Surrounded by love, feeling alone: postnatal PTSD
This is the fifth week of our Maternal Mental Health series, which is dedicated to postnatal post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We are publishing two blogs: one by Becky Fisher, sharing her personal experience with postnatal PTSD, and another one by Professor Colin Martin focusing on describing the clinical and scientific perspective of postnatal PTSD.
I knew my life would change that week; I was about to become a mum, but I had no idea that the next few days would also take me on a path that I never expected.
I’m Becky, mum to two amazing boys. I suffered complications from my first birth and following my recovery, I want to share my story of living with postnatal post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for anyone going through their own recovery journey to know they are not alone, and to help raise awareness of the effects a traumatic birth can have.
My birth trauma was 5 years ago, and although I can now say I am in a good place, it didn’t start off that way. Let me take you back to the beginning.
My son was born by emergency caesarean section, I had to be put under general anaesthetic so my husband had to leave the room and the last thing I remember was a midwife holding my hand and looking at the hospital light above my head. The next thing I knew of was waking up in the recovery room and being told I had a baby boy. What I would later learn was that he had been born blue in colour and not breathing. A neonatal crash call was made and after a day of intensive care he was on the Special Care Baby Unit where he was treated for sepsis.
I was back on the labour ward when I started having breathing difficulties, my oxygen levels were dropping and I was struggling to breath. I was scared of being left alone and had this overwhelming feeling that if I closed my eyes, I wouldn’t open them again. I thought I was going to die. I too was diagnosed and treated for sepsis, and when we were both well enough, we were discharged from the hospital.
Living under a cloud
Initially, I had no idea I had any lasting effects from the birth. I was a new mum, and I was learning how to look after my baby. I didn’t know what feelings normal ‘new mum’ feelings were, and I was just getting used to our new family life.
That was when the flashbacks started, most of the time they were at night,I would lay down to go to sleep but as soon as I closed my eyes I was back in the hospital room struggling to breath and it felt just as real as when I had been in hospital, even now as I write this I can picture all the details of that room, like its imprinted on my brain. Sometimes there was a trigger that set them off, something as simple as my husband putting the baby down to sleep would take me back to being on the ward and hearing him cry from the special care baby unit and not being with him. It felt like I was re-living the moments over and over. At other times they just seemed to come from nowhere and I didn’t feel like I had any control over them. I just thought, well that must be normal after a difficult birth and tried to ignore the feelings hoping they would go away.
I found myself on high alert all the time. I remember a time that my husband and I were walking through town, and even though we were completely safe, I had this intense feeling that we were going to be attacked and that I would have died. It didn’t seem to matter how hard I tried to ignore the feelings they would rise back to the surface, I recall another time where I was out with friends, one of which had just recently had a baby and another friend asked her what it had been like at the moment of the birth. After she had answered the question was put to me which took me by surprise. I didn’t know how to answer, we hadn’t been there for the birth of our baby, my body froze and instead of answering I just got up and left the table. All of those feelings were back, so I did what I thought I needed to do and pushed them away, went back to the table and went on with the rest of the evening. It was a really difficult time, and although I was very lucky to have a wonderful baby boy and was surrounded by loving and supportive family and friends, it was also a lonely place because I didn’t understand why I felt the way I did, and I didn’t have anyone that knew what I was going through.
Road to recovery
As time passed, I knew something wasn’t right — I was still having a difficult time with anxiety and flashbacks, so I started trying lots of different things like grounding techniques, mindfulness and exercise, in the hope that they would make me feel like me again. They did start to improve my anxiety, and at points I felt like I was making some progress, but before I knew it, the flashbacks were back and I was right back at the beginning. At this point a year and a half had passed since my birth trauma and deep down I knew that what I was doing was not enough, but I felt lost and didn’t know what else to do.
Then I remembered a leaflet I had been given about our local NHS Talking Therapy Service. I opened and closed the website so many times before I plucked up the courage to send a referral in.
It had been nearly 2 years when I was diagnosed with postnatal post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and started the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). It was tough because I had spent all this time trying to push my feelings away, thinking I was helping myself and now I had to bring them all back to the surface.
During one of my sessions, it felt like a weight had been lifted and I hadn’t realised the heaviness of living with PTSD until that point. I can still picture myself sitting with the therapist and finally feeling like the trauma was actually a past event, my body was no longer stuck in that moment.
Towards the end of my recovery journey, I came across a charity called The Birth Trauma Association and found a community of people who had all suffered birth trauma supporting each other through difficult times. The information I found through the charity really helped me to understand what I had been experiencing and that I wasn’t alone.
One step at a time
I spent a lot of time searching and trying to make sense of why I felt the way I did, and if that is you now, reading this, I want you to know that it does get easier, and you are not alone. Give yourself time, you’re healing while taking care of your baby and that takes strength, so be proud of yourself.
It’s fair to say I’m not the same person anymore, trauma changes you, but so does the healing. I found a new version of myself, a stronger more confident me. The birth trauma will always be there, it’s a part of me, but it no longer has a hold over me.