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Book Review: Traumatic Childbirth and an Interview with the Author – Cheryl Beck

January 9th, 2014 by avatar

By Walker Karraa, PhD

It is thought that traumatic childbirth affects up to 34% of all birthing women, but frequently there is inadequate prenatal preparation for what to do if an individual woman has this experiences and scant resources for women seeking support and help.  The experiences are minimized and our society creates a fence of isolation that women with birth trauma are surrounded by.  Today, Walker Karraa, PhD reviews a new book geared for professionals and interviews the author, Cheryl Beck, DNSc, CNM, FAAN,  so that we can be better prepared to recognize trauma, support women and provide resources. What are you doing as a birth professional and childbirth educator to help women who may be at risk or or who have experienced birth trauma? – Sharon Muza, Science & Sensibility Community Manager

 …a fascinating and full-bodied presentation of the emerging understanding of the impact of traumatic childbirth on mothers, fathers/partners, and providers.

Traumatic Childbirth1 should be required reading for any birth professional. The trifecta of midwife, pre-eminent researcher and Distinguished Professor at the School of Nursing, University of Connecticut, Cheryl Tatano Beck, clinical nurse specialist in psychiatry, psychotherapist and author Jeanne Watson Driscoll, and survivor, activist and founder of TABS Sue Watson, provides the most comprehensive resource on traumatic childbirth for health professionals to date.

© Cheryl Beck

© Cheryl Beck

Since Cheryl Beck’s ground-breaking research, Birth trauma: in the eye of the beholder2 (2004a), health providers, researchers, and birth professionals have applauded the relevance and strength of Cheryl Beck’s research regarding traumatic childbirth. Her research has covered PTSD following traumatic childbirth3-4, the experience of the anniversary of birth trauma5, breastfeeding after a traumatic birth6, subsequent birth after a previous traumatic birth7, secondary trauma experienced by labor and delivery nurses exposed to traumatic birth8, and multiple publications on research methods and birth trauma 9-12.

In 2006, Cheryl and Jeanne Watson Driscoll (co-author of the landmark Women’s moods: What every woman must know about hormones, the brain, and emotional health13) collaborated on what is still considered a clinical tour de force in perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, Postpartum mood and anxiety disorders: a clinician’s guide14.

TABS (Trauma and Birth Stress) was founded by Sue Watson and colleagues in 1998 and continues to offer current resources and support regarding traumatic childbirth.

In Traumatic Childbirth, Cheryl, Jeanne, and Sue offer their individual expertise as researcher, clinician, and activist and combined wisdom of nearly two decades of work in the field. The result is a compelling read and review of current literature. The case studies are profound examples of the lived experiences of traumatic childbirth. Additionally, after each case Jeanne and Sue offer their own perspectives. It is a fascinating and full-bodied presentation of the emerging understanding of the impact of traumatic childbirth on mothers, fathers/partners, and providers.

I am honored to have had the opportunity to ask Cheryl some questions for Science and Sensibility regarding how childbirth professionals might use Traumatic Childbirth in practice. I know that you will find her insights both useful and encouraging.

Walker Karraa: How has the definition of traumatic childbirth evolved since you began your work?

Cheryl Beck: In the beginning of my research traumatic childbirth was viewed as an event that occurs during labor and delivery that involved actual or threatened serious injury or death to the mother and or her infant. After my first 2 studies on birth trauma and its resulting PTSD what I learned was that traumatic childbirth can also occur even if a woman does not perceive that she or her infant is at risk for serious injury or death. Women can perceive their birth as traumatic if they perceive that they were stripped of their dignity during the birthing process.

WK: How does loss of dignity play a role in the traumatic birth?

CB: One of the most frequent phrases I hear mothers using to describe their traumatic their birth to me was “I felt raped on the delivery table with everyone watching and nobody offering to help me.” Some women shared that they felt like a piece of meat on an assembly line. Women did not feel cared for by the obstetrical team. To me this lack of caring stripped women of a protective layer during their labor and delivery and left them prime to perceive their birth as traumatic.

WK: How important is it for childbirth professionals to understand the subjective experience of childbirth trauma when working with clients?

CB: It is essential for childbirth professionals to hear and really listen to the voices of mothers as they describe what it was about their labor and delivery that was so traumatic. As the title of my first research study tried to impress upon health care providers, birth trauma is in the eye of the beholder. What one woman perceives as a traumatic birth may be viewed quite differently through the eyes of obstetric staff that may see it as a routine birth.

WK: What are some of the ways childbirth educators, doulas, and lactation consultants might use Traumatic Childbirth in developing curriculum or direct service to clients?

CB: Childbirth educators, doulas, and lactation consultants can use the various chapters in Traumatic Childbirth to develop a series of classes for education. Examples of some of these chapters in the book include:

  • Risk factors for postpartum posttraumatic stress
  • Assessment and diagnosis
  • Instruments to screen for PTSD
  • Impact of traumatic childbirth on breastfeeding
  • Anniversary of birth trauma
  • Subsequent childbirth after a previous traumatic birth
  • Treatment methods for PTSD
  • Fathers and traumatic childbirth

WK: As doulas are increasingly becoming a part of birth team, they too are exposed to traumatic births that may lead to distress, impairment and disability in their work. Given the findings in your recent study11 regarding secondary traumatic stress for labor and delivery nurses, I wonder what your thoughts are regarding how doulas might prepare, or even prevent secondary trauma for themselves using Traumatic Childbirth?

 

© Cheryl Beck

© Cheryl Beck

CB: In 1989 Charles Figley15  first wrote about the “cost of caring” for supporters of traumatized victims. He called it secondary traumatic stress or compassion fatigue. Doulas who have built up such a close relationship with the women they are supporting through labor and delivery certainly are at risk of developing secondary traumatic stress. Continuing education is a must for doulas to learn about their risk of secondary traumatic stress and the symptoms they should be watching. Self-awareness of these symptoms is essential so that doulas can get the help they need. Doulas need to learn how to nourish their mind-body-spirit. Debriefing sessions, support groups, and opportunities for doulas to share the traumatic childbirths they have been present for are necessary.

WK: I so appreciate the inclusion of fathers in your book. When I was practicing as a doula I had several fathers who they themselves had risk factors for traumatic stress due to experiences in military or law enforcement. Knowing that upfront, we were able to strategize labor and birth in ways to mitigate exposure to triggers (i.e. < seeing too much blood, not being able to see an open door, etc.). How could Traumatic Childbirth help childbirth educators include partners in the conversation about traumatic childbirth?

CB: Researchers are finding that fathers can also develop posttraumatic stress symptoms as a result of being present at their partner’s traumatic childbirth. This possibility for fathers should be address in one of the childbirth classes. As one father in a research study of mine and Sue Watson’s shared “I am on an island watching my wife drown and I don’t know how to swim! I not only do not know how to swim but I was drowning myself. But I am a man, I do not need help-John Wayne, you know. I was fooling myself at the expense of my wife and myself.” This quote impresses on childbirth educators their responsibility to also be helping the fathers and support them if he and his partner have experienced a birth trauma.

WK: One of the things I note is that we don’t yet have support systems within childbirth organizations to help our childbirth educators and doulas seek support for themselves, or colleagues who suffer extreme distress after attending traumatic births. This is particularly devastating for new doulas who may not know their own risk factors, or the signs and symptoms of traumatic stress following exposure to traumatic childbirth. What are some ways childbirth organizations such as Lamaze can use Traumatic Childbirth to inform policy and prevent secondary traumatic stress in doulas and childbirth educators?

CB: At the annual conferences of these organizations, workshops, sessions, or keynotes on secondary traumatic stress due to traumatic childbirth are a must. The first step in helping to prevent this or minimize secondary traumatic stress is education. Breakout sessions at the conferences could be offered by a mental health care professional for doulas, lactation consultants, and childbirth educators to provide an opportunity for them to share their traumatic experiences.

Conclusion

For those who have followed the research on traumatic birth, this book has been a long time coming! Traumatic Childbirth is a highly readable, compelling and comprehensive collection of research, practice, and perspective that speaks to the birth professional’s sensibilities. I highly encourage the discussion of implementing this material as required reading, and instituting the suggestions of debriefing workshops for professionals. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this, as well as the book!

I know I speak for so many in thanking Cheryl Beck for her input, and to both Jeanne Driscoll and Sue Watson for their tremendous contributions in Traumatic Childbirth, and their dedication to the prevention and treatment of traumatic birth.

References

  1. Beck, C. T., Driscoll, J.W., & Watson, S. (2013). Traumatic childbirth. New York, NY: Routledge.
  2. Beck, C. T. (2004). Birth trauma: in the eye of the beholder. Nursing research, 53(1), 28-35.
  3. Beck, C. T. (2004). Post-traumatic stress disorder due to childbirth: the aftermath. Nursing Research, 53(4), 216-224.
  4. Beck, C. T. (2011). A metaethnography of traumatic childbirth and its aftermath: Amplifying causal looping. Qualitative Health Research, 21(3), 301-311.
  5. Beck, C. T. (2006). The anniversary of birth trauma: failure to rescue. Nursing research, 55(6), 381-390.
  6. Beck, C. T., & Watson, S. (2008). Impact of birth trauma on breast-feeding: a tale of two pathways. Nursing Research, 57(4), 228-236.
  7. Beck, C. T., & Watson, S. (2010). Subsequent childbirth after a previous traumatic birth. Nursing research, 59(4), 241-249.
  8. Beck, CT, & Gable, RK (2012). A mixed methods study of secondary traumatic stress in labor and delivery nurses. Journal of Obstetric Gynecological and Neonatal Nursing, 41, 747-760. doi:10.1111/j.1552-6909.2012.01386.x
  9. Beck, C. T. (2005). Benefits of participating in Internet interviews: Women helping women. Qualitative health research, 15(3), 411-422.
  10. Beck, C. T. (2006). Pentadic cartography: Mapping birth trauma narratives. Qualitative Health Research, 16(4), 453-466.
  11. Beck, C. T., Gable, R. K., Sakala, C., & Declercq, E. R. (2011). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in New Mothers: Results from a Two‐Stage US National Survey. Birth, 38(3), 216-227.
  12. Beck, C. T. (2009). Critiquing qualitative research. AORN journal, 90(4), 543-554.
  13. Sichel, D., & Driscoll, J. W. (1999). Women’s moods: What every woman must know about hormones, the brain, and emotional health. New York: William Morrow.
  14. Beck, C. T., & Driscoll, J. (2006). Postpartum mood and anxiety disorders: A clinician’s guide. Jones & Bartlett Learning.
  15. Figley, C. R. (Ed.). (1989). Treating stress in families (No. 13). Psychology Press.

 

 

 

Birth Trauma, Book Reviews, Childbirth Education, Guest Posts, Trauma work , , , , , ,

What is Pregnancy Negation? What is the Childbirth Professional’s Role?

November 14th, 2013 by avatar

Today on the blog, regular contributor Kathy Morelli shares information on an uncommon but very serious mental health disorder called pregnancy negation (pregnancy denial and pregnancy concealment) that can occur in women.  This unusual phenomena may never have crossed your radar or you may have met women who have experienced this situation.    Learn more here about this illness and what you can do as a childbirth professional, should you meet a woman or family dealing with this situation. –  Sharon Muza, Community Manager for Science & Sensibility.

Original Painting © Johann Heinrich Füssli

The research studies about negation of pregnancy generally consist of small sample sizes, so there isn’t a lot of data available about negation of pregnancy. More study is needed in order to understand this topic more thoroughly. I do see this phenomena in my psychotherapy practice, so I believe it’s a topic that birth professionals might see it in their community as well.

Negation of pregnancy, a term that encompasses both pregnancy denial and pregnancy concealment, are rare, but not uncommon, disorders of pregnancy. One in 475 pregnancies result in negation of pregnancy. A very minute portion of this statistic results in neonaticide- the act of killing a baby in the first 24 hours of life (Beier et al, 2006).

As with other psychological conditions, the underlying etiology of negation of pregnancy exists on a spectrum. The person can suffer from a lifelong, persistent “splitting” of the self due to trauma, she can suffer from a persistent biological mental illness, such as schizophrenia, or she can be experiencing a type of severe adjustment disorder.

Current research indicates that not all women who experience negation of pregnancy have previous diagnoses of serious and persistent mental illness. Some women who experience negation of pregnancy have pre-existing diagnoses of biploar with psychotic features and schizophrenia, and psychosis is part of their life experiences. But others do not have a previous diagnosis and after integrating the episode of negation of pregnancy, they adjust to their life situation and cope realistically.

Definition 

Pregnancy denial is defined as a woman’s unawareness, in varying degrees, of her pregnancy. Pregnancy concealment is defined as actively deciding and hiding the pregnancy from others. Pregnancy denial and pregnancy concealment often co-occur and occur intermittently. There is usually a great deal of shame, fear, guilt and dissociation, a strong psychological and emotional defense, accompanying this disorder. Due to the level of emotional conflict around the pregnancy, there are gradations of denial and complexity and subtlety of emotional response from both the pregnant woman and those around her.

The term negation of pregnancy is also used to encompass and describe these co-occuring disorders, whereas the internal process is called denial and the external process is called concealment. Therefore, it is considered the same process, but the woman’s defense mechanisms vary in intensity.

Neonaticide, the killing of an infant on the day of birth, is a form of infanticide that is often preceded by pregnancy denial. Neonaticide can be one of the complications of pregnancy denial.

Pregnancy denial is a real phenomena that has a long history of documentation, by doctors, mothers, their families and artists.

One famous literary exploration of pregnancy denial and neonaticide is illustrated in George Eliot’s novel, Adam Beade, published in 1859. It is the novel of a woman’s experience, examining the intersection between women’s unique emotions around reproduction and their disempowered social standing. Taking place in 1799, the story is about a love triangle involving Hetty, a 17 year old girl. She becomes pregnant out of wedlock. Hetty knows she is pregnant, but never openly acknowledges this. She knows she will face extreme shame and ostracization by the town, should anyone find out. She successfully hides her pregnancy and gives birth to her baby in a field. She commits neonaticide, abandoning her baby boy where she birthed him.

Characteristics of Women Who Negate Pregnancy

Early research indicated that pregnancy denial and neonaticide is more likely to occur  in women who are young and unmarried, where the relationship with the father is dissolving or non-existent and the woman lives at home with relatives.

However, more recent research shows that pregnancy denial and neonaticide occurs in women of all age groups, cultures and marital status in response to a conflicted pregnancy. Many women already have several other children, so it is not always the first time mother who negates her pregnancy.

Research by Shelton and colleagues (2011) indicates that pregnancy at an early age, multiple young children, a history of childhood abuse and trauma, current fear of abandonment (even if in a stable relationship), and a deprived social situation are all risk factors and common characteristics for women who negate their pregnancy.

The pathway to pregnancy denial and concealment often begins with an unplanned pregnancy. The woman has accompanying feelings of extreme fear and shame. She begins with pregnancy concealment. She hides her pregnancy with baggy clothes and isolates herself in her room. To help facilitate concealment, she sees less and less of people. Thus, she becomes more and more emotionally isolated.

Eventually, she finds she has no one to confide in. This results in a vicious cycle, and her emotional defenses develop a sense of pregnancy denial. The pregnancy denial is described by researchers as intermittent, her lack of self-awareness comes and goes and she is able to compartmentalize her pregnancy. She successfully dissociates from her body sensations.

The denial and dissociation is so potent that women often describe beginning birth pains as flu symptoms, gas pain and menstrual cramps. Women often go to the bathroom and deliver the baby silently, with others nearby. Women often describe the feeling of giving birth like having to defecate and are shocked when a baby appears.

Women in this type of delivery report dissociative symptoms at the birth and afterward when coping with the newborn. Women also often report a fantasy that the infant was preterm or stillborn. Often, sadly, the outcome for infants born to women who are experiencing negation of pregnancy are death a short time after birth, either from drowning in a toilet bowl, or hitting their head on the floor in a precipitous, unassisted birth.

Another fascinating aspect of pregnancy concealment and denial is that the family and even doctors are drawn into “community denial” by the emotional intensity of the denial. Interestingly, in one study, only 5 out of 28 women studied who negated their pregnancy had any family members inquire about their pregnancy at all (Amon et al, 2012)! Another study indicates that even long term family doctors who know the woman well will sometimes fail to diagnose the pregnancy (Amon et al, 2012).

Treatment

Treatment for negation of pregnancy is as nuanced and varied as each individual case. Whenever there is dissociation of parts of reality and parts of the self, the treatment path can include techniques used to treat post-traumatic stress. Such techniques would include EMDR, guided imagery, object relations techniques embedded in an overall therapeutic structure that balances leaving a woman’s psychological defenses intact, while at the same time helping her through her issues of denial (Anonymous, 2003).

Depending on the cause and severity of the negation of pregnancy, the processing of dissociated emotional material, the buried shame, the confusing physical symptoms, and the integration of the parts of her self could take place over an extended period of time in a safe, therapeutic atmosphere.

In general, directly asking or accusing a woman who is negating her pregnancy about her situation isn’t an effective treatment method. In order to survive, the person has most likely developed a method of dissociative “splitting” or “compartmentalizing” differing parts of the self. It is a normal psychological response to dissociate from trauma in order to survive. Dissociative coping exists along a continuum, from intermittent denial to having developed separate parts of the self to contain the trauma (Amon, 2012; Anonymous, 2003).

For example, in order to survive complex emotional trauma, such as childhood abuse, incest, rape, pregnancy from rape/incest, a woman would survive by dissociating. She may have unconsciously developed a way to “split” or “compartmentalize” parts of her self. Her unconscious coping mechanism assigns one part of the self to be covertly sexually active while another part of the self overtly maintains the social and familial facade that she is not sexually active. The psychological defenses can be so strong that she has intermittent dissociative awareness about her pregnancy and even amnesia around childbirth.

On the other hand, a woman may be experiencing a less mild form of dissociation and negation of pregnancy. She may need time to integrate her pregnancy into her life and shift towards healthy adjustment, coping and planning.

What birth professionals can do

If you suspect you have encountered a woman with this condition, be aware of your own reactions to her situation. Convey an accepting attitude about her situation. It’s best not to ask her overt questions about her circumstances. Ask open-ended questions, wait for her responses. 

Importantly, convey an accepting attitude about sexuality, pregnancy and motherhood, without being overt.

Have a good set of referrals to health professionals, including mental health professionals,  in your area. You may not be able to help her in the moment, but there may be another time you’ll see her and she might be open to accepting help. Your accepting attitude could be part of her healing and reaching out.

Conclusion

To sum up, negation of pregnancy has been documented in the popular literature and in medical literature for many years. It was once thought that negation of pregnancy only occurs in young and unmarried women, but current research shows that older women with multiple children experience this as well. It is a condition of many emotional and psychological nuances. In a very rare number of cases, can lead to neonaticide.

As a birth professional in your community, you can help by developing an awareness and understanding of negation of pregnancy as a real condition, with many emotional and psychological nuances. By being accepting and by having a solid set of referrals for her and her family if she reaches out to you. More study is needed in order to understand this topic more thoroughly. 

References

Amon, S., Putkonon, H., Weizmann-Henelius, G., Almiron, M.P., Gormann, A.K., Voracke, M., Eronen, M., Yourstone, J., Friedrich, M. & Klier, C.M. (2012). Potential predictors in neonaticide: the impact of the circumstances of pregnancy. Archive of Women’s Mental Health, 15, 167-174.

Anonymous (2003). How Could Anyone Do That? A therapists struggle with countertransference. In M.G. Spinelli (Ed.), Infanticide: Psychosocial and Legal Perspectives on Mothers Who Kill (pp. 201 – 208). American Psychiatric Publishing, Washington, D.C.

Shelton, J.L, Corey, T., Donaldson, W.H. & Dennison, E.H. (2011). Neonaticide: A comprehensive review of investigative and pathologic aspects of 55 cases. Journal of Family Violence, 26, 263-276.

Miller, L. J. (2003). Denial of Pregnancy. In M.G. Spinelli (Ed.), Infanticide: Psychosocial and Legal Perspectives on Mothers Who Kill (pp. 81- 103). American Psychiatric Publishing, Washington, D.C.

Spinelli, M. G., (2003). Neonaticide: A systematic investigation of 17 cases. In M.G. Spinelli (Ed.), Infanticide: Psychosocial and Legal Perspectives on Mothers Who Kill (pp. 105 – 118). American Psychiatric Publishing, Washington, D.C.

About Kathy Morelli

Kathy Morelli is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Wayne, NJ and the Director of BirthTouch®, LLC. She provides Marriage and Family counseling in Wayne, New Jersey with a special interest in perinatal mood disorders, sexual abuse and its impact on parenting. EMDR is one of the mindbody therapies she uses to address trauma.   She blogs about the emotions of pregnancy, birth, postpartum and couples. Kathy is the author of BirthTouch® for Parents-To-Be and BirthTouch® Healing for Parents in the NICU. Kathy has lectured on BirthTouch® at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey’s Semmelweis Conference for Midwifery and at birth conferences. She presents trainings to allied health/birth organizations about maternal mental health, family systems and good-enough parenting and is found on web media, such as PBS’ This Emotional Life, writing and speaking about this subject. She volunteers on Postpartum Support International’s warmline. Kathy co-moderates #MHON , a psycho-educational and supportive Twitter chat led by credentialed Mental Health professionals around mental health issues, working to reduce the stigma around mental illness.

 

 

 

 

 

Babies, Birth Trauma, Childbirth Education, Depression, Guest Posts, Infant Attachment, Maternity Care, News about Pregnancy, Parenting an Infant, Prenatal Illness, Trauma work , , , , , , ,

EMDR Part Three: Listening to Women; Personal Experiences of EMDR for Treating PTSD

February 28th, 2013 by avatar

In this series about EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), Part One looked at qualitative research evaluating EMDR as treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (childbirth onset). In Part Two, EMDR clinicians weighed in on their feelings about the safety of EMDR during pregnancy. When those EMDR posts were published, I received a lot of behind the scenes feedback from women who either loved or hated their experiences with EMDR; there didn’t seem to be a middle ground!

Women Thrive When They Learn Emotional Skills Istock/GoldenKB

I felt these women’s voices need to be heard (many thanks to Sharon Muza, S&S Community Manager, for her gracious agreement!) The results are here: four interviews conducted with four real women who suffered from trauma in the perinatal period and tried EMDR.

It’s unfortunate these lovely women suffered extreme emotional turmoil at such an important time in their life; when they were working and hoping to build their emergent family and when they were primarily responsible for the safety and care of their infants.

Through sharing their stories, all women indicated to me that they hope that their voices will contribute to the collective movement to incorporate mental health care into the overall care of women and their families in the childbearing year.

Characteristics of Their Trauma

All of the women interviewed experienced trauma in the early postpartum period. Three suffered specifically from birth trauma; all experienced a severe perinatal mood disorder. Three of the women additionally were coping with complex, long-term, multi-layered emotional trauma, stemming back to abuse in childhood.

All of the women interviewed were seeing licensed therapists who incorporated EMDR into their overall treatment plan for trauma. Some asked to have their identities masked, so identifying details and names are obscured, but the overall personal statements and feelings are preserved.

They are empowering to all of us in that ALL of them valued their mental health and were brave enough to seek professional help!

Personal Healing Processes

The women interviewed are all emotionally mature adults. They’re aware of their life situations and the impact of trauma on their well-being. They’ve worked hard to explore and develop life-long skills and methods of managing their emotions. Thus, these are all women who are proactive, sophisticated and intelligent about their emotional healing processes. Before they used EMDR, all of the women had already incorporated many forms of healing into their personal self-care plans.

Their self-care plans included: long-term psychotherapy, journaling, expressive therapies such as art, music and movement, yoga, exercising, gardening, cognitive behavioral therapy, goal setting and medication. One woman indicated she was in so much pain from long-term, severe, past abuse she had seriously discussed electroconsulsive therapy with her psychiatrist. So, when their trusted therapists suggested trying EMDR, specifically designed to treat trauma, all the women agreed.

Personal Perinatal Traumatic Events:

In their own words, the women share their individualized, personal perinatal trauma experiences below.

Birth Trauma:

Kim (not her real name) shares her traumatic birth story:

“My son was born after an easy pregnancy but a complicated birth. I’d very nearly had a vaginal birth; the nurses could see the top of his head, but it was turning to the side each time I pushed. After nearly 2 hours of this, I underwent a c-section because I had spiked a fever and things were not progressing. During my c-section, I was overcome by anxiety and completely paralyzed by fear.

I literally thought I was dying as my son was being born, yet due to the panic, I was unable to verbalize this fear to anyone.

I spent that time shaking and having what I thought were my last panicked thoughts and breaths. It was the the most afraid I’ve ever been in my entire life, and also the most alone I’d felt, despite being surrounded by others.

After the surgery, I wasn’t able to hold my son for 3 hours. I spent the time in recovery, scared that something were wrong and nobody was telling me. I am still not sure of the reason for the delay.

My maternity leave felt long, due to postpartum anxiety and depression and a baby who barely slept and I cried nonstop some days. I felt like a terrible mother who was unable to console her child or enjoy him. I felt tremendous guilt. In addition to the emotional aspects, my c-section scar was not healing properly, so I felt as if I were constantly making a 30-mile trek (newborn in tow) to my ob-gyn’s office for checkups. “

Birth Trauma Layered on Childhood Trauma:

Karen (not her real name) said:

“My very traumatic birth triggered already active memories of severe childhood abuse, parental suicidal attempts in front of me, active alcoholism & substance abuse in the family and severe childhood neglect.”

Helen (not her real name) said:

“I was working on birth trauma at the start of the EMDR, but later on, abuse, illnesses, and marital distress. I was mainly focused on the birth trauma I had experienced when I used EMDR.”

Postpartum Traumatic Event Layered on Childhood Trauma:

Jessica Banas explained her perinatal trauma as such:

“I was traumatized by my childhood with my father. He was very emotionally abusive. Seeing him overdose (on a drug called GHB) the first night my parents were to supposed to have been watching my infant son for me, so I could rest, felt like the ultimate betrayal. Once again, not only were they NOT there for ME, but I had to SAVE them (again) instead!!!”

Women’s Experiences Show Us Moms with PTSD Suffer Co-morbid Perinatal Depression & Anxiety

It is fascinating and sad that all three women with pre-existing trauma stated their prior trauma was re-triggered by a perinatal traumatic event (traumatic birth or other traumatic event postpartum). And all four suffered from severe postpartum depression and anxiety after their traumatic perinatal event. A woman’s mental health is an important aspect of the childbearing year.

As discussed in a previous blog post, one in four women suffers depression at some point in her life, and women are more likely to suffer depression during and shortly after pregnancy than at any other time (Nonacs, 2006). Ruta Nonacs, MD (2011), editor-in-chief of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center of Women’s Mental Health’s website estimates annually in the US, there are about 4 million births, and about 950,000 to 1,000,000 mothers suffer from depression either during or after childbirth every year. 

Having a personal history of a mental illness in her lifetime, such as depression, anxiety, PTS/PTSD, OCD or bipolar disorder (remember, this is whether it was diagnosed & treated or undiagnosed & untreated) increases a woman’s risk of postpartum depression. A previous history of previous postpartum depression increases a woman’s risk of a recurrence to 50 – 80 % risk of recurrent PPD, as compared to a 10- 20% risk factor without having had a prior episode.

It’s important to note that the women’s constellation of PTSD symptoms intensified and they developed severe postpartum depression and anxiety.

Jessica eloquently states how important women’s mental health is to the postpartum period:

” One important symptom of my PTSD that complicated and worsened my PPD was when my infant son would cry and interrupt my ruminations of my father Od-ing. I’d get angry….that would trigger thoughts of wanting to harm my son and cause me great anxiety and incredible guilt…..there were many times I was too afraid if I went to tend to him, I’d treat him harshly, or hurt him This created such a sense of worthlessness and shame, I thought of suicide one night. Instead, I told my husband and we reached out and got help.

It is a very important aspect of PTSD in that I am personally aware how detrimental it is on PPD. My PPD rapidly escalated after getting PTSD. And one seemed to feed on the other. Getting treated for BOTH issues was very important.”

Women’s Experiences Show Us the EMDR Outcomes

Two very positive experiences

Kim’s Experience with Traumatic Birth & Postpartum Anxiety & EMDR

Kim, who suffered from birth trauma and postpartum anxiety, had a positive experience with EMDR. Here is her story of healing.

Kim said that her therapist incorporated EMDR into her current psychotherapy sessions. She said she hadn’t realized that she’d been suffering with PTSD until almost a year after the incident. She says she discovered her anxiety was stemming from a traumatic birth experience at a therapy session:

Kim says:

“…of course I’d had PTSD from thinking I was dying while my son was being born! My anxiety, which had a lot to do with waiting for something terrible to happen to me or my son, started to make sense in light of this new revelation.”

Kim experienced the EMDR itself as calming. She held tappers in her hands while her therapist led her through visualizations. Her therapist warned her that EMDR could be emotionally triggering and if she needed to call her, she was welcome to do so. And it was triggering for Kim. After her first session, she suffered from an anxiety attack and had to call her therapist, and received the help she needed.

Ultimately, Kim’s overall experience with EMDR was emotionally freeing and healing.

She goes on to say:

“Up until the EMDR, I was unable to speak about my c-section at all. I couldn’t see anything related to the birth experience (with or without c-sections involved) on television, either. If I caught a glimpse of a birth on TV, I cried. I had a lot of anxiety on the few occasions I tried to watch A Baby Story on TLC, as a test to see how I felt watching another woman’s experience.

After EMDR a few times, I became more comfortable thinking about and processing my experience, and even eventually talking about it with others. I no longer viewed my scar as something horrible and ugly. Having EMDR gave me back my confidence because it helped me stop seeing myself as a failure (because I needed a c-section instead of birthing vaginally). “

Kim would recommend EMDR to another person trying to recover from trauma, but with some warnings about the emotional response.

Jessica’s Experience of Postpartum Traumatic Event, PPD, Suicidal Ideation & EMDR

Jessica, who experienced the trauma of her father’s overdose while her parents were supposed to be watching her baby, had a positive experience with EMDR. Here is her story of healing:

Jessica said that her therapist incorporated EMDR into her current psychotherapy sessions. Her therapist suggested she try something “new” that would remove the sting of the trauma from her mind. Jessica was skeptical but thought she’d give it a try.

Jessica says:

“The EMDR was pretty much wrapped around by talk therapy in that we’d start out by talking and end up by talking… EMDR took the emotional ties from the traumatic memories away. I no longer find myself reliving any of those memories that were treated with EMDR. I no longer feel any emotional pain from the OD event. I have no loss of sleep, anger, depression, or any anxiety over that event.”

Jessica says she did not find the EMDR emotionally triggering at all, but many childhood memories came flooding back. .

“Not at all…frankly, I thought it was lame at first (wiggling a finger in my face? REALLY?) and had no hope it would have ANY effect at all. Once we (quickly) healed the OD trauma, memories from my childhood did come flooding back! I found that to be very interesting! Fortunately, my childhood was not as terrible as many, so I could handle this phenomenon.”

Jessica recommends EMDR:

“…as long as the person is seeing a well trained, compassionate therapist! EMDR helped me and I have gone on to suggest it to other people who were in pain as I was….those people have been healed by EMDR as well….I find it a useful treatment and extremely non-invasive compared to other treatments!!”

Two very negative experiences

Karen’s Experience with Birth Trauma, Past Trauma, PPD, PPA & EMDR

“My experience was physical and emotional and in both cases negative. I felt physically ill, vertigo, nausea. Disorientation, short-term memory loss, headache. Emotionally, it was detrimental as it brought up my most difficult trauma and I felt completely triggered. I tried to hang in there with the process, but only did a few sessions. The EMDR sessions were not processed with in-between traditional talk therapy sessions. The EMDR made my symptoms worse, my anxiety worse, and the neurological side-effects were horrible. While my therapist did a wonderful job at regrouping,  after we decided to stop doing it, I actually went up on my medications and saw her 2x a week for a while. It was just too much. What I think had happened to me was more resurfacing of old memories that I had compartmentalized in years of talk therapy and medication. I actually think I needed a medication adjustment when I was so desperate for relief. “

Karen would not personally recommend EMDR to another.

Helen’s Experience with Birth Trauma, Past Trauma, Postpartum Mental Health Complications & EMDR

“My therapist suggested the EMDR may be helpful for both traumas (birth and childhood). I had 6 sessions that were each an hour long. Some of this process was also traditional talk therapy in between the EMDR. I found EMDR not helpful in treating my traumas.”

“It was extremely triggering and the therapist pushed me into a lot of it. She would try to help me regroup by taking deep breaths and little breaks in between. But I always felt drained after each session and even more triggered with PTSD.”

Helen would not recommend EMDR for another person:

“I do not think I would personally recommend EMDR to another person for a trauma. I believe the therapist shoved me into it too soon and left me for days swirling in the emotions of that. I have heard it can be wonderful and healing for others. For me, it triggered too much to soon and my experienced left me more traumatized. I can’t think of those (EMDR) coping skills and techniques without feeling overwhelmed with memories.” 

Conclusions

As we can see from real women’s experiences, EMDR was extremely triggering to two of the women, but resolved emotional distress well for the two other women. Again we are reminded that one size does not fit all when it comes to treating mental health.

The women’s experiences indicated that when working with EMDR for trauma, even experienced and trusted therapists encountered strong triggering responses in their clients. In these instances, these therapists needed to know how to appropriately re-group and therapeutically support their clients either in the session and/or be appropriately available outside of scheduled sessions.

It was not appropriate for a therapist to urge a client to try or keep using EMDR if the client did not really want to, or if the client was having an overall non-therapeutic effect.

As we can see from these real women’s experiences, the treatment of post-traumatic stress has the potential to be devastating to the client as far as awakening or re-triggering compartmentalized past emotional distress.

In this small article and small example, it is interesting to me that the four women who volunteered to share their stories in this small had extreme reactions to EMDR, none neutral. These results reinforce my usual conservative approach to managing emotional distress, that is, if one is suffering from debilitating mental and emotional distress, it is best to consult with a licensed professional.

What I find empowering about these interviews is that ALL of these women VALUED their mental health and were brave enough to seek help. Fight the stigma! Don’t be afraid to get help!

Author’s Note: None of these women were or are my clients. I sought out non-clients for the purpose of these interviews.

References

Nonacs, R. (2006). A deeper shade of blue. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Birth Trauma, Cesarean Birth, Childbirth Education, Depression, Do No Harm, EMDR, Evidence Based Medicine, Maternal Mental Health, Perinatal Mood Disorders, Postpartum Depression, Pregnancy Complications, PTSD, Research, Trauma work , , , , , , , ,

The Unexpected Project: Pre-eclampsia Researched, Revealed and Reviewed. Part II of an interview with Jennifer Carney

February 7th, 2013 by avatar

By: Walker Karraa

Regular contributor Walker Karraa wraps up her interview with Jennifer Carney, who became active with The Preeclampsia Foundation and the Unexpected Project after suffering from eclampsia while pregnant with her second child.  Have you had to answer any questions in your classes or with your clients and patients after the recent episode of Downton Abbey, where one of the characters developed eclampsia?  What have you shared with your pregnant families? Part one of Walker’s interview with Jennifer Carney can be found here. – Sharon Muza, Community Manager.  

Walker: What do you see are the common myths regarding pre-eclampsia?

JC: Common myths? Oh, there are so many. A lot of people seem to think they know what causes preeclampsia and how to cure it. There’s a whole faction of advocates who buy into the work of Dr. Tom Brewer, who in the 1960′s, devised a very high protein diet for mothers based on the idea that preeclampsia is caused by malnutrition. This isn’t supported by the current research, but it gets repeated all the time. Other people argue that preeclampsia is a so-called “lifestyle” disease – caused by obesity and poor prenatal care. Obesity is a risk factor, but it is only one of many and poor prenatal care can cause the disease to go undetected, but it will not cause it to happen in the first place. There are also a lot of people who think that the delivery of the baby will end the risk to the mother – and while it’s true that the removal of the placenta is essential, preeclampsia or eclampsia can still happen up to 6 weeks after delivery. There are other myths, but it strikes me that so many of these myths are rooted in a desire to control pregnancy. If we can blame preeclampsia on one central cause or on the women who develop it themselves, then we can reassure ourselves that we won’t develop it, too. There are risk factors that can increase a woman’s chances of developing the disease, but women without any known risk factors have developed it, too.

It’s not comforting to think that no one is safe, but with knowledge of the signs and symptoms – a woman can react to it promptly and receive the care that she needs. But this will only happen if women get the information and understand that it CAN happen to them. I am blown away by the ways in which preeclampsia and other serious complications are downplayed and dismissed in pregnancy books, online and even by some medical practitioners. Preeclampsia CAN happen to you – but you can deal with it IF you know the signs and the symptoms.

Walker: Can you share with our readers what you are doing with Anne Garrett Addison at The Unexpected Project?

JC: The Unexpected Project is a documentary, website, and book project that will examine the rate of maternal deaths and near-misses in the United States. Anne Garrett Addison, who founded the Preeclampsia Foundation, and I are both classified as near-misses due to preeclampsia. With Unexpected, we want to take a look at all maternal deaths regardless of the cause – preeclampsia, amniotic fluid embolism, hemorrhage, placenta previa, placental abruption, infection, suicide, and any other causes. We also want to look at the women who survived these complications because the line between surviving and dying is in these cases, often quite thin. Every case is different and there is no one factor to blame for the maternal death rate in the US. We will look at interventions and cesarean sections, but we will also look at the lack of information available to women and the tendency of some birth activists to minimize the dangers of serious birth complications.

Current Preeclampsia/Eclampsia StatisticsMaternal mortality and morbidity are, unfortunately, a part of the pregnancy and childbirth experience for women and their families in the US and the world.  While most (99%) of maternal mortalities occur in the developing world, the 1% that occur in developed countries like the US are still of concern to maternity care providers and advocates.  Indeed, U.S. still ranks 50th in the world for its maternal mortality rate (1).

More common than a maternal death, are severe short- or long-term morbidities due to obstetric complications (2).  Some estimate that unexpected complications occur in up to 15% of women who are otherwise healthy at term (2).  

In particular, hypertensive disorders of pregnancy, including elevated blood pressure, preeclampsia, eclampsia and HELLP syndrome are estimated to affect 12-22% of pregnant women and their babies worldwide each year. (3)  Adverse neonatal outcomes are higher for infants born to women with pregnancies complicated by hypertension.  

In the U.S., upwards of 8 percent or 300,000 pregnant or postpartum women develop preeclampsia or the related condition, HELLP syndrome each year. This number is growing as more women enter pregnancy already hypertensive (cite).  Preeclampsia is still a leading cause of pregnancy-related death in the US and one of the most preventable.  Annually, approximately 300 women die and another 75,000 women experience “near misses” – severe complications and injury such as organ failure, massive blood loss, permanent disability, and premature birth or death of their babies.  Usually, the disease resolves with the birth of the baby and placenta. But, it can occur postpartum–indeed, most maternal deaths occur after delivery.

Recent statistics from Christine Morton, PhD.

The trend toward “normal” or “natural” birth does not seem to allow a lot of space for our stories to be heard or to be told. This has the effect of making survivors feel marginalized – as though their experience is somehow too far outside “normal” to be a part of the overall conversation. The one constant of all of our stories is that none of us expected to become statistics. Our birth plans did not include emergency cesarean sections, seizures, ICUs, blood transfusions, strokes, hysterectomies, CPR, prematurity, PTSD, depression, or death. No one was more surprised than us. This isn’t about assigning blame – this is about finding answers, improving birth for ALL moms to come, and learning to live with the unexpected.

Walker: How did you get involved with researching for the Preeclampsia Foundation?

JC: I started out volunteering with the March of Dimes in the spring following my son’s birth. I started a walk team and raised money, hoping that I would be able to meet other moms who had been through something similar. I felt very alone in the months following his birth. I was dealing with postpartum depression (PPD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms and struggling to feel normal again. I had a premature infant – which meant sleeping through the night was a problem for a long time. When I returned to work, I was greeted by a coworker who declared that she now no longer wanted to have children because of what I had gone through. This weighed heavily on me – and I felt like I was the cautionary tale, the one bad pregnancy story that everyone knows. I know I had never heard a story as bad as mine – so I felt deflated, flattened by the whole thing.

With the March of Dimes, I found moms to help me deal with the preemie part of it. As he matured and grew out of the preemie issues, I found that I still had a lot of issues to deal with regarding my own health – both physically and mentally. I decided to volunteer with the Preeclampsia Foundation after they merged with the HELLP Syndrome Society.  The Preeclampsia Foundation is much smaller than the March of Dimes, which allowed me to be much more active as a volunteer. I was able to use my writing and editing skills to work on the newsletter – and when I suggested that someone do a review of the available pregnancy literature based on how well they cover preeclampsia, I was given the opportunity to conduct that research and write the report myself. This was something I had been doing informally in bookstores for a while anyway, so it felt good to be able to look at the literature and confirm that the information really is severely lacking if not downright misleading in a large number of so-called comprehensive books. It really isn’t my fault that I missed the symptoms.

This year, I am coordinating the Orange County, California Promise Walk in Irvine as part of the foundation’s main fundraising campaign on May 18. I am hoping to bring a mental health expert from the California Maternal Mental Health Collaborative out to the walk to talk to the moms about dealing with the emotional impact of their birth experiences.  Many of these moms lost babies, delivered preemies, or suffered severe health issues of their own. Our community as a whole is at a very high risk for mental health issues, myself included.

It wasn’t until this year – 6 years after the birth of my son – that I finally sought professional help dealing with the PTSD from the very difficult birth experience. I feel that the volunteer work helped fill that spot for the past 6 years and brought me to the point where I can now process the trauma in a healthy way. I am not happy that I had eclampsia, but I am beyond grateful for all of the great people that it has indirectly brought into my life.

Closing Thoughts

To have to wait 6 years to receive the vital treatment for PTSD is a travesty. We are so thankful that Jennifer survived both the initial trauma, but endured its legacy of traumatic stress that lingers today. Unfortunately, PTSD subsequent to traumatic childbirth is growing in prevalence, and under-recognized by the majority of women’s health and maternity care providers.  I have learned a great deal from Jennifer and look forward to the work she and her colleagues will continue to do for the benefit of all women.

References

1.  WHO. Trends in maternal mortality: 1990 to 2008 estimates developed by WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA and The World Bank, World Health Organization 2010, Annex 1. 2010. http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2010/9789241500265_eng.pdf. Last accessed:January 3, 2011.

2. Guise, J-M.  Anticipating and responding to obstetric emergencies.  Best Practice and Research Clinical Obstetrics and Gynaecology. 2007; 21 (4): 625-638

3. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Diagnosis and management of preeclampsia and eclampsia; ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 33. Obstetrics & Gynecology. 2002;99:159-167. 

 

Birth Trauma, Childbirth Education, Depression, Guest Posts, Maternal Mental Health, Maternal Mortality, Maternity Care, News about Pregnancy, Postpartum Depression, Pre-eclampsia, Pre-term Birth, Pregnancy Complications, PTSD , , , , , , , , , , ,

Beyond Downton Abbey: The True Life Trauma of Pre-eclampsia, Eclampsia, and Its Psychological Aftermath—An Interview with Jennifer Carney of The Unexpected Project

February 5th, 2013 by avatar

By Walker Karraa

Regular contributor Walker Karraa interviews Jennifer Carney, a mother of two, who suffered from eclampsia at the beginning of her third trimester.  Jennifer shares her real life story, on the heels of a favorite character’s similar experience on the popular TV show “Downton Abbey.”  Today, we learn about Jennifer’s experience and on Thursday we learn more about resources and organizations working hard to make this potentially deadly disease less harmful to pregnant and postpartum women.  - Sharon Muza, Community Manager

Introduction: 

http://flic.kr/p/dJBJhW

The recent episode of “Downton Abbey” brought much needed attention to the maternal health issue of pre-eclampsia. Why is it we rely on fiction for permission to get real? Where is the line between evidence-based research and fictional representations of the lack of it? How do we encourage each other and the next generation of maternal health advocates to harness the undeniable power of media but not become part of a social construction of maternal mortality as not real? As a qualitative researcher, I believe that some of our best evidence stems from researching real experiences from real women. It is my pleasure to introduce a real woman who experienced the full range of eclampsia and its psychological aftermath: Jennifer Carney.

Note: Consultation with Science and Sensibility contributor, Christine Morton, PhD was conducted to insure accurate and current statistical data regarding pre-eclampsia and eclampsia. 

Walker: Jennifer, can you tell us your story?

JC: My second pregnancy was easier than my first. Up until it wasn’t. I conceived as soon as we started trying. We had no soft markers on the ultrasounds, no need for an amnio, and no borderline gestational diabetes. I was only 34 and with a successful full-term first pregnancy; I was considered “safe” from preeclampsia. The only risk factor I had was my weight, but even with that, statistically my risks were much lower than for a healthy first time mom. There was something about it that seemed too easy. I felt like the other shoe was going to drop – but I never imagined that it would fall with such force.

In my 32nd week, I began to feel ill – like I had the flu. I took a day off from work to rest and recover. I thought I was getting better, but that night I began feeling worse. I called in sick to work again – it was a Friday – and my husband and son went off to work and daycare. I was alone. I laid down and slept for about 4 hours. When I awoke, I felt much, much worse. The headache radiated out from behind my eyes. I was seeing spots. I was incapable of thinking clearly. The phone rang several times, but the receiver was not on the base. I couldn’t locate it before the answering machine picked up. By this point I was aware that something was very wrong, but I wasn’t able to do anything about it. I stayed on the couch, barely moving for as long as I could.

Signs and Symptoms of Pre-eclampsia

  •  High blood pressure. 140/90 or higher. A rise in the systolic (higher number) of 30 or more, or the diastolic (lower number) of 15 or more over your baseline might be cause for concern.
  • Protein in your urine. 300 milligrams in a 24 hour collection or 1+ on the dipstick.
  • Swelling in the hands, feet or face, especially around the eyes, if an indentation is left when applying thumb pressure, or if it has occurred rather suddenly.
  • Headaches that just won’t go away, even after taking medications for them.
  • Changes in vision, double vision, blurriness, flashing lights or auras.
  • Nausea late in pregnancy is not normal and could be cause for concern.
  • Upper abdominal pain (epigastric) or chest pain, some- times mistaken for indigestion, gall bladder pain or the flu.
  • Sudden weight gain of 2 pounds or more in one week.
  • Breathlessness. Breathing with difficulty, gasping or panting.

If you have one or more of these signs and symptoms, you should see your doctor or go to an emergency room immediately. 
Source: Preeclampsia Foundation

Sometime after 5:00, I realized that I was going to have to call someone else to pick up my son at daycare by the 6:00 closing time. I managed to get to my feet and stagger toward the kitchen. I reached out to steady myself on the counter and missed. I fell to my left, onto the hard tile floor in front of the stove. I knew this was bad, but all I could think was that I had to hold on and that someone would be coming. I told myself that I couldn’t let this happen. Shortly thereafter, I tried to scream and felt the beginning of what I later learned was a tonic-clonic or grand mal seizure.  

This was eclampsia – full blown seizures caused by extremely high blood pressure. Somehow, I held on. Somehow, I held on in this state for something like 3 full hours. I have no way of knowing how many seizures I had in that time. When my friend arrived after 8:00, she found me on the floor. I came to long enough to answer her question – “yes, I know where I am. I’m fine.” I tried to get up – and immediately started seizing again. She called 911 and within minutes the paramedics arrived. 

My son was born, not breathing, about an hour later. The doctors were able to revive him, thankfully. He went off to the NICU and I was sent to the ICU. Two days later, I regained consciousness. I was on a respirator and completely disoriented. I was later diagnosed with HELLP syndrome, eclampsia, pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), and sepsis – any of which can be fatal on their own. My son was moved to another hospital with a larger NICU, and I spent 8 days in the hospital where he was born. I saw him briefly before they transferred him – but was unable to hold him until after I was discharged – more than a week after he was born. For the next 20 days, I was only able to see him and hold him during daily visits to the NICU. It would be 4 full weeks from his birth before we could take him home to meet his 4 ½  year old brother for the first time. This was definitely not what we had envisioned.

This experience changed my entire perspective on life. It was the first significant health crisis that I had ever faced and it shook my sense of security and safety. It took a long time to recover physically from the trauma and emotionally I was just a wreck. I was aware that Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was a possibility, but I think the picture I had in my mind of what PTSD was turned out to be very different from the ways in which I experienced it. I had envisioned a quick, big breakdown – but the reality was much subtler. At first, I experienced an aversion to seeing pregnant women. I wanted to warn them, but I also could barely look at them. It manifested in other ways, too – dreams about seizures, muscle spasms, intrusive thoughts. But it felt manageable and the antidepressants helped control the runaway anxiety that had hampered my first postpartum experience 4 years earlier.

Photo: J. Carney 

The mental health issues were helped by the antidepressants, but I wish that I had tried therapy much sooner. It’s doing wonders for me now – but I waited over 6 years to try it. Today, my preemie is in kindergarten and doing well. Aside from my son, getting involved with the March of Dimes and Preeclampsia Foundation has been by far the best part of the whole experience. I wouldn’t change that part, at all.

Walker: How is mental health neglected in the overall understanding of the topic, treatment, and recovery?

JC: This is a huge problem. I got great care while I was in the hospital. I saw social workers, chaplains, and a wide variety of people who inquired after my pain levels and my coping skills. The problem with this is that I was on massive pain killers the whole time. Percocet and morphine can mask emotional pain as well as physical pain. I’m sure I came off as reasonably well adjusted to the whole experience, despite the mental confusion left over from the seizures and the serious health issues that remained. And I was relatively okay. Even during the month-long NICU stay, I was doing all right. I was sleeping well, eating, taking care of myself – but I was also still on Percocet. It smoothed over the rough edges.

It wasn’t until the help dried up, the prescriptions ran out, and the reality of being at home by alone with an infant to care for that the walls started to come down again. Here I was at the scene of the initial trauma, cooking at the same stove that I had seized in front of for hours, responsible for a premature infant who needed drugs to remind him to breathe. This is when I needed the help. This is when I needed information on PTSD and postpartum depression (PPD). This is when I needed support. And as I began the long process of understanding what had happened and why, I found I needed even more support to help me wrap my head around it all.

As I noted while talking about myths, there is a pervasive culture of blame in the overall birth discussion regarding preeclampsia. It can be hard to find information that doesn’t make you feel that you somehow brought this condition on yourself. I looked at the risk factors and the arguments about lifestyle, obesity, and diet – and found a lot of things that sounded like they made sense. But they only made sense if I internalized them and blamed myself for the shortcomings. Maybe it was my fault. This, as you can imagine, does not help the feelings of depression and trauma. It took a LONG time for me to come to the conclusion that there was no way for me to have known that this would happen or to have prevented it. Statistically speaking, I had a very low chance of developing eclampsia even with the risks factored in. Statistically speaking, my son and I should not have survived, either. But we did – and now I want to make sure that I use that in a meaningful way. 

Walker: Did your childbirth education prepare you for your experience?

JC: Heck no. I only took classes with my husband before our first child. We weren’t planning to take the classes again with the second, but since he was born at 7 months, we probably would have missed most of them even if we had planned to. I distinctly remember the childbirth educator talking about her own response to sleeplessness, which was a sort of slap happy, giddy reaction. She mentioned PPD, but not in any real way that conveyed the depths or potential seriousness of the condition. We also received almost no information on pregnancy complications. To me, preeclampsia meant high blood pressure – and I had never had problems with that before. It was totally off my radar. Plus, Preeclampsia very rarely happens in a second pregnancy if it didn’t happen in the first. So, no one prepared me for it. Not my doctor, not my classes, not my books.

Walker: What recommendations do you have for childbirth educators and doulas regarding this issue?

JC: Really, I think it comes down to trusting that the moms you are helping can handle the information that they NEED to know. I was alone. If I had known that these symptoms could mean eclampsia or preeclampsia, I might have been able to save myself from the seizures – which would have also likely saved me from the ARDS and pneumonia. My ICU stay might have not happened. My son was going to be born early – but if I had gone to my doctor or called an ambulance myself, it might not have been so close a call. It’s not my fault that I didn’t know – but it could have been tragic.  

Know the signs and symptoms. Know that a woman with severe PE might be having cognitive issues – confusion, and vision problems. Don’t ask her to drive. Don’t downplay distress. And take complaints of headaches, upper quadrant pain, nausea, diarrhea, shoulder pain, visual disturbances, and a general feeling that something is “off” seriously. And if you have a client or patient that experiences something like this, please follow up and ask about mental health issues. Be careful not to ask questions that can be answered with the words: “I’m fine”. Dig deeper.

Closing Thoughts

How might we increase our understanding of this issue through Jennifer’s story? Is it possible to begin a dialogue here–one in which we agree to change paradigms of learning and knowing women’s experiences beyond an episode of a fictional television show?  Jennifer presents an exemplar synthesis of the fullest range of insight possible when empirical and phenomenological considerations are employed.. Her lived experience combined with and through her knowledge of the evidence creates an exemplar of how knowing and knowledge cannot be divided if the pursuit of knowledge is truly desired.

In the next installment, scheduled for February 7th,  Jennifer reflects on common myths about PE, and her work with the Unexpected Project and the Preeclampsia Foundation.   

Birth Trauma, Childbirth Education, Depression, Guest Posts, Maternal Mental Health, NICU, Postpartum Depression, Pre-eclampsia, Pre-term Birth, Pregnancy Complications, PTSD , , , , , , , , , , , , ,