When someone first suggested that I am suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) I stifled my disagreement and listened, doubtfully, to their explanation. A few minutes later, when they were done speaking, I was nearly in agreement with them.
Prior to this conversation, having PTSD was not something I thought I could get. Naively, I associated PTSD with war veterans and not many other people. But this is so wrong. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines PTSD this way:
When in danger, it’s natural to feel afraid. This fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to prepare to defend against the danger or to avoid it. This “fight-or-flight” response is a healthy reaction meant to protect a person from harm. But in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), this reaction is changed or damaged. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened even when they’re no longer in danger.
PTSD develops after a terrifying ordeal that involved physical harm or the threat of physical harm. The person who develops PTSD may have been the one who was harmed, the harm may have happened to a loved one, or the person may have witnessed a harmful event that happened to loved ones or strangers.
Kate and I were afraid for months while London was in the NICU. We did not always realize it, but we were preparing ourselves for the worst outcomes in the NICU in an attempt to defend against them. Now that London is out, far removed from those most terrifying days, we still occasionally feel frightened and on edge. I first noticed a change when I was performing simple tasks, like preparing some milk for London. On a few occasions I spilled some of that milk and instantly my temper flared. And if anyone was around, I was mean to them. When I am like this I do not want to be near anyone. I was not crying over spilled milk. I was inconsolable over spilled milk. I was not sad. I was irate that something did not go my way. Everything sucked. I consider myself to be a patient person, so this new feeling of anger over something so unimportant was troubling. In fact, that realization made everything worse, bringing a snowball effect to my PTSD.
In addition to losing my temper, I can be anywhere doing anything and if I slip up and think about the scariest moments in the NICU or in the OR the night of London’s birth I am fighting back tears. These are not voluntary recalls. I do not want to think about the scary moments, but the trauma of London’s start is prolonged and fresh in my mind. To think back is to invite some of those moments into the present and once you do that it is hard to stop the flow.
The NIMH definition of PTSD continues:
PTSD was first brought to public attention in relation to war veterans, but it can result from a variety of traumatic incidents, such as mugging, rape, torture, being kidnapped or held captive, child abuse, car accidents, train wrecks, plane crashes, bombings, or natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes.
Or as someone recently put it, “You were not just in a single life-threatening accident with London. You were in one week after week after week and the person most precious to you in this world was the one always at the greatest risk.”
Truer words have not been shared with me. Having a baby at 26 weeks is exactly like that. Every time we drove to the hospital we braced ourselves for the accident. For a while, we got bad news every day. Sometimes it was just a trickle. And on the worst days it was a flood.
Even when the bad news did not come, we still braced for it. Do that day after day for 109 days and PTSD becomes a near certainty. For almost four months Kate and I did not just daydream about worst-case scenarios. On top of the worries every parent has concerning their newborn baby, we had to have real, hard discussions about our variety of worries stemming solely from London’s delicate start to life. At the end of most of these discussions one or both of us were crying and holding onto each other.
Until your child comes home from the NICU you live at a heightened state of anxiety. It becomes your new normal and when you plateau for that long coming down can do some really weird things to you. We are still adjusting.