A Veterans Journey Through PTSD & Motherhood
Trigger warning - self harm, substance use, suicide, mental health, pregnancy, PTSD, preterm labor, sexual assault
It was January of 2020, I was sitting in the common area of my third inpatient facility. The news was on, and we were watching a segment about a virus popping up in China. I remembered a few years before, there was an outbreak of Ebola in Texas, and felt reassured that our system would do a good job of preventing a large spread of a dangerous virus, and by the time I came home, everything would be okay.
I was inpatient because my PTSD symptoms had gotten out of control. The October prior to
this, I had attempted to jump off a bridge. I had put a gun to my head. I had self harmed for about 6 years of my military service, to the point many times where I needed stitches, and I drank alcohol as if it were my life force, to numb the emotions that sizzled at the surface constantly. I was determined to survive for my partner and my future, but I was plagued by a constant onslaught of suicidal ideations, heart palpitations and intrusive thoughts. I was easily triggered and was often late to work, having to pull off the road to manage panic attacks. I spent over 100 days in inpatient facilities over my 10 years of military service, and it all started from my first MST experience in 2012. Over ten years of service, I experienced sexual assault on three different occasions. Sexual harassment, stalking, and sexism were so common, I never bothered to track or log those instances, they were just a part of the culture. After all of this, I was desperate for healing.
In February 2020, I became pregnant. I was excited and nervous. I knew from the day my partner and I decided we wanted to have a baby that my experience would be informed by my trauma and mental health conditions, so I worked hard to establish care with providers who were trauma informed and could help me navigate medications and therapy throughout my pregnancy. At about 6 weeks, I started bleeding, and rushed to the ER, thinking I was miscarrying. By this time, the state had started to shut down, but no one really knew how to handle the COVID-19 virus, so we very carefully navigated the emergency room, with our masks on our faces and our hearts.
As it turned out, I was not miscarrying - but as the ultrasound tech placed the wand on my belly, it was clear, without a shadow of a doubt, that there were two whole embryos in there. A new shade of anxiety flooded my body, as I looked back to my moms pregnancies and births, with the same condition as me (Ehlers Danlos Syndrome), and immediately knew carrying twins was going to be a challenge even without the shadow of the pandemic. The ER doctor quickly rushed us out of the room, questions unanswered, back out into the world.
My experience with parenthood comes with a lot of layers. Not only was I pregnant during the first year of the pandemic, but I also went through my medical separation and retirement from the military at almost the exact same time. Even today, I take time to grieve the loss of so many parts of me - my military career ended too soon, and I felt like a failure. I was excited for pregnancy because I wanted to celebrate my life and the life I was creating, and I ended up with neither a baby shower or the birth I wanted. I spent my pregnancy very much alone, walking local trails, going into work to do paperwork when it was necessary, but otherwise preparing for a lonely pregnancy, birth and postpartum, because the pandemic shut us all away from one another. My pregnancy was high risk, so I was terrified of getting sick and making it even worse, seeing how other women ended up giving birth in induced comas, becoming ill from COVID, and missing their own birth. I was hospitalized a few times for preterm labor scares as well - my cervix was labeled “insufficient” for the weight I was carrying. I am forever grateful for the providers at University of Washington who very gently cared for me and allowed me to realize as many of my birth wishes as were possible for us under the circumstances. At the same time my identity as a Sailor, a leader, a professional, was stripped from me, the label of “mom” was tacked on, just as unceremoniously.
In July that year, I finally got to find out my baby's sexes. I was excited and nervous, and we were eager to finally know a little more about who these little humans may be and whether they were healthy.
The next part of this story may seem confusing to many, but I hope I can explain it in a way that makes sense in your mind. When the ultrasound tech announced, without a shadow of a doubt, that both of our twins were boys, I was devastated. Not because I felt like having boys was a failure, or that I’d miss dressing a baby up in cute pink dresses, or that I’d not be able to have fun braiding hair, painting nails and going on girl dates with my imaginary daughter (I already have an absolutely incredible step daughter). I was worried about degrees of influence in our society. I was worried about how I was going to tread lightly in raising two babies into men who understand consent, who can read body language, who are trauma informed. I was scared about how I may toe the line between providing gentle, encouraging and informed education to my children on how to behave in the world, even when no one else is watching, and being so obsessively overbearing that I accidentally created monsters. I felt an immense responsibility to prevent my children from becoming future rapists, but also felt an impossible wisdom of knowing that my influence is really quite minor in relation to the millions of people living around us, here and on the internet, who are also very, very influential. I felt betrayed by my body that instead of filling the world with more powerful, beautiful women - something I KNOW how to become, I was filling the world with more, potentially broken, cruel men.
I am very, very aware of how irrational this thought was. Blame it on the hormones, I guess. Or, blame it on the reality I was living in. We were in the middle of MAGA, middle of the pandemic, and I had a life history rife with sexual abuse from “good” men, who were leaders, fathers, and sons themselves. It took me a while to realize that I was going to be able to navigate parenthood effectively, and finally find a community of mothers and other people who were just as committed to learning and teaching these lessons as I was. But, still, I was “supposed” to have been excited about motherhood, and, at the time I was terrified and angry.
PTSD is a tricky beast. It brings you back to places you no longer reside, it coats your current circumstances like tracking mud through your home. You’re trying to move forward, and you’re never allowed to forget where you’ve been. It forces you to feel forever alert, and yet you are constantly missing out on the here and now, wondering about the “should haves” and “what ifs”. Worry is a prayer for something you don’t want. No wonder my trauma continued to be perpetuated throughout my young adulthood. I couldn’t escape it because I was trapped inside of my own mind.
My boys were born at UW. I labored in a regular maternity room, but had to be rolled and transferred onto an OR table when I was ready to push. The room had about 25 people in it - my own team of anesthesiologists, OB’s, and nurses, and a pediatric crash team for each baby. My partner was the only person allowed to accompany me through the entire process - and that was a privilege in 2020. This was definitely not the birth I wanted, and while I was able to focus well on my task (let's be real, the only task that mattered in that moment), I was distracted by a male pediatric doctor on my right, sighing loudly, like he had somewhere else to be. My sacred space was still being interrupted by men who didn't know better. I fought hard to bring myself away from him and back to what mattered in the moment, which was my body and my babies.
Four days later, we came home and started the process of being parents. My partner went back to work, and I was left trying to figure it out mostly on my own. My parents were able to stay and help for a couple weeks, but overall, we were totally alone. There were no gyms, no “mommy and me” groups, no prenatal yoga, no support groups, no hugs, no meal trains. I walked away from the military in August of 2020, with no celebration or farewell. I birthed my twins in November 2020, as a new mom with no social circles in a new city where I knew no one. We would take turns living on the sofa with our newborns, trying to pump, feed, change, and rest. I was terrified of missing my pumping schedule, because I was desperate to avoid formulas. I was terrified of falling asleep, because I was so scared one of my babies would choke or die and it would be my fault. I was afraid of walking up and down the stairs when I was alone in my house, whether I was carrying a baby or not, because what if I fell and was hurt and couldn’t get help? What if I put my baby in a bouncer, and then we died and no one came for them and they starved to death, cold and alone? What if I accidentally drove into a lake, how do I get two babies out of their carseats while my car is sinking? I was so overwhelmed with my intrusive thoughts, I couldn’t experience a moment of true joy. I was so afraid of my PTSD declining into postpartum psychosis, I was afraid of myself as a mother… What if I kill my own family? I met with my therapist three days after we left the hospital. I took my antidepressants religiously. I joined virtual perinatal support groups, I received training as a birth doula to prepare for my own birth, I joined Veteran support groups, my partner and I took turns sleeping so I could try to get enough rest to avoid further mental health decline, which meant we barely saw each other for 6 months. I ate good, healthy, whole foods, I drank a ton of water, I met with my pediatrician regularly and filled out the postpartum depression surveys. I did everything I was supposed to do, and I was lonely, exhausted and terrified.
The symptoms of PTSD can keep us safe. But they also build big, thick, tall walls that shoot under the earth and reach high to the sky. When we build walls, we prevent all things from entering into our space, even good things, like joy, or people who love us, or new opportunities. Anxiety doesn’t prevent awful things from happening, but it does keep our nervous system stuck in the loop of awful things *maybe* happening, every day, and our brains and bodies don’t know the difference. Hyper vigilance can prevent us from being harmed, but it exhausts our adrenal system and creates automatic, hyper reactive behavior that further pushes people away and reinforces that the world is dangerous(and nothing else). It was comforting to me for a long time to believe that suicide was a good escape route whenever things got too bad, but over time, it became conditioned as my default escape plan in any circumstance. That’s a pretty extreme route to detour any time I made a mistake, got in an argument, broke something or had a hard time with my children. It took a very long time to reorganize that default pathway into something more sustainable and less distressing.
When I tell my story, I am always very aware of my privilege in these situations. I had access to both high quality prenatal care and consistent mental health care through insurance. I had strong leadership in the military who looked out for me and ensured I was able to receive the care and benefits I am entitled to as a disabled Veteran - many, many Veterans are medically separated or honorably discharged without medical retirement status, who probably deserve it and qualify for it. I was able to have a very candid conversation with my OB and other prenatal providers around my mental health and how it informs my pregnancy and birth preferences, and they honored my needs and were able to help me achieve the birth I wanted within the confines of the system as it currently stands - liability prevents midwives and OB's from serving mothers pregnant with multiples in any other capacity than how my birth played out - always at the ready to respond to an emergency, always ready to cut a woman open to save the babies, because that’s how our medical system perceives birth to be safest, even though cesarean increases short and long term risks for mothers in postpartum over physiological birth in most cases, and disrupts many natural processes required to establish good maternal and infant quality of life moving forward.
Bureaucracy, racism, misogyny and resource deserts are all very real barriers to quality of life for most women and Veterans, especially when they pursue parenthood.
I lived in shades of gray for the first two years of my children's lives. I love them deeply, and worked really hard to be the mother I knew I was capable of being. But my PTSD overshadowed a lot of those young experiences as a mom, and I grieve the loss of those moments as they were overshadowed by my condition, as well as the pandemic. In the same breath, I am deeply grateful for Earth medicine finding its way into my life when it did, because I still get to experience the vast majority of my children's lives living in the light of healing and shaping our lives moving forward from a place of love, compassion and light. I don’t have to work so hard to mask myself to be normal for my childrens’ sake. Mushrooms and plant medicine helped me to reframe my trauma, identify the default thought patterns that depleted me and weren’t really helping me stay safe, but instead just helped me stay closed up. I still have anxiety, but it’s anxiety about real things - I live in a country rife with gun violence, I hear stories of friends encountering human traffickers trying to take their kids in the grocery store parking lot, and I stay deeply concerned about food, toxins, addictive substances and the other preventable diseases plaguing our society. But, I feel able to take control of my anxiety and find practical ways to feel safe when I’m in vulnerable situations. We invest in personal protection, we communicate and maintain situational awareness in public. We talk through potential emergencies and how to handle them effectively. We practice safe sleep, safe food, safe water and whatever else we need to do to mitigate risks with children, so we are less likely to succumb to choking, suffocation or accidental death. Right now, I feel like I can mitigate risk in my life without being exhausted by my symptoms - and giving myself permission to do what I need to do to feel safe is not the same as being held hostage by PTSD.
Earth medicine has also given us access to our deep spirituality, after a lifetime of militant atheism, so, while I do not wish for my children's’ deaths, ever, I am comforted that those we have lost are not lost in the darkness. Being shown, through psychedelic medicine, and given the absolute faith in where we go when we die cured my postpartum anxiety, very much like how I imagine psychedelic therapies ease end of life anxiety. I am always in the process of learning how to break through my thick, tall walls, and create soft, firm boundaries instead. I see those who have harmed me, and those who seek to harm, are also very broken humans, and I feel very confident in my ability to approach them with compassion, while also protecting myself and my family from the harm they may still be capable of causing in their brokenness. Motherhood, and military service, has given me the gift of being able to hold two conflicting thoughts or feelings in my body at the same time. Mothers, and service members of all sexes possess higher access to this gift than most, and it is an important and very difficult skill to possess. It is why motherhood and military traumas are so profound and affect our society so deeply - both groups are a pure reflection of what is good and bad in our society, and they are also our saviors. We have so much to learn from them if we choose to listen.
Kali Archipley (She/They)
Navy, AE1 AW USN-Ret, Mother, Doula, Personal Trainer,
Holistic Medicine Advocate, Heroic Hearts Project Ambassador,
Washington State Resident & Hippie and a Veteran Foundation Representative