Trigger warning: Self-harm, abuse, suicide
My daughter June was about a month and a half when my mental health really began to deteriorate. The shift to motherhood was already a total clusterfuck, and I was doing my damn best to stay afloat. Despite every effort to push through it all, I was secretly drowning inside. The sheer isolation, overwhelm, and exhaustion of solo parenting during the day was enough to totally break me.
I just never expected it would break me to the point that it did.
June’s an adorable firecracker of a child, and her Scorpio status means that this kid uses every single outlet inside of her to express her biggest emotions. I remember attempting to console her when she was a young toddler and doing my best to stay calm as her full-bodied cries reached a boiling point. As every effort to soothe her failed and she wailed away, kicking and screaming at me, my nervous system would inevitably go into overdrive. My breathing immediately shallowed, fear and anxiety turned to complete fright or flight, and I’d find myself in the grips of a full-blown panic attack. My body melted down to the floor, I tearfully put my hands out in front of me to keep her from getting too close, and the tears felt like they might never stop falling.
Since I had never experienced panic attacks before in my life, this unexpected reaction scared the living shit out of me. Shame is also an emotion that has annoyingly followed me around like a shadow for many years, and it was sure to make its presence unbearably known on this day.
Little did I know that in these dark moments of early motherhood, I wasn’t simply reacting to the stress-inducing challenges of being a new mom. I was also unexpectedly dealing with a series of present-moment triggers that were causing me to relive the excruciating traumas of my youth.
But in the hours – and days – following the unexpected panic attacks that began to increase with each of June’s epic meltdowns, I felt like the worst mother on Earth. Losing my shit in front of my young daughter, no matter how unintentionally or infrequently I did it, had the power to strip away every single positive thing I’d ever done as her mom up until that point. This was the dark truth I dared not tell anyone. This was the physical proof that showed me what I had already believed my whole life – that I was an unlovable, failure of a human being who had no business being a mother.
I wish I could go back in time, throw my arms around new-mom Lindsay, and tell her she was unconsciously struggling with a mental health diagnosis she didn’t even know she had. I wish I could assure her that she was doing everything in her power to succeed at motherhood and that messing up as a mom is par for the fucking course. I wish I could encourage her with the undeniable truth – that she is a better mom than she’ll ever give herself the credit of being.
Over the course of June’s first three years of life, I had succumbed a handful of times to debilitating panic attacks that swept over my body like an unstoppable tornado. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why the hell this was happening, which led to a boatload of hopelessness and despair. On top of the panic attacks, I also started hitting my head to harm myself as I struggled to cope with my erratic behavior and the increasing demands of motherhood.
The destructive and repeated behavior of violently self-harming was nothing new – I’ve been doing it on and off for almost two decades now. It began when I was a teenager in an abusive, dysfunctional household. In fact, I had incurred enough physical, emotional, and verbal trauma during my childhood that my brain quite brilliantly stored many joyful memories during that time in the tucked-away corners of my mind. The most painful ones were always available for replay, however. Which means that I viscerally remember the times when I’d run into my teenage bedroom, drop down to the floor, punch my head with my fists, and call myself horrible names.
I hadn’t aggressively self-harmed for a few years, so I decided to figure out what the hell was going on. In the middle of a particularly harrowing panic attack one day, I pulled my car over to the side of the road, googled “women’s counseling centers,” and called one. I was fortunate enough to have an intake therapist randomly pick up the phone, which had never happened to me before.
As tears streamed down my tired face, I blurted out everything to the compassionate woman patiently listening on the other end. She took down my information, told me to continue following up with the office until I got an appointment, and said that she had full faith I’d line up with a counselor there. Three weeks later, I did.
I spent about two years working with an incredible therapist who specializes in postpartum issues and trauma. The counseling I received was so beneficial that I even brought my husband Matt in to see a couples’ therapist and have some sessions there together. Both the marriage counselor and my personal therapist encouraged me to consider coming in for individual therapy twice a week. At first, I felt downright offended. Why would anyone need more than one weekly session of therapy? Did they think I was extra fucked up or something?
As I was sitting across from our marriage counselor one day, I started opening up about just how many arguments Matt and I would get into during June’s middle-of-the-night wake ups. Upon hearing my baby’s cries, I’d usually shoot up in bed with my heart racing, tears ready to pop out, and already feeling scared. Matt, on the other hand, would wake up tired, foggy-headed, and pretty damn irritated. As I explained how each sleep-deprived interaction between us felt like the end of times, the therapist looked deeply into my eyes and softly responded with a powerful statement.
“That’s just the trauma talking.”
Since I had experienced such significant and ongoing abuse as a child, the counselor believed that my cortisol levels were probably much higher than they were for the average person. That, combined with the hormonal and biological changes associated with new motherhood, made it easy for her to understand why I was waking up in a state of overwhelming panic.
I followed up with my personal therapist and asked her to confirm what the marriage counselor had said. It was easy to make the connection between something as tangible as self-harming and my childhood trauma. But linking the abuse to why I’d been waking up in the middle of the night as if I was living in a post-apocalyptic bunker? That was a way tougher concept to grasp.
To my equal relief and dismay, my counselor revealed that she firmly believed the cortisol in my body had been running amok since I was a child, which is a natural physical response to living for years in extreme stress and fear. She then shared a piece of information that would significantly impact the next year of my life. When I asked her to give me her best diagnosis of what I was experiencing, she responded with a curveball I never expected.
My therapist affirmed with certainty that I have been living with complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from extensive childhood trauma.
As a new mom who had no fucking clue she was living with PTSD, you can imagine how confusing the next few months were. Thankfully, I had my counselor right there to guide my next steps. She broke it all down by stating that when my daughter’s reactions and behaviors illicit immediate panic in me, it is because I most likely experienced trauma when I was her age. Going off of my therapist’s insights, I decided to scour the internet looking for resources that could help someone like me learn how to spot trauma triggers while parenting.
While I did manage to find a few links to some articles and studies that focused on the connection between childhood abuse and parenting, I was very disappointed to discover that there is barely enough information out there to scratch the surface. I couldn’t believe that so many people like me could be experiencing trauma triggers while raising kids. I also couldn’t believe that that there weren’t way more resources out there to help us.
As time went on, the panic attacks morphed into hour-long muscle spasms that ultimately put my ass in the emergency room last year. After my complex PTSD diagnosis, I also started envisioning tangible ways to take my own life, was dealing with an onslaught of intrusive thoughts that just plain sucked, and self-harmed like it was going out of style. I knew that I needed even more help than my counselor could offer me, and I needed it ASAP.
Being psychiatrically screened at a hospital last year saved my damn life. It also led me to take a huge leap and start on antidepressants for the first time ever. Combined with talk therapy, medication has significantly lessened my PTSD-related symptoms.
These days, I’m currently following around my 15-month old son as he chases his big sister through each room of our house, and I’m so grateful to say that my trauma-based triggers affect me much less now. I still deal with the occasionally small panic attack, and I’ve got a boatload of anxiety I live with on a daily basis. But it is nothing like what I went through when I first entered motherhood.
If you grew up in an abusive household and are currently struggling to keep your mental health in check as new parent, I want you to know that you are not alone. And if you are worried that the burden of your past traumas makes you unworthy as a grown human being, I want to assure you that you are a lovable, valuable, and necessary part of this world no matter where you are in your healing.
The reality is, parenting is already so fucking hard. Add to that the weight of having survived abuse as a kid, and your whole world can seem insurmountable. There is no manual on how to deal with trauma triggers while caring for our little ones. There is, however, a ton of stigma out there surrounding mental health challenges. It so damn important, now more than ever, for us to speak up and allow ourselves to be vulnerably seen by those we can trust with our story. It is critical that we push past the feelings of shame and give ourselves the permission to live in the light, so that we may be helped and supported in the ways that we need and want.
No one should have to feel like they’ve been thrown into the deep waters of raising kids without a life raft that can bring them back to shore. Not a single one of us should feel alone in this journey. We are as deserving of unconditional love as the children we so generously offer our love to. And we all most certainly deserve to heal, recover, and embrace ourselves wholeheartedly as we parent.