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When I was 34 weeks pregnant with my second child, he was stillborn. His stillbirth was caused by placental abruption. I found out when, after noticing diminished movement, a sonogram confirmed fetal demise. The whole time I labored with my son, I knew that he would be born dead. Admittedly, I'm using clinical language as a defense mechanism, because what happened to me over the course of those days caused long-term PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
In the weeks that followed the unexpected stillbirth of my baby, my memory started playing tricks on me. Even now, when I try to remember things sequentially, I can't. It feels like a force field pushing against me. When I try to remember the specifics of things that happened in the exact order that they did, the entire experience takes on a mercurial quality, with pieces breaking off and spooling away. Then and now, it can make me feel pretty crazy. At the suggestion of a friend back then, I wrote down all the details as best as I could. That document lives in a drawer along with the precious few things I have kept as painful mementos of the experience.
Another thing that happened to me in the aftermath was a sharp uptick in anxiety. It was a challenge to control my response to things. I struggled not to catastrophize likely-to-be-normal situations. For example, when my first rainbow baby (a baby born after a previous loss) was born and he developed a fever as an infant, I almost lost my mind with terror. The basic facts behind his fever were not out of the ordinary – his older brother had probably brought home a virus from preschool – but my response was off the chart. I was following an understandable and set fever protocol for infants. But to me it felt like a crisis.
I've noticed that loss and grief can amplify dimensions of natural and lifelong tendencies for any of us. In other words, anxious people may become increasingly anxious, and so forth. In the first few years after our loss, my PTSD manifested in some destructive ways. I didn't take good care of myself – I intentionally ate badly and I did not sleep enough. The fact that I was parenting a toddler and that I was pregnant (twice) over the course of the years subsequent to my stillbirth gave me cover to let my devolving habits feed my PTSD.
Why did I do this? I'm guessing there was likely some element of self-punishment. At a certain point, these behaviors became ingrained. I had hit walls. It strained my capacity to respond to things as efficiently or joyfully as I could have.
My birth trauma happened more than a decade ago. I still have PTSD, but I've learned to live with it. I can now call myself out on some of my more maladaptive coping mechanisms. And I can correct them. For example, if I'm running myself down on purpose, I'm more likely to get a massage in the early evening once in a while to help me sleep normally and reset the clock.
There's a part of me that has befriended my PTSD. I think reacting with shock and grief to events that are shocking and tragic makes perfect sense. It shows us that we're human. The trick to existing with PTSD is being aware of how habits emerge and ensuring that they don't damage your mental or physical health – or at least that you make efforts to minimize the impact.
There is a dance I do – even ten years later. I have to try to check my responses to things. Stress from even minor events can feel to me like a tsunami. I have to keep checking myself. I have to tamp down responses. I have to keep breathing. I continue to train my hypervigilance to assess situations in ways that serve me rather than defeat me. Over time, I've succeeded.
My PTSD is a chronic thing, but it has become almost like a shadow or a friend. It reminds me of things and it humbles me. In a strange way, I am almost grateful.
Opinions expressed by parent contributors are their own.