Birth trauma in me was subtle. There was no big bang, no sudden onset of chaos after the event, and I didn’t have any classic symptoms of PTSD. I have since learnt that, like everything in life, trauma exists on a continuum from severe trauma and PTSD, to milder trauma with a more subtle impact. To me birth trauma was like ivy; it weaved its way into my brickwork quietly and unnoticed, and slowly but surely it was bringing down my house.
Rewind 8 years. My son’s birth was traumatic – long, arduous, excruciating. I felt scared, ignored and belittled. I felt out of control and even though I knew something was wrong no one would listen. I feared for him and I feared for me, but one caesarean later we both ended up ok. For a few months I ranted at anyone that would listen about birth, but once I felt all talked out I assumed I was over it – we all survived with no lasting damage, and that’s a better outcome than some poor families so I should be grateful. The end.
I don’t think at this point I had ever even considered that birth might be a cause of trauma; it hadn’t really hit my radar. ‘Birth is natural, women do it everyday’ was my mantra to myself, and if anything I felt a bit pathetic for being upset about it. Now I’ve done my research I know the simple facts are these: 1) 1 in 3 women experience birth trauma, and in the weeks after birth will experience at least 3 symptoms of trauma 2) a good birth outcome does not mean a woman is immune from trauma 3) a traumatic birth is not dependent on ‘what happened’ as much as how the woman felt during and after birth. A birth may look completely normal to a doctor or midwife, but it may be terrifying for the mother. As someone more eloquent than me wrote: ‘Put it this way: if someone came to you and told you of an event that they felt frightened, out of control, unable to ask questions about what was happening to them and unsafe, in any situation, whether it be a girl on her first date, or a man being threatened by a gang, or a child on their first day at school, you would expect some emotional fall out’ (How To Heal A Bad Birth, Brujin & Gould). Why do we not expect an emotional fall out from birth, especially a bad birth? Birth can be a cause of acute trauma in both mother and father (who often have to helplessly watch). I only wish I had known.
Looking back there were signs at the time. I had flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia but I attributed these to being a new mum and feeling overwhelmed. I felt dissociated and emotionally numb, but I assumed I was tired. I remember standing in the shower pondering when the baby blues would hit because I was expecting them... they never came. I never felt sad; instead I felt nothing at all. The years ticked by. I was strangely fascinated by birth, reading loads on the subject. I sent my husband article after article about other peoples terrible births, and I remember when I read them I only felt rage; rage for these poor women, rage for the interventions that harmed them, and rage towards mother nature; just create a zip woman! Despite this I never really dwelled on my own birth. I love the NHS, I fiercely defend it, and I didn’t feel blame towards anyone that treated me. I wasn’t angry with clinicians, I was angry about birth.
My second pregnancy brought more warning signs that I somehow spectacularly missed, mainly hysteria about labour for the whole 9 months. I cried at every appointment, and to every Dr or midwife that I came across. My meeting about VBAC was terminated after about 5 minutes as the midwife concluded I was too distressed to even start a conversation. I spent the months researching births and when I finally got to see a consultant at 38 weeks, armed with a lever arch file of highlighted papers to argue my case for a second CS, all I could do was sob. There was zero fight in me, just pure fear.
I plodded along like this but as my children got older and I started to come out of the baby fog I started to notice I didn’t feel at all like me. Whereas I used to be quite calm now I was constantly irritable. I felt permanently restless. I had a lack of emotion, fluctuating only between numb or irritable. It felt as if all emotions expressed themselves as irritation and I could no longer distinguish between them. For a psychology grad that had analysed every thought and feeling for years, this lack of understanding of how I felt was completely alien to me. Tears burned almost permanently at the back of my eyes but I had absolutely no clue why. At times I felt detached from my life, like I was an outsider looking in. I lived in a state of hyper-vigilance and felt uneasy all the time.
I knew something was wrong but I didn’t have any words to describe this weird medley of symptoms. The best I could do was to describe it as an internal ‘hum’ of angst. I remember saying to a friend that I felt like there was a little box of something locked up in me – I could feel it was there, I had a sense that the contents of this box was causing the problem, but I had no idea what was in the box and I couldn’t find the bloody key. By this point I felt a bit chaotic. I tried 101 things to make myself feel better, convinced I was having a midlife crisis, but none of them made a difference.
Whilst all this was going on I was dealing with long-term shoulder pain and after many unsuccessful treatments I ended up with a friend trying some NKT (Neurokinetic Therapy) with me. She diagnosed the shoulder problems largely stemming from a weak core from pregnancy, and the scarring from my C-sections and epidurals. Treating me involved a lot of poking around in old wounds and she warned that at some point I might have a limbic response as that can happen with scars, especially scars that have strong emotion attached to them. A few weeks later while in a French service station I was floored by a sudden flash back. Not a visual flashback, but more a bombardment of extreme emotions – fear, rage, irritability. My overwhelmed mind furiously tried to process what the hell was going on before it dawned on me that the services smelt exactly like my son’s birth. The penny finally dropped.
Ever practical and a big believer in self help I dutifully went home, bought myself a birth trauma book, and started working through the exercises. I even booked an appointment with a Psychologist but in the end I cancelled it, as I honestly didn’t feel the need to talk. I didn’t want to hash over the same old story, I just wanted to get rid of the hum. Around the same time I started my yoga teacher training and began to sense a strong connection between my mind and my body. I experienced emotional releases during physically hard poses, and I began to notice how my shoulder pain seemed to be related to my emotions i.e. every time I cried or felt upset my shoulders locked on and my neck seized up. Yoga training reminded me there should be a range of emotions in my repertoire, instead of the numbness I’d felt for years.
Recalling the link between my shoulder pain and pregnancy/birth diagnosed by NKT, I started to research birth trauma treatments. I settled on Craniosacral Therapy, which aims to help release shock and trauma from the body in a gentle way and without any need to talk about or relive the event. It seemed a bit ‘woo woo’ and a million miles away from my psychology training, but I gave it a go. At the same time I read ‘The Body Keeps The Score’ which turned out to be one of the most phenomenal books I’ve ever read. TBKTS explains how trauma is held in the body and why we experience the disjointed jumble of symptoms that we do. It helped me understand exactly what had happened in my physiology and brain in response to a traumatic event…why my nervous system was stuck in fight or flight mode, why I had ended up where I was emotionally, and why my shoulders jumped on the band wagon. Perhaps what I love most is that there is an entire chapter dedicated to yoga as a form of trauma therapy, it hasn’t gone unnoticed to me that all parts of my story somehow end up at yoga.
Craniosacral Therapy has been amazing for me. I wont lie, at times it can feel a bit weird and you need to be willing to embrace a certain amount of the unknown and the woo woo to let whatever comes up come up. I still don’t understand the exact details of how it works but honestly I don’t care - a few months later the hum has gone, the irritability is gone, and I feel like I have control where previously there was chaos. My shoulders don’t even twinge.
It might have been a long road to get myself here, but I’m glad I trusted myself enough to follow my nose. My story is my story and everyone’s will be different, but I guess my message is this: if you feel like something is wrong, you are probably right. Whatever you are feeling you don’t have to bury it, you don’t have to mask it, and you don’t have to plough on ignoring it. Dig a little, research a little, and maybe there’ll be a service station moment.