Living with Birth Trauma

Trigger warnings: birth, hospital procedures

My daughter’s birthday should be about joy. It should be about a homemade cake with two candles burning on top. It should be “Happy Birthday” sung with questionable tunefulness. It should be smiles, and presents, and balloons. It was. It had all those things.

For me though, it also brings a lot of unwelcome memories. The aftermath of her birth. The mental toll. The physical toll. Those memories in turn bring something good: confirmation of my healing process. I’m still here, still living each day and generally enjoying life.

This birthday was better than last years. This year came with extra hurdles.

My son had a pediatrician appointment the day after her birthday. In the same hospital she was born in. Just down the hall.

Walking into that hospital is like walking along the edge of a cliff. I’m always aware of that drop.

As I walk part of my brain feels the nightmare again. My brain tells me: this is where terrible things happen. As I walk down the brick corridors I also see the walls, the ceiling, sliding past me as we run. My mind is capable of being in two times at once. My head spins and the blood roars. All I can do is look firmly in the other direction. Hold tight to the present.

There’s a word for that – trigger.

Say it out loud and feel my cheeks flush with shame. Such a snowflake.

One day, maybe, hospitals won’t bother me, at least not anymore than your usual person. But I’m not okay with visiting a hospital -the hospital – yet. I’m not even okay in the lead up to the appointment. I’m on a knife edge, and lack the tolerance to deal with the usual getting the kids out of the house antics. These appointments are significant enough both my husband and I go, but it is also inconceivable that I could manage to take my son there on my own.

Yet, I get through.

I walk the halls. I don’t fall.
I wait with my kids. I don’t fall.
I sit and talk with doctors. I don’t fall.
I make our next appointment. I don’t fall.

Living with trauma doesn’t mean we’re weak. It means we are strong.

Trauma is by its very nature deeply personal. It is hidden and secret and it is hard to share it with the world – for me to write and publish these words. I know though, that buried trauma helps no one, it will only suffocate you in silence. We need air, and light, and space to heal. to belittle someone’s trauma is to throw a shovelful of sand in. To bury the trauma deeper. To make the cliff top higher.

I get fed up with articles bemoaning trigger warnings as some sort of mollycoddling. How nice it must be to live your life blinkered to other people’s personal cliff top balancing acts. How many people who met me that day would have guessed I spent the whole day not falling? I went to that appointment with the benefit of warning, though. How would I cope with an emergency visit? Would I fall?

This is what I want people to understand: trigger warnings do not exist to massage the feelings of the easily outraged. That is not what they are supposed to do. A trigger warning is a small accommodation in the face of adversity. A tiny signal that says ‘I will try to make this easier for you’. An outstretched hand that says ‘I don’t want you to fall’.

Humans of New York once ran a series, Invisible Wounds, that featured a doctor working with sufferers of PTSD. I can’t do better than his description of PTSD, and how and why it forms:

“Trauma causes the brain to malfunction. During a traumatic experience, memories cannot be processed correctly. So a person with PTSD is still carrying those traumatic experiences around in their body. Because those experiences were never filed away into the ‘past tense,’ the brain continues to operate as if the trauma is happening in the ‘present tense.’

Trauma is not like other strong negative memories. We all know anger, grief, or shame. I know what it feels like to be momentarily overwhelmed by grief for my mother. I know how it can well up at inappropriate and unexpected times, and I have for the most part learnt to deal with that, to cope with my grief. But these are normal feelings, and normal reactions. Trauma is something abnormal. Trauma is something that overwhelms the rational part of brain. Trauma is not in the past tense.

These days I live a normal life. I am not plagued by nightmares the way I used to be. My anxiety levels are higher than they were before, and I am still hyper aware of the fragility of our biology. How we are all only one chance moment away from disaster. Mostly it just feels as though I walk around in skin that is too thin. But then, something reminds me, and I am flayed again; naked and bleeding. Many of these things are so intangible it would be impossible to create warnings for those feelings. Sometimes I wake in my bed, on my back, my right arm flung out next to me. When I open my eyes I don’t just see that arm. I see the other arm; the one that is strapped down to an operating table, so brightly lit by the light above me I can’t see beyond it, multiple IV lines, a needle going into my shoulder as I watch. It only lasts a split second. But in that moment it is as real to me as the other arm.

I suspect hospital lights will always trigger some response in me. I went to the movies and watched Dr Strange, knowing there would be scenes in an operating theatre. There turned out to be a lot of them. In particular, at least once the film suddenly cut to a point of view shot from a patient lying on an operating table looking up into these bright, bright lights.  I had to shut my eyes. I can’t, don’t, expect TV and movies to have warnings for hospital scenes. I just have to cope with them, with those unexpected wobbles. Given that fact, when something clearly has potential to remind someone of a traumatic event, is a little warning too much to ask for?

People want to discuss these type of responses as irrational. While the reaction might be irrational, out of proportion to any present threat, on another level there is nothing irrational about it. Humans are designed to learn from experience. Hospitals are a reminder to me that what happened was real.

I’ve learnt to live with the precipice in my mind. I teeter occasionally, but I haven’t had a bad fall for a long time. I’m not going to turn my back on the cliff. I don’t want it to loom unacknowledged behind me, waiting for me to stumble. I will see it, and I will follow its edges, hoping to get further inland. The story of my daughter’s birth is part of my life now. Part. It does not define me, but it has shaped me.  It will be part of my story for the rest of my life, and I am not alone in that.

For those of you reading this who are living through this now, who are stuck in both the past and the present, have faith. Reach out for the hand that will balance you as you walk. Find that air, and light, and space you need to heal.

I walk along that cliff edge. I do it. One day you will do it too.

And you won’t fall.

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