No Fear: surf speak for the moment one sallies forth, attempting the amazing feat of riding a moving body of water on a floating board. Catch the wave and hoist yourself upright, find your balance and enjoy the ride, fall off and get sucked under, remembering to keep the sun in your sights. Swim up to the surface, breathe. Repeat.
Scary how quickly you can lose sight of which way is up and which way down, and it is only now - nearly three years later - that I see just how far the current had pulled me under after Felix’s birth. For the first six months I was too busy tending his ever present needs to consider something as intangible as my own mental health. After the physical trauma of delivery I was so grateful that I would not be (oh horror) incontinent that I felt utterly fine. Emerging from the first stage and entering the arena of weaning, sleep training and ever shifting patterns of napping, I was too busy to worry about my feelings. What new mother can spare the energy? In fact, it was only in the run-up to his first birthday that the truth began to seep out. Until then I had assumed that my fears and anxieties were natural and normal, that the grief I felt in regards to my experience of labour and the fear that engulfed me whenever I let my mind slip towards the black abyss was simply a part of the healing process and that things would improve without the need for intervention. I let the tears flow freely and poured out my story to anyone who would listen, convinced that the telling would heal the hurt, the way it had always done in the past. Insomnia was submerged by night feeds, and the demands of new motherhood providing a perfect cover for the fact that a cohort of demons had invaded and were slowly taking over. It was only when Felix started sleeping through the night that the true damage was revealed, just as the low tide exposes all the detritus washed up on the beach.
I write this entry in order to try and help all those women who
have experienced complicated, traumatic, or tragic births, still births and miscarriages and other sufferings that have no name. You are not alone. Your grief and suffering is not impenetrable, you can and you should seek help. Among those who study postpartum afflictions, the profile of women exhibiting signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is on the rise. Two recent studies have found that approximately one-third of all postpartum women suffer some elements of PTSD, and three to seven percent suffer full-blown PTSD. “During childbirth, many women experience real threats regarding physical harm or death to themselves or their baby,” says Inbal Shlomi-Polchek, a psychiatrist and co-author of the Tel Aviv study. “During a painful birth, many women believe that their bodies are torn or destroyed irreversibly.” Such is the truth of giving birth, and whilst a lucky percentage sail through with a minimum of fuss or pain, for many others the agony and fear they undergo during those twilight hours when your baby goes from unborn to born and you go from woman to mother, are deeply scarring, both mentally and physically.
Mothers and soldiers, we are kin, for it is these groups who suffer must from PTSD. I have come to perceive a very real stigma surrounding the experience of giving birth, and saying that you had an awful, potentially life changing time is frowned upon. ‘Don’t worry, it’s all over now’ and ‘But think how lucky you are to have a lovely, healthy baby’ is a sentiment I heard echoed more than once. Labour and birth are considered ‘natural’ and ‘wonderful’ and ‘life enhancing’, and no doubt that they can be, but they equally can be agonizing, terrifying, and dehumanizing. I’m guessing you wouldn’t tell a battle scarred soldier to chill out, it’s all over, and look, you're all in one piece, would you? Yet those are exactly the kind of platitudes that traumatized mothers are offered. Unfortunately - and to some incredibly - modern medicine and care does not always, or even often, deliver a civilised, well managed, 'good' birth. So what have a new mother and a soldier in common? The list includes long hours of pain and fear, exposure to the threat of death or serious injury - believe me that fear for your unborn child is terrifying beyond compare - a loss of dignity and control, the chilling feeling that a battle is underway and must inevitably come to a close, and an all-consuming sense of the presence of mortality and the terrifying fragility of life, all this whilst you are experiencing the worst pain of your life. Without any training. Without any briefing. Without any armour. Stripped, in fact, to the very essence of what you are. And when it is all over and your body has come through the ordeal, you may find, as I did, that your mind is caught in a web of grief, fear, anger and horror, and that you are unable to stop the endless replay of those bloody hours in which you were invaded, torn and mutilated, subject to fear and horror and a level of pain you have not previously imagined possible.
Dear mothers, hear my words; do not suffer in silence, covering up your heartbreak and anguish. Your pain and grief can be addressed, processed and ordered and stored correctly in your brain and in your heart, and you will find that an enormous, crushing weight has been lifted from your mind, your heart, and your spirit. You will rediscover your joy for life, enhance the love that you feel for your children, family, friends and self, feel once again free to contemplate becoming pregnant again without a sick fear invading your soul, scorching it like acid. When my panic attacks, bouts of weeping, progressive insomnia, horror of pregnancy, and bewildering surges of adrenalin become impossible to ignore or couch as ‘normal’ I thought, ‘OK, enough’. After a referral from my GP and an assessment from a clinical psychologist that diagnosed me as ‘probably suffering from post traumatic stress disorder brought on by a traumatic birth’ I finally had a name for what was happening to me. For me, part of the horror had been the feeling that a corrosive process had taken control of my psyche and was inexorably ruining what was good and healthy, blocking out the light and feeding on the darkness it created. A cancer of the spirit. What we know about cancer is that early diagnosis is vital in treatment, so too is early diagnosis and effective treatment in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I write this for all who have been through ordeals which have stolen something intrinsic from their spirit. If any of this rings bells with you, if you feel that, just perhaps, you are not ‘quite alright’, if you can’t sleep at night or wake trembling in the morning bathed in the slick sweat of fear, if you feel that birth was something you survived or endured, and want more than anything to forget but cannot, then contact your GP, or any of the organizations named below, and get help. After a course of trauma focused Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, a process that involves many hours of talking, re-living the experience, and then re-sculpting the irrational thoughts and fears that surround it, and finally letting my ‘updated cognitions’ take the place of those damaged and irrational demons, I have torn through the blackness and out of the abyss. I no longer feel broken and damaged, on the verge of tears, hyper alert and panicky, My sleep - blessed blessed sleep - is nearly what it was before. I can talk and write about my experience in a way that is positive and perhaps even helpful to others. I am no longer caught in the crossfire of my own mind, where ravaged memories seek endlessly to be laid to rest. I am free. Free to contemplate having another child. Free to enjoy motherhood and life. And let me tell you, that this is freedom indeed.