Living and Recovering: Birth Trauma

So, it’s been 2 years since we welcomed our sweet girl into our family and 2 years since the worst day of my life. Strange right? It’s a hard concept to grasp and it’s taken many months of therapy to understand and I’m still trying to make sense of it. The most traumatizing event to ever happen to me, it lasted about 11 minutes and has affected every aspect of my life for the last 2 years. I remember most of it, but some parts are blank and dark where I don’t remember anything but fear. 11 minutes from when my OB entered my room to her first breath. 11 minutes. This of course doesn’t include the rest of my surgery or time I spent alone in recovery waiting to be reunited with my girl as she went to the NICU. For anyone that wonders, my issue was never with my cesarean itself. It saved her life. Saved me from a ruptured uterus. It never crossed my mind to deny my cesarean when handed the consent form. I signed without pause, without doubt. I try to remember this when I slip into thoughts of shame and guilt that when my body failed (because it did), I didn’t. Failing would have been refusing to be cut. Again, this idea took many months and hours of therapy to accept. It was the fear, grief, shame, impending death that left their mark far deeper than the scar that sits between my hips.

The morning following my cesarean, my doctor came to speak with me. She told me cesarean was the only option for us, told me what happened, double checked and re-enforced that there were no more children in the future and if I needed help or wasn’t coping that there were resources for me. I had already locked the experience away, and this information went with it. I couldn’t think about it. I couldn’t think about the fact that my daughter almost wasn’t here. I couldn’t think about that fact that it would have been my fault.

In the weeks following my cesarean I was numb to the experience. It was like I had completely removed myself from it. I could talk about it like I could talk about the weather, like saying “Oh I had my insides rearranged and it was painful, and I thought I was dying, and my daughter was dying” was the same as stating it was raining. I completely disconnected. I have very few memories of this time and the ones I have are shrouded in darkness. I remember being on auto-piolet when I realized my milk wasn’t coming in and she wasn’t getting anything from me. I remember checking dry diapers knowing it was a problem but not feeling it. I knew to supplement, and again, felt nothing in the process. “Surprise, surprise, my body failing me in another way. I couldn’t birth her, why would I expect to be able to feed her.” This lasted for months. I went through life feeling nothing. No pain, no grief, no fear, but when I blocked those out, I blocked out love and joy too. That’s the thing about numbing, we don’t get to choose. It’s an all or nothing process.

Then the weepiness set in. Every time I would think about my cesarean I would tear up. I knew of postpartum depression, but it didn’t feel like that. I could feel it centered around her birth. If I didn’t think about it, I didn’t cry. So, I started to avoid. Avoid baby commercials, avoid birth or pregnancy announcements, avoid pregnant friends. This was just the start of an extensive list of triggers.

At 11 weeks postpartum, my sister welcomed another beautiful baby. I was invited to go meet my new nephew. I remember spending the day hoping she would cancel on me. When the phone rang I hoped she was going to tell me she was too tired for visitors. Instead, she gave me a time. I fought tears the whole way to the hospital. I didn’t want to go. I shook from anxiety. I didn’t know why. I remember being in the maternity recovery room holding my sweet nephew while repeating I need out, I need to leave, I have to leave, not safe over and over again in my head. When I left, I left almost running. I needed out. This was a pivotal moment. This is what released everything that I had suppressed for months and caused it to surface.

After the hospital visit the next several weeks were a bit of a blur as severe anxiety reigned over everything in my life. Many nights went sleepless as anxiety kept me from closing my eyes, but if I did, nightmares ranging from baby girl being taken or being kept from me to waking in puddles of her blood and bleeding out in my arms plagued my sleep. Death sat on my chest and slept with her at night. Every night I laid her down to sleep I thought this was the night she was going to die, and she was going to be alone again, and I would have failed her again. Every time I laid her down, I said goodbye. I would never check on her though. I was scared of what I would find, so I laid there staring into the darkness.

Flashbacks would tear me out of the present and put me back in labour. I remember doing my makeup when a song came on which had been on my labour playlist and suddenly I wasn’t in my bathroom anymore but in the dark, in my living room. I could feel myself bouncing on my exercise ball. I couldn’t breathe. It was as if sand had been poured in my lungs. Sometimes I would be back in the OR with hands inside me and silently saying my goodbyes to my children and to the daughter I would never know. Other times, flashbacks to memories I can’t even recall. Memories so devastating that I blocked them out. I would weep. It was automatic, I had no control over my own emotions.

I’m a patient person but I was becoming this irritable and angry person I didn’t really recognize. I would snap if the kids pushed on my abdomen. I couldn’t lean against anything that put pressure on my body or I would instantly become angry. It was a painful reminder of how a doctor had to pound on my upper abdomen to try and deliver my girl, leaving me so bruised I couldn’t touch my upper abdomen until 3 months postpartum. I didn’t trust anyone, but I especially I didn’t trust anyone with her. I didn’t like people touching her and I would be furious if someone took her directly from me. I needed constant control.

I was obsessive. I lived in my cesarean every second of the day. Someone would be speaking to me and would get generic responses. Yes, okay, I believe it, no way. I could respond without being there because I wasn’t. I was in the OR with death looming over baby girl and me. I couldn’t concentrate on anything outside of that day. It played on a continuous loop. I desperately wanted out. I tried to focus the best I could on anything else, but it always pulled me back in. This also meant that I spent the majority of my days crying because I wasn’t just remembering it, I was reliving it which meant I always felt like we were dying.

We knew we were done having kids. We only planned on three but being told “no more”, just felt like another thing I couldn’t control. Another decision made without me. I started to grieve that fact.

I stopped going anywhere alone with my kids, this lasted about a year. What if I die while we’re out? Who would save them? Would they know how to get home? Would they know to get help? What if we were attacked and I couldn’t protect them? What if, what if, what if. If I had plans to meet someone and they had to cancel, I would come up with some excuse as to why we didn’t go either.

The day I realized I needed help I left the kids with my husband and ran to the store. All 3 kids were napping when I left. When I returned, baby girl was no longer in bed but upstairs. I remember the way the anxiety and anger flared up inside me. I remember snapping at my in-laws that my husband should have just left her in bed. I scooped her up and held her so tight. I knew I was insane. I felt like I was losing my mind. These were the people I trust most with my kids. I wouldn’t have left her to cry. I would have picked her up and calmed her so why was I furious that some else did it? That’s when I knew it was time for me to talk to someone and get help navigating what was happening.

I was 4 months postpartum when I saw my doctor for my daughter’s wellness check. I cried in office while I admitted something wasn’t right. He told me that I caught it fast. I was offered medication, which I declined and said I wanted therapy instead. My doctor was okay with this, but I had to do check ups every 3 weeks for a few months to be assessed for postpartum depression and anxiety. She’s over 2 now, but I have been asked at each appointment how I’m coping.

I made the call to my therapist later that day. I had done my research and found someone I thought would fit my needs. I was devastated when she told me she didn’t have an opening for 3 weeks. I remember wondering how in the world I was going to survive another 3 weeks. She spoke to me about why I was calling and what was going on. She then told me that she thought I needed to be seen much sooner. We spoke on a Friday afternoon; I met her Monday morning.

I sat on a squishy brown couch when she told me she didn’t think it was postpartum depression or anxiety but more likely birth trauma/ptsd. Something I knew little about as it had only been mentioned to me about a week earlier when I confided in a group of women that I was struggling. I spent months battling symptoms for something I had only just learned existed. She also told me I caught it fast. I hated this. It’s also one of the reasons I became a postpartum doula. 4 months felt like a lifetime, it shouldn’t have been a pat on the back for realizing something was wrong. I often wonder what it would have been like to have actually caught it faster, to have started recovery faster.

Therapy was exhausting but a relief at the same time. Hearing “I’m sorry you went through that” instead of “at least you don’t have to do it again” was like a big weight being lifted. The acknowledgment was liberating. Going through the birth was difficult and to this day my counsellors are still the only people who have heard it directly from me. I’ve written it, several times over, but only my therapists have heard me tell it.

Things started to slowly improve. To say it was challenging would be an understatement. I had to put in the work and the work was hard. I had to reframe everything. That day, my pregnancy (which was high risk), thoughts about myself as a mother and as a person. I had to be conscious of every thought and challenge everything.

At 7 months postpartum, after about 8 appointments the anxiety started to ease enough that the nightmares mostly stopped. They do return at times of high anxiety. Flashbacks also became less frequent. Death slowly lifted its weight off of me and crawled out of the crib to no longer lay with my girl. I also decided to write my birth story out, as much as I could possibly remember. However, this caused me to disconnect badly, and I spent days with a fog between me and the rest of the world. I wasn’t apart of it. There’s a very fine line between what is helpful and harmful in healing and I had pushed myself too hard and I started to avoid again. This is around when I learned that healing isn’t linear. It’s up, down, backwards and forwards all at once.

By about 10.5 months postpartum, I felt more myself. I didn’t live in that day anymore. We started exposure therapy to start tackling some triggers that were still painful for me to face alone. At 11 months postpartum I felt it was time and I requested my antenatal and delivery records. I wanted my records. My memory is distorted, and I needed help making sense of the timeline. By a year, I felt like I was coping well, and therapy sessions spaced out further.

Just shy of 18 months, I decided that it was time for me to address my body. I put so much time and energy into my mental healing that I had put my physical recovery on the back burner. I started pelvic floor physio, and unfortunately caused some flashbacks to occur again. I returned to therapy, we discussed how I still had a lot of trauma stored in my body and she suggested I try more specialized trauma therapy.

A year and a half after my cesarean, I started EMDR. EMDR is a trauma therapy that helps reprocess and refile traumatic memories. It helps the body move out of a state of fight or flight and move trauma out of the body. I found a lot of success with the combination of EMDR and body work and more traditional talking therapies. There are several types of therapies and it may be trail and error to find what works for you. Much like finding a therapist too, it’s like dating. You might have to meet a couple to find “the one”.

This is my experience and I tell it because I think there’s power in our stories. When I was early in recovery, hearing “you will heal” seemed like a stretch but I’m here to tell you, you will heal. You will be able to draw a deep, peaceful breath into your chest again. You will feel like you’re on solid ground again. You will lay down and feel ready to rest and not ready to fight through another night. You will be okay.

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