New life, old ghosts

This is a guest post from Cat Phipps, who is part of our Motherkind Café community. We are so grateful to her for her courage and honesty in sharing her story with us. Please be advised that this blog post contains references to birth trauma, nightmares, and experience of a sexual offence; if you feel you may be distressed by this, then you may wish not to read any further.

Two years ago, I was brand new to motherhood. My entrance into this new phase of my life was plagued with difficulties. A home birth with emergency transfer, an assisted delivery, the episiotomy from hell, which took four months and two surgical procedures to fully heal, played their part in this fourth trimester horror story. Then there was the wicked witch-like landlady who cast me, my husband and our newborn son out of our flat because he had been born. It was a scary and bewildering time in so many ways, and it was made even scarier by the old ghosts that came back to haunt me.

As a child I had suffered so terribly from nightmares I had been sent to a child psychologist. Postpartum, my fear of the dark came back with a vengeance. I imagined figures watching me from the shadows and started relying on the light from my phone, whether from nightlight apps or me using it to keep them away. I experienced night terrors, one time having a waking nightmare in which I wrestled a demon creature in the bed and exploded it with my bare hands to prevent it from getting to my baby. It felt so real.

So despite hating the darkness, I avoided sleep and couldn’t let myself relax. I would lie in bed listening to my son and husband sleeping, while the night became ‘my time’. Finally I could be alone with my thoughts, which were not kind to me. I spent hours on my phone doing ‘research’ to identify what had gone wrong with my birth and episiotomy. I wanted to know what I could have done differently, why I hadn’t been able to give birth to my son, what had happened to cause my episiotomy pain and wound breakdown. I needed exact answers. Part of my struggle has been accepting that I’ll never get them. And that it’s a special form of self-torture when you can’t let yourself off the hook for something you had no control over.

There was another spectral figure who hung around my postpartum mind. At university I had looked up one evening to see a silhouette at my window. It was a man who pretended to masturbate as he leaned forward to get a good look at me. I had been afraid that he was going to break into my room and rape me. When I left to get help, he’d disappeared into the night. Now, nearly ten years later, the shadowy figure of this voyeur mixed in my mind with the image of the doctor who had been cruel to me postpartum and the all-seeing critical eye of the landlady who didn’t want us in her property. It was like my experiences as a new mother had tugged on these threads from my past, and were twisting them into a knotty feeling of lack of security, lack of safety and a constant sense of personal threat.

I couldn’t make sense of these visitations from so many years ago. I was ashamed that I felt such a childish fear at night, and as far as I was concerned, I’d left that man at the window behind me at university. I’d got over it. So why did he keep popping up in my head? And if I’d managed to deal with stressful events like that in my life before, why couldn’t I get over my birth and postpartum experience and get on with being a mum? Why couldn’t I just let it go?

Four months after my son’s birth, I sought professional help. I was frustrated by my obsessive thoughts about the birth and postpartum period and wanted to put it all behind me, as I felt I had done with previous frightening experiences. But of course through talking about it all, I realised that there was unfinished business in the ghosts that had come back to haunt me, which, with support, I have been able to address.

Gradually the darkness became less threatening, and I now have a kinder spirit in my life – a self-compassionate figure whose gentle voice I am learning to channel to counteract the self-critical one that is there all too often. If there’s anything that needs exorcising it’s got to be that voice that tells me I should have prevented all this from happening to me. I’ve developed a new approach to my fears, which isn’t about leaving them behind me but finding a way to live with them, so that when old memories do come up, I can stay in the present, where I’m no longer so afraid.

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