Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Why Can't I Get Past the Trauma?

I've been thinking about this post off and on for some time.  I start to write it, and then erase it and move on.  I don't want to admit that I'm still traumatized by the twins' untimely birth and subsequent lengthy hospital stay.  I don't want to admit it for several reasons - I'll be seen as weak, everyone tells me how I shouldn't think about it anymore because they are healthy now, I know that other people have suffered far worse circumstances including death of loved ones, so what right do I have to be traumatized, and lastly, I don't want to have a "problem" and maybe if I just think it's normal, it will go away. 

Despite knowing all of these things, I can't stop the unwelcome thoughts that run through my head.  The thoughts creep in unexpected any time of the day, and they happen several times a day.  I've begun counting to see if I really do have a problem; they happen at least 5-10 times a day. The smallest things can trigger the thoughts.  I dressed Camdyn up in the cutest little ballerina outfit for her Music & Movement class.  She was dancing around in her sweet dress, and without my permission, my thoughts jump back to seeing her as a one pound infant in an isolette with tubes and wires everywhere.  My chest tightens for a moment, and then I smile and feel an overwhelming sense of happiness as I move back into the present.  Something as ordinary as giving your child pieces of chicken nuggets should not produce traumatic memories, but for me, as I watch Cade eat chicken nuggets, my mind might decide to take a detour.  It will produce images of Cade laying in the hospital bed after his g-tube surgery with tubes taped to his stomach.  From this detour, my mind will race back to the NICU and take a stop at the moment I was told the orders to "stop all oral feeds" due to him aspirating.  The trip down memory lane isn't complete without making its final destination to the crushing day when the ENT told me he had bilateral vocal cord paralysis and would possibly need a tracheostomy for life.  In that moment, I view myself as if in a movie, an out-of-body experience; I'm peering in from the neighboring NICU bay.  I see a mother clinging onto her infant son sobbing from a place deep within her soul.  Tears blanket her and the head of her baby boy, her thinking that if she holds him tight enough and never lets go, the doctors won't be able to tell her any more bad news.  And yes all of this can be triggered by the simple act of eating a chicken nugget.  It does not happen every time Cade takes a bite, but I paint the picture to show how the thoughts will enter at the strangest of times.

Brenna recently got her tonsils and adenoids removed as well as a tube put in her right ear.  I will write all about that in a separate post.  She deserves her own post aside from one about her Mommy's post-traumatic stress.  I had some reservations about being back in the hospital.  I figured some memories would be triggered, but I had no idea how many would surface.  It started when I saw a contraption on the wall with large tubing.  I read on its label that it was a "patient warming system".  My first traumatic memory of the day came pounding its' way in.  'I'm strapped to the operating table after being rushed into the ER.  Only moments earlier my doctor told me that the babies are coming now.  No, this can't be.  I'm only 23/24 weeks along.  Everything is happening so fast I am scared I will feel them cutting into me.  I'm shaking, trembling, frightened, freezing.  They strap on warmers to blow warm air on my arms.  Although it helps a little, arm warmers can't make a woman who is about to deliver twins 16 weeks early comfortable.'  I'm back in the present when the child life specialist walks in to show Brenna the array of flavors she can choose from to breathe in her "sleepy air".  I manage to stay in the present for most of the time while Brenna is in surgery.  Jim and I go to the coffee shop upstairs, read for a while, and head back to the post-procedural waiting room.  When we are allowed to see Brenna in the recovery room, she is groggy, but awake.  I notice that Jim and I simultaneously look up to check the monitor.  What are her saturations?  Oh, 99, great!  We know that blue number.  We've stared at it for hours on end.  We've willed it countless times to 'please, go up'.  We are too familiar with the blue number.  Fortunately, this flash back is quick and painless, so I can get back to focusing on my sweet girl recovering from surgery.  I sing to her, read books to her, and hold her popsicle as she sucks it in an effort to comfort her.  She drifts off to sleep as the pain medication kicks in.  As I sit there watching her sleep, the double doors next to us open automatically and they wheel in another patient.  The sight of the double doors opening brings on another traumatic memory.  'Jim is holding my hand running alonside my hospital bed as doctors urgently rush me into the operating room.  I hear them frantically yelling, 'Open the doors ahead.  Emergency C-section.  23 weeks gestation.  Twins.  Alert the NICU.  Prepare the OR.'  We fly down the hallway as tears roll down my face.  I'm in shock.  How can this be happening?  It doesn't even seem real.'  Brenna turns to me and in her sweet voice asks me for another popsicle which happily brings me back into the present.

I recently came across this article titled "For Parents on NICU, Trauma May Last."  There were several parts that really resonated with me.

“The NICU was very much like a war zone, with the alarms, the noises, and death and sickness,” Ms. Roscoe said. “You don’t know who’s going to die and who will go home healthy.”

I didn't just worry about my own babies when we were in the NICU; I worried about all of the babies.  One of the moms who I met there, lost her baby after a year-long stay.  I think about them often.  I've never been to war and can't imagine what veterans must feel, but I can see how the NICU can be described as a "war zone."  Each day is a battle.  Some will lose their lives while others will survive.  You may see your friends lose their child.  You may see your friends' babies deal with lifelong issues as a result of their NICU battle.

It makes me feel a bit more normal to read this, "In another study, researchers from Duke University interviewed parents six months after their baby’s due date and scored them on three post-traumatic stress symptoms: avoidance, hyperarousal, and flashbacks or nightmares. Of the 30 parents, 29 had two or three of the symptoms, and 16 had all three."

The quote that spoke to me the most was the following, "'It may be several months later when they’re ready to process what they experienced, but at that point, family and friends don’t want to talk about it anymore,' Dr. Holditch-Davis said."

This has been the hardest part of dealing with my post-traumatic stress.  I couldn't understand why it was just now 'popping up'.  Shouldn't it be getting better?  After reading this, it makes sense that I am only now ready to process what I experienced.  During their NICU stay, I was in a constant state of shock, helplessness, fear, etc.  I wasn't ready to begin processing what was happening.  It was unimaginable.  How can one process the unimaginable?  Then for the first year they were home, we fed them every 3 hours around the clock while raising a toddler, going to endless doctor's appointments, and running a business.  I was too tired to process anything!  Now, I am ready to process it all, but everyone else has moved on.  No one can understand why I'm still thinking about it.  After all, I should just be happy they are healthy.  No one is happier than me that they are healthy, but the memories come on their own.  They are separate from my happiness.  They have nothing to do with me being unhappy. 

After this very long post, I just realized I don't have a pretty conclusion to sum it all up because it is a healing process, and I've only begun to process it all.  I think I'm far from healing.  In fact, I don't know if the memories will ever go away or if I even want them to.  They do serve as constant reminders of how far they have come and what a miracle life is.  My goal would be for the memories to come less frequently and less unexpectedly.  I hope in the future to recall the memories on my own terms rather than them rushing in uninvited.


Anonymous said...

I too cont to struggle w/these emotions/flashbacks almost 18 months later..My daughter still has a feeding tube due to nissen & difficulty swallowing but is typical in every other way, which I am eternally grateful for but I still have my pity party for 1 every so often. Do you think though to a certain degree that we dont want to let go of it? That trauma 17 months ago has become who I am and sometimes I feel that if I "move on" I'm going to "forget" about it somehow, if that makes sense?? I would however love to figure out how to close that chapter and still be "preemie power mom" without all the tears and anxiety that still floods me sometimes..jessica k.

Marcie said...

Thank you, Michelle, for posting this. I can relate so much to what you are saying. Sometimes I feel like I just need to let it all go - but it was such a life altering experience I don't know that I will ever. And then other times I feel like I am being overly dramatic about the whole thing. How can I claim that my experience was traumatic when I have seen others endure far worse (losing a child, multiple surgeries, etc.). Last week Veronica had to have some blood drawn and that whole experience brought me right back to the NICU. I found myself crying and was so surprised by this given it's been 5 months and Veronica is doing great.

I'm starting to ramble....thanks again for posting this. It makes me feel more "normal".

Lisa said...

Michelle, I don't know how I stumbled across your blog, but I think it was fate. I so enjoy reading them, because I can absolutely relate to everything you're saying about your preemies. It looks like you had a more difficult go than I (my daughter was born at 30 weeks at 2.9lbs because I had preeclampsia and IUGR, and was in the NICU for 6 weeks), but I understand the feelings of trauma, doubt, and worry all the same. My daughter is now 9 months old and doing great, however I don't think I am. I am just now starting to semi process everything, but my friends and family seem to be over talking about it as well, so it makes dealing with it hard. People just don't understand until they go through it. But thank you for this post. It was just what I needed to read this morning.

Kelsey said...

Very well written, Michelle. My son was in the NICU for 12 days and (in the end) it was mostly just to observe his breathing. The NICU is a stressful place and I still wonder if the stay is the cause of some lingering emotional stuff I've been going through. I keep thinking "it can't be normal to feel this way, can it?" I've been told so many times "things can be worse" or "well, he's healthy now!" and I keep saying "yea, yea, I KNOW! I'm happy he's healthy!" That's our goal, right? To keep them healthy.
but anyway.. great post. Thanks for posting!

Jessi said...

I know I struggled with PTSD for at least two years and still have some residual issues that pop up. Having said that, it is definitely getting better now that Jack is almost 3. Certain things will probably always bring back those emotions... like your daughter's surgery.

heather, brent and the babies said...

well said - it took me months - years to allow myself to grieve. It's certainly a daily lesson in life, growth, and faith. very well said.

Stacey B. said...

I think you're doing a great job.

Angie said...

You are so good with your words. I have a similar post in my drafts. Each time I want to write so much, but so overwhelmed with emotions. As life with the trio begins to settle a bit, the more I find myself having more and more flashbacks, esp. when my sofie was admitted back to the hospital! And its so hard when people just don't get it, like you said, they've moved on and they think we have also, yes we are thankful and grateful for our children's health...but what we went through is something that needs to be processed.