Living in the Shaky Place

In this essay, which first appeared on Jessica Valenti's personal blog, the editor and writer discusses the post-traumatic response she had to her daughter's premature birth last year.

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"Compassionate action starts with seeing yourself when you start to make yourself right and when you start to make yourself wrong. At that point you could just contemplate the fact that there is a larger alternative to either of those, a more tender, shaky kind of place where you could live. This place, if you can touch it, will help you train yourself throughout your life to open further to whatever you feel, to open further rather than shut down more." --Pema Chödrön

It started several weeks after my daughter's birth with an itch on my c-section scar. It was an entirely normal twinge, something that happens when nerve endings are healing. But instead of noticing the itch, maybe scratching it and moving on, my knees gave out and I hit the ground.

Suddenly I was on the operating table again -- multiple sets of hands in me, shifting and tugging at unknown organs. I'm not sure how long I stayed on my living room floor, but when I became aware that I wasn't in the hospital, my hands were shaking and I was covered in sweat.

It was the first of many flashbacks I would have over the next year or so -- a post-traumatic response to my daughter's premature birth, NICU stay, and the illness I developed during pregnancy that I thought would kill me. (It's common for parents of babies in the NICU to develop PTSD, as it is for women who have traumatic birth experiences.)

The more amorphous the symptom, the more frightening I found it. The worst, though, was the detachment I felt toward the people closest to me.

The funny thing about PTSD is that it's sneaky. The eight weeks that Layla was in the hospital -- while the emergency was still in full force -- I was fine. Productive, even. I wrote articles, maintained a blog for family and friends about Layla's progress, and went to the NICU every day to be with her. Sure, I had daily crying spells and suffered from an understandable amount of sadness and fear that comes with having a child in the hospital -- but I was functioning. It was only after the crisis was over and Layla was home that everything changed. Just when I thought the nightmare of the hospital was over, a new one took residence in my home and in my head.

What happened most often was that out of nowhere I'd think that my daughter was dead. I'd be out on a walk or in another room while Layla was sleeping and I would just know that she was gone. Or that someone had killed my family while I was out. Not a fleeting "oh my God, what if" feeling; I believed these things with absolute certainty. You could not have ever convinced me that anything else was true. It was only once I saw Layla and my family that I understood they were all right.

I stopped sleeping. Sometimes thanks to nightmares, sometimes just because the rotation of horrible thoughts made it impossible to shut my eyes for more than a few minutes at a time. When most people have a bad thought they can push it out of their mind; when you have PTSD, you can lose that ability. Imagine the worst, most violent thoughts you've ever had about life, your family, yourself -- the ones that are so awful that they pass through your mind for less than a second before you hurriedly force them out. Now imagine these thoughts are absolutely immovable; you literally cannot stop thinking them.

I started having small blackouts. The first one happened while driving home from a lunch meeting. I suddenly found myself miles past my house, an hour later, still driving. Socializing was impossible. I was afraid to do anything, terrified of having a panic attack or flashback while I was out. I used to be quite the social butterfly (OK, party girl), but now people made me anxious. I felt as if I was faking it with everyone I interacted with. It's easy to make small talk when things are generally OK -- even if you're having a bad day you can mostly smile through it. But when you're not sure if your sense of reality is going to change at any moment, it's hard to pretend.

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Jessica Valenti is a columnist for The Guardian US, the founder of Feministing.com, and the author of Full Frontal Feminism; He's a Stud, She's a Slut; The Purity Myth; and Why Have Kids? She has written for Salon, The Washington Post, and The Nation.

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