Illustration: The Manitoban
By Amy Cissell
When I was nineteen, my father gave me a portion of a poem to remind me to never give up.
And sometimes when our fights begin,
I think I’ll let the Dragons win…
And then I think perhaps I won’t,
Because they’re Dragons, and I don’t
— A. A. Milne
I hung this in my dorm room, and in my first apartment, and in my home office, and in my heart.
My Dragons started to appear so slowly. They snuck up on me and took hold before I even realized they were there. Only by looking back can I see how they crept in without a fight.
I can tell you about the awful third trimester of my pregnancy. How everything hurt and I couldn’t run and I could barely walk. How my father was diagnosed with cancer—brain tumors, the scariest cancer of all—had surgery, had chemo, had radiation, entered hospice, died. How the death of my father on March 19, 2012—two weeks before my son was due—was devastating. I can tell you that complications with my pregnancy meant that I never got to see my father between his diagnosis and his death.
I can talk about the labor and delivery. About my mother being in the room and stressing me out because she was so sad. About the intensity of pain that I had not anticipated. About finally getting an epidural after nearly three hours of pushing so the baby and I could rest. About the rapid deceleration of my baby’s heartbeat, the emergency C-section, the hemorrhaging. I can talk about lying on the operating table, hearing the doctors talk about not being able to get the bleeding stopped, and how I didn’t know if my son was alive.
I can paint the picture of the first time I saw my son, no worse for wear after the craziness of his entry into this world. How my arms were shaking too much to properly hold him. How I cried so much in those first weeks as I looked for signs of his grandfather in his face. How so many people needed him to be a symbol of something that made my father’s death O.K. How I felt that he was the trade-in, a newer model, and how that made me feel guilty. I can tell you that the fact that he was born on Easter Sunday was given special significance by people who wanted to believe that there was a just and loving God.
I can give you that glimpse into my soul and how much I struggled with my feelings of intense grief and ridiculous joy.
I can even tell you what happened next.
The autumn after my father’s death and my son’s birth, the Dragons made themselves known. They crept in gradually. I have never liked bridges. I have other fears: ostracism, irrelevance, spiders. But my number one fear is plunging off a bridge to my death, sometimes in a ball of fire; more often quietly, unnoticeably.
I live in Portland. City of bridges. To get to work, I must drive over at least one bridge. And so I do. But that autumn, the fall of death and birth, it started getting harder and harder. I had panic attacks while driving across the Marquam Bridge. The anxiety started spreading. Slowly, like fog on little cat feet. Creeping into everything.
And then there were whispers.
“You are a terrible mother who can‘t even produce enough milk for your son.“
“Your constant anxiety is stressing out everyone around you and they‘re starting to resent you.“
“You‘re about to get fired because you‘re doing such a terrible job.“
“Your friends are sick of your bullshit.“
“Your husband wishes he‘d never met you, much less married and impregnated you.“
“You are a terrible wife.“
“Everything would be so much better if you weren‘t here.“
“You are an awful mother.“
“You shouldn‘t be here.“
The whispers grew louder each day, until they drowned out the echoing sounds of bridge traffic. I started wondering if they were more than an evil internal voice that always tries to fuck things up. I began to believe it was real, that she was real—a voice of authority and reason. I started avoiding. I fantasized about running away. Sometimes those fantasies would include taking the baby and driving south until I found a place to hide. In other fantasies, I thought it would be better if I left him behind; I was obviously not stable.
I noticed my driving was becoming more erratic. I told my husband I couldn’t drive the baby anymore. I wasn’t always sure who was in the driver’s seat.
The running away fantasies met and mated with the plunging-to-my-death anxiety, and it got harder and harder to not plunge to my death. It would be so easy to just speed up and flip over the edge. To “trip” while looking down from the top tram dock and fall, screaming, to the grass below. To go for a trail run in the Gorge and not watch where I was going.
A tragic accident.
A new and better life for those I left behind.
Every day, I got out of bed. I could manage nursing my son only once a day. I dressed him. I went to work. I came home. I fed him (formula this time, such a bad mom). Rocked him. Cried.
I knew I was sinking. I knew this wasn’t right. It wasn’t me. I had a therapist who sent me to a psychiatrist. I got some drugs. I made sticker charts and bought gold stars to chart my Aggressive Happinessâ„¢ plans that involved exercise and drinking plenty of water and taking all my medications.
I stopped talking about my anxiety and depression and weird bouts of mania.
I alphabetized my closet.
I stopped seeing my friends.
I fantasized about razor blades and blood.
I decided to become a drug addict. And then I realized that I didn’t know where to buy drugs, so I gave up.
I stopped looking down when driving across bridges lest the temptation to follow my line of sight proved too much.
Finally one day, I felt a little like myself. And the next, I was a little better.
It wasn’t a progressive upward slope. It was more a few steps forward, and a slow slide back. Gradually, however, I got out of the hole. I stood up and stretched and looked around. And that’s when I saw them clearly for the first time: Dragons. Hovering silently above the ground. Waiting for me to take my eyes off them, like scaly weeping angels, so they could knock me back down.
I backed away slowly, and just kept backing.
They aren’t gone. I still see them there sometimes out of the corner of my eye. They are waiting for me to forget. I can’t blink. Can’t let them win. Won’t.
There are times I want to pull the Dragons out of the dark corners where they’re hiding and wrap myself up in them. There’s something almost comforting in the thought of being smothered in the numbing fog of mental illness. No one expects too much, or is disappointed, or needs me to be strong.
I look for signs of my father in my son, but so far they are absent. There are times I resent my son for preventing me from being with my dad when he died. There are times I resent my father for ruining the end of my pregnancy and the birth of my son. For not living long enough to hold his first grandchild.
Last night, I rocked my teething toddler to sleep and gazed at his face. Even though I’ve been unable to find my father in his face, I felt ready to let go. Let go of the expectation that my son was the consolation prize I received for giving up my dad. Let go of the belief this was the trade-in, the upgrade, the newer model. Let go of the nearly crippling grief responsible for my second guessing all the decisions I’d made in the past two years.
Let go of the fantasy of Dragons and the idea that I might let the Dragons win.
Because they‘re Dragons, and I don‘t.
Author’s Note: In the last month I’ve celebrated my son’s third birthday and mourned the third anniversary of my father’s death. The grief still hits me like a truck from time to time, but it’s no longer a constant presence in my life. Although I consider myself recovered from the postpartum anxiety and depression I describe in this essay, I still don’t enjoy driving over bridges.
Amy Cissell is a Portland, Oregon-based writer whose first love is fantasy. She is hard at work editing her first full-length novel when she’s not chasing around an active preschooler. Find her online at http://www.gazellesoncrack.com or on Twitter @gazellesoncrack