Im recovered…….mostly. Now and then however PTSD likes to give me reminder that it is still with me lying dormant, like a monster that tries to awake and again take me hostage. Sometimes it rears its head, waking from it slumber with a ferocity I’ve not experienced for years. There are many reasons why. I get tired, I struggle with a number of health problems. My reserves get low, my strength low and so my monster seeks to strike.
It’s been a while since the incident I am going to recall, a recent conversation around training medical professionals and support in place for those with PTSD made me feel that I should share my experience.
It was a cold november night. I had felt off all day. My panic attacks started around 4pm after a day of struggling to keep them at bay and using my strategies to prevent the attacks. The dreaded feelings washed over me and I did all I could to try to abate them. I walked, used my affirmations, played my music and tried to control my breathing. However by midnight my monster had won. I was in a state of surrender. The panic attacks were now continuous and unrelenting. The vomiting had started and in between this and the attacks, I couldn’t control what was happening, unable to get a grip on my panic. Exhausted, dehydrated and delirious then began the fits, violent shaking limbs, thrashing and rocking till I reach a crescendo and my body gives out no longer able to cope.
My family worried and scared rang for an ambulance. They arrived and I knew that this wasn’t going to end well. Three strong burly men attended me, sending my family out to wait in the kitchen. Checks were done. “Yes…..its just anxiety” I hear them say.
Just anxiety. I wish they could feel what I’m feeling. They are talking about me, saying things about me. I can hear them. They are saying that Im causing this myself, that I can control myself if i just try. That all I need to do is breathe properly and it will stop.
Simple isn’t it when you say it like that. But you see I know this better than them. I know exactly what is happening to me because despite my appearance as a crying, vomiting mess I know how this works. Panic has taken over me, causing me to vomit, making me hyperventilate and shake, losing all control of my limbs. My flight or fight system is trying to make me run away, causing me to be unable to keep still or to rest. Trapped in my body Im saying this to myself and begging the rational part of my brain to override the effects adrenaline is wreaking on me. I’ve studied my monster well, read about it and sought to understand how this all works for a long time. Yet knowing something and doing it are two different things. Most of the time I can keep it caged, but not tonight.
The issue is not anxiety or panic disorder but PTSD. Trauma has damaged my brain, made connections that are formed in my synapsis. I cannot get my breathing or panic controlled because I’m constantly being triggered. The paramedics talking about me is triggering me, being aware that my family is scared and worried is triggering me. Every time I vomit it triggers me. The machines that are taking my OB’s make my mind skip back to when was in hospital, back to my trauma. The cuff they place on my arm to take my blood pressure as it tightens transports me back to when I was dying, when they were trying to save my life. Triggers over and over again. I’m trying to speak, to explain to those attending me but I can’t’. My monster has me, it’s even stolen my voice and I’m drowning.
Then start’s the raised voices and the harsh words. “Stop this Emma! Your causing this“, while they talk about what they did the weekend and ask for cups of tea. One comes and sits by me and strokes my side through my top, his fingers lingering on my the side of my breast. I feel confused and scared, my eyes scan to see if anyone has seen, looking for my family but I can’t see them. I try to speak but he hushes me. Again their faces loom into me, telling me to stop this behaviour. If only they knew. I would if only I could. Im past the point of no return. I have no strength left, my body is weak, battered and bruised. The despair is setting in. As the put me in the ambulance strapped to a bed I ask for my family, instead a face above me leans in, “you have to learn your causing this Emma. All your doing is hurting yourself and your family. You have upset your daughter, your damaging them.” The words stab me, opening up gaping wounds I’ve sought to heal, wounds that this is all my fault. Then it begins the spiral, the downward tumbling feeling. Im hurting those I love. Im damaging them. Im weak, pathetic and I shouldn’t be here. These are the words I’ve heard said to me over and over again in the many years I’ve struggled. They induce more panic and all I want is for it to stop, the pain, the anguish, the torture. I want to stop hurting my family.
As we reach the hospital Im taken into a cubical and left strapped to a bed. I can’t move, they say it’s so I don’t fall from the bed. A nurse comes in and the ambulance man explains I just have ‘anxiety’, that I can do as I’m told when asked, and they leave. I’m left alone on a bed strapped so I can’t move, vomiting and in complete panic. The lights ahead bright transport me back to being wheeled down to theatre, my live ebbing away. Im stuck in a flashback I feel this is happening to me now everything is a blur and terror holds me. By the time they come back Im hysterical. I don’t know where my family are. Then there’s a gentle voice and someone is holding my hand, the straps are released and Im moved to a bed. Then another voice and it is talking to me, trying to bring me back from the darkness. I feel calm begin to return, but the triggers take me back again and the cycle continues. The doctor I see is gentle, calm and caring. He kneels before me at my level and strokes my arm. I can see in his eyes that he’s concerned and wants to help me, I feel his kindness and it gives me hope.
It takes 4 hours for me to be given an anti-sickness injection that also has a calming effect, enough for me to lessen the panic to be discharged home. During those 4 hrs my family help me to control my breathing and provide my needed support. I’m not sure how I can ever thank them and I worry about the effect on them.
I’ve reflected on this experience a few times, the way I was treated, the way I was touched. The fact that I didn’t make a complaint or speak up about how I was treated. I’m ashamed to say I guess I wasn’t brave enough at the time.
I haven’t had an episode like this now for a number of years. However I’m trying to take this experience to help others. Over the next year I will be helping train multi-agencies like ambulance staff how to support families better with PTSD. The way I was spoken to and treated has given me valuable insight into how we treat those in mental distress. I work in the NHS and know that many policies and guidelines were broken doing my care, like leaving a patient strapped to a bed who is fully aware and vomiting. I don’t blame those who attended me, only feel sad that they don’t understand how their actions can cause more distress. It also highlighted again to me that PTSD is still so misunderstood and how little staff know how to deal with it. Also that language used to those in mental distress can cause them damage and lead to escalating the situation. It showed me too that the patient is often overlooked, talked over and dismissed especially if unable to voice things themselves. I thank the nurse that took the time to hold my hand and talk to me and the doctor who spoke to me and treated me so kindly. They are the ones that give me hope, that make me think we will get there……Someday.
Yes there is still so much work to do to support those with perinatal mental health. The road is long and difficult. While there is much in the way of raising awareness we have to ask how much is this awareness affecting practice and care given? It is one thing to be aware of mental health conditions but allowing that to guide us when caring for those affected is very different. I heard it said that patients expect too much. It is too much to be cared for with kindness and compassion? I suffer with PTSD and trauma that has changed my life because I had appalling care at the most vulnerable time., birthing my baby. The way we treat those in our care matters. The effect can be life long.
I will carry on trying to make my voice heard, speaking up about how we can support those suffering with mental health such as PTSD and how important it is to review our practice and the care we give. I admit I may never be fully recovered. My monster may never fully leave me laying in slumber awakening every now and then. But I will use the times it sleeps to make a difference and be the warrior that it tries to slay from within.