After having my two children with special needs, I noticed a profound change in myself.
I was frequently on edge, constantly worried, and exhausted all the time.
I thought my symptoms were simply a case of being overwhelmed and sleep deprived, like any mother of young children is bound to be.
Then I read an article online one day about caregivers who experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and recognized myself in many of the symptoms the article described.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD is “a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.”
Caregiver PTSD is real, and it is prevalent. It may be mild, or severe, and it can hit you when you least expect it.
From nightmares to paranoia, to full-on panic attacks, it affects more parents and caregivers than you could imagine, but many don’t recognize it for what it is or feel guilty, as I did, for even considering that they have it.
I had always associated PTSD with soldiers who had come back from a war, or people who had been through something extremely traumatic.
In the past twelve years, I’ve seen my children go through some grueling things: high-risk and emergent surgeries, respiratory failure, and being poked and prodded more times than I care to remember.
I’ve had to contain my child during some very intense, very public meltdowns to keep her from hurting herself.
It was traumatic for them, and it was also traumatic for me.
It’s understandable that they are fearful of anything medically related, but I was just doing what any parent would do, right?
In those harrowing moments, I did what I had to do to help my kids get through whatever was going on.
I didn’t realize the damage it had done to me until much later when the nightmares, flashbacks, and anxiety kicked in. It comes in waves.
Sometimes I’ll be fine for months, and then something will trigger a memory: a smell, or a sound, and the next thing I know my heart is racing and I have trouble catching my breath.
Another thing I realized is that I am almost always in a state of hypervigilance. Hypervigilance is when your brain and your body are constantly on high alert, and it is a common symptom of PTSD.
I’m on high alert during cold and flu season, because I know that a simple cold could lead to a hospital stay for my son if we don’t catch it early.
I’m on high alert for things that may trigger my daughter into meltdown mode when we’re out and about. When your brain and your body are on high alert all the time, it can take a toll mentally and physically.
There are days when I do the bare minimum because that is all I have the energy for, and there are some nights that I have to take melatonin to sleep because my brain just won’t “turn off.”
To all the other parents of special needs kids who are struggling with PTSD, whether you have mild symptoms or have those days when it’s hard to function- be kind to yourself.
Author Eleanor Brownn stated that “You cannot serve from an empty vessel,” and that’s the truth.
Reach out to someone, whether it be a friend, a family member, or a professional. Talk about the hard stuff- don’t suffer in silence.
Let people help if and when they offer and be specific about what you need (I know it’s hard- I am the worst at asking for or accepting help).
Keep a journal - sometimes it helps to sort out your thoughts on paper.
Most importantly, know that you are not alone.