by Emma Quick
It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost two years since we were anxiously awaiting our daughter’s arrival. Our second baby, but we had a different birth plan this time due to breech presentation. My son had been born via vaginal delivery, so I was scheduled for a version to try to flip her around, but I didn’t quite make it to that scheduled date.
My water broke, early but not unexpected, and I headed to the hospital where I work as a registered nurse to deliver. I wasn’t in active labor, so things were quite calm as I got prepped for a c-section. My coworkers were by my side to do my anesthesia, and I felt comfortable with my team. On the way to the OR, we dropped my husband in a room to get changed, and I went in to be prepped. This is when things spiraled out of control: my spinal failed and I was quickly converted to general anesthesia and put to sleep while my beautiful baby girl was cut out of me, alone.
I woke up so confused. I grabbed my stomach wondering where my baby was. She was there in the recovery room with my husband and me, but I don’t really remember meeting her. I felt sleepy and confused. I vaguely remember the anesthesiologist coming in and saying she didn’t know why the spinal didn’t work.
And then I was shipped up to the postpartum floor as a postoperative c-section, with little mention of the chaos that had ensued before I felt the medication burning up my arm, through the I.V. as they were putting me to sleep. I even mentioned it multiple times. The nurses would say “Well, at least you’re both okay.” But I wasn’t okay. I was traumatized. And the fact that it was brushed under the rug? It made things so much worse.
I went home and I obsessed over what had happened. It kept replaying in my mind. I would be cuddling with my beautiful family, but my mind wasn’t there. It was in the OR under the bright lights, replaying the day, bargaining, having conversations in my head that I wished I had at that moment. I became addicted to my phone, googling everything related to c-sections under general anesthesia, failed spinals, repeating a spinal block..Searching for anything that resembled my scenario.
All I found was how rare it is. Everyone around me was telling me that I had a healthy baby and should be happy, but I couldn’t help but cry over all that had happened, the way it happened, and especially all I had missed. I missed my last baby’s birth! So did my husband. I was alone, and so was she. There are no pictures, just a black hole where some of the best memories of my life should live.
The weeks and months passed and I couldn’t shake those thoughts. They were consuming me and I was living in my head. My husband would have conversations with me and about halfway through I’d say, “Wait, can you start over? I wasn’t even listening, I’m so stuck in my head.”
Then I went back to work. Same hospital, different department, but one where I ran into both my OB and Anesthesia team frequently and without warning. This is when the panic attacks really got out of control. It was the middle of winter in New England, freezing cold, but I would be sweating through my scrubs on the way into the building. My legs were shaking and my heart felt like it was beating so fast I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I might gag. I would hear one of their voices from around the corner and freeze in panic.
Around this time, my husband broke down. He said, “Babe, I know you’re not doing this on purpose but it’s like you’re not even here. I can’t do this all by myself.” That’s when I knew I needed help, but it wasn’t as easy to find as one would think.
I had an appointment to return to my OB for my second Depo Provera shot, but I feared it was adding to my anxiety, so I called the office ahead of time and said I wanted to look at other birth control options. I was told my appointment was with a nurse who could only give me the shot, I would have to wait another month to see an OB to discuss other options. I felt trapped. I kept the appointment. I showed up and explained it to the receptionist again,except this time I was standing in the waiting room bawling my eyes out, and she got me in with a provider right away.
That provider wasn’t all that helpful, but she was the first to mention that what I was explaining sounded similar to PTSD. She started me on an SSRI and told me I should find a therapist and call my insurance company for guidance. I started searching online, but what I found was that every therapist listed some sort of perinatal mental health issue as something they treat alongside a slew of other generic issues.
However, both my nursing background and my gut instinct told me that what I was experiencing didn’t quite fit a PPD diagnosis. I wasn’t having trouble bonding with my baby. In fact, she was the only one I felt connected. I would hold her close and smell her skin and tell her how sorry I was that I wasn’t there to comfort her in her arrival to this world. So sorry she was alone. So sorry that they poked and prodded her before she had even been held (I know there are necessary assessments, but things were done while I was still asleep that could absolutely have waited.) I also wasn’t feeling overwhelmed in my role as a mom. I was just reliving that moment when I was going under again and again…and the anxiety came back just as hard every time.
So I reached out to a friend. I hadn’t shared much of my struggles, mostly because so many of my friends were pregnant or trying to get pregnant at the time. I didn’t want to scare them. And after all, we were physically fine, so how could I complain? But I wasn’t fine.
The friend I reached out to, I knew she had a connection with someone in the mental health field. She connected us and that therapist pointed me in the exact direction I needed: Postpartum Support International. Specifically, the CT chapter and one of their board members. I told her my story, where I was located, and what type of insurance I had, and she called back a short time later with two therapists she felt would be a great fit. She was so right. Not only was my therapist extremely empathetic, but she also made me realize that although my daughter and I were both physically fine, my feelings regarding the experience were still extremely valid. A situation could still be traumatizing despite the outcome. She made me realize it was okay to feel so happy for my baby girl, and so sad/mad/angry about how she had been brought into the world. One thing she mentioned that really made sense to me was that the range of emotions I was feeling mirrored the grieving process. I may not be grieving an individual, but I was grieving an experience that I lost.
She also taught me grounding techniques.This is when I gained back control of my own thoughts. It took practice, but I learned to catch myself when I was going into a circle in my head. While she suggested a five-senses check-in, I found it hard to turn the focus internal without returning to my thought circle. The technique I found easiest was to start describing everything around me, just to distract me from the past and bring me back to a place where I was in control of what I was thinking. Although it is important to let myself think about it sometimes, it’s also important to push it aside at other times; grounding helped me to do that. She also connected me with an APRN who adjusted the medication to one that gave me fewer side effects. I was never one for daily medications, and I honestly forget to take them sometimes. But when I miss a couple of doses, I notice that feeling of anxiety inside my body building again, so I know they are helping.
While working with Martha, I also was encouraged to write out my birth story, which really helped me organize all my feelings and emotions. I have started blogging and sharing my birth story and healing journey. I hope that another mom searching the internet for a story like hers will find mine and realize that it’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to need help. And hopefully by sharing where I found help, they won’t have the same experience of being overwhelmed by options and not sure which direction to turn.
Furthermore, although I found countless statistics on how rare it is for a c-section to be converted to general anesthesia, since I have started sharing, I have met so many other women who had a similar experience! It is comforting to know that others had the same emotions about a similar experience; it made my diagnosis of Postpartum PTSD feel legitimate, rather than dramatic. Also, talking to other moms with all different types of traumatic birth experiences, the common theme is always the feelings we were left with in the aftermath, no matter how different our stories are. There’s no need for comparison. There’s no “they had it worse.” That idea only feeds into the silence and the stigma. No matter what your story, it’s okay to hold a healthy baby and still feel sad or angry or traumatized by the experience. If you’re reading this, you’ve already found PSI. I hope you find the help you need and find comfort in knowing you are not alone!