"Having my baby was the most significant day in my life, I'll always remember it", I heard two mums saying to each other... Numb, blank, nothing. It's not how I wanted to feel about bringing my baby into the world. But that's how I felt.
I was in hospital for 5 days with high blood pressure, no one mentioned having my baby early. I came back a few days after discharge with high protein in my urine and I had no idea what that meant. I didn't know that pre-eclampsia meant that my organs weren't working properly or that it was so serious I could die from it. And I also think that when I was told the severity about it, I didn't believe it. I remember repeatedly saying "I feel fine", but I didn't did I? I could see 2 of everything, my head was pounding, I was exhausted, I just didn't feel well.
I remember very little about that time in hospital, and the reason is that my reaction was to freeze.
When you experience intense distress, trauma, your reaction is going to be one of fight, flight or freeze. Freeze is what your brain does to protect yourself when escaping is not an option. When your brain assesses the situation and decides that there is no way out, apart from “playing dead”.
When I was told about how poorly I was and what was going to happen next, I shut down. I have big chunks where I don’t have any memories at all, my best friend came and visited me before I had Arlo and I have no recollection of that. I don't remember the order that things happened, I don't remember full days, I don’t remember what medication I was given or the conversations that I had.
If I didn't keep some kind of note of it, taken pictures, I don't know if I would have had any memory of it at all.
And then the time came to have Arlo, I can remember small moments, like they are little stills on a camera reel, I remember having the spinal, I can’t remember any physical pain, I remember the kindness of the anaesthetist, I remember there being lots of people in the room, I remember my husband sitting next to me and holding my shoulder, just being a constant calm presence, telling me everything that was going on around me. I remember being asked if I could feel anything when I was poked at different parts of my body, checking the anaesthesia had worked, looking back, it was a significant thing to be asked. I remember Arlo being born and hearing a cry, I don’t remember much past that point at all, I remember not being able to see him. I don’t remember being sad about that, I don’t remember having any emotion about the fact that he had been born, no relief, no worry, no anxiety, no excitement. I just felt nothing. As I am writing, I can notice a sense of shame about that, I can notice thoughts pop into my head, “does that make me a bad Mum”, “should I have felt something? It was the moment you bought your son into the world”, “I wish I had felt something”, “Im sad I didn't feel something”. But I wasn't in the driving seat at those moments, the front part of my brain that can think logically and process things was not in control, my hind brain was, the animalistic part, the part that responds to fear, the part that protects you when you can’t protect yourself. My brain was doing the best it could to protect me, it had learnt how to do that when things had been too big and painful from when I was young, it went into autopilot. I went into autopilot. I protected myself.
“She’s handling it so well” “You look like you have just been for a walk in the park”, not as if you have just given birth, those were the kind of comments I got just after I had had Arlo. I was so blank, you could see it in my eyes, on my face, my body didn't feel connected. Don’t get me wrong, there were times when emotions crept in, but overall my brain shut them down fairly quickly, so that I was able to do what I needed in those moments to survive and keep going.
Looking back now, I feel like there is a filter over my experience, like it is just out of grasp, there is a distance there, it is almost as if it didn't happen to me. That’ll be dissociation doing it’s job then, protecting me from the pain, the anger, the sadness, the hurt that I was supposed to be feeling. It makes me sad that I felt that way, that I didn't get the feelings, because the issue is with shutting down on the difficult feelings, is that you also shut down the enjoyable feelings too.
I am working through it, I am currently in therapy and I am hoping I will get to the point where it feels OK to think about the pain that I covered up. But for me, it is such an ingrained fail safe protective mechanism that I have, that I think it’ll take me a while to be able to work with it and work through it. It’s a lot easier to not feel than to feel.
I now do feel at times, I feel sadness and happiness and anxiety and joy. I felt a lot of things over the time when Arlo was home, it was like my brain allowed me to experience those things again, as if it was safe to be able to feel. But I know that the numbness can come over me like a switch, like a curtain that just drops, whenever I start to feel too much, when things feel painful, when someone gets too close. It’s served me well, I think it's helped me get to where I am today, because I have been able to just “get on with stuff”. But it hasn't served me in the sense that I have often not felt connected to important moments in my life, to important people in my life. So for that, I say, thank you brain, for doing what you felt you needed to do to look after me, but let me, adult me, now take the lead and it is OK to feel.