It’s that time of the month again..By which I mean, of course, time for the monthly Parenting with Mental Illness interview. I am so grateful to the three mothers I have interviewed so far for being so generous with their stories. Maria, the first mother I interviewed, described the feeling and effects of Postpartum Depression with unabashed honesty, which is so important, because when we hide the most embarrassing or shameful aspects of our disorders, we perpetuate negative stigmas about what they “should” look like.
Sheila did not hold back in describing her traumatic past, or the obstacles which CPTSD and BPAD have placed between herself and her overarching goals. She also showed us the importance of support after trauma, which is a pet issue of mine, so I really appreciate her for that.
Today, we’ll meet Karin, a single mother who lives with PTSD. Like everyone who has PTSD, Karin has been through more than her fair share of hardship. The part of her story that broke my heart the most was when she talked about being strangled during pregnancy; I too was strangled by my former partner during pregnancy, so I know how much that experience robs you of security, sanity, and hope.
Yet Karin has persevered. She credits much, if not all, of her recovery to a treatment called EMDR. I was not familiar with EMDR before first talking to Karin. The acronym stands for “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.” It is a little confusing, frankly, as someone who has never experienced it or had it explained to me by a professional, but it is supposed to help trauma patients reprocess their trauma using “bilateral stimulation,” which involves eye movement and electromagnetic stimulation. It appears to be connected to REM sleep. Read Karin’s interview to learn more about her experiences with it, as well as her life as a mother with PTSD.
Parenting with Mental Illness: Karin
What’s your name?
How many kids do you have?
I have one son who is 10. Almost 75.
How did you acquire PTSD?
My childhood experiences with a malignant narcissist for a mother contributed a lot to the original trauma events that laid the foundation for PTSD. There are highlights of traumatic events but overall, I don’t think that my brain ever knew what calm and stable was. I experienced a severe, shocking trauma in January 2005 (related to my family of origin), and then another in March 2006 (my husband attempted to strangle me while I was pregnant). I was diagnosed with C-PTSD while I was pregnant. Having tried all kinds of therapy and medications, I turned to EMDR in 2008 when recurring nightmares and flashbacks to the events of January 2005 would not stop. I went back again in 2010. Since then, I have managed with minimal medications, but I’ve also become very open about things when I’m struggling, and I’m either no-contact or very low-contact with my family.
How long have you had PTSD?
All of my adult life? 25 years? At the very least, the past 12 years.
Can you talk a little bit about the process of receiving your diagnosis?
The first mention of it was when I was 17. I had done some therapy when my parents divorced, and we had a session with my mom. The therapist referred to her as Borderline and talked to me about PTSD. That would have been 1985, so it wasn’t well-known, and there weren’t any solidified treatments for it, but it was what she was seeing.
Later, maybe 15 years, I tried therapy again and PTSD wasn’t brought up but ongoing generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and some depression were noticed. I was on and off antidepressants.
In 2006, I started seeing a psychopharmacologist who couldn’t figure out what was going on because no medicinal combos were effective. That’s when we started talking about PTSD and C-PTSD. He recommended CBT and talk therapy, and I gave them a shot, but they made things worse, not better. Talking about trauma week after week is ridiculous; it sure won’t help it go away, and it will get worse if you keep it all fresh in your brain. I took anxiety meds, but they only took the edge off.
How has PTSD affected your relationships?
I am an only parent – not just a single mom. I’m it. All of the time for all of the things. That makes it tough because there is no one to pick up the slack or help when I’m having a bad day or going through a rough patch. My son is 10.5 now, and he understands when mom’s “worry brain” is in overdrive (he has some anxiety, too, so he has developed a whole language around it). He rolls with being low key, keeping things quiet and not being around people so much when I am feeling that way.
It impacts romantic relationships in unpleasant ways. I have issues around abandonment and “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” I have to coach myself to remember that one fight is not the end of the world. I have to be very conscious of where my head is – that self-awareness allows me to communicate what is actually going on because my brain is not necessarily the most trustworthy filter/interpreter of input. Knowing that, I can ask others for help with my perceptions. It really sucks that I need to do that, but it’s much better to know it than to react the way my brain wants me to sometimes.
How does PTSD affect your daily life?
I avoid a lot of things. I avoid conflict whenever possible, but I also avoid big, fun things, too. I shy away from crowds. I don’t speak up. I live at the edges of things and don’t jump in to them. I worry about things, and then I worry about the fact that I worry about them. I need medication to sleep, and I probably always will. I feel disconnected from things, and while in theory I would like to be more connected, in reality I don’t do anything to even try. I haven’t had a full-time for almost 2 years, and that’s terrifying with a 10yo son. I wonder about my ability to go back to work in a job that requires 9-5 in an office and management skills.
Are there any ways in which PTSD has helped you to be a better parent or person?
I’m definitely more compassionate and more understanding and less judgmental than most people. I am a good listener. I recognize anxiety in others. I’m patient. I understand the importance of self-care being integral to survival because I can’t be a good mom or anything else if I’m not okay.
What are your most difficult triggers and symptoms?
Triggers are dealing with my family, any holidays, anyone knocking on my door and then the odd, random thing I can never predict. At this point, I’d say the worst symptom is anxiety. I don’t really experience depression as often, and I don’t have flashbacks anymore. The insomnia could be thyroid, perimenopause, anxiety and a host of things creating the perfect storm of sleeplessness.
How did your mother’s narcissism manifest when you were a child and how did it affect you then and now?
As a child, I never knew what I’d be walking into – she might be okay, or normalish or insanely angry. I never, ever remember her being happy. The world revolved around her – what she wanted to do, what she thought, what she felt, what mood she was in. As a child, I learned to walk on eggshells constantly to avoid tripping her temper (which was impossible to do because it wasn’t like it needed anything to be tripped). So, I grew up in this environment where nothing felt safe or predictable or calm. There were just lulls between the blow-ups. I took on a lot of responsibility for my younger brother and sister, which she expected and didn’t appreciate. I cooked and cleaned. Again, those were expectations, not things to help out or pitch in.
My brother and I would panic before she came home from work and clean the house because if she came in to a mess all hell would break loose. Getting her approval was paramount to me and impossible. I went to a college I hated because she liked it. I chose a career I hated because she liked it. As an adult, I went years with no contact, but she was always in the back of my mind. She kept financial hooks in me. She kept emotional hooks in there, too. Making normal decisions was all but impossible. I’d be paralyzed about making the wrong choice, even when she was out of the picture. Selecting a shampoo could become so overwhelming that I’d leave the store. Buying a car? Deciding what to wear? I never knew when it would surface, but it would do that unpredictably. In retrospect and with some distance now, I wonder if I didn’t create situations where I’d need her in a twisted cyclical need to try to get her approval. I dunno.
By the time I had my son, I was terrified that I’d make a wrong choice. She was vocal and involved. Stills refers to him as “her boy” and “her baby” and “hers”. I felt like I couldn’t do anything right with him, though she hated being a mother and was in no position to offer advice.
What are your best coping skills and tools?
EMDR saved my life. I don’t know where I would be if I had not had people who urged me to do it. I do yoga because the mind/body connection works for me. That helps a lot. You can’t think deep, scary thoughts while twisting into a pretzel or you will fall over and get hurt. So you have to focus. That’s like a brain vacation for me. I take Xanax, and I always have it handy because it’s a go-to. At times I’ve turned to having a drink or two (not drinking heavily – only parent thing), but honestly, it just ramps up the anxiety and sleeplessness, so it’s diminishing returns. I read. I binge watch television shows. I hide in my house alot. I talk to a couple of people who get it.
Can you briefly describe EMDR?
By 2007, I was having severe ongoing repetitive nightmares about the storming of my house and the “rescue.” I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t coping. I needed immediate relief. I turned to EMDR. I looked up people who were good and certified through the EMDR professional group. I found a man who’d worked with both vets and rape victims and made an appointment. The first meeting was sort of get to know you and goals. Very different from typical therapy. Very structured. He said I was a candidate.The next meeting, we did the first session. I had little finger clips that sent buzzing things to my fingers. I wore headphones that beeped intermittently. Both were without a predictable pattern. I think that’s important. It was very structured. We started at a place in my memory that he picked. I’d sit quietly with the finger things and headphones and at points he’d ask me where I was (in my head). I was silent and sort of free-floating-thinking. We talk for a minute, and he’d either send me somewhere else to start thinking or go from where I was. This was maybe 60 minutes. Then there was a brief recap.
I remember sitting in my car after, feeling odd, and thinking “my brain is different.” Not bad different, but different. Like the deck of cards had been shuffled? Or stuff had been put in different places? It’s hard to explain, but a lot of EMDR folks will say similar stuff. And it was. I had distance. The nightmares stopped right away. I was calm. I was separated from the emotions of the events. I could talk about them like I could talk about going to the grocery store or taking trash to the curb or getting my oil changed. My mother had less and less impact on me. I related to her like some kind of alien being. I did that four times, and I was good. Then in 2009, I needed to go back. The first guy had died, and so I went to another through Penn Council for Relationships (a group in Philadelphia that is awesome). This time it was deeper, more emotionally draining and also more permanent. EMDR saved my life.
What is the difference between a “regular” nightmare and a PTSD nightmare?
They are completely different. A nightmare is something from which you wake and know it’s not real or going to happen. Chances are you’ll forget it after a bit, or you’ll figure out what things were playing into it as you slept. A PTSD [nightmare] is a recurrent reliving of the events that happened. You are THERE again. You are feeling all the feelings all over again in real time. You wake panicked, in a cold sweat, feeling whatever you were feeling when it happened and sure it’s still going on. You have anxiety about going to sleep again – that night, the next night, ever. Because it puts you right back into the situation and the frame of mind. And they recur. They can happen every night. So, you’re dealing with this complex reaction to trauma on top of not being able to sleep. It’s a terrible combination of things. And you do no forget. You remember those dreams all day, every day because you are reliving the actual events. (During REM sleep, your brain typically “files” your memories into cabinets in your brain where you can access them if you need. Trauma stays on your desk and never gets filed, so it’s like reading through the same file all the time and never having distance from it or putting it into the right cabinet. EMDR replicates the REM cycle so that that trauma gets put into a drawer and you can move on. It’s off your desk.)
Has your blog helped you heal, and if so, how?
I write some about PTSD on my blog but not a ton. It’s there, but there are lot of blogs that focus on things like that. My blog is a lot of funny stuff about life, parenting, hermit crabs and so on. I’m always happy to talk about this stuff. It is hard. My experience may help. Or not. It’s a personal recovery. I am an advocate of EMDR, though I hate what it’s become. It is not something to play around with. Therapist without training who are doing it as part of regular talk therapy are total quacks. You want someone who did the training and the hours and the internships and are good. If you work with one like that, you wil not need talk therapy. It’s expensive, but in the long run, much cheaper than 10 years of weekly visits. And there is no down side. If it doesn’t work, nothing bad happens. But it almost always works.
If you could tell the public one thing about PTSD that they may not know, what would it be?
It’s an invisible illness. You cannot possibly see or understand the depth and breadth of its impact, so be patient and be kind with people who have it. It’s not the same for everyone.
Thank you Karin for being to frank and thorough with your questions. It has been a pleasure getting to know you and I appreciate you coming on my blog to help educate people about the reality of life with PTSD. To read more of Karin’s writings, like those fun posts about parents and hermit crabs she mentioned, check out her blog, I Am The Kraken.
I was so interested in Karin’s story that I asked her way more questions that I can possibly fit in this post. If you are as interested as I was, join my e-mail subscriber list so that you can receive the Betty’s Battleground monthly newsletter, where I will be including bonus questions that include information on how she was able to get away from her abusive husband, her son’s “anxiety language,” and more about how she found her way to EMDR and its effects on her recovery. Here, I’ll make it easy on you; just enter your info below. I promise I won’t sell it or share it with space aliens:
If you are a parent living with PTSD or another mental illness and would like to participate in the interview series, you can begin the process by filling out the general survey. Find the links on my guest post info page.
Thanks for reading. I am working super hard to grow this blog, and if I’m being honest, I’ve reached a bit of a lull. It would mean the absolute world if you could take a couple moments out of your day to share this on a social media platform or two. Spread the word and help end the stigma!