My clothes are heavy and dragging me down as they dance in the water. My hair is thrashing around, wildly, like it’s moving to an African drum beat. When my hair finally breaks apart, I am able to look up and see the sun above the water, hot and heavy, and becoming increasingly distant as it seems to be pushing me down into the depths of the sea. I take a deep, inner, breath and propel my arm upwards in an attempt to pull my head to the surface, but instead of doing so, I find myself gripping my newborn baby’s ankle and pulling him beneath the water with me. Suddenly, it’s as though a mountain has attached itself to my legs and as the sun continues to push me down, I am plummeted to the belly of the sea, dragging my child with me.
We are gone.
This was the nightmare that haunted me for months after my son’s birth. I would wake-up gasping for air, soaking wet and sobbing.
To this day, I can’t think about this without the surge of an upcoming panic attack. I stop as I write, close my eyes, practice my box breathing. I become aware of the sensations around me. I hear people talking in the hallway. I can feel my fingers resting on the keyboard in front of me. I smell a mixture of my morning mocha and my perfume. The aftertaste of my last mouthful of mocha is bitter on my tongue.
When I first mentioned the struggles I was having to my doctor, and told her about the nightmares, she said ‘It sounds like you might have some PTSD from birth trauma’ and that was that.
The first 4 months of my son’s life were a living hell for me. I felt like I was constantly in a war zone, battling for not only my survival, but his as well. This was made worse by the fact that I often felt like I was the biggest threat to my son’s safety, which meant that I was also fighting a war against myself all the time. I used to say: ‘It’s you and me, kid. You and me against the world.’ I felt like nobody got it. Nobody understood, or cared, about how dark it was for us. How much we had to fight to survive.
This added trauma on-top of trauma. I’ve started therapy to help me work through this. The other day my therapist asked ‘What things remind you of the event?’
What things remind me of the event?
Pretty much every aspect of my life is a reminder of the event, because ‘the event’ (my son’s birth), literally changed everything in my world. Everywhere I look there are reminders of him, every thought inside my head circles back to him, every emotion finds itself linked to him…I am surrounded by triggers.
But, I’m learning that there are certain environmental factors that bring me right back to the trauma and leave me swirling quickly out of control. Feeling trapped and feeling hot are major triggers for me.
I have identified a few, regular, times when this happens which means I am able to prepare and plan for them and when I am in the situation, can practice calming techniques to stave-off a full-blown panic attack.
But, there are still moments when I am caught by surprise.
This happened while camping last weekend. My son was exhausted, and so was I. We both like routine. He has always, naturally, been a ‘routine’ child and has always loved daytime naps. While camping, we were both thrown out of routine, and neither of us had slept well the previous night – I had, about, 2.5 hours sleep and while he slept longer, it was very disturbed. So, we needed a nap.
We were lying in our tent and it was HOT. I lay there, sweating bullets, trying to calm him and soothe him to sleep, despite the fact that he was also drenched in sweat. He kept looking-up at me with these pleading eyes to help him feel better. I felt helpless. Powerless.
I could feel the surge of a panic attack approaching.
Box breathing. Box breathing.
What can you feel? What can you hear? What can you see?
What can you see?
I looked above me to the top of the tent and saw that the sun was directly over us and I suddenly felt like an ant under a magnifying glass.
The panic was rising.
I looked up again and I saw the sun above the water, pushing me downwards.
I couldn’t breathe.
I’m trapped. We’re trapped. We’re going to die. I can’t breathe. I’m going to lose it. We’re being tortured to death. I have to get out of here. We’re under attack.
I grabbed my car keys, my son, and said to those around me “We’re going for a drive…” I’m sure I said some other things, not even sure what, or what was happening, or who heard me, or where anyone else even was.
All I could see was that my son and I were being tortured and I was getting us the hell out of there before we drowned to death.
It was everything that I had felt for the first 4 months of his life compressed into a few minutes. I have had experiences and moments like this every day since my son was born. Sometimes they are super intense, like it was that day camping. At other times, it is a small surge that I am able to overcome with grounding techniques.
But, every time it happens, it brings the trauma back to the surface and seems to add another layer on to it.
I am reminded of the line from the West Wing where the trauma specialist explains to Josh that the goal is to allow him to remember the event without reliving it.
I cannot wait for the moment when I can think about the day my son was born and smile at how incredible it was to hold him for the very first time, without feeling like I’m under attack and that I’m going to drown and bring him down with me.
To remember the beauty without reliving the trauma.