A journey of hope and healing after a decade of infertility and two maternal near-misses.

Should I Stay Or Should I Go Now?

In early 2020, before Covid-19 came and changed life as we knew it, I really felt the pinch of over committing myself. Some of it was expected because National Blood Donor Month overlaps with Maternal Health Awareness Day in January. I supported three blood drives to varying degrees and had a speaking engagement all within one week. Then four hours after I returned home from Maternal Health Awareness Day, my son threw up in his bed and the start of our family’s battle with the never-ending stomach bug and a “flu-like illness” began, lasting until... well, March! I never got the downtime to decompress after so much advocacy work and I felt it.

During all of the sickness, I was prepping to speak at another maternal health conference and had an out-of-state meeting the following month. I know battling the sicknesses in rapid succession like this stressed me out far more than I was willing to admit at the time. There were a handful of times I contemplated stepping away from both opportunities, but advocacy work pulls me in like a rip-tide. Fighting it often takes more emotional energy than swimming with it and coming out at the other end. So, I went with it. Then the pandemic swept in and changed life in a flash. It shut down my trip two weeks before I was supposed to leave, and if I'm honest with myself, I welcomed the break. (This from someone who LOVES to travel!) It forced my family back to basics in a lot of ways (mostly good!) and I began to assess how I allowed myself to burn out so spectacularly.

There is also this: reliving trauma over and over again takes its toll on every area of life. It sort of throws you back into PTSD for a while. The anxiety, nightmares and insomnia flare up similar to the time around survival anniversaries. You eventually re-emerge from this self-inflicted season only to repeat the cycle with more advocacy work. A kind soul at the forefront of the maternal health advocacy movement confirmed this is true for her too; and her feedback gave me a lot of pause when I was considering the possibility of starting a non-profit. Because once I took that step, there was no going back. I would have to be all in... PTSD seasons and all.

One of my biggest reservations was glimpses of the "simple life" in the fall of 2019. It was a season without that dark cloud of trauma constantly hanging so heavily overhead... and I liked it. In many ways, I finally felt like I could breathe a little more when my son started preschool.  Or maybe it’s experiencing a new stage of life as it’s supposed to be more or less (as opposed to the postpartum stage that went to hell in a hand basket.) Before the pandemic hit, I was just your average suburban preschool mom. No one new knew our story! I want that mom to live life fully too. I want her family to have her healthy and whole, rather than oscillating between self-inflicted cycles of PTSD.

But just as quickly as that picture emerged, a mother in our neighborhood died shortly after delivery in February 2020. It gutted me... and gave me some soul crushing clarity. As I cried into my son's head that night, I had an epiphany of sorts. It was like God said 'You have been given a second chance. Don't keep it to yourself.' While that’s all fine and good… what does this balancing act look like? What does the healthy and grounded version of maternal health advocacy look like when you’re the birth trauma survivor? Is there such a thing? Because all the women I know who are doing it are struggling just the same. Publicly, they may act like they are handling it well, but if you know what questions to ask, you begin to see the mental health toll. I found myself asking God for a new installment of telegrams… what comes next? If I’m supposed to do something with this near-miss mess, what does it look like?   

I've always said my experience knocked me off my previous course onto this muddy, rugged path with giant sinkholes and flame spurts. (Picture the Fire Swamp from the Princess Bride; survivorship is like that sometimes.) I feel a great debt to the moms who didn’t make it home... whose babies hear stories of a woman they call momma, but will never know... of new mothers who aren't here to speak about the destruction and death caused by denial and delay. I’ll be the first to admit I am still learning to navigate this. I am still testing my advocacy limits... and there are limits! I may need to reset some boundaries and learn to swim out of riptides, but those lost mothers and their babies are the reasons why I’ll never be able to walk away.. 

Perhaps you’ve heard the poem 'I Stay Near The Pit'. Reading it reminded me so much of Psalm 40, and then I learned it's actually based on it, in part.  I read it remembering how Psalm 40 became my life passage in the ICU after my pregnancy near-miss. I even printed the first five verses on the back of our son’s birth announcement. It also hangs on the wall in our living room. Then suddenly, the loose ends connect in new ways and the path I’m on is illuminated just a little bit more. 

The rugged, muddy path is really a weathered trail around the edge of the pit. 

Like the characters in The Princess Bride, if I'm keenly observant, I'll learn the warning signs of the flame spurts and be able to avoid them too.  It’s reassuring to finally recognize that I’m not stuck in an endless loop of trauma. I’ve actually chosen to stay near the trauma and be one of the hands reaching down below the rim of the pit to help the others. There are a lot of us here with our arms wearily stretched out. We see the enormous need, so we stay... but most of us aren't particularly great at avoiding those flame spurts. We have to give ourselves permission to protect our mental health. It's okay to step back. It's okay to not share parts of our story. It's okay to rest when we need to. Just like it's okay to get back up when our cup is filled again. I feel like 2020 was my year to take that step back- partly because I had no other choice thanks to the pandemic- I had the space and time to do those deep dive observations. I think I'm better for it too.  

It's not that we're stuck here in the trauma... we just don’t have the heart to leave anyone behind. 


Chris Haughee, 2018. All rights reserved.

I stay near the pit.
My cry was heard and I was lifted from it.
And while my feet are steady on the Rock and the path is laid straight before me
I was not alone in that pit.
There were many others with me, stuck in that mire.
So, I stay near the pit.

I had tried for a long time—such a long, long time—
to make my way out,
to find myself planted firm on that rock.
That Rock in whom I now put my trust.
Yes, I tried to find my way out on my own…

But steep are the slopes and slick the sides that surround the pit
Dark with self-centeredness, with self-hatred, with fear and shame.
I had almost given up my trying, given up my crying, when someone heard.
Yes, my cry was heard.

And it turned out the ears of the Lord took the shape of a friend
And the hands that lifted me out came not from heaven, but from those Heaven sent.
They lifted me out, pulled me clear and helped me clean up.
It turns out that they, too, had just been freed from the pit
and felt compelled to help… me.
They pointed the way to the horizon, a path laid out upon the Rock.
They beckoned me, “Come!” as they started on their way.
But something made me pause. So,
I stay near the pit.

It is a miraculous thing, this difference between the Rock and the pit
And it is a glory to be saved from destruction and shame.
To stand in the light and know you are loved…
Loved by the One who calls from the horizon.

I understand the motivation of those who started down the path
Leaving the pit far behind them.
Drawn forward by Love, urged on to know who they are
Know whose they are.

I, too, am compelled by Love.
Not to start down that path, but to linger still.
For love of those still in the pit.
So I stay near the pit.
Run freely the paths of God’s great law, fellow saints!
Revel in the joy of being free, being alive.
With ecstasy, I too have skipped down that road.
The sun on my back. A new song in my mouth.

But as the volume of that praise arose
The sounds from the pit and the cries of those
Still stuck, still hurting, still without hope…
Grew fainter, and fainter still… nearly silent
Drowned out by the chorus of pilgrims and their singing
So I withdrew
I returned
And I stayed near the pit.

I remember that first time
That first cry that I heard
Calling not for me, but for someone… anyone.
Fearfully I went near the pit
dark with the memories of my past, my guilt, my pain
But a companion to that fear was a Love that compelled me
A love I recognized in the faces of those that pulled me free.
So I came nearer the edge and I looked into the darkness
For the one who was calling—screaming, really…
And I was not prepared for what came next
It became my reason,
The reason I stay near the pit.

As the cry grew louder
my front foot slipped on the sludge near the edge
So I got on my knees and leaned forward to reach
What was it? Could I make it out in the dark?
Yes… a hand! But not any hand…
The hand of a child.
I reached out and grabbed hold…
For this reason I had remained near the pit.

This frightened child at first feared my grasp and
Scratched, bit, and clawed to free herself
All the time crying and wailing, covered in filth
She did not—could not—know that Heaven had sent me
Just as One had once been sent for me!
So I held on through the pain and pulled her free.
Free from the pit, she wept. We wept. And,
Exhausted, together, we stayed near the pit.

In the midst of that struggle, another miracle took place.
Gathered round us, drawn in by the girl’s cries,
Was huddled a group of others.
They, too, had been pulled from the pit... yet stayed near.
Drawn as I was, it turned out, to help—
If not many, at least one.
And send these little least ones on their way…
Down the path toward healing, toward wholeness.
So we sent this young girl off to the horizon.
But we—these new friends and I—

We stayed near the pit.

And here we are together—you and I—
And our tribe has grown as have the years.
Some we have lost. Not every tale a triumph.
More than a few have gone on, past the horizon.
But new friends have come…
They, too, having heard the cries.
We stay near the pit.

And it is here that we do this messy,
inglorious, difficult work together.
We stay near the pit.
Yes, “He drew me up from the pit… set my feet upon a rock,”
So, in honor and praise…

I stay near the pit.

Mood: Refocused
Music: Survivor- Zach Williams

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About the Author:
Casey Cattell struggled with infertility for more than a decade before giving birth to her son in 2015. She is a two time Maternal Near Miss Survivor writing to give hope to women in the midst of these hardships. She is a Patient Advocate, Heroes For Moms Ambassador and has shared her story with many organizations and media outlets, including the NY Times and the Empowered Health Podcast. She is a chapter author of Nobody Told Me About That-The First Six Weeks. Casey and her husband live in the Northeast, USA and in their downtime like to hike with their young son. If you liked this post or were encouraged by it, please consider passing it on. 

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