One Mom’s Story of Pregnancy Anxiety After Childhood Sexual Abuse: Brook Bolen is a survivor (she’s also a vegan, AP, BF, activist, pit-bull rescuing, Mom) who is brave enough to share her harrowing emotional pregnancy experience with our GGA readers;
Bun in the Oven, Bats in the Belfry: Conquering Post Partum Depression
Conventional wisdom holds that pregnancy is the most miraculous, magical thing that can happen to women. And it’s true that much of it is extraordinary. But for many women like myself who bear the emotional scars of childhood sexual abuse, pregnancy can be painfully alienating, disempowering, and frightening.
It’s not that it was physically hard or dangerous. Fortunately, throughout my pregnancy, I was in spectacular health. I had nary a hint of nausea, craved (and ate) kale and grapefruit like they were going out of style, and walked or swam several miles five times a week. I was such a model of physical health that my midwife used my urine to show her apprentices ideal protein and sugar levels. I loved being able to joke that I finally had evidence that I, like Ricky Bobby from Talladega Nights, really did “piss excellence.” Yet even though I’d been dealing with the effects of my childhood sex abuse for almost half my life, I was wholly unprepared for the ways it affected my experience of being pregnant.
When I became unexpectedly pregnant, I knew very little about what was to come, so to educate and prepare myself, I immediately began reading about it. While the natural pregnancy and birth books I read were very informative and affirming, they contained nothing that really addressed my intense, ever-growing fear. I’d always been anxious, but pregnancy catapulted my anxiety into frequent full-blown panic attacks and uncontrollable terror that, more often than not, translated into bouts of random and self-inflicted violence.
Everyone is an individual and experiences things differently and on their own terms, which are no doubt mediated by their own unique history, yet women’s responses to pregnancy in our culture are unilaterally represented as positive. Unlike the stereotypical woman who reacts with joy to the news, I went absolutely crazy. I couldn’t function. It wasn’t simply that I couldn’t sleep without waking up gasping for air or that I alternated between stupefied shock, uncontrollable sobbing, and terrifying panic attacks when awake, I was so fearful I practically vibrated. My panic would build and build until I erupted violently, breaking most of what I could get my hands on, including the front door panes, the bathroom sink, lamps, glasses, and more. I couldn’t seem to get a lasting grasp on my feelings and subsequent actions.
I felt completely trapped and helpless. More often than not, I was my own primary target. I began beating myself about my head and shoulders as frequently and violently as I could, stopping only when I developed a spinning dizziness Google said was related to head trauma and my inner ear. I then moved onto my legs, Hulk smashing them with my fists, my hairbrush, and my sizeable Maglite flashlight, among other things. I left myself visibly swollen and bruised.
No one had ever accused me of having high self esteem, but this news and my reaction to it made me feel lower and more worthless than I had ever felt. While I felt that having the baby was the right thing for me to do, I felt guilty for not being more than fleetingly happy with the situation. My predominant feelings were blistering fear and dread. The prospect of being congratulated and not responding in a socially appropriate way, in conjunction with my own crippling shame and self-judgement, led me keep my pregnancy a secret from everyone but my family and closest friends until the end of my sixth month. I felt completely lost and more alone than I had ever before felt. In my more functional moments, I was able to masochistically marvel at what a dubious achievement that was. In most others, I was unreachable and inconsolable.
I looked at my life and the blinding, unexpected happiness I had found with the beautiful man I loved. What on earth was wrong with me that I didn’t feel happy or excited about starting a family with him, the person I loved most in the world? This was his baby; that was the sole selling point all along.
Fortunately, my therapist understood what was happening. She, along with a handful of books I found on the subject (most notably Survivor Moms: Women’s Stories of Birthing, Mothering, and Healing After Sexual Abuse), helped me understand that my pregnancy was powerfully triggering the feelings of helplessness and victimization my molestation had caused so many years before. I began to see that these horrible feelings fueled the depression, anxiety, alienation, and anger that led me to hide the news and beat the tar out of myself. And even though I never met another mother in person who could relate to me, I was grateful to find solace and understanding in the pages of that book.
As a small child, I had been powerless to stop or defend myself against my brother’s repeated sexual abuse. I came to understand that pregnancy was making me feel the same way. While not exactly non-consensual, it was something I didn’t purposely achieve or undertake. It was something that I couldn’t really control; I had to endure it. I couldn’t schedule it, delay it, or opt out of it. Even the positive stories about birth made it clear: labor is a wildly powerful physiological process that happens to you. Some women’s accounts recounted abuse flashbacks during labor, and I became fearful the same would happen to me, as my other memories had been out-of-the-blue flashbacks.
While pregnancy largely remained a foreign, uncomfortable state for me, with the continued support of my therapist, partner, family, and friends things started to get better. Though I never completely stopped feeling anxious, my panic and self-attacks did abate. And when the day came, my home birth was easier, better, and more positive than I could have imagined. Thankfully, I didn’t have any flashbacks, either.
Despite still routinely struggling with depression and anxiety, I am happy to say that life is infinitely better now that my daughter–the happiest, funniest, sweetest, and most beautiful tiny person I’ve ever known–is here than it was when I was pregnant. I have more certainty and control, as well as greater understanding and compassion for myself about the ways my abuse shaped and affected me. Maybe most importantly, I know that the sky won’t fall even when I am convinced otherwise.
Brook Bolen was born and bred in Appalachia, Brook Bolen is an urban transplant living in the heart of the Dirty South with her true love, daughter, and pitbull. She works as a writer, editor, and proofreader.
Originally published on SpeakMom.com – published with permission by author.
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