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Are Postpartum Depression and Caregiver Stress Similar?

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After Connor was born, I had postpartum depression (PPD). I remember wanting desperately to escape from my home, to get in my car and just drive and drive until I was far away and alone.

 I’m sorry. That was a rather abrupt beginning, without a proper introductory paragraph. But that’s rather what postpartum is, an abrupt state of being without any proper or formal introduction. You wake up one morning and it’s just there, like a collar placed around your neck, just one notch too tight.

 I remember sitting and nursing with Connor for over an hour at a time. When he’d finally had enough and drifted off to sleep, I’d put him in his crib and steal away like a thief, eager for a quick shower or a simple sandwich. More often than not, he would awaken and begin crying within 5 minutes of being put down. The crying…it was like shards of glass in my brain. The sound set my nerves jangling and my adrenaline pumping like I was in fight or flight mode. I stopped feeling human. I felt like a thing, something to which this tiny screaming baby would forever be latched onto.

 One afternoon, I remember vividly standing on the second floor landing, looking over the railing…

 But I won’t finish that thought, that sentence. I won’t commit it to writing or utter the words aloud because it would be breathing life into a memory that should stay dead. Is it fear, or maybe shame? Or perhaps it’s the refusal to acknowledge the shell of myself that I’d become, unrecognizable to me now.

 There was no judgment. Not from my husband or my doctor. In fact, my doctor was extraordinarily understanding and helpful. He assured me it wasn’t my fault and he could help me with medication. There were so many resources available to me, and I was grateful. And I was fortunate that, for me, postpartum depression ended up being mild. I can’t help but wonder what a more severe case of PPD feels like, yet I’m frightened by the thought.

 The Mayo Clinic explains on their site that PPD is caused by physical changes (hormones, metabolism), emotional factors (sleep deprivation), and lifestyle influences (a demanding baby, difficulty breast-feeding).  PPD is widely recognized as a legitimate disorder and much effort has gone into awareness and education about PPD, as well as resources for new mothers. If you or someone you know is affected by postpartum depression,  please contact your doctor right away. Here is a guide that helps identify symptoms as well as providing tips for help and support.

The reason I’m bringing up PPD is because of the similarities I see between it and caregiver stress and burnout. Parents of special needs children are not just parents, they are caregivers. Whether your child has autism, Down Syndrome, or another disability, the support needs can sometimes be exhaustive. If you happen to have a child that also struggles with serious aggression, your stress and responsibilities may seem all-consuming.

 Unfortunately, there is not as much understanding for families living with serious aggression and finding resources can be challenging. Like PPD, there can be physical changes (brain chemistry), emotional factors (sleep deprivation), and lifestyle influences (a child with major support needs) that occur when living in that environment. Although caregiver stress has not been assigned a medical label or a publicity campaign to bring awareness to it, the effects of providing care to a child with severe challenges is very much like PPD. Ongoing stress can have a significant and long-lasting effect on the mental health of a caregiver.

 Like PPD, you should seek out as much support as you can. Certainly it’s a good idea to see your own physician, but also finding community organizations that can help provide support to your child. This link provides symptoms and support tips for caregivers.

 It is my hope that caregiver stress will someday be seen as every bit as valid as postpartum depression. But more than that, I hope we get to a place where resources and support are just as readily available to special needs families as they are to mothers suffering from PPD.

The next time you hear someone say “there is never a good reason to harm a child”, agree with them. Agree with them because there is nothing “good” about PPD or caregiver burnout, and certainly nothing “good” about harming a child. You can also remind them that the reason doesn’t have to be “good” to be valid, nor does it have to be “good” to be worthy of creating interventions to prevent it from happening to another child.

About Flannery

Kid, husband, dogs, my mother, full-time job, maximum stress, minimal relaxation...sooner or later I had to vent. AND we moved from California to Texas. I could start a whole other blog about that.

5 responses »

  1. Excellent work. If all we had to offer mothers with PPD was profound shame for their out-of-control feelings and emotions– would we have a rash of “copycat” filicides and suicides?

    Let’s not be like those smug assholes whining about people with mental illness or depression, telling them to just “snap out of it”. I don’t want to see another news story with another dead Autistic child at the hands of another parent, and I especially don’t want to see the backlash of smug assholes saying they know what the answer is, which is to jump on the bandwagon and join their new cult of shame.

    That won’t solve shit. We’ll be cleaning up the mess of dead families for decades. Rather, let’s open the doors and eyes of our understanding and solve the underlying problems. What would Science do?

  2. Thank you for sharing and for your honesty. I had PTSD, anxiety and found out at 35 that I am autistic too. On top of my own personal struggles, I was blessed with three amazing children. They have medical issues (epilepsy, heart defect, severe asthma, sleep apnea, multiple surgeries, many tests and hospitalizations) I am burned out. I think saying “we need to be able to talk about this without shame” is so important. I’m tired of shame and judgement. Drug addiction is a disease and often those who abuse drugs or alcohol (13 years clean here) have mental health issues. Yet drug addicts are castaways and discussed as sub-human. Why are we so afraid to talk about these realities? I thank you for being so honest about your PPD. How can we help prevent tragedy without talking about it. Andrea Yates had postpartum psychosis and ended up killing all of her children. Caregiver stress / PPD/ PPS are real. I love my children more than my own life, but I get overwhelmed. I see a therapist. I try to talk to friends who listen and won’t judge. I’m tired of the secrecy. thank you again, for your honesty.

    your last paragraph says a lot, and perfectly put-

  3. I’ve been saying often, since September 2013, that I can’t imagine ever getting to a place where killing myself and my child seems like a good idea, but I do remember back in those early days with Child 1, wanting to step in front of speeding car with him in the stroller just because I couldn’t bear the thought of going on another day in PPD hell.

  4. Thank you for writing this. I never had PPD but I suffered from extreme burnout over the years from taking care of my special needs son. It’s so overwhelming and there were days that I dreamed about running away. In my experience people don’t understand how difficult it can be and that just makes things harder.

  5. Recognizing that the stress you are experiencing can sometimes lead to depression is the first step to preventing it — and burnout. To take that step, talk about your feelings, frustrations, and fears with the palliative care team’s social worker or mental health professional. Talking helps you understand what’s going on for you and for the person in your care. It helps you come to grips with the fact that you are not in total control of the situation.


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