BIRTH TRAUMA THERAPY

HEALTH, MOTHERHOOD, PREGNANCY, BIRTH & BABY'S, THOUGHT-PROVOKING, USEFUL

As Mother of 3, I have learned firsthand what a difference birth can make to those early weeks and months with a new child. After my first was born I was left traumatised; endless reliving my traumatic labour, rather than bonding with him. Fortunately second and third time couldn’t have been more different; two healing home-births. This list from Deborah Caldicott is raw and relatable and proof that birth trauma isn’t something you have to shoulder or pretend doesn’t exist. There is help out there that can enable you to find peace.

  • 3.5 years ago, after an awful pregnancy, I gave birth to my son. My labour started well but went rapidly downhill… partly due to poor decisions on the part of the midwife (like telling me I was 10cm dilated when I was only 6cm – leading me to push for a while until she realised her mistake) and partly due to things beyond anyone’s control.

  • After a 36-hour labour, I pushed Archer out and he wasn’t breathing. The machine they wheeled in to get his heart rate going was broken. But – thank God – they got him breathing again really quickly.

  • In that moment I felt absolutely nothing. Totally numb. It was like ‘I’ – the me I had been – had been sucked out and there was an empty space left behind. What was supposed to be a happy moment was one of the darkest of my life.

  • I remember telling Josh (my husband) – who was holding Archer because I couldn’t stop vomiting – that I didn’t want anyone to come and visit.

  • They wheeled me into theatre to stitch up the third degree tear I had sustained, and I was in there for nearly three hours.

  • By the time I came out I was desperate to see Josh and he was frantically trying to find me – the poor guy had been moved from labour room to corridor to random room to corridor, etc., etc., all whilst holding Archer – who seemed pretty hungry.

  • Eventually – after having a panic attack in the post-op ward – they took me to find Josh, and he handed me my son.

  • I vaguely remembered something they had said at NCT – in between all the suggestions that good breathing would sort our births right out – about laying the baby on our stomach, so that he could nuzzle up to my breast. I did this, and amazingly he crawled up and latched.

  • I still felt absolutely nothing – no love, no joy, just a terrifying sense that I had completely lost myself.

  • I felt trapped. Like I had been propelled into this crazy world of crying and feeding and sleeplessness and stitches and blood and saggy skin and people telling me things and endlessly asking me questions.

  • I felt like I had been viciously attacked, and that instead of having any time to recover, I had been launched into the most demanding experience of my life.

  • I felt anxious, nervous and scared of everything, the complete opposite to my usual confident, independent self.

  • I stayed in the hospital for 2 nights, and even after that I couldn’t believe they let us leave with Archer. We strapped him into the car seat and the whole way from the hospital to our flat I was gripped by fear – that we would crash, or that he would start crying and I couldn’t feed him, or that we’d put him in wrong.

  • That first night at home he cried and cried, and we had no idea what to do with him. The next few days he was sleepy, but I was constantly terrified of him crying. I made Josh stick a sign on our buzzer saying not to use it, because every time someone buzzed I jumped out of my skin. Small, normal noises felt like shots being fired.

  • Prior to the birth, and for my whole life up until that point, I loved being around people. Josh was the introvert, I was the extrovert, surrounding myself with friends at all hours. During the lead up to my due date, in anticipation of the countless people we’d be having over to meet our baby I had stocked the cupboards with snacks and the fridge with beers and prosecco.

  • After the birth, I couldn’t stand people being around – not even my best friends – all I wanted was Josh and no one else.

  • Places that had been havens in my life – like church on a Sunday, or coffee with my mum – offered no peace.

  • When we did venture out I was desperate not to bump into anyone I knew, and if we did, I didn’t want them to look at Archer, let alone hold him, in case it made him cry.

  • Josh was self-employed, and I asked him to work at home as much as he could. I couldn’t bear the thought of him leaving.

  • If Josh left me on my own with Archer I just cried and cried, and through the tears apologised that he had got me as his mum.

  • In the middle of the night, when he wouldn’t sleep, I felt rising anger. I knew I would never hurt him, but I was so angry at God – at the universe – at everything.

  • Every hour felt like a week, every day like a month, every week like a year. People told me it would fly by, but instead time seemed to stand still.

  • I thought about suicide. More often, I thought about running away.

  • Friends pushed me to see the doctor, but I was afraid, and lived in a lot of denial. I had total misconceptions about anti-depressants. I also struggled to trust health professionals. Eventually, I went to my GP and he was incredible. I went on medication, and slowly, I started to feel more normal. Archer slept more, we moved to a bigger flat, I got stuck back in at work.

  • Still, I knew I wasn’t really myself. I dreaded Archer getting ill – in an irrational way. I still felt so angry if he didn’t sleep, I had nightmares, I hated social events and I avoided playdates. I struggled with him crying.

  • I would look at pregnant women and feel a mixture of terror and pity for them. I could barely face hospitals. If birth ever came up in a conversation I would try and leave. I still felt jumpy, and my heart would race if something reminded me of my pregnancy, birth, or early days with Archer.

  • I couldn’t look at pictures of him as a baby.

  • I couldn’t contemplate why someone would have more than one child.

  • I knew I had stuff to process, and I knew that at some point therapy might help, but it felt like such a huge step. I knew that in doing so I would have to face my birth again.

  • It wasn’t until around the time that Archer turned three, that I started to feel like maybe I was in a place to seek some restoration. Special friends gently nudged me towards therapy.

  • One of those friends told me about Birth Trauma Resolution Therapy – a specific form of therapy focussed on helping women (and men) find freedom from trauma surrounding birth.

  • I knew of a friend who had been to see a specific therapist, and had found it incredible, so I got in touch.

  • The first time I went to meet Tracy – after a phone call and a few messages – I was scared. I thought I was ready, but in the days leading up to the session I felt nervous and uncertain. Still, I knew I didn’t have anything to lose, and a lot to potentially gain.

  • As soon as I met Tracy I felt a lot of the fear fall away. A certain peace just exuded from her.

  • I was still sceptical – especially when Tracy told me it would probably take 3-4 sessions for me to deal with the trauma – but I went with it, and being an all or nothing person, threw myself in.

  • In the first session, Tracy explained about the different areas of the brain, their corresponding roles, and the impact that trauma can have on them. I am no neuroscientist, but my understanding is that when it comes to trauma, the fear centre of the brain becomes over-activated, and the thinking centre is under-activated. The therapy was aiming to shift the memory from the fear centre to the thinking centre, with the hope being that I would then be able to think about the memory, and respond to it, logically, rather than reacting to it in fear.

  • Tracy then asked me to fill out a couple of questionnaires – one of which made me realise I was probably suffering from PTSD. Tracy explained that Postnatal Depression (which I had been diagnosed with) is often seen as the only issue, when often Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is happening alongside it. Although she couldn’t diagnose me, my answers indicated that it may also be impacting me.

  • I did another questionnaire and we talked about emotional wellbeing. This helped me realise how little security I felt as a mother, as well as the fact I had withdrawn a bit from community. I also realised I had very little time on my own, with no one demanding anything from me (typical of Mum life)

  • It was in the first sessions that I told my birth story. I had been dreading this, and it wasn’t easy, but Tracy was amazing. I didn’t realise beforehand that she had been a midwife for 20 years, and so she understood a lot.

  • We then practiced some guided relaxation, which she recorded and gave me so that I could practice the relaxation at home.  She also set me homework of spending one hour on my own, without my phone, doing something I enjoyed.

  • The second session was the ‘big one’, and in it we worked through my birth, from beginning to end and back again, pretty quickly.  It’s hard to explain without doing it, but effectively, we moved the memory from the back of my brain (traumatic memory) to the front (functioning memory).

  • Before doing the activity, Tracy asked me to score how I felt when I thought about my birth – with 1 being neutral and 10 being panic attack levels. I scored a 7 or 8. After the process, I thought again – I pictured my birth, and I thought about being there, and I honestly felt – not much. Probably about a 2. It wasn’t a pleasant memory, but it wasn’t one that filled me with terror anymore.

  • I COULD.NOT believe it. I had carried the trauma for 3.5 years, and in one morning, I felt like I had found freedom from it.

  • I came out of the session elated but exhausted. Tracy had warned me that I might feel a bit fluey, tired and out of sorts. I did. For about 3 days I was totally knackered and basically struggled to engage fully with anything. But I felt peaceful, and I realised that something amazing had happened.

  • The next two sessions we used to work through some of my nightmares and fears, as well as talking a little about the future.

  • Tracy got me doing homework like ‘writing down five things every day that make me a great mum’ – which was a great challenge!

  • The weekend after the ‘big’ second session, Archer got ill. He was up all night, feverish, etc., and although it wasn’t fun, I handled it. Logically, calmly. I didn’t feel angry and I wasn’t consumed with anxiety. I knew that he would get over it. This sounds so obvious, but for me post birth and prior to therapy, it wasn’t.

  • That same week I was invited to a playdate, and instead of feeling afraid – of what Archer might do, of other kids being around – I felt fine. I went, he played, I chatted, and we left. To anyone else it would have been the furthest thing from spectacular, yet for me it was huge.

  • For the last 3.5 I have found my security limited to my job and my faith. I believed that I was a not-great mum, who was probably never meant to be a mum, and who couldn’t handle what came with being a mum.

  • I now realise I was believing a bunch of lies. I may never fully understand why my pregnancy and birth were the way they were, but I don’t feel fear when I think of them anymore. In fact, I feel joy, and freedom, and the sense that I’m not just back to being me, but I’m a better version of me – stronger, happier, and more confident.

  • And now I absolutely LOVE being a mum, in a way I didn’t during those first few years, and I enjoy my boy more than ever before.

**This list details one woman’s experience and therapy. Evidence based therapies for PTSD following birth include trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or eye movement desensitisation & reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.

If you feel like you had a traumatic birth experience or would like further support for your mental health during pregnancy or after having a baby, you can speak to your midwife, GP or health visitor in the first instance. You can self refer to your local talking therapies service (where expectant or new parents should be prioritised) or ask for a referral to your local perinatal mental health service. The Birth Trauma Association have further information & support available https://www.birthtraumaassociation.org.uk/.**

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