I answered the phone this evening to a woman who gave her name as though I should recognise it. She launched into an update on the local maternity hospital, now reopening several months after the suspension of key members of staff. I listened with half an ear, as the children ate their supper and I tried to fathom out why she had called me. I wear various hats in the town: resident, former police officer, lit fest director… I settled on my Women’s Institute hat, pulled it on and tried to concentrate on what she was telling me.
The woman talked about the need for local provision, and I of course agreed. She spoke of helping expectant mothers, encouraging breast feeding, offering support. No argument there. And then she enthused about the joy of labour; the sense of euphoria a woman feels when she becomes a mother. And that’s when I felt the phone slipping from my hand.
Quite a long time after my children were born, I was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s a label far more suited to those who have experienced the horrors of conflict, but nevertheless it was passed to me: an unwelcome gift which arrived in the form of shakes and anxiety attacks, flashbacks and nightmares. My memories of labour are fractured: snapshots of wires, surgical masks, the tiles on the ceilings of hospital corridors as we raced towards theatre. For many years these images would force themselves on me at specific times: when I closed my eyes at night; when I lay on my back; when I heard a newborn cry.
Gradually, over the last few years, the anxiety has lessened, to the point where I can walk into a hospital without checking my pace, and hear someone’s birth story without a clutch of panic in my throat. The children are so much older now, and so the triggers are fewer: at school pick-up no-one cares how you laboured.
But today, as the voice on the phone grew fainter, and the room around me span, I saw it all again. From nowhere the smell of blood assaulted me, and I felt that familiar wave of panic engulf me until I was fighting to swallow. I can’t talk, I told her. I can’t…
I hung up and anchored myself against the kitchen counter, while the here-and-now continued around me, and I concentrated on bringing my breathing under control. In and out. In and out.
It has unnerved me: that a six-year-old experience still has such power over me; that the most innocuous of situations could trigger a panic attack. I thought I had beaten it, but now I wonder if I will always feel this way, and the prospect deadens my heart.
There are three types of mothers, I believe. There are those happy few who have textbook births, with support all around them and a healthy, term baby. Then there are the majority: the women forced to rip up their carefully thought-out birth plan, who wince when you ask them how the birth was, but then break into a grin and tell you it was all worth it. And finally there are the rest of us, stumbling blindly from labour as though from a gas explosion, unable to believe we have even survived. Survive we do, but I realise now that rarely do we escape unscathed.