During my pregnancy I was diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder. When my son was born I suffered severe post natal anxiety and insomnia. Four years on and some days it feels like I’ve made incredibly little progress. But I’m LEARNING! And on good days I feel like shouting from the rooftops about what’s REALLY happening for so many people with addictions and mental illnesses. Now this certainly isn’t a rooftop but I’m going to tell myself it’s a start!
Some days I feel like I’m still stuck in that birthing canal, suffocating and trapped, but I know I’m moving. And slowly, slowly but sometimes surely I feel I’m beginning to gather up threads of meaning. And although I have met some wonderful people in the mental health system I have to say, the vast majority of my recovery has been despite their input, not because of it.
The biggest clue I have had so far is contained within this word….TRAUMA. Birth trauma, pre-verbal trauma, complex trauma, developmental trauma, all of these concepts and more are so relevant to so many people suffering with addictions and mental illness, but no one seems to talk about it. Least of all, in my experience, those in the mental health professions.
There is a fantastic article here that really helped me to see things differently : https://attachmentdisorderhealing.com/developmental-trauma/
Before I became pregnant, my mental health was poor to say the least. I was carrying enormous amounts of unpacked baggage, worrying about my drinking but drinking all the time anyway, and swallowing good handfuls of pills just to get through the day/night.
The first few months of my pregnancy were absolutely terrifying. Somehow I managed to stop taking all my medication, and stop drinking and smoking. I was not extremely fun company during these first few months.
I was already under the eye of the addiction services at this time which meant that I was entitled to more frequent scanning. I had, however, read somewhere that scanning can be ‘disturbing’ for the unborn child for various reasons that I can’t remember now, so of course that was on my list of rules for how to have a ‘good’ pregnancy.
After a time I began to relax. As I grew, I felt the gravitational pull of the Earth in a way I had never experienced before. The heaviness felt soothing, and my special status out there in the world like a gift. So the last few months of my pregnancy were spent in bliss. The permission, and protected nature of my state allowed me to feel entitled to my place in the world in a way I had never felt before. Of course I am supposed to be here. I am a vessel for this unborn child. I felt almost holy.
But old habits do indeed die hard, and unconsciously, I seized upon this transitional state as another opportunity to start again, to do something RIGHT, to be pure, and to be perfect. Another shot at redemption. So I read all the books, and made an echo chamber for myself, where black was black and white was white. The instructions for a ‘good’ birth seemed clear to me (because I only read half the story…) No drugs, no interventions, interventions BAD.
So I blindly stumbled towards my decision to try a home birth. Everyone said I was brave but I didn’t feel it. I think the main driver behind my efforts was the fear of history repeating itself. I had relatively recently learned that my birth had been extremely traumatic, both for my Mother and for me. I had exhibited signs of severe trauma in my first months of life and was convinced that this was a critical piece of the puzzle which formed my troubled life.
Recent research (Swartz, 2017) has found that trauma in the ‘preverbal’ stages of life can determine addictive behaviours, via what Dr. Marylene Cloitre calls ‘dysregulation.’ When I heard this for the first time it was like a switch clicked. The symptoms of dysregulation are manifold, and include anxiety, mood disturbances, inability to regulate or modulate emotional response, restlessness and an inability to concentrate, as well as difficulties finishing tasks. I can relate to all of these, and the link with maladaptive coping mechanisms in the form of addictive patterns of self medication seem inevitable to me.
A hugely comforting therapy for me some time after the birth was cranio-sacral therapy, which communicates in a way with the preverbal self, operating on a somewhat esoteric plane of energy fields and embodied trauma. But whilst the therapy and therapist were both life-saving for me at the time, I am beginning to think that Dr. Cloitre’s approach might be vital. She explains the need to build a verbal narrative for the non-verbal part of the brain which holds the memory of the traumatic event. The brain needs to be told a story with which to assimilate the traumatic event, and ultimately lay it to rest. Without this intervention, which has been called ‘crayons and compassion’ due to some doctors’ use of art therapy as a medium via which to contact the pre-frontal cortex, all efforts feel, in effect, like pissing into the wind.
I will write my birth story another day. For now I will simply say that despite all my efforts, and the efforts of the wonderful midwives around me, history surely did repeat itself. The birth was hell, and my child was born in uncannily similar circumstances to me. That had been my absolute and utter worst nightmare.
The second the cord was cut, so was my lifeline. I felt unplugged, like my link to any groundedness, any wholeness, had been cut. My soul was shattered. I felt utterly dislocated. And I was cast into an immediate state of the most profound anxiety I had ever experienced. I could not rest. I had slept only a few hours before my labour started, and after 30 hours of the most intense and indescribable agony I was exhausted. But I could not rest. Overwhelmed by tidal waves of fear, grief, guilt, loss and sadness I cried non-stop.
Eventually it was decided, with the input of my psychiatric nurse, that I should be medicated and separated from my baby in order that I might sleep. I remember the tender loving care of those nurses in the surreal, liminal space of the hospital nights. The sense of disembodiment as they wheeled me off to an empty room. I would wake after only a few hours, instantly cast back to that stark, wide eyed state of hypervigilance, instantly back on duty at my post.
There were moments of beauty, and joy, and elevation. It is certainly a mistake to assume that postnatal depression or anxiety is monochrome. For me the full spectrum still existed, but all of it blinded me. Those days are burned into my memory, etched in red hot irons. But overriding all other emotions and experiences was fear. The constant, gnawing, grinding anxiety. The intense hypervigilance, which meant checking that warm breath touched my hand when I placed it to his lips, every hour, every half and hour, and so on and so on, far into the outer limits of obsessive compulsion and addiction… it took my breath away.
So now I’m wondering.
How do you process trauma? I’m afraid that until I find ways to do this my recovery will be limited. But externalisation feels like part of it, hence I stand here on my invisible, anonymous rooftop, shouting at nobody 🙂