We Need to Talk About Postpartum PTSD
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had unpleasant associations with hospitals. The stinging smell of disinfectants, the impersonal and cold environment, frantic nurses, and the constant reminder of human mortality have always deterred me from visiting hospitals unless my parents forced me to. My distain of hospitals continued into adulthood, and I knew when I got pregnant I did not want to give birth in a hospital. In my ideal situation, I would have birthed in the secure and familiar environment of my home where my body was in control of the birth.
But due to a plethora of concerns, at 42 weeks gestation, I went to the hospital to be induced. I was confident the choices I made during pregnancy would still allow me to have an unmediated, vaginal birth in a hospital. I exercised every day, ate organically, did prenatal yoga, did acupressure, went to a chiropractor, had a birth plan, and hired a doula. I didn’t anticipate experiencing any problems during birth, so when I did it left a lasting psychological scar.
After 18 hours of labor and some complications, my OBGYN apologized to me and informed me I would have to prepare myself for an emergency C-section. I was devastated and hysterical. I had to deal with a crushing realty: to deliver my son safely, I would have to let go of control and allow my son to be surgically removed from me. I cried while they prepped and wheeled me back to the operation room.
My husband was my sole source of strength and comfort during my operation. As soon as I started receiving pain medication, I closed my eyes and refused to open them until my husband had our son in his arms. The entire procedure I kept praying to God I wouldn’t die on the table and that I would be able to see my son soon. The sensations I felt caused me to panic even more. I felt such a strange disconnection from my body, and I just wanted the entire thing to end.
Once my husband had our son in his arms, I opened my eyes. Our son was beautiful. A chunky, crying, blond cherub. I just wanted to hold him, but due to my arms being restrained to the table, I couldn’t. I was immediately whisked away into a recovery room for an hour away from my son. I didn’t get to hold him until I was moved into my permanent room and allowed to nurse him. The rest of my time in the hospital was a blur: nurses waking me up to check blood pressure, the stabbing pain of my uterus getting massaged, forcing my body to move and walk while it was recovering from surgery, full body shakes, lactation consultant visits, eating bland food, and being stuck in an uncomfortable hospital bed.
During my stay in the hospital, I tried my best to focus on the fact that my son was healthy and alive. I reminded myself it was a privilege and joy to have a child. I buried my own painful feelings about my birth because I felt guilty for having them. When I first began displaying post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, I assumed they would fade away with time. But without therapy to help cope with my underlying fears and trauma and with no understanding that post-traumatic stress disorder and postpartum depression were different, my PTSD symptoms only increased. I viewed postpartum mental illnesses as a spectrum instead of a black-and-white checklist, so I just lumped my PTSD symptoms in with my postpartum depression because I had never heard or learned about postpartum PTSD.
I would wake up sweating and crying from intense nightmares about my birth. I had difficulty sleeping because I knew in my dream-like state I couldn’t escape reliving my traumatic birth repeatedly. I felt like less of a woman and that I’d failed my son for him to have to be surgically removed from my body. I struggled with self-loathing, depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and panic attacks. I felt detached from my son because he reminded me of the trauma I’d endured. Although I wanted several children before my son’s birth, I no longer wanted to ever give birth again. I was easy to anger and even easier to startle. I felt like a shell of my former self.
When people would come to see my son they would ask me about my birth. I gave short answers and then later would go somewhere alone and cry. These questions would cause me to start avoiding people all together because I couldn’t handle discussing my birth. I had no interest in my old hobbies or socializing with others. It was painful to even write my birth story down two months after it occurred because it brought back such haunting images and horrific feelings. Every time my C-section scar burned it caused flashbacks. I kept wondering why I couldn’t just get over my birth. People were telling me to “get past it,” realize my “son being healthy was all that mattered,” and that it wasn’t my fault. But none of those sentiments brought me any healing.
I looked for help and information on online forums, but I didn’t ever find something that clicked with me emotionally. It wasn’t until three years after my son’s birth that I received psychiatric help for my PTSD. Before I received psychiatric help, I wouldn’t have classified my symptoms as PTSD even though I had 11 symptoms (you only need nine to be diagnosed). I thought only soldiers and those who endured war had PTSD. Didn’t claiming I had PTSD from a birth seem over-exaggerative and disrespectful to soldiers and war victims?
During my year of therapy, my psychiatrist empathized with me and explained my behaviors. She reassured me that my feelings were valid and that it would take time to move past the trauma. She continuously reminded me what I endured was, in fact, trauma and to refer to it by anything else was minimizing my experience. She wanted me to truly allow myself to feel and express all the dark and haunting bits and pieces of my birthing experience. She didn’t expect me to forget about my experience or to minimize it. Instead she wanted me to claim it, take ownership of it, and grow from it. I learned to be kinder to myself mentally. To reassure myself I wasn’t broken or less than or damaged from my birth. I learned to manage the panic attacks, flashbacks, and nightmares. I was put on a medication routine and journaled as a form of therapy. I even learned to find strength from my birthing experience, which isn’t something I thought I would ever feel.
Although my postpartum PTSD is emotionally draining and difficult to discuss, I believe it’s important for women who are experiencing these symptoms to know they are not alone and that there are treatment options available. According to Sharon Dekel, an instructor at Harvard Medical School who researches postpartum PTSD, 1-3 percent of mothers experience postpartum PTSD. Due to stigma, doctors only began researching postpartum PTSD around 2006. Since doctors only recently began researching it, women often get misdiagnosed with postpartum depression. Because Postpartum PTSD remained ignored for so long, there are reports of mothers just beginning treatment for their postpartum PTSD in their 60s and 70s. Treatment options for Postpartum PTSD include alternative therapies (art, music, writing, and dance), medication, therapy, and peer support groups.
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Photo by Jordan Whitt, via Unsplash