PTSD after a Traumatic Birth and the NICU

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

There's a baby in there

I never considered the possibility that a traumatic birth and subsequent stay in the NICU could lead me to a diagnosis of PTSD. I had no idea that healing from PTSD related to birth trauma and the challenges of the NICU could lead to healing from trauma in other parts of my life. That it could help me become strong in areas where I’ve always felt weak. I was even more surprised to learn that healing could come so quickly and without a bunch of talk therapy and medication.

My son, Redmond, was born two weeks early, in distress, via emergency C-section, and immediately transferred to a larger hospital an hour away. It was a shock after we'd so carefully planned an all-natural, drug-free delivery with a midwife. Then he couldn't breathe on his own and it kept getting worse, so he was transferred to another hospital and put on the last-resort life-support called ECMO. With it came the ventilator, two IV poles full of medication that needed to be pumped into his body, and 34 days in the NICU.

But I handled it. I didn’t give up in despair.

When we got home, I got out of bed every day and cared for my children. The baby required massive amounts of time and attention due to tube-feeding and supplemental oxygen. The kids and my husband got a cold and gave it to the baby with the fragile lungs - and I handled it. One step at a time.

At no point in all of this difficulty did I want to hurt myself or my children. In the early days, I thought of running away. I wanted to go to Hawaii and lay on a beach somewhere, completely free of responsibility. Instead, I stayed right here and did the hard things. I went to church, got groceries, did laundry, and kept everyone properly clothed. Some of the time I remembered to pay the bills and go to the appointments we made.

I waded through those appointments with five specialists (which soon grew to ten), a pediatrician, dietitians, a physical therapist, an occupational therapist, and a speech/feeding therapist. I figured out things like the Board of Developmental Disabilities, WIC, Medicaid, social workers, home health nurses, and 4 different hospitals.

I spent seemingly unending hours struggling to feed him, his little body in too great of a struggle to just breathe to handle the challenge of swallow-suck-breathe. During that time, I researched his health conditions, medications, and treatments. When I took my baby to new doctors or specialists, they asked me what my medical degree was in. I have degrees in English and Theology, nothing remotely associated with healthcare. But I became an expert in my baby.

I don’t write these things about myself to brag, but to show that PTSD and depression aren't always obvious. In the middle of all the “getting it done”, I was masking postpartum depression and PTSD. I'd handled my responsibilities, learned and grown, and even talked about the things I felt with those close to me. But there was a moment when I realized something was very wrong.

A friend from church was in her 8th month of pregnancy and lost her baby. The much-loved and desired baby suddenly stopped moving and was gone. She had to go through labor and delivery for a stillborn daughter.

I'm a compassionate person. Before Redmond, I would have felt very sad for her. I would have reached out to help, prayed for her, and brought a meal. But after Redmond, I couldn't handle the heartache she faced. For days on end, I cried. I mourned so much that my body hurt and I had difficulty getting out of the house to do anything. I turned over responsibility for my children to my husband and mother-in-law.

After 6 days of intense grief, I realized that my response to this situation was not normal. In the month before that, several people in my life had suggested that I seek help for my grief and sadness. I had dismissed them. To me, "postpartum depression" meant a mother can’t function or wants to hurt her children. I felt exhaustion that couldn’t be explained by lack of sleep. In a fog, I couldn’t think clearly. I repeatedly struggled to find a word I wanted to say. Making anything but the smallest decisions became nearly impossible. In spite of that, I still learned a vast amount of new things to help my son.

I excused my difficulties because anyone in my situation would struggle. On a massive learning curve, my brain was FULL. I regularly dealt with medical providers who didn’t know how to help Redmond, who didn't know more than the most basic information about his diagnosis. I was on high alert for his health risks, regularly afraid, and physically exhausted from the difficult pregnancy and birth. I had good reasons for all my challenges.

But I didn’t have a good reason to cry for 6 days over someone else’s pain. It wasn’t like me. Thankfully, God put the right people in my life at the right time. I quietly admitted that I might need help and the wheels started turning quickly. I received medical and therapeutic help that has been life-changing.

I didn’t want to sit around and talk about what happened. I’d talked about it enough. But every time an ambulance passed our car, I cried, flashing back to the morning an ambulance carrying Redmond’s tiny body passed our car as we drove to the level 4 NICU. I wanted someone to help me deal with my feelings of panic when I remembered the C-section and the way my newborn baby was whisked away from me before oxytocin-inducing new baby smells and cuddles could make it all okay.

I received an unexpected gift in the form of a therapy called EMDR. It’s for people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I was pretty surprised when the therapist said I had all the signs of PTSD. I thought of soldiers back from war, unable to sleep from flashbacks and unable to hold a job or function in society. But trauma is trauma, and I had definitely experienced trauma. I learned that PTSD in parents of NICU babies isn’t that unusual. How much worse does it get than almost losing your newborn baby?

My therapist explained that our brains don’t store trauma the same way as regular memories and it’s hard for our bodies and minds to understand that these things happened in the past and aren’t happening today. Therefore, when things happen that trigger our trauma-response, we aren’t responding to what’s happening in the moment, but we’re responding to what has happened in the past plus what’s happening in the present. Our responses don’t reflect what’s actually happening.

That sounded familiar, although I felt like I could easily distinguish the present from the past. She said she could help me make it stop. I would remember what happened, but it wouldn’t haunt me. I’d know that it was sad and difficult, but I wouldn’t become emotional every time I talked about it. She said I could be a lot better within a few weeks, and that dealing with the trauma of my situation could also help me feel better physically.

Extremely skeptical, I decided to try. It was hard to believe that I might actually experience the things she explained. But after a few weeks, I found that she was 100% correct and learned to trust the process. Within a few weeks I felt much better. Within a couple of months, the fog lifted. I don’t lose words, my tears have dried, and I look back at Redmond’s birth and subsequent care with a feeling of warmth and comfort. What happened was hard, but we were cocooned in the competent embrace of those we’d placed around us long before this event happened. They did exactly what they were trained to do in this situation.

The medical professionals cared for both Redmond and I. Rick and I clung to one another. Rick’s parents and our babysitter cared for our children. Our church family and friends helped. Loved and supported in the most beautiful ways, everything they did worked! We made it through. Redmond is thriving!

I can see that truth now, where before all I saw was the shock and trauma.

It was very hard to take the time to go to those appointments. In the middle of tube-feeding Redmond, juggling multiple doctor appointments 60-90 minutes from home, feeding therapy, and all the normal things of life, I had two appointments a week that sometimes left me emotionally raw. The therapist taught me coping skills though, and my family didn’t suffer too much as I worked through the most difficult things.

Working through that trauma uncovered some past trauma. There are things I’ve experienced that have stuck in my brain improperly, causing me to think I can protect myself through unhealthy habits. No matter how hard I’ve tried to break these habits, they’ve stuck around and hurt me. My hope is that by continuing EMDR for the early trauma, I can learn a new way of processing life’s challenges and actually succeed in breaking unhealthy coping patterns. I’m so grateful to God for giving people wisdom to create this kind of therapy and make it available to me.

As a child, my parents drilled two verses into my head.

“God has not given me a spirit of fear, but of power, of love, and of a sound mind.” 2 Timothy 1:7

“I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Philippians 4:13

These verses are true and got me through the most difficult times. Through Christ, I had the strength to make it through hard things. Through Christ, I was powerful, full of love, and mentally competent. And through the power of Christ, my weakness was addressed and healed. I am so thankful.

I write these things and post them here in hope that my story might help someone else recognize and seek to heal trauma and depression in themselves or a loved one. I want to offer hope for healing. If you are experiencing things you think might be trauma-related, please ask for help. Please don’t let finances or time-constraints stop you from healing. Not only will your healing impact you, but it will greatly impact your family – especially your children. (My ability to care for my children and be the mom I want to be has dramatically improved with the help I’ve received.)

Emdria is a reputable organization for EMDR therapists. This link will help you find a local therapist to help you. EMDR is not talk-therapy. You do not have to rehash every detail of the trauma to receive help. It shouldn’t take years, but rather weeks or months. Many insurance plans cover it, and many Christian therapists offer financial assistance for those who need it. Please ask for help if you think you might need it.

Lastly, please feel free to contact me if you want to discuss it more or have questions. If one person can be helped because of what I’ve been through, then I feel like there’s a purpose in the pain and God is redeeming it for His glory.

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