I am powerless to protect my child. I catch a quick glimpse of him as he is prematurely pulled from my body. He is hurriedly handed over to the Neonatology team, who rush him out of the operating theatre towards the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. My dazed husband follows in their wake.
I am suddenly alone. The life that has grown inside of me has been taken away. I don’t know what is happening to him or if I will ever see him again.
I have to forcibly pull myself back to the present. I am at home, safe in my bed with my husband by my side. Our now 1-year-old son is sleeping peacefully in his nursery. And yet, I am covered in a cold sweat and my heart is pounding. My whole body is rigid with the tension that has engulfed me and I am despondent that it is yet another night in which these intrusive memories have taken hold of me.
My son was born at 28 weeks gestation, via an emergency caesarean, when I developed a life threatening pregnancy complication. The first year of his life I spent in survival mode, focusing on keeping him alive and healthy. Months in the NICU, surgery, endless specialist appointments, hospital readmissions, failure to thrive, struggling to breastfeed. But now, one year on, things had finally settled down and life was returning to normal.
I had nothing left to worry about. My son was alive and well. I was full of joy and contentment. Life was wonderful! And yet, though I tried to ignore it, there was anxiety and distress lurking in the darkness. Whenever I let my thoughts wonder, they immediately returned to the birth. Endlessly sifting through the memories.
Why couldn’t I just let it go? Why couldn’t I sleep? Why would the slightest things trigger a cascade of memories and panic?
I found the answer to these questions when I sort help from my GP for my insomnia. I was diagnosed with Postpartum Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The diagnosis left me feeling self-conscious and confused. I thought that PTSD was something that only veteran soldiers got. Those that have seen or experienced unspeakable violence. How could this be happening to me? I merely had a baby (albeit in fairly dramatic circumstances), something that women do everyday.
I also felt ashamed and guilty. I know that there are women out there who have experienced far worse birth traumas than I have. And there are those that have endured devastating outcomes. I felt that I didn’t have a right to be harping on about my experience, over a year after the fact.
I have since learnt that postpartum PTSD is more common than you may think. Studies indicate that approximately 9% of women experience postpartum PTSD following childbirth. Parents whose babies were admitted to a NICU for an extended period of time are particularly high risk for developing PTSD.
The disorder is characterised by three main symptoms:
- Intrusive re-experiencing of the traumatic birth: nightmares, flashbacks or intrusive recollections.
- Avoidance symptoms: avoiding trauma related stimuli such as thoughts, feelings, people and places.
- Increased arousal symptoms: difficulty sleeping, anxiety, irritability, difficulty concentrating,
Postpartum PTSD is rarely talked about, often goes undiagnosed or is incorrectly labeled as postpartum depression. Sadly, it can have profound and lasting consequences on a woman and her family.
I am fortunate that my PTSD was only ever mild and it never impacted my ability to bond with my child. I received the help and support I needed to overcome it and it no longer impacts my quality of life on a daily basis.
Receiving support from a Mental Health Professional was the first and most significant step towards healing. I started seeing a counselor on a regular basis which helped me to re-process my birth experience. Together we did specific trauma work, grief counseling and imaginal exposure therapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) are other effective techniques that are commonly used in the treatment of PTSD.
I found meditation to be a simple and practical tool that helps me manage the symptoms of my PTSD. I now aim to do a simple 5 minute meditation each night before bed. This practice has helped me to feel in control of my anxiety and helped me to sleep each night.
Lastly, I joined online support groups, such as the Australasian Birth Trauma Association, and found solace in connecting with other women who can relate to my journey.
I am now able to think back on my birth experience without psychologically reliving it and I no longer experience flashbacks or insomnia. And although the memory still causes me pain, it is that of sadness rather than distress.
If I am totally honest, I am terrified to publish this article. I am scared of being stigmatised with a mental health problem or thought of as weak or melodramatic. But I believe that having open and honest conversations about postpartum mental health is the only way to break down the walls of stigma.
If you feel that you may be experiencing postpartum PTSD I want you to know that you are not alone. Postpartum PTSD does not need to be something that you endure for the rest of your life. This is treatable and help is available.
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P.S. I feel that It is important for me to say that the trauma I experienced was in no way a reflection on the care I received during birth. The staff that cared for my child and I, not only saved our lives, but did so with empathy and compassion. I will be eternally grateful for all that they did and the manner in which they did it.
You may also like to read ‘A LETTER TO THE CHILD I LOST TO MISCARRIAGE‘