PTSD Awareness Day: My Story

June 27, 2013
My daughter and I crossing the finish line at my first 10 mile event

My daughter and I crossing the finish line at my first 10 mile event

As a female, I can say with 100% confidence that, for me, the anticipation of one day becoming a mother far exceeded that of any other life event. Think about the love and care that toddlers show their baby dolls. The desire for nurturing a baby begins extremely early on.

My dream came true at age 31 when my husband and I conceived spontaneous twins – a boy and a girl.

I am not exaggerating when I say that I never once complained about pregnancy symptoms because I was ecstatic every single day for five and a half months (especially when I experienced kicking on two occasions).

The dream then turned into a nightmare when my son had an umbilical cord accident at 22 weeks and was stillborn at 24 weeks.  My daughter was delivered at 25 weeks, 6 days at 2 pounds, 1 ounce.

I’ve chosen to blog about my experience as June 27th is PTSD Awareness Day.  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is most commonly associated with the military, but when you understand the symptoms, it certainly applies to families who have had a non-traditional pregnancy, loss, and/or spent time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).

The National Institute for Mental Health has a Web page about the symptoms of PTSD which are classified in the following three categories: re-experiencing symptoms, avoidance symptoms, and hyperarousal symptoms.

My symptoms were those of avoidance including emotional numbness, strong guilt, depression, and worry. I had no recollection of them taking my stillborn son away after I delivered him. Contrary to the category name “avoidance symptoms”, I certainly was not avoiding my daughter who was in the NICU for two months.  I would have slept on the floor next to her isolette if it was allowed.

PTSD is not simple to diagnose. Some people with PTSD don’t show any symptoms for weeks or months.  When the symptoms last more than a few weeks, a professional evaluation may be needed.

Another reason I chose to blog about mental health following a traumatic pregnancy experience is because NOT ALL COUNSELORS ARE CREATED EQUAL.  I implore you to try several talk therapy counselors.  If they recommend medicine, do not take it personally.  Our brains are complicated places; you cannot expect to endure a major life event like this without undergoing some chemical changes. This is out of your control, and you have done nothing wrong.  Medicine exists to help bring your body chemistry back into equilibrium, and you deserve that.  Sometimes your OB/GYN or general practitioner will prescribe medicine for depression/anxiety, but most commonly your counselor will refer you to a psychiatrist for that prescription. Again, NOT ALL PSYCHIATRISTS ARE CREATED EQUAL, so visit multiple providers until you feel comfortable.  As a side note, a good friend of mine swears by a technique called “biofeedback” which has improved her PTSD symptoms greatly over the past couple years so you may wish to look into this option as well.

I found it difficult to recognize my symptoms because life doesn’t slow down just because your son is dead and your daughter is in intensive care. Once we were home from the NICU, we weren’t allowed to take our daughter outside of the home (except for pediatrician visits) due to RSV season.  Being home-bound for nearly a year following a month of bedrest and two months of intensive care, can be a pretty big bummer.  I knew, at a minimum, my husband and I needed to see a counselor to begin grieving our son in a healthy way.  In Austin, Texas, the Ronald McDonald House offers a grief group which connected us with other parents which was extremely helpful for me. I got the impression that group therapy was not what my husband wanted at that point in his emotional journey. It’s hard to go through the journey on a separate path than your husband, but it is very common.

Counselors who specialize in perinatal trauma can be especially helpful for parents who are looking to address the negative effects of spending time in the NICU including the feelings of mourning the loss of a normal pregnancy.   My daughter turns six on June 29, and I am finally able to let go of the “dream” and accept my reality.  Reality has all its own blessings – some better than I could have ever dreamed.

Our children deserve to have parents who are taking proper care of their mental health. Our stress affects them greatly as they are developing. When life is so busy that I don’t want to stop to care for myself, I simply remember that I’m doing it out of love (for my son who’s looking down from above) and for my daughter who gives the best hugs ever.

Read “Maybe PTSD Really is just for those at War”