Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Meditations on Traumatic Birth, Postpartum Depression, and PTSD

I had a traumatic birth experience with my son – a label that I’m only just recently becoming comfortable with using. I didn’t experience the full effects that his birth had on my psyche until months later - an emotional aftershock, so to speak. Was my trauma a result of an incredibly painful birth experience? Not really. It was less the birth itself in any capacity – and more the aftermath of it.
David Castillo Dominici /

A diagnosis of neonatal hypoglycemia landed my Little Man in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) – which meant that only a mere hour and a half after he was born, just as the dust was beginning to settle and a tired calmness had come over our new little family of three – he was separated from us. While he was only in the NICU for two and a half days, those two and a half days were some of the most volatile, challenging and life-changing I have ever had. The NICU stay was followed up with a very difficult first few months of breastfeeding as I tried desperately to catch up to the large amount of formula that my baby had so quickly grown accustomed to during his hospital stay. After that came a constant stream of ear infections, and some other major personal events – all of which piled one on top of the other, leaving me feeling almost suffocated. I was living but, looking back, I was really just going through the motions. 

After my husband made a couple of concerned comments about my seeming “depressed,” I worked up the courage to contact my OB/GYN who gave me a referral for a therapist. She determined that I was actually suffering from symptoms consistent with postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – a diagnosis that is (thankfully) becoming increasingly recognized among researchers and health professionals alike.  My wonderful therapist helped me to slowly work through my feelings about my birth experience using a method called “eye movement desensitization and reprocessing” or EMDR, which has been shown to be particularly helpful for people with PTSD. It helped. So did some good old fashioned time. As one day after another passed, I felt a little better, a little more sure of myself…a little more “awake” to life.

I share my story here not as a way to satisfy some need within myself – although it is still therapeutic in many ways to talk about it – but as a way to bring attention to a couple of things that I think are often overlooked when it comes to postpartum trauma or postpartum depression (PPD) of any kind:
  • It’s Possible to be Depressed…and Not Even Know It
I knew all the symptoms. While pregnant with my son, I read constantly about anything and everything related to pregnancy, childbirth and parenting – including postpartum depression. I thought I understood what postpartum depression looked like, and what the red flags would be. The problem is, depression of any kind can look very different from one person to another. Online lists or brochures detailing the tell-talesigns of postpartum depression and trauma – while well-meaning – would not have helped me. I was functional. I was engaged in parenting my son. I was eating and sleeping (as well as could be expected with a newborn). And yet, I simply was not mentally healthy. The problem was, I was not in a place where I could acknowledge this. It took someone else - my sweet husband - to point it out to me.

Each year, many, many new moms suffer from postpartum depression – and many don’t even realize it. In fact, it's been estimated that more than 50% of women suffering from postpartum depression go undiagnosed. The condition is estimated to be drastically under-diagnosed and under-reported precisely because it is so difficult to pinpoint. Gwyneth Paltrow even recently came out to the media about this; she simply didn't know that what she had been feeling was postpartum depression...until she had worked through it.
  • Trauma is Trauma; Depression, Depression
There are many varying degrees of depression, and many different levels of trauma. I convinced myself for a long time that because my son was only in the NICU for a couple of days, I was not justified in being traumatized by him being separated from me. I thought that because my birth experience – up until my son went to the NICU – was relatively easy and uneventful, there was no reason why I should feel badly. He was healthy and that was really all that mattered, right? 

The truth is, it doesn’t matter how long or how bad or how hard your experience was – what counts is how YOU feel about it. If it was horrible and traumatic for YOU, then accept that, and know that you are justified in feeling the way you do. If you are feeling hopeless, helpless, or isolated, if taking the smallest actions feels overwhelming, acknowledge that – and move forward from there.
  • It Can Happen to Anyone
I thought I knew all there was to know. I had really done my research, after all! But what I didn’t truly know and understand from an experiential standpoint was that having a baby is one of the most earth-shaking, life-altering experiences that one can have. Things come up that you don’t expect – and things manifest and affect you in ways that you never could have imagined. It’s okay to be scared. It’s okay to feel lost and inept. Things do get better, and you gradually find your footing. Sometimes, you need a little extra help to overcome the obstacles you face, and that’s okay, too. There’s no prize for doing it all alone.

Baby Steps
If you think that you may be suffering from trauma, post-partum depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder, ask for help. Talk to your partner, or your parents, or a friend. Make an appointment with a therapist. Ask those closest to you how they think you’re adjusting to being a new parent – sometimes they will have insights that they just won’t feel comfortable sharing until you prompt them. Read - or join in the conversation - in online forums dedicated to moms who have suffered from birth trauma, PPD or PTSD. Finally, when you're up for it, take some time to ask yourself the hard questions, and really be honest - are you living your best life? What are some manageable baby steps you could take to get there?

Just taking these small steps can really help move you forward. While the past can never be undone, and the feelings you feel will never truly be forgotten, it does become less intense, less difficult. As my mother has always reminded me: This, too, shall pass. 

Above all, be gentle to yourself - you are doing one of the hardest jobs out there!

Some Helpful Resources
Rewriting Birth - Making Peace with Your Birth Story
Coping With Birth Disappointment
Fact Sheets from the Post- and Antenatal Depression Association, Inc. (PANDA)
Solace for Mothers: Healing After Traumatic Birth
Enjoy Birth Blog: I didn't know I had Postpartum Depression

Your Thoughts?
I would love to hear what you think about this topic. Have you, or has someone you know, suffered from birth trauma, PPD or PTSD? How and when did the diagnosis happen? What helped you (or them) to overcome it, or are you still struggling?

1 comment:

  1. I am so glad you shared your beautiful, inspiring story with us. I hope lots and lots of mothers find solace and peace in knowing they are not alone. Great job.