The summer my first son was 2 ½, I had a miscarriage. It came as a surprise because I hadn’t known I was pregnant in the first place. I’d had what I thought was a normal period, and then two weeks later, I started bleeding out of the blue, and quite a bit. After a sonogram revealed nothing, my doctor drew blood, and found that I had a small amount of pregnancy hormone in my body. My unexplained, scattered bleeding was apparently the tail-end of a miscarriage.
What followed was a difficult, confusing time. Motherhood so far had been wonderful, but also fraught with stress. My son was bright and amazing, but he was an intense soul — willful to the max, a total non-sleeper, and in constant need of attention and stimulation (we later found out he was highly gifted). Parenting in those early years also had an enormous amount of financial strain. I hadn’t yet figured out how to work and afford childcare, so I was a SAHM, and it proved really tough to live on one income.
The idea that I had been pregnant scared me and my husband. How would we have been able to handle another child when things were this hard with just one? At the same time, I grieved our lost child in a way that startled me. I was swept into a depression that was probably somewhat hormonal, but it cast a shadow of despair over my life nonetheless.
About a week later, still in the throes of these dark feelings, I had a terrifying episode with my son that landed him in the hospital. He’d been taking a bath, and told me the water was too warm. As I switched the water to a colder setting, he turned white as a sheet, and collapsed into my arms. I picked up his limp body — and although part of me knew he was probably just unconscious, the part of me that was already traumatized from the miscarriage assumed the worst.
I had a moment that no mother ever should ever experience — where I was sure that my child was dead.
I immediately called 911, sobbing and shrieking. As I waited for the paramedics to arrive, my son started to stir a little, and by the time we got him into the ambulance, he had come to. At the hospital, a series of tests were run on him, and when it was determined that nothing was wrong, I was told that he’d had a “vasovagal syncope” episode (i.e., fainting), and that it probably happened as a result of the rapid temperature change in the bathtub.
After these two episodes, which can only described as traumatic, something began to happen to me that I had never experienced before. The only way I can describe it is that the world suddenly became less real. It was like I was in dream state. I was going through the motions of life, but I wasn’t really there. It was like I was watching myself from the outside, looking in.
When it first started happening, I was able to snap myself out of it pretty easily. But then it would start up again, later. And what began to happen is that the episodes would turn into full blown panic attacks. I was so scared about the feelings I was having — and pretty soon, my fear of my feelings would morph into the rawest terror I’d ever experienced.
For years before this, I had suffered with an anxiety disorder, with panic attacks being my main symptom. But my panic attacks were always tied into certain phobias I’d had. And these phobias — like fear of flying and agoraphobia — were common enough that they were easy to explain and diagnose. But this was different. And for a while, I was too terrified by the feelings I was having to even explain them to anyone.
The truth was, I thought I was going crazy. And I was afraid to tell anyone how I felt because I thought they would validate the fact that I was, indeed, going crazy.
Luckily, I had a therapist I’d seen for almost 10 years, who helped me through my anxiety and panic attacks before. And although I had just sort of ended things with her because it was hard for me to make the time to see her once my son was born, I decided I had probably pulled the plug too soon, and made an appointment to see her.
Even as I described what I was feeling, it seemed to take her a while to understand — though looking back, I think I didn’t divulge the extent of my feelings at first. But the good news was, she absolutely did not believe I was going crazy, so that certainly helped. After a while, she helped me see that I was experiencing something called “depersonalization” or “disassociation” as a result of the trauma I’d experienced.
It was a kind of PTSD, she told me — and it was actually common. She said that when something traumatic happens, we tend to detach, almost for our own safety, and that was what I had done. After a few weeks of talking things through with her, and truly letting myself feel both the sadness of the miscarriage and the trauma of that moment when I thought I’d lost my son, I started to feel better. Soon, those feelings of detachment and depersonalization began to gradually diminish.
I can’t say it was overnight, though. Even after I knew what it was, I would still quite often slip into that mode, and start to freak myself out (self-sabotage at its best!). But once I began to be able to name it — to say to myself, “Oh, that’s just your anxiety talking, Wendy,” I could snap myself out of it more readily — or at least not let it get to a place of utter terror.
I have since learned that depersonalization disorder is a real thing unto itself, and I even found out that a dear friend of mine battles this disorder daily. I feel lucky that my bout with it was brief, and that I was able to recover. But I believe more of us need to share our stories because it is not something that is talked about nearly enough, and is really one of the most awful and scary things a person can experience.