Welcome to the survivor moms speak out blog!

While practicing full-time as a community-based midwife, I had the opportunity to work with many women who were survivors, either of childhood sexual trauma, rape, or both. The experience of being their midwife, and witnessing their challenges and triumphs encouraged me to learn more about the effects of trauma on the body, and on the experience of childbearing specifically. So just as I felt "called" to practice midwifery, I felt "called" to shed light on issues that survivor moms face during the process of becoming a mother. That calling led me to begin the "Survivor Moms Speak Out" project. We surveyed many women who were both moms and survivors; and 81 of those women completed a narrative or contributed a poem for the book "Survivor Moms: Women's Stories of Birthing, Mothering, and Healing after Sexual Abuse."
Read more about the book, or order a copy, at http://www.midwiferytoday.com/books/survivormoms.asp.

Because of space constraints, not all of the narratives that women contributed to the book project were able to appear in full in the final version of the book. So I would like to take the opportunity to share some of the whole narratives in this blog, featuring a narrative at a time.
About reading survivor stories:
Although the stories are encouraging because they represent survivors’ triumphs over adversity, they can also to be hard to read, because of the intensity of the issues and events. I encourage you to check in with yourself while reading survivor stories, especially if you are a survivor of past trauma, and limit your exposure if you become “triggered”. Feeling triggered might take several different forms. You might start re-experiencing a past trauma you have had before, by not being able to stop thinking about it, or dreaming about, or just feeling like it is happening all over again. You may feel distress or have physical symptoms like feeling your heart race or sweating. If you start to experience these things, you may benefit from talking to someone who understands how trauma works and how to help you with post-traumatic symptoms.

To read more about trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder you can check out the National Center for PTSD website: http://www.ncptsd.va.gov/.

The Sidran Foundation offers an information and a referral resource on-line: http://www.sidran.org/

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Beth's Story

I have had two pregnancy experiences. My miscarriage ten years ago brought tremendous emotional agonies and incest triggers. Since giving birth to my son six months ago I feel in some ways more vulnerable and in others more invincible and courageous. Perhaps that is not so uncommon for any new mother. But as an incest survivor it feels Especially So, as so much does when one is an incest survivor.

I remembered my childhood incest the year I graduated from college at 25 years old. The next two years were intense ones, full of fierce cycles of pain, anger, forgiveness efforts, relief at “all the pieces finally coming together” and round again. I felt pretty much ‘recovered’ and on top of things when I got married and pregnant for the first time at 28. I miscarried at about three months; the timing was especially painful in that I started to bleed at the wedding and miscarried at home two days later. This brought on the darkest time of my life, and even now I find it hard to untangle the threads of despair that knotted up in me then.

The aftereffects of the miscarriage were gruesome for me, and seemed to bring to life much of the symbology I had lived with. It catapulted me into the same black hole that I had once felt within me from the nighttime abuse. I had often felt that there was a large space of toxic, even poisonous darkness in my belly/uterus from the ejaculate of my abuser, and that if I had a baby all sorts of things ‘could happen’. On one hand I felt it was the only way to get “ It” out – that by opening up so big that a baby could get out, maybe the baby would “push out the darkness/poison” ahead of itself. But on the other hand, how could I possibly protect the innocent baby from such a toxic environment? This was a tremendous mental burden, since protecting my child from an abuse inheritance was an absolute priority. I have wanted to be a mother more than anything in my life and the idea that from the past He could contaminate even this most important being and present moment infuriated me.

It also profoundly depressed me. The month following the loss of the baby was numbing and awful. Even though I “knew better” it was hard not to feel that the miscarriage was my fault because of my mental images of inner darkness. Who would want to come into being in that atmosphere? Never mind that it wasn’t my fault to begin with – I felt responsible because it was as though I had allowed abuse to contaminate my baby. I was bleeding, the hormone swings were making me feel crazy, and I started having flashbacks that I’d never had before. My new husband had just made a vow of monogamy for the first time in his life, and we didn’t even have a wedding night. I was suddenly in true survivor mode, angry and weeping and not very articulate, and very celibate. I was frighteningly suicidal off and on for the next year and a half. Acupuncture helped stabilize me physically, and one-on-one counseling sessions saved my life and really helped me to develop the coping mechanisms that I have been using and building on ever since. I went through several therapists before I found a good match and although obviously worth it in the end, I found it torturous to interview strangers when my agonies were raw and I could barely function (eat, sleep, drive…). At my therapist’s suggestion I also attended a weekend group counseling session (somewhat helpful) and Incest Survivors Anonymous (ISA) meetings (which brought tremendous comfort for two years).

I eventually pulled back onto solid ground. Those two years gave back to me a much more whole self. The casualties were my marriage, my credit (years later bankruptcy has finally relieved a lot of the burden, though I owe the therapist even now), and lost years professionally and otherwise. Although I never would have believed it was possible then, I came through that emotionally violent time to a place of stability, calmness, and the ability and desire to define myself as something other than (or at least additional to that of) an Incest Survivor.

This year, eight years later, found me in a new marriage to a long-time friend who had shared much of my healing journey, and pregnant for the second time. I felt much more light-filled, although a little anxious about whether some surprise trigger would sabotage me again. My concerns centered more on something mentally holding up the birth than endangering the pregnancy. Eventually I arranged several counseling sessions with two friends who not only knew me well but were also professionals in the birth field and had experience with incest issues. It helped a lot to be able to voice the wide range of fears that were occasionally surfacing, such as feeling my body was ‘taken over’ by this other being and the resulting control issues. What if I felt aroused nursing the baby – did I need to protect it from my feelings? How much touching would be normal when changing its’ diaper? And what if the baby I was carrying was a boy? I found it strange to imagine a penis growing inside of me. I was surprised to need so much reassurance! I am a midwife myself and have reassured other mothers, but my professional experience seemed to offer nothing to the beginner mother within me. It was priceless to hear that many of my concerns were common to any new mom, and I was rather surprised to be in the ranks of “normal” although I had trouble believing it deep down.

Our decision to birth at home was very important to me from the perspective of a survivor. I knew from helping other women birth that home is where I would feel most safe, most able to control who was present and how I was handled, and most able to let down my guard to be vocal and move around as instinct dictated. It was, for me, the place that would most support trust in my own body and abilities. This was critical support since I secretly felt that if I could manage to get the baby out under my own power it would restore a lot of my own belief that that part of my body did indeed ‘work’.

My perception of the birth changes as it becomes farther in the past. Our nine pound eight ounce boy was born a few days before his due date after a 12 hour labor, most of which was spent in a large tub of water for pain management. I pushed for four hours, and he was born with an unusual and large head presentation – transverse (facing my leg instead of my spine) and asynclitic (head cocked and also not flexed). Pushing was blindingly painful, and I think it left me in a kind of shock for a few days. I did bleed significantly immediately after his birth and had a second to third degree tear.

During the first week, I felt negatively about the birth – wounded ‘down there’ again, swollen and ‘off-limits’, not wanting to see how it looked. I was proud of our healthy beautiful baby, but a little surprised to not ‘recognize’ him more, and to feel so much in a kind of survivor mode again – shutting down some while waiting for my physical shock to pass and some strength to return. Things perked up quite a bit when one of my birth attendants returned with photos she had taken during the labor and birth. The photos have played a major role in the softening of my memories. I really needed to see what happened in order to give it context. During the birth she kept reminding me…”Yes, it’s painful, But Nothing Is Wrong,” and that is what the photos did for me as well! Even though my memory was shimmering with pain, here was the documentation that while it was indeed very difficult, it was also ok. There were photos of me being graceful in the midst of intensity, being strong and courageous, of it being a genuinely difficult time, me smiling, and of helpful, loving people and most importantly, no one was ‘hurting me’.

As I write this I wonder what relationship my abuse history has to the baby’s birth position and the bleeding. I do feel that at some level it played a part in the slow healing of the tear. In spite of surgical mending at eight weeks postpartum, the physical pain has only started to abate recently. I definitely have felt like a survivor again sexually. I’ve felt the temptation to go numb and check out during sex, to avoid it altogether, that my vagina is wounded, and especially a psychic distress around the openness that I feel at my vaginal opening (that’s the big one which stimulates the others, I think). It’s draining to revisit this topic at every life stage, but I don’t chafe about it as vigorously as I once did. Perhaps this is because the triggers are gradually weakening, and I now have a supportive life context with which to deal with it. Mothering also leaves me unbelievably exhausted, which does double duty. The bad side- exhaustion makes me more prone to incest intrusion. The good side- mothering is so distracting that there isn’t time to dwell. To soften triggers I’ve found it helpful to take a Bach Flower remedy- “Rescue Remedy” (for shock/trauma) and the homeopathic remedy Arnica after sexual activity. I am now grateful that I didn’t end up raising a baby ten years ago while struggling through the foundations of recovery. I felt relatively whole and sexually content when I had this baby, and I have been alternately sad, defeated, and pissed off to have taken (however temporarily) a couple of steps ‘backwards’.

Before becoming a mother, if I started to feel overwhelmed one of my main coping mechanisms was to step back, allowing myself to take time off (an hour, or an evening) to regroup. The unrelenting nature of mothering has definitely eliminated that as a fluid response, even as I perhaps need it the most. I’m learning to substitute momentary “regroups”, but I really miss the opportunity to temporarily shutdown using a video or book. Now that my son is six months old and we are starting to get longer sleep cycles and some more regular napping, I am feeling some relief as well. Incest has affected my mothering less (during the birth) and more (post-partum) than I anticipated. I do feel that in the end I will be a better mom through being a survivor, because my awareness is so heightened and because it necessitated me doing so much work on my self – he’ll be able to reap benefits.

1 comment:

Beth Fehlbaum, Author said...

Yeah, I am one of those unable to read the stories you're posting-- it's just too hard to pull myself back together, at least in this point in my recovery. But I think what you're doing is important, and I commend you for it!

Beth Fehlbaum, author
Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse
Chapter 1 is online!