Acceptance of the unknown in the New Year; my experience and my story
Happy New Year! It’s been a long time since I wrote. As many of you know, I’m currently expecting and due the first week of March. This was a very unexpected pregnancy and I must say that breaking my leg one week after opening the studio and then getting pregnant was probably not the best business move! Still we are very happy and excited. My pregnancies have always been very difficult and I struggled with infertility issues for many years. I’ve lost babies, been on bedrest for many months, and both my son and daughter were born 4 weeks earlier as miracles of modern medicine. This pregnancy has been very different; a big surprise and thus far I have been fairly healthy, but it is still considered a high risk pregnancy. Over the past several months I have taken yoga courses specifically directed on teaching yoga for trauma victims, adults and children. Perhaps this is because along with my traumatic obstetrical history, I have been a victim of sexual assault and other traumas in my life. Perhaps it’s because being pregnant again has rekindled symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxieties that I had thought “I was over.” Whatever the case is, my research has been enlightening.
As we begin the New Year, many of us are diving into the uncertainty. What will the next year look like? What will I be doing at this time next year? What will my kids be doing? When I think of having another baby, which was very unexpected, I’m filled with the immediate anxiety of facing perhaps a preterm baby, a difficult delivery, how I will recover, how my 3 and 5 year old children will adapt to a new addition, where will the baby sleep, how can we afford a new addition monetarily? So many anxieties and so many unknowns. I also find that when I think about having a new addition, it is very difficult for me to visualize a family of five in the near future. This stems from my trauma history. As many trauma survivors I’m sure can attest, trying to visualize bliss, happiness, and peace in the future is very difficult given how past experiences have affected us. Six years ago, Ben (my husband) and I had packed up our NYC apartment and moved everything to our house in Williamstown. I was 5 months pregnant with twin daughters and felt that I was out of the woods. The pregnancy had started with fertility treatments resulting in quintuplets! Yes that would be five babies! After a traumatic reduction of three of the fetuses, I finally felt like, “wow this is going to happen.” I had allowed myself to get excited after a trying 15 weeks of pregnancy with five babies.
About a week later, I was on hospital bedrest with preterm contractions and the prognosis was very poor. Peaceful and Beautiful, the twins’ names, were born at 23 weeks and lived for a couple of hours. I was a mother for those two wonderful hours, coddling and talking to my daughters. When they passed away, so did my future as I had planned it. I found myself depressed and unable to visualize my future. I resumed my masters program in NYC and Ben and I moved into my mother-in-law’s studio apartment, given that we had no apartment of our own. It was incredibly depressing to say the least. I became crazed with the idea that I needed to have a baby now. It didn’t help with the thousands of baby strollers on the upper west side along with several medical postpartum complications that I had that landed me in more surgery. I couldn’t focus on anything. The next steps were to start an adoption process and single embryo in vitro fertilization. For those of you who know me, you know that I like to have a set plan. I have always prided myself on my organizational skills, problem solving skills, and future planning. It is not surprising that instead of properly grieving my loss, I dove into the adoption process and resuming fertility treatments as soon as I possible could along with diving into school. When I became pregnant via IVF with my son, I did not allow myself to see a baby in the future. I lived the pregnancy in fear of another loss, but unable to really let myself experience the overwhelming grief from the loss of the twins as I was afraid that the intense emotions of anxiety and loss would result in an unhealthy pregnancy. Despite trying to bury these intense emotions, anxiety, I’m sure of it, drove me to preterm contractions on the one year anniversary of losing the twins, which then led to bedrest. Miraculously (because I firmly believed that nothing good could happen, a true PTSD mindset), he was born at 36 weeks healthy and perfect. One year later I did IVF and became pregnant with my daughter. That pregnancy was complicated and included close to 4 months of bedrest. With both pregnancies, I was blessed with two beautiful children, but at the same time the race to the finish line, the delivery, had been so anxiety provoking and taken so much out of me that I suffered from post-partum depression, which was also complicated by flair ups of PTSD symptoms. This led to a lot of shame and guilt about being a mother. How could I be depressed when I had these beautiful babies, which I had struggled to have for years?
When we moved to Williamstown when Jack was 2 and Ruby was 4.5 months, I was still physically and emotionally a mess, but the environment was much more conducive to healing than our tiny one bedroom apartment with our two kids and two dogs in NYC. I struggled a lot when I initially moved to Williamstown. I had been dependent on so many doctors over the course of my pregnancies and physical therapists and my family. I had little faith in my ability to once again be strong and independent in my role as a mother. I had completed my masters degree in education, but was not seeking to teach. I tried to focus on recovery from the years of pregnancies and loss, but it was difficult. I was somewhat lost. I guess the shift came when I finally began to accept the present. I consciously tried to stay away from my past when I was anxious or depressed and tried to be non-judgmental about my future. Normally I tell people to not “avoid” their past, but for me, I simply needed to regain my emotional and physical strength living in the present before I could make sense and reintegrate my past into my present story.
When I settled into the present; a beautiful home, two wonderful children, and my “new life” I became less crippled by my PTSD and depressive symptoms and more capable of living in the moment. It really wasn’t until Ruby was about 6 months that I began to practice yoga in earnest again. I had practiced my entire life since I was about 10 and had practiced yoga after I lost the twins and after I had Jack, but after I had Ruby, I was too judgmental of myself. I expected my body to be working just like it had before pregnancy and before 4 months of bedrest followed by a c-section. When I practiced post-partum, the strength just wasn’t there and I was not able to tolerate my “weaknesses” or what I felt at the time were weaknesses. I was frustrated and felt, as many depressed people do, that I would never feel better and that my body was permanently damaged from years of pregnancy and bedrest and surgeries. Those of you who have been in therapy, I’m sure can recognize the lingo of black and white thinking. I did not accept the grey area at all.
This is how many individuals who are depressed or who are survivors of trauma feel and as a result don’t practice yoga or engage in meditation when these would be incredibly helpful skills. Many of us are simply too judgmental of ourselves, become too frustrated, hopeless, and self-deprecating to allow ourselves to reap the benefits of a mindful practice. The amount of times I have repeated to myself, “I will never feel better; I will never feel like my body is not an alien to me,” is remarkable. Since my move to the Berkshires I have been through some more trauma. It hasn’t been smooth sailing since my move from NYC, but my ability to cope with trauma and triggers has changed. When I finally began my yoga practice again after Ruby, I realized that yoga was not about the balances, contortions, flexibility and “showy” poses and it was not about getting back to what I once was. Yoga became an outlet to explore how I felt in my body. It allowed me to rekindle my interoceptive sense of how my body was doing, what it needed, when it needed it, and to accept its needs. Trauma sensitive yoga illuminates this practice. In trauma sensitive yoga, victims learn to reconnect and listen to their bodies. After incidences where I felt like my body had been taken away from me, where I had no control over my body, and where I felt like every breath might be my last, yoga has helped me to reconnect and most importantly to fine compassion towards myself including my body. Don’t get me wrong, at times I still lose sight of this perspective and fall back into my black and white thinking along with my self-deprecating thoughts!
Like many trauma victims, parts of a yoga class and a practice have been tricky for me at times; breathing exercises can sometimes make me hyperventilate, teacher adjustments can sometimes make me feel uncomfortable, piling yoga mats on top of each other can sometimes make me feel claustrophobic, and svasana can sometimes leave me alone with dark and triggering thoughts. I naturally had adjusted my practice to resolve these issues during classes. I became very attuned to my needs in my practice. I found myself sometimes skipping the kapalabhati breathing exercise or alternate nostril breathing and other kinds of breathing. They were too triggering and made me feel out of breath. Sometimes I would keep my eyes open in svasana and hope that the teacher did not notice and think I was being rude. As an FYI, I don’t actually believe that yoga teachers would perceive this as being rude it’s just me being self-conscious. I definitely just want my students to feel comfortable in whatever relaxing position with eyes opened or closed that they can. A goal is to be able to close the eyes, to feel comfortable enough in one’s surroundings to trust that without seeing one will be okay. But this can take time to build the trust and comfort in one’s surroundings, to break the pattern of hypervigilance that so many individuals with PTSD live with. Some backbends and hip openers I found to be slightly triggering depending on my PTSD symptoms at the moment and I would seek out variations. I also learned poses that were incredibly therapeutic for myself such as inversions. I didn’t realize that especially after I had Ruby and over the past couple of years in dealing with recent and old traumas, that I had founded a trauma sensitive yoga for myself. I sought meditations that were guided and more actively mindful than laying in an unguided svasana. Yoga as I have adapted it to fit my needs has really changed my life. My research over the past several months has included how to practice trauma sensitive yoga with children who are victims of childhood trauma, mostly chronic relational trauma, or trauma involving somebody that the child should be able to trust or had trusted and very little opportunity for escape from current conditions.
What I want to emphasize as I conclude this blog is that trauma sensitive yoga doesn’t just help trauma survivors, but the philosophy and goals hold for every individual and for every kind of yoga practice. Yoga is about feeling, seeing, and being aware of your body in the present moment. Yoga helps us to listen to our bodies, find compassion for ourselves, and refrain from judgment. A yoga practice is about physical and emotional health. To practice yoga poorly is to let your judgment and ego take over and to ignore the wants and needs of body and mind. I guess my challenge to all of us in this New Year is to not get caught up on what the future looks like, on what 2019 looks like or on trying to find certainty in a world of unknowns and multiple variables. Stability and peace of mind does not necessarily come from planning and controlling of what may or may not happen in the future, but comes from taking control over what is unfolding in the present, acknowledging the present, adapting to the present, and being in the present.