I found the hospital and wandered around in the rain looking for the maternity ward, where I was headed to visit my friend and her newborn baby boy. I clutched a case of diapers in one hand and a toy garbage truck that shouted, “I’m stinky!” when you pressed it, for the newly minted big brother. (I thought the toy was an appropriate ode to the diapers ultimate purpose).
My heart began to beat faster. I reassured myself I was simply starting to get excited about seeing tiny fingers and toes. Then the elevator doors opened. A giant hippopotamus coffee table statue guarded the entryway to the Labor and Delivery Unit. (The irony of this particular animal prominently displayed as the mascot of gestating women is not lost on me.)
The case of diapers slipped out of my hands. “I’m stinky! I’m stinky! I’m stinky!” the garbage truck chanted as it clattered to the floor. I wiped my palms on my pants and picked up my goodies. I realized I was sweating profusely.My heart was pounding. My head was pounding. And I suddenly felt a little dizzy and nauseous.
Well, crap. I was PTSD-ing all over the joy and happiness of cute and cuddly babies, flashing back to my own lengthy stint in an L&D ward.
My twin boys were born by C-section at 27 weeks. I was desperately hoping for a third trimester, but failed. I held my firstborn in my arms for no more than 10 seconds after his birth. I watched his brother get wheeled out of the operating room wrought with tubes and encased in a plastic incubator.
And then I passed out.
I didn’t get to meet my sons the day they were born. I spent hours shivering uncontrollably in a recovery room -- demanding water from a nurse who tried my patience to its last nerve by insisting on following medical protocol instead of catering to my thirsty whims. Five hours after they were born, my husband was indoctrinated into life as a NICU parent. He was crying when he came back, but he reported they were doing amazingly well. There were so many wires…
Postpartum PTSD most often affects preemie mothers whose children began their lives in critical condition. A study from Stanford University School of Medicine found that over half the parents whose babies were in the NICU for an extended period of time either had PTSD, or were at high risk for developing it.
• Intrusive re-experiencing of a past traumatic event Surgery.
Surgeons slicing open my stomach and removing my insides. Literally. After the boys were born I would feel my scar tingle around phantom contractions of the children who were still supposed to be in my stomach. I still feel the heat around milestone events.
• Flashbacks or nightmares
I have to fall asleep on my right side. It’s my own OCD coping mechanism to ward off nightmares. (Hey, ball players have their superstitions, I have mine. Don’t judge me.) And that trip to visit my friend -- turns out, flashbacks are real. And also unpleasant.
• Avoidance of stimuli associated with the event, including thoughts, feelings, people, places and details of the event
I will never go near an L&D unit again. I’m afraid of the flashbacks. I got rid of all my maternity clothes less than 48 hours after giving birth. I couldn’t stand to have it around. It was a reminder of all I’d lost -- even though I had my boys. I avoided people proffering their congratulations. What did we have to celebrate?
• Persistent increased arousal (irritability, difficulty sleeping, hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response)
I still have a Pavlovian response to the high-pitched sound of beeps that may replicate the tones of monitoring alarms -- each one gets my heart racing as I rush to verify my 2-year-olds are still breathing. I was terrified of my phone. Any vibration or ring could be the doctor calling to tell me they “needed to discuss treatment urgently.” Irritability? Oh who are we kidding, I was a bitch. I couldn’t be bothered with any mundane event that didn’t fit into my carefully planned routine.
• Anxiety and panic attacks
Technically I’m not sure this counts, since I’ve struggled with depression/anxiety for a decade. Each year, during the month of their birth, I’ve fought off a depressive episode.
• Feeling a sense of unreality and detachment
Why did this happen? And why did I even need to care. I remember standing at the kitchen sink, rinsing the components of my breast pump and wondering, “Do I even want to be a mother anymore?” I was a parent, the mommy of two precious twin boys. But they were not yet really mine. You meet your children and you would do anything for them -- then you are faced with the guilt of not having provided enough to keep them out of harm’s way.
According to Postpartum Support International, PTSD will challenge up to 6 percent of new mothers. Postpartum PTSD is nothing like postpartum depression. The former occurs as a result of delivery trauma, while the latter is a succession of hormonal changes in a woman’s body naturally resulting after birth.
I knew I was susceptible to postpartum depression, since I’ve fought depression and anxiety for over a decade. And with two “wimpy white boys” (that’s totally a thing) in the NICU, I didn’t have time for the baby blues. PTSD wasn’t even on my radar -- I wasn’t a soldier, I’d never been to war.
But my entire being was focused on fighting for my babies' lives. This was my own personal warzone.