I like to think I've been quite open about my mental health generally, but there are things I haven't told and people I don't talk to about it at all. This week is Mental Health Awareness week and last week was Maternal Mental Health Awareness week. It's so important that people share their experiences and help to raise awareness and understanding. So, here's my experience of having birth trauma PTSD.
I had an horrific labour. This isn't an exaggeration. I don't make a habit of telling people my story for the sake of it but neither do I shy away from telling those who are curious. So, if you want to know, it's here. Don't say I didn't warn you.
I'd survived labour, tried to be a good patient and made my way out of hospital after a week. My husband had a month off work. Then it was just us. Me and a baby. I was still in a lot of pain. People kept telling me I shouldn't be, but I was. It hurt to move, climbing stairs was an ordeal and bending down was impossible. I spent most days hobbling between the dining table (to change the baby) and the sofa (to doze and watch DVDs). I was struggling to sleep, even when the baby slept. I felt detached from everything. I managed for a while to do all the things I thought I should do, desperately trying to give off the impression of someone who was coping. Inside, I was losing it. I was unhappy, I felt guilty for failing my child and my husband, for not being everything I thought a mum should be.
Then I started to struggle more. My already poor sleep got even worse. I cried all time. I had nightmares. I sat up in the night holding a baby I didn't know what to do with and sobbing. After an incident involving shouting, wailing and the accidental throwing of mashed potato (all me), and some support and straight-talking (husband) I spoke to my Health Visitor and went to the doctor. It had been four months since my son's birth. I felt like I failed.
Everyone I'd seen since the birth told me to be vigilant, that it would be unusual if I didn't suffer some kind of mental health problem. I wanted to prove them all wrong, but I couldn't. My doctor was (and still is) amazing. He gave me medication and referred me to therapy. I stared at the medication for a long time, pondering how it would change me and if I wanted it, but I knew I couldn't carry on as I was, so I took it. I started therapy with a CPN from the perinatal mental health team. I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
My sleeping got worse until I couldn't sleep without being medicated. Every. Single. Night. I needed the light on: I was too nervous in the dark, too likely to think I was back in hospital and panic. I had nightmares where I was back in hospital, and it was happening again but no one would listen to me. I would wake drenched in cold sweat and unable to move my legs. The more I panicked, the worse it got. I would wake up with blood in my fingernails where I'd been scratching at my scar. I was exhausted.
I had flashbacks. Certain things would trigger me and I would be back in that hospital room. Only for a few seconds, maybe a minute at a time, but that was enough to unnerve and disorient me, to put me on high alert, so I avoided going out much. I avoided places and things that reminded me of the birth. I avoided baby groups because I didn't want to listen to other people's happy stories and be forced to tell my own.
The medication helped, but when I took it, I slept too much and I was a total zombie in the day. I did things when I had to, but all the pictures from the time show how utterly dead I was inside. When I didn't have to do something specific, I was often too overwhelmed to do anything. I was a nightmare to live with.
His first birthday was awful. A constant stream of "this time last year..." and memories from other people, a lot of crying (me) and a worsening of my symptoms. A friend brought me flowers because she'd recognised it might be a tough day and I nearly broke right then. I though I would feel like that forever.
Somewhere along the line it started to get easier. I wish I could say what had turned things around, or that there was a specific thing that helped me, but one day it just started to feel less bad. I got back to work. I came off the sleeping medication. I started to go out more. I still sleep worse than the average person and I still take antidepressants. There are things that still trigger me: traumatic birth scenes on TV and in books, the smell of certain bath products, being in hospitals (those bins you have to open with your foot, the long corridors, the disinfectant smell). I still get the repetitive dreams and birthdays are hard, but I'm broadly ok. These things are mostly controllable. I cope with them better. I struggle when people feel the need to comment on my only child and tell me it's selfish, or only children are spoilt or how easy it is when you just have one, but I'm learning to let that go too.
I'm living my life. We all are. And we're still a family out the other side of all this. So I know I am lucky.
If you have questions you want to ask me, then shout up (in the comments, by email, on Twitter) and I will answer them all (maybe in another post if there are enough of them)!