How One Woman Was ‘Scarred’ by Her Drug-Free Birth

Women who are traumatized by childbirth can develop postpartum PTSD. Photo by Image Source/Getty Images.

Childbirth — drug-free or not — is one of the most physically demanding experiences of a woman’s life. It’s also the most subjective, with each birth story its own unique entity. For Tara-Michelle Ziniuk, a Toronto mother of one, childbirth was downright traumatizing. She wrote about the experience on Wednesday for Today’s Parent in an essay called “I Had a Drug-Free Childbirth — and It Scarred Me,” which left her with a condition called postpartum PTSD.

Ziniuk explains that before giving birth to her daughter Anna four and a half years ago, she had a debilitating fear of giving birth, writing, “When I admit this people they point out that no one looks forward to the delivery. But for me, it was more than that. I dreaded it. I didn’t want to think about, talk about or plan for it.”

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It wasn’t your run-of-the-mill “this is gonna to hurt” fear of pain. It was emotional, too. Ziniuk had endometriosis and as a result she had anxiety associated with her reproductive region, having suffered from severe menstrual cramps. Regardless, she was curious about experiencing pregnancy, even considering surrogacy at one point. To overcome her fear, Ziniuk immersed herself in all things birth-related — she studied contractions, analyzed birth plans, enrolled in a childbirth class, and took a hospital tour.

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She also described an uncomplicated birth which included extremely painful contractions, a long labor, and being induced. But most notably was a feeling that she lacked control during one of the most intense events of her life. “So I disassociated,” Zuniuk wrote. “I didn’t want anyone in the room with me — not the person I had there for support, and not the midwife. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I felt disgusting and embarrassed and sick; nothing was comfortable or bearable. I wanted it to stop. At the time, in that moment, I remember very clearly thinking I wanted it to stop more than I wanted to have my baby. It was horrible. I was exhausted and borderline suicidal. I didn’t ask for any kind of intervention because I couldn’t bring myself to ask for anything, words just weren’t coming. By the time I did ask, I was too far along for it to be administered.” Yahoo Parenting could not reach Zuniuk for comment.

Postpartum PTSD differs from the more commonly recognized Postpartum depression (PPD) in that the former results from a traumatic (or perceived traumatic) childbirth, while the latter is usually caused by hormonal changes that occur during childbirth, reports Psychology Today. The condition can affect up to six percent of women, according to Postpartum Support International (PSI). Israeli researchers have identified cases in women who had vaginal births that included medical complications or were otherwise traumatic, and in women who had “mental crises” during pregnancy along with anticipating the fear and pain of birth. Symptoms include flashbacks of the labor, refusing to discuss the experience, and even avoiding pregnancy in the future.

“Postpartum PTSD is no different than any other form of PTSD — it’s just that the trigger is specifically childbirth,” Ann Smith, president of PSI, tells Yahoo Parenting. “It’s a biological illness in women with a certain psychological or genetic makeup, and we often see it in those whose birth experience wasn’t how they imagined it or who had traumatic births.”

But there are undeniable external factors that can make childbirth seem horrifying. We have a cultural obsession with grisly aspects of childbirth — from mainstream-movie portrayals that always portray it as a nightmare to reality shows like “Born in the Wild” where viewers get a front-row seat to the action. Throw in those graphic videos from birthing class and your co-worker’s scary birth story and it’s understandable why the experience can be nerve-wracking for some. And nerves act as a self-fulfilling prophecy: One study conducted in Norway found that women who fear childbirth wind up having longer labors.

Plus, during pregnancy, there’s lots of build-up to the big event. Childbirth classes, baby showers, medical care, and doting attention from friends and family. But after the baby is born, the woman’s needs and sometimes her identity can fall to the wayside as she transitions into the all-encompassing role of motherhood. So it’s unsurprising that the condition can leave many feeling isolated. Zuniuk writes, “People have told me they’ve forgotten their labor and delivery experience almost immediately after giving birth. I remembered mine vividly, too vividly, for a very long time after. I didn’t want to make small talk about it. I was having nightmares about it and could not handle that it was what every person I spoke to wanted to discuss.”

Expecting women are often assured, “You’ll forget the pain of birth as soon as the baby comes” and it may feel shameful or selfish to admit that the pain was overwhelming when discomfort is necessary in order to bring something wonderful into the world: Your baby.

Fortunately, postpartum PTSD is a temporary condition that, with better prenatal education and more support during labor and delivery, might be preventable, says Smith. “Postpartum PTSD gets treated in the same way as a mood and anxiety disorder,” she adds. “Medication to rebalance neurotransmitters and talk therapy can help emotionally.”

And with time, some women are able to appreciate the bigger picture. “My wish that I was unable to recall my daughter’s birth does not negate the good that came from becoming her mother,” writes Zuniuk, “but my experience of parenthood to date has had nothing to do with my so-called natural childbirth.”

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