by Anne Gill
“We shall not cease from exploration and the end of our exploring Will be to arrive where we started – and know the place for the first time.”
T. S. Eliot
These words reverberate through me as I try and put words on two episodes of post puerperal psychosis which I have experienced. The first was several months after the birth of our first daughter; the second ten years later, several months after the birth of our third daughter. In this article I would like to share how experiential knowledge of my own pre and perinatal experiences helped me understand and heal these two episodes.
I believe that my experience holds important implications for medical and nursing practitioners and also for those who plan a family or are already parents. The healing of generational trauma is a large part of the story. I also wish to draw attention to the importance of the emerging field of pre and perinatal psychology and to highlight resources in that area.
Almost thirty seven years ago I gave birth in a Dublin maternity hospital to our first daughter. I had done antenatal yoga and it was a natural birth. There was joy and celebration with my husband and our families. I wanted very much to breastfeed although I had not been breastfed myself. However I could not relax about it and tried too hard. That was the first warning sign. There was no trouble with bonding but inside I felt some inexplicable emptiness and inadequacy. Over the months which followed I slowly fell apart until it reached the point where all my motor functions slowed down dramatically and I was unable to make any decisions. During this time our daughter was hospitalised for six weeks with an unidentified virus and almost died.
Neither my husband nor I had any idea of what was going on. There was no literature available. Eventually I was referred to a psychiatrist and I went to psychiatric hospital for six weeks. There I was treated with drugs and Electro Convulsive Therapy. I found the whole experience unnerving and felt there was much more to it than appeared. At that point I made a decision to understand and heal whatever had contributed to that illness. I experienced it as a terrifying descent into the underworld.
After the birth of our second daughter, I struggled through on antidepressants, although I did not really feel they helped. All the time, I was exploring different healing modalities and searching for answers. Understandably my husband was reluctant to have a third child but we made some agreements which allowed us go ahead.
Once again, about seven months after the birth I was hospitalised. The treatment and the length of stay were the same. This time I woke every morning about four o’clock and wept copiously. Eventually, and entirely through my own efforts, I found a female psychologist attached to the hospital. It was a relief to talk about what was going on in my inner world. So the psychological model offered some hope and some real human contact. After leaving hospital I found another female psychologist and did some helpful work with her. Some years later I wrote to my psychiatrist letting him know how I had experienced the treatment. My letter went unacknowledged.
After taking a year-long course of Psychosynthesis, I was accepted to train as a psychotherapist at the Dublin Counselling and Therapy Centre. It was a part- time course over three years and, most importantly for me, it had a module on pre and perinatal psychology. There I began to find the tools necessary to begin connecting with the territory I needed to explore.
We were introduced to the writings of Dr Frank Lake, Stanislaus Grof, and very significantly for me, Dr William Emerson. William Emerson is a clinical psychologist who has spent his life working with babies, children and adults to prevent and heal birth trauma. He himself is a twin. His twin sister died at birth and his mother experienced severe depression.
As well as reading in this area we also began to re-experience our own prenatal and birth stories through guided visualisation and holotropic breathwork. For many, holotropic breathwork is a healing modality. However I experienced it as re-traumatising although I became addicted to it. Each time I returned to my prenatal life in the womb. There I marinated in toxicity (which I now realise was my mother’s unprocessed trauma). There was no way out. I wanted to die. Sometimes I went into birth process. It was always one of immense effort coupled with utter exhaustion and futility. At times it seemed that I was both being born and giving birth simultaneously.
All through this period I was reliving core feelings that had always been with me of despair, worthlessness, confusion, fear and emptiness. I often woke up crying at night. It was as if I was reliving the two ‘depressions’ for which I had been hospitalised. My husband was disturbed as for him those periods of depression were a nightmare.
Sometime during that period I read an article by William Emerson which began to provide me with some answers. It was called ‘Life, Birth and Rebirth: the Hazy Mirrors’. He made the point that the mother’s own birth experience can be re-experienced while giving birth, and infuse itself into the experiences of the foetus, with little environmental support for such experiences.
The next stage of my exploration was to do some workshops with William Emerson in the UK on Healing Early Trauma. These were profoundly revealing. This was in 1996. In rereading the notes I made afterwards I am struck by certain passages. For example: 60% of rituals in pre-industrial cultures were about healing pre and perinatal traumas. These provided ways of externalising the preverbal experiences we have had. Womb experience and birth are remembered at a cellular level and these memories leave a deep imprint on the way we live our lives. Our body fluids have memory as have our tissues, cells and bones. Prenatal life and birth are basic foundation experiences which seem to explain much about out life patterns. Once you bring these to awareness you can start to let them go and heal them if that is necessary.
I also learned that birth and sexual and physical abuse are cousins. Birth can be experienced as a boundary violation. Untraumatised babies have very clear boundaries. Birth trauma and abuse appear very similar to the psyche. Some women remember their own sexual abuse when giving birth. Prenates have memories of sexual abuse and the child can carry the sexual abuse of the mother.
In the Summer of 1997 I went to California and did a week long residential with William Emerson. This was a milestone. The main insight I gained was a somatic confirmation of something I had been working on emotionally, intellectually and spiritually for a year. It was the realisation that my mother was sexually abused in childhood. She was not able to deal with it at any level and part of her shut down. As a prenate, I had ingested all that toxicity. One of my most important life tasks has been to bring this to awareness and heal it for both of us. The main psychological pattern has been one of self rejection and a turning inward of intense rage. As well as that there has been a profound sense of disconnection and a longing for connection. Another feature has been finding transitions immensely challenging. My regressive experiences and the integration of them, helped me become free of shock and more able to be present. My mother’s energies became lighter. I now know that I have been breaking a generational pattern that will not be passed on to our three daughters. The interim outcomes were not easy to live with –involuntary shaking, migraines, digestive upsets and back trouble.
The next step in my learning was a professional training in craniosacral therapy which I did in England. It was based on a Buddhist model devised by Franklyn Sills of the Karuna Institute. Mindfulness was a central part of the training, as was becoming still enough to tune into the subtle craniosacral body rhythms. Eventually one can access a very still and calm place where, I believe, all healing takes place and which connects us with out original matrix, which lies beneath any traumatic imprinting we may have experienced. On that training I deepened greatly in somatic awareness and learnt a great deal about how trauma and shock affect us somatically as well as how they can be healed. I began to learn about slowing down.
From January of 1999 to July 2000, I did a six module part time training in Prenatal and Birth Therapy with Dr Ray Castellino in the UK. Ray Castellino is a former student of William Emerson and runs a non-profit clinic for babies, children and their parents in Santa Barbara, California. This greatly deepened my understanding of the whole field and small process workshops allowed me further understand my nervous system and somatic response. The module on bonding and attachment was of particular relevance. It was a revelation to me that bonding begins at implantation. Another important learning was about umbilical affect which deeply affects nourishment issues and also impairs the ability to create clear boundaries. In my case healthy attachment did not happen after birth, as part of my mother was emotionally frozen in shock. This impairs our ability to connect deeply with ourselves, others and the environment. The module on chemical imprinting was also essential information. My mother had a general anaesthetic at my birth and I had no idea how anaesthetic shock could leave such a permanent imprint.
So far I have mentioned only the psychological aspects of my exploration. There was also a significant transpersonal and spiritual dimension. The highlights of that for me were my visits and connection with the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. It is both a spiritual community and an education centre. More recently I trained to facilitate the Dances of Universal Peace, and through them became connected with the Sufi path which brings a constant stream of blessing into my life.
An immensely healing experience for me was to accompany my mother in her dying. We bonded in the days before she died. She actually told me she loved to look at me. Many years of her life were lived in a haze of alcoholism. However in her dying she showed her true nature which was clear and splendid. She knew exactly what she wanted and allowed herself be sung to and held.
An experience which brought the circle to closure was the birth two years ago of our first grandchild. What a joy to rest quietly and breathe in peace with him on my chest!
There is now a growing field of knowledge about the importance of our very early preverbal experiences and how they set the template for the rest of our lives. We need to acquaint ourselves with this body of knowledge and it needs in some way to be incorporated into medical and midwifery training. Those who plan to be parents need to be aware of it so they can provide a clear space for new life. It needs inclusion in antenatal classes and earlier in HSE on the school curriculum.
I feel it is vital to start including pre and perinatal psychology in university psychology courses and professional psychotherapy trainings. In the case of women who are experiencing severe post natal depression, attention needs to be given to their own birth and attachment history. Appropriate referral is then needed to someone who has training in this area. Recently a doula service has become available in this country. Doulas are trained to give emotional support to mothers before, during and after birth.
I strongly believe that the way we approach pregnancy and birth has profound implications for our society and a growing body of research shows this to be the case.
Anne Gill works as a supervisor and psychotherapist specialising in the pre and perinatal area. She also runs antenatal classes for parents and teaches them infant massage. She is also a registered craniosacral therapist and has done Sensorimotor Training for Trauma Recovery.
(Ray Castellino’s clinic for helping families resolve prenatal, birth and other early trauma)
www.sbgi.edu (Santa Barbara Graduate Institute which has a certificate in pre and perinatal psychology via distance learning)
Verny, T. and Weintraub, P. (2002), Tomorrow’s Baby. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Chamberlain, D. (1998) The Mind of your Newborn Baby. California: North Atlantic Books.
Siegal, D. and Hartzell, M. (2003) Parenting from the Inside Out. New York : Tarcher Putnam.
Grof, S. and Bennett, H-Z. (1990) The Holotropic Mind. California: Harper San Francisco.
Lake F. (1986) Clinical Theology. London: Darton Longman Todd.
Rothschild, B. (2000), The Body Remembers. New York: W. W. Norton.
Levine P. (1997) Waking the Tiger. California: North Atlantic Books.
Karll, S.(2003) Sacred Birthing. Victoria B.C.: Trafford Publishing.