After a difficult pregnancy, I had prepared myself for a traumatic birth. I lost a twin son 19 weeks into my pregnancy, so I was acutely aware that I would be giving birth to one baby that would cry, and one baby that wouldn't. I talked to a counselor and my team of doctors and my partner, so I was "ready" to give birth.
What I didn't prepare for, however, was how triggering labor and delivery would be. A part of my past I thought I had sufficiently buried — mostly because I refused to acknowledge it or talk about it with my doctors, my nurses, or my partner, and partly because I had convinced myself it truly had died — came to the surface during what should have been one of the happiest moments of my life.
It had been two years since I was sexually assaulted by a coworker during a work retreat. Two years since I walked into the waiting room of the emergency department at a local hospital, looked at the kind nurse through tear-stained eyes, and said I'd been raped. Two years since the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) asked me to fill out some forms, took my ID, and led me by the hand to a sterile room. Two years since the rape kit was performed, my clothes were categorized and bagged, and a detective wrote down my statement.
Still, in the throes of labor and delivery, as my body contracted and my cervix was checked and dilated and checked again, it felt like it all happened to me yesterday. In fact, it felt like it was happening again.
Statistics about sexual assault vary, but nearly one in five women in the United States have reported they were sexually assaulted at least once in their lives, according to a survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Further, 94% of women who are sexually assaulted end up developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a disorder that can be triggered if victims end up choosing to experience labor and delivery.
Because childbirth usually takes place in a particular setting (like a hospital) and involves the perceived loss of bodily autonomy, it's not uncommon for labor and delivery to trigger PTSD symptoms in sexual assault survivors. Women who have experienced sexual violence are also at an elevated risk of experiencing prenatal anxiety, prenatal depression, postpartum depression, and postpartum anxiety.
Every time my body contracted and I felt this immense, palpable pressure, I could almost feel my attacker's body on top of mine.
Before I gave birth, this all failed to cross my mind. I was so focused on welcoming a healthy baby boy, while simultaneously mourning the baby we had lost, that it never occurred to me that my past would impact my childbirth experience. However, scenes from the night of my assault, and the day of invasive testing and questioning that followed, ended up bombarding my exhausted mind as I brought my sons into the world.
My water broke while I was at home watching The Office and enjoying a relatively normal afternoon. My partner and I excitedly rushed out the door, as ready as we could possibly be to become parents. For the most part, those initial laboring hours, when the contractions weren't severe, felt "normal." I had so badly hoped to have a "textbook" labor and delivery that I began to feel emboldened by my ability to handle the involuntary muscle spasms that were taking over my body.
Then the contractions increased, and with that increase in pain came an endless loop of memories I had worked tirelessly to suppress. Every time my body contracted and I felt this immense, palpable pressure, I could almost feel my attacker's body on top of mine. I was powerless to stop the pain, and I was powerless to stop the man who sexually assaulted me.
The pain became a catalyst for intense flashbacks, but it wasn't the pain itself that was triggering. My loss of control and my inability to stop the pain I was feeling, mimicked the control that was taken from me when I was sexually assaulted. I wanted my attacker to stop, but I couldn't make him stop. As a result of that feeling of powerlessness, I felt my body instinctively fight against the contractions. I silently coached myself to calm down and lean into the birthing process, but I couldn't. Every contraction felt like an affront to my person — another sexual assault taking place — and I fought against them the same way I had fought against my attacker, two years prior.
If a needle in my spine could take away the sensation of a contraction, perhaps it could take away the memories of a sexual assault, too.
I started begging for the epidural, desperate to feel nothing at all. I had planned to experience an unmedicated labor and delivery, but as the memories started flooding in, I realized I could no longer handle an unmedicated childbirth. I told myself that if I couldn't feel the contractions, I wouldn't feel as if my body and my person and my freedom and my humanity were being attacked all over again. If a needle in my spine could take away the sensation of a contraction, perhaps it could take away the memories of a sexual assault, too.
And it did, for a while. I was able to finally sleep and relax. I started acknowledging my partner again; laughing and smiling and carrying on conversation. Looking back, that brief period of relaxation mirrored the reprieve I found six months after my sexual assault. I was smiling again. I was able to go out with friends without drowning myself in alcohol. I felt like pieces of my life were returning to normal. I was lured into a false sense of security, in the hopes that the nightmares and the triggers and the constant, debilitating fear were behind me.
Then it came time to push, and the memories came back with a vengeance. I felt like I was being transported from the labor and delivery room of my local hospital, to the emergency room of the hospital where I had undergone a rape kit. As I looked up at the ceiling while a nurse held my hand and told me to push, I felt like I was back at that hospital in Portland, Oregon, looking up at the ceiling and taking a deep breath while the SANE nurse took a test swab to the inside of my legs. The sympathetic looks my labor and delivery nurses gave me in-between pushes, were the same looks the nurse and the forensic photographer gave me as I stripped naked in front of them, so my bitten and bruised flesh could be photographed for evidence.
When the doctor said, "Here's your son," I cried. I was powerful enough to bring a human being into the world, but not powerful enough to bring the man who sexually assaulted me to justice.
I tried to force myself to focus, but the memories pried their way into that labor and delivery room. They pushed past my partner's face, and drowned out the encouraging words from my OB-GYN, saying that one more push would make me a mom. When the doctor said, "Here's your son," I cried. I was powerful enough to bring a human being into the world, but not powerful enough to bring the man who sexually assaulted me to justice.
When I revisit my now 2-year-old son's birth story, I cannot deny that it's somewhat tinged with bitterness and anger and resentment. In a way, it felt like my attacker was in that room with me. I felt his presence. I felt his indifference. I felt the lasting effects of his refusal to treat my body, my person, as human. However, I am constantly attempting to push him out of my life, to focus on the good and the power I have as a woman, a mother, and a human being. It's been four years since I was sexually assaulted and those memories are still with me, but they do not define me.
In the midst of that triggering labor and delivery, I managed to meet my son. I managed to hold him and feel hopeful; to silently promise myself that I would raise a man vastly superior to that of the man who took so much away from me. I looked into my son's eyes and realized he would be the silver lining. He would be my justice.
If you are a survivor of sexual assault, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or visit the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN) website.