CON­QUER­ING TRAUMA

Birth is billed as a happy oc­ca­sion full of cud­dles, joy and ex­cite­ment, but for some women a birth that doesn’t go to plan can leave a last­ing emo­tional scar. We talk to Devon*, 32, about the birth of her first son and her quest to give him a sib­ling

Little Treasures - - CONTENTS - WORDS JAI BRE­IT­NAUER

One mum shares her jour­ney with post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der

“Find­ing out I was preg­nant was such a happy day. Even though I was only 26, my part­ner John* and I had been try­ing for a baby for three years. I have poly­cys­tic ovar­ian syn­drome (PCOS), and knew there was a chance I wouldn’t con­ceive nat­u­rally. It felt like a tri­umph, like I’d re­claimed my body. My preg­nancy went very smoothly. I didn’t put on too much weight, I re­mained fit and healthy with only a lit­tle bit of morn­ing sick­ness, and I didn’t have any com­pli­ca­tions. By the time I reached my third trimester, with the nurs­ery set up and the baby­grows folded, I felt re­laxed and con­fi­dent enough to suggest a home wa­ter birth. My mid­wife had some con­cerns and didn’t sup­port home birth for first-time mums, but ob­stet­rics checked me over and said it was a safe road to go down. I or­dered my birthing pool and set the lounge up with flow­ers, hur­ri­cane lamps and my favourite CD ready to go. I had this re­ally strong im­age of me giv­ing birth with just John and the mid­wife, no med­i­cal in­ter­ven­tion and then hav­ing time at home to bond with my baby in a fa­mil­iar en­vi­ron­ment. That just seemed ideal.

Lost and alone

Around mid­night on a Sun­day, in early Novem­ber 2010, my con­trac­tions started. I woke John up and he made me a cup of tea and rubbed my back. By 6am they were five min­utes apart and by 8am four min­utes apart and strong enough for me to use the TENS ma­chine. Things seemed to be pro­gress­ing nicely. But by lunchtime my con­trac­tions were still four min­utes apart. John phoned the mid­wife. “This is nat­u­ral, es­pe­cially with a first preg­nancy,” she told us. “It re­ally can take a long time for con­trac­tions to es­tab­lish.” My pri­vate an­te­na­tal classes hadn’t re­ally cov­ered the tim­ing of pre-labour and labour, just the bit at the end. I hadn’t given much thought to how long it would all take. By 6pm my con­trac­tions had slowed right down. John got us pizza, not that I ate much, and we watched a movie on TV. He built me a nest of cush­ions I could lay over, with a hole in the mid­dle for my bump to hang down, and we laughed about how ab­surd it all was. We were quite re­laxed and by 10pm I’d dozed off up­right in bed. Around 4am, though, I was wo­ken with the strong­est con­trac­tions yet. The TENS ma­chine went back on and soon my con­trac­tions were four min­utes apart but they didn’t seem to progress. As the day went on I was mad with pain and by 8pm John was driv­ing me to the hos­pi­tal where they de­cided to keep me in to mon­i­tor the baby’s heart rate. I had some petha­dine and told my­self it would all be over soon, but 24 hours later my waters still hadn’t bro­ken and I was only 1cm di­alated. Ob­stet­rics rec­om­mended an epidu­ral and in­duc­tion, which I re­luc­tantly agreed to. As they pre­pared to give me an epidu­ral, I re­laxed and let my men­tal guard down – even sug­gested to John he go home and have a shower, to give him a break, and he read­ily agreed. But mo­ments later, be­fore they had seen to me, there was some sort of emer­gency else­where and all the staff ex­cept for a mid­wifery stu­dent ran out. “Another mum is hav­ing some trou­ble,” she smiled. “They’ll be back soon.” But as the con­trac­tions hit wave af­ter wave, even stronger than be­fore, I felt the panic ris­ing. Alone with a trainee and no one to sup­port me I felt aban­doned, and self­ish – it was ob­vi­ous some­one else was in more need than me. I was so ex­hausted and so afraid. Even­tu­ally John came back, my own mid­wife ar­rived, and I was given my epidu­ral. Af­ter three hours of push­ing a team of doc­tors came in and as­sisted with the de­liv­ery, us­ing fore­ceps, and our healthy baby boy James* was born. How­ever, I suf­fered a tear in my uterus they couldn’t stitch up. I had to have an emer­gency blood trans­fu­sion, and was bed-rid­den with a catheter for three days. It in­ter­ferred with my bond­ing time and breast­feed­ing and left me feel­ing cheated. My birthing ex­pe­ri­ence was about as far from my ideal as you could get. Back home a week later we switched to formula feed­ing, and I fo­cused on the rou­tine dur­ing the day. But I’d sit for hours at night just star­ing at James, un­able to sleep, and John was wor­ried. “She’s been through a huge trauma, it will take some time to re­cover,” the mid­wife said in front of me when she came to visit. That word trauma stuck in my throat – I felt like a vic­tim, not a mum. When James was one month old I told a friend I felt like he was born per­fect and I broke him a lit­tle more ev­ery day. At that point alarm bells rang – she told me I should see my GP. She thought I might have post­na­tal de­pres­sion. I made the ap­point­ment for my doc­tor with­out telling John. I felt silly. But when I walked into the surgery I be­gan to feel dizzy and my heart raced. The smells, the peo­ple walk­ing around… I apol­o­gised to the re­cep­tion­ist and left. I told my friend I was fine. When James was four months old I had to go back to the GP again, this time for his im­mu­ni­sa­tions. The few days be­fore the ap­point­ment I was a mess. I had no ap­petite, I couldn’t sleep and I just didn’t un­der­stand why. Ev­ery time I thought about the ap­point­ment I felt like I wanted to scream. “It’s nat­u­ral to be wor­ried about the first jabs,” John re­as­sured me. “How about I take him this time?” I agreed, promis­ing my­self I’d go next time, but I just couldn’t. Ev­ery time James needed to see a doc­tor John had to take him. I couldn’t even go to the den­tist or the physio. I knew some­thing was se­ri­ously wrong but I couldn’t put my fin­ger on it. Mean­while, I was en­joy­ing be­ing mum to James but I was very anx­ious. While he was a babe in arms I did a lot of play­groups and baby singing classes, but when he started walk­ing I stopped go­ing – when­ever I saw James tod­dling off I’d feel the anx­i­ety rise. Be­fore long I didn’t leave the house un­less James was locked firmly into the buggy, and at the park he was only al­lowed on the swings. Ashamed, I lied to John about the things we got up to while he was at work, and I felt a wedge grow­ing be­tween us. Truth be told, we hadn’t made love since James was born and John was still on the spare bed. We never dis­cussed if there would be a ‘num­ber two’. Then, when James was ap­proach­ing his sec­ond birthday, some­thing hap­pened. I was walk­ing to the hair­dressers alone one Satur­day, when I tripped on a loose paving slab and fell. I hit the ground hard, smash­ing my fore­head against the floor and rip­ping a big gash in my right arm. See­ing the blood pour­ing out of me I froze, just sat and stared. A woman ap­proached and said, “Oh my good­ness, who can I call?” but my mind was blank, I couldn’t find any words. As­sum­ing I had a con­cus­sion she bun­dled me in her car and took me to the lo­cal White Cross week­end doc­tor’s ser­vice. In­side, I

“When James was ONE MONTH OLD I told a friend I FELT LIKE he was born

per­fect and I BROKE HIM a lit­tle more EV­ERY DAY. At that point

alarm bells rang

was ush­ered through to a back room where they tried to take down my de­tails. I felt like I was in a swim­ming pool. The doc­tor’s voice seemed too far away, every­thing was so bright and I felt like I didn’t know which way was up. “We’re go­ing to have to clean up that arm,” the doc­tor said, hav­ing fi­nally got my name and John’s phone num­ber from me. He pro­duced a sy­ringe and said, “this will sting but it’s a lo­cal aneasethic.” I watched as he moved the sy­ringe to­ward me. It was like slow mo­tion, or an out of body ex­pe­ri­ence. Then sud­denly I be­gan scream­ing and sob­bing, push­ing the doc­tor away. Thank good­ness John ar­rived at that point, he was the only one who could calm me down. Later, the doc­tor ex­plained that I had no signs of con­cus­sion, my be­hav­iour couldn’t be ex­plained away by a head in­jury. I said, “My friend thinks I have post­na­tal de­pres­sion,” and he replied, “I think you have post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der (PTSD)”.

Re­al­ity bites

When you think about PTSD, you think of solid­ers in bat­tle or chil­dren who wit­nessed a dis­as­ter. How could giv­ing birth, the most nat­u­ral thing in the world, cause PTSD? But it made sense – the anx­i­ety around con­trol, the fear of go­ing to the GP, the phys­i­cal symp­toms like the raised heart­beat and the ir­ra­tional way I re­acted when I needed in­va­sive med­i­cal treat­ment. I was re­ferred to a trauma psy­chol­o­gist who ex­plained to me this wasn’t that un­usual. She told me stud­ies** have shown as many as a third of women have mild PTSD symp­toms af­ter giv­ing birth, with be­tween three to seven per cent suf­fer­ing full-blown PTSD. “You suf­fered a gen­uine threat to your­self and to your baby dur­ing birth,” she ex­plained. “Your birth was far from what you ex­pected, you hadn’t an­tic­i­pated hav­ing prob­lems.” Hav­ing a C-sec­tion, need­ing as­sis­tance to give birth vagi­nally, hav­ing to have a blood trans­fu­sion or emer­gency spinal block – these are all ‘nor­mal’ haz­ards of child­birth, but they don’t fit the pic­ture we’re sold on TV. Plus, many mums don’t talk about the re­al­ity of child birth be­cause they don’t want to put their friends off, or scare peo­ple who are al­ready preg­nant. I re­alised that part of what had led to my PTSD was be­ing so poorly pre­pared. I un­der­went months of talk­ing ther­apy and NLP – neuro-lin­guis­tic pro­gram­ming. It’s a com­mon sit­u­a­tional ther­apy used with trauma vic­tims, and it helps ‘re-wire’ the brain to re­move those as­so­ci­a­tions that cause the anx­i­ety and panic. John and I also had cou­ples ther­apy, and on ses­sion three John de­scribed for the first time how he thought he was go­ing to lose me and James dur­ing labour, the shame he felt when he came back from home to find I’d been left alone and in pain. He ad­mit­ted he des­per­ately wanted another child, but didn’t feel it was his place to suggest it. “How could I ask you to put your­self through that again?” he said. I couldn’t be­lieve we’d both bot­tled these feel­ings up for two years.

Seek­ing sup­port

When James was three and a half, I gave birth to our daugh­ter, In­dia. De­spite all the ther­apy I was very anx­ious, and the de­liv­ery was planned to the let­ter. I was in­duced on a spe­cific date in hos­pi­tal with full pain re­lief – a far cry from that nat­u­ral wa­ter birth I’d craved, but I knew the only way I could do it was to have the preg­nancy, labour and birth man­aged from start to fin­ish. That need for struc­ture is char­ac­ter­is­tic of PTSD. My labour lasted 10 hours, and I was handed a per­fectly healthy lit­tle girl who latched on to my breast first time. James adored her, and I ad­mit I had the ‘baby­moon’ ev­ery­one talks about – helped by John tak­ing ex­tended parental leave to take James out for ‘boys ad­ven­tures’. The ther­apy helped us both get to a point where we felt we could cope with a sec­ond preg­nancy, but in all hon­esty, it was hav­ing a sec­ond child that ex­or­cised our demons. I’d just en­cour­age any other par­ent who is not feel­ing 100 per cent happy about the way their birth went to seek help sooner rather than later. Chances are you don’t have PTSD, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need help pro­cess­ing your ex­pe­ri­ence. Birth doesn’t al­ways go to plan and you should not be ashamed of your feel­ings af­ter­ward if that’s the case. Get­ting sup­port will help you be the best par­ents you can be.” 

“Many mums DON’T TALK about the RE­AL­ITY OF CHILD

birth be­cause they don’t want to PUT THEIR FRIENDS OFF, or scare peo­ple who are al­ready

preg­nant ”

If you are strug­gling to re­cover from birth trauma, even if your sym­toms are mild, seek help. Visit tabs.org.nz for more info on groups and ser­vices, or see your GP.

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