Part 1: The Trauma
By the time I was expecting my third baby I had been a doula and childbirth educator for a long time. I’d attended so many births, supported women in all types of birthing scenarios, witnessed trauma and joy, and interviewed hundreds of women about their birth experiences. Naively, I thought this meant I knew everything. I also had two vaginal births under my belt, a great deal of technical birthing knowledge and a rock-solid birth team. The last thing on my mind was the possibility of birth trauma or any chance of losing my baby.
This third birth journey was one of complete surrender and trust, and I had confidently planned for another natural birth. Early in labour my midwife flagged that she was unsure of the baby’s position, and felt we needed to go to the hospital to confirm this and have some extra monitoring. What ensued was an epic and unexpected journey. After a breach diagnosis, a long labour, support from the hospital and trying everything in the book to birth my baby, I finally agreed to a caesarean.
I am incredibly sensitive to drugs and this was at the forefront of my mind. As I received the spinal anaesthetic in theatre, my baby’s heart rate crashed and a great deal of panic unfolded. They cut her out quickly and I started to drift off. I vividly remember feeling like I was going to die, but being OK about it. My midwife sat beside me, talking in my ear, trying hard to keep me in my body. I felt like was hanging on by a thread. Meanwhile, the medical team was working on my newborn who handn’t taken a breath for close to 10 minutes. My husband was floating around in a panic, trying to remain calm but the reality was pretty clear: things were not good. I could feel myself dissociating from what was happening and I went into shock.
My daughter was intubated and placed on cooling mats to stop any swelling in her brain. She was placed in an induced coma to see if that would help the healing process. We were told that she wasn’t expected to live, and if she did she would most likely have extreme brain damage.
The next few days were a haze of post-surgery drugs, visits from incredibly worried family and friends, and a great deal of bargaining with the universe to let my baby be OK. I am not sure if it was blind faith, my daughter’s will to live, the supreme medical care she received or a combination of all of these that saw her recover without any trace of damage to her brain. According to the doctors it was a complete miracle. One doctor exclaimed that in all of his years of medicine he has never seen a baby recover like that.
Ten days after she was born I took my newborn daughter home, knowing that a great deal of healing and bonding needed to happen. As most mothers do, I got on with life. I kept my baby close: breastfeeding, wearing her on my body, sleeping beside her and doing all I could to form a strong connection and make up for the time we were separated. I also had to resume looking after her elder brother and sister, and a few months later went back to teaching childbirth classes. I was aware on some level that I wasn’t all right, but I felt there was neither the the time nor space to not be OK. My family needed me, my baby needed me and I had to put the ‘bad birth’ behind me.
When my daughter was 7-months old, a good friend of mine was about to have her third child and she has asked me to be her doula. I accepted on the condition that I would have to balance the responsibility with my own family’s needs. Eventually I was called out at 11pm to attend, her baby was born at 3am and I was back home in bed as the sun was rising to feed my baby. I thought nothing of going to this birth after my own experiences because, after all, birth was my work. When I got there, however, I remembered feeling panicked and I would hold my breath each time the midwife checked the baby’s heart rate, hoping it was OK. I am fine, I would tell myself.
I went to quite a few more births after that. Each time, the same big scary feelings would arise, but then the labouring woman would need me and I would push those feelings down to do my job of supporting her.
I was teaching about birth, going to births and getting on with life… and then about two-and-a-half years after my traumatic birth, it happened.
I was on call for a couple having a baby – nothing out of the ordinary. But that night as I was waiting at home for them to call me in, I started to not feel right. I felt anxious, incredibly nervous about this birth and I knew something was about to happen. I needed to go somewhere safe, so I drove to my mum’s house and as soon as I walked in the door I broke down completely. I spent the next ten hours in a mad panic, sweating, vomiting and crying, completely beside myself. Thankfully, I had a back up for the birth who took over whilst I lay on my mother’s floor in the foetal position, saying over and over again “I’m not alright.” My beautiful mother held me in her arms, rocking me, stroking my hair and allowing me to be where I needed to be.
I couldn’t stop crying over the next few days and I knew that finally all of those feelings I had been storing and holding so tightly at bay were coming up. I started having flashbacks to the birth and I would break out into a sweat just thinking about one small part of the experience. Anxiety was becoming a daily occurrence. I started to think I was making it all up – I felt completely cracked open. It wasn’t any particular thing about the birth that I was angry or regretful about; my trauma stemmed from simply being in a scary situation where I was unsure of whether my baby (or I) would live. Reflecting on the experience, I realised that somewhere in my head during that labour I held on to the expectation of a natural birth while the reality was that I was part of an emergency. For a few years I hadn’t let myself think about how my baby was in the NICU and I wasn’t with her, that other people were taking care of her instead of me. Guilt and grief washed over me.
Part 2: The Healing
I had to stop work and pull back from anything that wasn’t about caring for my family. I fought the vulnerability and the fragility of my personality at that point. I would keep telling myself ‘This isn’t you. You are confident and strong and speak in front of people for a living‘. But then I’d find myself feeling anxious just talking to another mother at school drop off!
I knew I needed help and I knew that now was the time to address the situation. I went to see my trusted GP who I had known for a long time and he diagnosed me with PTSD. When we talked about the ways I could help myself, my immediate want was for a quick fix – I was looking for the one modality to do it all. I tried everything: counselling, acupuncture, bodywork, rebirthing, EMDR. I had a listening partner who I could call at any time if I needed to talk for a even few moments about this one part of the story. All of these things helped, but nothing fixed me. And then I realised that I couldn’t be fixed. What had happened was part of my story – part of me forever, and there was no one thing that would make it all better. It was only when I began to accept that I could still live and thrive, even with this experience as part of my identity, that the PTSD started to loosen its grip.
The hardest part was accepting that this situation had happened in my life and I couldn’t go back and change it. Even though my head would constantly tell myself “you are fine, your baby is fine” my body would react differently. The anxiety and nausea were telling me that there was stuff in there that needed to be listened to. As much as I wanted to talk myself around, I knew I had to confront the actual feelings – and it was the feeling that scared me the most. I didn’t want to feel them again but I soon realised that if I wanted to move forward I had to go to the scary place. And so I did.
With the help of some amazing therapists and bodyworkers, I went back into the feelings, felt them, accepted them… and then let them go.
Living and Thriving
In the nine years since my daughter was born so much has been changed and transformed by my journey of healing. Having PTSD was scary but it ultimately became a blessing. It made me stop and really reassess who I was in the world. For the first time in my life I began to own my vulnerabilities instead of running away from uncomfortable feelings. I began to take care of my body and my soul. I started taking more time to nurture myself as an individual and as a mother. It helped me gather a massive amount of courage to dive deep into all that had happened.
I realised that the trauma was just the first part of this journey, and the healing was the second. This tale that was once only about suffering became one that also speaks of incredible gratitude, power and the complete transformation of who I am as a woman.
The irony of the situation, that my PTSD experience is one of the things that I as a birth professional help others avoid, was never lost on me. I knew, however, that the lessons I learnt would be powerful assets in my work. Sure enough, as I conquered this challenge I attracted lots of other postnatal women who had also struggled with trauma and PTSD. This journey has given me incredible insight and empathy to call on when supporting others.
My journey through postnatal PTSD was hard and uncomfortable. It required a great deal of support, but I came out the other side stronger, empathetic and deeply connected to my daughter. I am so grateful for the birth that we had – it showed me who I am.