Your baby has left the NICU. Has your brain?

Whenever I find myself having a conversation with one client that strikingly resembles one I’ve had with another client, I realize that the topic we’re discussing has significance beyond my office.

This time, the issue was how profoundly painful and challenging it is for a parent whose child was in the NICU to possess those memories and engage in the present. As one client put it, “I’ll be watching my healthy, happy, seven-month old son crawl across the floor, but I realize all I see is his tiny newborn body covered in wires.” She said this in between sobs, understandably.

This is a common experience for parents whose premier moments –  days…weeks…months – with their new child are spent focused on that child’s ill health. The concern, the stress, and the fear that permeate this period often do not dissipate once baby is finally brought home. Parents are forced to shift into their new normal without a moment of rest that would allow them to process what they have been through. The transition from a distinctly difficult time into what is supposed to be one of only relief and joy can seem simple from a bird’s eye-view. But the clients I’ve spoken with who have made this journey tell me: it can be a bumpy ride. Memories (of certain nurses, certain conversations, certain moments – even certain noises, like a medical machine’s non-stop beeping) make the trip with you. They can make you feel unsettled when you are in fact settled. They can make you feel bad when life is in fact good.

When an experience from the past invades your experience of the present, it can feel like you don’t have solid footing. Psychotherapy provides an opportunity to unpack all you’ve been through, tell the story of your experience, and help re-establish your place in the present. Rather than try to ignore or forget a part of your own history, you can come to feel more its author than its main character. That way, the next chapter is up to you.