I knew being a mom was going to be difficult; a crying baby in the middle of the night, changing endless poopy diapers, and getting little sleep was a given. But when our daughter was born with a disability and a chronic heart condition, I wasn’t prepared (nor felt safe admitting) how much my mental health suffered.
At the beginning, there was a period of time when our front lawn looked like an overgrown jungle. Laundry had stacked up to multiple mountain sized piles. I had food rotting in the refrigerator. I hadn’t been home days, the bags under my eyes were suitcases, and we were living in the NICU. My shirt had spit-up stains and blood on it, I couldn’t remember the last time I showered, and I walked in a trance as the days all melded together.
Once we transitioned from the NICU to life at home, my mental health didn’t improve. I was wracked with guilt, trauma, grief, anger, heartbreak and loss. The NICU was just the beginning, we now had to learn to navigate through life with Callie’s disability.
It wasn’t until a few years later (and after many urgings from my husband) that I felt comfortable seeking help. I knew I couldn’t continue the way I was navigating through life without it fundamentally impacting my ability to be a good mother–so I made an appointment.
If you’re on the fence about going to therapy–I get it. I was there too. But I wanted to share a few ways that therapy has helped me in order to maybe light a spark or curiosity in you to explore further. Remember, take what works, and leave the rest.
You have someone to listen to you without judgement.
I wasn’t prepared for ALL of the emotions that were involved in Callie’s diagnosis. At all. I didn’t understand that the grief I was experiencing was normal, that the rage I would feel bubble up inside of me was ok, or the complete devastation that I felt at a random moment on a Tuesday was to be expected. All of those were listened to without any judgement. All of the emotions and experiences were valid. She never batted an eye when I told her that I didn’t have the capacity to walk into the L&D unit to visit my best friend after she had her baby. She didn’t bat an eye when I told her that I heard the angry beeping of hospital machines in my dreams. She didn’t bat an eye when I told her I wanted to punch out the grown woman who made a face at my daughter when Callie took off her prosthetic leg at the pool. It was a safe space. The ability to have someone just listen without worrying what they thought of me, even if she didn’t have experience in the unique situation I was in, was so helpful.
She helped me develop tools to navigate the hard times and recognize the small wins
My therapist worked with me (and within my capabilities) to set small obtainable tasks to help improve my mental health. No lie, we started out very small. There were several sessions where I just sat there crying for the full hour. There were several sessions where I literally sat on the oversized leather couch in silence seething with rage. But each session, she would provide a small tangible tool or resource to help me “build” my strength. She gently urged me on, while holding me accountable at the same time. With her help, I learned coping skills like scheduling time to grieve, celebrating small victories like building Callie’s first prosthetic or her placing 3rd at her first archery competition, and eventually learning to absolve myself of the crushing guilt.
It’s now just continuous (mental) maintenance.
Even when I had clawed my way out of the pit of grief and depression, I kept up with my therapy appointments and still go once a month. I now realize that the grief and challenges of raising a daughter with a disability isn’t something that I can “heal” completely from–there are new challenges to face every day and little flare ups of grief as we enter new stages of life. By continuing to go to therapy it helps me not only improve myself personally but it’s also a conduit for me to work through the hardships, heartbreaks, triumphs, and absolute gems of being a parent of a disabled child.
With my therapist, I can discuss my intentional parenting strategies, relationship with my husband, and even my progress with my career without judgment. I have a person in my corner with whom I can be 100 percent honest without asking for too much in return other than paying my bill on time and mutual respect. To have a relationship where the weight is not weighing me down and the pressure to show up perfectly put together or take care of someone is ridiculously refreshing to a mom who is used to (inadvertently) putting herself last.
Therapy has been a vital part of my life–a safe place to unpack my experiences, thoughts, feelings and concerns. If you are thinking about doing therapy–the great news is, there are many accessible ways to do it now. I highly recommend checking out one that’s fits your need–virtual or in person!