The beautiful coat of armor I had so skillfully constructed around my pain instantly became a straightjacket the moment the world changed to look more terrifying than I had ever imagined it could be. Writing this article is part of my recovery from that terror. I am moving toward my fear as I write because the foundational strength of my PTSD recovery rests on a matrix of actions I have made in dedication to a practice of stepping into my fear and being vulnerable.
I will be very honest with you: I am terrified to write this article, and my agreement to do so feels like a resolution to walk across a swath of emotional landmines, hoping that something better exists on the other side. If my words are triggering for myself, I will deal with that. But any word I write could trigger you, too, and I have no way of knowing what you will do in the face of your trigger. So, I will try and be gentle with both of us. Perhaps you could join me in doing the same.
I write for this birth journal because I have found that some of the most restorative work I do comprises recovery work around the topic and experience of birthing. In contrast, I find that for many who have yet to learn the practice of recovery, the intensity of the perinatal period—whether as a primary player or as a peripheral agent—can swiftly create some of the most impactful wounding of our lives. By placing recovery skills and practices into the hands of those involved in the perinatal period, we create opportunities for healing and limit the possibility of long-term wounding. For this reason, I created Holistic Peer Counseling for Birth and Parenting.
“I can’t attend births at hospitals anymore. I just can’t do it.”
“I loved birth work, but then X happened and now I just can’t do it anymore.”
“I seem to have lost touch with my intuition.”
Have you ever heard statements like these? Have you ever said or thought them? I have heard them too many times from the mouths of too many fabulous birth workers with too many years of valuable experience. Each time I hear it, I feel a loss. I feel a small death in the lineage of wisdom that, quite frankly, I want: I want it for me. I want it for my clients, my students, my children. I want it for the many generations yet to come.
As I feel this loss, I also feel profound respect and empathy for the people who make these statements. They have been on the front lines. They have been the force that supports women and families in a system that often feels at odds with the very task. All of this they have done while dancing with their own frailties in the presence of one of the most powerful events of our human experience: birth. I feel their pain. I feel their anguish. I feel their rage. I feel all of it and I completely understand the choices they are making.
“I couldn’t look at my baby after she was born.”
“I felt like my partner had become my enemy.”
“I hate being a Mother. I don’t know who I am anymore.”
Have you heard statements like these? Have you ever said or thought them? I have yet to meet anyone near birth and new families who says they have not. The emotional impact experienced in concert with the realities of the perinatal period often dwarf the romantic sentiment of family. This dissonance is quite painful to endure. The pain is further cemented into parents’ psyches as they attempt to interact with a world that denies their experiences and often casts them as the villain in their own victimization.
When our psyches are crippled with pain, it is difficult to act out of love. Discerning which actions are required of us in order to care for ourselves and others can quickly become elusive. In some cases it feels simply unattainable.
I consider these types of crossroads a sort of identity crisis. We thought we knew what was real and then everything we thought we knew is no longer. I have hit these junctions many times in my life. Thankfully, my mother raised me in a culture of recovery. The perinatal period drove her to start her own recovery process. She wanted to love her baby better than she had been loved.. Not only did this mean the end of many abusive ancestral patterns for my lineage, it also meant I was handed the awareness I needed to recover pieces of myself if and when the time and inclination came.
Nothing broke me quite like the moment in downtown Manhattan on September 11, 2001 when the ground started to rumble under my feet as a crumbling Tower 2 threatened to engulf both my surroundings and me. This event shattered me into more pieces than the moment I found out my father never wanted me born. It defeated me beyond the years of sexual harassment I experienced in high school. It threw me into far more confusion than the culture shock I faced when I arrived at Columbia University with nothing, surrounded by children bred in families of wealth and privilege.
The moment I had the wherewithal to figure out how broken I was, I got help. When I started to taste the sweetness of recovery, I dove for more. For years, my life was all about my recovery. One day at a time, I worked my way back toward myself; by the mid-2000s I was married, headed to medical school, and training hard in Tae Kwon Do. I had even renovated an apartment and learned how to knit! This was in stark contrast to those dark days when stepping out of my front door meant imagining every brick of the surrounding Manhattan buildings crumbling to the ground. Everything looked fabulous—as long as I kept at my recovery.
Then came birth trauma. The panic I felt when I buckled over with pain multiple times in a row on a Manhattan street outside the door of my OB’s office where my water had been broken during a vaginal exam completely re-stimulated my PTSD. By the time I got into a quiet place hours later at the hospital, I was certain I was going to die and that my only hope was for someone to save me. The actions of my OB proved my fears completely correct when she stuck her hand up me, turned my daughter manually, and 20 minutes later pronounced me nearly complete. See? I was going to die and she saved me!
I spent hours not pushing while everything in my body wanted to push because my daughter’s head was coming out looking at my leg and we didn’t want her to blow me open. After her birth everyone called me a “Rock Star,” but I felt broken and saved. Today, nearly nine years later, after working my recovery methods, I am fairly certain my doctor was simply impatient. Things probably would have been just fine if my uterus and baby had been left to do their thing.
While my anxiety was palpable for some years, my recovery path was established enough to keep me from revisiting the internal constraints I had felt after 9/11. Recovery tools allowed me to care for my new family, complete my pre medical studies, move across the continent, and set up roots in Seattle. It was here in Seattle that I finally found the tools I needed to quiet the persistent anxiety and lead me to the ecstatic home birth of my second daughter.
In 2008, my then-neighbor Rev. Teri Ciacchi, MSW invited me to her home to speak with me about co-teaching a class she created called Clitoral Revelations. It was during this meeting that the pieces clicked together. I knew why birth had re-stimulated my PTSD and I knew that someone needed to start talking to people about what I had discovered. I was groomed to teach this sort of thing. I was raised in a massage school. I sat at my mother’s side for years as she developed curriculum created to draw people into their bodies and reclaim themselves. But, I had run away from all that at the age of 18 to join “The Real World.” But, now here I was on the precipice of reclaiming my pelvic floor from generations of ownership by others—being asked to return to the work of my lineage. Of course my answer was, “Yes.” There was too much opportunity for healing present in this request for me to say, “No.”
It didn’t take long for a curriculum to flood into my mind and by 2009 the Embodied Birth Curriculum was in place. It was clear that something was birthing itself through me. The sensations felt much like those I experienced when my second daughter rippled out of me in a tsunami of expansive and somewhat terrifying pleasure. It also felt a whole lot like recovery. This was about birth and it was about recovery. If I wanted to provide for people engaged in the creation of family, I needed to create content, structure, and tools necessary for the continual reclamation of any lost pieces of Self blown away by the intensity of the experience. Recovery needed to be a pivotal aspect of the curriculum.
Holistic Peer Counseling (HPC) has provided the perfect architecture for this style of education. HPC is community building, Do It Yourself (DIY) technology that rests on one foundational principle: loving attention is medicinal.
We learn tools and we practice holding space for distress patterns so they can unravel, reclaiming our true nature. We learn how to be both a client and a counselor so that we can heal ourselves and facilitate healing for others. Using a myriad of formats and technologies from Google to Facebook to in-person interactions, we have built a community of people actively engaged in the work so that we can show up in the world intact, passionate, and forever devoted to healing.
NPs, CNMs, RNs, CPMs, Doulas, Mothers, Fathers, and many others continue to receive the benefits of reclaiming life and passion through our HPC community. Just in the past month a birth worker successfully returned to her life’s work after being convinced she could never return without her PTSD being restimulated’ a sexual abuse survivor started a new hot love affair after years of conflicted celibacy’ a healthcare worker took the steps she needed to get herself a more fulfilling job’ a full-time father took the steps he needed to break his crippling isolation and get himself some self-care. Quite thrilling to me, a new HPC outbreak group was created to focus on Race, Privilege and Resources in the wake of events in Ferguson. This is the short list of accomplishments in just the past month.
It is both through my own journey and now through the journey of working with others that I have become thoroughly convinced that combining family creation and the tools of recovery produces powerful results.
I will end by inviting you to get quiet with yourself for a second. Ask if there are any little pieces of you that you yearn to reconnect with. Now, ask if you could show up a bit better for yourself and others if you allowed yourself to focus on recovering those pieces. Just sit with that and know that we are here whenever you want to begin.
*This article appeared in Squat Birth Journal