I have post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and while that doesn't mean I'm exactly the same as every other person who shares my diagnoses, it does mean I can understand them (and they can understand me) the way people without PTSD simply can't. So while we're all different, to be sure, I feel confident that there are a few things every mom with PTSD wants you to know. Then again, I really don't want you to know these things. I don't want you to have to know them because I don't want them to be a factor in my life, let alone yours. But they are part of my existence, so more than just knowing them I want you to understand them: for me, for you, and for the parent in your life who has PTSD.
Most of the time these days, by clinical standards, my PTSD would be considered in remission. What I can tell you, as a trauma therapist by trade, is that even when in remission (meaning my PTSD symptoms no longer reach the threshold of the diagnosis) trauma symptoms are always there. Healing from trauma is not linear, nor is it black and white. It's not like setting a broken arm, when you're in a cast for a while and you're all better forever. No, healing from trauma is more like a spiral or spring in that you're constantly jumping around, up and down, in and out of various shades of gray throughout your life. Sometimes you feel truly integrated and empowered, and other times you feel back at square one, as though you'd never dealt with your trauma at all.
Sounds like a roller coaster, doesn't it? Well, that's because it is. And each ride, with each mom with PTSD, is different. Here's what I want you to know about mine, and I feel in the marrow of my bones other moms with PTSD want you to know, too:
We're Doing The Best We Can
When you see me dissociate, or my child has to ask me something more than once, or I bury my face in my phone to dull the stimuli, know that I'm doing the best I can to be present for my kids and to titrate my emotional experience.
Part of the way PTSD shows up for me is chronic fatigue. Some days it's a struggle just to remain upright, and sometimes zoning out for a while is going to be the only way for me to get through the day. And that's not always going to look perfect from the outside.
We Can Tell When Our PTSD Impacts Our Children
I know my PTSD impacts my kids, and it makes me feel horrible. Sometimes, when my eldest comes up behind me for a hug, I'm startled and I jump. I know that hurts their feelings. Sometimes I can't be hugged at all because at the slightest touch my skin crawls due to somatic memories, also known as body memories.
There is nothing quite so heartbreaking as gritting my teeth through what should be the most loving and gentle experience of motherhood: my child's hug.
We Can't Always Tell You What's Wrong
I've done a tone of therapeutic work and continue daily self-growth and mindfulness. Most of my present days are actually quite good, but sometimes something is wrong and I can't tell you what because I don't necessarily know myself. When those moments arise and I'm at a loss for words, I'm not trying to be an asshole and I'm not broken. I just need a minute.
It's Not About Our Kids
Sometimes my nervous system is just overwhelmed. Survivors with PTSD are living under chronic traumatic stress, which means the threshold for when fight, flight, or freeze kicks in is a lot closer for us than people without PTSD. This doesn't mean that we're weak or have low distress tolerance. In fact, it means the opposite. People with PTSD are carrying around a Mt. Everest-sized mountain of stress at all times, whereas people without PTSD might be carrying around a key chain- or big book-sized amount of stress. So if you burn a bag of popcorn, the person without PTSD may take it in stride. They are far enough away from the overwhelm threshold that they can hold the key chain and the burnt popcorn at the same time. But for the survivor, that burnt popcorn on top of Mt. Everest may just put them over that threshold.
What that looks like as a parent? Snapping at my kid for being too loud when moments ago we were all playing rambunctiously, even though it's really not about my kid at all.
We Need Respite Care
Like all parents, with or without PTSD, I need respite care. So please offer to babysit my kids once in a while. I generally won't ask, because I don't want to burden you, but I really need time for self-care. And if I do actually ask, know it's because I've needed the time for several months and now I'm completely desperate.
As a trauma therapist, I counsel people on how important it is to find their own time for self-care no matter what. I know the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mentality of the United States is damaging to mothers, fathers, and others with PTSD. Still, I'm still a product of my environment, so following my own advice is sometimes wishful thinking.
If you're anything like me, part of the sustained childhood abuse you survived ingrained the message that you're unworthy of self-care. Even though logically I know that's not true, part of how my PTSD shows up is in telling me that my needs aren't as valid as everyone else's. It tells me that if I ask for something, anything, that I am being selfish. And only once everyone is completely satisfied and taken care of am I allowed to have a moment of alone time to care for myself.
As a mother of three children under 8-years-old, with several jobs, and a partner, you can guess how often that happens.
We Actually Really Need Your Financial Help
I might offer to pay you for watching my kids, and I will pay you for babysitting my kids. And if you have the resources to offer the time as a gift, please know it will make me uncomfortable as hell to accept it. (Even writing this I'm fighting the shame spiral that comes with admitting this.)
We know that because of a myriad of mental health, medical health, chronic stress, and other factors, survivors have a higher financial burden than non-survivors and that financial stress can and does trigger increased PTSD symptoms.
It is safe to assume I could always use the financial help of free babysitting.
We're As Strong As We Seem...
And that it's OK to be strong.
... And We're Hurting As Much As It Seems
And that's OK, too.
We Don't Punish Our Kids For Being "Emotional"
One of the things that got in the way of me disclosing my chronic childhood sexual abuse was that I was always told I was the "emotional" one. I was always nitpicked in my family-of-origin for being "so emotional." Most of the family members who did this weren't trying to be jerks, they just didn't realize the harm this message was causing.
I internalized the message that being "emotional" was bad. Once that message was learned, I didn't share those too big experiences of sadness, anger, or discomfort. I was taught to tamp them down. To "calm down," "be quiet," "get a hold of yourself," and "stop being a drama queen." I stopped talking about my internal world and learned that emotions were bad.
I'm not perfect at it by any stretch of the imagination, but I want my kids to know that they are not "emotional." Instead, and like all healthy humans, they have emotions, and having emotions, even big ones, is OK. Even if nobody else understands why they are having all the big feels, they're feelings are always valid. So if I get a bit snippy with you when you tell my kid to "calm down, there's nothing to be upset about" you'll know why.
We're Always Going To Be Afraid Of The Dark
And monsters and large crowds and men and walking alone and crowded bars and that one street in that one town and...
Our Experiences Are Different & Valid
No one's experience can substitute for another's, so if you're curious if your loved one has the same list of what moms with PTSD want you to know, ask. And be OK if they say they don't want to talk to you about it.