It's about time...pregnancy, pain and positive growth
Updated: Jun 3, 2019
When I was pregnant I developed a painful condition given a name which doesn’t really do it justice – symphysis pubis dysfunction (SPD) or pelvic girdle pain (PGP). The ligaments holding my pelvis together became too relaxed and the resulting movement of my joints caused pain daily from around 5 months antenatally until around 3 months post-partum.
In seeking help and advice, I spoke with my midwife, a chiropractor, numerous obstetrics registrars and several physiotherapists all of whom relayed how the condition would likely worsen as my baby grew. I was repeatedly led to believe it was that as it was caused by hormones, most women found it disappeared after the baby was born and that this was otherwise a normal pregnancy. The only exception was the physio I was finally assigned who suggested I might need to rely on using a pair of crutches to enable me to move little and often, as bed rest and resulting stiffness would only make the condition worse.
The experience of bringing our son into the world tested both me and my husband in ways that we would never have dreamed. We tackled conversations with pig-headed registrars, new on shift, questioning their own consultant’s prescription of painkillers. I dealt with midwives telling me they were barely touching me when doing examinations that felt like red hot pokers. We experienced the hospital losing my crutches and encouraging me to walk unaided for the first time in 6 weeks (5 hours post-partum) then wondering why I was mad with pain. Once he was born, doctors would go on to compare our baby to one born to a drug addict as they checked for codeine withdrawal that we had not been warned about and that never materialised.
The baffling thing is that through all this we attended and sat through NCT classes listen to an earth mother type extol the virtues of a pain and intervention free pregnancy. I spent each class readjusting my sacroiliac belt and trying not to think about the fact I was in pain already (and on pain meds), what would labour be like and what did that make me?
Whilst most pregnant women I have ever met seem highly concerned about taking the odd paracetamol, I was prescribed codeine to help manage the pain and lived the remaining months of pregnancy with excruciating pain day and night regardless, whether if I sat, stood, walked or rested. An eventual admission to hospital for one night due to pain and exhaustion finally led to a sensible conversation directly with a consultant and an agreement to prescribe tramadol short term for pain relief ahead of an induction booked for 39 weeks. My son was born thankfully alive and kicking after a relatively short and straight-forward labour and this remains the happiest moment of my life.
Looking back it is not a surprise that three weeks into returning home I attempted to self-harm in my desperation; still in constant pain (although it had improved from it’s peak), I did not feel equipped to care for myself let alone my baby. I felt my life spiralling further and further out of control.
We were fortunate enough to have private medical insurance and I was already under the care of both a psychiatrist due to long term mental health problems. This as well as my pregnancy experience should have been a red flag enabling the right sort of help being made available by the NHS (more regular visits and support from health visitors, group therapy) but as we went private and my psychiatrist chose not to keep my GP informed it was left to me and my husband to battle through, sticking to our once a month appointments almost as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened (business as usual).
I realise I was in a privileged position to have access to a mental health professional one to one but he in retrospect was not really qualified to give me the psychological therapy and support I needed to help myself. In addition he had not questioned my decision to come off my medication for general anxiety disorder pre-conception and I managed the whole pregnancy alone with my anxiety (and as I now know insidious Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and resulting depression.
It feels strange to condense the most traumatic experience of my life into a few couple of paragraphs but I also want to focus on what I have learned from the experience. Chronic pain does funny things to the mind. There are those that say pain is only in the mind, or their moderate cousins who claim you can control pain with your thoughts. In my experience, you can’t, but distraction does help and anxiety doesn't. Focusing on the pain only makes you fear it, which makes you tense, which makes it hurt more.
During my pregnancy, looking back I had many OCD episodes. My thinking at points became obsessive with the upcoming pain of labour and how I would even tell it had begun given the daily level of pain I was experiencing. To me at the time, it seemed like I would be in pain forever and I often fantasised about putting my head through a glass window. I never attempted to do this, or harm myself in any way, but to me the glass window seemed a good solution at silencing my brain. I spent all of the 5 months feeling terrified that because I was in pain, so must my baby be and convinced that something must be wrong for me to be feeling like this.
In my distress I used to get confused about whether there had even been a 'me' before the pain. Interestingly, I often found myself recollecting events when I had not felt well and at first thinking they had happened within the past few months. These were times when I had failed to enjoy pleasant experiences or felt that I was unable to; in my desperate state I thought this was because I was in physical pain. Then, remembering that there had been a me before pregnancy and pain, I realised that I had felt pain then but not of the physical kind. I was remembering the feeling of having (hidden) emotional pain as being the same in terms of their incapacitation but different in the way they had limited me.
If asked whether physical pain is worse than emotional pain I would say yes, and no. I used to long for the physical pain to go and during many nights leaning on my giant lime green swiss ball in a prayer position would often promise myself I would be able to handle any emotional pain that God/the universe wanted me to, as long as this physical agony would stop. In truth, the physical was made worse because of it’s impact on the mental and emotional. In my experience this makes it double hard to handle. I would be interested to hear if this is the same for others or this is my anxiety disordered self-talking (again).
Now we are six years on and my son turns six himself in the summer. Like my physio foretold, my symptoms didn’t vanish, and for many years I have felt haunted whilst memories and associations fuelled my resentment for the experience. Only last month I underwent voluntary treatment to try and strengthen the ligaments, this was to help my physical self which still experiences flare-ups and occasional painful symptoms but also for my emotional self which needs to move through this experience and stop these twinges being daily reminders of how my body and mind weren’t up to the challenge of pregnancy. I have also found a therapist who is helping me work through my guilt and shame and I have decided to study positive psychology to try and transform my experience into growth and help others do the same.
I will probably continue to struggle with other reminders of that time. Each day when I do the school run alongside mums with buggies, seeing friends and acquaintances grow their families over the years, being aware of other mums juggling work and busy family life, seeing pregnant women exercising or new mums 'wearing' their babies.
We have a wonderful, bright and sparky son who has thrived despite having a mum who initially was incapable of caring for him and who continues to need a lot of support. Whilst I question daily whether I deserve him and feel guilt for wishing his first few months had been different, it may be time to accept that those months and years are a part of who we (I, my husband and son) are.
I hope by sharing my thoughts and my story I can move through resentment and regret and focus more on the gratitude for what I have and that my words help others share their experiences if they need to.