I lifted my eyes and looked at everyone around the room, some were colleagues, others strangers, some had tears falling from their eyes, others looked shocked and in disbelief, everyone was silent. Someone rushed and embraced me and then a crowd stood before me, words of kindness jumbled with embraces and hugs and then I gave way to tears, deep heavy sobs and let the love and support of those around me protect me like a blanket.
A number of years ago I had the privilege of training to be a doula and postnatal doula with a lady I greatly admire and it proved to be a massive turning point for me in so many ways. As a survivor of birth trauma and subsequent PTSD I was a young woman of 21 my life was turned upside down by the abrupt birth of my first daughter six weeks early due to pre-eclampsia and then nearly dying in the operating room due to massive PPH.
I had been struggling to access help with what everyone thought was just ‘normal anxiety’ and it wasn’t until I started my training as a doula that I truly understood how my trauma had affected me and this then set me on the long road to recovery that has lead me to where I am now.
I knew that it would be hard to discuss birth and I had nearly said no to attending the doula course but I am a firm believer in giving things ago, so I signed up and nervously turned up. It was in the second week that we were asked to discuss our own birth experience, to support us in then helping others and as we went round the room each person told the stories of their births, the pain, the labour, the joys and the funny parts. Then it was my turn, at first I could not speak I had never discussed my birth with anyone before because I felt I couldn’t worrying I may upset someone. I needed to be brave, tell the truth and so I took a deep breath and began. I couldn’t lift my eyes from the floor for fear that eye contact with anyone would make me falter and so I let the words at first trickle, then flood and cascade from me like someone had finally opened the barriers.
When I lifted my eyes and saw the reaction of everyone at first I was surprised. I had been made to believe my birth ‘wasn’t that bad’, I felt weak for not ‘getting over it’, I had tried everything in my power to push it to the back of my mind pretending I had dealt with it. Everyone had always said I had to forget it, I was alive and so was my baby and that was what mattered, so it was best to move on and oh how I had tried. Yet here I was enveloped in the embraces of those around and hearing how they couldn’t believe what I had been through and how brave and strong I was. Me, brave and strong that was new! The session that day got slightly side tracked as everyone had so many questions for me and I went home exhausted but inside me calmly peace that finally I had spoken out and had been heard.
“I believed I had failed as a mother in so many ways with my first birth”
As the weeks passed and I completed my training I learned so much. The physiology of birth and the roles of hormones in labour, pre-conditioned ideas on birth that effect us and those that care for us. The benefits of an active birth and birthing positions and relaxation techniques. More importantly I learned how to support a woman in her birth choices and how to make birth positive even if things do not progress as expected.
But the best thing of all was I learnt so much about me!
With the help of my wonderful teacher and the love support of those around me I learnt that although I had gone on to have a positive birth after my traumatic birth I was still carrying great guilt, trauma and fear. I believed I had failed as a mother in so many ways with my first birth, I had failed my baby, I had failed to be there when she needed me and I had failed to get over it as I thought I should. My subsequent birth then only heightened my belief that I had failed my first daughter and in turn fed my guilt. I blamed myself for everything. Yet I could feel that cloud lifting, I realised that nothing I could have done would have prevented my pre-eclampsia, or my premature birth or the poor care I received. I did everything I could to see, care for and love my baby. It helped me see that the care I had received had been lacking but again that it wasn’t because I was weak or difficult or a burden patient as I had so often felt. My birth trauma wasn’t my fault!
For years I had been blaming myself, feeling guilty and not dealing with how I had been affected. It wasn’t anxiety, it was much more and accepting this and that I hadn’t had any support I knew it was time to get the help I needed, so I decided to see my GP. I could start the road to recovery.
My course taught me more. I realised that pregnant women and their partners need information and support. They need to be aware of their bodies and how it works, how they can help themselves in birth having confidence in themselves and their bodies to birth their babies. The need to support women to be aware of the choices that are available to them to birth how they want to birth. That also there is power in being heard, in sharing our story and knowing that we are not alone. I gained to insight into how to help others heal after a traumatic birth, to find solace and release from pain and guilt.
I struggled for too long and there needs to be more done to prevent birth trauma. We must make support available when things do go wrong, realising the affect that it has on families and providing the needed counselling and help. It must not be minimised or discounted, brushed away.
With my training I also gained friendship, peer support and companionship the value of which is priceless. In the arms of strangers I found hope and healing.
Mostly however training to be a doula gave me the desire to work hard to improve care for women before, during and after birth. To raise awareness of birth trauma and work to improve the help and support available, to be a voice for those that need it and help health professionals understand what they can do to reduce and support birth trauma.
My training gave me freedom to speak out, to seek help and start the long road to recovery, I guess you could say it was a gift one that I can give to others over and over again.