Positive birth after sexual trauma
Having experienced unwanted sexual touching as a child and rape as an adult, I have experienced disassociation and panic attacks for most of my life. Some triggers are touch but some can be places, situations and phrases. This is what trauma does. My mind tries to keep my body safe, but it’s not necessarily based on the immediate reality; like time travel, or experiencing an unexpected echo.
While preparing for the birth of my first baby, it dawned on me that I was potentially about to wade through a series of triggers that could compound the trauma and affect not just the short term experience for me, my baby and my partner but possibly lead to a greater chance of postnatal depression and threaten my bond with my daughter. It felt unforgivably unfair that this incredible moment could be affected by the violence of the past. Emboldened by the hypnobirthing videos I’d watched, I voiced my concerns to my midwife, and she arranged for us to explore my preferences for birth with a consultant midwife at the hospital.
She asked what my potential triggers were and what I knew about my options. I was certain the key elements would be to refuse regular vaginal examinations after the initial one and to rule out induction/epidural entirely. I was frightened to be immobilised by an epidural, certain it would spark feelings of panic, halt progress and lead to complications, untold grief and disaster. The anxiety was running me in ragged circles; I couldn’t stop picturing the worst outcomes. I was astonished to be offered an induction on the date of my choice, a way of increasing my control over the situation. She also proposed an epidural to reduce what I could feel and I remember dismissing it immediately, it seemed so far from what I thought I needed. I wanted to be free to move around and ideally in water, alone. I did not want to be on my back.
The day my waters broke, I spent as long as I could manage at home before going to the birth centre. I was only two centimetres dilated so sent home. The contractions accelerated so quickly that two hours later I was sure I would give birth in traffic. It was a quiet day so I was admitted despite having made little progress.
I did experience triggers during the birth centre that I could not have predicted. The smell of vaginal blood. The midwife stopping a painful examination the moment I asked made me cry out in a sort of howl.
To rewrite a story on my body was powerful.
Fortified by my planning and breathing exercises, I centered myself and moved on. I chased through the available pain relief choices until hours later the midwife explained the baby was back to back and unlikely to turn by herself in good time without the strong risk of infection, so we transferred to the delivery suite for an induction. Surprising myself, I chose to have an epidural after being advised the contractions would get intense very quickly.
The epidural was great. I rested from the intensity of the earlier contractions and exactly as the consultant midwife said, not being able to feel the examinations made everything easier. Being immobile did not panic me – instead the act of choosing my care gave me strength. I was concerned that by not being able to feel when to push I would tear badly but my midwife taught me how to engage my muscles at the right moment while playing tug of war with a towel during a contraction. When my daughter was born after an hour of pushing and only a moment on the ventouse, I felt incredibly lucky at how calm and happy I had felt for almost all of the experience. On reflection, luck was part of it but it was also communication, planning and support. I had felt empowered to believe that my experience of birth mattered, not only the safe delivery of my baby. Successfully advocating for the birth I needed was one of my first parenting experiences. It was transformative.