Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative
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Broken By Birth Trauma

‘Birth trauma’ hadn’t crossed my mind as I was preparing to have my baby. Why would it?

Trauma was something that happened to other people and involved life and death experiences; hemorrhaging, pre-eclampsia and an emergency c-section, or problems with baby that required interventions. Oblivious, I assumed that scary things don’t happen to me, so why worry or even think about it.

My pregnancy was healthy and low risk until antenatal depression took hold around the 34 week mark. Slammed with unrelenting insomnia and daily panic attacks I spent the final five weeks of my pregnancy at home, unable to work or take care of myself.

Slide into Depression

The snow began to fall early that year and I can remember looking out across the frozen white landscape, see nothing but grey sky and feel the depression starting to swirl and nip at my heels; the anxiety crawling under my skin and taking my breath away. I couldn’t understand how anyone expected me to give birth to a baby given my physical exhaustion and rapidly deteriorating mental health.

I was a mess when I went into labor and already fearful that I’d lose my baby if I admitted the full extent of the chaos swirling in my head. Sleepless and anxious I rapidly progressed through labor in five hours alone in my bedroom. My husband slept on the couch under my orders because we both thought that labour was going to be a long, drawn out process – just like the cheery prenatal instructor had described. She was wrong.

Labor & Delivery

It was 3:30am when my moaning brought my husband running up the stairs and he made the decision to call EMS. We timed my contractions and they were less than two minutes apart. The dispatcher was preparing my husband for a home birth when paramedics and the fire department arrived.

Between contractions they had me down the stairs, out my front door and climbing into an ambulance. I went through transition forced to lay on my back on a stretcher as we drove through the snow towards the hospital. Little pain management was offered and my husband wasn’t allowed to be in the ambulance with me – he had to follow behind in the car.

I was alone, terrified and in pain, and felt completely humiliated as I was wheeled from the ambulance bay to the L&D unit. No surprise when it was time to push shortly after arrival and I had no options for pain management. No ability to choose how I was to deliver. Again, forced on my back the pain was bearable – just – but I was completely overwhelmed. I was panicking. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

As I began to push, my son’s heart rate began to drop. A code was called. I looked up to see what seemed like 20 people in my room and then after a contraction and use of the vacuum they disappeared. My son was fine. I was fine – physically. No need for all hands on deck. That’s when the shock began to set in and the feeling of complete detachment from my physical body took over.

The Aftermath of Birth Trauma

I knew something was deeply, terrifyingly wrong as I lay awake my first night postpartum and began to have auditory hallucinations – a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. I couldn’t lay on my back without extreme anxiety. Any attempt at sleeping was interrupted by panic the moment I began to ‘fall’ into another level of consciousness. I was paralyzed by fear. Any coping mechanisms that I’d once learned to manage anxiety were useless – previous psychotherapy felt like a joke. A hospitalization in a short stay mental health unit followed where my anxiety grew new legs and consumed me.

My birth experience had left me completely broken. I discounted the multiple traumas that had occurred that night and thought that I just couldn’t handle motherhood. There was something wrong with me but I’d never thought the culmination of events had left me psychologically scarred. I had experienced birth trauma and was now left to pick up the pieces.

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Anxiety Takes Over

Walking into my bedroom caused significant anxiety – a feeling of dread. Laying down on my bed was nearly impossible without my body shaking; closing my eyes would only lead to my eyes shaking behind my lids. Despite being under the care of a psychiatrist and trying numerous medications I couldn’t sleep. If I did nod off I would dream, dream of being forced to lay down on my bed and unable to move.

When anxious hours of research finally led me to a self-diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of birth trauma there was a sense of relief but also deep fear of confronting my psychiatrist with the evidence.

How had she missed this? Why was I on the verge of total collapse, contemplating suicide, despite reaching out for help and spending my first five months postpartum running to medical appointments? I’d spent time on the psych ward – an unbelievable reality that I was in denial over – and I was still sick. So, so sick. And scared. Paranoid. Delusional.

Shannon Hennig is Program Director of the Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative.