I do believe that spending time in the NICU can cause real psychological damage. There’s not a lot of research being done (that I’ve seen) and not a lot of people talk about it. Most people, in fact, are just encouraged to “get over it”. It’s been almost exactly two years since the day BJ came home from the NICU and I must admit that I haven’t quite gotten over it.
No, there aren’t any outward signs of my impairment. The signs are more subtle and are usually visible only in reaction to what most would deem ordinary occurrences. For example, I still sometimes struggle with other people’s pregnancies. I sometimes feel a twinge of sadness when I see women in their last trimester. I didn’t make it to mine and I mourned the loss of what should have been for quite some time. I was thrown two baby showers when BJ was three month’s old. He was still in the NICU and it was time for us to prepare for him to come home. My mom and best friends threw two different showers. One was in Austin where I’m from and the other in Dallas where I live. My mom kept asking me when I wanted her to throw it and I put it off as long as I could. It would mean going to Austin for the day and not being with BJ at the NICU. Fortunately, she knew that there would be no good time for me and decided the date and began planning. The day of my Dallas baby shower, I got up, got dressed and headed to the NICU to see BJ, I sat with him until the nurses started looking at their watches and forced me to head to my shower which was up the street. I went and pretended like it was a normal baby shower, my guests pretended like they didn’t noticed the weight I’d lost due to stress and no one commented about circles under my eyes. We all put on a pretty good show that day. I was grateful for the love my friends and family showed by throwing the showers but I would have given anything to be sitting next to my baby in the NICU. There was no cheer and there was no excitement or anticipation of a baby that was to come. He was already here. I was incomplete while BJ was in the NICU and remained that way until he came home.
Pregancy pictures, big bellies, swollen feet, nursery planning and new born pictures… all things that I missed. Some might call them trivial, but they’re things that I can’t get back with my first pregnancy. Instead they were replaced by going home pictures. The hospital nurses helped a photographer take pictures of BJ so that they could take his oxygen off while the pictures were taken and he’d look “normal”. The nursery planning turned into a rush job of buying a crib and throwing up some baby decoration… nothing like what I had planned. But who has time for that when you’re at the hospital all day? And my intimate birthing moment, was replaced by a room with bright lights and a neonatal staff of almost 20 shouting to each other and waiting to wisk my little boy off the moment he was born. There was nothing warm and magical about it. My husband stood on the other side of that big room, not close enough to make eye contact or hold my hand because the neonatal team had to be near.
My husband and I talk about those days sometimes. It’s hard to believe we made it through with any resemblance of sanity. Where did that inner strength come from? But, like soldiers during war, you don’t think about what you have to do while you’re doing it, you don’t think about what you’re going through or the potential dangers, you just do it.
What no one prepares you for is the flood of emotion that hits you when it’s over. When you’re finally able to let the months of emotion that you’ve been suppressing hit you along with the fears that you couldn’t allow yourself to imagine because they would have prohibited you from functioning. Mine began hitting me the minute we stepped out of the NICU with our baby, his oxygen tank, and car seat. All I could think about was the fact that my son had been born for four months and hadn’t been outside of the hospital before. I’m still not sure why but the fact that he was just seeing the light of day at four months hurt me to my core. I cried tears of joy and sorrow the whole way home. Why me? Why my child. And then the guilt that came along with asking those questions because at least I was able to bring my child home. During our four month stay we’d seen some babies and parents who weren’t so fortunate.
Get over it? One day… maybe. But in my heart of hearts I don’t believe it’s possible. Some things just don’t leave you. It will always be a scar tender to the touch. I’ll forget about it for a while and then every once in a while something will brush up against my memory and I’ll wince in pain. It’s a piece of my journey, my families journey and it makes us the unique, loving and grateful family that we are.