Delayed PTSD In Parents Of Infants & Children Who Have Survived ICU Admissions
Hi, my name is Caeli. I am a psychologist, but more importantly, I am a Post Traumatic Stress (PTSD) Survivor.
I purposely choose the word “Survivor”, as I this is the way I now view myself, as well as all others having been exposed to and fighting against the repercussions of trauma. I have come to the conclusion that the traumatic experience will always remain with me as it has become part of my very being.
However, my ability to understand my reactions, progress through and gain control over the reoccurring associated horrors, and the final ability to live with the experiences as a strength, and see a future with positives, is indeed a reality.
The reason for sharing my story with you relates firstly to the fact that the signs and symptoms of PTSD can lie dormant for years, rearing its ugly head once the crisis has passed and the person feels safe and supported, thus being in the position for the body to finally feel free to feel the trauma.
Cause of Trauma
The second reason for my story is to raise awareness regarding the causes of my trauma: an area given little attention or recognition, both in the research world and in real life. The trauma I’m discussing involves those parents who find themselves in the helpless situation of their infant or child being hospitalised for a life threatening condition, often frequently involving admissions to Intensive care units (ICU).
In my case I found that support was reasonably high for parents in Maternity NICU with prem births, and also for parents who suffer the indescribable loss of a child.
The parents who seem to be forgotten however, are those like me where my newborn infant was transferred within two hours from the maternity hospital to the Royal Children’s Hospital for immediate and repeated life saving surgeries, numerous NICU and ICU admissions due to life threatening conditions and in need of life support systems, and finally after 14 months, returned home alive, leaving behind numerous children whom I’d befriended who had lost their fight for life.
Life threatening situations continued to arise over the next 10 years, with MICA call outs and hospital admissions due to sudden respiratory distress and arrests, thus keeping me in the “fight” response, and hence in need to keep myself together.
Collapse Came Suddenly
However, once my son became reasonably stable, and I had remarried allowing for a safe and supportive environment for me and my three children, I suddenly collapsed mentally and emotionally. All the horrors of the past came flooding back, swallowing me up in all the finest details: fears, sights, sounds, discussions, arguments, helplessness, guilt (including survivor guilt in that my son survived while so many others I knew had passed).
By this stage, having coped during the trauma and thus not considered as in need of support by the hospital, I was not prepared and had no idea why I was falling apart. Being a psychologist and having had instruction in critical incidence, trauma and effects of shock, it was of NO HELP when it came to me desperately trying to get up each day, let alone remain awake instead of finding ways to numb my feelings and sleep through each tortuous second of the day.
A Horrific Downward Spiral
My journey involved a horrific force spiralling me down a jagged deathly black pit, with each pointed edge cutting into me with each tiny detail of the previous horrors involving my son, the hospital and ICU, the other children, and my shear helplessness and guilt. I tried to numb each hit of flashbacks, avoidances and panic unsuccessfully, resulting in each jagged edge getting sharper, and the number of edges more numerous.
Finally, in my efforts to avoid the internal emotional pain caused in this abyss of nightmares, anxiety and total inability to do the simplest of things, I ended up purposely creating deeper, sharper and more numerous edges by creating physical pain such that the emotional pain would lessen momentarily. The success of this venture of course led me back to what appeared to be my only alternative; this being returning to my numerous attempts to numb and isolate myself from everything and everyone, placing myself in the most dangerous and self-focused position anyone can place themselves, and more importantly, cause extreme worry and trauma to my own family: the very ones I was trying to protect.
This self-destructive path I followed led me into numerous hospital admissions and emergency department visits over a very long three years. Fortunately however, following a few attempts with generalised psychiatrists, I found an amazing Psychiatrist who was specifically specialised in PTSD.
A Chance at Last
Through hospital visits, weekly clinic visits, and numerous phone calls to this doctor, he led me out of my maze of horrors and isolation. I was given the chance to be listened to, believed in, be given support, explanation and guidance through all my flashbacks, avoidances, isolation, fears, terror, suicidal times, self destructive behaviours, and depressive symptoms.
He also gave me the right to treat myself with care, patience, love, acceptance, and most of all, to be proud of who I am and how much I gave during the times of crisis. He also enabled me to feel validated in all the areas I had previously felt neglected, mistreated, angry, guilty, and other areas I found difficult to accept.
The Most Important Lesson
The most important lesson I learnt was that I was an ordinary healthy person placed into extraordinary, unhealthy life-threatening situations; and that through time, care, patience, and treatment of myself within my own limitations (and not those of others), I will come to be able to accept my life as is, and learn to live life again with a sense of peace and enjoyment.
Delayed Onset PTSD
As I wrote in the beginning, my hope in sharing my story with you all has been twofold. Firstly, that it will be recognised that PTSD can make itself known for the first time only years after the life-threatening situation has passed, when you feel safe and supported, thus being able to feel that which has been suppressed in order to maintain an order in life.
It can also frequently be masked in its onset as a depression, but if a person has have been previously subjected to a life-threatening situation, it may be the initial signs of a growing PTSD.
Parents of ICU Survivors
Secondly, I wish to raise awareness that parents of children who are placed in life-threatening situations yet fortunate to live are also highly vulnerable to suffering post traumatic stress. This area I have found to be relatively neglected, and would like to raise it here, and request that should any of you have been through this, or know of anyone who has, to just leave a comment regarding the importance of following through with this issue.
If the feedback I gain is sufficient, I hope to invest my time in raising this awareness publicly such that it begins to receive support similar to that given to post- natal depression and Beyond Blue.
Thankyou for your time in reading and sharing this story with me, and I wish you the best should you be suffering any form of PTSD,