Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Body Remembers What the Mind Does Not: A NICU Anniversary

I have always known that grief is a total response to a loss. Grief impacts the mind, body and spirit. What I was surprised to discover several years ago myself that the body remembers grief even when the mind may not.

Radiating Back Pain
Two years ago I experienced an episode of excruciating back pain. I'd been pushing myself in a physical education class (stair climbing) and a couple of days later turned the wrong way in bed and experienced pain radiating down my back into my leg. The pain felt like sciatic pain.

I made it in to teach my class and was able to stand through the lecture then came home to crash out on the couch and fell asleep for a nap—BIG mistake. I really had problems getting back up off of the couch and more problems straightening out to move around. The pain was bad enough to call my husband home from work to help watch the girls.

I slept a very restless night, still uncomfortable, still in pain. Even though I was uncomfortable, I decided it wasn't worth a trip to the Emergency Room and decited to let everyone else sleep through the night rather than waking them up. I kept hoping things would be better in the morning.

With a bit of home treatments and over the counter medications, in a couple of days my back pain started improving. Once the pain started subsiding, I was able to take a look at the calendar and made a rather startling discovery...

My Body Remembers Our NICU Time
I was amazed when looked at the date for the night I had been unable to sleep because of the pain and elected to let everyone else sleep through the night. The date of my excruciating pain was 5 years to the night that my youngest had been intubated while in the NICU for breathing difficulties.

When my daughter was intubated, I was still in the hospital recovering from a C-section, so I heard the news late in the evening. I elected to let my husband and mother sleep through the night, figuring that they couldn't do anything more about her being intubated, trusting that things would work out, and knowing that I could always call if things got worse. I kept hoping things would be better in the morning.

It was probably one of the most helpless feelings that I experienced as a mother and as a physician. My daughter's care and safety was in the hands of others. There was nothing else that I could do.

I had also felt helpless days before when she had been moved into the NICU hours after birth because I was unable to move initially of the spinal anesthesia (one of my greatest fears about having a C-section).

Even though I was unaware of the date five years later, my body remembered this other time when I had been in emotional and physical pain and kept hoping things would be better in the morning.

Body Healing from Loss
This quote by Mel Colgrove describes how the body heals from loss.

When an emotional injury takes place, the body begins a process as natural as the healing of a physical wound. Let the process happen.
Trust that nature will do the healing.

Mel Colgrove

It is interesting to note that five years later, my body was still holding on to the traumatic memory of my daughter's time in the NICU even though my mind was not.

Was the Back Pain an Anniversary Response?

The National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder defines an Anniversary Reaction as "an increase in distress around the anniversary of a traumatic event is commonly known as an 'anniversary reaction.' This reaction can range from feeling mildly upset for a day or two to a more extreme reaction in which an individual experiences significant psychiatric or medical symptoms."

What is interesting is that "on the anniversary of traumatic events, some people may find that they experience an increase in distressing memories of the event. These memories may be triggered by reminders, but memories may also seem to come from out of the blue while at work, home, or doing recreational activities." I wasn't having a distressing memory in my mind, I was experiencing the distressing memory in my body.

It is likely based on these definitions that the back pain episode I experienced five years later to the date was an anniversary response, that my body remembered, even though my mind did not.

The Body Remembers
Babette Rothschild, MSW, LCSW, is author of The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment. In her book she looks at current thought that people who have been traumatized hold an implicit memory of traumatic events in their brains and bodies.

Ms Rothschilds has developed a method for treating those who have lived through a traumatic event. She believes that traumatic events exact a toll on the body as well as the mind. Her book and her practice which focuses on Somatic (Body) Therapy.

According to her publisher, this book illuminates the psychophysiology of trauma, "shining a bright light on the impact of trauma on the body and the phenomenon of somatic memory."

The Memory Lives On
Thankfully the anniversary of my daughter's NICU adventure for the past two years has gone by uneventfully, but the memory lives on within the posts of this blog.

Dyer KA. 2008. What is an Anniversary Response or Anniversary Reaction? Grief, Loss & Transitions Blog.
Dyer KA. 2007. Anniversary Reaction - When Remembering Isn't Always a Happy Occasion.
Hamblen J, Friedman M, Schnurr P. Anniversary Reactions. National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

H.A.N.D. 2008. Understanding the Grief Process: The Grief Process. Helping After Neonatal Death.

Image: Modified Microsoft Clipart.

1 comment:

Jason and Kim said...

Wow, so my reluctant suspicions are right. For the past 24-48 hours or so I have been experiencing a feeling I have only experienced during one time in my like. I have lower cramp-like achiness and a just not feeling right oveall feeling. In fact, I told my husband yesterday if I were pregnant I would guess I might be showing pre-cursor signs for early labor. I am not pregnant. I did however give birth to my twins at 24 weeks gestation coming up on two years ago. Six days prior, and 23 weeks pregnant, after a day of working and coming home just feeling "off" and sort of achy, I went to bed. I didn't even feel like eating dinner, which for someone who is pregnant, much less pregnant with twins, is not normal. To my extreme terror, I woke a few hours later, sitting in blood. It was a blood clot caused by placental previa. I thought i might have lost the babies. To make a very long story short, this was the mark of what would later result in placental abruption.

So today is the anniversary of that day, the day I came home from work just feeling weird and not so well. I feel very much the same right now. My twins spent 122 very eventful days in the NICU. Six months later, I was diagnosed with PTSD. After nearly a year of therapy, I learned to, once again, feel emotions without the fear of the "ball dropping". I feel as though I have been back to myself for nearly a year now. However, my body is reminding me today of our traumatic undertaking.

I wondered if this would be possible and now that I have found support, it lends yet for more healing.

On an end note, my twins are turning two in less than ten days. They are as healthy and happy as can be. You'd never know they were born weighing just over a pound each!