Thursday, August 04, 2005

Yup, It's All In My Head

“Where do we go for help?” was the question posed by two readers who also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder induced in part by abortion. I say in part, because I recently read in commentary at After Abortion a very good argument against even having a subset disorder known as post-abortion stress disorder (PAS, or PASS). I concurred, so I will no longer use these acronyms. There was no single event in my life that caused PTSD; there were many. Several occurred in childhood and adolescence, when I was most vulnerable to trauma, including my abortion. My symptoms began then, and continued. As in every life, the years brought more strikes, and with each successive strike, my symptoms would worsen with weaker shocks required each time. I believe I have some understanding of kindling theory because I live it.

I admitted I had no answer for the questioners, but promised to discuss the problems. I originally wanted to do so by scolding the medical community for its inadequacies, because I was on the Doctor-Go-Round for many years. I was one of their hard-to-diagnose cases. According to the various general practitioners and specialists I have seen over the years, I could have any number of things: fibromyalgia with an unrelated peripheral neuropathy of unknown origin; multiple sclerosis; lupus; a congenital connective tissue disorder; and, most often, “I don’t know, but something’s not right.” I really wanted to verbally rip to shreds every physician and therapist I have ever seen over the last two decades who missed the PTSD link, dismissed my complaints, misdirected my therapy, over-medicated me, misdiagnosed and underdiagnosed me, and ultimately left me to find my own way in the dark. It would be more graceful, though, and perhaps much more helpful to others, if I explain why I was such a lousy patient. Since I did nothing to help any of these professionals come to the correct conclusions in the first place, it doesn’t seem fair to lay the blame squarely on the medical community – but they are not innocent.

I was always afraid my problems were being dismissed as just in my head. I was right on both counts. My problems were being dismissed and/or misdiagnosed, and they are all in my head. But that didn’t mean they weren’t real. Step one is not to make the mistake in thinking that those who suffer from mental disorders are imagining their physical symptoms, and that the mind and body are separate entities to be treated in different ways. Anti-depressants might be a good example to use in this regard.

In clinically depressed patients, researchers discovered the link between the amount of free-floating serotonin, a neurotransmitter, and the psychological symptoms of depression. With the administration of SSRI’s, serotonin-reuptake-inhibitors that we know by such brand names as Paxil and Prozac, the symptoms of clinical depression may abate. But it is not logical, nor is it proper scientific method, to conclude that it is this chemical imbalance that causes depression. Depression may cause the chemical imbalance in the first place, and what we are doing is observing and treating a physiological sign of a mental disorder. There isn’t a thought that passes through our brains that isn’t accompanied by an electrical signal between neurons. It is very likely that future researchers will find, not a physical cause for mental illness (and bad behavior - ! – coming soon, “The Wages of Sin”), but that mental illness is displayed by measurable physiological dysfunction of the human nervous system, which produces real, not imagined, systemic physical sensations and problems as part of the stress response, and also in response to kindled signals: chronic pain, fever/flushing, digestive disturbances, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, sensitivity to temperature, vertigo, sensitivity to sound (this is also a dysfunction of the vestibular system, like vertigo), urinary difficulties, inhibition of reflexes, cardiac arrhythmia and postural hypotension, tremor, muscle spasms, paraesthesias (numbness), and more.

I didn’t understand the complexities of the problem for a very long time, and blamed the medical community in general for failing. But I was part of the problem. I have not had a good relationship with any of the physicians I have ever seen, male or female. I have doctor-hopped dreadfully, not seeking medication, which I was either too freely given or flatly (and with prejudice/suspicion) denied, when I had no intent to ever ask; instead, I was seeking an explanation for systemic neurological dysfunction that was measurable, and therefore, real – not merely psychological, as I considered it then. I have been an enigma to at least four neurologists; a rheumatologist (who thinks he knows what it is, but he didn’t have the whole picture); two pulmonologists; an ear-nose-throat-don’t-make-me-spell-it-ologist; a urologist; several cardiologists who didn’t help by looking at me and my test results with alarming alarm; and too many family practitioners to count. Doctor-hopping is not a good idea. But I dreaded every appointment, and disliked almost every one of the physicians I saw even as I plodded on in search of an answer. I argued with them (which was often necessary in order to get permission to stop medications that were making me feel worse). I would not hesitate to butt heads and rudely debate their opinions about things which they knew better than I. Is this due to my own arrogance? Yes, in a strange way. I don’t trust the opinions of others, but not because I love my own so very much. There was one time when the advice I received was quite wrong, and I lost the argument about the choice made on my behalf, for my own good. The decision to abort my child when I was sixteen had been aided by our family physician, someone I trusted. I have no confidence in the ability of others, particularly medical professionals, to make right decisions for me because that trust was once so deeply violated. No, I was not able to handle having an abortion, and I am angry that no one in the position to do so was able to see it. These were adults and professionals. If they didn’t know what was best, who could?

But the problem runs deeper than that, to areas beyond my control. It is also hyper-vigilance, anxiety, and all of the symptoms of PTSD that became an obstacle to proper treatment. I could not find help from medical doctors because every occasion to visit one was triggering a post-traumatic stress response, and no one could see that, either, especially me. Now, here’s a problem to overcome. When I go into a doctor’s office, hospital, emergency room, clinic – it doesn’t matter what kind of medical facility it is – there are always environmental cues that are triggering the emotions of fear, anxiety, horror, guilt, and shame that are associated with my abortion experience. I’m going to close my eyes and try to recall some details from my abortion, and while I do, I will record what my senses remember, those I am able to verbalize, and I won’t over-edit my recollections:

White – everything was white. The blankets, white cotton, woven in a pattern of small squares. The nurse’s white uniform (I prefer people who wear brightly colored and patterned scrubs). The walls were white. The abortionist was all in white, and his hair was white. He was old to me, but I was young then.

Red – the only color I see is red, because everything else is black or gray. I sat up before she took the cart away, and I see how black. No, it can’t be a dissecting tray, I don’t care what it looks like. Long, coiled tubes that should be transparent, clotted with red. Glass jars that should have been used for sun tea, and were not. The nurse’s face was white in contrast, just then, when I sat up too soon. My feet were still in the stirrups. [Ladies, for a moment, assume the stirrup position – what are your legs doing? Our toes are pointed at the ceiling, and the calf muscles from the back of the knee to the back of the ankle are stretched taut. This is a posture that I fight with even when I am “at rest.” And isn’t it an odd coincidence, that I have nerve conduction studies showing dysfunction in the nerves that feed these specific muscles? It brings to mind Dr. Scaer’s description of posturing, when an animal recovering from the freeze response assumes the last physical position and/or activity it was performing just prior to the loss of conscious control. The gazelle, waking up on its side in the grass after the not-so-hungry-after-all lion has left it alone, flails its legs as if running. My toes pull to the ceiling, as if I am in gynecological stirrups, frozen in that moment in time when I reached the utmost state of helplessness and horror, too.]

Examining tables – they are so hard, my rear-end gets cold. The vinyl is also cold. Needle pricks and the niggling discomfort of the IV.

Sounds – the humming of machines and voices, office noises. Phones ringing. The creak of the vinyl of the examining table. Vacuuming with a gurgling sound, like the appliance dentists stick in our mouths to suck out debris and fluid when they are working. No, I don’t like dentist appointments, either. All of the sounds seem to be filtered through ear muffs.

Smells. They are the hardest. [They are known to evoke the strongest emotions, because the sense of smell is processed differently than the input from our other senses. It is a more direct route to the emotional connection made by the amygdala.] Disinfectant. Blood. Cotton.

When I am sitting in an examination room today, for whatever reason, I am fighting the post-traumatic stress response to these and other triggers, because the last straw needed to feed the kindled flames of my post-traumatic stress disorder was delivered by medical professionals in a clinical setting. So much for finding help from physicians. Could I be a better patient now? Possibly, since I understand why I am so emotionally wrought in a doctor’s office. Also, I now know why I never felt as much pain under examination as I do at home – the stress response releases endorphins, natural pain killers that result in the physician’s inability to elicit to its fullest extent the worst of the myofascial and neuropathic pain that I feel.

But what about getting help from a mental health professional? I mentioned my abortion and my anger about it in a group therapy session once many years ago, and the information landed in the room with an audible thud before the group leader changed the subject and moved on. This was an anger-management group to treat my cutting behavior, which did me absolutely no good since it disregarded the source of my anger. The APA refuses to acknowledge the traumatic effects of abortion. What chance do I have of finding a sympathetic ear? I am also not likely to be comfortable with a male therapist because of the gender of my abortionist and the physician who advised abortion. But a female therapist may be an abortion victim herself. If she feels fine, can she validate my own, not-so-fine, feelings? I have great doubts.

So this limits my options. I had thought to seek psychological help from the pro-life community, where many different groups are offering post-abortion counseling. Many of these are based on the group-therapy model that has had good results in PTSD treatment, and which has the victims offering help to each other. Unfortunately, I have trust issues, and the two programs I looked into each let me down in one way or another – in one case, it was the counselor who bailed, as unreliable in her post-abortive state as am I; in the other, it was me – I didn’t feel I could place trust there for some reason I haven’t been able to identify. I have used this as a convenient reason not to pursue professional counseling at this time, and yes, it is clear to me that my efforts in writing about the disorder are certainly an attempt to treat myself for the condition. I don’t recommend it, but it’s all I have at the moment.

Fifty-percent of women who have had one or more abortions will never admit it. It’s not going to be easy for any of us to receive help from the medical community in this regard if we don’t start complaining, loudly. Why should they “believe in” what they have not seen? I don’t go to doctors any more, though, so they aren’t likely to hear from me unless they read this blogspot. I decided nearly three years ago that I was getting off the Doctor-Go-Round, and I did. I have no desire to see any more white blankets, or to experience the smell of disinfectant, or continue filling my system with medications that more often than not make the problem worse. This is not a reasonable and long-term solution, I know. As I said, I have no answers, just problems. There are treatments that are specific for post-traumatic stress disorder, and I will go into those in a future segment. For the moment, I need to recover from the stress of remembering, and the best answer I have found to that is prayer.


At 6:44 PM, Blogger sunnyday said...

I can understand the discomfort and stress that you feel when you're in a clinical setting, after your experience at age 16. Trust -- or the loss of it -- can have a tremendous effect on us.

I, on the other hand, come from a family of doctors (dad, brothers, sisters-in-law and a few other relatives) and I grew up trusting them completely. When my tummy hurt, or when I had a wound, I'd approach my dad or a brother for help or solace, and all would be well.

I grew up understanding that a doctor is there to help, heal and cure people and get rid of any kind of ailment.

When I asked my mom why my dad chose to specialize in OB-Gyn, she told me, "he said he wants to bring life into the world."

In other words, I guess I grew up respecting life because that's what I saw in my family. This is also why I find it hard to understand how some doctors can think that deliberately taking an unborn baby's life can be the "right thing to do" considering what they learn in medical school. But then I can only pray for their enlightenment.

I don't look down on people who hold beliefs that are different from mine when it comes to the value of unborn life. I do, however, have a higher standard when it comes to physicians, who ultimately ought to be aware of their duty as healers.

Julie, thanks again for sharing. I learn so much from your messages. And you help other women too through your words here. GBY =)


At 10:36 AM, Blogger Silent Rain Drops said...

Hello, Sunny Girl! I don't like re-reading this post of mine - I did once, and I see that I let some anger seep through in spite of my resolution to be calm and fair.

When I was a little girl, on the verge of 12, I was hit by a car and spent a lot of time in a city far from home in the pediatric ward of a Catholic hospital. My early experiences with medical professionals were very good ones. They helped me, and I trusted them.

I remember how odd it felt in the abortion clinic because the staff didn't act as I expected. They wouldn't meet my eyes. Their faces were stony and expressionless (if there was an expression, it was disapproval, but perhaps I projected that into their faces).

The only time I saw evidence of the compassion that usually brings people into the helping professions was when I sat up too soon after the abortion. When the nurse caught sight of my expression, she was suddenly human. She rushed at me, and I suspect I was given more sedation through my IV, which was still attached, because I went back to sleep to the sound of her voice comforting me, and did not wake up until the next day.

So I try, with mixed success, to feel compassion and pity for those who mistakenly believe that they are helping women by providing abortions. I pray they come to understand, soon, that abortion hurts women and children, and it will go the way of lobotomies and blood-letting.

I'm so glad you visit and comment - thank you!

At 11:59 PM, Blogger achromic said...

I donno that I suffer this from the abortion... It seem to have started rather with the surgery that made me so sick two years ago. BUT I will concede that perhaps having the abortion set me up for what is happening to me now. I do know that right now you are the only one that I'm finding that is talking in a languge that I "get" about pain, about things that I have thought.... I'm scared to death about what you are talking about in this post... because I'm in so much pain now... and no one seems to be able to help me. I feel so alone... I'm so scared. Which makes all the symptoms of PSTD worse.

At 12:10 PM, Blogger Silent Rain Drops said...

Dear Achro -

Like you, I didn't start getting the chronic pain aspect of this until after I had surgery. Then the pain just spread and grew, and became a mess. And it turns out that surgery is considered traumatic, so it sure does make sense that we started feeling worse afterward.

I really admire your willingness to hang in there without the help of meds (I like to read your blog because you show such grace).

I sure wish we could find us a cure. The feelings of isolation and fear that we have are also symptoms of PTSD, so we are really between a rock and a hard place. Pain seems to breed pain, fear leads to more fear, and since no one looking from the outside in can ever know how we feel, we are virtually alone, except for God.

And there's another bright spot, in addition to being drawn toward God for help - we are seeking answers, and we have found each other, and many more good people in similar forums. I'm always so happy to hear from you, and thank you. I also hope and pray you find a physician who will be compassionate and most of all, helpful.

At 5:05 AM, Blogger Emily said...

Man, if all the people I know who earned their trust issues the hard way with therapy--especially group therapy--could read this, you'd find that you have a lot of sisters out there.

I start another post-abortion group in September and I will remember better, after reading this post, how extremely difficult the first several weeks can be for some of the group members, depending on whether they've had prior experiences like this.

At 6:22 AM, Blogger Silent Rain Drops said...

Hello, Em! I'll bet I do have more sisters than I can count (and brothers who may not even feel entitled to their pain). Do I sound whiny in this post? I'm sure I do.

Do you have any suggestions for people like me who are going to have a difficult time seeking help because they feel much the same way? I know that we can only be helped to the extent that we are willing.

I should make it clear that I allowed the one on-line counselor to go ahead and drop out of communication with me after repeated failures to communicate, but without going to her supervisors to request a new on-line counselor or really pushing the issue. She seemed to have some personal reasons, and I took advantage of her lapse to escape the tough work. And the discomfort I felt in my second effort is surely all mine, and no reflection on the people involved. I have not had success because I have not tried as hard as I could have. There I go again, being too self-reliant for my own good. When it comes to health care, we have to ask others to help us, and it can be so difficult. I can only imagine, since so many of us won't even disclose our abortion histories, that those who do seek help are gifted with great courage. Those who offer it, like you and Susan G., have even more.

I have a feeling that your groups, Emily, are treated with great care and understanding, because that is how you and Annie operate your excellent blogspot. And there are other, very fine, post-abortion healing groups, out there. Anyone associated with Rachel's Vineyard, for example, is more than okay in my book. I still hope to do a retreat with them some day when I can work out the logistics.

It was my hope to see some other resources posted here for me and the others who have asked where we go for help, and/or to hear from women who have found a source of healing. Thank you very much for your commment.

At 9:36 AM, Blogger Josephine said...

I dont know if I fit but.. After I miscarried on Depo I had no trust of doctors. They lied to me. I was pregnant with my 3rd and seeing a female doctor. I hated her. Then I went to a doctor my friend went to and hated him. My insurance refused to allow me to change doctors again and I dropped them and took up another.

My midwife is the only one I have been able to trust. I really believe God sent her to me to help me get closer to Him. She has been with me for my last 2 births and will be there for this one.

Ohh And this last monday, I went to the dentist and he hit 2 nerves in my mouth. I have been ill all week. My face did swell up, I mean my ear was standing off my head I was so swollen. I have a bruise the size of a silver dollor on my cheeck. However, when Im laying down my heart starts to beat really fast and I have had nightmares. And weird fantasy dreams about the man who sexually abused me going to prison and getting raped. I actually was upset when I woke up and realized he didnt get what he deserved and that it was only a dream.

I have been having a hard time getting moving. I am actually back to my old wash-one-dish-at-a time-and-sit-down-if-Im-winded behaviors. I have no energy and my husband thinks I am having panic attacks. On top of it all I took my + pregnancy test the same month the girls should have been born. I have been having a hard time accepting that I am in fact growing a baby. I dont feel bigger and Im still in my regular clothes at 13 weeks when I usually am in maternity clothes at 8. And I was trying to arrange an ultrasound and have delayed it indefinitly. Because I know when I go in to look theres gonna be one in there. Not 2..

Ohh I went on a bit.. Sorry.

At 10:38 AM, Blogger Silent Rain Drops said...

Josephine, it sure does sound as if you fit, all too well. You felt pain at the dentist, and this seems to have aroused memories surrounding pain from the past - which led to disturbing dreams and reliving the trauma. Fatigue and panic attacks are symptoms that could be expected in the PTSD response.

I was stunned the day I realized I had conceived my second child, who I aborted with birth control pills, in the same month as I had conceived my first, many years earlier. It was an eerie feeling. I've read that this is not at all uncommon - a kind of anniversary trauma/reenactment. This should be my next segment, which will include some talk about the memory of physical pain.

Your pregnancy is life-filled good news - I hope you find a physician in whom you can confide your feelings, and who will be understanding about how the trauma of sexual abuse in particular may make examinations difficult. The grief and trauma of your lost children may also bring back painful memories during this pregnancy.

Maybe some post-abortive or otherwise abused moms in the readership can help me out here with how they dealt with pregnancy. I've not had the privilege.

But congratulations are in order - may God bless and keep you and the baby healthy!

At 11:52 AM, Blogger Josephine said...

I have had 3 children since the loss of the girls. The first was to make me feel better. The next 2 were because I just didnt give a damn anymore. Life became more important than my desires to prevent it. And I would not do BC and do NFP poorly. I dont chart and I dont do internal checks-another sexually abuse related thing. This is the first child I have had around a date concerning the twins. It hurts but at the same time- your right- its life in a month that used to have only death.

At 4:56 PM, Blogger Emily said...

I didn't mean *at all* that you were whining, and I apologize for my comment coming across that way. In retrospect, I can see why if I said something that sounded like "oh yeah everybody says that" it could come across that you're saying a cliche. That's not what I meant!

I *am* glad to have been reminded of how excruciating it can be to get into a support situation or a therapy situation when previous attempts to get into a good healing context have been frustrating, painful or no help at all.

I'm sure I've said plenty of bone-headed things in the ministry context, and my biggest hope is that people will feel free to let me know so we can repair our relationship and understand each other better.

Many people who enter into post-abortion ministry (or go to therapy) feel on some level that they deserve to be treated badly, and don't feel safe speaking up when inadvertent (or advertent) mistakes are made.

At 2:13 PM, Anonymous sarah said...

Sorry to get off track but...Josephine, it is wonderful that you have a midwife you can trust. I think another way to find a good OBGYN if you are still looking is to get a recomendation from a CPC.

At 5:03 AM, Blogger Josephine said...


Thats where I will be going for my ultrasound. A crisis pregnancy center. My midwifes doc(you have to have one to be legal here) has rights at a hospital 3 hours away from me and my regular doctors office hates me. So the CPC is going to have thier girl do the US.. But Im happy with my midwife. I had to go to the hospital the last time but it was because the heart rate dropped.

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At 6:22 PM, Blogger achromic said...

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At 7:32 PM, Blogger detached said...

I want to speak to you ,I suffer,I have had 5.I am 45 now,that was then,I suffer now,horribly.I was 14-18 how can this be?why should it not be?I am forgiven,but I have not forgoten.My 22 yr old just had a baby girl,I cant stop and think I dont deserve such LOVe...5 others are gone,add one more from a miscarriage.My body suffers,my mind suffers,what can I do or say to change this?not one thing.only hear my self,and listen to your explaination?how can I understand,I cant read it fast enough.sober for 13 yrs and on narcotics,senseless suffering.I should be the one gone...

At 7:35 PM, Blogger detached said...

my father never picked me up at the menlo park womens clinic,my friend mary recalls,we waited till they were locking up,I had to get a cab,I was sore,bleeding,and scared,that sick feeling.the last one,my mom said I dont like how the anestisia made her act,dont give her anything,I still see the vaccume thing with the glass jar,I rember screamming ow ow ow ,the dr said its allmost over..shitt.why? i am sorry

At 6:46 AM, Blogger Silent Rain Drops said...

Jersey Girl, you can email me at I'd like to hear from you, too.

I looked at your blog, so I see you suffer greatly from chronic pain, and have been suffering for ages - I am so very sorry for all of your pain.

You were a child yourself, like I was, when you submitted to these abortions. We have to forgive ourselves, because we were young and did not know better, but as you say, forgetting is impossible. The Lord understands your sorrow, and He meant for you to still be here - I hope you can remember His great mercy, and offer your suffering to Him - it has helped me to deal with pain to do this.

PTSD is an all-over illness - mind, body, and spirit. I know there is healing for your mind and spirit, Jersey Girl, and there is a way to live with the physical suffering.

There is a link at my sidebar to Lumina, a New York-based after-abortion healing program run by Theresa Bonapartis - they are a wonderful group. She will also understand your pain, and since they are close to you, she may be able to refer you to a medical professional who is sympathetic to what trauma has done to you over the years.

I hope to hear from you soon.

At 7:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. I am one of many women who was told "there is no such thing as a post traumatic stress reaction to abortion. The research doesn't show it."

This was told to me in the midst of my first set of counseling post-abortion 12 years ago. The abortions were over 30 years ago, and it took me that long to get counseling? Yup. Because I thought it was an OK thing to do at the time.

It is not just 'in our heads'. It was a horrible thing we chose to do, aborting children. But it is not an unforgiveable thing. One day, when I meet my children in heaven (I have named them Brian and James) I will know them and love them as it was meant to be. In the mean time, I alternate between peace and embarrassment, between fear and comfort. It is a life-long process. It is not impossible, but it does take work...

Press on - lean on Jesus...

God's peace...

At 2:51 PM, Blogger Silent Rain Drops said...

Anon, your message came to me at a particularly difficult time and brought me much-needed peace. Thank you. I have to agree with you that it is a lifelong process, and hard - but worth the effort.

May His Peace be with you, also.


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