PTSD: I never thought it could happen to me.
by Christina H
PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder. When I hear the term PTSD, it conjures up images of terrible things… war injuries, rape, murder. Those are things which, statistically speaking, would probably never occur in my lifetime. Those are things that happen to “everyone else”, but certainly not me. Because of this train of thought, I never saw my own trauma as being classic PTSD. It took me years to even admit that it was trauma and in turn, to label it correctly.
My PTSD stems from birth trauma with my first child. I was completely and utterly blindsided by the circumstances surrounding my son’s birth. First, let me back up a bit and give some background, as I believe these facts help to illustrate why I was so blindsided.
The only thing I ever wanted to “be” when I grew up, was a mother. I was often mocked and ridiculed for this. In a society that was celebrating women’s lib and being career-driven, being a mother was seen a secondary option. As I got older and realized that obtaining an education was actually a wise decision, I knew I’d focus my energies on children. I decided to go to nursing school, with the ultimate goal of becoming a certified nurse midwife. (While I never pursued midwifery, I do work with mothers and babies and have done so for nearly 12 of my 17 years in the profession.) After completing nursing school, I got married and two years later, I was ecstatic to discover that I was pregnant with my first child.
Being pregnant was likely one of the highest highs of my life. I bonded with my baby, despite the fact that he wasn’t big enough to be seen with the naked eye. I was instantly protective of him and wanted only the best for him. I immediately began analyzing my food intake, avoided any and all medications, and sought out the very best prenatal care. I went to “the best” physician the city had to offer. I did everything they told me to do (short of taking that darned prenatal vitamin, which only seemed to come back up each time I tried). I read everything I could get my hands on, researched until I thought there was nothing left to research (and that is an important point that I’ll come back to later), and joined an online group of other women who were due at the same time I was. As a side note, I’m friends with most of them still, nearly 14 years later!
January of 2002 rolled around and it was time to have a baby. I had secured a doula (one of my very best friends) and had planned on a birth without medications. I had borderline high blood pressure, I was swollen so badly that I was wearing flip flops in the middle of a snowy winter, and I had hip, leg, and joint pain that was so painful it caused me to cry daily. I was ready to say goodbye to pregnancy and hello to my sweet baby. I was induced two days after my due date. It didn’t go well. I was started on pitocin and nothing happened. Well, I had hellish contractions but they didn’t dilate my cervix. After 17 hours, I relented and got an epidural. I pushed for 4 very long hours, breaking nearly every blood vessel in my face. I knew he wasn’t coming out. I started to give up. They tried to use a vacuum. It failed. Then they suggested forceps, which scared me half to death, but I was desperate. And here is where the crux of my trauma begins.
They wheeled me to the operating room to use the forceps. The doctor inserted them and placed them around my sweet boy’s head and then she did something that will forever be seared into my brain. The image will be burned into my memory forever. She placed one foot up on the frame of my bed… as leverage. You must understand that when you use forceps, they are meant to help guide a baby’s head in the right direction. They are not meant to be used with a ton of force. So when you see someone placing a foot up for leverage and you know that at the end of those instruments, your baby’s head is clamped in between, you freak out. And that’s just what I did. I freaked. She pulled. She pulled hard. And all I could think about was that she was yanking on his head with metal instruments. His poor, perfect head. It was violent. It was horrific. And I felt powerless to stop it. She wanted to pull a second time and a voice that I didn’t recognize as my own came roaring from deep, deep within me, yelling, “NO! NO! CUT ME OPEN BUT DON’T PULL ON HIS HEAD AGAIN LIKE THAT!” And that is when, after a 24-hour failed labor, a failed vacuum, and a failed forceps attempt, I had a c-section. And I felt like I was the one who had failed. My baby was taken from my womb and taken to a warmer where he was treated roughly, out of my reach.
My poor, sweet, perfect little boy was maimed in the process of this hell. His scalp was damaged and bleeding and he was in pain. He screamed anytime anyone touched his head. It took 4 months for the last of the scabs to leave his poor little head. And this mama took on immense amounts of guilt. I felt guilty that decisions I made had led to this outcome. I was supposed to protect him. I felt duped by the very system in which I worked. I had no idea that not only had I NOT researched everything, but there was so much more information that I didn’t even know existed. I could have made different choices. I simply didn’t know.
13 years later, I struggle. Over the years, my struggle has gotten better. But I still struggle on occasion. It has been difficult for me because I have worked in hospital based birth centers where I have had to attend births. When I’ve seen vacuums and forceps come out, I’ve often had little panic attacks and experienced flashbacks to my horrific birth. I suffered terribly with postpartum depression that really was borderline postpartum psychosis. I was withdrawn, depressed, anxious, and sleep deprived. I had another baby 17 months after the first and the postpartum mood issues were far worse. While I never considered harming my sweet boys, I often thought about death for myself. Most days, I wanted to die. I dreamed about going to sleep and just never waking up. I was too much of a chicken to actually kill myself, but I can remember just wishing that God would take me. I wanted to just die in my sleep. Some days, I thought about death every minute of every hour. I walked around feeling as though there was an invisible black cloud all around me. It was almost tangible and it felt very, very heavy. People often talk about taking things “one day at a time”. In the two years after my children were born, I often had to take things “one minute at a time” and “one breath at a time”.
About two years after my second child’s birth, I finally began to come out of the fog. My children were sleeping through the night, which helped tremendously. I had started dappling in essential oils and had amassed quite the collection of them. I kept them in a cupboard in my kitchen and started noticing that I was craving the smell of that cabinet. I’d open the cabinet door, stick my head in, and just inhale deeply. It made my mood better. I have no idea which oil it was or if it was a combination of oils. But it made me study them further and start using them more in day-to-day life.
Eventually, I went and saw a counselor, but I didn’t get very far with her. Part of it was my fear of being truly honest about my birth issues and the PTSD. I was so very afraid that if I told anyone that I had near constant thoughts of death, that my children would be taken away from me. Truthfully, I found it a lot more therapeutic to talk with close friends about things. It felt safer to me. ***To be clear, I am in no way saying that counseling is a bad thing. I’m admitting that I wasn’t honest with the counselor and so I didn’t get the benefit from it that I could have. I believe counseling to be a good thing and I wish that it was more readily available to anyone who needed it.***
I wish that there wasn’t such a taboo about discussing mental health issues. There is such a stigma about it and so much fear surrounding the subject. If our lungs or hearts or kidneys are sick, we see no problem asking for help or medications. But if our brains are hurting, we are ashamed to speak up or ask for help. One of the ways that I’ve been healing from my PTSD is simply by talking. I am being more vocal about my experiences and letting others know that they, too, are allowed to talk and ask for help and I encourage them to do so! As a postpartum nurse, I talk with each of my patients about the differences between baby blues, postpartum depression, and postpartum psychosis. I let them know that it crosses all age, race, and socioeconomic lines. I make sure to speak with their partners as well, who often are the ones who need to step in and advocate for them. And I let them know that it’s a good thing to seek help. I share my personal experiences with them so that they will know that I’m not ashamed to admit it and they shouldn’t feel ashamed either.
Most of all, I’ve learned to forgive myself for the decisions I made regarding my birth. I realize now that I did not do anything to intentionally harm my baby. I was simply making the best decisions I could with the knowledge I had at the time. And that’s really what the entire parenting career is… making the best decisions we can, based on the knowledge we have at the time. My goal now is to continue educating my patients (and anyone else who will listen) about postpartum mood disorders. I’d also like to see more open and frank discussions amongst our care providers regarding this issue. Each time we speak about it, each time we empower a woman to seek help, and each time we facilitate open dialogue, it is a pebble in the water, creating little ripples. Hopefully, those ripples will continue to grow and we can effect real change.
Bio: Christina is married with two sons and is just embarking on her first foray into the world of parenting adolescents. She is a postpartum registered nurse by day and a bibliophile by night. When she isn’t working or reading, she can be found hunting for new shades of nail polish, obsessing over the Seattle Seahawks, or eating chocolate in any of its various forms! She also loves cooking and bargain hunting and wishes she loved working out. She is a self-proclaimed grammar geek and her dream is to someday pursue a degree in English or writing. You can find her on Twitter or Instagram (user @mceeh for both accounts).