by Lara Donachie
excerpted from Parenting with PTSD: the impact of childhood abuse on parenting
Having children was one of the most purposeful choices I’ve made in my life. I think subconsciously I thought it might provide healing from the most recent assault on my body. People questioned whether I should wait until I worked through my trauma, but I heard none of it. I hoped that having children would fill the hole in my soul that these men had created starting when I was a child. I marched blindly into the realm of motherhood not realizing how much these little bundles were going to trigger my past.
At first I thought I was managing my PTSD. Prior to becoming pregnant I had always either abused or ignored my body. Now pregnant with twins, I went from ignoring my body to obsessively worrying about the two little boys inside it. I became hyper-vigilant about them. Were they moving enough? Growing enough? I vomited my entire pregnancy and I ate anyway so they would gain enough weight. In the end they were still early and still medically complicated. So I transferred my hyper-vigilance to managing their health.
Everything felt like a threat. I was medically fragile and needed to be cared for after their birth but I insisted on breastfeeding them anyway. They were preemies, so that meant pumping around the clock even though I should have been sleeping. I almost lost one of them to a severe respiratory syndrome. After that I insisted on being at the NICU every day, all day. I remember someone suggesting I stay home one day to rest, and I burst into tears yelling at them. With so many medical complications, it became a fight to bring them home. Every day there was some other reason why they had to stay longer. One of the reasons being that I am a single parent, and that it would be too much for me.
Finally, after 28 days they came home and I had this perceived sense of control for a while. I could decide who visited, where we went, what I feed them, and who watched them. I felt like I could keep them safe. In turn, I felt safe. When I went to therapy, most of my sessions revolved around my parenting decisions, my relationships with my family and self-care. I wasn’t talking about trauma, alcoholism, depression, self-harm, or any of those things that had plagued me forever. At one point, I even cut down my therapy appointments to every two weeks which was amazing for me. I was happy as a Mom and I felt in control. Until I didn’t anymore.
We moved when the boys were about 6 months old to a condo association. They had these rules that challenged my sense of safety. On top of that I had these neighbors that enforced these rules that threatened my sense of safety. Issues like demanding I park in the garage around the corner instead of right in front of the house when I had two babies I had to carry and usually many bags in the dark. Not letting me leave my trash outside my door for a couple hours until I had another adult in the house so I could walk to the dumpster and not leave my infants in the house alone. My neighbors took pictures of my car and the trash. I felt so threatened and I started to notice my anxiety was increasing in general. What really let me know that my PTSD was in charge (in hindsight) was when I discovered we had mice in the house. I had never dealt with mice before, and I spiraled into a panic that became all consuming. I wouldn’t go into the basement where I had seen them, I was screaming at maintenance staff that this was an emergency and threatening my children’s health, and I stopped sleeping. Every noise I heard I assumed was a rodent that was going to climb into one of my babies cribs and chew on them. It really was psychotic. I felt unsafe and worried that I couldn’t keep myself and my children protected. It took catching the mice and a few weeks of being reminded that I was my own worst enemy in all of this for me to calm down.
Following that one of my sons started having seizures and ended up being diagnosed with epilepsy. Once again, I was able to project my hyper-vigilance onto him and keeping him safe. He was hospitalized a couple times, needed to have many tests and has needed closer monitoring as a result. That same son has had developmental delays and behavioral issues along the way. These issues have helped keep me focused on him and keeping him safe. As he has grown and gotten stronger these same issues have become a trigger with my PTSD.
I guess I was naïve to think that as a childhood sexual abuse survivor and rape survivor that having sons wouldn’t impact me at some point. I’ve heard some people say it was breastfeeding that triggered them or dealing with their first erections. Neither of those things bothered me. It was when they started having opinions, yelling, hitting, and kicking that I started freezing. It started when they weren’t babies anymore and it actually hurt when they kicked or hit. I would find myself just standing there, not doing anything as my 4 year old little boy yelled “no” and head butted me. I was paralyzed.
The next time I noticed being triggered was when my boys started rough housing with each other. The chaos and body contact was so anxiety provoking to me. I would stop it as soon as I saw it beginning. I was told it was healthy and normal, but I couldn’t tolerate it. Then there have been the times one child would tell the other to “stop hurting me” or “no don’t touch me” and his brother wouldn’t stop. I would be blinded by a mix of fear, rage and desperation. Fear that my child was destined to become a perpetrator because he could not hear when someone was telling him to stop, rage that my other child was not being heard and desperation that I was going to make sure that my boys learned to respect others bodies and space if it killed me.
I struggle with letting my boys go over friends’ houses if I know the Mom is not going to be home. I won’t let them join Boy Scouts. I won’t leave them at sports practices/games. I have struggled letting them start using the men’s bathroom. The list goes on.
As time has gone on and my boys have grown a bit older I’ve made decisions to start to take better care of myself. One of those things was I wanted to take better care of my body by losing some weight. I have known for a long time that I use my weight to create a wall between me and others and to make myself less attractive, to protect myself. I knew by doing this that I may bring up some trauma issues. I did not know that I would open a Pandora’s box. Six months after making that decision, I started having flashbacks of memories that I have buried for over 30 years. I just didn’t remember them because I was protecting myself. My PTSD symptoms have been at an all-time high since then. Parenting has been challenging. This has forced me to start facing my past. I’ve had to name the names and tell the stories. I’ve had to continue therapy and keep looking at how much my past still dictates my present. I don’t know if I would be willing to work so hard at this and look at all of this if I didn’t have them. They give me a reason to want to stay present in my life even when it hurts and it’s scary.
I don’t have an expectation that I will ever be free of triggers or fears. These are as much a part of me as breathing. However, I am learning that I don’t have to react from fear and that the trauma is no longer happening. With the help of a therapist I have started to learn how to separate what is a typical parenting concern and what is a sexual abuse survivor trigger. Then I can take a step back and see if I can stop reacting from fear and remember that this is my children’s story, not mine. It’s a work in progress, and some days are better than others. The goal is to continue on a path of recovery, knowing that parenting has become my biggest teacher.
This article is an excerpt from the anthology Parenting with PTSD: the impact of childhood abuse on parenting
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Lara Donachie Bio
Lara Donachie was a single mom by choice of twin boys. She worked as a Registered Nurse for 20+ years and a Certified Educator for 7+ years. As a survivor of childhood and adult sexual assault with a history of repressed memories and PTSD, Lara actively worked on recovery, and at the time of her death she had been sober for more than 12 years. Her favorite quote was: “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.” From JK Rowlings “Harry Potter: Order of the Phoenix”. Lara passed away unexpectedly a few days ago. She was kind, generous and loving, and we will miss her very much.
A Go Fund Me page has been started to support Lara’s twin boys.
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