My story with PTSD began in February. On any given day you might have found me sitting down, complaining about being exhausted, craving plain crushed ice. I was in my last month of a difficult pregnancy and beginning to count the days until my due date. The cute comparisons between your baby and a piece of fruit had gone from poppyseeds and papayas to across the board watermelons on every graphic.
I was still busy at work and it was becoming clear that the mile-long list of must-do tasks for the house would never be complete in time. Little did I know that there is no better preparation for the life of a new parent than living with a to-do list of pending jobs. Unfortunately, the unpainted utility room was going to be the least of my worries in the months ahead.
In hindsight, there were signs of what was brewing. The puffy feet, most comfortable in trainers, that my friends had with their pregnancies were not my problem. I had to go up two sizes and by that time, I could only comfortably wear a pair of slipper boots which could be generously described as an assault on the eyes.
My fluid retention was so bad that my legs would hold a dent for longer than a memory foam mattress.
I had convinced myself that my vision was not disturbed, my eyes were simply not dealing well with the old fluorescent strip lights at my office and the hospital.
When my kidneys began to show signs of distress, the jig was up. I had pre-eclampsia. A life-threatening condition for myself and my unborn daughter. My dreams of an uncomplicated home birth were out the window in one fell swoop and the fear of pre-eclampsia worsening crept in.
A big problem was that I was terribly afraid of hospitals. After a few experiences in my early twenties with doctors who were brusque, dismissive or condescending I had formed the opinion that the bulk of doctors (some dear friends and relations excepted) were prone to work more towards a procedural outcome than a real improvement for their patients. Years down the line, I know this to be untrue and that it is in fact a minority of doctors who prefer a paper resolution to a patient resolution. That made no difference then, when my worst fear was being trapped inside a hospital, vulnerable and unable to go on my merry way whenever I chose.
My wonderful midwife broke the news to my husband and I that I would need to be admitted to the antenatal ward. Thinking about it even now I can feel a small twinge of the unreasoning horror I felt then. I found every part of the hospital environment frightening or enraging, including the necessity to go there.
I found the routine facets of hospital admission corrosive. I bargained incessantly, hoping to somehow escape the fact that I had to go there and stay there and the alternative was too hideous to even contemplate. I felt dehumanised by the hospital bracelet that reduced my most sensitive particulars to a file and a number. I felt infantilised by being in a place where I didn’t even have the ability to make myself a cup of tea, like staying in the house of someone that you don’t like. The removal of control over your time as you wait for scans and sweeps and observations.
I hated the food, I hated the perfunctory cheerfulness of the staff who seemed like jailers. I hated it when my regular observations were better or worse. Better and I felt like I was being held on false pretences. Worse and I feared for my baby and myself as the obs machine beeped wildly in the middle of the night when my blood pressure spiked. It signified that I was closer to eclampsia, brain damage and even death for my baby or myself. I even feared for my gallant husband, who slept on a hard plastic chair for most of a week in order to not leave me frightened and alone.
After repeated sweeps failed to get labour going on its own, the treatment was stepped up and on the fourth attempt, we finally had a result. We were exhausted from the week of chafing against hospital rules and regulations already when I went into labour.
Having a midwife who I loved was an enormous blessing but in quick succession, one nightmare after another began to be realised. My baby had moved into a bad position, she had her hands on her head. It was bad, but short of an emergency caesarian there was nothing for it but to push harder. I did not want to end up in an operating theatre.
The midwife’s hand was reaching for the emergency cord, to call time on our independent attempts when to my eternal gratitude, my daughter was born. Dozens of seconds dragged by as she took a moment to wake up in her dazzling new world and we held our breaths. We were ecstatic when her first little cry broke out.
The small mercy I am most grateful for is that when I was wheeled away for surgical repair in a bright cold theatre full of strangers, my husband was allowed to scrub up to stand in a clean anteroom with my baby when she had to be lifted from my chest.
The nightmare was not over. We did not ride into our happy ending after a sleep and a quick paediatric check. My baby girl exhibited benign neonatal tremors. They resolved independently without any treatment and we returned home three days later to begin our new lives. The three intervening days were hell on earth.
A young, locum doctor felt that my daughters’ tremors might signify something dangerous. Tremors are usually benign but sometimes observed in babies where their mother has had a significant drug problem during the pregnancy. The junior doctor drafted in to fill a shortage on the shift opined that it was best to keep us in for 5 days, just in case. The implication of the ‘just in case’ being that I might just be confused or lying about whether I had a heroin habit and therefore my daughter might be experiencing opiate withdrawal tremors.
It is my deep and abiding privilege that this is not an assumption that anyone else has ever entertained about me and needless to say, it is not true. I am a middle class, masters degree graduate with a received pronunciation accent and a sensible haircut. I am, in non-pandemic circumstances, often the person who babies are handed to on a bus whilst their mum buckles an older sibling into a pushchair. You can see why having this indirect accusation used to trap me in a place I feared would be a shock.
I remember those days as a haze of exhaustion, pain and self-loathing. I cried constantly. I constantly entertained self-discharging but the idea that my freedom could be used to undermine my legitimacy as a mother kept me there as a storm howled outside the single glazed windows. My sanity rattled like the panes of glass in the frames. How could I be a good enough mother if this was the kind of assumption that was being made about me?
The following Monday when the senior consultant returned to work, my bone-tired husband and my parents were there as reinforcements to help us break out. I was a pale, milky wraith by this time, weeping more than my newborn cried. The arrow marked ‘this does not reflect trust policy’ hit close to the mark but didn’t free us yet. The next arrow, carrying the ‘there is no evidence to support this diagnosis’ got us closer. It was clear by now that the only barrier still remaining to our escape was ‘just to be on the safe side’. I waded in, with what was left of my will to strike a last bargain.
‘If I agree to stay 24 more hours without incident, will you discharge us then?’ I knew from the half absorbed conversations about medical journal articles around me that by then it would be obvious the locum had made the wrong guess. If she had been withdrawing from a drug then it would have got worse, not better in this timescale.
It had been a long battle and a costly victory but we were finally preparing the car seat for our journey home.
I did not know it then but then, only two weeks into my trauma, my recovery was beginning.
For the next six months, I experienced what I now know was PTSD. I had intense nightmares about never-ending hospital corridors. I would have burning irrational outbursts of rage watching medical dramas of any kind, even light comedy like Scrubs. I had panic attacks just thinking about what happened and after a lifetime of nosiness about birth stories, I began to have panic attacks whenever I heard one. One particularly nasty panic attack which caused me to faint at the supermarket was triggered by a detergent that smelled like the one they used in the antenatal ward. My vision tunnelled, I felt sick to my stomach and as I greyed out I clutched a shelf and tried to stay up, in case they sent me to the hospital.
It was a dark time and the process of sellotaping myself back together was not easy. At first, I coped by simply avoiding all mention or images of hospitals. As time wore on, dark humour crept in. I would insist that if I ever had a life-threatening condition, I would not accept treatment but would simply head into the woods to die in peace. Part of me knew that with a newborn daughter who needed me, I would still have no choice but to seek medical attention but saying otherwise felt as though it helped.
As time went on, I came to realise that whatever choices had been taken from me by malice or chance, there were still choices left that I could make. I was initially motivated by a desire to avoid the need to interact with medical services that I distrusted, but my decision to try to make myself as independent of those outside my own support structure as possible led me through the darkest patch. I realised that I could make myself healthier, I could learn my own coping strategies for stress, I could gain knowledge that would make me hard to override in future.
I ate better, my daughter slept better so I slept better, I took her on long walks in a sling. I shied away from antidepressants and anxiolytics because I still felt that no doctor had any right to know my inner feelings on the basis of a mere degree course. I can only wonder now whether I would have been better or worse with medical intervention, I am certainly not against it in principle any more, but I imagine the results of the medication depend heavily on the person taking it.
Small steps that took me back into the world helped smooth off the rough edges. You worry less about being ‘dragged’ to the hospital if you have an accident if you are thinking about birthdays and good films and hills, literal and figurative, that you have climbed. Time has dulled the edge of my memories and whilst some pain still lingers, it now pales in comparison to the joy afterwards.
If I could send a message in a bottle, back to myself on my way home from the hospital it would say
‘What has happened is already in the past, it will become longer ago every minute of every day. There is no reason to think it will happen again, but most importantly, if it ever did then you will be stronger, wiser and twice as quick on the draw’.