‘It’s been less than a month. I can’t do this.’ I wasn’t ready to have a baby. I had a LOT of trauma to sort through.’: Hostage survivor shares accepting pregnancy only weeks after rescue

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Disclaimer: This story contains mentions of kidnapping trauma that may be triggering for some. 

Read Jessica’s backstory here

“Of all the journeys I have and continue to make, motherhood is my greatest pilgrimage. When I think of a pilgrimage it brings pictures of desperate travelers seeking to know the truth about why they exist in the first place, starving for the bread of knowledge and the inevitable transformation that will enable them to write the story that is the rest of their life. By definition, a pilgrimage is ‘a journey into an unknown or foreign place where a person goes in search of a new or expanded meaning about themselves, others, nature, or a higher good through their experience.’ It IS about great transformation, and I would say for me, after my kidnapping, there has been no greater transformational experience in my life than becoming a mother. 

I would say motherhood came to me before I was ready. However, is that even possible? As a staunch believer in things happening when they are supposed to, I can now, nine years later, see that in fact, motherhood came to me when it did, to save me, once again. 

son stands behind his mother and gives her a kiss on the head
Courtesy of Jessica Buchanan

Sigonella Air Force Base- Sicily, Italy: January 27, 2012

I am standing near the window of my hospital room in a military base somewhere in Italy. It has been a few days since the rescue. Non-stop interviews with the FBI have left me exhausted and empty of words. It feels very strange to be able to use all the words I want in a day, and not be shouted at for showing emotion. It has left me empty. But today is the day where I am reunited with my husband, Erik, for the first time since we left each other in Hargeisa, Somaliland, on that morning in October. It’s been over three months since we have laid eyes on one another. Since we have held each other, been in the presence of one another’s energy. 

I feel the cold coming through the double paned window. It is beginning to snow. Light fluffy flakes float on the invisible currants of wind, and disappear as they make their way to the ground. My door is cracked open, and as I turn, I see five fingers curl around the edge and his beautiful face peaks around the corner. He is wearing a thick wool sweater, and has a shopping bag and flowers. Tears are already streaming down his face when he takes me in, and I feel self-conscious and skinny. The borrowed clothes provided for me by the military wives hang off my 5’ 11’ inch frame the way most women could only dream. I now know what it takes to be what the world would consider beautiful. Months of no food- and that is it.

woman sitting in a hut with a headscarf
Courtesy of Jessica Buchanan

I feel a million things move through my body — electric with the charge of being alive, against all odds, and with him, as he moves across the room, I open up. Tears stream down my face and are absorbed into the thickness of his sweater, and as I cry into the crook of his neck, the only thing I can think to say is, ‘I want to have a baby.’

He laughs and cries. And promises me we can do and have whatever I want. We sit, side by side on the hospital bed, and stare out the window. The events that have unfolded in the last 72 hours have left us both speechless — actually, the last 95 days. The nightmare of me being held hostage by Somali pirates for a $45 million ransom demand is finally over, thanks to dozens of Navy SEALs who parachuted into the dead of night, and brought me home safely. 

We hold hands and he tells me about my family. They are not coming to Italy, but have been advised to wait until I am stronger and then we can go to them. In the blink of my swollen eyes, our time is up. We’ve been given only one hour to be together, as this is protocol for returning hostages. I have volunteered to participate in the Hostage Reintegration Program offered by the Department of Defense, and have been assigned my very own psychiatrist. The reintegration comes in carefully researched stages, and today, the first meeting is short, for a reason. As Erik kisses me softly, he whispers to me promises that he will see me again the next day; we have a lunch scheduled. And then it is just me, with me, again. I curl up in my bed in the corner and watch the snowflakes as I fall asleep — exhausted, spent, alive.

woman walking in the desert where she was held captive
Courtesy of Jessica Buchanan

The Desert, Somalia: I’m not sure what day, 2012

I’m not sure when it started — the visualizations. Somewhere on the cold desert floor, in the middle of the night, I would start dreaming of him. I could feel the cool smooth tile of my apartment floor as I climbed the stairs. I could contrast the feeling on my feet with the warmth of his impossibly soft baby skin. As I scoop him up, somehow, I know this baby is a boy. I climb into our giant king-sized Zanzibar bed and am enveloped by comfort and safety. Erik is there, the sheets are clean and bright white, and between us, our baby. 

husband and wife sit beside each other holding hands with their newborn sitting beside them
Courtesy of Jessica Buchanan

Vasteras, Sweden: March 1, 2012

We’ve been in Sweden for a couple of days now. It’s gray and cold but I have been assured the days are getting longer. The light of day stays until at least 4 p.m. in the afternoon, a good thing, but it doesn’t really matter to me anyway, because all I want to do is sleep. We’ve been on a grand tour of reunions. First with Erik’s family, his parents and sister, aunts and uncles and friends. His 92-year-old Farmor has been lighting a candle for me on her balcony every night since she understood what had happened to me. Erik is particularly close to her, so we visit her a lot. Her English is incredible for a woman of her age, living in a nursing home in the middle of Sweden. Her cute grey ponytail always makes me chuckle. She is a woman who knows what she wants and smiles a lot. 

After a quick visit, we make our way to Erik’s closest friends from college; they live in the next town over. In these moments of reunion, I have the immense privilege of understanding what I truly mean to people. I feel like a voyeur at my own funeral. Except I am alive and well, and once again, as we make our way through a door, a friend flings themselves into my arms and sobs into my hair.

These interactions shock me. Swedes are normally so controlled and often (from my very open and demonstrative American perspective) come across as emotionally closed off. But as we move in toward the table, my husband’s friend, shares her own personal experience of the kidnapping, recounting seeing the news and the headline in the bottom corner of her tv on October 25, 2011. ‘An American woman kidnapped in Somalia’ ran across the ticker, and she just KNEW. She begins to cry harder as she tells me the morning of the rescue, a few weeks back, she miscarried her second child at 12 weeks. Broken hearted, she could not get over the cycle of life. The promise of one precious being stays hidden, while another life is found. I hold her a little while longer and we cry quietly together.

people who were kidnapped rescue mission
Courtesy of Jessica Buchanan

Gathered around a candle lit table, one by one, Erik’s friends shared openly, uncharacteristically, their worries and fears I would never come home, and what that would have meant for Erik. We celebrate that we don’t ever have to know, over food that is much too rich for my still half-starved stomach. Nauseous, I excuse myself early and make my way upstairs to bed, only to wake up a few hours later, sick to my stomach. Unable to keep the food down, scared and embarrassed to be sick in someone else’s home, and still reeling from months of no privacy, I sob over the toilet as I throw up again and again.

The entire household is awake by now, and I am horrified. They have a toddler and I am worried I have brought something that will get everyone sick. Erik moves me to the couch, and stays with me. Neither of us want me to be alone right now.

The nausea subsides, and I realize I really need to pace myself better with the food and wine intake. As the days pass, I continue to have these episodes. I’ll eat a normal amount of food, and then before I even leave the table, I am overcome with the need to be sick, sometimes accompanied by chills and shaking. Erik piles blanket on top of blanket over me and I still can’t seem to get warm in between running to the bathroom.

Every night after dinner, for a week, I repeat the same thing, and I just don’t understand. Maybe it’s some sort of psychological response to food? We make plans to see a doctor; it could be some lingering parasite I picked up from living in the dirt. Erik’s mom pulls him aside, and wonders privately, if there could be any chance I am pregnant. Of course, he chooses to mention this to me as my head hangs over the toilet.

Pregnant? There is NO WAY. I scoff. I haven’t had anything even close to a period since the first couple of weeks of the kidnapping. In fact, whatever I had then was not a period, but more like a murder scene. I shudder as I think about ALL THAT BLOOD, pouring heavily from my body and how I had no way to stop it. Afraid I would be punished or worse, for bleeding in the presence of men, I began tearing strips from my headscarf every couple of hours, in order to try to absorb some of the fluid, but it was futile. When I could, I would lie in the fetal position under the thorn bushes to keep the blood localized and to deal with the horrendous cramping. 

the dessert where kidnapped people were held
Courtesy of Jessica Buchanan

That was the last time I menstruated, between that and the lack of nutrition, losing nearly 40 pounds, and the psychological aftermath — in my professional opinion — there was no freaking way I could be pregnant.

I wipe sweat from my flushed face with a towel, as my brain awkwardly tries to do the math. Erik and I have been intimate several times since we were reunited — the first time being in Italy, when we were allowed to spend the night together in a hotel room, on day four of our reunion. I realize it has been at least four weeks since that first night together, and I have not had a period. As a wave of nausea sent me back to the toilet, I ordered Erik to go and get a test. 

The directions are in Swedish, and while I have taken a few tests in the past, usually desperately praying to all the gods it would be negative, this one was a little different. I pee on the end of the stick as Erik translates the instructions. I place the plastic test on the bathroom counter and we wait. Hope is not taking hold in my mind, because I KNOW it is NOT going to be positive. I also don’t feel like I need to mentally prepare either, because there is nothing to prepare for.

While I had, in those moments of raw emotion and hungry connection on our first meeting, quietly declared my desire for a child, after a few weeks of the ‘survival honeymoon’ wearing off, I knew deep in my gut I was not fit or ready to have a baby. I have years of untangling in front of me. The PTSD and nightmares are keeping me awake half the night and I am wracked with anxiety, constantly looking over my shoulder. I feel like people are staring at me everywhere I go and I have no idea where my life is even headed.

I don’t know what I am capable of doing for work now, let alone what I want to do. Erik and I talk constantly about where we are going to live, because neither of us are sure I will be able to return to Africa. I have a LOT of trauma to sort through, like a LOT, and I don’t need the complication of getting pregnant adding to the sordid mix and mess of it.

Five minutes go by quickly, and I breathe a sigh of relief as I spy two little pink lines announcing the news. I look at the directions again. Two lines look like it means negative. I take the stick and the directions out to Erik and say simply, ‘It’s negative.’ He looks at the test, looks at the paper, and then looks at me. 

‘It’s not negative, Jess. Two lines means it’s positive. You’re pregnant.’ He starts to chuckle in disbelief. 

He grabs me and folds me into a big bear hug and laughs into my hair, ‘We’re going to have a baby!’

ultrasound photos showing the fac of the fetus
Courtesy of Jessica Buchanan

You know how people tell stories of receiving shocking news and they say things start to feel like they are spinning and the walls begin to fall in on them until everything goes black? Yeah, they do not make that stuff up. As soon as the reality of what those words meant sunk into my brain, the room literally starts spinning and I am seeing stars.

All I can think over and over again is, ‘It’s been less than a month. I didn’t even get a break. I can’t do this.’

I didn’t even get a chance to come up for air. I can’t do this.

I stare at the two little pink lines on the test and then head to the bathroom to throw up, again. 

Fast forward 8 ½ months, and on October 2, 2012, by planned Cesarean section in Nairobi, Kenya, they would pull a seven pound squealing little life from mine. I’ll never forget, and will be forever grateful, to the Rwandan anesthesiologist who, knowing my trauma history, and how absolutely petrified I was to become a mother, stroked my head and whispered, as they brought August Johan Landemalm-Buchanan to lie on my chest, ‘You are going to be the best mother to your son. You can do this. You are going to be ok.’ 

mother holds her newborn baby on her chest, admiring him
Courtesy of Jessica Buchanan
mother changing her newborn baby
Courtesy of Jessica Buchanan

Tears streamed into my hair as I struggled to focus on the pink lump that would become my reason to get up in the morning. Night after night, I would wake to feed, swaddle, change, and burp, and in the dark silence when we both should be sleeping, I knew he was the manifestation I had conjured up in my mind to give me something to survive for when I was out there in the desert for all those hopeless nights. When I felt panicked and depressed wading through the deep trenches of PTSD, it was the sweet smell of his newborn head and the softness of his beautiful face that was my North Star and reason to, once again, survive. 

Who knows what shape I would have ended up in, if it hadn’t been for my boy, coming into my life when he did. It wasn’t the timing I would have chosen, but of course, God knew it was the timing I needed, in order to save me, yet again. Nine years of mothering him have flown by, and when I lay down at the end of the day, most nights, next to him, reading and talking about his day, there are moments I smell that sweet head and feel the softness of his skin and I can only just breathe into the nape of his beautiful little boy neck, ‘Thank you…’ He can’t understand it yet, but someday, probably when he becomes a father, and I’m old and gray and mourning my empty nest and arms, he just might. 

young boy holds a small bunch of flowers
Courtesy of Jessica Buchanan

And maybe there will be a new little one to fill our hearts and lives and I can just picture his dark brown eyes that are the deepest windows into his old soul, and we’ll both breathe in unison, ‘Thank you…’ 

For it is a miracle of many miracles that has brought us all here.”

mom and son take a selfie while on a hike
Courtesy of Jessica Buchanan
family stands on a navy ship wearing leis
Courtesy of Jessica Buchanan

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jessica Buchanan from Alexandria, Virginia. You can follow her journey on Instagram and Facebook

Read Jessica’s backstory here:

‘Mama, I need you to tell God to get me out of here.’ Sleep is my only escape from the hell I’m living in.’: Woman taken hostage by Somali pirates rescued by Seal Team VI after 93 days

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