Certain aspects of the day I was told that the heart of the 18 week old baby I was carrying was not developing correctly are seared into my brain. I don't recall too many of the words that were spoken or what I was wearing, but I remember how it felt to be left alone with my husband in the ultrasound room for an eternity. I remember the feeling of it gradually dawning on me that being left alone for that long meant something was wrong. I can still feel that slow realization; I knew from my prenatal training in graduate school that this was what happened, but it still took several minutes before my mind hatched the thought: "Something is wrong."
My memories of the next two years following that day are similar. I have trouble recalling names and faces, but the feelings that I felt in my stomach, the rising anxiety in my chest, those sensations can still bubble up when I think about going under general anesthesia when I was 23 weeks along for the in utero procedure to open Griffin's aortic valve, or when I picture the cardiac intensive care unit at Boston Children's Hospital.
For many years, I would experience things in my everyday life that set off these feelings in my body. Like, if I saw a family with three healthy teenagers at a restaurant, I would get upset that maybe my little guy wouldn't make it to that age. Or if I drove past a little league baseball game I would be triggered by the uncertainty of whether Griffin would ever be able to participate in sports like a typical kid. Life was a minefield; I could be triggered by almost anything and it would get my heart racing, the tears flowing, anxiety flaring.
This is what trauma looks like. Trauma is the way we recover from a stressful event or loss. It has to do more with how we respond to an experience rather than the experience itself. So, in the immediate time following the event we may have trouble sleeping, eating, going about our daily lives, but typically we figure out ways to cope and recover. If can't get there - if the experience overwhelms our ability to cope - this is traumatic stress. We worry about it because it could lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other mental health problems.
I think many of us go through our lives, experiencing trauma and not recognizing it as such. We think that maybe the experience wasn't "bad enough" to qualify as trauma. We believe that trauma has to include death or sexual assault. But it's all subjective, meaning that the event itself doesn't have much to do with it and it's all about how you responded.
Once Griffin had arrived and was, in fact, thriving, I found I was stuck in the same thoughts that I had during the pregnancy. I had a hard time enjoying him (happy baby that he was) because of these intrusive thoughts. They were always near the surface, circling around in my mind like a broken record: "he's going to need several surgeries", "what if he doesn't survive", "how can I handle this".
Slowly, I recognized my need for help. Other events in my life actually helped push me to get help, otherwise I think I would have waited and tried to figure out the Griffin stuff on my own. I did lots and lots of therapy. I started my writing practice. I told Griffin's story, at first to small groups of students and eventually to a big crowd at a national conference. I started my creative business, Orchid Story, to help other women cope with their own traumatic events. The uncertainty that threatened to swallow me whole nine years ago is much more manageable now.
It took a lot of hard work. A lot of money. A lot of time. A lot of uncomfortable feelings. This is in no way an exaggeration.
And... there is a happy ending. Of course, the happy ending includes Griffin playing in the pool this summer, just six months after his first open heart surgery at age 7. But that's not what I mean, because remember, that even if things look good on the outside - the experience of trauma is still subjective and about the recovery (my recovery) from the events.
The happy ending is that all the work I put into healing myself has helped. The intrusive thoughts are no longer swimming. I get triggered much less often and when I do, I can recover quickly. I was recently sitting with a new therapist, as I am learning Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) also known as tapping. She was teaching me the tapping sequences and we were going through all of those scenes of trauma from back when Griffin was diagnosed in 2010 and his early years, all the way up to his surgery and recovery in late 2018. When we were done she looked at me and said, "You really don't have much residual trauma related to his heart condition."
She could have told me I won a million bucks and I would not have been more pleased.
Do I have other issues in my life that I am still working on? Yes. Am I still worried at times about Griffin's heart and his future? Yes. The work is not done. The work will never be done. The important thing is that I am moving forward. I've come such a long way from that day back in the ultrasound room.