Anxiety, PTSD and the Road to Conceiving Our Baby

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In September 2017, we decided that next year would be our year of trying.

I calculated an ideal time to be pregnant in light of our tentative plans to move across the country.

I researched pre-natal vitamins and started taking them right away.

I bought a book on Montessori principles since it seemed like a good companion to our “keep life simple” motto.

And we went along with life as usual.

That is, until some very unusual things began to happen.

The holidays showed up—and I was an emotional wreck. I couldn’t seem to be in the moment for any of it: not my favorite Thanksgiving traditions, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, the Christmas music and cheer. On top of that, I was also having horrifying nightmares; I wasn’t sleeping well; and in any given moment, my mind would “flash” back to an awful memory from my past. I felt lost in a swirling vortex of anxiety and constant panic.

And if that wasn’t enough, my body was going through the wringer, too. My stomach was in excruciating pain. It felt like knots had taken up residence inside my abdomen. Several mornings I woke up to find my stomach so far distended that I bought pregnancy tests just to be sure I wasn’t pregnant. (Nope, no baby.)

Despite being on what had been a good, stable dose of my anti-depressant, it was also failing me. I was melting down at every turn. I was triggered by any loud or yelling voices around me, sobbing uncontrollably into my husband’s arms, begging him to make the commotion stop.

This was not the first time I’d gone through a season of emotional and physical upheaval. When I was in my early 20s, my body went through similar seasons: my stomach would be too sensitive, my emotions so ragged I couldn’t concentrate at work. So by the age of 32, it only took me a couple weeks to realize my body was trying to send me a message.

“Something’s not working,” I said. “Something about my counseling isn’t working. My medication isn’t supporting me. I need help.”

Trust the professionals and find more help when necessary

I knew my counselor had been an immense support during my transition to married life. And I was very confident in my doctor’s SSRI recommendation. They both are thorough, highly trained medical professionals who listened well, and I knew they were on my side.

But at this point I knew it was time for me to find more resources for myself. Through some fortuitous (or obsessive compulsive) internet research, I came across Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR).

You might have heard of it because of recent breakthroughs in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in soldiers. It’s a therapy method that helps “alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories.” I spoke with my counselor and she fully supported me finding a certified therapist who could explore whether or not EMDR was a good fit for me.  

Soon I began seeing a therapist who lived down the street from where we lived in Dallas, and through her guidance I started seeing a psychiatrist who could more thoroughly evaluate my anti-depressant fit and dosage.

Trauma doesn’t just live in your head

What surprised me most about my symptoms was the fact that I’ve been in long-term therapy. Over the years, I’ve been tremendously blessed to work with talented, compassionate counselors, psychologists and therapists. I know I’ve been deeply courageous in processing wounds from my childhood, many springing from an incident that involved sexual molestation at the hands of a babysitter. There was nothing I hadn’t mentally explored or confronted. And if you asked any of my friends who knew the intimate nature of these emotional and mental travels, they would have agreed: I’ve come a long way. However, what most of my friends probably didn’t know is that I actively, exhaustingly have to manage my emotions on the daily: even in good seasons of life, I still have moments of soaring, inexplicable reactions of fear, trepidation, nausea, etc.

What I had never fully grasped was the nature of trauma.

Trauma isn’t just a bad memory that lives in your brain that you can push aside and make disappear. Trauma isn’t something that can be rationalized or cried away. (Though I say that crying is an excellent tool for processing everything!)

Trauma also lives in our bodies.

No one explores this concept more fully than Dr. Bessel van der Kolk. His work in studying PTSD has been exceptionally well documented, and is explored in his book called, “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.” 

In his book, Dr. van der Kolk says:

“Psychologists usually try to help people use insight and understanding to manage their behavior. However, neuroscience research shows that very few psychological problems are the result of defects in understanding; most originate in pressures from deeper regions in the brain that drive our perception and attention. When the alarm bell of the emotional brain keeps signaling that you are in danger, no amount of insight will silence it.”

The pieces of my puzzle started to make some sense: I had spent years diligently trying to process, to assimilate into the world, to address deep-seated social anxiety, relational panic and the like. As a result, I had, essentially, put all of my trauma into tidy little rationalized pockets in my brain. But all of that trauma still lived inside my body, and it was ready and waiting, all day, every day, to respond to any sign of potential danger.

What I also learned is that women who are sexually violated as children will often have a strong resurgence of trauma-related episodes at some or all of these times: when they plan on getting pregnant, when they become pregnant or when their child reaches the age they were when their own sexual violation occurred.

The baby had to wait a bit

My EMDR sessions began in February 2018, and they were intense. Processing trauma that’s been floating in your body for nearly 30 years is no easy task. Trauma is complex and it is dark and it is something that no one should feel they have to “manage” alone.

By April, I told Lee that our baby plans needed to wait. If we tried to get pregnant while I was going through EMDR, my sessions would have to stop because the stress would transfer to the fetus. He was his usual supportive self and agreed that it was best for me to keep going forward. 

I continued my weekly EMDR sessions through mid-August 2018. During that time I also worked with my psychiatrist who helped me by prescribing effective trauma medications so that I could more directly engage with the EMDR.

During these months, I felt things I had never felt before. Each week I realized how I had effectively restricted my healing to just my cognitive senses. I had no tools for feeling deeply inside myself because my feelings were trapped by this tall, guarded wall we like to call dissociation. EMDR effectively broke those walls down, which meant that I began to feel everything. The amazing thing about our bodies is we know how much we can handle. So some days I would get a small apple sauce serving of BIG FAT EMOTION #88 and other days I would get the 10-course meal of emotional upheaval that you can’t take out in public. It came in waves, and it was an exhausting time of my life.

But I began to notice a difference about four months in. There wasn’t any magical transformation overnight (no healing is magical—it is equal parts hard work and engagement). What I began to notice is that I wasn’t triggered by certain scenarios anymore. I could feel my inner resources coming to my mind, heart and body, reminding me that I was safe now, there was nothing to fear. And I could then engage in a conversation about, say, how I messed up on our business finances last month.

Emotions Turn On and Off – What About My Baby?

I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that EMDR brought me a life I never knew I could have. I thought I would forever be depleting my daily resources just to manage a normal life. I thought I would always have to talk myself off anxiety-ridden ledges, further emptying my internal resources and keeping me from feeling truly, peacefully alive. EMDR has helped me change that.

When we moved to Colorado in September, I immediately set up my new “mental health crew,” consisting of a psychiatrist, a primary care physician and a therapist. As I was catching my therapist up on all my ins and outs, and the recent success I’d felt with EMDR, there were new things beginning to creep up (they always do, you know!). She pointed out to me that there could be some things that EMDR might address quite effectively.

I thought about her recommendation for a week, and I came back to say, “You know, I think my life has been put on hold by anxiety and trauma enough. I feel strong, and I think these things can wait. I’m ready to have a baby.”

One of the things that I’ve learned to live with, even through the most wonderful seasons of my life is the fact that I don’t always feel my emotions. You know, that wonderful heartswell you feel when you think back to the safest, most precious moments of your life? I rarely can conjure up those memories and feel them. I can see them. I can recall that I was happy. I can remember every single detail of the memory. But my body rarely comes along for the ride.

As ready as I felt to start trying to have a baby, I’ll admit I was frightened, too. I had just spent 7 months on a mental and physical rollercoaster—my core self had been flung in every possible direction and I labored to get back to center. What would pregnancy be like?

All I could imagine was more hormones running through my body and making me even more anxious or flighty. I was afraid my mind would turn against me again, as it has so often in the past, and somehow I wouldn’t love my baby. My fallback, however, was this: if I could get through 2018 with resources and supportive friends and a strong, loving husband, then we could all walk through pregnancy together, too.

On Christmas Day 2018, we called our families to tell them that we had a baby bunny on the way. And today, having crossed into the second trimester, we told the rest of our extended family and friends.

Right now, I seem to be reveling in baby hormones. I feel great! (Well, except for the near-constant nausea, the fact that things taste good but smell awful, and my penchant for changing subjects mid-sentence.)

I know it’s a season of life, and I’m well aware that depression and anxiety could easily show back up at any point along the way or once the baby’s born.

But right now I’m so thankful that I can look at my baby’s sonogram picture and you know what? I can feel the happiness and joy that anxiety so often robs me of.

Hi, little bunny, you make me smile with my heart.

We can’t wait to meet you.