Part 1- I Didn’t Hear a Cry: PTSD, Birth Trauma, and the Road of Healing
Content Warning: medical trauma, birth trauma
Oddly enough, I thought about Angelina Jolie on the operating table. Years before, I’d read an article in which Jolie said that she remembered staring at the blue surgical screen during her C-section, waiting to hear her babies’ cries. So, when I found myself facing a similar screen during an emergency C-section, my fatigue-addled brain jumped to the only reference I had. Except, unlike Jolie, I didn’t hear a cry. Thus began my journey with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The few days after the birth of my daughter were a fog marked by the beeps of machines and a new language of medical terminology: late onset severe preeclampsia, acute renal failure, meconium aspiration, subgaleal hemorrhage, deep brain bleeding, adhesion, tachycardia.
Certain scenes were seared into my memory: my husband pacing at the foot of my bed in the recovery room, trying to tell me that the baby was alive, but that she didn’t breathe for the first 5 minutes and that she needed to be flown to the closest newborn intensive care unit (NICU) so no, I couldn’t hold her yet.
My parents coming into the room and my mom saying “Hiiiiiiiiii!” in that super-high tone she only uses when she’s trying to hide that she’s really freaked out.
The airlift team rolling my baby into the room in what looked like a spaceship bassinet and letting me put my hand through the armhole in the side so I could touch her for 30 seconds. I tried to feel her heart beating so I knew she was alive, but I couldn’t. Her skin was so soft. I tried to talk to her, but I didn’t have a voice left.
My husband following the airlift team out the door and down the hallway, the black and red backpack over his right shoulder filled with whatever he thought to grab in the minutes he’d had at our apartment: contact solution, a handful of diapers, a change of underwear. Then a nurse with too much sadness in her eyes says, “We didn’t want to give you this until you’d seen her, so you would still remember.” She twisted dials on the machines around my bed and injected something into the IV line and I fell asleep. I think I was crying. My mom says I did.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a disease of memories; whereas Alzheimer’s makes it more difficult to remember, PTSD makes it impossible to forget. For months afterward, I rocked my daughter to sleep and replayed the entire birth in my head. I couldn’t help it. The beeps of the register in the grocery store sent me back, and instead of the bagger asking, “Paper or plastic?” I would hear a nurse shouting, “WE’RE TRYING TO KEEP YOUR WIFE FROM STROKING OUT!” My husband came home from work once to find me curled up in a ball on the living room floor because I’d been watching a movie where a character screamed, when suddenly I was the one screaming as I held onto the midwife’s shoulders over the birthing stool.
When our daughter was about three months old, I realized that these intrusive memories where I felt all the fear and heard all the sounds and smelled the hand sanitizer and blood—these were flashbacks. I started counting them; I had 12 that day.
When I wasn’t elated or recklessly optimistic that everything was GREAT our baby was GREAT I was feeling GREAT, I was a mess. I had nightmares every night that our daughter’s face was purple, that she was suffocating, that there was a tsunami and we couldn’t outrun it so we drowned.
PTSD is rightly called a mental health issue, but it neither starts nor ends in the brain; it affects your whole body. Our bodies, in their incredible divine design, scan for danger in the background; our senses alert our brain, and our brain tells the rest of our body to respond accordingly. With PTSD, that typically background function is front and center. It’s like the whole world turns into that terrifying moment where everyone jumps out and yells, “Surprise!” at a birthday party—except that cake looks sketchy are you sure there aren’t razorblades baked into it? And those balloons look like they’re going to pop at any second maybe it’s best if I just leave.
Shakespeare may have posited that “all the world’s a stage”, but to the PTSD-affected brain, all the world’s a threat. Over the past 10 years, I have walked the journey of developing, denying, accepting, and wrestling with my PTSD, a life-long condition that affects every part of my life, mind, and body. I didn’t want it. I didn’t ask for it. But if, as I fully believe, God is present in all things, then that must mean that God is present even in my re-wired and traumatized brain. Thanks be.
This piece is part of a series by the author on her journey with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Find the next installment on Wednesday, October 20, 2021.