Heather Barson’s featured article today is extraordinary. Heather writes about her recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder after childbirth. She talks about a healthcare system that doesn’t take care of women. She shares her dark walk through PTSD. She shares her long multi-pronged approach to healing. Her story is moving and healing. I admire her immensely. Please welcome Heather Barson with me.
Q: Tell me briefly about what you do in your life & work outside of our small social media sphere!
Heather: Mostly, I’m the mother of four children. I’m a private music teacher, specializing in French horn and musicianship. My degree is in music, but somehow I find myself apprenticed to a local midwife, and moonlighting as a doula and placenta encapsulator. That’s not where I planned my life to go, but I’m happy with it.
For the past several years I’ve been working on a project called Finding Solace. It’s a book about women who have healed or are healing from a traumatic birth. Someday I even hope to finish it.
Q: When did your experience with birth trauma take place? Where did it take place?
If you are comfortable sharing some specifics, please share the ones you had/have the most emotional distress about.
Heather: My second son was born in 2009. At the time, I was living in Page, Arizona. The geographic details of Page are significant to that trauma. It’s not just a small town at about 7000 residents, it is supposedly the most isolated town in the lower 48. The nearest neighboring town is 75 miles away, and it’s smaller, and across the Utah border. The nearest larger town is Flagstaff, which is 185 miles away, and still hosts fewer than 100k people. Phoenix is another 150 miles beyond Flagstaff. From Page it would take about 5 hours to drive there. There was only one hospital in Page.
This is the super abridged version, but the only local hospital banned VBAC two weeks before my due date, and there simply were no other options. Changing care providers wouldn’t matter, because my care provider already disagreed with the policy, but wouldn’t do anything about it. There were no other facilities, and even if there were local midwives, it was illegal in Arizona at the time for them to attend a VBAC client.
I felt backed up against a wall. I asked to be grandfathered in, but my doctor said this would be impossible. I looked up ICAN and other organizations for answers. Some of them told me to fight, which appealed to my somewhat contentious (at the time) nature. I thought maybe if I could get my doctor to back me up, I could still do it. I asked him what the risks of another c-section would be for future pregnancies, hoping to use that question to broach the subject. He said, “There are none. You’ll just have to have c-sections every time.”
I was dumbfounded. I never expected him to lie. Maybe he just didn’t know, but that still doesn’t look good for him. It’s his job to know. That’s why people pay him to ask questions like that. I didn’t feel safe trusting my labor to a doctor who would lie to me. I couldn’t trust him to only interfere when necessary. If he said I really did need a c-section, how could I know he was telling the truth? Would I refuse and endanger my baby? Or would I accept at the risk of my sanity if he turned out to be lying. And so I consented to unnecessary surgery, because I wasn’t prepared for an unassisted home birth, and that was the only other option I was offered.
Normally I agonize about a decision, but once I make it, I’m at peace. Not this time.
I woke up on surgery morning, and the sentence repeated over and over in my mind, This is wrong. I figured the voice would go away once I got to the hospital. Nope. This is wrong. I changed into the surgical gown laid myself down on the bed that would become the operating table. This is wrong. Certainly it would stop once the first incision was made. Nope. This is wrong.
I don’t recall when that voice finally turned off. It was probably around the time my whole brain seemed to shut off.
The girl who walked into that operating room, who was barely able to stay awake through the surgical extraction of her son, who fell asleep moments after seeing his face, never woke up. She’d been replaced with a stranger who didn’t know her family, or her newborn son.
Q: How did you go about trying to heal/make sense of the event in the first three months after the event?
Heather: I didn’t. I remember hardly anything from those first months, and even the few memories I do have are foggy. Clearly my subconscious didn’t believe I could face it yet. I spent most of my time watching reruns of old TV shows and nursing my baby. My toddler would play quietly in the room with us, or sit on my lap when my baby was sleeping.
Q: How did you go about trying to heal/make sense of the event in the first year after the event?
Heather: My first clear memory after the birth was five months postpartum. The episode I was watching ended, and I looked down at my nursing son.
I saw that his clothes were too small, and that he was still wearing size 1 diapers, though he’d long outgrown them. I also realized I’d hardly put him down since he was born, which is probably the only reason he’s still alive. I set him on his tummy for the first time.
When my husband came home I drove to the store to get him diapers that actually fit. On the radio a song came on, “Breathe, just breathe.” I tried. I couldn’t. Instead I sobbed. And that was the first moment I realized that it wasn’t normal to cry every day for hours. In hindsight that seems so ridiculous, but it was true. I call that my “wake up” moment.
I didn’t realize it before then, but I had been using the TV to mute the constant, angry, stream of conscious in my mind.
I didn’t seek professional help, which in hindsight was probably not the right choice. But again, my town’s isolation made seeking help extremely difficult.
I turned to the Internet: my window to the outside world. I tried to discover if others had similar experiences—if emotional healing was something to expect from a c-section. Even though it was my second c-section, my first never bothered me like this one. I learned everything I could. I confess I wanted to show my doctor and the hospital how wrong they were, so I gathered as much VBAC vs. ERC (elective repeat c-section) data as I could find.
I memorized numbers and figures and researchers’ names. That information has been incredibly useful, though I never had the opportunity to use the way I’d initially intended. Instead I got to use it to help others.
I found many women who were angry as I was. I found others who’d chosen to fight instead of submit under duress as I did. Their stories were often unpleasant as well. I found myself mourning with women everywhere over what was being stolen from us.
My ongoing physical discomforts, though mild in comparison to others’, were a constant reminder of the violation of my body. Worse, it was a violation from someone I thought I trusted. During this time, I grew an intense love for women and their struggles. I’d never considered myself a feminist before. I needed that connection to other women.
Near the end of that first year, I discovered the Solace for Mothers online forum for survivors of birth trauma. Telling my story there to people who not only understood, but bolstered me with words of support and love, was a great leap in my healing journey.
Q: When did you feel that you were actually able to put the event in context and integrate it into your experiences and sense of self
Heather: Several times I thought I had, only to discover a new corner of pain and confusion. Finding Solace for Mothers helped me realize that I was having a natural response to an unnatural situation. That was the first time I thought I had integrated the experience. But the context was greater than that, and it wasn’t until Summer of 2013 that I could really recognize myself again.
Q: How long have you been trying to work through your particular trauma?
Heather: I’ll always be a little sad/angry about it. But I don’t feel like I’m drowning in the ocean anymore. It took about four years to reach that point.
Q: What other types of therapeutic work were you doing to help process the trauma? (ie EMDR, EFT, essential oils/herbalism/ massage /Reiki/ expressive art, yoga, meditation, spirituality, prayer, journaling, blogging, talk therapy, cbt, group support etc)
Heather: I did a lot of journaling, especially right after I first “woke up”. I found when I put my thoughts on paper, they didn’t have to bang so hard and fast on the inside of my skull.
I meditated as a teenager to combat depression, but I couldn’t seem to manage it on my own for this. My thoughts were too angry and wild, and focusing on my breath just brought my attention to my body, which felt weak and miserable, which reminded me of why I felt weak and miserable, and soon I was a sobbing mess. When I had a guided meditation session a couple years later, I didn’t feel that way at all. It was very healing. I think if I had used a guide from the beginning, it would have been more effective.
I dabbled in essential oils, and a few other things. There were lots of things I wanted to try, but I never seemed to have the money or the access to a provider, even after I moved to a slightly less isolated part of the country.
I spent a lot of time improving my general health. In all my searching online, I decided I needed to figure out what I would do if I ever got pregnant again, because there was no way I was having another c-section.
I found a midwife willing to stick her neck out for me, and travel 3 hours to me. Shortly after I found her, I was pregnant again, and planned a home birth with her.
During that time, I worked on improving my diet. I didn’t realize how ill I felt all the time! I quit processed foods almost entirely, and I found it had a noticeable positive impact on my ability to cope with the past trauma. The water birth after two c-sections was indescribably wonderful.
I found that so long as I took meticulously good care of myself with good nutrition, light exercise, sunlight, scriptures, prayer, journaling, etc., I could cope pretty well. Not great, but well enough to function.
Q: What type of healing work did you feel helped you the most?
Heather: I feel like my healing was a divine gift. I tried a lot of little things (granted, I didn’t come close to trying everything, or even the most effective things), and I was only doing alright. That Summer of 2014, I was healed. I didn’t do it. The burden was lifted from me in a single instant.
I spent the Summer at my parents’ house while they were in Germany. It’s located in a beautiful section of Northern California, on the Sacramento River. I woke early every morning to run by the river, and took the time part-way through my run to pray by the water, and then embrace the sounds and smells of nature.
I took up painting with my grandmother during this time, and also sketching on my own. I weeded the neglected garden, then harvested the fresh vegetables for my meals. I repaired old windowsills and repainted them and the porches. I even suffered a major illness that left me in agony and feeling like a 90-year-old arthritic woman for several weeks.
When it got too hot in the afternoon, I read from my dad’s bookshelf. One afternoon, a book caught my eye, though I can’t say why. It was called Forgiving Yourself by Wendy Ulrich. I didn’t consider myself particularly wracked with self-guilt, so I skipped over it, only to find myself drawn to it again later. I read it, and in the first chapter alone I experienced paradigm shift after paradigm shift.
I realized that while I had found meaning in my traumatic experience (having two wonderful home births, becoming an apprentice midwife, etc.), I had always thought of them as consolation prizes. But I didn’t lose this race. The person I had become: It was the prize.
In that moment of realization, all the fear I’d felt almost constantly for four years melted away, and I felt peace. Glorious peace. Because for the first time, I understood how the atonement of Jesus Christ worked for victims—how God made it so there were no victims. Not even survivors. Only growth. Only strength. Only love. I knew that anything bad that happened to me would be transformed into something good—something even greater than what I had before. And while I would never wish for a repeat of my traumatic birth, or anything like unto it, I knew that were it to occur, I could face it without fear. Because pain and suffering would only serve to build me up in ways that would eventually bring me even greater joy and fulfillment.
Q: Would you recommend healing options to another person trying to recover from trauma?
Heather: Absolutely. I would say to try anything and everything. Find a good support system, a safe shoulder to cry on, and seek healing from many different places. There are a lot of people looking at birth trauma right now, and many of them are willing and able to help. Seek various kinds of professional help, but don’t ignore the kind of help you can give yourself. Most of all, seek God.
Don’t waste your energy trying to get family members or acquaintances to understand what you’re going through. They’ll either get it or they won’t.
I once had someone tell me that I couldn’t possibly be experiencing what I said I was, because that would be an insult to soldiers who were truly traumatized. Shut those people out, no matter who they are. You don’t have to be mean about it, but you don’t have to invite that kind of energy into your life either.
You need to take extra-good care of yourself. Serve and take care of others, but not more than you serve and take care of yourself (children included!). There’s great joy to be had after birth trauma. Even when you can’t see the shore of healing for the big waves, remember it’s still there. It’s closer than you think!
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add about your experience?
Heather: I wish someone would have checked up on me. No one ever did. I call my doula clients six months after they give birth, and ask them how they’re doing and how they feel about the birth. I don’t just listen to what they say, but how they say it. If it seems like they need more support, I offer it to them as a friend, and also tell them where they can find even more of whatever they need. If all is well, I get a nice chat.
If I had my druthers, that would be standard postpartum protocol for all birth workers. It would be even better in person, but a telephone call will do.