real life

'It triggered something from my past.' My birth was traumatic in a way I never expected.


This story discusses child sexual abuse and suicide and could be triggering for some readers. 

For my whole life, I had been sent the message that the days on which your children are born, are the most incredible days of your existence. These memorable days are so joyous that they somehow overwhelm the pain associated with labour.

I didn't know I was allowed to tell this story unedited. I thought birth stories were exciting, happy and sometimes a bit gross - but in an endearing or funny way.

However, after my second baby was born, I was so traumatised that I unconsciously shut the memory down. It was twisted and minimalised in my brain to protect me so that I could carry on in my life as a mother. I would try to tell my birthing story with humour. I thought I was protecting future mothers and partners from the reality. I thought I was protecting myself from the horrors that floated around in my mind.

It took me years to acknowledge how deeply my birth trauma affected me. What it triggered from my past was debilitating.

Of course, I had heard the phrase birth trauma before and assumed it meant something terrible happening during the child birthing process, to the mother or the baby. My experience is slightly different, so I've started to call my experience, 'after birth trauma'. By making this distinction I can process the memories of my baby being born and separate what happened to me after the labour process and in my past.

Our lives are filled with events, and I believe these moments leave a mark on us. For better or worse, we are built by our experiences. This is how we form our perspective and learn to manage new outcomes for challenging moments. Everyone has good and bad experiences stored in their memories. A new event can be powerful enough to trigger an old memory; a memory that is almost forgotten and has been buried to protect you; a memory from childhood you've never completely understood. 

In my case, it was my after birth experience that revealed something from my past. 

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Days before the due date of our second baby, I woke early in the morning with cramps. My sister was visiting from interstate and she was convinced her very presence had sent me into labour early, so she wouldn't miss the main event. 

The cramps developed into noticeable contractions that my sister timed while my grandmother made me cups of tea. I left a message at my husband's work, telling him he needed to come home asap. 

By mid afternoon my waters broke, and I really wanted to get to the hospital. My sister and grandparents don't drive so I was contemplating calling a taxi when my husband rushed through the door.

Speeding along the motorway, I could feel the baby was coming out, and I screamed. My sister had jumped in the back seat and was excitedly updating her social media status.

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Arriving at the hospital, I hobbled into emergency and was taken straight to a labour room.

While I waited for pain relief, my sister asked the midwife if I was dying because I sounded like an animal stuck in a barbed wire fence trying to escape.

A couple of pushes and involuntary primitive sounds escaped me. I felt the red hot burning pain intensify, ripping through me as our baby exploded into the world.

Immediately I knew something was wrong, but all I wanted was to hold my baby. What a wonderful feeling it is to have, your newborn baby placed on your chest. Those moments of first contact are unforgettable.

Someone in the room remarked at how big the baby was. I'd been told multiple times throughout my pregnancy that I was having a big baby but no one had ever suggested this was of risk or concern for me.

My husband took the baby for his first cuddle. My sister held my hand and let me squeeze while the midwife asked if she could check me. The room went silent for too long. The midwife left to get a doctor, who told me I was badly torn.

I didn't fully understand what he meant. What was torn? How much was torn? What happened now? I wondered how many more strangers would have to attend to my most private area.

The midwife told me I was going in for surgery. I thought it would be a few stitches, and I'd be back on the ward by dinner time. 

I felt anxious as I was wheeled away from my newborn and family. I asked the nurse if I would be knocked out for the procedure. When she told me it was 'just an epidural' situation, I really panicked.

How many surgeons will there be? How long will it take? What exactly is the damage to me? 

None of my questions were answered. 

My panic was rising, and I asked if I could have a support person with me. Unfortunately, this was not allowed. I needed someone to comfort me, take care of my emotions and worries. The staff seemed so focused on my physical damage they couldn't see the mental and emotional turmoil I was in. I felt scared, vulnerable, weak and alone. 

Something felt familiar in a terrifying way. I had no control. I was powerless and uninformed.

Nurses dressed me in an oversized gown and prepped me for the spinal injection. They lay me down in the brightest, coldest room and I started to cry. I really needed a tissue but was told to just use the gown to wipe my nose.

 At this moment, the smell overpowered me. The powerfully clean smell of chemicals to keep the room sterile. It reminded me of the smell of an indoor pool. My body tensed up. I didn't feel ready. I didn't know what was happening or about to happen. No one had even told me what this procedure was going to be like. I was lifeless from the waist down and I struggled to even lift my hands to cover my face. I tried to disassociate from the situation. More people entered the room. I wished one of them had been there to hold my hand and tell me I was safe. 

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One or two surgeons and three student surgeons stood around me. I realised I must need more than a few stitches - I was not mentally prepared for this. 

I can't remember the main surgeon ever speaking directly to me as he lifted my legs and propped my feet up. I felt the bed tilting and moving. The students talked to each other about cocktails and overseas holidays. 

I felt and heard splashes of water as they cleaned me. The water, the smell and my lack of control triggered my emotions. A memory of swimming training flashed through my mind.

As I squeezed my eyes shut, I saw an image of a burning man. I opened my eyes, and the surgeon told me to stop shaking. I closed my eyes again and saw the same man on fire. The smell of the room was making me feel sick. 

It felt like a ton of bricks were on top of me; I felt exposed, cold and scared but I couldn't move. I got the sense that if I just laid still, it would be over soon. More water splashed onto me, reminding me of the swimming pool again. 

And that's when I realised who the burning man was, and why I felt so scared. I begged for it to be over; they told me the procedure was about halfway done. I wished I would pass out. The students were now talking about how many coffees they consume in a day. The surgeon who was working on me told the room how he hoped to get this procedure finished in time to make his flight to Fiji. I was a procedure, not a person, lying in absolute mental panic.

The students joked the surgeon was so good, he could hold a Pina Colada in one hand and finish the surgery with the other.

I felt like a lifeless slab of meat on a cold tray. I wished for unconsciousness.

Finally, it was over, and they left the room as a nurse came in with a blanket and tissues. I was told it was nearly midnight, and the surgery had taken a bit longer than expected. I had no energy to ask what the surgery had actually involved. I was too afraid to speak. 

When I saw my husband and baby again, he asked if I was ok. I told him I was because I didn't want to worry him. He left for the night. 

I couldn't sleep. I laid up all night silently crying and feeding my baby. I remembered the surgeon's last words: "Get some rest." Well, that was basically impossible there in my shared hospital room, with a stranger next to me, her baby crying. 

Back home, I struggled in the haze of newborn life. Sleep was a luxury I could scarcely afford. But when I did sleep, I dreamt about the burning man. 

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When I was young, I enjoyed swimming. I was good enough to be on the swimming squad at the local pool. It was a massive commitment for a pre-teen. I trained before and after school and we travelled all over the state for competitions. My coach was a charismatic guy, liked by everyone. He would spend extra time with those who wanted to improve. I looked up to him, respected him, but also felt if I didn't do everything he asked, I would get into trouble.

One morning, my dad told me that my coach had sadly passed away during the night. Over the coming days, I got wind of the details. He'd taken his own life, driving out into the bush, pouring fuel over himself and setting himself on fire.

I remembered that sometimes my coach would get me to lie down on the benches by the pool to practice swimming strokes. Sometimes to show me better he would have to get close to me, touch me. I didn't know what was happening at the time, but I remember I didn't like it. But it was easier to just stay still and quiet until it was over. He said I was special, and I had to keep our training sessions secret. I don't know for sure, but I felt like what he did to me, and him taking his own life was connected.

I would go to sleep thinking about what it would have been like for him to die that way, to be a burning man.

As I child, I was able to forget about this abuse because I didn't even know it was abuse.

All those years later my traumatic experience in surgery triggered some of the same feelings I had at the hands of an abuser. My mind connected the events and the burning man. My memories were triggered because of the chemical smells and my emotions of being powerless, vulnerable and anxious. Uncomfortable memories relived through an adult mind revealed the complexities and horror of the situation I was in as a child.

At a memorial for our coach, I was told by an older squad member to try not to be sad, that our coach was in a better place. They told me whenever I think of our coach to look up at the moon and see his smiling face watching over me. The moon became a constant reminder of my abuse.

Today I still think about what he did. I couldn't go swimming for years. Even the smell of a pool would make me nervous. I'm incredibly frustrated that I’m affected by these events every day, It's hard to explain or get any understanding from the people around me because they can't see anything wrong. It's not a noticeably physical issue that can be repaired. It's all internal, it's mental. Being a victim of sexual assault can be a life sentence. I feel like a prisoner in my mind and while I can't invite anyone in to see my memories, I can get help from a therapist. Imagine if there were psychologists on hand to help woman at their most vulnerable and scary times during the birthing process? What if, as well as providing women with the best health care for physical health and trauma during childbirth, we provided real time mental care also?

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While my physical wounds healed long ago and I'm very grateful for the surgeon's work, I can't help but feel part of the treatment I received contributed to my long-lasting trauma. 

My psychological wounds are still healing. I'm fortunate to have access to trauma counselling and therapy. But I still go to sleep hoping tomorrow I won't think about what happened to me. 

But even a simple visit to any medical professional can trigger my trauma. There is no box to tick on any of the medical forms to let the health professional know I need to be treated with sensitivity.

Imagine if you hit your head and gave yourself a cut. Everyone can see it - they can see you're hurt and need physical care. Mental trauma is often hidden, and it's up to the victim to raise it as an issue. 

Sometimes I feel like the cut on my head will never heal and it's only a matter of time before I get hit in the head again. I'm walking around with a gigantic wound and yet no one can see it. 

Women are going into frightening unknown situations when they give birth. Yes, we are monitored physically. But what about on a psychological level? Attending to the psychological issues surrounding and triggered by giving birth could prevent inflicting unnecessary mental trauma and possible PTSD.

Of course, I'm not trying to compare abuse and surgery. What I'm saying is that the feelings associated with being a victim and survivor of abuse are often similar to the feelings associated with receiving medical treatments. You're scared, nervous, anxious, powerless, in submission. These are very triggering emotions and need to be treated with the same support and care as anything physical. 

Not that long ago I looked at the moon for the first time through a telescope. I saw past the perceived smiling face and I marvelled at the beauty - instead of being crippled by painful memories. That night I witnessed the moon eclipse. It disappeared completely and returned as a brilliant red full moon. For me this was a powerful healing moment. It was like the moon was reborn as I watched, and in a way so was I.

Australasian Birth Trauma Association is holding fundraising events including live Q&A sessions in honour of Birth Trauma Awareness Week happening from July 17 to July 24, 2022. Find more details here.

If this has raised any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please reach out to SANE Australia on 1800 187 263.

 Feature Image: Supplied.