When Your Special Needs Family Wears You Thin

It’s an honor to introduce you to Aprille who’s sharing her unique journey through motherhood as part of our month-long guest post series, Special Mamas. Aprille is a mom to two children. Her son has multiple behavioral diagnoses, and her husband is an Afghanistan veteran who struggles with anxiety. As you can imagine, this has been an incredible challenge for Aprille. On the best of days, she feels “like [she’s] barely managing.” She’s had to “continually look within and evaluate [her] own mental and physical state.” Aprille is facing the challenge with courage and bravery, doing the best she can to love and nurture her family while also caring for herself. Please extend a warm welcome to Aprille, and would you leave a word of encouragement for her today? It would surely be a blessing.


I don’t believe there is anything all that “special” about me; but the situation I find myself in as a wife and mom is highly unique and challenging.

In 2014 my son, then just-turned four, was diagnosed with multiple behavioral diagnoses: ADHD, adjustment disorder, and sensory processing difficulties. Since then, he has seen multiple mental health providers and maintained a rigorous therapy schedule – including six months of inpatient behavioral therapy, weekly occupational therapy, family counseling, and intensive in home services.

Mothering him is hard and always has been. Now that we have a team of mental health professionals on our side, a medication regimen in place, and a decent handle on his diagnoses – it’s a little bit easier than it was two years ago, when all we had were questions and doubts. Our son succeeds best with a rigid and predictable schedule, little emotion when dealing with his behaviors, consistency with rules and consequences, and a whole lot of love and attention.

It’s draining. Every day, even on the good days. 


Also in 2014, my husband, an Afghanistan veteran, was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. The VA gave him a disability of 60% for the mental health challenges that he faces, and designated me as his “caregiver” – a position that I am actually paid a stipend by the government to fill.

Loving him well is hard and always has been. Now that we have a good mental health professional on our side as a couple, a medication regimen in place, and a decent handle on his diagnosis – it’s a little bit easier than it was two years ago, when all we had were unmanaged stress and anger. My husband succeeds best with a rigid and predictable schedule, little emotion when dealing with his anxiety, a lot of help with tasks he finds challenging, and a whole lot of love and attention.

It’s draining. Every day, even on the good days.


In the therapy sessions we have for our son – they coach us on consistency, reining in our own emotions, and using appropriate communication. It’s hard to do that as his mom. It is doubly hard or worse for my husband who is struggling to manage his own emotions. How do you parent a child facing severe mental health challenges when you also face your own? He writes about that more in detail here.


The two of them are so much alike. Not just in their challenges, but in their personalities. They are both extroverted, crave adventure, and love feeling important and smart. Thus, they approach every situation with the need to be in control. They have strong feelings about how things are supposed to go and rarely are those ideals the same. They love each other with a fierceness known only to father and son, yet rub against each other like sandpaper. When they are apart they miss each other deeply, yet when they are together they struggle to get along. This complex dynamic is further complicated by the year they spent apart when my husband was in Afghanistan during my son’s infancy. He left behind a three-month-old baby and came home to a walking, talking toddler who already had a wild streak and trouble self-regulating.


They both look to me as their stability. The one to calm them when their anxiety is heightened. The one to fix it when they can’t figure something out. The one to make them feel all better when they are out of sorts. The one to give them 150% attention and affection.

I look at this situation, and I tell God, “I don’t get it. Why why WHY would you pick ME for this job?” I’m highly introverted. I deal with physical weakness and chronic fatigue. I lack drive and time management skills and struggle to stay on top of even the basics. I hate to cook and clean. My love languages are Netflix and silence.

On the best of days I feel like I’m barely managing.

And that was before we decided to have another baby. 


I love our newest addition with my entire being. By far, he seems to be the most normal one of the family. He has a sweetness and serenity that gives me a calm to breathe in when I hold him. He seems to be more introverted, like me, and yet is still ALL BOY – silly, noisy, and messy. As an 8-month-old infant, he also demands a great deal of my attention and affection. Some days, having a third person to care for sends me over the edge.


I’m basically one person – one very, very tired person – doing the job that I feel requires at LEAST three people. The Michael-Keaton-Multiplicity approach looks quite appealing a lot of days. Certainly some clones would help!

I’m running on fumes and have been for several years now. I don’t know how to do this. I really, really don’t. But I don’t have a choice. I have three people depending on me for life and sanity so I must go on – hoping that I can make it through to the day when they all need me a little bit less.


When mental health challenges and special needs parenting wear you thin, how do you go on?


I have to continually look within and evaluate my own mental and physical state. Earlier this year I started to have angry outbursts toward my family members and struggle when the baby started crying. I did a lot of yelling and screaming. It was then I got my butt to my doctor and asked for anxiety medication. While I do not have a mental health disorder like my husband and son do, caregiver stress and secondary traumatic stress/compassion fatigue are very real challenges that I most certainly deal with on a daily basis. This manifests itself in my own battle with depression, hopelessness, anxiety, physical fatigue, trouble focusing, and anger.

Constantly evaluating what I can do to make that more manageable is key. Looking within to see where I need to set physical and emotional boundaries with my husband and son. Working with them to become less dependent on me is a challenge, but something I am forced to do so I can care for them when they need me the most.


Zoloft has made all of the difference in the world. I’ve been on it for three months now, but I wish I’d gotten on it three years ago. I also see a mental health professional on my own twice a month. I pay for childcare for my baby at the YMCA. I have someone from church help me clean my house about once a month. I pay extra for convenience foods so I don’t have to spend so much time cooking. I threw out my houseplants. And most recently, I began formula-feeding my 8-month-old exclusively breastfed baby. (BEST DECISION EVER!)


Schedule slashing

Anything I don’t absolutely have to do socially, I don’t. I used to frequent a lot of mommy groups and go on a lot of playdates, but right now I’m in a bit of a hermit phase. My time at home is SO precious to me as it is the only chance I get to recoup so I can keep on keeping on. I do try to go out with friends at least a few times a month, but I keep those moments limited. And I’m not ashamed to cancel social plans last minute if I am simply too overwhelmed or depressed to go out.


My two best friends are both special needs moms and veteran or military wives. We keep a running conversation going on Voxer, a smartphone app, which we started two years ago now. We talk about our kids and our husbands and all of the challenges that we face. I literally would go insane without them. I also have met a lot of other special needs moms through my blog who help to encourage me, and I them, along this journey.

Stimulation, growth, and creative outlets

While there is much I say no to because of the challenges I face, there are a few things I say yes to, for ME. It would be far too easy to lose myself in the roles of caregiver and special needs mom because I’m simply too tired and strapped for time to do anything else. But I make sure to take time for things that bring me joy. I write on my blog weekly and manage an active presence on social media. I recently started working as a virtual assistant for my best friend and fellow blogger. I dabble in Bible journaling. And next week, I’m going back to school to finish my associates degree so that sometime in the next fifteen years I can finish my educational path by becoming a licensed clinical social worker.

It’s crazy, yes. These are things I don’t NEED to do, and my life would probably be a little bit less stressful if I didn’t do them. But they make me feel alive. They remind me of who I am apart from caring for my family. They distract me when I’m depressed or anxious.


Like I said above, I’m not all that “special.” I’m an average gal who has been thrust into a harder-than-average life just trying to figure out how to survive one day – make that one moment – at a time.

I love my family. They are beautiful and wonderful. And as hard as it is to do my job, as much as I want to run away to check myself into a hotel or pysch ward on a weekly basis, as much as I fantasize about beach vacations – I know that God picked me to do this job. Why? Heaven help me I don’t know. But He did. And as the all-powerful, all-knowing, benevolent Father of all, He must have a darn good reason.

So I am going to continue to approach every day holding onto that belief. I’m going to keep looking for beauty in the midst of the mess. I’m going to keep trusting that in HIS time, He makes all things beautiful – even mental health challenges and special needs.





Aprille DonaldsAprillebioon is a twenty-something stay-at-home wife and mom. She blogs over at Beautiful In His Time, her personal chronicle of finding God’s beauty in the mess of her marriage, mothering, and faith. It is her hope that you will be encouraged to find God’s beauty in your mess too. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. If you are a special needs parent, you can subscribe to an encouraging newsletter that she sends out quarterly.


SpecialMamas2016_smallThis post is part of a month-long guest post series titled Special Mamas. The series runs all May and is in honor of moms who have unique journeys to and through motherhood. To read all 10 posts in the Special Mamas series, CLICK HERE and you’ll be directed to the introductory post. There, you’ll find all guest posts listed and linked for easy reading!

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