Guest monologue: Fight, flight, or freeze?

This week, I have a guest post for you, written by Lyanne Nicholl, campaigner and author of the new book, Your Postnatal Body: A Top-to-Toe Guide to Caring For Yourself After Pregnancy and Birth (in which I make a small cameo, but don’t hold that against it…) Lyanne interviewed me for a section in the book that looks at postpartum recovery after pregnancy loss. This was the first time I’d encountered a mainstream postnatal handbook that had considered this perspective and made an effort to include it. It was, I would learn, borne out of Lyanne’s own personal experiences…

When do you know when to stop trying? How do you know? If you have been buffeted by the waves of infertility, miscarriage, and trauma – and sometimes felt like you were drowning – how do you know how much strength you have left to keep going? Or whether you have the strength to stop trying.

I cannot speak for you. I do not have the answer. It can only come from you. All I can do is tell you is how I felt. And the truth is, I don’t know when I would have stopped trying. What I do know is that it is a painful, disorientating, all-consuming journey until you make that decision – or have it made for you.

My story has a rainbow at the end (though that in itself is very much a new beginning, not an end). I was lucky – after three miscarriages, one after the other – the fourth baby went full term and was born livid but healthy. I cannot imagine life without him. Yet, it might’ve been so very different.

To say recurrent miscarriage was a shock for me, after having my first son with (relative) ease, is not completely true. I had a feeling. Did any of you have this? I had a feeling things would not come easy to me. Maybe I felt that the first time was too easy, as if I’d got off lightly in some way. And so I had a niggle, coming from the darkest corner of my head (an area I try to ignore) that something difficult lay ahead.

I didn’t get pregnant quite as quickly as before, so at first I thought maybe that was it.

But then the first miscarriage happened. And the shock of that was bloody and brutal. But I kind of thought: OK, that was it, that was the thing that was going to go wrong. But then it happened again – just three months after the first. Another missed miscarriage.

This time, I was wheeled straight into theatre; tears streaming down my face as someone loomed over me, asking: Did I know I was going in for ‘medical management of miscarriage’? Yes, I did know, and I was distraught.

So, within the space of three months I lost two babies and my brain and body felt battered. They were first-trimester losses, but they were near the 12-week mark and that really does make you feel postpartum in a way that many people (people who have not experienced it) struggle to understand.

I felt unwell, I was anaemic, and I hated my body. God, it’s hard to say that. I hated my tummy and my pelvis and stopped doing the things that I know would help me feel better – including eating well, exercise (moving at all scared me when we were in the ‘trying’ stages), my pelvic floor exercises, seeing family and friends.

You may have heard it said that we can have an automatic response to danger, physical threat or stress: fight, flight, or freeze.   

I froze. In more ways than one. I froze with regard to movement. I also froze my life. I didn’t plan stuff far in advance (in case I was pregnant). My world became very small. I comfort ate, wore baggy clothes, became pretty sedentary and instead just monitored my body for twinges and signs of pregnancy and loss constantly.

The third miscarriage was much earlier and came about six months later. Physically, it was nowhere near as bad, but mentally it was crushing. I howled down the phone to my partner moments after I started spotting. I doubt there is another sound like the howl of a mother losing her baby. I felt shame and agony. I plastered on a brave face, but my confidence and wellbeing were on the floor. The recurrent miscarriage clinic cleared me as ‘totally normal’.

I moved through life robotically, doing the stuff. Nearly living. My son constantly asking for a sibling. All and sundry asking me when the next one would come along. Only a close circle knew what I was going through. One well-wisher sent me a card saying she knew of a woman who had had seven miscarriages before her baby. I didn’t wait a second before replying: ‘I know you mean well, but I can’t go through this another four times.’

I didn’t know if I meant it. I didn’t know how long I could live like this. How much more loss and bodily trauma I could endure.

My beautiful baby was born a year and a half later. Almost a five-year age gap between the two boys. People often comment on it. They don’t know the painful journey it took to get there.

The people who do know call me ‘brave’ and ‘strong’. I never felt either of those things. But I did feel determined. I don’t know how many times I would have spun that wheel. I don’t know how many times I could hear the words ‘there is no heartbeat’.

(Even writing that line, I am so tense, I have stopped breathing.)

I don’t know how many times I could walk around ‘pregnant’, but knowing the baby inside me had died. I don’t know how long I could pick myself back up off the floor. I don’t know how many times I could gather up the pieces of myself again. I don’t know how long I could stay ‘frozen’ to the spot in fear, life happening all around me and me just watching and waiting.

Days before I found out I was pregnant with my youngest son I experienced a fresh surge of anxiety. I was so impatient to be pregnant – to give my eldest son the sibling he craved. Perhaps I would have kept going until that feeling went. Or until I felt too spent, or that too much of life was passing us all by. I don’t know.

Yes, I felt determined and impatient. But I also felt wrung out, disconnected from my body and some parts of my life. I felt exhausted and jealous and misunderstood. And yet I also felt I would go again, and again, and again, until I had what I wanted in my arms.

I wanted that curled up little creature in my arms again, ready to unfurl and become their unique selves beneath our gaze. I wanted baby sighs and hours gazing into adoring eyes. And I wanted four stockings up at Christmas. I wanted more. It was all consuming. I was fighting and freezing all at once.

With luck on my side, and my crazy sons bringing joy and chaos in equal measure, I have been able to return to myself, a little. I can now make plans in advance, I’ve returned to postnatal campaigning and writing – my book, Your Postnatal Body, was published earlier this year – I feel connected to my body again, and I am a sociable creature once more.

I have thawed. I am acutely aware that you might be reading this still in the depths of your own frozen despair, and I wish I had the right words or the magical formula, to make things OK for you, right now. My only advice is to try not to hit ‘pause’ on life, as I did. Reconnecting to your body, forgiving it, and letting it move through the world, and go on adventures is a balm when all else feels hopeless.

Am I done now? Yes, probably. But only because of age and money. Were I younger I would, indeed, go through it all again. Because as crushing, freezing, lonely, bloody, as it was – it was worth it in the end.

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