Still Standing

Living in a Swamp: PTSD After Baby Loss

Is this grieving or could it be PTSD?

Days after the birth of our third son, I was at the grocery store. Family was coming into town and they were staying with us. They were in town for Reece Michael’s funeral, who had been born at rest.   A newborn baby was screaming from its car seat. I flushed with sweat, ran towards the checkout line.

As I waited in line, the cart circled around and joined another. Twins. Crying newborn twins. I was overwhelmed with heat, began shaking, and crashed my arm into the metal strip on the checkout belt. As my scrape began to bleed, I grabbed my bag of stuff, my receipt, and ran out of the store. In my car, I heaved the sobs of the broken-hearted.

It wasn’t until later I realized I had a panic attack.

Crying newborns always triggered a panic attack I never saw coming. I would flee to my car and cry over my steering wheel in so many parking lots. This was my life after loss.

There was nowhere to go, no activity that could take away the pain. This life was now merely learning to live with shards of glass forever embedded in my beating heart. Coping with the pain of having lost Reece for the rest of my life. Sleeping was the only time I was not in pain, but even then the nightmares would find me. Running through crowds of people, pushing, being pushed. I was searching frantically for a baby that is not there. I hear him crying, , screaming angry, but I can’t find him. I wake up sweaty, unsettled, and horrified to remember that reality is worse than my dreams. There is no crying baby. The baby is dead.

One dream I was stepping out of a car when my feet were gnawed off by a wild animal. Another, all my hens were murdered and I was finding their bodies in the morning. I saw birds take flight and crush their skulls into windows, I saw animals and people being struck by cars and trains.

Although I was in regular grief counseling, there was something deeper.

I was drifting off to sleep one night when my husband witnessed me startling awake three times. The next day, he brought it to my attention.

“I think you are exhibiting symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” It had been more than a year since our son had died and been born.

I didn’t even know there was a difference. I thought this was just my “new normal” after baby loss. PTSD is being on constant high alert lest there be a pregnant woman or a crying baby. It is a constant tension in the body to flee at any moment. Your brain feels like it’s filled with bees. There is never a moment of calm. It is Hell on Earth.

The symptoms went unnoticed for so long because as a work-at-home mom I could nap off the insomnia. I could choose my environments to limit the panic attacks. I could structure my day to miss crowded times or avoid leaving the house altogether to manage the anxiety.

Returning to work stripped away all my routines for coping.

Once a diagnosis was determined by a specialized therapist, it occurred to me that the panic attacks and anxiety didn’t have to be my life. I had been living with it so long, I had forgotten what was healthy. I could see a baby or a pregnant woman without needing to leave the area immediately. I could fall asleep peacefully and stay asleep without nightmares. The racing thoughts and cyclical thinking could stop altogether. I could actually experience a calm brain again and start to grow a space for joy, again.

I began treatment and began to heal. But while I was living it, I had no idea what to call it. Now I know. PTSD comes in all forms, just as trauma comes in all forms. You don’t have to be a war veteran or a rape victim to have experienced trauma. Losing a loved one can be traumatic and it can leave a lasting mental mark.

Some symptoms of PTSD are:

Nightmares

Insomnia

Panic Attacks

Anxiety

Flashbacks

Racing Thoughts

Obsessive and Intrusive Thoughts

If you think you or someone you love might have PTSD, please know that life doesn’t have to be lived here. This isn’t the new normal after loss. There is hope and healing. I look forward to sharing my story of recovery in a series here on Still Standing Magazine.