My Birth-related Trauma: After Effects

I had a traumatic vaginal birth with my first child (story here.) It left me scarred in more ways than one. 20 months later, I went on to have a jarring c-section birth with an inept anesthesiologist (story here,) followed by a second c-section that went well — for which I cried tears of joy as they sewed me up — until the epidural fell out of my back on transfer from the operating table to the gurney, meaning I had zero pain relief immediately following invasive abdominal surgery. To say I have traumatic birth memories is an understatement. But birth is natural, right? Everyone on Earth arrived by way of birth. So how can something so commonplace leave such an emotional scar? It’s not like I went to war.

FB_IMG_1491587521617

But, in a small way, I did. At least, it was the closest thing I’ve ever experienced — or hope to experience — to war. There was blood and pain and true risk of death. There were tears and little control and so much fear. It was war in the delivery room. A battle to overcome.

That said, birth isn’t actual war. It’s the bringing of life. It’s something done everywhere every day. How can some women birth over and over without issue, whereas others are tormented by the memory of just one birth? How can similar experiences manifest so differently in individuals? Truly, I don’t know. They just do.

FB_IMG_1491587486849

What does my birth-related trauma look like? Not much from the outside, honestly. I keep it well-hidden. Fortunately, 6.5 years out, my bouts are much less frequently triggered than they used to be. I used to sleepwalk every night with baby-in-peril dreams that, at best, caused me to scream in my sleep and at worst spurred me to unknowingly sob while digging holes in my pillow. Even the hint of birth in movies or TV would cause me to become faint and nauseous. I had to switch to another OB in the practice because I couldn’t bear to see the doctor’s face at the other end of an exam table.

6.5 years later, when my trauma does flare, I generally know what to expect: episodes of panicky breathing, rapidfire vivid memories on an uncontrollable loop, edginess and irritability, a clenched jaw and subsequent headache, sleep disturbances  (ex: nightmares, sleepwalking, insomnia), feelings of sadness and shame, emotional detachment, and fatigue. Sometimes the trauma sticks around for a few hours, other times for days. It’s hard to predict its schedule.

During the episodes, I welcome as much mental clutter as I can to pile on top of the birth horror reel that’s constantly spinning in the back of my mind. It is the quiet time I fear. Closing my eyes in the shower, a lull in radio programming during a drive, that period before sleep when you close your eyes and welcome rest, those are the times when my trauma tightens its grip. Every birth memory I tried to shove beneath carpool and dinner prep, homework help and playdate scheduling, social media pings and friendly texts fires through my mind like an emotional inferno  All of the things I tried to forget I am reliving.

If I do sleep, it won’t be well or for long. I will likely sit up in bed thinking I’m awake when I am really somewhere between wakefulness and slumber. I may possibly sleepwalk into the closet or jump from bed in a terrified dream state. I will wake far too early exhausted but unwilling to close my eyes again for fear of repeating the process. I just want the day to start so that I can push the memories beneath the surface, weigh them down with the everyday. Bury them with the life I love.

Then, as quickly as it arrived it is gone. My trauma after effects trail away, a mental vapor. Leaving me content once again and appreciative of my unglamorous beautiful life as a stay-at-home mom of three. The memories fade and sleep is welcome once again. Until next time.

FB_IMG_1491587497818

If you — or a loved one — suffer from birth-related trauma, know it does not make you weaker or lesser or broken. You can love your child and your life, you can be a loving and appreciative parent but still suffer from the emotional wounds. It doesn’t mean you’re ungrateful or unfit. You are simply a human who survived.

Get help if you need it. Talk about it. Give it voice. Know it will get better. You are a survivor. There is no shame in that. Ever.

My First (Complicated) C-section

Despite never wanting a surgical birth, I had a medically necessary cesarean section delivery with my second child. Though complicated, in all likelihood, the procedure saved both of our lives.

FB_IMG_1491587513392

My first c-section did not go smoothly. Actually, none of my three deliveries have gone smoothly. I read and hear about women who have these natural, uneventful births and I cannot process how. My personal encounters with labor and delivery have been so far removed from anything remotely serene, I cannot comprehend the reality of “birth = beautiful.” For me, birth = trauma.

If you haven’t read the tale of my first child’s traumatic vaginal birth, I’d advise giving it a once over so you’re aware of the backstory. Once you read that, it’ll be easier to understand how we got to the dreaded first c-section.

FB_IMG_1491587521617

One year to the day after the traumatic delivery of my first child, I conceived my second child. At my first OB appointment, the doctor explained why I would need a c-section for any child 6lb or larger. I remembered my under-7lb daughter’s birth all too well (it haunted me); the logical part of me understood. The illogical, frightened, stubborn part of me did not. “C-section” was not a part of my life plan. Then again, neither was infertility, an episiotomy, vaginal tearing, shoulder dystocia, multiple rounds of resuscitation, and a NICU stay. So, ya know, life plans aren’t exactly dependable.

I came home from the appointment tearful. I laid awake fearing the possible surgery. I decided I’d schedule my next visit with another one of the practice’s OBs and get her opinion. Maybe she’d see things differently!

She didn’t. At all. Instead, she calmly walked me through the risks I’d be taking with not just my own health but with my future child’s. Well, crap. It’s a hell of an argument when you imply not having surgery could kill your baby.

Tearful again. Determined, still. I scheduled the next visit with the third practitioner. Maybe she would have a different perspective!

Nope. She was even more adamant. She held my hands, calmed my nerves, and reassured me that the surgery would be markedly better than the birth I’d previously experienced. She told me in no uncertain terms that my child and I were incredibly lucky to have escaped our ordeal without serious permanent life-altering injury. To risk that again with a potentially larger child would be dangerous for all involved.

And so I had the rest of my pregnancy to dwell on my upcoming surgery, to force myself to swallow my fate. I never did come around emotionally, but I accepted it as my reality.

FB_IMG_1491585525467

After 1.5 trimesters of Braxton-Hicks contractions, vaginal swelling and pain due to my son being head down and ready to go at 21 weeks, a fluid rush scare at 29 weeks, intermittent bouts of bedrest, and gestational hypertension, along came my final OB exam at 37.5 weeks. It was a Friday; the day before my 30th birthday party. I peed in the cup, heaved myself up onto the exam table, rolled up my sleeve for my blood pressure test, and everything spiraled.

My blood pressure was dangerously high. The nurse retested twice. The doctor retested to be sure. There seemed to be protein in my urine. I was promptly sent to Labor and Delivery.

I waddled the half-block from the doctor’s office to the hospital. I checked in, peed in a cup, draped myself in a used and — despite my 40-week large but 37.5-weeks gestation belly — heinously oversized hospital gown, donned an obnoxious fetal monitor belt and blood pressure cuff, was pierced for an IV (I loathe IVs), had vials of blood sent off for testing, and laid in a triage room by myself for four hours. Meanwhile my nervous husband shuffled through our toddler’s evening routine and anxiously awaited my mother’s arrival so that he could join me.

The doctor came in. She wanted me to prep for a c-section. I looked at the nurse with eyes pleading. I looked back at the doctor. I asked if there was any way we could wait. Just a few more days. A week maybe. She was uneasy but relented. “We’ll run your platelets and keep checking your blood pressures. Maybe we can hold off a day,” I sighed in relief.

My husband arrived as evening turned to night. The nurse drew blood. Then they transferred me to a proper delivery room. Things didn’t look great but my blood pressure had steadied at a still-shitty but not as deadly level. The blood work was yet to return. I was hungry and thirsty but the staff wouldn’t let me eat or drink since a trip to the operating room was a clear possibility.

10:00PM. The doctor had the platelet results. She was displeased. I plead for more time. After consulting my primary OB, she offered a deal. I do 24-hour urine collection, stay on bedrest, and return Sunday for blood work and observation. If there’s no protein in my urine, my platelets are the same, and my blood pressure isn’t as bad, I won’t have to deliver. She advised that I fast before coming and bring my hospital bag with me when I return, “just in case.”

11:30PM we were discharged. We drove home in the dark gulping down packages of graham crackers and peanut butter we scrounged from the hospital.

We cancelled my birthday party. I peed in a day-glow orange jug every 30 minutes. I sat on the sofa reading books to my curly-headed toddler and stressed over all I should be doing but couldn’t. There was a knock at the door. One of my friends hadn’t seen the party cancellation notice and arrived ready to celebrate. As she had brought her daughter, who was the same age as my daughter, they played together as we chatted. She in her jeans and top, I in my savagely stretched maternity tank with my massive maternity bra poking out from the edges and my over-belly maternity leggings that now hit mid-belly due to my girth. I was looking wholly unpresentable, but she didn’t flinch.

FB_IMG_1491585657107

It was actually the perfect way to spend our last day as a family of three while I was on bedrest. Sometimes life shapes itself in just the right way despite or in spite of our careful planning.

The next morning I arrived at the hospital with a brimming orange jug of urine, my hospital bag, and an empty stomach. Back into the oversized hospital gown, blood pressure cuff, and fetal monitoring belt I went. Back in with the IV. Off went vials of blood for testing. A couple of hours later the doctor arrived. My platelets hadn’t stayed the same or even dipped… they’d plummeted. My blood pressure was dangerously high. The only positive: my urine was protein-free. Still, it was c-section time.

20130407_134107

An hour later, we were prepping. The Hubs donned blue scrubs, paper shoe covers, and we both sported ever-fashionable paper hair bonnets. We were a beautiful pair.

20130407_133840

The nurses wheeled me from triage to the OR. My mind was racing, my nerves buzzed. I was outwardly calm but inwardly terrified.

We arrived at the OR. I walked into the cold room pulling my IV post, nurses fastidiously toiling about the perimeter. My nurse instructed me to sit on the operating table. She left. There I sat alone in the center of this cold, otherworldly white room. It was as if I was in a dream… invisible.

My nurse returned with the anaesthesiologist who had made a smug introduction in triage. My OB walked in. She and the nurse readied me for my epidural. “Sit up straight. Take a deep breath, let it out. Lean all the way forward. Hold onto me.” Said the nurse. In went the needle then searing pains shot from my spine down my leg. It felt like my limb was on fire from the inside. “Ow!” I yelped, trying not to move.

The nurse told me the anesthesiologist would try again. “Sit up straight. Take a deep breath, let it out. Lean all the way forward. Hold onto me.” Son of a MOTHER!! It felt as if a lightning bolt shot down my spine and through my leg. My OB moved the nurse aside and asked if I was OK. She glared at the anaesthesiologist. “We’re going to try again.” She said, petting my hair as I sat up straight, took and released a deep breath, leaned all the way forward, and held onto her.

PAIN!! He missed a third time. I began to whimper. “How many more times do we have to do this?” I asked. “Is there a limit? Can we do something else?” I implored.  The OB hugged me and cast eye-daggers at the anaesthesiologist, telling us both through clenched teeth that we would try just one more time. I sat up, let out a stilted breath, leaned all the way forward, and clung to my OB. He made it!

The nurses helped me recline on the bed and strapped me down. My anaesthesiologist put on my face mask and told me my spine was at fault. (Interesting, since I had never before and never after experienced any epidural misses, and certainly not three in a row.) I did not trust him one iota, but he was my only hope for surviving this procedure without feeling every cut. I began to cry.

The nurses let my husband into the room. The anaesthesiologist instructed me to breathe in. I did. I grabbed my husband’s hand and looked tearfully into his eyes. He had no idea what had happened. I wanted him to save me from all of this, but he couldn’t. All I could do was survive it. I held onto him tight.

I felt heaviness in my chest. I panicked. I communicated it to the anaesthesiologist, who said, “Remember I told you that can happen?” Yes, I did remember that but I also remembered him saying he was experienced, and I was beginning to doubt that tid-bit.

The staff tested my ability to feel pain. The doctor asked for more anaesthesia. (If you remember from my traumatic vaginal birth story, anaesthesia does not work well on me.) The OB began cutting. I felt pressure. I felt pulling. I felt pain. I told the anaesthesiologist who said that was normal. “OWW!” Whatever I felt was not normal. The OB asked for more anaesthesia. The anaesthesiologist obliged. And that is all I remember.

FB_IMG_1491587486849

I have a snapshot memory of our son being placed on the scale. He was round and pink. Then he was in my husband’s arms.

My memory returns when I have already been transferred to the recovery room. I was shaking and cold. My husband was by my side. I asked after our son. He was fine. He was in the nursery being examined.

Soon I was in my room in the maternity ward. Our son nestled in my arms. My husband uncomfortably perched on a fold-out chair bed.

Our son was a happy, healthy 8lb 1oz bundle of cuddly baby. No NICU. No choking. No health issues of any kind. He latched on beautifully and nursed gloriously from that day until 22 months later.

My first c-section wasn’t smooth, but neither was my vaginal birth or my pregnancies. It was, however, successful. Because of it, my son and I are here to tell about it. And that is what matters.

FB_IMG_1491587504891

 

** Note: The anaesthesiologist who participated in my c-section was removed from the hospital staff within the year. **

My Traumatic Birth Story

Today is the fifth anniversary of my traumatic birth experience. Only now am I able to see others’ birth photos without feeling lightheaded. Only now am I able to watch birth scenes without getting panicked. It’s been a long journey but a healing and strengthening one.

I no longer have the nightmares, the unexpected flashbacks, or the anxiety waves. I am releasing the anger for what my husband, child, and I endured. I am letting go of the swirling “what ifs?” I am coaching myself through dismissing the jealousy I feel when I hear of others’ smooth, healthy, uncomplicated births. I am denying the self-imposed guilt. I am healing.

Trauma of any kind is an emotional — and often physical — hurdle that takes time, self-awareness, willpower, and strength to overcome. Birth trauma is no different. However, it’s a trauma that’s rarely discussed and hardly acknowledged. As if birth being a natural, common event makes it benign. As if — if you have been so fortunate — the presence of your healthy child negates your entire experience.

I’m sharing my story so that others know they are not alone, that they are not broken, that they are not weak, that there is hope. That it is in their power to move forward. This is my story.

FB_IMG_1468838056543

With my first child I had a traumatic vaginal birth. I had been on bed rest for two weeks due to gestational hypertension. By a debated 36 or 37 weeks, I’d graduated to full on preeclampsia, which was even more concerning due to my congenital (stable and well-monitored) heart defect.

On the morning of July 18, 2011, I began exhibiting labor signs. By 1:00pm my husband and I were walking into the Labor and Delivery ward of our local hospital. I was probably earlier on in labor than I suspected when I arrived at the hospital, but I was a first-time-mom. What did I know?

The nurses checked my blood pressure. “Don’t you dare move,” one told me as I asked to visit the restroom, “you’re ‘this’ far away from a possible stroke!” I stayed in that bed until the evening. Catheterized, contracting, thirsty and hungry, awaiting an eventual epidural, I was told the doctor wanted to break my waters. If not that, we’d need to consider a c-section. My body wasn’t handling labor well.

I was terrified of a c-section, as I’d only ever heard horror stories. I opted for my waters being broken. It didn’t take much as I’d been 2 centimeters dialated and 90% effaced throughout my 2-week bed rest. Labor progressed.

It was 1:30am. The nurse held one foot and my husband held the other. I pushed and I pushed and I pushed. Blood vessels in my eyes popped at the pressure. The doctor came in and looked concerned. “Prep for a section.” She told the nurse and left the room. “No! No c-section. Please!” I implored the nurse. “I’ll talk to the doctor.” The nurse returned moments later. “Let’s get pushing. If we can get this baby far enough down, maybe we can avoid a c-section.” It was go time!

I pushed, we reconfigured stances, I pushed more. I tore. The doctor arrived. More pushing. More tearing. A cut. I pushed, they pulled, the ring of fire… then the monitors showed my baby was in distress.

Eight nurses came racing into the room, one jumped on top of me, told me not to scream as they pushed on my belly. I could feel my wounds burn with every push. The nurse on my chest looked at me with wild eyes and a stern voice, “This baby needs to come out NOW!” We all pushed, the doctor pulled, and out she came. 3:36am. We were all exhausted but it wasn’t over yet.

The nurses rushed my daughter to the exam table. The monitor blocked my view entirely. “Is she OK? Is my baby OK?” I kept asking, but no one answered, no one flinched . It was as if my voice evaporated as soon as it left my mouth.

I birthed the placenta. “Time to clean you up.” The doctor said, but I barely heard her. I was too focused on trying to see my daughter. Trying to glean some shred of information from the huddle of medical staff hovering over my daughter’s body.

I turned to my doctor, who was preparing to sew my torn and cut lower portions. “Is my baby OK?” I asked her. She looked toward the exam table and then to me, her eyes appearing concerned, “You may feel a pinch.” I felt everything.

Local anesthetics tend to be relatively ineffective on me but I couldn’t communicate that now because all I wanted was to know if my daughter was alive. Tears streamed down my exhausted face. I hurt in every possible way but I was stuck on an unfamiliar bed with an unheard voice while being sewn up like a torn shirt

I looked to my husband, who was standing in a mix of shock and terror beside me: “Is she OK?” He asked the nurse. The nurse quickly looked up from her efforts with our baby, “We don’t know.”

Moments later: baby cries. The nurse handed me my under-7lb baby. My daughter’s face was bruised and swollen, her head was elongated and pointed. “Shoulder dystocia,” they told me as I latched her onto my breast. “She choked on fluid.” I stroked her matted brown hair. “She ‘code pinked.'” I grasped her tiny purple hand. “We resuscitated her.”  I held her close as she nursed.

FB_IMG_1468838090555

We later learned that, due to an old injury, my tailbone impeded the exit route. There’s nothing we could have done besides opting for a cesarean section, but no one could have anticipated that precise impediment.

After my daughter unlatched, they wheeled her to the nursery for some assessments while the nurse helped me to the bathroom. It was 5:00am as the nurse wheeled me into my room in the Maternity ward. The sun was beginning to rise. My husband wearily pulled and tugged at the visitor chair to convert it into a bed. He flopped down to try to get some rest. “Your daughter will be in shortly,” the nurse told me as she checked my wires and monitors, “try to sleep.”

I closed my eyes but my mind was still racing. I looked out the window and watched as the sky turned from purple to pink. As the sun rose and the last few clouds were drained of their rosy hue, a nurse came in the room. “Your daughter experienced complications in the nursery, ” she told us. “The doctor will be in soon to tell you more.” My husband and I stared at one another, our traumatized minds hazy from two days without sleep.

An hour later, the pediatrician arrived. He sat down in the corner chair and told us that a nurse in the nursery found our daughter purple and not breathing. She cleared our baby’s airway and resuscitated her. It appeared to be a blockage of colostrum and fluid. They weren’t sure how long our daughter had been without oxygen, if there’d be permanent brain damage, or if she might choke again. She was in the NICU.

The doctor took my husband to see our daughter, as no wheelchairs were yet available for me and I could not dependably walk yet. In that empty room, I cried. I wailed. I mourned. Every bit of pain, exhaustion, and fear poured out of me. Then, drained, I stopped and stared at the white dry erase board on the wall in front of me. I was silent.

Five years later, our daughter is bright, highly verbal, perfectly able-bodied,  and healthy. My husband is healing, as am I, from our experience all those years ago. We’ve come a long way, but we’re still mending. Surviving and savoring our journey together.