That positive pregnancy test……..was terrifying. NOT even gonna lie. The first time, I saw that positive pink plus sign, I nearly threw up.
Actually, all three positive pregnancy tests, after each and every child, left me standing there terrified. I would want and pray for a baby for months, and when I’d finally get pregnant, I’d stand their frozen and think, “Oh, shit! What did I just do?!?! There ain’t no back button on this!” I don’t know why I’d always freak, but I did. Parenting is scary.
But you know what was even more terrifying than a positive pregnancy test? Receiving a PTSD diagnosis with three small children running around at home. Three small children, I knew I couldn’t take care of on my own. That was terrifying. That was heartbreaking.
I went home and begged my husband to take the kids and leave me. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I hadn’t been a good mom for months, and now I had heard the news that I would never be a good mom again. I’m incredibly happy that my husband refused to leave my side then, and that he continues to stand by my side now. My children are learning some valuable lessons from us about how we work as a couple. My husband didn’t lose hope when I already had. Maybe he knew something I didn’t? That PTSD is treatable.
So here is a message to anyone navigating this new journey, or to any spouse now confronting this new journey, it’s a bumpy road but it gets easier.
Sometimes family, and especially children, can be the strongest motivator to move forward. I don’t just want to get better for me, I want to get better so I can be there for my kids. My children may not understand everything that is happening right now, but one day we will have that conversation. And maybe with that, they will see how much I love them.
I’ve learned a lot thus far through my journey. I’ve learned how to balance my PTSD symptoms with the demands of parenthood much more effectively. I’ve taken a lot of treatment approaches and pushed myself further than I might have if I didn’t have a family who depended on me. I’m pretty certain I would have refused medication—but I recognize I need to function to the best of my ability as a mother. I’m not a fan of emotions so I would have stalled on EMDR much longer—but my kids aren’t going to stay children forever, and they need a mother who is whole and healthy sooner rather than later.
So here is a list of my to-do’s if you are a parent with PTSD:
(however, please keep in mind that everyone is different and this is only a list of what has worked effectively for me.)
#1. Be easy on yourself
It does no good to beat yourself up. You are doing the best you can right now, and that is all you can ask.
#2. Set realistic goals and expectations for yourself
I remember being upset with myself one time because in the depths of depression I could not clean up the house. My therapist asked me, “So, what? Why are you pushing yourself to have a spotless house if it is only making you miserable? You’re not allowed to struggle? Why do you hold yourself to the same standards you did when you were healthy? Let some things go. It’s okay to have a messy house.” That’s all I needed. I needed permission to let go. I needed someone to say it’s okay for my living room to be upside down, to order takeout multiple times a week, to let my kids go without a bath for an extra day. It’s okay to set realistic goals that match what I am capable of in the moment. Don’t push myself so hard when I’m already down because it only causes me to spiral down further. It goes back to number 1: Be easy on yourself.
#3. Take breaks regularly
This has become a staple rule for me for two separate reasons. I’ve learned that when I don’t take breaks, I’m likely to crash into a depression that leaves me bedridden for days. Every parent needs breaks. Parents with PTSD need more breaks than most, our nervous systems simply demand it. You’re gonna get more done if you aren’t running on fumes. Your kids are going to enjoy you more if you aren’t emotionally taxed constantly. Breaks are your friend, and your family will appreciate you more for them too.
The second reason I advocate breaks is because it breaks the anxiety cycle. In the middle of a panic attack, the absolute worst thing you can do is continue to push through. I used to have panic attacks that would last for hours. I couldn’t down-regulate. Our marriage counselor suggested that it was likely due to the fact that I had to take care of the kids. I couldn’t just stop and walk away for a moment. Anxiety attacks usually diminish if you are able to take yourself somewhere quiet and just hide out for a bit. But, if you can’t give yourself that opportunity, then it makes it hard for your nervous system to calm down. That was an important piece of information because it wasn’t that I had to take care of the kids every moment, but that I chose to do so. Realistically, I could pass them off to my husband, I could put on the TV for them or give them something fun to preoccupy themselves with for a few minutes. I could take breaks, I just didn’t know I should.
#4. Therapy is essential
I will forever advocate therapy and medication. Forever. Especially as a parent with children, because we do owe them the best version of ourselves possible. I’m always amazed at the number of people with PTSD who are truly struggling, yet refuse therapy treatment. People decide to do so for a variety of reasons, including the fact that they have either had a negative experience in the past or because therapy didn’t help. Not every therapist is a good fit, and not every therapist is good at his or her job. But a well-trained therapist is worth his or her weight in gold and will make all the difference in the world. If you haven’t found a therapist who has helped, keep looking. If you have to drive an hour to get there each week, then so be it. It’s worth it if it means you can get back to a healthy version of you. The skills you need to combat PTSD can’t be learned on your own. It just isn’t going to happen. I’ve learned more in these last two years of life than I ever did in the first 28 years I stood on this Earth. I am a much healthier person for all of it.
#5. EMDR, brain mapping, and other trauma processing models
I’ve done EMDR, but I have not tried the others. One model might not have worked for you. That’s okay, try a different one. I won’t lie, EMDR sucks. It’s really hard emotional work. I remember being terrified when I first began, I also remember begging to take a break from it, but it’s also been the one single greatest thing to give me my life back. I would go through all of that pain, again and again to get to where I am now. And I know I’m not the only one to say that.
Medication is definitely a personal choice, but it is one I advocate, especially if you are a parent simply because you need as much stability (and functionality) as possible. The medication trial period, where you experiment with different meds and different doses, isn’t fun. Dealing with some of the side effects can be bothersome. And if you are anything like me, just swallowing the damn things is torturous. But I also know that I feel a whole lot more like my old self when using them. If you don’t feel better, or if the side effects are too much, you’re not on the right stuff. I went through a long phase of feeling somewhat okay, but still struggling, and thought that because I had PTSD, I wouldn’t get any better than that. I didn’t speak up until my therapist forced me to do so. Turns out I had been suffering in silence for absolutely no reason at all. One more pill added to my daily concoction and I feel a whole lot more like the old me I used to recognize. I’ll take all the pills in the world to feel like that girl again. And I’ll definitely do it if my children can interact with a person that gives any semblance to the person they used to call mom.
#7. Using Coping-Skills
Therapy teaches you a ton of coping skills, but those skills are meaningless if they are not implemented in times of need. Practice using them every chance you get, preferably before your emotions start to amp up. Keep a list of coping skills taped up where you can see them, or leave items nearby that you use as coping skills such as a journal, sketch pad, stress ball, weighted blanket, etc. Often times, we develop negative coping skills that are hard to give up. They aren’t going to go away overnight, instead, they are likely to slowly diminish and only when you are ready. Try utilizing some of the positive coping skills first before B-lining it to whatever negative coping skill you have in place.
This one can’t be stressed enough. We live in a society that downplays the importance of self-care in favor of productivity. But I promise you will be more productive if you schedule in some time to take care of you. Self-care becomes essential to maintaining equilibrium if you have PTSD. It can help prevent overwhelming symptoms or if you feel yourself slipping into a depressed or anxious state, then those self-care actions can calm you back down. Find a variety of things you enjoy, anything from a bubble-bath to a weekend vacation. Decide what you need and do it. Treat yourself often and learn not to feel guilty for doing so.
#9. Family and Couples Counseling
This is a big one. PTSD does not just impact you, it impacts your entire family. I pushed my husband into counseling the moment I recognized he seemed overly taxed by our situation. I could tell I was wearing on him. He had to learn how to take care of himself. He also needed to learn about PTSD, how it affected me, and why I react to certain things the way I do. Likewise, your partner will probably need help navigating this area too. He or she will feel just as confused as you are, if not more so.
#10. Educating your own Children
Your children do need to understand PTSD, what it is, and why you have it, but it also needs to be done on an age appropriate level. This is one of the areas where family counseling may come in handy. Just as partners need to know how to take care of themselves in a relationship impacted by PTSD, so do children. Children need to understand that your depression and behaviors are not their faults (because children will and do blame themselves), you need to make sure they don’t feel a need to take care of you or parent in any way, etc. I promise, your kids pick up that something is wrong even if they don’t know what it is or why. Without continual conversations, they will make up some interesting and often false conclusions all on their own. Talking to them will make everyone involved feel much better about the situation and more open and communicative when problems arise.
#11. Let Family and Friends Help
Allow your family and friends help you out when they offer. Let grandparents take the kids for the evening, call a sitter while you get the house clean, etc. Ask for help if you are struggling a bit and don’t feel ashamed for doing so.
#12 Educate Yourself
Read. Read. Read. And Talk. There is plenty of reputable information all over the internet about PTSD. There are self-help books on ptsd, anxiety, depression, etc. There are community forums that will help you feel less alone. Learn all that you can to help yourself continue to grow and heal from what you’ve gone through. Never stop becoming a better version of yourself.