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stepparenting ptsd

Stepparenting PTSD

Psst hey– go read the updated version of this post over here

I’ve had one of those weeks where several things intersected from unexpected directions.

First, Miss G had some extra credit to take care of, which involved watching movies related to the historical era she’s studying and then writing papers about them. They’re wading through WWI and WWII right now, so yesterday we watched Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List and Life Is Beautiful. All in the same day. (I do not recommend this, even if you are armed with mojitos like I was.)

Secondly, I was nominated for best stepparenting blog— which is a huge compliment, considering how lackadaisical I am about regular posts. Especially lately. [Insert yet another apology & explanation here.] Honestly, I just love there’s a list at all. It’s pretty damned hard to find positive stepparenting blogs out there.

And finally, I volunteered to help out with a cause I 100% believe in: Band Back Together, a safe place where those of us humans who have large or small broken spots can feel welcomed into the fold. With their celebration of May as  Mental Health Awareness month, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own monsters. Mostly this consists of peeking into their boxes, delighting in how atrophied they’ve become, and quickly slamming their lids shut again.

Three random things, right? Except they are all related.

That first unrelenting half-hour of Saving Private Ryan got me thinking about PTSD. Urban legend has it that many veterans had to leave the theatre during the intensely harrowing opening scenes on Normandy Beach. Too triggering. Too close to reality. I remember wanting to get up and leave myself to escape that assault on my senses– only to realize that actual soldiers can’t escape, and that’s the whole point. So I stayed. The only question is how are MORE soldiers not suffering from PTSD after going through days/weeks/months of that level of insistent insanity.

Then thoughts of PTSD let me back to my own struggles with anxiety, which peaked during the years we were battered by a toxic, erratic 50/50 custody situation. I don’t think that overlap is any coincidence. I’d love to see a study that cross-referenced mental health issues with blended families. Five bucks says there’s a direct correlation an awful lot of the time.

A few years ago, when I decided to get serious about getting over my anxiety, I started with a counselor. My initial sessions consisted of venting about  the major stressors of my life. At that time, all those things came down to just one: beating myself bloody against a blend-resistant family. This week, something crappy happened. Last month, a different stupid thing happened. Last year, this other terrible thing happened, because other parents suck sometimes.

“I don’t get it. I should be able to handle this,” I said, exasperated with myself. “I’m usually great in a crisis.”

My counselor said, “Yeah, I get that from you… you feel like you’d be good in a storm. But it’s not that you can’t handle the stress; it’s the nature of the stress itself.

“What you’re describing reminds me of this experiment. They took one group of dogs and bombarded them with loud, unpleasant sounds at scheduled times. The dogs learned to anticipate the attacks, and braced themselves in advance. In those dogs, stress levels remained manageable.

“The other group of dogs underwent varied, unpredictable attacks at random times. These dogs, over time, stopped fighting back. Stopped trying to defend themselves, because they never knew which way to face– which direction offered them the most protection. Instead, they curled up in the corner, just waiting for it all to be over.”

I lost it and cried for the rest of the session, because she’d just described my life since meeting my now-husband and moving in with my stepdaughter: trying against all odds to carve out our own life in the midst of utter chaos– the emotional equivalent to that first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, except lasting about five years. No wonder my mental health had admitted defeat.

That’s the day I learned that you can develop diagnosable PTSD just from stepparenting. From having the nerve to act like a family.

I never knew when the next attack was coming, or from which direction. I packed school lunches; they came right back home uneaten. I brought home presents, and later found them kicked to the back corner of the closet. I helped with a book report, then received an email later from Miss L’s mom telling me she had contacted the school, gotten the paper back, and would make Miss L redo it because the work wasn’t good enough. I couldn’t win. Every strategy ended in disaster, every olive branch I extended was snatched away, snapped in half, and set on fire.

After years of shit like this, it should come as no surprise that I ended up cowering in a corner myself, whimpering, just trying to shield myself as best I could. And drowning in terror when faced with attending another one of Miss L’s school plays or piano recitals, at war with my own beliefs that I should be supporting her, that this is what family is about– even when that family isn’t wanted. Isn’t even acknowledged.

I often wonder what would have happened to my remaining shreds of sanity if Dan hadn’t done his King Solomon thing and let go of Miss L before she was torn in two– if Miss L’s mom hadn’t moved herself and her daughter hundreds of miles away, finally bringing both homes some semblance of peace.

So many stepparents are reluctant soldiers to some extent: we are thrust into a conflict that we didn’t want and never planned for, and it feels like a battle that no one can win. Yet, we’re out there. Fighting the good fight. Storming the beaches. Screaming for medics. Wishing the assault would let up for long enough we could take one good, deep breath, even if it’s only so we can scream long and hard.

Unlike soldiers, though, we can set down our gear and open our arms up for hugs sometimes. And unlike soldiers, we don’t have to win the war; in stepparenting, small victories count.

As for me, I focus on gratitude for standing on two feet again. Gratitude for feeling pretty much sane the majority of the time. And I listen in awe to those men and women who are still living in those conditions year after year, and still hanging in there despite the air raids.

You are all amazing.

Photo credit: Akshay Charegaonkar / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

custody chaosstepparenting

Maarit • 05/06/2014

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  1. Top 10 Step-Parenting Blogs in 2014 | voiceBoks - The Voice of Parenthood
  2. Julie 02/22/2015 - 7:15 am

    I just found your blog and it is a godsend. I am not legally a step-parent, but I have begun co-parenting my boyfriend’s daughter a little bit. I have been desperately searching for resources for step-parents and support. Thank you for this blog.

  3. Maarit 02/22/2015 - 7:42 am

    Thanks for reading, and welcome!

  4. J 11/22/2015 - 6:07 pm

    Thank you so much for writing this. I’m having quite a day and in the trenches. It helps to know someone else experiences it…but I’m scared too. It’s been two years and for every inch of good there is a storm of struggle.

    I’m going to be thinking of the dog section too. I believe in staying presenting and co-creating family too. How do you work with the commitment to open your heart when

  5. Maarit 12/27/2015 - 7:25 am

    It’s easy to feel at 2 years in, everything should be smooth sailing by now. In reality, it takes 5 to 7 years to fully blend a family, so you’re still in the thick of it. Hang in there!

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