I Can't Stop Reliving My Traumatic Birth

Every night for months, what I went through having my baby would play on a loop in my head as I tried to sleep, writes Susannah Crossland.
Getty Images
Getty Images

Mumbling excuses while my sorrowful eyes welled up, I knew I had to get the hell out of there.

Choking on emotion, I clumsily barge the pram past tables and chairs, precariously ramming it down the stairs. I try not to make a scene, but they must have known.

I can hardly find my way along the path through my tears, lowering my head in a pitiful attempt to hide my meltdown. I just need to hold it together until I reach the front door. But it’s too painful. I feel a deep, guttural disappointment, like my stomach has been wrung out like a rag. I look at her, desperate, searching for answers. My baby stares back at me, her kind eyes fixed on me, besotted and inquisitive.

Stupidly, perhaps, I didn’t leave when the conversation started. The problem as a new mum is all people want to talk about is their ‘birth experience’. It’s your classic new-mum icebreaker – but it always froze me.

I put on a brave face as I listened to each woman complaining, one by one, about something: not being able to have a water birth, succumbing to pain relief, how annoying their partners were during labour, how birth plans were such a waste of time.

They had no idea how lucky they were.

“No one here went through what I went through. No one understood what my birth was actually like.”

As my turn neared – my ears started to ring and my hands shook as I tried to feed my baby. Someone made a joke about how everyone gets hung up on oil diffusers and playlists before they know what birth is actually like. That was it. Suddenly I felt completely alone and cold. No one here went through what I went through. No one understood what my birth was actually like.

I’d been so optimistic, so positive, so convinced that my birth would be okay. I’d spent months educating myself, and wholeheartedly bought into the idea our bodies are designed to carry and deliver babies. They may well be; but that doesn’t mean we can all carry or deliver babies without difficulty, intervention, or trauma. Our bodies are designed to walk, but we can still twist our knee and fall.

In the delivery room, it was calm, and the lights were dim. The midwife was kind. Despite the haunting screams I could hear from other rooms; despite being strapped to a machine with wires protruding from cannulas, and from my vagina, piercing my undelivered baby’s head; as various fluids trickled down my trembling legs, I could feel her coming.

After 12 hours of active (what we now know was back-to-back) labour, honking on the gas and air, I was so ready. I was ravaged by nature at its purest, by an urge that transcended my chattering mind. From the depths of my being, the noise was otherworldly.

“Get the hat”. That was all I could hear through the fog, and I was overjoyed. Through the pain, and all that had come before, my baby would soon be here. It would all be worth it.

The hat was not needed. Not for many confused hours.

She looked so lovely in his arms. She was perfect. But he looked awkward and he wasn’t smiling. I wanted to tell him they’d be okay without me, after a while. Time heals all grief.

In that moment, I felt myself fading, and I thought I would die. I was shaking like a leaf in a thunderstorm and all I could hear was numbers, big numbers, getting bigger and bigger. I ignored them at first but soon it was too loud. The quantity of blood I was losing. “That’s not working, try this”. Surely we were running out of options, and I was running out of blood.

The words got softer and more chaotic all at once. I stared at the two of them, to fix the image of us all together in my mind for eternity; for when I was gone.

Every night for months, this moment would play on loop in my head as I tried to sleep. I’m pretty sure I had – and still have – undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, following my emergency caesarean section and subsequent haemorrhage. A quick google of the symptoms, and I’m absolutely textbook: intense physical reactions to reminders of the event (think pounding heart, nausea, muscle tension, sweating), panic attacks, difficulty concentrating, being easily moved to tears, difficulty falling asleep, flashbacks.

It’s the flashbacks that really knock you. They creep up stealthily and unannounced, scream in your face and leave you a quivering mess, unable to function. Driving to town on an ordinary day, I can feel my heart start to pound in my head and my palms get sweaty on the steering wheel as I glimpse a sign for the hospital maternity unit. Where it all happened. I quickly change lanes and take the long way around. I can’t drive past, it wouldn’t be safe.

Any mention of pregnancy, birth or babies was a trigger for me – even seeing a pregnant woman – would cause my eyes to glaze over and send my mind to another, terrifying place. For months, I even had to mute the adverts when I watched TV, just in case a gooey baby advert came on and ruined my entire day.

“No-one seems to want to acknowledge that giving birth might be a life-changing event in a negative way – that flashbacks and panic attacks will become part of your day-to-day life”

A year on, the more violent symptoms are rare, but from time to time when I’m alone, I still have a masochistic impulse to withdraw into myself so I can relive each agonising moment of my trauma.

I wish someone had just acknowledged that my birth was traumatic, and that I might not be okay about it. Health professionals, with the best intentions but severely cut services and little time, asked in a tick-box kind of way: “Are you having feelings of hopelessness?”

I said no, of course. Perhaps I took them too literally. I did feel like things were slowly getting better, so there was hope, right? PTSD just wasn’t on my radar, and neither, it turns out, was it on theirs.

No-one seems to want to acknowledge that giving birth might be a life-changing event in a negative way – that flashbacks and panic attacks will become part of your day-to-day life, and that when you finally think you’ve moved on, a tiny trigger of that trauma will smack you in the face and drag you right back to square one.

Finally, at my daughter’s nine-month check-up, the health visitor gave me a telephone number to call, in case I might want to talk to someone. She must have heard the wobble in my voice. If she’d have referred me, or made me an appointment, or even dialled the numbers for me, I might have done it.

How can I just pick up the phone? What would I say? Where would I start? It’s hard to utter the words. Like knocking a wound and ripping open a scab, it’s more painful each time.

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