It’s that time of the month again.. Meaning, time for the Parenting with Mental Illness feature interview. As we move forward through sexual assault awareness month on Betty’s Battleground, I’d like to introduce you to Tia Hollowood, who is my co-author/predecessor at Trauma! A PTSD Blog on HealthyPlace. She’s written some really important and interesting articles on life after childhood sexual assault on HealthyPlace like “I Wanted My Abuser To Suffer,” “Why Can Childhood Sexual Assault Lead To Promiscuity?” and “Living With Posttraumatic Stress Disorder During Pregnancy,” among many others. Tia Hollowood is also both a birth mother and a foster mother. In this interview she provides insight to both experiences, which is something new we have not explored here before.
Today, I have the honor of publishing an interview with her about parenting with PTSD. I hope you enjoy her open honesty and quiet, powerfully direct way of communicating. I certainly do! One thing is different this time: I’ll be publishing all of her answers here. I’m just too terrible at keeping up with the newsletter, obviously. I still owe you the bonus answers from the past three months so you’ll get those, but from here on out these surveys will be published complete. You should still subscribe though, because I have some pretty amazing surprises coming up and you don’t want to miss them!
I also want to briefly draw attention to a past featured mama and guest writer here: Brandi Kennedy. Brandi’s beautiful family is struggling right now, and as a result she’s holding a fundraiser to try to make ends meet. I’ve been in that place before and it’s not a great feeling. If you know what it feels like to be unable to provide everything your family needs on your own, despite trying your best, I hope you’ll consider making even a modest donation to her fundraiser.
Anyway, to Tia Hollowood…
Parenting with PTSD: Tia Hollowood
I would like to begin by saying that I’ll be talking about experiences that have spanned almost fifty years. Much of my journey has taken place side by side with my mother, and while it would be easy to judge us based on the past, we have both undergone a tremendous healing journey worthy of compassion and understanding.
How long have you had PTSD?
I remember panic attacks as early as age five, dissociation began at seven, suicidal ideation at 10. I experienced dissociative amnesia/fugues beginning in my teens but it is hard to know all the details unless others tell me.
How did you acquire PTSD?
Repeated/ongoing abuse from when I was a preschooler until in my later teens. In the earlier years the abuse was in the form of being locked in the closet, literally the freaking closet under the stairs, whenever no one could watch me. At the same time my step-father, who was also an addict, would come home and abuse my mother. We would often flee the house and drive off to hide in some dark parking lot for the night.
My mother’s second partner abused me sexually for the entire time he was with my mother. When they split up, she made me spend weekends at his house. It finally ended when I had enough; I slapped him and ran for his revolver (in his sock drawer). He ran. I waited for a while but he didn’t come back. I left and even though my mother told me I was lying, I never went back. I was 13.
After that, it was my mother who, suffering from borderline personality disorder herself, continued the emotional abuse in an absolutely insidious fashion. At times she would have me convinced that I was the one out of touch with reality. It wasn’t until I left home at 19 that I was completely free from abuse, and by then I had been living with PTSD for over a decade.
How long were you having symptoms before you were diagnosed?
I wasn’t diagnosed until I was in my 30s. I’m 52 now. The symptoms have honestly been lifelong, which is what made it so difficult to seek help. I honestly thought it was just the way life was. I thought I was detached, and I’d tried not to think about anything else. When I finally started getting help I had trouble even accepting that what had happened was horrible and it was okay to say it was horrible. I felt as if I didn’t have the right to be hurt and need healing.
What role do you think your step-father’s addiction played in his abusive behavior?
I spoke to my mother about this today. Understandably, she didn’t want to spend too much time on the subject. She tells me that while he took any drugs that he could steal, his abusive behaviors were almost always triggered by extensive drinking. She also describes him as “evil” and a “tortured soul” who sought drugs and alcohol to find relief. So, yes his addictions played a role in his abusive nature, but it also seems fair to say that he had a predisposition towards violent behaviors. I only recall that the physical abuse was always late at night, and I didn’t see much of him outside of that.
Did your upbringing cause you to have any relationship with drugs or alcohol?
I didn’t understand my step-father’s addictions until I was much older. My maternal grandparents were alcoholics, and I had a sense of this at a young age. However, while it impacted their health and personal lives, that was hidden from me. I adored them, and they were always kind and loving. Their home was a haven for me.
My upbringing never wholly deterred me from drinking, or from drug use in high-school and my undergraduate studies. I tried marijuana and amphetamines. Amphetamine use came and went quickly in high school; the pills made me itch, and I remember that bugging me more than anything. I avoided all other drugs. Perhaps on some level, I knew that I already fought daily for control of my thoughts, and taking anything that would crack through my defenses would have been horrible. However, I wasn’t afraid to drink, especially when I realized that I did not have an addiction to alcohol, but while sometimes I drank more than others, I could take it or leave it.
My main obsession centered around promiscuity, which was a different form of addiction in itself.
How does having PTSD affect your daily life?
Now, it isn’t so bad. I can easily identify times when I am triggered, when I need to step-back, etc. Working with foster children is at times a challenge because of the situations they are coming out of, but I generally accept the chance of some triggers knowing I can handle them. I do have a support network that understands my symptoms and recognize when I might be backsliding, especially with amnesia or a fugue. It has been 11 years since I have any significant episodes.
How does having PTSD affect your ability to parent and your relationship with your partner?
Interesting. I did not begin to have children until I was 32. During that pregnancy I ended up in the hospital at 27 weeks with pre-term labor. I was in the middle of a major depressive/anxiety laden episode. I was burdened by stories my mother told me about how when I was an infant she wanted to smother me with a pillow and burn me with an iron. Fortunately, I was also already in the hands of two incredibly competent mental health professionals and they healed me through it.
I was determined to be the best parent possible. I read every parenting book I could. I became an expert in three different parenting programs. After my third child, I became a parenting instructor and worked with families that were court ordered into classes. I believe this was the best choice I could have made because it kept me “in shape” to parent. I never worried about being like the adults I grew up with after my first son was born.
As for my husband, we’ve been married 31 years. He didn’t know all of this going in, but in a way he knew more than I did because he could see the kinks in my armor better than I could. He’s been a constant for me through all of it.
Can you describe your dissociative fugues?
That’s tough because I don’t remember them without help from others. I did not even realize any had ever occurred until I was in therapy and I recalled a time, years prior, where I had been discussing a recurring dream with my husband. In it, I had flown back to New York and spent time in an unfamiliar house, that somehow involved my grandfather. My husband thought I was joking at first. Apparently, I had flown off to New York the year previously. My grandfather had suffered a stroke. Family met me at some point and took me to a house I hadn’t been to before. That’s about all I know. After my husband told me it wasn’t a dream, I pushed it out of my thinking because it didn’t make any sense. Thinking about it made me anxious, and I still had no idea what was happening with me other than I was a broken mess who could barely keep it together. I only put it all together years later.
Another fugue occurred after my diagnosis of PTSD. It was witnessed by my friend Jacquie and my husband, but they didn’t realize what was going on until I started making a huge mess of things. I had stopped taking my meds. I began acting strangely, had an entirely different set of people I was associating with and was behaving as if I was in an abusive relationship. According to Jacquie, I was planning on traveling off somewhere. Fortunately, I had enough supports in place that the change became noticeable and people cared enough to try and find out what was happening instead of just walking away.
It is tough to realize that I’ve burned some bridges and told some lies that I can’t ever fix because I just don’t know what I did. I have no desire to regain those memories; I think that would be even more discouraging and difficult for me to process.
What are your most difficult triggers and symptoms?
Freaking closets under stairs. Seriously just will not ever go in one again. When someone displays significant Narcissistic /Borderline symptoms I know I simply need to cut my interactions with them down to an absolute minimum. As the man who molested me like to hide in corners or under blankets and watch me, I am very guarded about the spaces I am in and how confined or dark they are. I need to see everything around me. The symptom that pisses me off the most now is the “out of nowhere” panic attack. It is usually centered around death and hopelessness and when it bites me, it still hurts.
How have you been able to accept that you deserve help and healing?
Deserve is a hard word for me. Self-esteem isn’t one of my top-ten skills. In the beginning, I took recovery as a challenge. If it was something people could overcome, then I was sure as hell going to overcome it. More than anything, the factor that helped most in the long term was that the more I progressed, the more I could understand not only myself but also what my mother experienced. It took a long time, but my perceptions changed. Two people suffered abuse during my childhood. Both of us were suffering from significant mental health challenges.
A relative molested my mother when she was young. She struggled during pregnancy, and when I was born, she underwent hospitalization and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for postpartum psychosis. I’m not sure if she can remember it, it’s not something I want to ask. My aunt and grandmother told me about it when I married.
How she plugged along through pregnancy unmedicated, only to fall into postpartum psychosis, endure ECT and then try to re-enter her life as a mom and wife as if everything was back to normal just floors me. Her story alone would take another interview.
Being able to understand what happened in my life in light of what happened in her’s is powerful. It all makes sense in a way that gives me the ability to re-frame my childhood. Instead of viewing myself as a burdensome, throwaway child, I know I was the child of a mom who was spending most of her energy just trying to keep her shit together without any supports.
How has having PTSD helped you as a mom?
As I mentioned, being determined to be a better parent than mine were was an excellent outcome of the abuse. I also find that while I am open-minded and very friendly, I am not going to take crapola from anyone anymore, and that includes advocating for my kids. It has also helped me in being frank and honest with my children and giving them an example of how no one needs to be perfect, they just need to be honest and loving.
Did your childhood experiences contribute to your decisions to become a foster parent?
When I was hospitalized for depression and pre-term labor during my pregnancy with my firstborn, I was consumed with the dread that I would be a terrible parent. I envisioned myself dropping the baby, knives practically flying across the counter to cause injuries because I left them out, forgetting to feed him (ha, that was NEVER going to happen!). I was an irrational mess, and the decision of maternity over the psych ward was only due to the need to stop my contractions.
The minute I took my son home, I realized it was okay. I might be the only person to experience postpartum recovery from a depressive episode during pregnancy. The drive to be a good parent was there, though. I took parenting classes. I became a parenting instructor for two different parenting programs. I taught parenting classes to parents who were ordered to attend by the state. I saw families that were familiar to me in many ways. I got to know them. Yes, my childhood experiences were definitely at play, but it was more than taking in children. These were families that desperately needed supports not just orders to follow. These kids needed foster parents who believed that families could safely and successfully reunite with the right help. I do wish that my mother had been better supported, that her mental illness wasn’t such a secret taboo that was to be born silently and shamefully.
What or who do you most credit with your 11 year remission?
Two people were instrumental in my recovery. My best friend, Jacquie, and Dr. Robert Alberts. They are the people who brought me to an understanding that my mental health wasn’t static; I wasn’t intrinsically broken.
I remember the first time I ever realized that I might be able to find relief. I was at Jacquie’s house, pacing, having arrived in a frantic state of panic. She asked me who my psychiatrist was. I told her I had never been to one. Her response was immediate “What do you mean you’ve never been to a psychiatrist?” She was shocked. She then explained mental health to me in a way that was far different from the crazy, taboo images I had received growing up.
Dr. Alberts was the psychiatrist who not only understood me, knew how to treat me and connected me with an excellent counselor; he was also someone who knew how trauma felt. As a youth, he and his family were prisoners of war during WWII. I recall trying to explain my panic to him. He looked me right in the eyes, and with his incredible calming accent he said, “I know. It is terrible. It is the most horrible feeling in the world, and no one can understand it unless they have felt it too.” He modeled what recovery from trauma could look like, and it was inspiring.
What are your best coping skills or tools?
The right supports. I have such an open and strong support network, and we are all there for each other. Being open and honest about my PTSD symptoms is my biggest asset. Medical marijuana kicks panic in the tushie for me, but not for everyone.
How does marijuana help with your panic?
My panic attacks used to be severe. There was a time when I spent hours, perhaps days at a stretch barely able to function. Sitting balled up on the couch, rocking back and forth, I was unable to stop that horrible icy, electric feeling of fear from shooting through me. I had no idea what was happening.
When I finally did get help, one of the first things my psychiatrist did was prescribe me Xanax. He told me to take it the moment I felt the panic coming on, but only when I could feel it. This relief was a marvelous breakthrough for me.
I relied on Xanax to stop my anxiety. One day while I was at work, I felt a panic attack coming on. My Xanax was at home. My office-mate suggested marijuana, which they conveniently had in their car. A short smoke later, my panic was gone. I didn’t feel “high,” I felt calm before anything else.
As with Xanax, I find that just knowing I can use cannabis to quickly reduce my anxiety often stops a full-blown panic attack in its tracks. I don’t even have to take it, because the cycle of fear, (which includes the fear of the actual feeling of panic), doesn’t start spiraling. Now, though I rarely use it (once every 2-6 months for anxiety), I prefer cannabis to Xanax. While I could get Xanax prescribed by the bottle-full if I desired, marijuana (which is legal in Alaska), especially in an edible form, is much more accessible, and in my mind, safer than Xanax.
If you could dispel one public misconception about PTSD, what would it be?
People who have suffered abuse do not become abusers. This is a widely accepted myth, completely unsupported by research. PTSD does not mean you are an automatic threat to others.
That’s all from Tia Hollowood today!
Thank you Tia for taking the time to come on Betty’s Battleground and share your experiences surviving and healing from physical and sexual abuse with such honesty. If you’d like to see more of Tia, you can check out the blog we write together on HealthyPlace, and her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/casualhonesty/