By Susie Hopkins
There was a week back when my son, Harry, was two when I was pretty much unable to talk to anyone because if they asked how I was doing I would burst into tears. It was such a traumatic time that it’s still difficult to talk about and makes me teary to write about almost five years later, even though we’re both doing great these days (for the most part).
I was so out of my depth. I had no idea how to meet my son’s needs. I always knew parenting solo would be hard but despite feeding issues, terrible gastric pain due to cow’s milk protein allergy and having very little practical support while Harry was a little baby, I absolutely loved that time. I thought “I can do tough’, but I had no idea how tough things would get.
I even tried for a second child on my own, but thankfully, looking back now, my last frozen embryo didn’t implant in my uterus. It was the winter that Harry started doing regular childcare so he picked up every virus imaginable. He started having grand mal seizures (in other words full body, very scary seizures) and though I didn’t know it, had terrible food intolerances that were causing him horrendous pain when I gave him medication.
He is also autistic which I didn’t discover for two more years. His behaviour for more than two years was like that of a wild animal. Biting, scratching, smashing and indescribably long, horrendous tantrums on and off around the clock. Very little sleep compounded everything.
I thought it was “just the terrible twos”. The thing was I had years of experience as a paediatric nurse so I had a thousand strategies for soothing children. But I knew next to nothing about autism.
Words can’t capture just how traumatic this experience was for both of us. The worst part was there were times when I was scared I might hurt him out of sheer exasperation. I was so completely beside myself. This can go on for much longer for some families and it breaks my heart… Please don’t ever give up on things improving. They did for us and through the traumatic times I learned so much.
Trauma is complex
So many families who have kids with disabilities and serious health problems experience trauma in a variety of different ways. In fact, I believe that trauma is part of life for all everyone. Every single person has traumatic events happen in their lifetime but parents of kids with disabilities often get way more than our fair share. And while it can be an incredibly lonely experience there are always others who can relate. This is why peer support can be so incredibly helpful.
In the past there was more attention paid to one off traumatic ‘events’. A traumatic event is defined as one that “may have threatened their life or safety, or they may have witnessed a serious accident, death or natural disaster.” (Source)
It’s now well understood that they can lead to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), a mental health problem characterised by fear, anxiety and memories of a traumatic event that won’t go away. The feelings can last for a long time and interfere with how people cope with everyday life. (Source)
But over time it is being better recognised that trauma can occur in situations that are longer-term. Complex PTSD may occur when there is prolonged trauma. How we deal with traumatic situations is as varied as the causes of trauma are in the first instance and there is more understanding than ever of the different ways that trauma can affect people. For more information, about these conditions and how to manage them check out the above ‘source’ links.
What is Post-traumatic Growth
In this article, however, I’m taking a look at how sometimes we may respond to trauma in a healthy way because trauma can also lead to personal growth, which is perhaps the ultimate silver lining. No-one wishes traumatic events on themselves but there is no doubt that they can have a positive impact on our lives.
When we adapt to such challenging times, we may experience personal growth as a result.
“Posttraumatic growth is the experience of positive change that occurs as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life crises.” (Source)
There are seven ways that post-traumatic growth appears to show up, and I can certainly relate to them all.
- A greater appreciation of life
- A greater appreciation and strengthening of close relationships
- An increase in compassion and altruism
- Recognising new possibilities or a purpose in life
- More awareness and utilization of personal strengths
- Increased spirituality and
- Creative growth
Personal growth and mental health
Well before I had Harry, I was no stranger to mental health problems. Having had undiagnosed ADHD for most of my life, the struggles this led to included anxiety, depression and substance abuse. Thankfully, by the time I became a mum I had overcome much of this or I have no idea how I’d have coped.
Through these incredibly challenging experiences over my life-time I was no stranger to trauma and I’d already found incredible joy in life after having recovered from mental health problems after many years of therapy, yoga and meditation. But it was the trauma that I experienced in Harry’s early years that has led me to an unprecedented sense of purpose and a sense of self-worth that feels so solid.
It takes time to recover from trauma and we don’t ever return to ‘normal’. For those of us lucky enough to experience post-traumatic growth we create a new normal that is more resilient than ever. Apart from getting the outside support we need for our kids and our own mental health, there are ways to increase the likelihood of turning the trauma we go through into growth.
But for this to happen, we need to do all we can to look after and strengthen our mental health. Sadly, us mums have very often internalised the thinking that we must care for everybody else’s needs before we care for our own, if we care for them at all! Our loads can be so unrealistic that we end up in survival mode which is a disaster for our mental wellbeing.
If we don’t look after our needs our mental health suffers and this impacts those we’re caring for as well as ourselves. So please, don’t put off caring for your needs until you’ve cared for everyone else. Prioritise it as a matter of urgency!
I’d like to finish by quoting from one of my favourite newsletters, Dense Discovery by Kai Brach, who asks inspiring people to suggest ‘a question worth asking’ in each edition. I really love this one by designer Satchell Drakes. He recommends you ask yourself:
‘If I had high self-esteem, how would I look, talk, act, and behave?’ and goes on to suggest:
“Write it out and begin everything now. You don’t need to frack your trauma in order to find the worthiness to be better. You’re already worthy.”
I’m a big believer that we can all work through our trauma IF we send a strong message to ourselves that we’re worthy of a good life by treating ourselves as worthy!
A service offered by this author – Parent Support and Education Program:
Do you ever wish you had a knowledgeable sounding-board to help you meet your child’s complex needs?
If the answer is yes, Susie can help. As well as being a parent to a child with complex needs, she has a Masters’ of Public Health, is a Registered Nurse and worked for many years at the Royal Children’s Hospital & the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.
This online consultation service can help you with: Getting clarity on how to meet your child’s needs | Practical day-to-day tips | What specialists and therapists to see | How to get NDIS funding and much more.
For more info go here – www.lilowellness.com.au/supportservice.