Although living with PTSD, Minor Depression, and an Addiction Disorder often feels like the loneliest existence on the planet, these are issues which affect my entire family. Especially when I am in the depths of an episode, I like to believe that my words and actions don’t impact others. When I’m in that state, I feel like my family doesn’t need me or care about me. I feel as though they would be better without me; like I hurt them simply by being. Of course, it’s that line of thinking which truly hurts my family.
Mental illness or injury affects everyone it touches. Expressing that reality was the reason I began my “Tales From The Other Side” guest blogger series. I wanted to show that when one person in a family is hurting, the whole family hurts. Yet despite publishing these touching stories by real people affected by PTSD and other disorders, it has been difficult for me to truly realize that when I hurt, my family hurts.
Summer has been hard for me so far. We began it by flying out to Florida for my youngest daughter’s second birthday. There, we were pampered with time and sunshine. My in-laws played our girls into sleepy oblivion every day while my husband and I dipped into the pool, or ocean, or the bed…whatever form of relaxation and pleasure we wanted, we did-for five days. Then we returned home.
Returning after a vacation is always a mixture of relief to be home, and nostalgia for the fun that has just passed, but this time these feelings were amplified by the fact that my husband and I really do not have a support system here. My mother takes care of my son. My son and I both have vastly improved lives because of that arrangement. I can’t expect more out of my mom, because that’s a lot already. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t wish we had some kind of family available on this side of the country to watch our girls every once in a while-My in-laws occasionally invite us to move back to Florida, but of course, that is a rude offer which completely negates my relationship with my son.
I once loved Summer, and now it’s passing me by while a vale of depression deepens over me. I don’t get a chance to enjoy the summertime activities I once loved. Even kid friendly activities are a hassle, because we don’t have a car, and my husband works a lot, so it’s often just me hauling the girls through the heat and length of the day, alone. I am really feeling the lack of support.
It is especially hard for me to sympathize with my kids when they are the ones triggering me. I know that sounds selfish and maybe even crazy. Don’t think I blame them for it. I know they are just kids being kids. But being a mom is really a depressing existence when you never get enough of a break, and when you don’t have the tools, supports, and resources needed to be healthy enough to engage with your kids.
I can feel myself beginning to resent them for the time they take from building the life I want for all of us. It begins as snapping easily, which converts to guilt. Which mutates into depression. Which deepens further and further until I lose sight of any light or purpose at all. And all the while my girls are watching their mama detach more and more because my biological coping mechanisms-depersonalization and derealization-are kicking in.
But those aren’t the only ways my conditions affect my kids. These are the other ways PTSD, Depression, and an addiction history affect them:
When I attempted suicide
I attempted suicide on my 28th birthday, in response to a major trigger related to the abuse that caused my PTSD. After being revived by paramedics, and hauled off to an Emergency Room where I would be mocked and abused by the nurses, I was put on a 72 hour psych hold. I spent the next three days in the psych ward, waiting for my fate to be determined by men in coats who knew nothing about me besides what was written in my chart.
Meanwhile, my daughters were home with my husband, and my family was left to process what had happened. If I had been in a clearer state of mind…well, if I had been in a clearer state of mind, I probably wouldn’t have attempted suicide at all, but I certainly wouldn’t have chosen a spot where, should I be discovered and revived, my kids would be witness to it.
But I wasn’t in a clearer state of mind. I was triggered. I was intoxicated. The world was a blur of self-hatred, and a deep, vacuous depression that swallowed any love given to me and left me feeling permanently starved. So I arranged a drug cocktail that I thought would cause an irreversible overdose, slipped into the bathroom while my husband and daughters were watching cartoons, and did my best to end my life.
While I was in the psych ward, my older daughter, who had been more cognizant of everything, began experiencing nightmares. Over the phone, my husband described how she had started throwing fits worse than any he’d ever seen. She was out of control, he said. He had taken her to the doctor and she’d agreed to temporarily prescribe our daughter some heavy duty hypnotic. To calm her down, and help her process the grief and confusion over what she’d seen. My husband told me the pharmacist hadn’t wanted to fill the script for a two year old, until he explained what that two year old had witnessed. In the end, I was able to convince my husband not to give it to her, but she’d had enough symptoms to merit a prescription.
My littlest one was too young to understand what had happened, but she could understand that mama-and especially mama’s breasts-were missing. For months after I came home, she cried and beat the bathroom door anytime I showered or used the toilet. She clung to me, and breastfed obsessively. I couldn’t be out of her sight.
Now, a year and a half later, both girls’ symptoms have abated. Sometimes, when the sound of sirens pass us, one of the girls will ask if “they” are coming to take away mommy. When that happens, my heart sinks. But the look of worry of their faces is growing increasingly goofy. The question is morphing into a joke. Thank Whomever for neuroplasticity.
When Mommy and Daddy fight
It doesn’t matter who started the fight, or who’s at fault. In my abusive relationship, my abuser’s anger was always dangerous. No matter how small or one-sided the argument, I always feared, and often received, a beating. Now, any fight or argument is a trigger.
My therapist has been helping me with this, slowly but surely. She has suggested better ways to communicate my feelings. She’s helped me understand some of the possible motivations behind my husband’s crappy behavior. Without her, I would still be at a place where every single fight triggered me into an instantaneous blind rage followed by a catatonic depression. There’s still a hole in the closet door to prove things were once really, really bad.
That doesn’t happen as often as it once did, but my kids have been exposed to it. We’ve spent days huddled together on the couch, watching cartoons perform their neon dance across the television screen for hours as I tried to process the tumult of dark emotions within me. Now, my girls seem more apt to abandoning me to my corner and running off to play together with their blocks or castles or costumes. Though my episodes are less dramatic these days, my daughters are better able to notice when it’s time to play by themselves for a bit. They’re better at coping, but it hurts that they have to. I wish there was another option for them when I become triggered.
When I feel neglected
This is the one that is most common these days. Peers and professionals alike continuously iterate the mantra of asking for help. Everywhere I go, the same advice gets thrown my way: When I feel down or triggered or suicidal, I need to reach out for help. It’s not an easy thing to do. Not for most people, I imagine, but especially not for someone with a history of abuse and emotional neglect. I am afraid to ask for help, because rejection is triggering for me. But all the experts keep telling me to ask for help, ask for help, ask for help…
So I do. And more often than not, I’m ignored. Maybe it’s that I’m asking for help in ways that don’t make sense to other people. Or it could just be that I’m not asking the right people. Problem is, I’ve asked almost everyone I know, in some way or another. Some people have come through. Many more have ignored me. Most of the people who have come through in the past I’m now alienated from by physical or emotional distance.
Emotional neglect triggers me more often than anything else. Being ignored taps into a deep-seated, and not fully understood, wound within me. When I feel ignored or neglected, I fall very quickly into a blinding depression. I can physically see my children’s smiles; I can register the biological sensation of my husband’s embrace, but I am emotionally blind to everything. All I can see is the hole inside of me-that space where I asked for help and was ignored. I become nothing but a wound.
When that happens I can’t engage with my kids. My body feels like a sack filled with rocks. An irresistible craving for sleep overtakes me. I have had to cancel dates with my son when it’s happened around the times I’m supposed to see him. More often, I have to crawl into bed and beg my husband to watch the girls, even if he is exhausted from work. It’s not meanness or a lack of caring for my family. I just lose the ability to stay awake. My depression gets so overwhelming that if I don’t sleep, I become suicidal and self-harming. When I get this way, sleeping is the safest activity I can do.
I need to take care of myself so I can take care of my children
My family has never understood that self-care is an essential part of being a good mama. My mother and father and aunts always believed that, once I became a mom, all of my emotional resources belonged to my child. They never realized that if I don’t restore myself, I will not have anything to give to my family.
I feel guilty for the effects my mental health conditions have had on my children. I feel bad that my PTSD has caused me to be totally unable to parent my son, which is yet another way my trauma has affected my family. Guilt, however, is basically useless. It can help me-sort of-in preventing another episode like my suicide attempt, but beyond that, it just makes me feel bad. Which is ultimately bad for my sobriety, and bad for my health.
I need support. I need breaks. “Me-time” is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. I need days off. That’s not just something I really, really want. It’s something my entire family needs me to have. But it’s not something I have access to. Ever. I have no access to a night off from waking for night feedings. No mornings when I don’t have to wake up earlier than I want to and deal with complaints and diapers. No days totally free of tending the needs of others. It’s not that I hate the duties of motherhood-I just need a break every once in a while.
I need some of the burden of mothering and keeping up my house and finding ways to supplement my husband’s income to be lifted. I need to be granted some time to enjoy Summer myself-not just as a mom, but as a person-before the long, depressing PNW Winter arrives. Unequivocal, unconditional, unending support would make all the difference.
When I have an episodic relapse, I am affecting my kids. But when my son goes to bed without his mother whispering “I love you,” my abuser is affecting him too, because the abuse he perpetrated against me caused the PTSD that makes me an ineffective mother for a child with severe autism. When my girls are self-soothing while I dissociate, or drawing in the corner silently while I cry, my mom and dad and willfully estranged siblings and in-laws are affecting them too, because they have chosen not to be available to support us. When I am ignored to the point that I turn in on myself and ignore the world, my husband, and all the other people who have chosen to ignore me are affecting my kids too.
I am at fault, but I am not the only one at fault. Raising a family is a community effort. When a community fails to support a member to the point that she develops trauma symptoms and deeply unhealthy coping mechanisms, the fallout is everyone’s fault. Everyone says “it takes a village,” but my family’s village has abandoned us.