When will they stop…

I used a hand sanitiser in a train station the other day. It was one of those super strong types that you find in hospitals. As soon as it hit my skin I was whisked back in time. For a second or two I was somewhere else. Somewhere I didn’t want to be.

The cold sensation drifted through my body. A zoetrope of mixed up images spun in my head. Blurry flashes conjured by the clinical scent. I felt dizzy. I sat down, took some deep breaths. It passed. I was grateful.

Blurry spinning image of trees & sky

It wasn’t entirely gone. That night the whirl of disjointed scenes dipped in & out of my dreams. Random words have jarred memories. My mind has wandered mid thought or conversation. I have felt the panic rising. Spells of forcing my head to connect with my physical reality have emerged. Struggling to focus on what I can actually see, hear, smell in this moment. Ignoring the feelings climbing my throat.

Tonight in the shower I couldn’t shake the feeling that the hot water streaming down my legs was blood. I couldn’t wipe the hospital aroma from my nostrils. Nor soothe the ache that spread from my back to my thighs. The hand sanitiser has triggered a reaction. My body is recalling the trauma stored deep within. It’s a phenomenon associated with PTSD known as body memories.

I haven’t experienced this symptom in quite some time. It lies dormant; rising unpredictably. Sometimes reacting to obvious & painful stimuli. Or, like this week, triggered by a tiny insignificant detail. My olfactory senses seem particularly attuned to old wounds.

New born baby feet with words birth trauma Association

This time it’s the initial loss. I feel my body failing. I know it isn’t happening. I have learned how to pull myself back to the here & now. Still, those moments when I’m dragged to the past feel completely real. I am not just thinking about unpleasant events. I am feeling them. My flesh & nerves & senses are reacting to something that happened 20 years ago.

Body memories are excruciating. It becomes a battle between what you know & what you feel. Fighting strong emotions is a challenge. When you add physical sensations grounding yourself is an onerous task. I have experienced these episodes replicating the sensations I felt during miscarriages & pregnancy. At times these physical memories are accompanied by flashbacks & other PTSD symptoms. Other times they occur in isolation. They mirror my actual experience so completely that I’ve found myself taking multiple pregnancy tests when I knew it was almost impossible for me to have conceived.

Sands logo

It’s another aspect of PTSD that I rarely see discussed in the mainstream. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not only (or even mainly) associated with combat trauma. Yet, it’s the link most people draw. The violent outbursts in media portrayals of the illness are not accurate. New studies are highlighting how prevalent PTSD is in women who have experienced baby loss & birth trauma. For most of us, managing PTSD is an internal process. Distress may leak out, but the grind is with yourself. Accessing the right help, surviving that help (trauma therapy can be brutal), learning to manage symptoms, accepting the parts you can never fix & the impact they will have on your life.

It’s painful & exhausting & many of us never completely recover. To stand any chance of healing specialised therapy is essential. There are so many barriers to reaching that help. It can take years to obtain any psychological intervention without the resources to pay privately. Even longer to receive the specialised therapy that can actually help. So many people can’t afford to wait.

This month I’m supporting The Birth Trauma Association and Sands. Both organisations support families who have experienced trauma surrounding baby loss & birth. Please join me if you can.

I miss you like sleep…

Too much time in my head is distinctly bad for me. Not getting stuck amongst all the crap i’ve crammed up there is an ongoing project. It is not an endeavour that is aided by inaction.

Staying home alone all day, everyday is not ideal. I require distraction. I need people who make me feel swell and to do things that help me feel worthy. I like knowing that I could jump in a taxi and go anywhere. Having a sense of control is massively important.

Being entirely reliant on others for almost everything makes my insides jitter. I feel more of a burden than ever. Which activates my guilt & anxiety. I’m obviously also worried about myself or someone I love getting ill. Plus the horror of all the people who are suffering & dying every day. I’m basically a big ball of negative emotions.

I’m struggling with pain. I miss my little ones. I miss all my people. I can hardly sleep. There’s very little work. There’s too much time to think. All this on my own time thinking about what I miss inevitably highlights the major omission.

When left to its own devices my is brain predictable. It clings to trauma. If not occupied with the business of living, I regress. Slip back into dreams of the births I’ll never labour through. Flashbacks of the blood & pain I did. Haunted by the over used phrase that always signaled it was over.

There are so many what ifs. Too many of my own actions to question. Huge & tiny alterations that could have changed the outcome. Things I never said. Words others can never unsay. Blame to place. Regret to carry. Penance to complete.

I feel trapped with all I’ve lost and every little thing I can’t share. The good memories are as painful as the bad. The selfies I took when my belly began to change shape. That magical second line on the test. Marking midwife appointments on my calendar. Blood tests with the right numbers. Making lists. Checking what ridiculous object the app tells me my baby is now the size of. Plans & scans & the bam bam of heartbeats.

Rainbow reflection on pale either arm

My body remembers it all in such intricate detail. I recall the fractionally altered taste of mint tea. Sex felt different and the smell of everything intensified. I was heavy with fear. Dulled by fatigue. Yet still floating on hope and entirely delighted to experience whatever this new life threw at me.

It never goes away. I can never take my foot off the pedal. I’m always close to skidding off the road. Lockdown is like a battle not to drift to sleep at the wheel. Spending too long contemplating my past or the what might have been is dangerous. Finding ways to keep my eyes open is getting harder.

Two lines to indicate positive result on pregnancy test

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It’s just the way I’m feeling…

There’s nothing like a nation wide quarantine to really hammer home the fact that you’re childless. All anyone can talks about is their kids. How the silver lining of all this chaos is extra time with their cherubs. How being stuck in the house with them is driving folk crazy or all the creative ideas for activities to keep them occupied. It’s a non stop child frenzy. Unless you’re barren.

I hate that word. It feels accusatory & cold. It is, however the descriptor that keeps pushing itself into my head. Being alone in my house for over a month has contracted my world. There’s nowhere to hide. I’m content in my own company, but I’m accustomed to regular interruptions. Being unable to see friends, family or get involved in any outside work projects is tough. Those are my escapes. Adventures with little people. Laughs with big ones. Putting my skills towards something worthwhile. When you take all that away the only bit that’s left is empty.

Lilac & pink sunset over houses

There’s too much opportunity to be in my head. I’m not sleeping well, which facilitates bonus peak anxiety hours. Plus all this stress & uncertainty has opened the door to nightmares. Mostly relating to being pregnant & threatened by various dangers. With little snippets of real flashbacks thrown in for extra distress. When I’m not feeling powerless, I have a sense of being robbed. This strange, crazy time has necessitated hunkering down in family units. I don’t have one.

I have plenty of amazing people. I’m grateful, believe me. Lockdown has reinforced my belief that a husband is so not for me. With a little help from folks who are allowed outside I can manage my life just fine. If anything, it’s people to care for I want. I can’t stop myself from thinking how old my children would be now. I unintentionally look out for age appropriate lockdown activities. I imagine baking my Gran’s fruit loaf with tiny helpers. I caught myself constructing a home school lesson plan in my head. Fantasising about passing on one’s insights of the works of Lewis Grassic Gibbon is a lonely pursuit.

I have this sensation that I spend my life trying to squash. Hollow and raw. It’s as though someone scraped out all the essential parts of me with a dirty, jagged instrument. I occupy my time trying to keep the chasm sufficiently full. Packing in as many beautiful moments as I can find to prevent an inward collapse. Now my world is on hold, that void is ever present.

I know I am fortunate in many ways. I am able to stay safely at home. My housing is secure. I can video call the people I love. I will have access to healthcare if I need it. Life will resume. I do know that. I’m just struggling with the realisation that I’ll never fully heal this. Every time I think I have accepted my situation the wound is reopened & it feels fresh all over again.

Silouhette of toddler on sunny day

Welcome to my nightmare…

I didn’t sleep last night (shocker, right). Actually, I did kind of sleep. I was so dog tired by 11pm that I decided to try going to bed like a normal person. I read for a bit and much to my relief, I fell asleep. For about 45mins.

I was awoken by the first nightmare around midnight. By half three and the fourth nightmare I had given up on the idea of sleeping. Nightmares are the part of PTSD that I don’t really talk much about. Maybe because they are an intermittent problem. Probably also because it’s not something that people (in my experience) take seriously. Responses to my attempts to discuss my nightmares have ranged from vaguely dismissive to full on belittlement.

I think when I say nightmares people hear bad dreams. You’re probably thinking of anxiety dreams (teeth falling out, failing exams, getting fired etc) or standard scary dreams (trapped somewhere, being chased, really bad person creeping around your house horror movie type stuff). Maybe you’re even imaging those childhood bad dreams that are terrifying in ways that are incredibly specific to you. All of which are horrid, but not at all debilitating. I suppose I do understand why folk say things like ‘well, they’re not real’ or ‘as soon as you wake up it’ll be gone’; that’s their experience. Oh, how I wish it were universally true.

Creepy face

PTSD nightmares are a whole other thing. They are related to trauma. For me, they often mirror my flashbacks. Sometimes they’ll get creative and go abstract. I’m trying to get some rest and my mind will just be replaying amplified versions of the most distressing moments of my life. My head is a terrible editor; it just rapidly cuts from one horrendous image to the next. All of which are graphic. Blood and dead babies are the common denominators. They’ll begin in a very realistic & upsetting fashion and degenerate into gruesome bloodbaths (sometimes literally).

Blood splatter

As I mentioned the nightmares are a sporadic problem. They almost always have a trigger. That can be a really tiny thing that I possibly didn’t even pay that much attention to until it starts becoming a pivotal detail in my dreams. It can also be a major life event. My nightmares are usually accompanied by & linked to flashbacks in my waking hours. They always come in clusters. I never have just one upsetting dream. They plague me every time I close my eyes. All of which adds up to a significant disturbance.

The torment doesn’t melt away when I regain consciousness. There’s always more to come and it is real. Every scene is drawn from my reality. I end up scared to sleep and just as scared to be awake. I can’t be alone in this because nightmares are close to the top of every PTSD symptoms list. Any psych evaluation or questionnaire will ask about them. Yet, I don’t see much discussion of the topic. I include myself in that. It’s an aspect of my mental health that I feel really uncomfortable being honest about. I don’t know exactly why we’re all so tight lipped, but I’d bet stigma plays a part.

Sleeping ly

It’s always the messy parts of mental illness that we shy away from. Anything that feels uncontrolled or dark or too close to crazy is glossed over. Those who haven’t experienced it don’t want to think about. Those of us who have don’t want to deal with judgement. Where the nightmares are concerned I think there’s also an element of feeling stupid. Kids get frightened of bad dreams. It’s hard to shake off the feeling that you should be able to handle it. Especially when that’s the message the world is giving you.

I’ve yet to discover anything that’ll chase the dreams away. Sleeping pills aren’t helpful because they make the nightmares more vivid. Thankfully they occur less frequently than they used to. Keeping quiet certainly isn’t helping. Perhaps if people knew what I was referring to when I say nightmares they would be less patronising. A little empathy can go a long way, but you have to understand someone’s experience before you can offer that.

Look back in anger…

I’m angry. So angry that it’s hard to contain. The problem is there’s no specific target for my rage. It’s a generalised, tear everything down kind of fury. There’s no release. I can’t spew my anger over unsuspecting bystanders. Keeping it in doesn’t feel like a viable solution either. Where does one put all the free floating resentment that no one is actually to blame for?

Life isn’t fair. I came to terms with that fact a long time ago. I’ve accepted a lot of bullshit. Fought crazy & illness & disability & mistreatment & loss to build some sort of something. I’ve struggled, but I’ve rolled with the punches as best I could. There’s only ever been one thing that I’ve felt I couldn’t do without. One single imperative. When you’re willing to get by without so many things, it feels so desperately unfair to be denied the thing that would make it all ok.

I watch everyone around me do the thing I cannot. Some with such ease it leaves me breathless. For others it’s a harder journey, but they reach their destination. I love those people and I love their babies, but it’s so hard to be the only one stranded.

I’m angry that I have to do this again. I’ve been tricked into hoping. Now I have to deal with the fall out. I am mad at myself for being stupid enough to believe. I resent having to submit to medical interventions. I didn’t ever want to hear someone say they can’t find a heartbeat again or look at another bloody speculum. I’m furious that I’m still bleeding and that I have to cope with all that triggers. It’s agony to be constantly reminded that my body has failed again. It’s exhausting to face the nightmares and flashbacks of all other blood. I don’t want to relive each of the worst moments of my life whilst trying to get through this one. I’m sick of blood tests and transfusions and putting on a brave face. I hate that I don’t get to opt out. I’m not strong, I just don’t have option of walking away because it’s too hard.

I don’t understand why it has to be me. Why my babies keep dying when I want them so much. Why does the universe give life to those who can’t or won’t love their children? Every time I read a horror story of abuse it feels like a personal attack. I think of all those terrified pregnant teens, the adult women who can’t feed another mouth or just never wanted to parent and I wonder why it couldn’t be me instead. I’m not angry at the individuals; everyone should have the right to choose. I’m furious at whoever or whatever makes decisions. What could I possibly have done that disqualifies me?

I see people smoking as they hold their child and I have to restrain my scream. Each impatient, inappropriate or lazy exchange between a parent & child kills me. Even the standard complaints about bring tired and tantrums make me feel like punching someone. I know I’m not being fair, but it’s like bitching about your diet to the starving. Don’t they know what a miracle they’ve created? How can they forget how much that little person needs them to do the right thing. I know it isn’t easy. Kids are exhausting and all consuming, but they’re worth it. The joy outweighs the sacrifice.

I’ve had enough therapy to know that burying your feelings is never helpful. I know I can’t dig a deep enough hole for this much emotion, but I have no idea where else to put it. I can’t lose it with every person who is rude or mildly inconveniences me. I have no desire or intention of venting on the people I love. I used to work this shit out with a scalpel. That’s no longer an option. What do I do?

Blackbirds singing in the dead of night…

It’s 5.07am. There are some very loud birds outside & the light is creeping around the edges of my blackout blind. I haven’t slept, but I do finally feel a little bit sleepy. Do I sleep? If so I might sacrifice the day. After no more than a couple of hours for the last few nights I might conk out big style. I wanted to do something today. Something nice enough to make me feel like I’m participating normal life whilst still being easy. Sleeping all day does not fit the bill. Although, perhaps I’ll wake up feeling rested & be productive. If I could complete one of the many, many things on my to do list It might relieve a little anxiety. For now I’m stuck in the vicious crazy circle. No motivation + no energy = accomplishing nothing. As the things I have not done pile up so does my anxiety. Until the undone things & the anxiety are so huge that I’m paralysed by their weight. I’m just stuck underneath, stressing & not sleeping & feeling increasingly worthless. So, maybe I should sleep. I’m exhausted. I’m always exhausted because I never get enough sleep. There is always something keeping me awake. Be it pain or fear or coughing or nightmares or vomiting or the terrifying vagueness of insomnia. Right now I feel that illusive part of tiredness that usually escapes me. The fuzzy comforting drowsiness that signals actual sleep is a possibility.

But

If I sleep now, chances of sleeping tonight are slim. I could miss the chance to do a thing that could make me feel a thing that isn’t grey or edgy. If I close my eyes now I’m risking the dreams. Flashing scenes dripping with all the things I cannot bear to look at again. Flickering images soaked in feelings too potent for consciousness. Then I’ll wake in a mess. Heart pounding, breath hiding & I’ll have to talk myself down. Fool myself into calmness that’s counterfeit. Either way the day is scuppered. All those hopes for lightness dashed. 


So, I stay awake. I’ll just wait in this cool dark room for the day to really get started. Force myself into the shower. Try to make a plan that doesn’t feel overwhelming. Push down the fatigue & the jangling of every nerve for the possible reward of OK. Reassure myself that this isn’t forever. Repeat that I am not back in the hole. It has been a difficult month. I am allowed to feel bad. Tomorrow or the next day or the day after that will be an easy one. Just keep going. Swing from one pleasant moment to the next & hold my breath through all the rest. 

This will pass

I will write the things that are over due

I will do some god damn washing 

I’ll cook a proper meal 

&

Wash my hair

Peace will be restored 

Life will go on

&

I will live it. 
If only I could get some sleep…

 

Keep on keeping on…

It doesn’t make any sense, but I think before I went into hospital I had fragments of hope. Delusions might be a better word. I knew the pregnancy was over, but a part of me hadn’t accepted it. I couldn’t bring myself to take any pain relief, sleeping pills etc because I felt that I’d be betraying my child. Even as I write these words they aren’t comprehensible. My thinking just seems crazy. 

Now, I feel certain it’s over. That’s awful, but necessary. Accepting that intervention was essential has given me a sense of finality that I needed.

The flip side of that is the very things that brought about that clarity will be with me forever. I’ve already had some nightmares consisting of images that also intrude on my waking hours. 

Delicate grey tissue & stained blue gloves.

Bright red urine samples & bloodied speculums.

Flashes of gore have imprinted themselves on my already traumatised brain. I don’t know how to wipe it clean.

I think I am ok & then I’m just not. I feel fragile & sad.

But

Also so angry.

There’s nowhere to put this fury. I was doing alright. Life was a manageable feat with some unexpectedly sweet incentives. Now it’s tip toeing & coaxing myself into normal. Often, it’s trying not to want that baby more than I want to breathe.

Ultimately, it’s all very simple. I just keep going. One day at a time, right? Weird that the biggest, emptiest seeming cliches are what get you through. 

All I can say is I’m breathing…

PTSD is a persistent foe. You can make progress & start to think maybe, just maybe you can actually defeat this bastard, but it knows you think that. 

It’s waiting for you to relax your hyper vigilence. The moment you begin to let go of the breath you’ve been holding for 17yrs it will suck it in & grow.

Folks in your life see you gaining strength & think you’re better. There is no ‘better’.  There is managing ,

coping,

trying to live,

daring to live?

The good days can start to stack up. You can feel a safe distance from the horror, but you can never be sure. 

You can never be certain that a flashback won’t stun you like lightening. 

And stuck in that hot, white memory you could loosen your grip on the here & now.

The relative calm & safety could be shattered. Perhaps only for that instant. You could be lucky, those smells & fears could melt away. Current achievements or delights may well wash over you. It’s possible. That happens. 

You’ll make plans & take steps. But you’ll always be looking over your shoulder. The knowledge of the cruelty of your own mind will keep you rigid.

Because lightening does strike twice & thrice & ever & on.

With every thump of your heart you know you’re only one more squeeze from disaster. Where little sleep becomes none. The crazy creeps out from behind all those positive walls, it brings terror & tsunamis of grief. 

And the pills don’t work

Or Dr’s 

Or the life jacket you had to make with your bare hands. 

There is only one way to row to shore & it’s brutal. It’s hot blood dripping from your fingers; slippy yellow fat & an uncontrollable urge to cut a little deeper. 

Bleed a little more 

Wrapping up the unthinkable pain in the easy hurt of butchering yourself. 

This illness is being  awake in the night & writing so you won’t do. It’s ignoring the destructive comfort because you so desperately want this new, real life. 

And, yes, all those yous should be I’s. 

It’s my past, my pain, my ongoing battle for a future. 


Listen, I’m a really perfect song.