“I have never dealt with anything more difficult than my own mind”.

My daughter’s birthday is always mixed emotions for me, a day to celebrate the light she brought into my life but it was always bittersweet because it was the day we both nearly died.

Years ago I had never heard of birth trauma, didn’t know it was something a lot of women experienced after the birth of their child, you see up until that point I felt I was just weak, a failure, unable to cope with birth as other women did.

Despite everything that we went through I always felt it was me that was somehow to blame for struggling. After all, we had both survived, hadn’t we? I needed to ‘get over it’, and ‘enjoy my baby’ or so I was told. I felt like everything that had happened, all that we had both been through should be forgotten. To everyone else, it was as if both of us nearly dying had never happened. No one asked or talked to me about it and I felt to bring it up was to dwell on the bad and not be happy that I had a beautiful baby.

It’s strange how you can learn something and suddenly everything just falls into place and years of suffering can be suddenly lifted, made sense of, and eased. You are probably wondering what on earth I mean, well, let me explain.

After the birth of my first daughter and we finally came home from the hospital I knew the birth had changed me forever. Looking back, I can see that I was just so grateful to be alive, that my mission was to just get ‘back to normal’ and look after my baby.

Everything felt strange, even home felt strange, but after weeks in the neonatal unit, I just thought I needed time to adjust and recover. However, nothing was normal, physically I was slowly recovering from the birth, the 3rd-degree tear was healing and a leg black and blue from hip to calf caused by the iron injections gave painful promise of rising my haemoglobin from a deathly 4.1. While I still was feeling the effects of my surgery and postpartum haemorrhage I was physically on the slow road to recovery. But mentally I wasn’t healing. I couldn’t stop the images in my head, the panic in my stomach and the waking at night believing I was back in hospital. I tried to push the thoughts away, craving the warmth of my baby and maniacally cleaning every inch of my house. I smiled and chatted when visitors came and tried to push what had happened to us to the back of my mind. The only time I felt calm was when I was breastfeeding, holding her close, next to my heart silenced the thoughts and the pain because I felt it was my way of protecting her.

Every time my baby cried I had flashbacks to my hospital room

Everyone around me was happy and excited, but I felt in a bubble, I was terrified for my premature baby. Was she growing, was she healthy, was she feeding ok? I felt so overprotective towards her and hated if anyone touched her or wanted to hold her. As for myself I was terrified of every pain, every ache anything that made me feel slightly unwell lest it meant I was ill or dying again. Nighttime was the worst, when my baby cried I had flashbacks to my hospital room, shadowy figures, my baby lying at the bottom of the bed, or hearing distant cries and me unable to get to her. I felt guilty that she had lay alone in neonatal those first days while I was too ill in HDU and berated myself for not being stronger, not being with her, not knowing what was happening to her.

I struggled to say how I was feeling to anyone, I felt stupid and weak after all women have babies all the time. I felt no one would understand what I was feeling as I hardly knew myself. No one I knew had felt traumatised by their births, they were all happy and so I made myself happy too, believing that I could push away the feelings, burying them deep enough to forget.

As a young mom struggling with what I had been through I feared health professionals because of what I had experienced in hospital, I feared they would judge me, think I was an unfit mother, and take my baby away. I felt I had so much to prove, to show that I could cope and recover from my trauma. So I stayed silent and fought my inner pain alone, terrified.

Every home visit, every weighing clinic, I felt sick, shook inside and held on to my daughter like she may be snatched away like the many nights in the hospital. As Kathryn was premature she had paediatric appointments at the hospital and this was the worst. I would cope by feeling numb, never hearing what was being said to me. My heart would feel like it was going to burst out of my chest, and I just needed to escape and run away.

At night I would suffer flashbacks, the beep of the machines taking me back to neonatal and as darkness fell the walls felt like they were closing in on me, trying to take me prisoner. Anxiety felt like a daily companion. I would shake and feel terrified that something was going to go wrong or hurt us. I was constantly worried about my baby’s health and would often visit the doctors at any tiny sign of illness. I was called a neurotic mother and I just couldn’t understand why no one else seemed worried or concerned. Intrusive thoughts would fill my mind, I would see myself falling down the stairs with my daughter in my arms, or play out in my head cars ploughing into us on the street, or someone taking her away.

When friends had babies I made excuses not to go to see them in the hospital as I couldn’t bear to go near the place of my trauma, even driving past would cause me to have a cold sweat, and feel panic. I couldn’t watch anything on TV that was birth or even hospital-related.

I believed that no one would understand but instead thought I was going mad. So I hid my fears, my struggles, my flashbacks and terrors in the night and strove to be the perfect mother and wife.

Honestly, it’s only when I look back I see how bad I was, how ill I was and how no one, not one person saw deep enough to see how I was struggling. It was like I had a war going on inside me as I tried to suppress the trauma, the pain, and the guilt and at the same time be ok for those around me.

Pregnant again

I was still breastfeeding when I got caught pregnant with my second daughter a mere 14 months later. It felt like a death sentence. I had been lucky to survive one birth let alone another and I began to feel like I was drowning.

We went to view other hospitals as I felt I couldn’t bear to go to the same hospital again. Two of my friends were pregnant around the same time and I felt carried along in a wave of pretend happiness when secretly inside I felt numb and terrified. I wrote letters to everyone as I was convinced that I would die this time, a letter to my husband, my parents, my beautiful firstborn and to the baby I thought I would never see, never hold. I believed I would never see my beautiful babies grow up, never see them go to school, run along the beach, build sand castles, collect autumn leaves, or splash in puddles, that I would never know the people they were to become, their hopes and dreams.

At 34 weeks my insides were jelly, waiting for things to go wrong, my blood pressure to rise, for it to begin.  At 38 weeks I was in shock, all was normal all was still ok. At 40 weeks I was beside myself, I plastered a smile on my face everyone was excited but to me, I was just counting down the days till I left here, left my babies. By 41 weeks I felt I had been granted extra time with my family, with my daughter and it showed in my blood pressure because it started to rise.

So at 41 weeks they induced me and I had a wonderful birth, my placenta delivered and I was in shock, my baby was here doing skin-to-skin, breastfeeding and I was ok. I remember lying in the hospital with her sleeping on my chest thinking maybe fate had granted me some more time, time to hold her, time to love her, but deep down I was waiting for something to go wrong.

I remember going home the next day in shock, I was still here, the letters unread. I was in shock, numb. As the weeks and months passed my normal birth instead of healing me only made me realise more how bad my first birth had been and intensified the guilt I felt about Kathryn’s early days without me. I carried on for months feeling overwhelmed, I hadn’t prepared for this to actually be here, alive it felt like I was in a dream. The only thing that felt real, that gave me strength was my two beautiful babies. No one saw my pain or they never said so and after a while, I really thought I was doing ok.

It didn’t last.

I believed I was dying and I just wanted it over with

The only way I can describe how I felt was like my life was draining out of me. I saw doctors and had blood tests as I was convinced I had something physically wrong. I couldn’t eat and felt sick and dizzy all the time. I was constantly exhausted, my weight plummeted and I just wanted to sleep, my body ached everywhere and I had constant infections. I truly felt like I was slowly dying and I was holding on with all my might to stop me falling into a deep, dark, hole. I felt like death was chasing me, unable to claim me at her birth it was following alongside me ready to take me at any time. I constantly believed that something bad would happen to me or my babies.

One night my babies sleeping soundly in their rooms I lay in bed and this feeling came over me, icy fingers creeping up my chest, and my throat, I couldn’t rest and felt like I needed to escape, run and not stop. I was hot, flushed, sweating and shaking all over, nausea twisting my stomach. It was deep fear but I had no idea what of or why.

It was a panic attack, but at the time I had no idea what was happening. I had many more attacks that lasted for hours and hours and I would end up at A&E beside myself thrashing and unable to control my body and what it was doing. The attacks continued and they started to take hold. They were nothing like I had ever experienced, I would violently shake my jaw would chatter, and I would be so hot I would feel like I was burning up. I couldn’t rest or sit but would pace for hours and hours till I could barely stand. The attacks made me violently sick and I would retch for hours. The pain in my body would be unbearable, pins and needles stinging my arms and legs. My body would thrash and convulse till I would end up so exhausted it would send me into unconsciousness and then worried and unsure what to do we would end up at the hospital looking for help, for an answer. I started to fear being alone and would count the hours till my husband came home. Night times became especially difficult and holidays too as being away from home triggered the attacks. My weight was plummeting, so much so I was buying children-sized jeans.

Life became unbearable and I felt like I was useless, a bad mother, a bad wife. The guilt was tearing me in two. I had no idea what was wrong with me, I felt desperate and at times that my family would be better off without me.

One night I had a massive panic attack, I was weak and exhausted, and my husband carried me into A&E. In the cubicle where I had sat many times a nurse sat with me and held my hand, I collapsed into her arms, wailed and cried, I told her I could no longer go on and that I believed I was dying and I just wanted it over with, that I was a burden on my family, that they were better off without me and that I didn’t know what was wrong with me.

The nurse was the first person who truly listened to me and how I was feeling, she was so kind and holding my hand in hers she explained that she thought what I was experiencing was a panic attack. She explained that I wasn’t dying and that I would be ok but I was going to need some help and that she would help me to get it. I will never forget her or her kindness.

I had never heard of panic attacks and couldn’t believe how they could be making me so ill. However, I decided that I would try to ask for help and seek the answers I needed to be well and overcome what was happening to me. I wanted to be ok for my babies, I wanted to stop the way I was feeling and be a good mummy for them.

So began my ten-year struggle to get help, to fight the fear that was holding onto my soul and find again the person I once was.

Part 2

Birth trauma – A battle for help – Part 1

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