On the last day of 2015, Felix and I crouched in the damp earth and planted a bag of bulbs. A bright picture of spring idyll adorned the packet; ‘Blooms Bees and Butterflies’ it proclaimed proudly ‘Plant these and help combat the worldwide decline in the bee population’. Who could refuse such an entreaty, for the plight of our essential pollinators is an agricultural and environmental crisis of gargantuan proportions. ‘One bulb at a time’ should be the motto of us all.
2015 has been a year of epic change; Felix has metamorphosised from a speechless, newly walking baby to a chattering, dancing, fully fledged little boy. Over recent months I have worried that he was slow to start speaking, and his frustration at not being able to communicate his increasingly complex thoughts and desires mounted and created a barrier between us. And then, like a river bursting its banks, the words started to
pour forth in a glittering stream. His delight at being able to express himself has made a huge difference to our lives and daily his vocabulary grows in richness and diversity. He can request songs, ask for meals, make little jokes like ‘Knock knock, who's there? Felix!’ His passions and fears finally have a voice, and we begin see the person that he is becoming ever more clearly, like an oil painting taking shape layer after layer. First the background, then the shadows and highlights, and now the finer forms and figures become more defined with every brushstroke. I am sure that every parent believes their child to be a masterpiece that they have had a hand in creating, and after all I am simply a doting and pathetic mother. In his eyes the entire world is being fashioned as if from scratch, and I am in thrall to its splendour. This is not to say that he is not at times a wheedling, whining, tantrumming, insanely irritating and rude little toddler, for this he most certainly is. And yet his bounteous smiles streak across the surface of my heart like searing stars, and his voice melts any icicle of anger that forms. Mispronounced words become my own catchphrases, and every new sentence thrills me like the finest poetry.
I was lucky. I found a therapist whose natural sense of empathy and professional skill twined with my urgent need for a sympathetic and trained ear into which to pour my poisoned story, and so began a dance that would last several months and at times leave me as flayed and stricken as a victim of unspeakable torture. Together we relived and discussed the burning black details of those hours in which I hovered above the abyss, a gaping void of pain and dread poised to swallow me whole. I voiced fears that I thought had no name, regurgitated memories so twisted and grotesque that my mind had thrown them into the scrapheap, where the vile things survived like filthy maggots. Post traumatic stress was something I had associated with soldiers and survivors of genocides, not normal, healthy women like myself who had entered a hospital to perform that most ‘natural’ of acts, childbirth, and come out the other side damaged and disturbed. And yet, after consulting the scale of stress under which trauma is graded, it turned out that my experience ticked a lot of boxes. Long hours of pain, helplessness, fear that the worst might happen, and critically an extended period of time in which my body was under siege and therefore releasing a constant supply of the ‘fight or flight’ hormone adrenalin, which as it turns out blocks the brains ability to process memories as they are happening. This creates a situation where the memory is incorrectly stored and instead filed in its raw state; therefore repeatedly exposing the sufferer to the original trauma whenever it is triggered. I was living within a minefield, and the only way out was to find and name every hidden bomb.
Nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks, depression, intense anxiety and insomnia are some of the symptoms of PTSD, as well as an inability to control emotions. Sweating, shortness of breath, a racing heart, hypervigilance (looking for signs of danger constantly = my giant spiders) and eventually acute mental breakdown if the original trauma is not dealt with. Make no mistake, PTSD is no walk in the park, and increasingly traumatic labour and birth are considered amongst the most common causes. Somehow, it’s OK for a soldier who has seen all manner of death and dismemberment to admit to these symptoms, and yet every day women suffer the most acute pain, fear, and loss of control of their lives and it is considered completely normal. It is time for this conspiracy of silence to end. Everyone who has have gone through any kind of complicated or traumatic birth experience should seek help, for I promise you, the visceral ghosts that stalk you can be exorcised.
Three months after completing my course of CBT, I feel I am cured. To me this is a miracle, and one that I know will alter the course of my whole life. I am able to discuss labour and birth, even my own, with dry eyes, not because the memories are blocked but because they are filed correctly under ‘past’. I am no longer under siege; I am free to go forth and consider the possibility of having another child. My giant spiders have been slain, each and every one, but only through sheer hard work and many hours of intense pain. The reliving of an acute trauma is something that you will never forget; if you do it properly it is literally like going through the event again; all the pain, fear and helplessness threatening to submerge you. You must then update it with more accurate cognitions, for example ‘I am dying’, but lo and behold, you didn’t die. ‘I cannot cope with the pain’. But look, you did, are you not here as hard proof of the fact? ‘I will be incontinent’. Nope, wrong again. You must face down each and every one of your fears, look them in the eye and realise they are in fact sordid phantasms. CBT helps to unblock the trapped memories and steer them into the right part of the brain, until you can look back and think; I survived. I did not die. I am here, and I am OK. Early on in my therapy, my wonderful, gifted, candid therapist, said to me ‘This will always be the worst thing that ever happened to you. We are not seeking to change or deny that. You have to learn to own this as part of you. What we can do is put this memory, for that is what it is, in the place where it belongs. We can close Pandora’s box, after looking deep inside it, and seal it up forever, knowing that what is in there did not in fact conquer or kill you. This is freedom; this is what can be achieved. But it can only be done by you, I will help you look into the abyss and yet not fall in, for the abyss is only in your mind and only you can reject it and live in the light. I am delighted, proud, and honoured to say that am living in the light once more, a survivor of a terrible trauma that produced the best thing in the entire world, and edging ever closer to doing it all over again.
For help and advice on recognizing the symptoms of PTSD visit http://www.ptsduk.org/.