#BellLetsTalk : My struggle with PTSD

Three years ago, #BellLetsTalk day fell on February 12th. I spent the day making posts to social media and sending my friends text messages one word at a time in order to help raise money for mental health programs.

Little did I know that at 5pm that day my life, as I knew it, would cease to exist. My baby died. My body killed her. And my life fell apart. That day I lost my baby and I lost myself. I started the day wanting to help people with mental illness, and by the end of that day I was in the throes of despair, unsure if I would ever find my way out the darkness again.

I often reference my struggles with mental illness, but I rarely divulge exactly what that means. I say that I cope, but I rarely say how. So on this #BellLetsTalk day, let’s work together and end the stigma. Let me tell you about what mental illness means to me.

People usually talk about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as it relates to service people – those who have fought the front lines and seen and experiences some of the most traumatic events the world has offered. It’s rarely talked about in ‘everyday people’.  But as I lay in that hospital bed that night, knowing that the vessel that was meant to keep my daughter alive was the very thing that killed her, as I lay there waiting for my body to push out death when it should have been bearing life, I became a PTSD statistic. I gave birth to death. I may never have seen war, but since that day there is a war that rages in my mind every day.

The flashbacks are real, the sudden onset panic and paranoia lurk around every corner. I never know when it will lurch at me and swallow me whole. I don’t know what will set it off, or when. Sometimes it’s a smell, or finding a random object that reminds me of her. I don’t have many solid memories of that night waiting for her to be born – but every now and then something will jog a memory and I find myself in the midst of a realistic flashback that I just can’t control and can’t escape. I have to try to find reality again, quickly, before I lose complete control. In general, flashbacks last a few seconds or minutes and vary in their intensity and frequency. These can be so realistic that it feels as though I’m living through the experience all over again.  I see it in my mind, but also feel the emotions and physical sensations of what happened – fear, sweating, smells, sounds, pain.

I don’t remember what it’s like to have a full nights sleep (regardless of the 1 and a half year old that often steals some from me as well). When I do sleep, I am haunted by nightmares that remind me of what I have lost and what I have endured. Just being in the same room with someone that is pregnant makes my chest feel tight and makes me sweat and stammer. The reminders give me intense physical reactions – my heart races, I can’t breath and it feels like my chest is being crushed in a vice. It can come out of no where. Without warning a good day can become a very bad one. Knowing this, I’m always in a state of hyper vigilance – constantly looking out for triggers. It leads to avoidance, social anxiety, and can leave me feeling emotionally numb and physically exhausted. Sometimes I deal with the pain by trying to feel nothing at all. I communicate less with other people who then find it hard to live and work with me. For me, especially I have found since returning to work that I am much more withdrawn with my co-workers. I spend a lot of time doing my work with my head down and socializing very little around the office. I still fear that I am looked at as the girl with the dead baby – as outlandish as they may be.  My employer has been nothing short of amazing and supportive.

But of course, because people expect you to “get better” and “move on”, the stigma leads me to work very hard to remain calm on the surface and struggle below just to keep my head above water.

Support from other people is vital to recovery from PTSD. Social interaction with someone who cares about you is the most effective way to calm your nervous system, so it’s been so important to me to find someone I can connect with —someone I can talk to for an uninterrupted period of time, someone who will listen to me without judging. I have a select few people who I call on from time to time hen I need to grasp reality again, whether on on the verge of, or in the middle of a flashback or panic attack. I know that I can reach out to these people and they will pull me through it. They have been my saving grace.

I’be been through years of therapy, I’ve been on meds and still every single day for me is a constant effort to manage my own mental health. And yes, from time to time I am ashamed, and I do feel the weight of the stigma. But thanks to good friends, love, support and campaigns like #BellLetsTalk, I know that my health isn’t something to be ashamed of, and it’s important to talk about it and be open and honest about how I feel so that others know it’s ok to reach out and get help just like I have.

So Let’s talk.

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February.

For most, when January rings in the New Year their hearts and heads are filled with the hope of new beginnings and renewed perspective. And although part of me feels that way too, I can’t help but feel that with the crest of a new year, I am staring down the barrel of a loaded gun.

February. The dead of winter. It’s cold. It’s dark. And it’s the month she died. The weather was bitterly cold and I took a grim satisfaction in how the bleakness mirrored my mood. It seemed only reasonable that the trees should be bare, the streets part-frozen and the skies a dull grey. It was like the world was grieving with me for that short period of time. It’s the last month she lived. It’s the month where life as I knew it ceased to exist.

I thought grief was linear. It’s not. I thought that the days she died and was born would be the worst days of my life. I thought it couldn’t get worse. But as the days and the weeks and the months crept by I started mourning and grieving in a way that I hadn’t fully done until that time. I wasn’t sleeping, I was staying up all night crying, reading articles about stillbirth so I didn’t feel so alone. I was seeking refuge in talking to strangers (become friends) online who understood where I was.  I didn’t want to leave the house. When I did leave the house I felt so incredibly guilty. The rest of the world has this unspoken expectation that you should get better and move on; I felt like I was nowhere near that. It was still so recent—I kept thinking, Now I would have had a three-month-old, a four-month-old, a five-month-old…I was still scratching the surface understanding what this loss meant for me as a mother. Three years later, I still am. Now I would have a three year old.

Staring down the barrel of February I am filled with a mix of emotions where the loss still feels so recent, yet she feels so far. Sleep has been evading me again. The nightmares have returned with a vengeance and the flashbacks are becoming more frequent. My chest feels tight, my limbs feel heavy and I can’t remember how she smelled anymore and that breaks my heart. It’s times like these that I miss my Psychologist the most.

Yes, I’ve found love and happiness in my life again, but it has never stopped the insurmountable pain. There isn’t a second that goes by that I don’t feel the ache of her loss. The New Year brings new hope, but it also brings painful memories. I haven’t been sleeping. I’ve been hiding my tears from people. I’ve been spending sleepless nights seeking refuge in the internet’s deepest darkest corners where moms like me exist to support one another and I hug my living child a little tighter in the dim light of the quiet mornings. I’m finding it hard to find the words to express my thoughts and feelings in regards to learning to live without her. It’s something I neither expected nor wanted to learn. But there is unmatchable beauty in just being her mother forever. Today and always I will celebrate the beauty in that.  It’s unbearable, but you bear it. And, you get to the point where even though it’s still a burden you bear, the weight doesn’t change, but it redistributes itself. Molds itself around this new person you’ve become and this new normal you live.