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Courtney Reissig talks about the emotional aftermath of her high-risk labor and delivery story. She shares about the faithfulness of God and how she walked the difficult road of recovery.
Michelle: When Courtney Reissig delivered her fourth son, baby Ben, the dramatic and life-threatening experience of that delivery echoed through their family for months after they came home from the hospital.
Courtney: I know people who—what happened to me—happened to them, and their baby didn’t live. I felt survivor’s guilt: “I should be happy. I lived; my baby lived. We look like one big, happy family on Instagram®. Most days, I feel like crawling in a hole and dying.”
Michelle: Courtney Reissig shares about her experience with post-partum depression and post-traumatic stress disorder on this edition of FamilyLife This Week.
Welcome to FamilyLife This Week. I’m Michelle Hill. A couple of weeks ago, we heard from Courtney Reissig. She shared the near-death experience that she had when she was giving birth to her fourth son, baby Ben. Today, we’re going to talk about post-traumatic stress and also post-partum depression. If you didn’t hear the story a couple of weeks ago, let me catch you up a little bit. Here’s Courtney.
Courtney: The doctor on call came in. The contractions kept getting worse; she was like, “I think you’re having a placenta abruption.” A placenta abruption: if it’s a full abruption, means certain death for the baby within five minutes and ten minutes for the mom.
The other complexity is that we have three other children—you [Michelle] were there; you helped me take care of them—they went from having me every day to three weeks of having a steady stream of different people every day.
Michelle: I remember they were listless little boys.
Courtney: They were. They would cry; they didn’t understand. My dad decided to go get them and drive them back to Florida, where my parents live. It took a lot of the frightening nature of what was happening to them out of the equation, but it was the worst experience of my life [emotion in voice]: “What if they leave, and I die?” “What if I die, and they don’t see me again; and I don’t get to say goodbye to them?”
I had to be monitored three times a day. They were about to take me off; my nurse and I looked at the monitor; and I said, “Did his heartrate just go down with that contraction?” The doctor was like, “This is the last straw. It’s time to deliver this baby.” They start the procedure. It takes awhile, because I have some other issues from previous C-section.
He’s born, screaming. You can hear them be like: “This is a miracle baby,” “This is a miracle baby. Placenta abruptions don’t stop for three weeks.” We feel God was like, “I’m going to stop this placenta abrupt for a little bit, and stop it; so you’ll feel the weight of your mortality and your son’s mortality. But I’m not going to let you die today.”
Michelle: Wow; what an incredible story, just sort of sends chills up your spine. You can hear the whole story on our website, FamilyLifeThisWeek.com.
Courtney, thanks for joining us, again, today.
Courtney: Thank you for having me.
Michelle: Courtney Reissig is wife to Daniel. She’s a mom to Luke, Zach, Seth, and baby Ben. She’s a writer and blogger.
Courtney, two weeks ago, you shared the miraculous story of baby Ben. I want to go back to that moment—or that first month after you brought him home from the hospital—what was that like for you?
Courtney: My first thought was: “It’s very loud in my house.” [Laughter]
Michelle: That’s true! You had spent almost a month in the hospital. It was quiet except for the nurses and doctors coming in every so often.
Courtney: I thought I would come home, and we would have a normal process of bringing a baby home. We would be tired, but it would be like every other time we brought a baby home.
What I was not banking on was that I didn’t know how to live in normal anymore. I didn’t know how to function when death was not always on the table. So when we had any amount of normalcy, I was afraid something horrible was around the corner. Because that’s what happened: everything was great, and then our whole life fell apart. I felt like I couldn’t trust the world anymore; I couldn’t trust normalcy anymore. I couldn’t enjoy the good things life was giving me, because they were going to be ripped away from me at any moment anyway.
As I’ve walked through that, through counseling—and through talking with other people, who’ve had other types of experiences, where they’ve almost died or had a life-threatening incident in their family—that is a fairly normative response to your whole world being shattered, with thinking, you could’ve died or your child could’ve died.
Michelle: How did this manifest for you? Were you afraid to go out of the house?—
Michelle: —so grocery store?—driving?—taking your children with you driving?—whatever?
Courtney: Yes, yes, yes; I didn’t want anyone to hold Ben. I didn’t want Ben to ever go anywhere without me. I kept him out of the nursery at church for six months. I didn’t want him out of our room—it was a vicious cycle, because he needed to be out of our room so I could sleep—one of the only ways I was going to find healing was if I was going to sleep; I wasn’t sleeping. That’s [lack of sleeping] another post-partum depression type response as well.
I noticed it first when I/we would watch something on TV that had something like someone died or someone almost died. I would be unable to function after we’d see it; I wouldn’t be prepared for it. Now, I know it’s a trigger. I would be unprepared for what would happen if I saw that—I would just watch it blindly, like I used to; we’re watching a show, when the mom died from a blood clot—and I just couldn’t function.
Someone took my older boys one night—Daniel had to work late, and someone took my older boys—the process of them leaving the house felt like my chest was caving in. I just couldn’t stop crying; I was uncontrollably crying, like, “They’re not going to come home. This is just all going to fall apart.”
If we had normalcy, I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t sleep; I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t calm down, because I was living in this heightened state of stress and trauma. I had to somehow figure out how to come back down. It would manifest in different ways.
Michelle: How did you get through those times, like when someone came to take care of your boys, and take them to their house for the night, so that you could sleep with just Ben? How did you cope through that night?—or didn’t you? What happened?
Courtney: It was before bedtime/like dinner time—in that moment—the things that saved me last year were the Psalms and, then, a Bible study we had at our church. We studied the book of Joshua, and I never would’ve thought the book of Joshua would’ve been helpful. But if you study the book of Joshua, you know God’s repeatedly calling them into very terrifying circumstances, and repeatedly calling them to do things that seem so far outside of what they’re able to do, and things where death is on the table for them. His promise is that He’ll be with them.
One of my favorite Old Testament commentators, Dale Ralph Davis, he uses the Exodus passage as well, where God tells Moses: “I AM, and I am with you,”—that that’s a promise you can take to the hospital room—is that God hasn’t left you. As feeble as I was, and unable as I was to read, or to pray, or anything, somehow the Lord comforted me with that/is that: “He’s here; I’ve no idea what’s going on here, and I have no control over how I’m feeling; but He’s here.”
God’s Word saved me and sustained me. I know it seems really formulaic, and like people just throw it out there, but it really did. I don’t know how else I would’ve survived if I didn’t have God’s Word reminding me that He’s here. It doesn’t take away the difficulty; it doesn’t take away the darkness and the depression. It doesn’t tell you when it’s going to end. That’s sometimes the hardest place to be, is: “I don’t know when this is going to end. I don’t know if it’s ever going to end. I don’t know if I’m going to have to constantly live in this state of ‘death is utterly terrifying to me, and it seems very real.’” But God’s Word did comfort me in those times.
Michelle: It sounds—of course, I’ve never had a child; so I do not know post-partum depression or the feelings after that—but this sounds extreme, almost a post-traumatic stress. Is that what you totally went through?
Courtney: Yes, yes; yes, it is. I’ve been told that’s what I have. But I’ve had post-partum depression as well, so it’s coupled with—
Michelle: —which has got to be hard; because in your mind—at least, this is from me, a single girl, who has never had a child—thinking, “Wow; you’ve got a brand-new baby. They’re starting to coo; they’re starting to smile. Cute little kid, and sweet baby. Life should be good!”
Courtney: Yes; I dealt with a lot of guilt over that. Because I felt like: “I know people who—what happened to me—happened to them, and their baby didn’t live; or their baby had long-term health problems.” I felt survivor’s guilt: “Here I am, struggling with being afraid of dying, or being afraid of whatever happened to me, and I should be happy. That was the hardest part for me: “I should be happy. I lived; my baby lived. We look like one big, happy family on Instagram. Most days, I feel like crawling in a hole and dying.” That’s mostly how I felt, most of the time.
The hardest part for me—I was telling my husband about a month or so ago—is that, when I look back on Ben’s first year, I don’t have warm fuzzy feelings about experiencing his first year. That was really hard for me, because he’s our last baby; I’m not able to have any more children. There’s been a lot of having to die to what I thought going out with your last kid was going to be.
Going back to the survivor’s guilt thing: I was really helped by a biography of Charles Spurgeon’s wife, Susanna Spurgeon. She was talking about the thing that shaped Charles Spurgeon the most was this stampede in a church he was preaching at that killed a lot of people. He was preaching, or about to preach, and some young boys yelled out, “Fire!” which caused a stampede of people to rush out the doors. He lived; but many, many people died. He never, emotionally, recovered from that.
We hold Charles Spurgeon up as being this great lion of the faith. I’ve read a number of things by him in this last year and been incredibly comforted by the fact that God can use people—who deal with post-partum depression, or PTSD, or any other type of response to trauma and difficulty—even in the midst of difficulty. We shouldn’t be ashamed of those feelings; that’s a normal human response to the horrors of living in a broken world.
Michelle: That’s a good insight; because just as you’re sharing that, I’m thinking, “Yes!” If you had been able to come home from the hospital—and been like, “Hey! I have four beautiful boys,” and life just go on perfectly—then I think some people would have said, “She’s never processed the fact that she almost died.”
Courtney: Yes; “She’s stuffing”; yes. You see, all throughout the book of Psalms, as having to process through the difficulties of life. That’s normal for us: we are whole beings, with emotions, and feelings, and hormones, and all kinds of things. We should feel life deeply, good and bad.
Michelle: You’re right; we should.
Hey, Courtney, we need to take a break. When we come back, I want to hear how others have helped you process Ben’s birth and the trauma that went with it, and also how we can help others. Stick around. We’ll be back in two minutes.
[Radio Station Spot Break]
Michelle: Welcome back to FamilyLife This Week. I'm Michelle Hill. We’re talking today with Courtney Reissig about the fallout of a difficult pregnancy and a life-threatening birth of her son, Ben.
Courtney, you mentioned Bible study helped you process this. In Bible studies, there’s varying degrees of transparency and vulnerability. Were you open and honest with everyone?
Courtney: —in varying degrees; I’ve been more open in recent months. But in the moment, there were a few people, who knew everything and were able to walk through that with us.
Michelle: These people who did walk with you, what did they do? How did they come alongside of you, and how did they help you through it?
Courtney: They would periodically check in and see how I was doing. They remembered the dates/they knew the dates of like—when we went in the hospital, the day of Ben’s birth—things like that would be difficult. They had walked through some darkness as well, and so they sent me things that were helpful to them. But mostly, they just didn’t stop checking in; that was helpful.
One of the harder things for me was I didn’t have the emotional—I had four kids—so it’s not like I had all the time in the world. I didn’t have the emotional capacity to go, and invest, and seek out people: “I’m hurting; I need help.” I didn’t have that emotional capacity. But they would check in with me, periodically—and that helped me tremendously—to, at least, know that someone knows that it’s hard; and they’re checking in with me. They just were aware.
They kind of knew what I needed. I think that’s the most helpful thing, when you’re walking with anyone through any type of depression or trauma, is it’s not formulaic. We so often want to say, “If you check these boxes, then you somehow/that’s how you help someone get out of depression,”—that’s not necessarily—everyone is so complex, and has different needs, and different types of depression, different things that lead to that depression in different seasons of life. The most helpful thing any friend can do for someone is to know that person and to know what that person needs.
Michelle: And it’s hard,—
Courtney: It is.
Michelle: —because life isn’t a formula.
Michelle: Walking with God isn’t a formula.
Michelle: It’s different in every single person’s life.
Courtney: Yes, yes; and it changes with each season of life. It’s more nuanced than that.
Michelle: So how can a friend help someone, who is going through PTSD or post-partum depression? What can a person do, other than coming alongside and [saying], “I’m here.”
Courtney: In the early days after Ben was born, one friend would come over and let me process. I needed people to be okay with the fact that I was gravitating more towards the medical professionals, who were with me, throughout it. I just wanted to go back to the hospital and talk to the nurses who knew.
For PTSD, I think that’s helpful—letting them process what happened—some people need to talk about it over, and over, and over again. Letting them do that, knowing that, if they’re talking about it, they need to keep processing that.
Michelle: —and not fix it; right?
Courtney: Yes, yes. Because for me, I’m like: “I know the theological answer—I know God is sovereign; I know that God is not against me—I know all of those things.”
Sometimes, you need to sit with the tension of: “It doesn’t feel that way right now, and I just need to be okay with that,”—not trying to fix that; not trying to see that their processing of what is happening is a commentary on them walking away from the faith—they probably aren’t; they probably just need to process it.
For post-partum depression, I think it’s a little different. Sometimes with post-partum depression, they just need to sleep. Post-partum depression has all kinds of factors that contribute to it, and one of those is sleep.
Michelle: And you’re like: “I have a new baby. How am I supposed to get sleep?”
Courtney: I know; I know. One of the reasons why I weaned Ben when I did was because my counselor was like: “I think you’re making a good case for weaning this baby. You need to sleep more.” Maybe trying even, practically, give them some margin of sleep. Hold the baby during a naptime; hold the baby, if you can/if you have the flexibility to.
The biggest thing—just be there—is what they need. Pray for them; talk to them.
Michelle: For the young/the new young mom—or the young mom, who has three others in the family or two others in the family—who’s struggling with post-partum or a PTSD because of something/a traumatic birth—what would you say to her?
Courtney: With post-partum depression, I did not realize that I struggled with it until after my third kid. I had twins, and then I had my third kid. I would say: “Don’t be like me and try to fix it all on your own. Recognize that birth is a difficult thing in general; it’s not easy. It’s okay—it’s okay if you are sad; it’s okay if you don’t always like your baby; it’s okay if you don’t feel bonded to your baby—it’s not a commentary on you, as a mother; it’s not a commentary on your worth before the Lord.”
We live in a broken world in broken bodies, and nothing works like God intended it to; as believers, we have a theology that can hold that tension. We can say—in the same way that people get cancer; people get post-partum depression—our brain is an organ, just like every other part of our bodies; and it’s susceptible to life in a fallen world. I would just say: “Know that you’re not a failure.” I think that’s the hardest thing for women—they feel like a complete failure when they aren’t happy, and they feel like crawling in a hole and dying after their baby’s born—they feel like they should be happy; they have a baby; everyone has told them they should be happy. Everyone has told them that they’re doing the best thing they could have ever done, as a woman; and here they feel like: “This is terrible.”
The other thing I would say is: “Don’t think that you’re the only one.” I can’t tell you how many women I’ve talked to who were afraid to talk about it, because they felt like they are the only one. All it takes is one person, being brave and saying, “I don’t feel very happy about all this,” to let the floodgates of other women saying it too. A lot of women in Christian circles/especially in conservative Christian circles, don’t want to talk about it. We’ve made motherhood and birthing a child out to be the most fulfilling thing you could ever do.
I love being a mom; I love my kids. But I live in a broken world; and it’s hard, and it doesn’t always feel great. And sometimes, I just don’t feel like doing it. That’s not because I’m failing, it’s because we live in a Genesis 3 world—I think, recognizing that is applying the same theology, we apply to everything else, to motherhood—then, tell someone; talk to someone about it. Admit it; be brave about it.
I would say to older women/women who have had children is: “Be aware. Be aware of the women, who have had a baby in your congregation or in your life, and don’t let them go.”
Michelle: —who you can come alongside.
Courtney: Yes; like talk to them, whether you’re a mother or not. If a woman has had a baby, [who’s] in your life, talk to her about how she feels about everything. Then, let her talk; let her pour out.
Maybe she feels great; but I would say: “Be attuned to the signs that maybe she’s trying to put on a brave face. It’s harder than she wants to let on, and she needs someone to tell her that: ‘It’s okay [to admit] that it’s hard,’ ‘It’s okay that you’re depressed,’ and ‘It does pass. Post-partum depression does pass. It does get better.’”
Michelle: That’s good to know. I’m sure that’s hope for a lot of women to say: “Oh, okay; it does/it does get better.”
Courtney: “I don’t know when it will get better, because everyone has a different timetable”; yes. [Laughter]
Michelle: What did God teach you about Himself through this?
Courtney: So many things. I’ve often said I’d never have learned all these things about God if I hadn’t endured it. Of course, I would’ve loved to have learned it in a different way. The thing that has been the steadfast hope for me through all of it is that, for the most part, I did not feel like God had left me. That was so encouraging to me; is that, I really did feel, most of the time, that He was right there in the valley.
I’m not fully out of it yet—I’m only 14 months in, past what had happened—but I didn’t feel like He had left me. That was incredibly hopeful that He is not a God who is away from us, just sitting up in heaven meeting out horrible things to us; He is a God, who is present in our suffering, and who is right there with us in the difficulty.
I learned about His presence, which was so helpful. I learned about His goodness, even in darkness, that He’s still bringing good into your life, even in the midst of incredible suffering. I learned that He is faithful to sustain. I learned that He is all-powerful when I’m not. I’ve had to face my limitations as a mother in incredible ways this last year-and-a-half. I learned that He loved my kids more than me, which was incredibly helpful. He will take care of us; He will take care of them, even if I can’t.
I learned to trust His absolute control over all things. If He can stop a placenta from abrupt-ing; if He can save my life and save my kid’s life, how much more can I trust Him? I’m studying John right now; and if He can raise Lazarus from the dead, how much more can I trust Him? He saved my life; I can trust Him. It gave me a whole new perspective on life, which is good. I just wish it would’ve come a different way. [Laughter]
Michelle: Courtney, thank you so much for sharing with us. I know this is a very tender story; it’s a very personal story. You have been writing about it; but nonetheless, it’s hard to do. Thank you very much for going to that hard place with us and sharing. Thank you for doing the brave thing today.
Courtney: Thank you.
Michelle: My conversation with Courtney was really helpful for me, as a friend, because it helped me understand what she’s been going through. As a friend, it’s really hard to know what to do and what to say. You know that something’s different, but you just don’t know what to do.
If you’re like me, and you have a friend walking through some sort of trauma, and you don’t know what to do: “Why don’t you take Courtney’s suggestions? Offer to sit with them. Offer to hold the baby, or offer to play with her kids while she naps. Pray for her, and don’t walk away.”
Maybe you’re in Courtney’s shoes today. As she said, reach out, and have a few people that you can share this darkness with. Consider counseling to help process life, to get all of that trauma out, and keep going to God with your pain and your confusion. We have a link on our website to another discussion dealing with this topic with Tracy Lane and, also, counselor Ron Deal. That’s at FamilyLifeThisWeek.com; FamilyLifeThisWeek.com.
Coming up next week, I’m going to chat with Shaunti Feldhahn about happiness: “Are you happy?” “Do you know the definition of happy?”—maybe that’s the question, or maybe that’s where we need to start. Shaunti is going to share her research on happy marriages in America. I hope you can join us for that.
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