The male protagonist of my novel suffers from PTSD. His is a version likely familiar to most people from media conversation and common portrayal — he’s a veteran, and his military career was ended by a devastating injury in an ambush that left him traumatized as well as disabled — but it’s far from the only trauma people experience, or the only reason a person might suffer a post-traumatic response.
This week I’ve had ample cause to reflect on my own experience with trauma, which is very different from the above. I thought I’d talk about my experience a little. I haven’t done that since — well, since it originally happened.
Last week, on New Year’s Day (Sunday), my 4-year-old daughter began exhibiting cold symptoms. She went to preschool as usual on Tuesday in good spirits if sniffly, and with a persistent cough (every preschool in America is full of A Persistent Cough this time of year). By Tuesday night, she was gagging up blood-streaked phlegm and running a fever. When I called, the pediatric night nurse said to make her comfortable with ibuprofen and honey and ice water, and bring her to the doctor the following morning (Wednesday), which I did.
And thereby hangs the tale of My Trauma.
Just over four years ago, I went into the hospital to give birth to my daughter. I was going to be induced; she was a week late, and my obstetrician wanted her out before Christmas for, I am sure, Legitimate Medical Reasons.
By the time I went into the hospital, the night before the scheduled … inducement? induction? I hadn’t slept in three days. Part of it was how damned uncomfortable the third trimester of my pregnancy was (this kiddo had torn some cartilage in my rib cage, among other miseries) and part of it was how freaking-out excited I was. Baby! Finally baby! So I went into the hospital sleep-deprived and jittery with joy.
When the nurse found out I hadn’t slept for a while, she gave me a narcotic. Not even that put me to sleep; instead I just swam around dreamily in my own head, warm and more comfortable than I’d been in a long time, and reflected that this was probably why people took opiates recreationally.
At 2 a.m. my water broke, so induced labor was unnecessary and I was wide awake again.
I was in labor for twenty-four hours. By the end of it, I was so exhausted that I was literally falling asleep between contractions. Push! the doctor would say, and I would push and then doze off. Push! she’d say, and I’d snap awake and push and then doze off. The doctor eventually decided I’d had enough, and sent me in for a c-section to evict the baby.
The c-section was where I first felt something was wrong beyond mere exhaustion. The anesthesiologist sat beside my head while the doctors behind the curtain over my belly worked on Infant Extraction. All of a sudden, I was bitterly, bone-deep cold. My teeth started chattering. It was December 21st and I felt like I was being operated on outside in the frozen parking lot. The anesthesiologist suggested this was a potential side effect of the anesthesia, that it would pass, and she got me a blanket to cover as much of me as she could, which was basically my shoulders and chest.
Everything was nice for a while after that. There was a baby! She was perfect! I could rest! I didn’t actually rest; they wheeled me back to my room and I sat up holding Baby for a while and then they put her in the bassinet and I just watched her, feeling ecstatic and wobbly.
The following morning, the nurse came in to check my incision, declared that I was doing fine, and suggested that I get up and walk around a little, stretch my legs, carry the baby. So I did. I felt fine! It was great! Baby! Then I wanted to change my nightgown, so I handed Baby reluctantly to Husband and turned to find my overnight bag.
All of a sudden I was freezing cold.
This is a completely inadequate expression for what it felt like. One moment I was absolutely fine, felt normal in every way, if tired. The next moment someone had plunged me bodily into the Arctic. Every cell in my body was shrieking with cold; my hands and feet were numb. I was being cryogenically preserved alive. I’d never felt anything like it.
I didn’t faint, because I didn’t lose consciousness, but I was too cold and shaking too violently to stand, so I collapsed onto the bed I was standing beside. My husband took one look at me, ran to the door of the room, and shouted, My wife is blue! My wife’s turned blue!
Immediately we were in an episode of “ER.” The nurse sprinted into the room and hit a button, and suddenly monitors were shrilling and voices overhead were calling codes and paging doctors to the maternity ward and there were eighteen medical strangers in my room, four of whom were trying to get IVs in me — two to an arm — and one nurse was holding an oxygen mask over my face while another in bright-eyed encouraging fashion suggested I should try to breathe, breathe, breathe. My pulse ox was 80 and no one liked that number, much was being made of this, eighty eighty eighty all the strange doctors were very concerned. I was so tired and so cold and had no idea what was going on.
I had developed an acute double pneumonia.
They took me away from my baby, and I’m not sure I can convey how devastating that was — more than the fright, more than the illness itself, that was the Worst Thing. My brand-new gorgeous baby I’d just given birth to, this little squirming supernova of a person I loved impossibly more than the universe, couldn’t be near me because I was so sick, and they took me away from her and down to the ICU.
I am crying as I type this, that’s how upsetting it was to me at the time and apparently still is.
I spent twenty-four hours in the ICU without my baby and I cried the whole time. And was terrified. The ICU! I was so sick! What if I died? What if I’d gotten my baby sick? What if she died? What if my baby never knew me? She’d never know I loved her so painfully that I cried the entire time we were separated. I was so sick. I was so sad, and so afraid. I hadn’t slept.
After twenty-four hours, the ICU doctors declared I was stable enough to be put into a regular hospital room with oxygen and constant monitoring. The maternity nurses in their infinite kindness had held our room — my husband had slept there with the baby — and took me back to it; I was a pneumonia patient now, not a maternity patient, but they knew how desperately I wanted to be with my daughter.
I was in the hospital for another week: a full week in that room in the maternity ward, with an oxygen mask or cannula the entire time, people coming in at all hours to check my blood oxygen level and make me breathe on command, to pump me full of antibiotics that had side effects almost worse than the pneumonia itself.
I didn’t sleep. I was so tired, but I couldn’t sleep. I had to know what my oxygen numbers were, I had to see the monitor. I was terrified that if I fell asleep I would stop breathing. One of the nurses, endlessly good, came to sit at my bedside at night; she promised she would watch to make sure I was still breathing, she wouldn’t let me stop breathing. I still couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t breathe. It was the easiest, most automatic thing in the world — as natural as breathing — and somehow my body had stopped doing it. I was terrified I’d forget again.
After a week I was deemed well enough for release, and they sent us home. I had two weeks’ worth more of antibiotics to take, and a little breathing-exercise toy to practice on — blow into the tube! see if you can lift all three balls! — and my new baby. And I was exhausted.
I couldn’t sleep when we got home. What if I stopped breathing? And then there was the baby, across the room in her new crib: what if she stopped breathing? I had to get up every hour, sometimes more often, to make sure she was still breathing. Breathing was harder than I’d thought before I went into the hospital, everything was so precarious, I had to make sure we were both doing it. I couldn’t let down my guard.
My husband suggested we put the baby in our bed with us so I wouldn’t have to get up to check on her. But I knew all the horror stories about that: parents who rolled over onto their children, or smothered them inadvertently with a comforter or the corner of a pillow. No way. But then we found a kind of basket-thing online that we could prop her up in between our pillows, high-walled so I wouldn’t accidentally smother her, so she came to sleep in that in our bed.
I didn’t stop having to check on her constantly — I probably checked on her more, now that she was right there — but at least I didn’t have to cross the room to do it.
I kept forgetting how to breathe. It was the pneumonia, I knew, it hadn’t gone away, my lungs were useless, I was going to suffocate without the watchful nurses. My own doctor, who is the best woman in the world, listened gravely and held my hand as I wept at her, and assured me that I didn’t still have pneumonia. I was having panic attacks. A common symptom of panic attacks is shortness of breath. So I would have a panic attack, get short of breath, and then my panic would spiral out of control because it was true, I couldn’t breathe. She put me on lorazepam.
I’m not sure how long this went on. After some bleak gray span of months the panic attacks became fewer and farther between; still, I didn’t manage to sleep for more than two hours at a stretch the entire first year of my daughter’s life. I fell into a brutal postpartum depression and wasn’t even aware of it: I was just so tired, I’d just been tired forever because I was lazy probably, the house was a mess and the baby a terrifyingly fragile burden because I was a bad housekeeper and a bad mother. Other people did this stuff just fine, but I was a person who sometimes forgot how to breathe, the easiest thing in the world.
After a year I started sleeping again, and then had the opposite problem: I couldn’t stop sleeping. I’d wake up when the baby needed me, and then go back to bed. So lazy. I could stay awake to play video games: they were colorful and interactive and distracting. I couldn’t read, because I couldn’t focus on reading. I couldn’t write, because what was the point? I couldn’t leave the house because I didn’t want to deal with actual people. I knew I was a terrible, lazy mother and everything I did was wrong, I should never have done this.
The hospital stay that started all of this was in December of 2012. In the spring of 2015, I had slipped out of fog enough to think, There’s probably still something wrong with me? and I went back to my doctor and requested antidepressants. In early autumn of 2015, I began to feel like I was waking up again after a very long time. In October of 2015 I got out the novel I’d started in 2011 and thought, hey, I like this, and started working again. I wrote an entire short story — a whole short story! — in response to a call for submissions I’d seen, and then I thought what the hell and sent an excerpt of the novel in an application to the Viable Paradise workshop.
And then I sold the story, and then I got into Viable Paradise. These days, I leave the house regularly and talk to actual people. I have a lot of fun hanging out with my kid, who is smart and talented and adorable and hilarious and I might be biased. I have read four books so far this year, 2017 alone! and haven’t played a video game in months. (Not because there’s anything wrong with video games, but I haven’t needed the distraction.) And almost all of the time, I can breathe.
Sometimes I do still forget. My lungs close up and I forget how to breathe, but it’s been long enough now that I can say to myself, you are panicking, this is a panic attack, your body knows how to breathe, and it will pass.
And a few days ago, after Willa’s diagnosis when I started to cough, when I developed a fever, I thought, I might have pneumonia, and I didn’t spiral into panic. I just thought it: Could be pneumonia.
But Willa was sick and I could still breathe, so she was my priority. I went to the Minute Clinic and the nurse practitioner there told me to take guaifenisin and come back if my fever climbed above 100.4.
Yesterday I was seized with terrible, shaking chills, and I shuffled to the mirror and checked and I wasn’t blue, so I got into bed under five layers of blankets and three of clothes and waited for it to pass.
Last night my fever spiked and I started to wheeze in my throat, and just for a terrible moment I felt my chest closing up. I said to my husband, I might need to go to the ER, and he said, Okay, just let me know. I’m here.
And then I fell asleep.
When I went to my doctor this morning, my most wonderful doctor, and told her what my symptoms were, she didn’t need to be reminded of any of it. She said, I want you to know that your pulse ox is 98, it looks excellent, and your lungs sound good. I’m going to give you medication all the same, the most common antibiotic for walking pneumonia. Do you need something to help you sleep?
Yes, I said, and she prescribed it.
Do you need lorazepam? she said.
No, I said. I think I’m okay.
Okay, she said. I’m here if you need anything.
I know the shortness of breath I felt as I wrote all of this out wasn’t physical: it was my brain, not my lungs. I know that my fatigue right now is because I’m actually physically under the weather and I’ve been minding a sick toddler for days, not because I can’t breathe or because I’m lazy.
I know that I know how to breathe. I know that even when I feel like misery, that’s normal when you’re ill. I know that it’s going to be okay.
I know also that I am very lucky.