?
When I was hospitalized, my friend started an Indigogo for me. Some family members reacted by saying “don’t post that! People are going to think she’ll shoot up a school or something!” PTSD is not dangerous. Yes, sometimes people with PTSD react strongly to things you don’t think they “should”, and VERY occasionally, it results in acts of physical violence – but by and large, people with PTSD are not going to hurt anyone else. Self harm is much more common in PTSD. Also, PTSD is a reaction to trauma – we can’t get over it. Our brain is physically different from those who do not have PTSD. We will have it for the rest of our lives. We can manage it, but it will never “go away”, so please don’t expect it to.
Did your family actually think you were dangerous?
Telling them in person or over the phone was very different. No one assumed I was violent. I think it was more concern over the perception of PTSD. It was like my family members knew a little about PTSD and a LOT about the stigma and they didn’t want to see me fall victim to the common misconceptions.
Thank you Sheila! It has been lovely getting to know you, and I really appreciate your honesty and thoroughness in responding.
To learn more about Sheila and her life as a mama with CPTSD/Bipolar Disorder, visit her blog Parallel Dichotomy, follow her on Twitter: @paradichotomy, and “like” the Parallel Dichotomy Blog Facebook Page.
Subscribe to my blog! There are a few bonus questions that didn’t make it into this interview. If you’re interested in knowing more about Sheila add your name to my e-mail list (yes, you do have to be an e-mail subscriber, rather than a “WordPress follower). She answers questions about the process of being diagnosed, her co-parenting arrangements, and how she explains her symptoms and hospitalization to her daughter. These answers will be exclusively included in the Betty’s Battleground May newsletter, which I’ll be sending out next week. I’ll make it easy on you. Here’s the form (don’t worry; I won’t sell your info):
Don’t forget!The new Mental Illness Blog Share is still open until Friday. The theme is mothers, so if YOU are a blogger with a post or two about motherhood, click here to add it!
The Fiction Fridays 9 contest is also still open, so click here to enter to be featured on Betty’s Battleground.
Finally, if you are a parent with a mental illness and would like to participate in this interview series, please visit the Guest Post Info page to get started.
Til next time!