The benefits of writing down your own unique experience of PGP
By Madeleine Speed
Of course, there are some great experiences of pregnancy and childbirth with PGP. We have seen articles from members and heard women speak about them at Pelvic Partnership events. Early diagnosis, a knowledgeable physio and good management of the symptoms can mean that many women enjoy the lead up to the birth of their child or children without severe immobility and attendant pain. However, for quite a lot of our members, there have been some bad experiences associated with the birth of a child often because the symptoms of PGP have been missed or requests for help and support have not been heard. As a result, it can take a lot of energy and effort to come to terms with what has happened and find the impetus to move on.
My own experience of childbirth was generally very good. I had the sort of delivery I wanted within a GP unit where midwives attended women in labour and generally catered for their requests for water births, delivery on all fours and the kind of delivery I wanted for my baby with minimal intervention. I had been blessed with a fairly easy pregnancy and straightforward delivery but my joy and elation soon disappeared when I had difficulty feeding my baby.
I now know that breast feeding doesn’t necessarily come naturally to mother or child and it can be hard to achieve the classic ‘latching on’ that leads to feeding success. I also know that there are knowledgeable and helpful people out there who can help you learn to breastfeed. But when my daughter was just a day old, I was unaware of any of this! Trying to encourage my baby daughter to feed began to be a nightmare because I just couldn’t get a good ‘latch on’ and the young midwife who took over from the (very experienced) midwives who delivered my baby, didn’t know how to help me. I already felt a lack of confidence because I was an older mum and many of the young women who were also in the unit, were delivering second or third babies. I was reduced to tears after five hours of trying to breastfeed with little success and very much aware of the annoyance and irritation of the young midwife who was trying to get me to feed my daughter effectively. With hindsight, I am sure she was as emotional about the whole experience as me and probably as worried about what might happen if my daughter didn’t start to take in liquid. Anyway, the end result was that she left the shift saying that “If I didn’t decide to bottle feed soon, then my baby was likely to suffer and become very ill.” It was particularly unhelpful because I recognised the problem but needed her skill and help in finding a way transferring milk to my baby. Unfortunately, she exhausted her ideas to help me in the first twenty minutes and could not see that berating me was just going to make the situation worse! Thankfully, a much more experienced member of staff took over and we found a way to get some breastmilk into my little daughter. It was a very small incident and if I hadn’t been worried and upset, I probably wouldn’t have felt so angry and thrown by the words of this young woman. At the time I didn’t have anything to say and was comforted by another mum and the more experienced member of staff who dried my tears when the young midwife left the room. Things gradually started to get better with the breast feeding but it took me several months to really feel I had got the hang of it.
How writing it down helpe
When I got home, I started to write about my experiences of giving birth because I didn’t want to forget this new and exciting experience. When I wrote about the young, experienced midwife who had been rude and threatening to me, I started to feel better. Writing down what had happened gave me the chance to think about what I would have said, had I been able to do anything but burst into tears! I also started to see her inadequacies in a challenging situation rather than automatically beat myself up for not coping or managing on day one.
My daughter was born over a decade ago and I still remember this ‘bully of a midwife’ but I remember better some of the others who were really kind and supportive. Writing down what had happened helped me to ‘deal with the upset’ and compare it with all the positive events of the period so my overall experience was a happy one and I felt ready to move on and to feel optimistic once more. It probably sounds like a bit of half-baked psychology to say that it can be very healthy to write down your experiences and particularly those related to PGP symptoms. It isn’t just about getting to grips with the order of what symptoms appeared first, what you did and how you coped. Telling your own, intimate story can also help to get the whole experience of PGP clear in your mind. It can be a very powerful way of helping you to acknowledge what has happened to you particularly if you have felt let down by healthcare professionals who may have failed to treat your PGP or even
to diagnose it. Writing can also release strong emotions of sadness, anger and frustration as you revisit some of the problems that have been associated with PGP for you when having your baby or babies. The act of writing about your thoughts and the situation you experienced can be very therapeutic, particularly at a time of transition or personal trauma. It can also help you to put the whole experience behind you and to start to move on.
Why is it so therapeutic to write?
Writing is worth a try – it isn’t expensive, it doesn’t involve drugs and you don’thave to share your writing with anyone else if you don’t want to. So why does it feel therapeutic to write? Apparently, the University of Texas has done a great deal of research into the therapy of writing down your thoughts and feelings. There have been projects on writing down your symptoms when you are ill, recording your experience when you are depressed and generally using writing as a way of managing a difficult or painful situation. The UK doesn’t seem to have much evidence-based research (or any research at all) into the benefits of writing as a form of therapy (although the Guardian’s Jim Pollard says that the Arts Council is about to fund some research on this subject at King’s College London). I haven’t seen any of the academic attempts to analyse writing therapy but as a journal writer myself, I can see that writing down your thoughts and feelings can be a way of making yourself centre stage for the period of writing this can be invaluable if you are feeling as though no-one is listening or taking you seriously (sadly something that does happen when you have PGP).
Writing about your experiences means that you are treating them as important on a number of levels. Difficult subjects are often the ones that we choose to blank out and avoid. We put the thoughts to the back of our minds so that all that remains is a black cloud with very little idea of exactly what or how the event affected us save that it was unpleasant.
Writing can force you to seize the feeling and pin it to the page so that you can then discover a very clear description of what else is behind that emotion. It does take some time and effort to write but it doesn’t have to be great literature. For a start, worries and concerns often have no real shape or identity before you start to impose a structure on them by writing them down. Often, in your head, the idea or feeling goes round and round but it sometimes doesn’t have a proper form or shape to it, it is just a worry or a horrible feeling. If you have to start writing it down, the whole thought or feeling starts to take on a clear identity and an order so the niggle becomes a story with a beginning, middle and end.
Fuzzy bits become more defined and you start to see details that were just vague outlines at first. Writing down detail forces you to think about what has happened in a logical order and feelings of anger, upset or frustration can be easier to recognise, analyse and confront. It then becomes easier to follow a thread of your narrative and keep concentrating on where it leads. This level of concentration can often bring thoughts and ideas that you hadn’t first linked together. This, in turn, can help you to gain an insight into your situation. You might see quite clearly why you were so upset during the delivery of your baby or when the midwife wasn’t listening or when the doctor didn’t believe you could not walk. Recognising the emotions that attended your memories of your first experiences of PGP can help you to get the associated bad feelings or hurt out of the system.
Writing can help you to calm down
When writing something by hand, thoughts are often too quick for you to keep up and record by hand. Unless you are very good at typing, the same can happen when you write using a computer. As result, writing can become a quite relaxing activity where your breathing slows and you become much calmer and absorbed in what you are writing. I’ve never been able to listen to music while I work, so I find I can concentrate and become much less tense when I write in silence. Having said that, if there are children playing in the background, the washing machine rumbling or a cement mixer churning away, I often don’t hear them because I become occupied with the task of writing and don’t focus on anything else. Some people find the act of writing is very similar to drawing or playing music – you lose track of time and you enter a calming and satisfying zone. The writer, Alexander McCall Smith says that when he writes on the train from Edinburgh to London, he gets into an almost hypnotic state and the words flow very easily. When he gets to the other end, he feels calm and happy that he has managed to write so much with so little effort! So if writing is quite hard at first, it may become easier by assuming a calm and hypnotic state of mind!
Writing can help you distance yourself from anger so you can problem solve
Writing about something that has happened rather than an event occurring in real time, means that you are slightly removed from the emotions as you first experienced them. The emotions may still be present but they are often diluted. If you still feel something as strongly, you have the power to write the pain and anger out of your system. You can confront a situation or person on the page and write down how you would like to have responded at the time. Transferring power and control to yourself in a given situation, even some time after the original event, can be very freeing. This immediately puts you in control of the situation and how you want to cope with it. You can literally re-write the situation so you have exactly the right words to respond to someone. This is in turn empowering because it is often when you feel passive and a victim in a situation, that you can feel particularly upset and frustrated.
I know some people who like to write about an event and then immediately decide to tear it up. They say the act of writing is all they need to feel release. I prefer to put the paper away and then perhaps to return to it – a day later or perhaps a week afterwards but it could be a month or a year after originally putting pen to paper. Sometimes my mind has been turning over the subject of my writing while I have been away from my desk. When I return to re-read the words, I sometimes find a new idea or thought that I hadn’t realised before. It might be that I was particularly upset and speechless when I felt someone was criticising me and couldn’t understand why it had upset me to such an extent. Looking back sometimes makes me realise that the person’s criticism was particularly annoying or upsetting because they looked like a particularly bossy past primary teacher/difficult uncle/patronising boss, etc or they used the same words or attitude and that was why I felt I couldn’t respond. Sometimes, I see that I was much more powerful by not answering back or stooping to their level; although it can be useful to stand up for yourself rather than feeling you are being overly passive.
Reviewing what I have written (sometime later) may help me to realise that there was something else going on entirely and that the problem was really with the person having a go at me because they had just been rejected, criticised, cut up on the road, etc. At very least, I find that sometimes I can see patterns in events that I just wouldn’t notice at first glance and writing can help me see a way forward or how I want something to change. Writing about feelings can then start to open up more philosophical thoughts about ‘how can I make this better’, ‘what do I want to do next’ and then all sorts of ideas might tumble out about relationships, hobbies, what is really important in life, etc. Again, perhaps it is therapeutic because you can become the writer of your own story and make the changes that you want to happen next rather than just leaving the direction you take to fate.
Writing and reading experiences of PGP
Even if you are not at first convinced about the power of writing down your experiences of PGP, I would encourage you to try. What have you got to lose? And you may find that there are numerous ways you could gain. If you find it doesn’t come easily to write down how you felt about having PGP, then do a few quick bullet points of key stages in your story: when it started, what the symptoms were, and or what help (or hindrance) you received from professionals you saw on the road to successful treatment. It may help if you have a read of some of the articles here in this area. Although experiences of PGP can be very different, often there are elements in common: when during pregnancy, you first noticed symptoms, how it felt to struggle to get out of bed or to pick up your baby, who you first consulted about PGP and their response to you. You might find that reading an article by another woman with PGP, can spark ideas or force you to draw parallels in your own situation – even if your own reactions are or were very different. Starting to write down some headings and some bullet points might be all you can face at first but if you revisit your notes, you may find you want to add to them.
Many of the contributors to our “My story” section of our members’ area have said that the act of writing has been cathartic and useful not least to be able to share with other women with PGP particularly if you don’t bump into others who have had pregnancy-related PGP. Reading others accounts of PGP may encourage you to write you own. You may want to use what you have written to complain or at least to inform your GP/midwife, staff at the maternity hospital/physio, etc about your experiences. This can really help these professionals to understand how they can improve their services. Once written, you may decide you want to go further and submit the article to us to share with other readers in this area of the website.
However, if you would prefer to write it down and keep it to yourself, then that is also a big step forward and one that I would encourage. Whether your own story is shared or burnt, the act of writing it may prove to be very therapeutic to you…just as it has been for many of the women who have written down their experiences of PGP.