The only way out is through

Nature is supposed to erase the pain of childbirth so you keep popping the bubbas out.

I have a terrible memory – vast swathes of my past are gone – but the harrowing birth of my first child remains permanently etched on my brain.

When people show off their newborns on Facebook and glowingly relate their beautiful, natural deliveries, I fight the urge to yell WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? at my phone because I literally cannot understand how such a thing is possible.

My birth experience was the opposite – so much blood and pain and vomit and shit and tears.

I recently read an article about women suffering PTSD after traumatic births and I wonder whether that’s what happened to me.

I almost want it to be the answer because it would explain so much.

According to Cope, if you have PTSD following birth, you may find yourself experiencing the following types of difficulties:

1. Re-living the birth/traumatic event – through unwanted and recurring memories, including vivid images and/or nightmares. This may cause you to experience intense emotional or physical reactions, such as sweating, heart palpitations or panic when reminded of or discussing the birth or events.

2. Being overly alert or wound up – can lead you to experience sleeping difficulties, irritability and lack of concentration, becoming easily startled and constantly on the lookout for signs of danger.

3. Avoiding reminders of the event – can make you want to deliberately avoid activities, places, people, thoughts or feelings associated with the birth or aftercare event because it brings back painful memories.

4. Feeling emotionally numb – you may find yourself losing interest in day-to-day activities, feeling cut off and detached from friends and family, or feeling emotionally flat and numb.

The day after I gave birth, a kind midwife came and sat beside my bed. She offered to stay for as long as I needed to talk through my distress. She had seen how badly the birth experience had affected me while she was in the delivery room.

I was slightly ashamed that I was coping badly when things could have been so much worse. Nobody died, both mother and baby were “doing well”. But I was angry that I’d been left to labor for too long with a baby that was too big. At 4.3kg, she wasn’t moving through the “spines” – the narrowest part of my pelvis.

I pushed for hours without pain relief after I fully dilated because the medical staff decided it was better to proceed without drugs. The problem was that I wasn’t progressing at all, I just kept having endless, relentless transitional double peak contractions.

During double peak contractions, the pain reaches its peak, fades a bit and then hits a peak again before easing. They are truly horrible.

Eventually, I yelled to the medical staff that their approach wasn’t working and they needed to try something else. That something else ended up being emergency surgery.

When I finally held my baby in my arms, all I felt was relief that the ordeal was over.

There was no so-called “halo effect” of euphoria to colour the pain that had proceeded.

Laboring for so long, then having a cesarean, also meant that my recovery was longer and more uncomfortable. And, two days after going home, I ended up back in the hospital with an infection from all the hands that had poked around inside me during the awful, drawn-out process.

My birth experience upset me for a very, very long time. I actually started sobbing with fear as I was being wheeled into surgery for a cesarean with my second child.

I never had nightmares or sweating or heart palpitations or panic when discussing the birth. Those things came later when my career imploded.

I wonder whether that’s because work was my escape. I went back to the office two months after having my baby and my ex became the primary carer. I can remember thinking that running a weekly magazine was so much easier than being at home with a baby.

When things went pear-shaped at work, the panic set in. I felt like a failure at both parenting and my career.

No.4 on the Cope list is the symptom that resounds most for me – I struggled with emotional numbness for much the next decade.

It was so exhausting to be present for family and friends. I kept hoping that if I acted like I was in the moment I might actually slip into it. I started losing touch what real happiness felt like.

On the other hand, that numbness probably came in handy when editing a weekly magazine. I was cool and calm while I gambled on coverlines that would sell more than 500,000 copies.

After walking away from my 20-year magazine career, fear of the unknown and failure became almost crippling for me. I needed order and rules and security … and the dopamine high of social media stats and “likes” … or it felt like I was falling apart.

Strangely, the first step in my recovery came when my husband announced he was leaving me. Suddenly the feelings started fireworking. It felt like I was exploding with loss and betrayal and pain. I literally keened.

That bubble of numbness had burst.

No truer words have been said than the ones by Gillian at Champagne Cartel in a blog post last week: “From a place of the greatest fear, I have emerged into a place where I realise I am capable.

“And resilient. And WOAH, if I am capable of THIS, I can bloody well pretty much do anything! That’s wild, man. Somehow I am able to stand neck deep in the shittiest point of my life, but look out with hope and realise that one day I am not just going to be okay, I am going to be great.

“The thing is that in life there are not that many opportunities to be completely reborn without extreme trauma such as illness or death.”

The worst thing that I could ever have imagined happening actually did happen and I survived. And suddenly the burden seemed so much lighter.

I have moments when it feels like I’m back on that hospital trolley, finally getting the second epidural before being wheeled into the operating theatre.

Those double peak contractions felt about 11 out of 10 on the pain scale and the anaesthetist told me I’d just have to make it through three more before the drugs kicked in.

I can remember thinking “I can’t make it through three more contractions” and then telling myself “you have no choice”.

And, of course, I made it through.

There are still days that require an internal pep talk – and a few tears in the shower – before I’m ready to face the world. I keep reminding myself I can do it and will make it through, while sometimes literally gasping out loud that I can’t.

And then something or someone makes me laugh and the confidence returns.

Mostly, I walk around with a smile on my face that’s so big you’d swear I’d been nibbling on a hash cookie. The joy is glorious and uplifting and I feel like the luckiest woman in the world.

The youngest gave me a card for Mother’s Day that listed all of my characteristics that she loves. One of them was “happy”, so I figure I must be getting something right if that’s what she sees in me.

Kids are pretty perceptive like that, I reckon.

Song of the day: Kate Bush “Woman’s work”

4 thoughts on “The only way out is through

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  1. My eldest is 40 years old, my fourth and youngest is 31. I still am traumatised. I find it hard to watch tv shows portraying birth. Nobody knows my suffering. I pretend all is ok. I love your writing but this is one article that I could only read the first few lines of. Too much birthing detail for me. I am assuming there must be many women like me. Rarely speak of our experience because it brings up horrible memories.

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