'My Birth Gave Me PTSD': One Mom's Dark Journey Back from Trauma

sad mom holding newborn

Having a baby is supposed to be a momentous, joyful occasion. Labor and delivery? Not so much, although complaining about it and trading "war stories" after the fact is par for the course. But for some women like Jada (whose name was changed to protect her privacy,) giving birth isn't just painful -- it's terrifying. That's not hyperbole. Up to 6 percent of moms experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or what's known as "birth trauma"  after having a baby -- and the emotional fallout can last for years.

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PTSD from a traumatic birth isn't the same as postpartum depression, although the the two can overlap. PTSD symptoms can include nightmares, angry outbursts, overwhelming guilt or shame, and a sense of hopelessness. We usually hear about it in soldiers who served in combat, or people who've survived a horrible accident. So how is it linked to giving birth?

"Trauma occurs when someone has an intense experience they're not fully prepared to cope with," explains Anastasia Pollack, LCHMC, clinical director at Life Stone Counseling Centers in Midvale, Utah. "[If] a woman has an intense [birthing] experience but feels supported, safe, involved in decisions about her care, and hasn't had other past trauma, her brain may be better able to cope."

If not, some women go into a state of high anxiety, meaning their body switches into a hyper-aroused "fight or flight" mode. During this time, their memories (including images, body sensations and emotions) aren't correctly filed away in the brain. So later, when they recall the stressful experience, they're reliving those scary sensations all over again.

In fact, "those emotions can feel just as intense as they did at the time of the trauma," says Pollack.

More from The Stir: Postpartum Depression: How I Survived Hell

That's what happened to Jada. When she became pregnant five years ago, at age 30, she had a very simple birth plan. "Simply take whatever drugs [the hospital] had and push that little sucker out!" she jokes.

Although it was Jada's first pregnancy, she'd been present for the birth of her nephew and the natural birth of her best friend's daughter. "I pretty much felt that after witnessing those two events that I was prepared for anything," says Jada, the president/CEO of a large non-profit. "[Plus] I'm the type of person who believes doctors know more than regular people."

When Jada's due date approached and she started having contractions, they waxed and waned for two days before her doctor told her to head to the hospital. By then, she was exhausted and relieved to get an epidural as planned. Once she did, "the pain was finally gone," she says.

Jada immediately relaxed and fell asleep. But when she woke an hour later, she was shocked to feel strong contractions again. For some reason, the epidural had stopped working. Jada was told it was too late in her labor for the anesthesiologist to start another. She would have to deliver her son without any pain medication.

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Of course, many women deliberately choose to have a natural childbirth, but for Jada, being thrown unexpectedly into the situation caused a panic attack.

"I'm a control freak to the extreme, and I've never felt so out of control in my life," she says. "I had no way of controlling what was happening in my body."

"I felt like I couldn't breathe," she says. "My head was spinning, and I couldn't focus. I couldn't hear anyone talking to me -- just my heart pounding in my chest and my labored breathing."

Jada was convinced she was going to die. "I told my husband that I loved him and to take care of our baby," she remembers. "He looked at me like I was crazy."

Once her son's head was visible, he became stuck. "I saw the doctor grab the scissors," says Jada, "and I started crying."

When it was all over, Jada didn't experience the exhilarating high so many new moms do. She couldn't stop crying and was trembling so badly, she could barely hold her newborn son. Getting some much-needed rest didn't help. Each time she drifted off, Jada relived the frightening experience and woke up panting and sweating.

Those flashbacks continued once she returned home, and that recurring sense of terror combined with sleep deprivation "started to turn me into a crazy person," says Jada.

She refused to leave her house or let anyone else hold her son, obsessing the little boy was going to be hurt. "I had visions of me tripping on the stairs and seeing his broken little body laying at the foot of the steps," she says.

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Jada became a self-described "hermit," ignoring phone calls, texts, and emails from concerned friends. Each night, she dreaded going to sleep, knowing the flashbacks of the birth would return.

After struggling in secret for six long months, Jada finally confessed how she was feeling to her doctor, who diagnosed her with PTSD. He held her hand and assured her she wasn't alone -- but did need help. After a month on anti-depressants and lots of support from friends, the "black tentacles of trauma began to recede from my brain," she says. And after a year of medication, "I was me again."

Two years later, when she discovered she was pregnant with her second child, Jada immediately opted for a C-section so as to avoid another harrowing experience.

Luckily, she says, "My daughter was the calmest, most peaceful birth. Now I know what I should've felt like the first time."

"There's an expectation that we women are supposed to go through pregnancy, give birth...and be happy about it," Pollack says. "Many women are ashamed to admit when they're feeling traumatized.'"

But if you feel any symptoms of PTSD after giving birth, it's important that you share them with your midwife, doctor, or a loved one. Therapy can help, as can medication.

Jada's advice to other moms: Mentally plan for everything. "Don't assume the epidural will work. Don't assume natural birth will work. Don't assume the C-section will go as planned," she says. "When I assumed, I ended up with PTSD."

Do you know someone who's struggled with birth trauma?

 

Image © iStock.com/Taws13

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