Each year, up to 20,000 women go through a traumatic birth experience and suffer the often long-lasting impact this has on their physical and mental health, their ability to bond with their baby and their relationships with their family and friends.
I want to share what it was like to suffer with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after the traumatic birth of my second child Charlotte. I also want to tell you about the steps I took to feel better and what I believe were the main factors that helped me recover…
It is only recently that I have been able to look back at these photos and see a precious moment and wonder at my beautiful, tiny baby girl. Until now, these photos made me feel uncomfortable, anxious and sad, because they took me back to a moment that I didn’t want to remember. A moment where I believed my life was ending.
The PTSD didn’t hit me straight away, in fact, I thought we were doing really well. This was my second emergency C section, but I felt like my body was recovering quicker than the first time and we had a good routine going.
The first time the symptoms really manifested themselves was after I had taken Charlotte to her 6 week check up at the doctors. They found a dimple at the bottom of her spine that they wanted to investigate further, as this can be a sign of spina bifida.
I was an absolute mess and I remember feeling really dizzy and breathless and unable to concentrate or focus. Luckily we were able to get her to hospital within a couple of days to do a scan. On the day of her scan, I remember feeling really shaky and out of it. I guess that would be normal for most parents in a similar situation and I believed if we got the good news that Charlotte was ok, I would feel normal again. Thankfully, they did confirm that her spine was normal and healthy, but I still couldn’t shake off the anxiety.
A few days went past and I was finding it really hard to sleep and I kept waking in pools of sweat. I would wake my husband Adam in a panic, every night and have to change out of my wet pyjamas. I would dread the days alone at home, with my own thoughts and I was becoming more and more frightened, exhausted and emotionally drained. I was spiralling down a deep and dark tunnel and I didn’t know how to escape.
Eventually I went to see my GP who gave me some anti-depressants to try, along with sleeping tablets and another medication called Lorazepam, that we renamed ‘in the moment pills’ because they helped calm me down if my anxiety was creeping out of control. I hated taking medication. It made me feel like I had failed. I felt disappointed in myself that I wasn’t strong enough to get through it on my own and scared that I would become dependant on them. The sleeping tablets did help, but they were hard to come off of and I tried two types of anti-depressant, but found they both made my symptoms more severe.
There are so many symptoms that affected my mental health and this went on for around a year after Charlotte was born…
- Severe anxiety – I had a constant unnerving feeling of fearfulness and stress about every aspect of my life. Sometimes this would even feel like a physical tingling sensation across my chest and arms.
- Unable to concentrate on anything other than my own negative thoughts. Even reading a bedtime story to my eldest daughter was a real struggle and I would fight back the tears until I had left her bedroom.
- Unable to make a decision – this was so frustrating. I would be scared and anxious about the outcome of every single decision I made, even where I wanted to go on the weekend or what I was going to make for dinner!
- Rapid weight loss and no interest in food. Many of my friends commented on how amazing it was that I had lost my baby weight so quickly. It was hard to smile and be proud of my body, because I knew it hadn’t been achieved through diet and exercise. It was because I was too anxious to eat.
- Insomnia, nightmares and night sweats was one of the hardest parts of my PTSD. Most nights I was the only one awake and even my new born baby was sleeping better than I was! This really took its toll on me mentally and physically.
- Sweaty palms and feet – this was even through the winter! My anxiety would creep up on me at home, in the car or at the super market and I would find my palms would become sweaty and my mouth very dry.
- Hair loss – I know new mums loose a lot of hair, but mine was falling out every where. Even a hairdresser commented that I should see a GP about how much I was loosing. This just contributed to my worries and made me feel self conscious.
- Depression and tearfulness became a daily routine and I would try and hide it while my children were around, sneaking off to cry in the shower or when they had gone to bed.
So how did I get through it…?
I was very aware of my feelings. I knew there was something wrong and I wasn’t myself. It frustrated me when people said it was the ‘baby blues’ and I’d be over it soon, because I knew it was more than that. I became obsessed with finding a way to feel better. I spent a lot of time Googling my symptoms, but scaring myself by reading forums about people who have suffered with anxiety and depression for the rest of their lives. I saw several GPs and explored the medical route, but this wasn’t for me.
There was no overnight magic cure, but I believe a combination of the following factors pulled me through these tough times…
- Therapy – I tried a CBT therapist for around a month, but I didn’t connect with her and in fact, she made me feel more anxious. However, I decided to try CBT again with a different therapist and thankfully, we clicked! She helped me understand PTSD and what was happening to me mentally and physically. She explained how my brain’s threat system had been triggered by my birth trauma (causing the constant anxiety) and what steps I needed to take to help it recover. Talking to her about my feelings and what happened during Charlotte’s birth, really helped and the advice and support she gave me has really turned my life around. I am a stronger person for it and I would recommend anyone suffering with any kind of trauma to try and find a suitable therapist.
- My Husband – I don’t think you truly appreciate the vows you take on your wedding day until they are tested. “In sickness and in health” – well if there was ever a time that this vow was tested, it was while I was suffering with PTSD. Adam listened to me, he let me wake him in the night and sob on his shoulder, he cared for me and our girls and stayed strong and positive, while I was weak and low. He saw me at my lowest ever point, but he never let me down. Adam I am lucky that I have you by my side and I love you more now than ever.
- My family – I am very fortunate to have a loving and supportive family. I can’t thank you enough for all you have done to support us. Thank you for looking after me and my girls, for listening, for letting me cry, for making us dinners and for doing our washing. Thank you for believing in me and helping me through this. I couldn’t have done it without you all.
- My children – They are my real therapy. They keep me going, keep me thankful and keep me smiling (most of the time!). Getting better for them was always my main focus. They were my light at the end of that dark tunnel and I feel so lucky to have them and be able to love them and feel loved back.
- Acceptance – I think a big part of moving forwards is accepting the past. There are simply some things in life that you can not change, move on and live your life.
- Gratitude – I have a lot to be grateful for and this helps me to move forward. I wake up every morning (sometimes earlier than I would like to be woken!) and think about all of the good things in my life and feel grateful for them.
- Breathing – we do this all the time without even thinking about it. But when you are feeling anxious or stressed take time to be aware of your breathing, take deeper breaths and it will have a calming effect.
- Smiling – this is so simple it sounds ridiculous, but smiling even when you don’t feel like it can have a positive effect on your mood. It tricks your brain into thinking you are happy, so keep on smiling 🙂
- Mindfulness – I find mindfulness very effective and the great thing is you can do it anytime and anywhere. Mindfulness is paying more attention to the present moment – to your own thoughts and feelings, and to the world around you and it really can improve your mental wellbeing.
- Staying creative – I have always been very creative, but this part of me disappeared while I was suffering with anxiety and depression. Returning to work, where I get to use my creative skills, really helped me feel like my old self again. I also try to do more writing and illustrating in my spare time now too.
- Positive thoughts are hard to create when you are feeling low. Something I remember from my therapy is that if your thoughts are negative ones or worries, acknowledge them and then tell yourself that these thoughts are not going to serve you well at this moment in time. You can come back to them later, when you are ready.
Surround yourself with positive people and away from stressful situations.
I also found it helped to not listen to the news all the time or spend so much time on social media as this could sometimes heighten my anxiety. This was difficult, as I have to spend a lot of time on social media for my job, so I made an effort to follow accounts with positive messages to break up the bad. If you use Twitter I would recommend following people like The Speakmans who are always sharing positive quotes and helpful life tips. A few of my good friends sent me some lovely quotes and positive messages in my time of need. You know who you are and I love you all.
I really hope that by sharing my experience it will help others who may be going through something similar. I want you to know that you are not alone and you will feel better. It really is “ok to not be ok” and don’t be hard on yourself. Talk to someone, seek help and believe in yourself.