Monday, 5 October 2015

The 'T' word

Let’s talk about the ‘T’ word. Trauma. PTSD. I used to think you could only develop PTSD or trauma related symptoms after being in the armed forces, surviving a disaster or abuse but it seems this is not the case.
I was diagnosed with birth trauma/PTSD symptoms when Alice was around 6 months old. It was a relief that I wasn’t losing my mind and that I finally had evidence it wasn’t post natal depression but part of me didn’t quite believe you could be traumatised by something as ‘natural’ as childbirth.
The Birth Trauma Association identifies the following as risk factors for birth trauma:
  • Lengthy labour or short and very painful labour
  • Induction
  • Poor pain relief
  • Feelings of loss of control
  • High levels of medical intervention
  • Traumatic or emergency deliveries, e.g. emergency caesarean section
  • Impersonal treatment or problems with the staff attitudes
  • Not being listened to
  • Lack of information or explanation
  • Lack of privacy and dignity
  • Fear for baby's safety
  • Stillbirth
  • Birth of a damaged baby (a disability resulting from birth trauma)
  • Baby’s stay in SCBU/NICU
  • Poor postnatal care
  • Previous trauma (for example, in childhood, with a previous birth or domestic violence)
Trauma isn’t tied to a particular experience such as war; it is more about the experience of the individual. Trauma can occur when the individual experiences an actual or perceived threat of serious harm to them or someone close to them, a feeling of horror, feelings of helplessness and probably lots more that I can’t remember!
The Birth Trauma Association identifies the following as characteristics of PTSD following a traumatic birth:
  •   A response of intense fear, helplessness or horror to that experience.
  • The persistent re-experiencing of the event by way of recurrent intrusive memories, flashbacks and nightmares. The individual will usually feel distressed, anxious or panicky when exposed to things which remind them of the event.
  • Avoidance of anything that reminds them of the trauma. This can include talking about it, although sometimes women may go through a stage of talking of their traumatic experience a lot so that it obsesses them at times.
  • Bad memories and the need to avoid any reminders of the trauma, will often result in difficulties with sleeping and concentrating. Sufferers may also feel angry, irritable and be hyper vigilant (feel jumpy or on their guard all the time).
Since having Alice I’ve experienced all of these. I’ve also experienced intense bursts of anger, panic and sadness. I have sometimes felt intense grief and almost been trapped in this feeling that she did actually die even though she might be right there in front of me.
I had nightmares that I had another baby, was pregnant again or was giving birth again. Thankfully these stopped a few months ago. There are films I could not watch until recently, food I couldn’t eat, places I couldn’t visit. At its worst point I hated going to the toilet in our old house because of the memories. I have had bouts of insomnia where I just could not sleep despite being exhausted because I was so on edge waiting for something to happen.
I never realised it was possible to feel so awful and to feel so god damn lonely. I honestly feel that I have been broken by the experience of birth and I hope with all my might that it is only temporary. I adore Alice and I have bonded with her but at times it is bitter sweet. She is wonderful and without a doubt the best thing I have ever done, but the day she came into the world was the worst day of my life and I am yet to recover from it. In the darkest moments of my darkest days I feel that she is the best thing and the worst thing to ever happen to me. Let me clear, I do not regret having Alice for a single second, I have never wished for my ‘old life back’ before I had her, but some days I feel like I am surviving rather than living. I love my daughter ferociously but I wish things were different sometimes.

I am probably taking a risk putting this out there but I feel I need to. I need to be 100% honest, to not feel ashamed no matter what the response. I need to own this experience and there is a tiny part of that hopes someone else will read this and not feel as lonely and guilty as I did (and do sometimes).
If you are reading this and thinking ‘this sounds like me!’ then this bit is for you.

Whatever happened to you to make you feel this way was not your fault, and if it was someone else’s fault there probably isn’t much use blaming them because it won’t change anything. You are not an awful human being because of how you feel and you are still an amazing parent despite all the crap going on in your head.

You need to talk and talk and talk and talk. You might feel like you are boring people to death but the people who love you will listen and each time you talk about it your brain organises your experience a little more and it becomes a little more bearable.

There will be really tough days but there will be awesome days too. Hold onto those days and don’t condemn them when the bad days roll back around, instead use them as umbrella and remember the sun will shine again.  Forgive yourself when you struggle, do not feel weak, you are strong you’re just a little tired. Let yourself take a break and keep going.

Do something creative to get those feelings out. Sometimes it is hard to understand what is going on until it is in front of us somehow, it might help loved ones understand a bit more too.
Finally if you feel the same after a few weeks seek professional help it can make such a difference.

Since I started talking about how I felt after Alice’s birth I have been met by lots of different reactions, the majority supportive and helpful and a few that were not. The response I get the most often is ‘do you not feel bonded with Alice?’ I think people find it hard to believe that you can feel such strong emotions at the same time but it is possible. I have had people tell me I am depressed or that it’s just ‘new mum anxiety’. Again I think people find it hard to see how anything as natural as childbirth could be traumatic.
To anyone who might read this who knows someone who has experienced birth trauma, or might be here are some things to say and not to say. Please bear in mind however that this is only based on my personal experience and everyone is different.

‘When are you having the next one?’ or variations of this. I had and still have this a lot, even when I am completely honest about how I am feeling. You see birth as completely normal but to me it is currently the most terrifying thing you could ask me to do. If I had just had a horrendous car accident you wouldn’t be asking me when I was going to drive again and you certainly wouldn’t be dismissive if I said I just can’t manage it at the minute.

‘You forget the birth as soon as you hold them for the first time, then you are just filled with pure love’. Don’t get me wrong I was overjoyed when Alice was born but I have not forgotten the birth to this day and we are a year on. 

‘Your baby is healthy though that’s the main thing’. This is usually said when talking about a horrible birth. I totally understand that people are trying to get you to be positive about your experience but it makes me feel like my experience is being dismissed, as if my horrendous experience doesn’t matter because Alice is here safe and sound. Don’t get me wrong of course I am relieved and happy she is but her health now doesn’t take away the fear I had in labour that she was dead.

‘Don’t talk about the birth too much or it will bring it all back’. This seems to be a common misconception. Talking actually makes things better, it seems to help process it.

‘You are depressed’. Just because everything isn’t sunshine and flowers now Alice is here does not mean I am depressed. It is not as simple as that, I think the experience of motherhood is more complicated than that.

I know on the whole people mean well and it must be so difficult to know what to do or say. I have some wonderful friends and family who have been supportive. They have listened to the same stuff over and over again, sometimes at 3am. My husband has been my rock through everything. He has held me when I cried for no reason, he has been patient and calm when I have been angry, he has even stayed awake telling me stories when I couldn’t sleep. I used to think I knew how much he loved me but I don’t think I had even the slightest clue until this experience.
It must feel pretty damn hard supporting someone through this, I have no idea how my husband does it. I truly don’t know how he has coped with the moods and the lack of sleep!!! But he has (thank God). Here are some simple sounding things that make the world of difference (or have to me anyway)

Patience. This is not going to be sorted overnight. It will take time; there will be ups and downs, good days and bad days. Things will get better, things will change.

Love. I don’t know about other people but I quite often I feel like the worst human being ever. I feel weak because something ‘natural’ has affected me so greatly. I feel ashamed and embarrassed. I feel sad and guilty that I am putting my family through this, I feel frustrated that I am not ‘getting better’ as quickly as I would like. Love helps people to open up, to talk and therefore move forward. It reminds me that I am not my experience, that it is only part of me.

Listening. You will probably hear the same things over and over again. You might here the birth story over and over again and if you think it’s boring remember, that person is probably reliving it over and over every single day. Being allowed to talk helps process what happened and therefore helps the person to move on. You aren’t expected to know all the answers just to listen to the problem.

Understanding. Some of what is said might be strange, you might not agree with it, some of it might hurt but trying to understand what it is like from that persons point of view without judgement will help them move on.

The face that reminds me that this is all totally worth it.
 Not for a second do I regret having this cheeky little girl.
My impossible girl. 

For information about birth trauma visit

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