Stress depends on how you think about it.
It’s been nearly five years since the first time I got pregnant. It wasn’t too eventful early on, that is, until the day I began to bleed halfway into my second trimester.
I was in and out of the hospital for a week, terrified something was wrong. Each time, the medical staff sent me home trying to assure me that everything was fine. But at the end of the week, I went into labor and gave birth to a tiny baby girl just shy of a pound. She lived for eight hours, then passed away. This was the starting point to my life with birth-related PTSD. Since then, I’ve lived with anxiety, occasional panic attacks, and in the worst of it, bouts of depression and intrusive thoughts I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
My days start simple enough. I’m the first to wake in my home, and I spend a few moments alone, in the quiet of the apartment. It’s important for me to have this bit of peace because I don’t know what the day will bring, or how I’ll handle it. The solitude grounds me, which is important when living with PTSD. Sometimes I practice yoga. Lately, I’ve taken to practicing meditation as well, sometimes guided, other times not. These self-care routines are vital.
Eventually, I wake my son, then my husband. The rest of the morning is spent chasing down missing socks, packing lunch boxes, and glancing at email until it’s time to get everyone to school and work. The mornings aren’t so easy. If for example, I dreamt about my daughter, the one I lost to premature birth, then the morning is a struggle. A struggle to get my mind to focus on simple tasks like making breakfast, putting on my shoes, or even smiling at my toddler. I stare off sometimes, unable to engage with my son or respond to my husband’s questions.
So if I wake up thinking of her, it tends to set a tone for a day filled with anxiety, mood swings, and a general jumpiness. My husband notices the shift in my mood on some days, but not on others. He deals with his own PTSD, having been beside me every step of the way as we lost and grieve our daughter. Dreams of her and who she might have been haunt me every so often, though especially when approaching important dates. Like her birthday, September 30th. Or her due date, which would have been in February. Or holidays, like Christmas or my birthday, where I can’t help but revisit her in my memories.
But say I don’t wake up from dreams of her. Then I move on to the tasks that fill my day. As a writer who often focuses on things like parenting and mental health, I often write about my own experiences with premature labor, high-risk pregnancy, and life in the NICU. All of these experiences have compounded upon my initial birth-related PTSD.
When I look over my assignments for the day, I make a very careful decision about whether or not I can handle momentarily re-visiting these past traumas. If I had quiet time in the morning, and if I know I won’t need to be around groups of people, then I can sit down and write. I’ll open my laptop, sit at my table, and allow my fingers to type away; I also allow myself breaks when needed because sometimes it gets too tough. There are some sentences that make it all too real, and I feel my hands begin to shake. There are some paragraphs that make me feel as though the world itself were being sucked away, leaving me paralyzed and small, sitting alone in my chair. Sometimes, I want to cry and scream but nothing will come out, so I do the shouting internally, trapped inside myself, wishing I could crawl out. Other times, I am able to throw myself down and I weep and howl until the guttural cries fall to a whimper—but only if I am alone.
On my most difficult days, intrusive thoughts sneak in. While these types of thoughts are a normal occurrence for many, they often overwhelm me. I recently learned intrusive thoughts can be a sign of OCD, which frequently co-occurs with PTSD. During the first few months after losing my daughter, I felt certain that the thoughts were becoming a voice in my mind telling me I was the one who killed her, blaming me in every capacity possible. I also had intrusive thoughts that egged me on to hurt myself, though I never did.
These days, my intrusive thoughts usually center around a terrible thing will happen to my family. I might take my son to the park and worry that he’ll fall from the playset and break a bone or worse. Or I’ll have horrible thoughts that someone is hurting him while he’s at preschool, though I know and trust his teachers and have seen how much he’s thrived there. If my husband is late to arrive home or return a call, I’ll often picture him splattered on the road, run down by a big truck. These fears are based on the trauma of losing my daughter. I recognize now that they are a direct symptom of my PTSD, of my fear of re-living another loss again.
For a long time, I couldn’t drive down certain roads for fear of exacerbating these intrusive thoughts or triggering a panic attack. When I get too close, panic sets in, like a gorilla is trying to punch its way out of my chest.
Throughout my day, there may be other triggers. The smell of hospital soap, or beeping sounds that resemble the blips and bloops from machines that kept my son alive, will sometimes still throw me back into that same hospital room in which I saw him struggle for his life. These flashbacks can last a few seconds, or a few minutes, and can often throw me off balance for hours. It will take double or triple the effort to finally get my mind back to the present, in which I have a wonderful toddler son and a loving husband and, in general, a good life.
In the evenings, I might settle down to watch some television. Sounds relaxing enough, right? Except when I run into a show with a pregnant character because I always fear for her. I fear they will find complications with their pregnancy, or that they will lose their baby the way I lost mine. Worse still is if a show has a baby in the NICU—seeing a sick child, plus the looming possibility of a child’s death, can often cause me to shut off my TV and shut down entirely.
Read more: A Day With Complex PTSD
And if I have a social gathering to attend, I might just flip a coin as to whether or not I can handle it. Prior to the births of my children, prior to even knowing what birth-related PTSD was, I was something of a social butterfly. When my husband first met me, I was employed at a co-working space: answering questions at the front desk, helping colleagues throughout the day, giving tours to potential colleagues, planned and hosted events, and still had enough energy to happy hour and make friends afterward.
These days, I can barely muster the energy to spend more than a couple hours out with anyone who isn’t my husband or son. While I’ve improved from the days just after losing my daughter (when I could barely look anyone in the eye and panicked whenever I was in a crowd), it is still a challenge. I still have to psych myself up. I have to make sure to have my armor on. I have to breathe in and out a few times, give myself a pep talk, and force one foot in front of the other. In the end, it’s almost always worth it, no matter how tough it might be sometimes.
Living with birth-related PTSD is an endless and often exhausting challenge. Because I was not in a war, and because this type of PTSD is related to a specific trauma, many people may not know of this condition. For now, I’m working to connect with a therapist while making sure to take care of myself, and spreading the word that others who have experienced similar trauma are not alone.
Artwork by KAREN HONG