My therapist diagnosed me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) three years after my triplets were born 12 weeks premature. It was three years before I got the diagnosis because that was the length of time it took me to leave them without guilt and head out for a much needed therapy appointment. Since their birth I had been paralyzed by fear. I rarely left my preemies for more than five minutes, my heartbeat sped up when they showed symptoms of the slightest illness, and I lived in constant worry that something was still going to happen to them. I believed that even though they were discharged from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) by very capable physicians, their lives were still somehow in danger.
Born at 28 weeks, my trio weighed between one and a half and two and a half pounds and suffered a range of health problems, from fast heart rates to low blood counts to brain hemorrhages in the NICU. They spent months on oxygen and were poked and prodded daily while I watched helplessly through the glass of an incubator. My husband and I had toured the NICU and read up on prematurity but nothing could prepare us for actually going through it with our own children.
When I first heard the diagnosis of PTSD, I opened my mouth to argue the term. I had only heard of it in reference to military veterans or abuse survivors, what I had been through seemed to pale in comparison. I assumed I must have exaggerated something when talking to my therapist, that maybe she misunderstood something I mentioned.
Over time she helped me realize that the diagnosis was correct. My extreme fear that something could still happen to my children, my inability to separate those tiny, vulnerable babies from the energetic toddlers in front of me, and the fact that I could not comprehend that things were truly okay despite being told again and again that my kids were healthy all pointed to PTSD.
According to the National Institute for Mental Health, “PTSD is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.” There are few things more shocking or scary for a parent than watching your baby born weeks, even months, early and then witnessing them go through countless medical procedures in order to survive. As I learned more about the disorder and thought back on our nearly 80 days in the NICU, I realized that PTSD was not a far-fetched diagnosis.
I’m paranoid, I have no problem admitting it. You can call me a helicopter parent or overly-involved or a germaphobe, I’m okay with all of those titles. I fully accept responsibility for acting like a crazy, hand-sanitizing momma who turns down babysitting offers. For me, it has come with the territory of raising preemies. Coming to terms with the diagnosis, accepting my nervous behaviors, and understanding how it affects my day to day life has helped me be a better parent. When my illogical fears surface I recognize where they are coming from and work through them rather than chastise myself for not being tougher.
Logically I know my kids are happy and healthy — far beyond their days of tubes and wires and monitors — but emotionally those memories aren’t far away. When my son’s asthma flares I have to consciously remind myself that he’s not that one pound baby on oxygen. When my daughter shows signs of muscle fatigue I have to push away the memory of her neonatologist explaining her risk factors for cerebral palsy. They are here and they are healthy and if I have to chant that to myself to get through the hard days then that is what I’ll do.
As moms, we tend to downplay our own emotions. We think we should be stronger or tougher or have more patience, but recognizing our feelings and how they play into our role as parents is a huge part in taking care of ourselves and our children. Having a diagnosis has helped me give myself a break. I did go through something traumatic and so did my children. My emotions aren’t silly or over the top, they are warranted because of what we went through as a family. And one of these days when my kids are rolling their eyes over my endless worries, I’ll show them their NICU photos to prove I’m not that irrational after all.