It’s National Mental Health Week, and my first MHW as someone who has recovered from a mental illness. I am incredibly grateful that I have recovered, and I know that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder will always be part of my life. Not as an illness, but as an experience that influences how I live every day. Because I am healthy, I can now redirect the energy I put into my recovery into others. One of the things I can do is increase awareness and understanding of PTSD in the community, starting with my family and friends.
Sharing the worst period of my life in such an open way isn’t a decision I’ve taken lightly. It may negatively affect the way people see me, relate to me, and treat me. But how can we help those people with mental illness if we’re not honest about our own experiences?
What I share below is not a happy story, but it will hopefully give an insight into my version of PTSD. It is an illness that is triggered by different things for each person, and as a result, trauma is in the eye of the beholder. One of the worst things you do to a person with PTSD is try and diminish their experience. I honestly wanted to punch people who said “It could have been worse,” or “You should be thankful,” or who told stories of their, much worse (in their opinion) experience. It used to anger me that no one would ever question the traumatic experience of a returned serviceman, yet a traumatic birth was open to challenge. This is why we need to be open and honest. Anyway, on with the show. Part 1 isn’t a fun read, but tomorrow I’ll post the other half, which definitely has a happy ending 🙂
My first experience of birth was awful, and not a story that I want to share. I was treated like an animal by an obstetrician with whom I had no relationship or rapport. I was cut, my son was ripped from my body, and my placenta was left in pieces, all without a single attempt at communication, let alone consent. I was then stitched up without adequate analgesia, my crying and pain ignored for too long, leaving me in shock. I was told that I was ‘undignified’. There were no explanations, and certainly no apologies. I was left angry, ashamed and anxious.
The anger I could channel – I wrote letters of complaint, met with hospital management, and instigated a review of the doctor’s actions by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency.
The anxiety, however, was debilitating. I was so scared I’d see that doctor again, and he’d have another opportunity to hurt me or my baby. I used to check the licence plates of luxury cars, in case he was in one. I constantly checked behind me in the shopping centre and coffee shops, and made sure I sat with a wall behind me whenever I was out. I had panic attacks at the dentist, at the dermatologists, and completely lost the plot when I had to have the remaining placenta surgically removed eight weeks after Alby’s birth. I couldn’t relax, I couldn’t sleep, and eventually, I was struggling to cope. The life I had envisioned, my new identity as a mother, was slipping away. I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder six months after Alby’s birth, and it finally gave me an explanation for the behaviours and actions that had taken over my life. PTSD makes you do strange things that you believe are completely rational, and even noble. You go to huge lengths to protect yourself and those around you, and it is incredibly draining, because it is an impossible task.
When I saw pregnant women in the street, I would be so incredibly worried for them. I feared that they would have the same experience as me, and I couldn’t protect them. I went to a friend’s baby shower when Alby was five months old, and it was so hard to be excited for her, when all I wanted to do was warn her. I broke a molar in half, but refused to see a dentist for fear they’d do something to hurt me. I felt like I was constantly under attack, and became hyper-vigilant, a typical symptom of PTSD. Even though in my ‘rational’ brain I knew this wasn’t true, the part of my brain that detects threat, the Amygdala, was hypersensitive, and kept sending these panic messages.
In November of 2012, after an incredibly angry conversation with the General Manager of the hospital (who were slow to initiate any real response to my complaint), I began to see a psychiatrist. Every three weeks I could unburden myself guilt free, and slowly I started to understand why I was sick. While the sessions almost always left me emotionally exhausted, I would leave feeling a little bit more normal.
I returned to work in July 2013, but not to the position I’d left (which I had absolutely loved). Instead, I was heading back into the classroom at a new school. I was honest with my new Deputy, and explained what PTSD is, and how it affects the brain at a physiological level. Because panic attacks were part of my life, I knew we needed a plan to respond to them if the need arose. He was incredibly supportive, and although I only needed his support, and that of my fantastic Head of Department twice, I was so glad that when I was at my most panicked and irrational, I didn’t have to explain a thing.
My psychiatrist, Paul, once told me that if you’ve got the right motivation, you can achieve anything. I was determined to have another child. If I’m honest with myself, I think initially my desire was based on proving others wrong, and getting the birth experience I should have had with my son. However, as Alby got older, and I started to recover, I started wanting another child for what I believe were the ‘right’ reasons – to have another little person to love and care for. In July 2013, I took a leap of faith, and we started trying again. This was a huge step for me, as I was putting myself into a very vulnerable position, which, to a person with PTSD, is an absurd decision to make. My strategy, in order to make this possible, was to control as many of the variables as I could, especially with regard to care givers. I researched my birthing options extensively, and that helped me identify what was most important to me. Relationships were key to making me feel safe, so in planning the birth of my second child, I chose the model of care that would give me the greatest continuity of carers, and the best opportunity to connect with those involved in my birth. I chose to join the Circle of Care offered by a local midwife group called Know Your Midwife, and carefully vetted a new obstetrician, with the help of my psychiatrist. All of this was arranged before we’d even begun trying to conceive!
We’d been unable to conceive Alby without assistance, so were incredibly surprised to discover that I was pregnant after our first attempt trying naturally. Our joy was short lived though, when I miscarried soon after. We then decided to go back to ovulation induction using Letrozole, and were successful immediately. Physically, it was a great pregnancy, but it was very challenging psychologically. While I knew I had created an excellent team to support me, it was so hard to believe that everything would be ok. I was terrified that I would end up acutely ill again, and that not only would I miss my second child’s early life, but I would also inflict my illness on Alby and my husband, Brett, all over again. I so desperately wanted to protect them as well.
Giving birth at the same hospital was a daunting prospect, but we didn’t really have any other option. I had some very entrenched fears of that environment, but with the support of Paul, embarked on a desensitisation program using the Subjective Units of Distress Scale (SUDS). It required me to go to the maternity unit at the hospital, and expose myself to the environment. The first visit was awful – I feel ill just writing about it. It’s difficult to explain the terror that takes over. Just walking into the hospital I was shaking and fidgeting, and the second I walked into the unit that first time, it was like something took over my body. I was literally scared stiff – I couldn’t move forward, and I knew I couldn’t leave. I was panicking, crying, terrified, yet there was this little part of my brain that knew that this response wasn’t right, that it was an overreaction created by my hypersensitive amygdala. I think what really upset me the most was that this behaviour wasn’t ‘me’, that the calm and rational version of me, the version I liked, had been taken away and replaced with a crazy person, who was weak and couldn’t cope. I also felt terribly guilty that my husband had to witness my distress. I’m pretty hard on myself at the best of times, so it was debilitating to think I was less of a person than I hoped. Of course, none of this was true, but it’s a testament to the destructive thinking PTSD can leave you with.
On that first visit I managed to spend 20 minutes in the patient lounge, and then was even able to go into one of the rooms, be in that space and calm myself down to a point where my anxiety levels were halved. I was very grateful that the nurse in charge, Liz, stayed with us the entire time, and was very active in reducing my fear. The next day we returned, and I was amazed at the difference in my reaction. While I was still nervous, there were no tears, and I was even able to send time in all three of the birth suites, which just the day prior, had seemed impossible. When we left the hospital that day, I was overjoyed. As far as I was concerned, I had overcome the biggest hurdle. I could also start to see my own bravery and determination, which restored some of the self-worth I had lost. I continued to visit the unit, and each time my anxiety decreased. I was able to relax and celebrate the final weeks of my pregnancy.
Tomorrow I’ll post Clara’s birth story, and the moment I finally rid myself of PTSD.