Life with PTSD: A diagnosis that offers hope

I was at the store just days after Reece was born. A set of newborn twins triggered a panic attack like I had never experienced before. They had crossed my path a few times while I picked up a bag of chips and I dashed toward the front of the store the second one began to gurgle-cry. My arm crashed into the metal strip of the conveyor belt and left a gash. I was sweaty, and shaking, and clamping in a sob. Just as I was ringing out, the cart pulled up in front of me with both newborns in full angry cry. I ran like I was on fire.

When I would see sleeping newborns, I could never look away. Sleeping newborns and dead newborns look the same. The day my friend welcomed her baby into the world was a deeply dark day. He had arrived safely. Reece had not. They were supposed to grow up together. They wouldn’t. I sobbed for hours, finally begging Ryan to return home from work so he could help me manage the boys when they woke from nap.

I was in line at Target. I had recently returned to work and was buying new dress clothes the day my first paycheck hit the bank. It had been years since I bought dress clothes. I was so excited to treat myself. I was happily chatting with the register attendant and telling her about my triumphant return to the working world. Behind me pulled up a mom. A young girl, maybe four, dangling off the edge of the cart. A toddler in the cart bucket, and a newborn in a car seat. That newborn began to cry. And I lost it. My heart began to race, I began to sweat. The store floor turned into waves of white tiled ocean. I needed to get away. In my car, I heaved heavy tears over the steering wheel for a long time. Finally, when I was able, I drove away.

These occurrences were not terribly common but they did happen sometimes. This was just grieving. The heaviness of loss. It wasn’t until Ryan witnessed me falling asleep one night that he asked the question.

“You startle yourself awake a lot. Does that happen every night?”

I stared at him dumbly. I hadn’t slept well since Reece had died. What had started as frantic nightmares of searching for a baby I heard but could never find morphed into gory dreams of horrible things. One time I was stepping out of a car when my feet were gnawed off by a wild animal. Another night, all my hens were murdered and I was finding them in the morning. I saw birds take flight and crush their skulls into windows, I saw animals and people being struck by cars and trains. Sleeping? The only thing worse than experiencing a nightmare from which you can wake is living one that is now your new life. Although I was in regular therapy, there was something missing.

“You seem to be experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.” He stared at me, and crossed his arms over his military uniform.

A meeting with a trained therapist who specializes in birth trauma confirmed the diagnosis just months ago. Grief is sadness and longing and wishing for what should be. PTSD is the feeling that everyone is rubbing their good fortune in your face. It is being on constant high alert in public places lest there be a pregnant woman or a crying baby. An edgy constant tension in the brain and body in preparation to flee at any moment. My boys were so good at grounding me in panicked moments. Their physical touch helped center me long enough to pick my way out of the situation. When I was alone, I was unable to do that. Now that I was working, I was without them more than before.

The symptoms went unnoticed for so long because as a SAHM I could catch missed sleep during quiet hour. I could choose my environments. I could structure my day to miss crowded times or avoid leaving the house altogether. When I returned to work, all of those accommodations were stripped. I was tired and frazzled and overloaded.

So here we are now with more answers. No, this isn’t normal grief. This is complicated grief and PTSD. How I have felt since Reece’s death doesn’t have to be my life. It is exhausting to feel constantly on alert, to feel at the bottom of energy, patience, and kindness. Parenting two young boys while living with PTSD has been unbelievably hard.

The new therapy is called Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing and it used for all kinds of  trauma. It helps a person’s brain rewire itself by using cross-body stimulation like eye movements, vibrating sticks you hold, or sounds that alternate from one ear to the other. There is a detailed outline that guides the talk and the vibrations stimulate your thinking processes to push through the fog. The first time I held the sticks to see what they were all about, I had an instant reaction. At first I felt itchy and uncomfortable. Then suddenly, I was back in a dimly lit hospital bed, fighting my body not to push, my doula’s voice in my ear. With Ryan’s hand in mine, I was coached through the panic and grounded back into the room.

So we continue to work, unraveling the winding stories in my head, the cratered trail of guilt, the corners I’ve lived in, the things that were said to me that have cut deeply. I know that my husband is alongside me for the journey. His eyes have been opened: what I am experiencing is not normal. My brain has been injured by the traumatic experience of learning my baby had died. My brain is injured by the experience of birthing a baby that did not breathe.

My goal is to get back to enjoying babies again. I have forgotten that I am a veteran parent full of knowledge, and I have been living the life of a victim. It is a truly awful way to live. As I work through these memories and reframe how I feel about them, I’m hoping to see more light.

One buzzy, itch, uncomfortable session at a time.

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