Rooting For The Cubs, Again And Again

Rooting For The Cubs, Again And Again

art-cubs

By Carolyn Alessio

I grew up watching the Cubs in the 1970s, which was dubbed the era of “Sustained Mediocrity” by Wrigley Nation. My father Sergio, who introduced me to the North Side team, had markedly better memories of the Cubs from his youth. In 1945, the last time they played in the World Series, my father was 16.  Similarly, my nine-year-old son will have infinitely more positive memories of growing up with the Cubs. Of the three of us, I am the only one who became a fan in the team’s darkest hours. Literally, because Wrigley Field did not install stadium lights until 1988. Over the years, darkness has periodically plagued but also instructed me, both inside and outside of baseball.

Just as with fighting depression, following the Cubs requires a combination of secular wizardry, superhuman patience, and hope.  My father, an electrical engineer and child of Italian immigrants, rarely spent extra money or indulged himself, but every summer he made sure to take me to Wrigley Field. We parked on the grounds of a convent next door that rented out spots during games. I remember the enterprising Sisters in habits waving us into their makeshift lot. The confluence of Catholicism and baseball seemed perfectly natural to me—in many ways, they were the twin religions of our pious household.

In the sparsely filled seats of the upper deck, my father carefully filled out a score card, often consulting the green wooden, manual scoreboard that still sits over center field today (now with electronic screens on each side of it.)  My father never spoke to me directly of his experiences with prolonged melancholy, (my mother filled me in later), but I do know that he tried medication briefly as I would later. Back then, however, antidepressants were not nearly as effective or refined. My father did demonstrate however, in his steady following of the Cubs. That routines helped him inestimably—even if built around a team renowned for losing. So my inherited addiction to ritual turned out to save us both.

I don’t think the Cubs’ half-baked performance of the 70s significantly intensified my father’s existing depression, but the experience gave us more insight into the natural psyche of Cubs fans. Just as I hope to shield my children from inheriting my knee-jerk sense of self-doubt and anxious tendencies, I worry about the unintended effects of encouraging my son’s bone-deep affection for the Cubs.

In the 1970s, the Cubs rarely budged from the basement of the National League East except to swap places with the Cardinals, but each morning I dutifully checked the box scores in the newspaper during the season. If the game had run too late–as on the West Coast while playing the Dodgers or Giants–I would call Sports Phone for the score. The number was not 800 or 888 as it might be today; it didn’t even have an area code. I remember still wearing my pajamas many summer mornings when I called the hot line on the kitchen wall phone. I twisted the long plastic phone cord as I waited nervously for the recording to run through the litany of local teams’ scores.

Today, my young son merely grabs my cell phone, summons Siri, and asks, “What’s the Cubs’ score?” The process still involves a few seconds of anxiety, but the efficient digital assistant gets directly to his team. Siri editorializes too much for my taste, however, especially on the rare days when the Cubs have lost badly or, as she smugly says, been “trounced” or “remained in hibernation.”

By 1978 and 79, my adolescence approached, along with severe anxiety beyond most teenage angst, and an ambivalence about eating properly. I had a few friends but preferred to stay home on Friday nights and watch doubleheaders in which the Cubs often lost twice. I was only comfortable contemplating love while watching homerun slugger Dave Kingman on my parents’ old black and white TV. One day I even wrote him a fan letter on pink stationery, and tucked in a McDonald’s gift certificate for $5. A Golden Arches sat across Clark Street from The Friendly Confines, so I figured it would be convenient for my hero. Aside from the excitement of Kingman, who once drilled a 500-foot homer far past the field, and the elegant assists of shortstop Ivan DeJesus Sr., I took refuge in the team’s predictably tepid, afternoon home games. (Wrigley Field would not have lights or night games for another 10 years.) Watching the day games gave shape to my uncertain days and reminded me that other stories existed besides winning.

Two years ago, when my son began watching Cubs games more regularly, and keeping closer track of the schedule, I understood the real legacy of my father. When my son asked about a game that approached in a few hours, I felt a mall reassuring lift in my chest not inspired by SSRIs or Cognitive-Feedback Therapy.  Regardless of how our days had gone, or the amount of times we might have been disappointed (or disappointed others), the upcoming game would still take place at a specific stadium at a designated time. Tickets had already been purchased. Baseball continues to shape our days.

In late September this year at Wrigley Field, as the Cubs sailed past the Cardinals in their last home game, a St. Louis fan sitting behind my family chanted, “Eleven championships!” The man spoke as though he had personally enabled those winning seasons, maybe by summoning the spirit of the Cardinals’ legendary Stan Musial, or by boosting each Cardinal’s Sabermetric prowess. My nine-year-old Little Leaguer smiled at the fan’s desperate bragging. Recently, when the Cubs lost two playoff games in a row to the Dodgers, I experienced again the basis for that feeling of deep connection to a team’s fate.

In public I blamed Clayton Kershaw’s maddening curveball for muffling the Cubs’ bats, but in private, I decided that my own mistaken display of a “W” sign in our front window after one loss had triggered the Cubs’ dangerous dive. I quickly remedied the situation and all seemed well, except for the fact that somebody was closely observing my superstitious behavior. Somebody, that is, besides my bemused husband and skeptical teen daughter. I figured it out on the eve of the opening game of the World Series, when my son earnestly reminded me to “Take down the ‘W.'”

These days, so much else about my old team has radically changed that I often feel on the verge of disorientation. The Cubs are playing bizarrely late in October, and all season long the team has displayed consistently powerful hitting and stingy pitching. When my son marvels at Kris Bryant’s batting average or Jake Arrieta’s ERA, I automatically feel nervous, not just for the team’s transformed franchise but because I want to protect my son from disappointment, the past, and having a hall of mirrors in his head like mine. So naturally I turn to quirky ministrations that just might help preserve the magical balance. Of course, the rest of Chicago and perhaps the Western Hemisphere is also blathering away about the “curse of the Billy Goat” and other black magic that has kept the Cubs from even playing in a World Series for 72 years.

But observing a mother’s odd baseball rituals up-close at home might lead a child to transfer the strategies to his own Little League play. Instead of practicing daily to improve as he did last season, maybe my son could just designate a lucky pair of long socks and pray for a downpour when his team faces a tricky situation. A young baseball devotee like him might not even differentiate completely between professional and amateur ball. My son learned this lesson vividly and firsthand last May at Wrigley, when he joined more than 900 other kids one afternoon in running the bases after the game. The video that my husband made, set to the theme song from “The Natural,” shows him trotting along at an efficient pace, confident and with no trace of the Club Foot he was born with long ago. It all looked so, well, natural, that later I was surprised to hear that my son had been shocked that the bases were “a lot farther apart” than he had thought.

Last July, a reference to a Cubs team of the past unexpectedly connected my son and me. After his Little League team played a challenging final game to finish third out of six teams, my son’s coach called the boys together and began to hand out awards. These were not the mass-produced, flimsy trophies usually shoved at players by the league, however, but brand new Rawlings baseballs on which the coach had written personal tributes and comparisons to famous professional players. As he presented each award, the coach compared his nine- and ten-year-olds to All-Stars and Hall-of-Famers like Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench. To support the comparison, the coach cited specific examples both from beloved moments in professional baseball, as well as meticulous Little League game-notes that he had kept all season.

When the coach got to my son, he presented him with the award named for Andre Dawson, a Cubs outfielder from the late 1980s and early 1990s. I knew the name well, from my later, somewhat happier fan days while in high school (when the team actually made the playoffs). Dawson, as the Little League coach explained, was known as “The Hawk” because he was persistent and rarely avoided fielding a ball, just like my son, who had transformed himself from a tentative, shaky outfielder into a go-to third baseman. Listening to the presentations, and watching the young players lean in, solemn and wide-eyed, I felt a sense of grace. The patient coach was using similar reference points to help guide the boys. Maybe I wasn’t as off-course in parenting as I had believed—or at least I was doing an acceptable job of managing my limitations.

Not long ago, on the afternoon following the Indians’ 6-0 victory over the Cubs in the first game of the World Series, I asked my son on the way home from school what he thought had changed in our team since they triumphed over the Dodgers. “Well,” he said, skipping a rock into an alley pothole, “I did eat a Cubs cookie the night they got the pennant.” It took me a moment to picture the frosted cookie with the team logo that my husband and I had brought him from a wedding, and even then I glanced over to see if my son was serious. But he just shrugged and smiled to himself, like he was working out his own private form of Cubs Sabermetrics in his head.

Carolyn Alessio lives with her family in Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood, and teaches high school in nearby Pilsen where only a small but mighty portion of her students are Cubs fans. Her work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, The Pushcart Prize anthology, The Chronicle of Higher Education and is forthcoming in America. 

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“What Did the Sickness Make Your Brain Do?”

“What Did the Sickness Make Your Brain Do?”

sad woman with hand in head with redhead hair

by Sarah Sanderson

My daughter was six when I climbed into her bed and tried to explain psychosis. A few months earlier, I’d been hospitalized with postpartum psychosis after the birth of my fourth child. I was growing tired of dodging my eldest’s repeated questions about the whole experience, so this time, when she asked, “Why did you go to the hospital?” I decided to attempt a six-year-old version of the truth.

“Mommy had a sickness in her brain,” I replied as I pulled my daughter’s Disney Princess sheets up to my chin. “Some people get sick in other parts of their body, like when you have to throw up or when Jack broke his arm. Mommy just got sick in her brain.”

“What did the sickness make your brain do?” she persisted.

I wondered how much detail I would have to offer before she would be satisfied. “My brain just… made me think some things that weren’t true,” I tried.

“Like what?”

I had to have seen that coming.

I wanted to inform without scaring her. The part about the whole episode being triggered by memories of childhood sexual abuse was definitely out. My religious fixations probably wouldn’t make sense either. Was pressured speech—the compulsion to speak aloud every thought that comes into your head—too freaky? I settled on paranoia.

“Well… I was scared of the computer.”

Abby burst into giggles. No one had ever reacted to my story that way before. “What did you think it was going to do to you?” she laughed.

The truth was that I had convinced myself that my childhood abuser had somehow downloaded keystroke-capturing software onto our computer and could read everything I had ever typed. As my husband and a friend of ours led me towards the car to get me to the Emergency Room, I shouted, “Don’t turn on the computer until I get back and fix it! Promise me you will not turn on the computer!” It made sense at the time.

Now, I snuggled with my little girl and sighed. “I thought someone was watching me through the computer and I got scared.”

Abby laughed some more. “That’s silly, Mommy!”

“Well, it was silly, you’re right,” I agreed. “But at the hospital they gave me some medicine for my brain and now I’m okay.”

“And that’s why you stay in bed,” she pronounced, familiar with this part of the story.

“Yeah, because of the medicine,” I conceded. A side effect of my medication was that it knocked me out for ten hours at a stretch. I had always been the one to jump out of bed with whichever child woke up first, no matter how early or how little sleep I’d logged the night before. In the past months, however, my husband had shifted into the role of morning parent, because I was usually completely unconscious until after everyone else had eaten breakfast.

“How long will you have to take the medicine?” Abby asked. “If you went to the hospital and they made you better, why do you need medicine now?”

Good question. When I was released after four days on the psych ward, I met with a private psychiatrist for the first time in my life. She patiently explained that most women who experience postpartum psychosis also have, or subsequently receive, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. At this, I revolted.

“No,” I explained to my new doctor, “I don’t have bipolar disorder. I’m fine. This was a one-time thing. It was triggered by all this sexual abuse stuff! I don’t have a mental illness!” The idea of me having a mental illness was just ridiculous.

The doctor agreed that I could possibly be in the minority, but I would have to take medication for at least eight months until the threat of manic relapse passed. After that, time would tell.

So as I lay in bed with my six-year-old daughter, still in the initial eight-month window after that first psychotic episode, I told my little girl, “I won’t have to take the medicine for very much longer.”

It turned out to be a promise I couldn’t keep. A few months later, in the process of weaning off the medication, I became manic, verging on psychotic, again. When I saw the psychiatrist back in her office afterwards, she confirmed what I now suspected: bipolar disorder had set in after all. Unlike postpartum psychosis, which is a one-time designation, a diagnosis of bipolar never goes away. I could now officially count myself among the chronically mentally ill.

Talking to kids about mental illness is like talking to kids about divorce, or sex, or any other uncomfortable subject: you have to do it over and over again. It comes up, and you answer their questions at their developmental level, and then a few weeks or months or years later, it comes up again, and your answers change.

As I grow more comfortable with my own diagnosis, I am learning to field these questions more adeptly. On some level, though, as I learn to see myself through the eyes of my children, I find that I am still working through my own feelings. Some part of me still can’t believe I’ve landed in this “mental illness” camp. What am I doing here? When will I get out? If I ignore it, will it go away? Each time I confront the issue with my children, each time I verbalize my explanations to them, I am explaining it to myself.

Recently, my third child, who is now six, started calling other people “crazy” in a derogatory way. For weeks, I kept hearing it and letting it slide, but it rankled me. I finally called him on it.
“We don’t use that word that way,” I informed him. “People have real sicknesses in their brain, and just like a sickness anywhere else in the body, they can’t help it. So we don’t use that word to make fun of people. It’s not nice to people with that kind of sickness.”

He stared at me quizzically. My heart thumped, and I recognized the feeling of shame coursing through my veins.

This child was two when I was hospitalized. We never had a snuggly moment of truth afterwards. He can’t remember me ever bouncing out of bed in the mornings. Maybe he doesn’t know I have a mental illness at all. Was I ready to reveal myself to him?

After a moment I decided now was as good a time as any to step out of the mental illness closet with this child.

“Like me,” I leveled with him. I braced myself for the barrage of questions that might follow.

But he didn’t ask. “Okay, Mom,” he shrugged, and ran out of the room.

We’ll talk about it again some other time.

Sarah Sanderson lives with her husband and four children in Oregon. Find more of her work at www.sarahlsanderson.com.

 

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Rubicon

Rubicon

View of the Roman bridge in Rimini

By Emily Myers

The rental apartment in San Francisco was sparse. Spring sunshine bleached the walls and the linoleum was warm under my feet. My newborn was asleep in my arms and I had the phone wedged between my shoulder and jaw.

I missed my mum and told her so.

“I miss you too,” she said, and the phone crackled as it always did when she moved away from the window. The line between us stretched from damp, rural England to blistering California. Interference was expected. I pictured her in the cottage at the cove, its squat granite walls and small square windows, in a narrow valley spilling out to the sea. I could hear her moving, sitting down. I imagined her in those wing-back chairs, facing the fire, logs burning in the grate, spitting and popping. Dad would be out with the dogs.

“I wish you were still here. If only you were here, I could nip over and help you.” She sounded baffled. “What are you doing over there?”

I swayed, looking down at Max, three weeks old, his lips blistered from nursing. My whole body ached.

“Dom got a job, remember?”

I wanted to say it felt like I was standing alone in the middle of a rainstorm. I could see the water making rivulets all around me, my feet in the mud. The water was moving with such speed, and yet surrounded by this torrent of rain, it felt like nothing would ever change. I would always be here, watching this kind of water, on this kind of river bank. What I wanted to say was I missed the geography of my childhood, its familiarity, and that a nostalgia for it had crept in uninvited and was sitting heavily on my chest.

My mother told me about squabbles in the valley. There was a dispute about who should get the firewood from a fallen tree. Dad and Francis were going head to head with their camellias in the Penzance flower show. Eamon was back in hospital and Penny and her three grown daughters were up at The Nook with Val, who was now bedridden. “You know how close that family is,” she said.

I waited for my personal rainstorm to pass, slowly piecing together the jigsaw of my child, pulling genes from here and there; the dimples, the turn of his mouth and the curve of his nose, trying to make sense of things.

“It feels like you’ve been away thirty years,” said my mother during one of our long-distance calls.

“A lot has happened,” I said.

I wanted to say that my love for my child felt like a giant peony had bloomed in my throat and sometimes it was hard to breathe.

Max’s head got heavier and his eyes brightened, and he chuckled and sought me out. Every day the picture of my child, the character, became a little fuller.  I knew the eczema on his thumb and the milk spots under his chin. I knew the smell of formula on his breath and how his eyelashes had grown. I knew how he hiccupped when he laughed. He loved his bath, I found out, and I noticed his feet were the length of my thumb. I saw how he pulled his socks off and sucked them and looked startled when he rolled himself over, and how he marveled at his hands and gripped my hair when I leaned into his crib. I knew the feeling of his cold fingers and sharp nails on my chest, and how he’d sleep in broad daylight, tolerating the fact that I hadn’t put up curtains in his room. I found that the rainstorm had created a river. Familiarity just took time.

My mother came to visit. She came alone because Dad didn’t like leaving the cove. There was no one to look after the dogs or the chickens, he said. Mum made it clear she had come to see me, that I was the priority. She meant it with love, but it felt like another kind of suffocation. The line between us should have been clear, but still it crackled.

“She is your mummy,” she said to Max who was, by then, a toddler, “But she is also my child.” She hugged me awkwardly with one arm. Max ran off, squealing.

“You’re not coming back,” she said when she left. She looked exhausted. We were both tired by then. And perhaps she was right. By now, I was pregnant with my second child.

I have always thought of the cove as the sediment of my being… something about the permanence of the granite, gray-pink and flecked with quartz. I loved the story of Great-Granny Favell seeing the valley for the first time, scorched with daffodils. She came from Sheffield with her sickly husband and bought the one-story stone house by the river. Slowly she acquired farmland and outhouses and became a plump matriarch, dogs at her heels. The war brought her daughters and a daughter-in-law back into the cupped hands of the cove, where grandchildren ran to the slip and played in the tide pools. A safe haven. Now, men lean on their boats and talk of the past. When the old lady died, she handed the valley to the National Trust to preserve its torpid beauty and her descendants hang on to what was left. Nothing changes now. No one wants that. It is wonderful and stifling, like another peony blooming in my throat.

After my mother went home, we resumed our weekly phone calls. It was hard for her to find reference points.

“How is that lady we met in the park?” she’d ask.

“Oh, I haven’t seen her again.”

“And Max’s soccer games?”

“They’ve finished.”

I’d recently befriended someone with a son the same age as Max, but to tell my mother would make me seem sadder and lonelier than I was. I was pulling away, finally coursing my own river. The storm had broken, letting me take big gulps of air. But when I spoke to my mother, I was pulled back to a place that didn’t allow for change. We fell back into what we were both missing: each other. In the end, it seemed easier not to call.

My mother had her own interpretation for my silence. “I can’t bear to think of you being unhappy,” she said.

“I’m not unhappy,” I said. “I need you to support me.” My words felt urgent. “Dom and I are together. We have healthy children. These are things to celebrate.” What would she prefer, I wanted to say, me sleeping on their couch?

She was slow to reply. “Yes, I get it.”

Later, she called it her “Rubicon.” Perhaps it was mine too. In 49 BC, Julius Caesar crossed a watershed called The Rubicon and committed himself to war. I like to think that in our case, the territory was emotional and put us on a path to peace.

Emily Myers is happiest working out life’s complexities with her three sons. She has worked for the BBC in London and for the arts education group, A Little Culture, in San Francisco. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York.

 

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Celebrating Their Birthday

Celebrating Their Birthday

By Kelly Burch

theirbirthday

My father was my sadness, and my daughter was my light. 

 

My daughter’s first birthday—my father’s 52nd—was celebrated in the psych ward. There was no candle, and a nurse held the knife used to cut the cake. I had to call and plead in order for the baby to be allowed to visit my father, speaking first with a nurse and then with the unit manager. Normally, children aren’t allowed beyond the locked doors that mark the start of the psychiatric wing.

“Please,” I begged. “It’s their birthday. Both of them.”

My father was my sadness, and my daughter was my light. I couldn’t celebrate the joy of her first year without thinking about the deep sorrow that year had held for my father. I couldn’t bear to celebrate another melancholy birthday with my dad, or find hope for his future, without the healing balm of my baby’s smile. After all, without the baby, we may all be forced to confront the lunacy of singing “Happy Birthday” to a man currently hospitalized for depression.

  *   *   *

The morning that my daughter was born, I awoke in the hospital with the OB-GYN by my bedside.

“The induction hasn’t taken,” he said. “But your blood pressure has stabilized. We’ve consulted with Boston, and they said we can send you home, or we can try Pitocin. We’ll let you decide.”

Frustrated but still hoping for a somewhat natural delivery, I waddled out of the hospital without a baby.

“Sorry Dad, not today,” I said as I called to wish him a happy birthday. Even through my own exhaustion I could hear the disappointment in his voice.

But on the drive home, I began feeling the rhythmic tightening in my stomach that had failed to happen during my three days in the hospital. My water broke right around the time I was supposed to be going to my dad’s birthday gathering.

“Going back to the hospital. Don’t tell anyone at the party,” I texted my mom. We had already had one false alarm, and there was no need for everyone to come running.

But a first-time grandmother can’t control herself, and the cake and ice cream were left abandoned as my siblings and parents rushed from the cook-out. After holding out all weekend, my daughter came so quickly that I didn’t even know my family had arrived, waiting just on the other side of the locked doors that separated the maternity ward from the rest of the hospital.

When my family came in to meet the baby, my father was the last through the door, his hulking frame looking timid and unsure.

“Happy Birthday,” I said.

As I watched him cradle his first grandchild, I hoped that the baby would make a difference. I wondered if a 7-pound infant was the key that could break into the icy depression that had held my father captive for eight years, correcting his chemical imbalance and bringing him back to me.

At the same time, even in my postpartum haze, I knew not to expect a miracle. Just weeks before giving birth, I was downstairs, in the hospital’s Emergency Room with my dad. As I swayed my ever-widening hips in an attempt to soothe my aching back, I listened as the nurse asked my father, “Do you take drugs?” and “Are you thinking about hurting yourself or others?”

Hospitalizations were something I had been through many times with my father’s bipolar disorder. But at eight months pregnant, this felt different. As I helped him through the E.R., hoping that he would be deemed sick enough to warrant one of the few beds reserved for psychiatric patients, I felt completely drained. That night I curled myself around my belly, wondering how the baby inside would remember my dad.

Long before I had children, I mourned that they would never meet the boisterous, gregarious man who raised me. They wouldn’t know the man who ran for mayor on a whim; the man who always had the next big idea, and was ready to shout it from the rooftops; the man who was apt to scoop up his nieces and nephews, tossing them too high into the air until they were consumed by laughter and their parents exchanged nervous glances.

That man had been snatched away from me by mental illness. I loved the sullen, subdued person left in his place, but I was heartbroken that my kids would not know the same version of my father who helped me discover creativity, and taught me to buck the norm. The poet and author who gave me my greatest joy—writing.

But as I looked at my father holding the baby on the day she was born, I had hope. I saw genuine joy radiating from him for the first time in nearly a decade. My daughter, swaddled loosely in the hospital blanket, nuzzled into my father’s bright coral shirt, a garment too cheery for the man who was wearing it. The massive man with paunchy cheeks, who was clean-shaven and showered only because he knew his family was visiting for his birthday, looked down at the baby with awe.

These two souls were connected, entering the world on the very same day, half a century apart. They were linked through me, but also independent of me, with a relationship I would never be fully privy to.

The year that I was expecting, I celebrated my birthday at 38 weeks pregnant. “Maybe she’ll be your birthday present!” people would say. Although I smiled, I hoped the baby would leave that day for me.

However, when I thought about her sharing my dad’s birthday, two weeks after mine, it just seemed right. Through the foggy years of his depression, I visited him on his birthday and tried to make my rendition of “Happy Birthday” sound as genuine as I could. But it seemed hollow and insincere to sing of happiness to a person who couldn’t find any joy at all.

For years, I repeated the ritual and the saying, but I knew he wouldn’t have a happy birthday, and wasn’t likely to have many happy days in the coming year.

But then, that day became theirs.

“I was hoping she would come on my birthday,” he had said when he met the baby.

He hadn’t expressed hope in the longest time.

Author’s Note: My daughter is nearly two now. After being hospitalized on her first birthday, my father began doing better. He is currently on his longest stretch without a hospitalization in nearly a decade.

Kelly Burch is a freelance writer and editor living in New Hampshire. She shares stories about mental health, mothering, and anything else that catches her interest. Connect with Kelly on Facebook, or via her website to read more of her work.

Will He Have My Eyes?

Will He Have My Eyes?

WO Will He Have My Eyes ART

By Kelley Clink

It’s two in the morning. My vision blurs from lack of sleep. The lamp in the corner washes the room in soft, amber light. It shimmers in my son’s wide-open eyes, which gaze up at me. His small, hot hand curls against my chest. We rock in the glider. We rock and rock. He is quiet, full and heavy, warm in my arms.

Is this real? I ask myself. It’s taken so long to get here that I still can’t quite believe it.

***

I never thought much about having children before I got married. I sort of assumed it was something I’d do, eventually, but I wasn’t one of those women who felt like I was meant to be a mother. I didn’t even particularly like kids. But I loved my husband deeply, and thought it might be kind of fun to make a person with him.

To be fair, I was 21 years old at the time.

About three years into our marriage, when I was 24 and my husband was 26, we started to consider the prospect more seriously. I’d just finished graduate school. There was plenty of time for multiple pregnancies before I turned 30 (my definition of “old” at the time). It all worked out in theory. And that’s all it was: theory. I never once tried to imagine what it would be like to hold my child in my arms. How it would feel to see him smile. It was just the next logical step in a mapped out, middle-class, American adulthood.

Then my brother hanged himself, and the map went up in flames.

***

Matt, my only sibling, was three years younger than I. When we were growing up he was alternately a responsibility, a playmate, and a pain in the ass, and I loved him as if he were a part of me. In a way, he was. He was the only other person on the planet made from the same two people. From the same past.

I was diagnosed with depression at the age of 16. Matt was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 15. We both attempted suicide by overdose as teenagers. We both survived. We both seemed to even out afterwards, thanks to medications and therapy. We both graduated high school with honors and did well in college. Matt was three weeks away from graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Rutgers when he died. I’d spoken to him earlier in the week. He’d given no indication that anything was wrong.

The suddenness and violence of his exit gutted me. There was anger, anxiety, exhaustion, depression, sadness, fear, guilt. Usually all at the same time. I folded in on myself. Stopped working. Cut off friends. Rarely left the house. Grief was a tarpit and I was a prehistoric animal. I slowly sank, watched life go by, and waited for the tarpit to magically drain or swallow me whole.

But somehow, at the same time I felt removed from life, I was consumed by a desire to create it. The longing was so deep it was painful—an ache for gain that throbbed alongside my loss.

I wasn’t completely naïve. I knew that a child wouldn’t fill the void left by my brother. I knew that nothing would. And anyway, the desire—deep as it was—was nothing but a blip of an atom in a blackhole of fear.

I was terrified that the same pain that had plagued my brother would descend on me. At the time of Matt’s death I’d been on antidepressants for nearly a decade. They’d helped me—but for a while they’d helped him, too. Who was to say they wouldn’t stop working? What if our genes were a crooked double helix, bent on self-destruction? What if my children were like me?

What if they were like him?

Each night the “what ifs” piled up in the dark around me while I lay awake, my eyes sticky-dry, my husband’s even breathing like water torture.

This went on for years.

In the meantime, of course, friends and family members got pregnant. They had their children. They got pregnant again. Every ultrasound photo on Facebook, every card in the mail with a pair of empty baby shoes, waiting, punched all the air from my lungs.

I was stuck in the tarpit. But even though my life wasn’t moving forward in the way I’d thought it would, the way everyone else’s was, I was busy. I was doing the work of grieving. For me that work took the form of writing a book about Matt. Every day I sifted through the blog posts, emails, and stories he’d left behind. Every day I plunged back into my memory. I filled blank page after blank page, trying to make sense of what had happened to him. It was raw and painful, like digging glass splinters out of my heart with my fingers. Two years passed. Three. Four. I turned the dreaded 30 and then some. Finally I finished the book and came up for air. I was done grieving. The tarpit was gone.

But the fear remained.

What exactly was I afraid of? In the first years after Matt’s death I’d thought it was suicide. I’d worried that it was out there, waiting for me—a land mine wired by genes and grief.

It took years (and several therapists), but eventually I understood that despite our shared histories and DNA, my brother’s life had not been my life, and his death didn’t have to be my death.

Once I finished grieving Matt, and trusted my desire to live, I began to see that the fear was rooted in something else. Something deeper. I wasn’t so much afraid of death as I was afraid of love.

Here’s the thing: to open yourself to love, you have to be willing to accept loss. Gut-wrenching, bone-crushing, soul-obliterating loss. After my brother died my mom said things like, “I’d do it all over again, even if I knew how it would turn out. I wouldn’t trade a single second.” Deep in the tarpit, struggling to keep from going completely under, I hadn’t understood. If I had the choice, I’d thought, I would rather have been an only child. Even years later, after I had grieved my brother, after I had accepted his death, the mere possibility of experiencing that kind of pain again tightened my throat.

The heart, though metaphorical, is like any other muscle. Once wounded, it takes time to heal. Once healed, it takes time to rehabilitate.

My heart took her time.

It happened slowly, so slowly, each day a single grain of sand dropping from one side of an hourglass to the other: fear giving way to desire. Other things happened in the meantime. Life. I danced with my friends. I sang karaoke (badly). I saw oceans and countries that my brother would never see. But I began to realize that I carried him with me everywhere I went—knowing him, being a sister to him, had made me who I was, and his death had brought me more than grief. I cried for the years I’d lost, I cried for the uncertainty of it all, but eventually I looked back at the ashes of the map and realized that Matt had given me the gift of deliberateness. I was no longer making choices based on expectations. I was approaching life with open eyes. He’d also given me compassion: for myself and my depression, as well as for others. I was approaching life with a scarred, but open, heart. I realized I would have been a sister to him all over again, even if I knew how it was going to turn out.

Ten years, five months, and seven days after my brother died, my son was born.

***

My son’s eyelids flutter closed. Gradually I slow the glider to a stop, carry him across the room, and lay him gently in his crib.

I see my brother in his face. I see myself, too. But I also see his father, his grandparents, his aunts, uncles, and cousins. Most of the time I don’t see anyone but my son. Just him.

I don’t know who my son will be, what kind of challenges he will face. I do know that he will hear stories about his Uncle Matt’s kindness and humor, his intelligence and passion. He will know that Matt’s illness was a part of who he was, but only part. He will know that my illness is a part of who I am, too. My son will learn that life is hard and beautiful. That love and grief are two sides of the same coin.

I worried for years that my children would be like my brother and me. I want to say that I don’t anymore, but I can’t. No matter the wisdom or joy that has come from my experience, I don’t want my son to suffer. Still, whether or not it involves mental illness, I know he will. He has to. That’s life. I suppose the best thing I can do, the only thing I can do, is to let it happen. To stand by his side, hold his hand when he will let me, and trust that our hearts will heal.

Author’s Note: Next month we will celebrate my son’s first birthday. Parenthood has conjured a host of new fears in addition to the old, but each one is matched by an equal measure of joy. My husband and I hope to be lucky enough to add more children to our family in the near future.

Kelley Clink is a suicide prevention and mental health advocate, and author of the memoir A Different Kind of Same. She lives near Chicago with her husband and son. You can find out more about her at www.kelleyclink.com.

BOOKSPARKS SPEAKS OUT: Join Kelley Clink on World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10. For all sales made on Kelley’s book, A Different Kind of Same on September 10, Kelley will donate 30% of proceeds to the Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors. Learn more on how to get involved here.

 

 

I Believed the Lie

I Believed the Lie

By Jenna Hatfield

ibelievedthelie

In that moment, in the dark of that darkest night, I agreed. My children would be better off without my presence.

 

As night descended, my thoughts also turned toward the dark. There, alone in the bedroom I shared with my husband, I stumbled down a path on which I almost got lost.

I thought of the night my oldest son entered this world. How I rocked him in the chair with tears streaming down my face, overcome with guilt and fear; panicked about finally being given a child to parent.

I thought about the time I left him in his crib to cry. I walked outside and sat in the blooming lilies and cried tears of desperation.

Flashes of all the ways I failed him kept popping into mind, slow at first and then fast and furious. The time I smacked his mouth for biting. The time I yelled so loud he ran all the way to his bedroom as fast as his toddler legs could carry him; I found him buried under his blankets, crying and red-faced. Any and every harsh word, disconnected moment, aggravated feeling, and frustrated outburst—they swirled around me, taunting.

And then the timeline opened up to include his younger brother and all the ways I failed him as well.

Like the time I stepped on his hand in our living room while dancing through the diaper laundry and strewn toys; why didn’t I just clean up first? Another check in the box for reasons I couldn’t be a good wife, a good mother, a good anything.

Of course, they’re older now, not just babies, so the progression of wrongs kept growing, kept building upon the last. The words I’ve used when I thought they weren’t in ear shot or forgotten they were in the car or just plain old didn’t care. The times I’ve told them to shut up or asked them simply to go away. The times I’ve been too busy to play LEGO or read through a book or draw a picture or simply be their mother, present and willing to do any and everything with them.

I stacked the grievances higher and higher.

And then my daughter sat down in my brain, and said, “Oh no, don’t you forget about me.”

As if she needed to remind me of all the ways I’ve failed her. I carry those closest; I use them against myself on a daily basis, not just in moments of mental health crisis. I blame myself for each and every one of her struggles, her anger, her questions, her fear. I tell myself if I had been the mother I needed to be at the time she needed me to be, things would be different for her.

All my fault. All my fault. All my fault.

These failures, however real or imagined, trite or life-altering, remained the only thing on which I could focus that night. I couldn’t see the good. I couldn’t remember all the ways in which I have loved, supported, nurtured, cared for, and lifted up each of my three children. I simply saw the ways in which I have harmed, failed, neglected, abandoned, broken, or hurt the three most beautiful beings in my life.

“Who does those things? Who says the things that you’ve said? A bad mother,” the voice taunted. I believed it, to the core of my being. I knew, without a doubt, that no other mother on the face of this planet made the same mistakes, said the same things, or acted in the same ways.

“They’d be better off without you.”

And I agreed.

In that moment, in the dark of that darkest night, I agreed. My children would be better off without my presence. My sons would thrive easier without me. My daughter could then look at what I’d done in the end and realize, yes, she was better off with her adoptive mom. They’d all look back and think, “We really dodged a bullet there.”

I didn’t come to the decision to end my life based on the oft-claimed selfish desire to end my pain. No, I believed I deserved the pain. But I felt my children deserved more—more without me holding them down or back. I listened to the dark lie of depression and believed every nuance and syllable. I couldn’t see beyond my fear that I was hurting my children simply by existing.

I followed the instructions the lie laid out. I did what the lie told me would be the only way my kids would ever be okay.

When I woke in the hospital the next morning, the lie still whispered in my ear.

“Oh good, you can’t do anything right. Just another way you’ve failed your children.”

I spent the entire day still listening to the whispers, the hateful speech directed at me from within my own brain. It wasn’t until the next day when my husband brought cards from our sons, cards their little hands wrote with crayons on green paper, that my heart finally understood the lie in my brain. It was in that moment that my heart shouted back.

“This mother is more than your lie. She is needed, wanted, and loved. Go away.”

It’s been six months, and the lie of depression still whispers on occasion, but never with the same menacing fervor. I still struggle with guilt and feelings of worthlessness, but I know my children are better off with me, not without. I know they need me, here—even when I’m having a bad day or struggling with anxiety and depression or just plain old exhausted from the day-to-day business of living.

With a change of medication and some deeper, harder work in therapy, I’m able to hush the lying voice if only to make it to the next day. I don’t know when—if ever—I’ll wake in the morning to find the lie of depression gone for good, but I know that every day I wake to the sound of, “Mommy, can I have breakfast,” is another day I have to try, to be their mother, to love them like no one else can or ever will.

If you’re struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1 (800) 273-8255. You are not alone.

Jenna Hatfield lives in Ohio with her husband, two sons, and crazy dog. A writer, editor, marathon runner, and birth mother involved in a fully open adoption, she somehow also manages to blog at http://stopdropandblog.com.

Photo: Tim Mossholder

Nearly Drowning

Nearly Drowning

Nearly Drowning ART 2

By Vera Giles

I sat next to the learner’s pool, opposite my instructor for Overcoming Your Fear of Water.

I was 40, married, the mother of an almost-two-year-old boy. A few months earlier, I’d been laid off from my job and couldn’t seem to make myself look for a new one—but for some reason, I was also afraid to be a stay-at-home mother. Instead, Sammy went to an excellent day care, which we could afford thanks to my programmer husband, Aaron. I felt like the world’s worst mother.

I had tried several times in the past to learn how to swim. Now, I thought, since the rest of my life seemed stuck, maybe I could at least learn this one thing.

The instructor, a small, muscular woman, spoke with a friendly German accent. “Tell me why you’re here today.”

I wanted to tell her that when I was six, my mother took me by the hand and walked me into the ocean and kept walking until my aunt stopped her. That my mother was suicidal and eventually killed herself. Instead I said:  “I’m afraid of the water, but I want to learn.”

“Our goal is for you to stay centered in your body. You can’t learn if you are afraid. Are you ready to begin?”

We walked to the edge of the pool.

I shivered in my new black bathing suit. It was morning and the room was cold. Small waves caused by other swimmers slapped the sides of the pool, a metallic sound with a deeper note of water sloshing in and out of the overflow vents. The instructor smiled. “Shall we go in?”

Gray daylight poured through the large side windows. The room smelled clean and wet. Accent plants softened its sharp lines. “I guess so,” I said. Was it really this simple? No fanfare? But it felt right.

“Here,” she said, extending a hand. I held it and felt small and safe. Everything about this woman told me she was there to take care of me. “Let’s walk down the steps, one by one.”

I stepped down and submerged my feet in the water. We stopped. “Remember,” she said, “we’ll go as fast as you are comfortable. You can’t learn if you are not fully present in your body—all the way down to your feet. How are you feeling?”

I felt excited and calm at the same time. Could I feel my feet? Yes, they were cooler than the rest of me, firmly planted on the tiles. My hand was in her warm, sure grip.

“Yeah, I feel good,” I said, wanting to go on but self-conscious about seeming to rush. “Let’s go deeper.”

Down we went, step by step, until the water was at our waists. There were my feet. I still felt them. We walked further into the pool.

A rising anxiety finally surfaced, and I spoke. “I can’t hold your hand,” I said. I knew immediately this was a trigger, the memory of holding my mother’s hand, of being forced to go deeper and deeper into the water that day.

She looked surprised. She thought for a second, then crooked her arm. “Can you hold my elbow? Would that work?”

It felt odd, but I no longer felt coerced or restrained. I relaxed. “Yes, that will work.”

Like blind people walking somewhere new, we continued, navigating through my phobia. I let the water reach the middle of my chest—felt it move my body. I kept checking in with my feet. After a while, my instructor said, “You’ve made amazing progress. Look how far you’ve come! It’s time to get out now. Shall we?” She held out her hand.

This time I took her hand and we began walking to the stairs.

Something broke open in my chest. My eyes stung, and a warm feeling spread through my body. A mother was taking me back to shore, holding my hand to keep me safe.

I wanted to cry. For the first time, some little part of me felt secure instead of scared. I was going to be OK.

The next day, I remembered more of what had happened in the ocean.

 ***

I was six. My mother and I were visiting my Aunt Anni in Israel.

I loved Mama and she loved me. We understood each other. We shared secrets and told each other how we really felt. Some days she was very sad and everything seemed to go away. She just sat there and I felt very alone. But then she came back and she started to smile at me and laugh at my little jokes and I knew again that she loved me. I was very good at taking care of her.

Mama was the most beautiful mother in the world. Everybody said so. Her long blonde hair and beautiful dresses and lovely laugh charmed everyone.

Her older sister Anni was loving and distracted, her dreamy voice low from cigarettes. She smelled like perfume and tobacco and the oil paints she used in her studio. Blonde and the same height as my mother, she looked like Mama’s twin. Anni and Mama laughed a lot and shared makeup and jewelry. I loved Anni, too. She was gentle and safe and acted like I was a wise and wonderful person.

It was sunny and warm with cool breezes near the shore, so we were at the beach. I was playing at the edge of the surf, trying to step into the foam as it dissolved, wanting to feel the bubbles on my feet.

Then I felt Mama standing behind me, staring out to sea. She walked next to me, took my hand, and kept walking into the ocean. I didn’t want to leave the surf, but I was used to doing what she wanted.

At first it was fun, bobbing around as we got deeper, but I didn’t like how hard she was holding my hand and I started to pull away. She wouldn’t let go.

I was mad now. I started whining. She wouldn’t let go.

I got scared. The water was pretty high now. She wouldn’t let go.

She kept walking. It got deeper. I was screaming and panicking now. Some part of me was so terrified that something clicked in my head and I started feeling far away.

Water got in my mouth. I swallowed some. I couldn’t keep my head above water or my feet on the ocean floor. She wouldn’t let go.

I kicked and flailed and screamed, breathing in water and choking and swallowing water and drowning. She held my hand and her arm was stiff against her side and as I floated in the water I kicked her leg, hard, and it felt rubbery and she didn’t react and that scared me even more and I was drowning and I couldn’t breathe and this was way worse than asthma and I started to float high above my own head and watch myself drown, just my head, the crown barely breaking the surface as the water around was choppy with my struggles.

My mother stood there, holding my hand in a death grip, her arms at her sides. The water was at her chin. She was staring out at the horizon, completely gone.

Anni came and got me. She put my arms around her neck and walked back to the beach, as I coughed and hung there limply. I started to shake as she bundled me in a towel and tried to get me dry and warm even though it was a lovely day and the water had been perfect.

I fell asleep, from shock.

 ***

I was able to come to that swim class because Sammy was in day care—even though I hadn’t had a job for six months and should have been taking care of him myself. I felt like a terrible mother.

My friends, my family, and my husband all told me I was doing a great job with Sammy. I was not an alcoholic (like my mother and father). I did not abuse Valium (like my mother). I was not depressed (like my mother and father). I was not mentally ill (like my mother).

I did not commit suicide (like my mother).

She was 38 and a half when she killed herself. Coincidentally, when Sammy was born, I was 38 and a half.

Despite years of therapy, I was still terrified that I would repeat her mistakes. I might hurt Sammy. I might even kill him. This was crazy. Why did I feel this way?

When I was laid off six months earlier, I had been back from maternity leave exactly one year. I was 39 and Sammy was 16 months old.

“At least you’ll get to spend more time with Sammy,” my coworkers said.

***

When I was away from Sammy, I wished for more time than the squeezed hours I had with him. I craved him like a drug. I wanted to be there every morning when I got him, giggling and kicking with delight, out of his crib. I wanted to read him bedtime stories and sing him songs every night. I delighted in his expressive face, when he grinned or rolled his eyes or scrunched his nose with mischief. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from his rosy, round cheeks, his enormous brown eyes, and his dirty blond hair. He was perfect.

But I couldn’t stand to spend more hours with him.

“Didn’t maternity leave just fly by?” the same coworkers had asked me a year earlier. My reply—”No, my God, every day was an eternity”—killed their sympathetic smiles. Apparently I wasn’t supposed to discuss what it was like to enslave my brain to someone else’s needs. With Sammy, I was no longer a mind—I was torn and aching breasts, tired arms, a hoarse voice, sore legs. I was chained to his schedule: hovering over him when he was awake; wishing he was old enough to play with toys or even just focus on my face; returning home every three hours to keep the agony of breastfeeding to myself; constantly caught up on the laundry because I was so bored and lonely during his short naps.

By the time I was laid off, Sammy was older, but I still felt like I was failing. Each time he was home all day, I had to get him out of the house or he would drive me crazy and I would begin snarling at him. The kid never sat down. He started walking at eleven months and never stopped. So we would go somewhere we could walk, and walk, and walk. When he napped (thank God he napped), I fell into a stupefied sleep as well. On days when I was alone with him, I choked on my own panic. You can’t leave me, I would think as Aaron walked out the door. I’m an only child. You’re an oldest brother. You’re the one who knows what to do with babies.

There were so many fears. Was Sammy eating enough? He’d been born five and a half weeks early. Every milliliter of milk we got into him was hard-won. Now his toddler schedule of three meals and two snacks a day was grueling. How could I offer him different foods and balanced meals each time? I was a bad mother if I didn’t.

Was he sleeping enough? Everyone knows kids never sleep when you want them to. (Never mind that my child is in fact the most reliable sleeper in the world. Don’t hate me—I have no idea how this happened.) What if he suddenly stopped sleeping well? How could I keep nap and bedtime sacred?

Every mother has these fears, my friends told me when I wailed to them. But the stakes felt impossibly high. What was normal? I once had a mother who let us run out of food and kept me awake at night to talk about her problems. All my fears and worries told me that I was a bad mother like she was.

So many parents said that Mother Love made having kids worth it—but they were wrong. When I first experienced those primal, almost preverbal, feelings—Love. Hold. Mine. Protect. Fight! MINE!—I fell off the platform of sanity I had worked so long to build, into a wild, angry ocean. Even as I craved my son, my fears of all I was doing wrong with him triggered my Mother Love to protect him from the biggest threat: me. I knew I would somehow hurt him. With my inability to care for or feed him properly, I might even kill him. I had to leave him to the experts.

Day care was a better parent than I was. Day care fed him without angst. Day care had playmates he could socialize with, and teachers who were more patient and better trained than I was. Day care had structure and rules and activities, and didn’t get anxious about doing things wrong or rotating the toys or cleaning up messy art projects. Day care hadn’t lost a mother to mental illness and suicide, and didn’t have an ex-alcoholic father who lived mostly in his head. Day care didn’t take years to learn to get along with its stepmother, or spend years in therapy to keep its issues from contaminating the kids. Day care was calm and kind and good and never, ever depressed.

More than anything, I was afraid to lose day care. Because if I lost day care, I would have to be a full-time stay-at-home mom. And then I would have to face the reasons I knew—with a cold, insane clarity—that I couldn’t be a good mother.

 ***

I was 41. My husband, Sammy, and I were visiting with my cousins from my mother’s side of the family in a rented house on the New Jersey seashore. Over several days, I got the courage to tell them the story of Mama nearly drowning me—and they believed me. Some of them remembered her. All of them knew how private their parents were about the past. They knew that Mama could have done this, and that Anni could have hidden how serious it was. Some of them were not surprised.

One afternoon, most of us went to the beach while Aaron stayed behind. We got to the ocean and Sammy, now a tall, adventurous three-year-old, wanted to go in. With me. He wanted me to hold his hand.

I still didn’t know how to swim.

I still didn’t feel like a great mother.

I still didn’t have a paying job. Instead, I had started writing a memoir.

And yet I was getting somewhere. The day before I had stood waist-deep in the ocean, talking to my oldest cousin Andreas about our family and my mother’s childhood. Andreas was at ease in the water. In the middle of the conversation he watched me bobbing with a smile on my face as a rogue wave reached my chest. He said, “You’re doing quite well for someone who has good reason to be afraid of the water.”

Now here we were on the beach, Sammy and I. The sun warmed our backs and the seagulls coasted right and left above us. The surf pushed and pulled, repelling and coaxing.

“I wanna go in da ocean. C’we go in, Mommy? C’you hold my hand?”

How could I let Sammy trust me? Had my mother been so far gone that she didn’t know she was holding my hand in the water, so desperate to kill herself that she almost took me with her? The same thing could be inside me, waiting to destroy us both.

How could she try again and again to leave me—succeeding in her third suicide attempt after I turned eight—when I had loved her so much?

Or maybe I did understand. Maybe I was doing the same thing to my son by running away from him to protect him from myself—putting him in day care, telling myself that Aaron was the one who was good at raising babies.

I looked into Sammy’s wide brown eyes and chose. I chose life.

“OK, Bud. Hold my hand and don’t go in too deep, OK?”

“OK.”

We walked toward the waves, wobbled a little on the shells. Sammy squealed in delight when the surf tickled his feet.

Despite my fears, I smiled back. I could do this. I could hold his hand. I could keep him safe.

I could be his mother.

Author’s Note: I still have moments when it’s hard to stay engaged with my son and to have faith in my ability to mother him. But over time I am noticing little ways that our relationship is growing stronger: more hugs, more play together, even more confidence in the face of his ordinary rebellions. I am struck by how resilient he is, and by those little moments of wisdom that pop out in the middle of being an ordinary loud, funny, defiant preschooler.

I’m accepting that the important thing as a mom is not to get it right the first time, but to learn from my scars and mistakes. It’s when I recognize that I’m going off track that the healing can begin.

Vera Shanti Giles lives with her husband and three-year-old son in the Puget Sound region of Washington state. She is writing a memoir, Crazy Sane Mama, about overcoming the ordinary and extraordinary anxieties of motherhood—resulting from her mother’s mental illness and suicide—to raise her son with joy and humor.

Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Mom

Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Mom

By Dawn Davies

Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 5.04.33 PMStay up late on a Sunday night reading a book about a woman in medical school because you have gotten it in your mind that you, too, want to go to medical school. Not now, of course, but someday, when the kids are older.

Read long past the time when you should be asleep, until your eyes drip tears of exhaustion. Your husband is out of town on business, and you have allowed all three children to sleep in your bed, though you fear that, like feeding a begging dog from the table, you are creating a habit that will be impossible to break. Program ‘911’ into the instant dial function of your portable phone and nestle it next to your ribs in case someone breaks in and you have time to hit only one number.

Go to sleep and dream about vampires. Wake up ten minutes later to the sound of crying. It is the baby: let him nurse you dry. Notice the deflated shape your breast takes as it lies across the mattress. Go back to sleep. Wake up again to the sound of crying in the distance and locate only two of your children, sleeping curled and stiff, like the victims of Pompeii. Break the suction and peel the baby off your boob, then get up. Kick the Labrador off the bed, call him a nasty name, and then trip over him in the dark as you follow the sound to the children’s bedroom.

The smell of urine surrounds you. In the corner, the three-year-old is sitting on the wood floor in a swath of streetlight, marinating in a pool of pee, her footie pajamas half off, yet twisted and inside out enough to render her as helpless as if she wore a fuzzy, size 4T straightjacket. Note the eviscerated night diaper oozing from under her buttocks.

Change the child. Sop up the pee on the floor with your husband’s favorite bath towel. Pray that the child was not sufficiently stimulated to be interested in truly waking up. When she rubs her eyes, lay her gently in her own bed. Do not speak. When she falls asleep, return to your own bed because the baby is in it and he could roll over onto the floor. When the child hollers out, “I can’t sleep,” play quietly with her in her room. Crawl into her bed with her. She is warm and round and soft and trying to wheedle a story out of you. She calls you “Beautiful Mommy” and “Angel,” and her dimpled baby hands explore your face sweetly, so you read to her until your words begin to come out garbled and you wake up from the sound of your own snoring amplified inside the Little Golden Book covering your face. The child is gone. You hear her in your bedroom shaking her tambourine and shouting the same, “Stick out my wiener!” she heard the next-door neighbor’s six-year-old future predator calling out of his upstairs window the day before. Note: it is 5:37 a.m.

Bring your hands up like an orchestra conductor and cue in the baby’s cries. Unzip the five-year-old’s pink Dr. Dentons and tell her to go use the potty. Outside, it is still dark, but you know that when the sun comes up, it will not be satisfying because the godforsaken Northeast, where you live, is exhibiting a record streak of cold rain, so bone chilling and wet that the sight of the sun, even for fifteen minutes, would make you weep for joy. You have not seen it in weeks and everything around you looks grey, including your own skin. At 6:15 a.m., take the children downstairs for breakfast because, even though you are exhausted, the onus is on you. It is always on you.

Let the dog out the back door. Put four frozen waffles into the toaster and make a 13-cup pot of coffee. Add sliced bananas to the children’s plates so you can at least say you offered them fresh fruit. Let the baby transfer all of the food in the dog’s bowl to its water dish, because he is happy doing it and, for three minutes, not hanging off your kneecaps. Drink your coffee. Drink it. The children pull all of their toys out of the toy box and scatter them around the house. Your resources are low and you do not know what to do with this day. Even though your husband has a burgeoning career at a newspaper, and you own a starter house, you are broke, nearly as broke as you were in your student days, when you worried about gas, and groceries, and paying the utility bills, only back then you could get a second job or sell some marrow in a real emergency, and now you are tethered to three other people who will die if you don’t feed them, and whom you can’t leave alone for five minutes.

Decide to take them to church because the day before the five-year-old asked, “What is church?” and because church is free. Remember the few times in your single days when you attended a local Unitarian church which offered a loose Pagan ceremony culminating in a barefoot group dance down the aisles with percussion instruments and pan pipes, and sexy, lean, bearded vegan men who scoffed at the Establishment. Look up “Churches” in the Yellow Pages and decide on a Methodist one a few miles away. Without yelling at the children or the dog, whom you find eating the crotch out of your only pair of stockings, get everyone dressed for the icy rainstorm that is predicted to last all day, choosing leggings, velour jumpers, and tight turtlenecks stretched down and popped over their enormous heads, making their hair collect static-like plasma balls.

Think of the ‘A’ you got in inorganic chemistry the semester before you met your husband in college. Think of the noble gasses, of neon filling thin, rounded glass tubes shaped into seedy, blinking signs in the window of a bar, a bar that serves whiskey—which you would like to drink—and of argon, and a gallon jug imploding when the oxygen is sucked out of it. Think of small amounts of krypton in a flash bulb, and of everything you know going up in a mushroom of white. While you get dressed, the girls rub their socks into the area rug and shock the baby with the tips of their fingers, making him laugh and cry at the same time.

Stuff their arms into their coats, fishing at the end of the sleeves for fingers to pull through to the other side. Think about rolling a condom onto a limp nob. Notice how, in their winter clothes, your children look like blood-stuffed ticks. They complain, like they always do when wearing coats, about being too hot. Ignore this and pack them into the nine-year-old wreck of a Saab and wonder if your husband is up yet and reading the paper in a quiet, clean hotel room on the other side of the country.

Find the church and park in the only spot left in the parking lot, which in the sleet looks impossibly far away from the church door. Carry the two younger children, who are now crying because the freezing rain is whipping them in the face, dragging the hem of your long, wool skirt in icy, slushy mud puddles as you go. The five-year-old, who must walk by herself, trails behind, stomping her boots into dirty potholes out of spite.

The service is pleasant and easy to endure. The choir sings hopeful songs about God’s love out into the clean, warm space, and neat, controlled people occasionally look at you and smile. Do not see one toy truck or Barbie littering the carpeted aisle and there is a faint smell of Lemon Pledge and old-fashioned perfume, the kind that would be found in matron ladies’ bosoms. All of this makes you want to go home and clean your own house. It makes you want to start over. It makes you want to confess something wildly, something that will make you feel better, something that will wipe your slate clean, although you know the Methodists do not practice confession.

When the service ends, wander down to the coffee hour in the basement. Look around for people who don’t have that glazed, New Testamentesque appearance, and absentmindedly switch the baby to your other hip to fill out a visitor’s card. Drink coffee. Notice that the L.L. Bean denim jumper/hunter green turtleneck ratio is high, too high for your comfort, perhaps nearing 70 percent. Get cornered by a woman in one such jumper whom you fear is a designated ‘greeter’ after she immediately begins asking you questions about yourself. Put your guard up. Lie when possible, especially when projecting the idea that you have your shit together, and that everything you do you are choosing to do. Nod when she mentions Sunday School and mothers’ groups, knowing you will not join these things.

Corral the children and force them out of the church, which they now don’t want them into their car seats. Insert the key into the wretched Saab, and for good measure, since you are in the church parking lot, pray that the car will start. Turn the key and accept the dull ‘click’ that follows to be punishment for teasing that soft kid, Jeffery, in fifth grade. Think about Karma, think about Jesus, think about the Holy Spirit coming down and filling you up like sunshine fills an empty room, renewing your mind like the minister preached during church. Squint your eyes. Try to make it happen. Feel nothing. Realize you don’t know how to pray.

Pop the hood and get out. Suck on the rain dripping off of your lips and stare into the engine as if you know what you are looking for. Jiggle the battery connectors and see a spark. Hear the children whining from inside the car and note the love of Christ the parishioners exhibit when they drive by you, blank and faceless. Mutter, “What the cuss frigging fudge muckers!” at them for not stopping to help, and marvel at this particular combination of almost-curses you have vowed to use ever since the five-year-old has asked you to stop being so foul.

Turn the key again. Sense a slight difference in the way the car doesn’t start and feel a surge of hope. Get in and out of the car eight more times, jiggling the battery cables and listening to the car almost start before it finally does, yelling, “Bite me,” into the open air only twice. Drive away in pouring, freezing rain, blasting whatever you can on the radio, which is Hootie and the Blowfish, to drown out the sound of the baby’s shrieking and the animated discourse between the three-year-old and the five-year-old in the back seat.

By the time you pull into the driveway, the baby is sleeping so hard he looks drugged. Bend over to scrutinize the depth of his unconsciousness and lift one of his lids to see if his eyes are rolled up—a sure sign that he is sleeping deeply. Take the two older children inside, intending to leave the baby asleep for the four more minutes it will take for him to be sleeping deeply enough for you to carry him inside without waking him, because you really need him to take a nap and get out of your life for thirty minutes. That’s all you are asking.

Check the answering machine for messages. There are none. In the dining room, while watching the car out of the window overlooking the driveway, read stories to your other children until your eyes start involuntarily tearing and closing. Lie down on the floor and suggest they play “Doctor Heals,” with you as the comatose patient. Lie like a corpse and drift in and out of sleep for perhaps four minutes while your children drop feathers, to which you are allergic, onto your face. Feel a nice, tickling sensation on your fingers.

Wake up to discover they have colored all of your knuckle joints with the indelible black magic marker you told them never to touch. Both girls are sitting on top of the kitchen counter eating a plate of cookies. There is a spilled bottle of delicious looking, ruby red antibiotic pills next to the five-year-old’s thigh, the ones you were prescribed for your quarterly sinus infection. Ask her if she opened them. When she says no, grab her shoulders and shake her, asking this time through clenched teeth if she ate any of them. When she says no again, multiply the number of pills you take per day (three) by the number of days you have been taking the pills (three) and subtract the total from the total number of pills that should be in the container (ten days’ worth). Thanking the God you just went to visit, find 21 pills on the counter. When your child asks to eat one, shout, “NO!” then hug her hard. Wonder how many milligrams of amoxicillin it would take to kill a thirty-four pound-person. Imagine yourself sweeping the crayons and paper and glitter off the dining table and laying your five-year-old across it, performing a gastric lavage with supplies you happen to have lying around the house, then see yourself walking in slow motion, down a hospital corridor in a white coat and stethoscope, your hair flowing perfectly behind you, forgetting the now-closed bottle of pretty drugs next to the candy fiend that is your child.

Suddenly jump up from the table and run outside. Find the baby shrieking in the car seat inside the nearly sound-proof Saab. Bring him out. Ignore your neighbor, the tire-shaped, middle-aged gossip, who is looking at you through narrowed eyes, and imagine how far this story will make it around the block by the time lunch is over. Go inside and nurse the baby, tuning out your other children for as long as you can, which is less than a minute, since one of them is jumping up and down on your feet and legs and the other is trying to ride the dog. Think about Sophie’s Choice and imagine, if you had to for survival only, worst-case scenario only of course, which of your children you would give away if you were forced to in order to save yourself and the other children. Weigh the pros and cons logically. Scare yourself with your own thoughts.

When the baby wakes up enough to put him down without him bucking and screaming and flailing, the phone rings. Lunge for it viciously, hoping it might be your husband. It is a lady from the Methodist church calling because you filled out the visitor’s card an hour and ten minutes earlier. It’s part of their ministry, she says, to reach out to newcomers. Leave the room to take the call, because you are considering pouring your heart out to the strange lady on the phone. Imagine her soft, grandmotherly bosom smelling of perfume. Imagine pressing your head against it and sobbing. Imagine the kind of hugs you could receive from these partridge-shaped church ladies. Remember standing outside of the church with the hood of your car up while all of these ladies and their husbands drove past you in the rain. When shrieks ring out from the living room, hang up the phone and rush back into it in time to witness your three-year-old flat on the floor, with the baby on top of her in a wrestling hold, trying to gouge out her eyes. Tell the five-year-old, who is climbing up the armchair to knock it off and to “stand up and just sit there.” Separate the fighting children and smack the dog who has jumped into what must have looked like a fun foray.

Calm down. Suggest to the three-year-old that the dog might like to play while you change the baby’s diaper on the couch. Watch her roll the dog onto his back for a belly rub then jump onto its extended leg, self-performing the Heimlich maneuver. When she vomits up several bites of cookie and one bite of cranberry bread and starts crying, jump up, and with one foot on the baby to keep him from rolling off the couch, reach for the three-year-old. When the baby starts crying, ask the five-year-old to hold him, and when she says, “No!” holler at her, making her cry, too. Don’t care when the dog immediately begins eating the vomit from the floor, as he is doing you a favor and you now do not have to clean it up. You must go somewhere where there are other people, you think, because you are so lonely you could scream, and besides you want to shake someone and this frightens you. Call your mother. Listen to the phone ring empty on the other side of the line. Call your husband’s hotel and leave a message. Take more Tylenol. Drink coffee.

Feed them grilled cheese sandwiches. Give the crusts to the dog, who has become an expert beggar since the children were born. Think about slipping under the table for a quick nap while they eat.

After lunch, stuff them back into their coats and boots and drive to the mall, cruising a few extra minutes around the mall parking lot until all three children are so deeply asleep that they could be hung from their heels and not awaken. Envy them. Park the car and decide to rest your eyes for a few minutes. Tilt back your seat and rest, feeling a deep fatigue behind your eyes, hoping that you will not fall asleep with your jaw gaping open to the point where you and your family resemble a Mafia hit to passers-by. Fall deeply asleep. Wake up to utter darkness with dried spittle crusted on your chin. Freak out, shouting, “Jesus Christ!” until you realize it is the middle of winter and only 4:30 p.m., 30 minutes after you fell asleep. Stare at two worried mall cops slowly circling the Saab with flashlights.

Drag the children into the mall and walk around. Thank whatever God you hope might exist for their public behavior, which for a change is orderly, calm, and obedient. Stop in the food court to buy them a giant muffin the size of a cauliflower with your last ten dollars. When your three-year-old starts hopping up and down and grabbing her crotch, yelling, “I have to do a dinky!” stuff the muffin into the diaper bag, then herd the children to the bathroom. Beg the three-year-old not to touch anything except the toilet paper and her own pants. Put the baby down and help the three-year-old onto the toilet, then go back out and unzip the five-year-old’s sticky zipper, and guide her into a stall. Stand near them so they won’t be abducted, until you notice the baby toddling out of another stall with festoons of toilet paper streaming from his mouth. Grab the baby and remove from his mouth a gray mass of wet paper molded into the shape of his hard palate. Hope that it came from the roll in the dispenser and not from the toilet.

Grabbing the baby, race back to the three-year-old, who is now shouting, “Mommy, close the door. Strangers can see my ganina!” Hold the three-year-old’s door shut while the baby bucks and kicks and flails in your arms, and the fiveyear-old initiates a display of linguistic skill by saying, “It’s not ju-nina, stupid, it’s bu-gina.” Don’t dare put the baby down because he might fling himself back onto the filthy bathroom floor and crack his head against the tile, possibly rupturing one of those fragile arteries that could cause a hemorrhage in his brain—you read about them last night in the book about the woman who went to medical school and now, for as long as your children are your responsibility, these arteries will forever worry you. Impress yourself by discussing in depth the types of bacteria that might be found in a public restroom with the five-year-old who asks questions about germs.

When the three-year-old, out of the blue, asks to get her ears pierced, look at your watch. Sigh. When she says it will help her look more like you, exhibit poor judgment and say yes, because this is the child who calls you “beautiful Mommy” and “Angel,” the child who knows how to use a gentle touch to get exactly what she wants from you. Walk to the piercing place quickly, lugging the bucking, screaming baby, as the five-year-old attempts a precise depiction of how much and how little it will hurt. At the piercing place, ask the three-year-old if she is sure and when she says yes again, whip out the credit card you only use for emergencies, then help her pick out a pair of heart earrings. Watch carefully with her as a slightly older child gets her ears pierced without crying.

Let a young sales clerk hold the baby. Sit in the piercing chair with the three-year-old on your lap as she looks around brightly, yet shyly. Love her to death. Feel like her betrayer when, after the piercing girl stabs her simultaneously in both ears, the three-year-old starts shrieking and does not stop. When the baby, never one to miss out on anything, howls along in concert with his sister, kneel on the floor of the piercing place and rock them. Yell, “No!” when the five-year-old asks you to buy her a fur-covered diary. Look at the three-year-old’s ears and notice that the earrings are wildly askew, and that that the piercing girl has completely botched the job. Get angry. Demand a refund, and although you are not ordinarily a nasty person, smirk when they tell you to come back for a free re-do when the holes have closed up. Tell them if they ever see you again it will be in court. Drag your screaming three-year-old and the rest of them three hundred yards through and out of the mall to where you parked the wretched rust-heap of a Saab. Feel the same small stab of disappointment you usually feel when you see it hasn’t been stolen. Buckle everybody in. Straighten up to get out of the car and hang yourself on the clean shirt hook. Ask the three-year-old to unhook you.

When you try to start the car 20 times and the engine doesn’t turn over, yell, “Fuck!” as loudly as you can. The sound of it echoes in the air and the five-year-old starts crying. Unbuckle everybody. Pick up 56 pounds of wretched children and carry them a hundred yards back into the mall to a pay phone. Call the AAA that your parents gave you for Christmas last year—a subtle hint that they do not think your husband is a good provider, with your finger plugging your other ear to block out the sound of the five-year-old who is still weeping, clearly trying to recuperate from your profanity. Wait for a tow truck while the mall shops close around you. Your three-year-old, recovered from the piercing ordeal, flounces about asking strangers, “Do you like my new earrings? I used to be a girl without earrings, but now I am a girl with earrings. My mommy made me get them,” then quietly, “It really hurt,” and the baby eats a third of a jumbo pack of sugarless gum and its foil wrapper.

Stand outside under an awning while the rain spits around you. Spot a tow truck trolling around the parking lot and run through dark puddles of slushy water as you chase it down. The tow-truck guy jumpstarts the car in the two minutes it takes you to buckle everyone back into their seats. Snort when he warns you to not stop anywhere else on your way home. Dig the leftover muffin out of the diaper bag and hand chunks of it to the children. A sense of frantic futility fills you as you drive down the highway, and you glance back at the five-year-old tracing raindrops on the window, the three-year-old, her crooked earrings in her beet-red ears, sucking her thumb, and the baby burping mint. They sit silently, slumped and broken-looking in their car seats, and it is here where your own tears unleash like rain from the clouds in your sky that have been living over you for months, for—truth be told—who knows how long. Cry hard as you drive down the highway. Imagine, on impulse, taking this highway south instead of north, and driving to a place filled with bright light and warmth and sunshine. Imagine pulling over, releasing your children into a field of flowers, where they happily chase butterflies into the distance, getting smaller, smaller until they are gone. Then imagine getting back into the Saab and following the road to a bridge suspended over a rushing river, and speeding up as you drive over the rail of the bridge, straight into the warm, blue water. Hate yourself. Hate everything about who you’ve become and what you are destined for and how much everybody needs you all the time, and as you pull into your dark, icy driveway, realize this: you will never go to medical school. Carry your sleeping children, one at a time, into the house, putting them straight to bed in their clothes. Kiss their sticky mouths and filthy cheeks and whisper, please forgive me, I promise to do better tomorrow. Feel like a crappy mother and wonder what kind of a doctor you would have made if you can’t even manage three healthy children through one long Sunday.

Check the answering machine. There are no messages. Wake up to check the locks on the doors and bring the portable phone into bed, making sure 911 is programmed into the instant dial function. Fall back to sleep to the sickening sound of the cat licking itself at the foot of the bed and dream of fat, milk-white lizards crawling through the round letters of the alphabet.

Author’s Note: It took me 14 years to write this piece. I would start it then stop, telling myself that no one would want to read anything in second person. But I needed the second person for two reasons: first, I was trying to capture how overwhelming it felt to have three really young children, and writing out the minutiae gave some sort of tribute to what mothers go through every day. More important, I needed the distance of second person, because every time I wrote “you,” I didn’t have to write “I.” I was depressed for a time after the birth of two of my kids, and I didn’t give it a voice for several years, because I was ashamed of it. I no longer am. Being able to see humor is what gets me through hard times, and I’d like to think this piece gives a voice to that as well.

Dawn S. Davies is an MFA candidate at Florida International University and the fiction editor of Gulf Stream Magazine. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in River Styx, Ninth Letter, Saw Palm, Cease, Cows, Fourth Genre and others. She can be reached at www.dawnsdavies.com.

Artwork by Katie M. Berggren

Grandma’s Secret

Grandma’s Secret

mother and children making cookiesby Kate Washington

When she was three, my daughter Lucy was interested in many things: fairies, swimming, “Call Me Maybe,” ice cream, the alphabet, families, death. The last two interests led her to asking questions about my mother, who died when Lucy was a baby.

“Mama,” she said, “Who is your mama?” She asked this fairly often, since learning that Grandpa is my father but his wife is not my mother. My mother was missing.

“My mama was Maga,” I said, using the name Lucy’s older sister Nora invented when she couldn’t pronounce Grandma. “You’ve seen pictures.”

“Your mama is dead?”

“Yes.”

“Why is she dead?”

I sighed. “She was sick and her body couldn’t keep working and she died,” I answered, leaving out the fact that my mother’s death was a suicide, by an overdose of antidepressants and blood-pressure medication.

“Because she needed more air in her body?”

“Yes, kind of.”

“Because she drowned in the deep ocean?”

“No, Maga didn’t drown.”

“Because she was eaten by sharks?”

“No, she wasn’t eaten by sharks.”

I think about an alternate reality in which my mother was eaten by sharks. Let’s just say it would not have been very likely to happen. My mother wasn’t the adventure-sports type; she did aerobics. She got seasick easily and didn’t like getting her hair wet in the pool, so it’s hard to picture a shark-infested venue that would have appealed to her. But, for a moment, I imagine my quiet, stay-at-home mother skimming the waves on a catamaran or yacht with wind-filled sails, scuba diving or snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef, surfing off of Santa Cruz, or diving in a shark cage and attracting the attention of a rogue Great White.

It’s not a very pleasant scenario. The shark’s muscled gleam thrashing in the water, its gaping prehistoric maws, those many layers of razor-sharp teeth clamping down. That shit must hurt. The last five or ten or twenty minutes of a life that ends in getting eaten by a shark must really, truly be terrible. But the time leading up to it? That sounds pretty awesome, actually, full of the freedom of the waves and the smell of salt air and brilliant sunshine on tanned skin and the lithe loose feeling of a body moving in the water. If my mom had been living a salty oceanic life, surfing a sunny blue wave or sailing the high seas, surely she would not have suffered the kind of gray dark depression that led her to wish to die peacefully, in her bed, after a hopeless muddy season of misery.

My mother was never one to surf a wave, to glide easily over a crash and break of current and foam. She lived in the wave, wiped out hard; her moods crested and crashed and she was pounded into the sand and finally it got to be enough. She didn’t need a shark to eat her alive; her moods did that for her.

I couldn’t give Lucy that answer, not then. I couldn’t, at first, bring myself to tell her that her grandma had taken medicine that killed her. Someday, I thought, I would tell both my girls about that, but I couldn’t find the words that day.

Nora, who was four when my mother died, had also asked how it had happened when I told her of her beloved grandmother’s death. I was in shock then, the morning after the police found my mother’s body, and I simply said that Maga’s body was sick and stopped working.

Since then, I’ve known I would wait to tell my girls the whole truth. But the time had come, after Lucy’s questions started, I began to wonder if my feeling that a small child can’t handle this information wasn’t merely a product of my own preconceptions about suicide; kids don’t know there’s a stigma attached to it, after all.

I thought that death, the bare fact of it, was hard enough for a kid to understand; further explaining that someone might want to die, and discussing mental illness, felt like too much. But I believe in telling the truth to my kids, hard as it might be. Time, and therapy, had helped me to face up to the facts of my mother’s death and come to a fuller, less guilty understanding of it. I worried that as my kids grew—Nora was seven by then—they were apt to overhear, and possibly misconstrue, adult conversations. I didn’t want them to overhear whispers and conclude either that their grandmother had done something to be ashamed of rather than to grieve, or that we don’t talk about mental illness or acknowledge its reality.

Explaining, however, is easier said than done. As Lucy’s line of questioning shows, death makes sense to children only in the most extreme terms: If a person is eaten by sharks, ripped to shreds by a toothy prehistoric fish, even a three-year-old can understand that that person is not going to come back ready to play some more. Regular, ordinary death, the kind that happens every day, doesn’t make sense: how could a person lie down in their bed one night and then just not be the next morning? The body hasn’t disappeared, but something has ineffably changed. Plenty of grown-ups struggle with that notion too, so explaining it to a kid is extra difficult. Layer on the idea that a person would choose to make that happen, and the explanation borders on unbelievable.

Especially if it’s your grandma. My mother loved Nora so much that her adoration sometimes seemed excessive. Every time she saw her, she wanted to be baking cookies or trick-or-treating or doing something extra-special. As a result, we have lots and lots of pictures of my mother doing grandmotherly things with Nora. There are only two pictures of her with Lucy, though: by the time Lucy was born, my mother was deep in her final illness, manic and difficult, and we weren’t spending a lot of time together.

The warm, cuddly cultural space occupied by the notion of a cookie-baking grandmother is about as far from the idea of suicide as one could imagine. Grandmas are supposed to stick around being sweet throughout one’s childhood, right? Sometimes, on top of all the other feelings I have about my mom’s death, I feel angry that my kids have been cheated out of something special, the chance to have a close relationship with a local grandmother. I never expected to live in the same city as my mother; my husband happened to get a tenure-track job in the city my mother moved to after I left my hometown. It felt like a bit of strange serendipity, when we might have moved anywhere. In reality, though, our relationship was not easy or smooth, so my idyllic vision of three generations peacefully baking together is really a wistful one, but still, I wish my children could have had that.

Now, however, she isn’t here, and my children deserved to know why. My mother’s suicide is part of their medical history, much as it’s part of my own. Suicides often run in families. The thought of my girls, my happy, sunny, beautiful daughters, ending their lives terrifies me so much I can hardly bear to write the words. Fear of that possibility kept me from being more honest with them.

Lucy is now five. Several months ago, she asked again how her grandmother died, and I took a deep breath. “She took too much of her medicine,” I said. “And even though medicine can help you, too much medicine can make your body sick and can make you die.”

Lucy looked at me, unfazed, and came back with a five-year-old’s most frequent question: “Why?”

“She took too much medicine on purpose,” I answered. “She had a sickness in her mind that made her very sad and she couldn’t get better.”

Lucy just nodded; I asked if she had any more questions, and she said no. A few follow-ups have popped up, but for the most part she has taken the information in stride. (I’ve also given a similar, though slightly more in-depth, explanation to her older sister.) Occasionally, if a discussion of medicine or doctors comes up, she will matter-of-factly mention that Maga died from taking too much of her medicine. Overall, I have found that telling my girls the truth has been a relief.

I don’t think answering their questions—which will inevitably get thornier as they grow older and gain more understanding—will ever be easy. But by having a fully honest conversation, I hope I’m taking the terror out of the facts of my mother’s death. The fact of her suicide and its roots in her depression won’t be shameful secrets but just the truth. And both my daughters and I can, I hope, come to a fuller understanding that the sharks that ate my mother were all in her mind.

Kate Washington is a writer based in Sacramento, California. Her work has appeared in such publications as The Washington Post, Yoga Journal, Sunset, and the Bellingham Review, and she is a contributing writer at Sactown Magazine. She is a co-founder of Roan Press, a small nonprofit literary press.

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On the Cutting Edge

On the Cutting Edge

By Laura Amann

cuttingedgeFrom a photograph on my desk, my daughter’s face peers out at me. Her eyes are crinkled; her chicklets-perfect teeth are held by a wide grin. Her dark hair curls in fat, sausage ringlets. She is wearing a princess gown. She is five.

Periodically, I look at that photo and close my eyes. I do the same thing when I come across her papers from grade school, with the hearts on top of the i’s and the puppy dogs doodled in the corners.

Today her long, glossy hair has alternately sported thick dreadlocks, been chopped short and bleached an unnatural blond, and been dyed with streaks of blue, green, or pink. Her brown eyes are now muted by a ring of heavy, thick, black eyeliner. Her ear- lobes are stretched and weighted down with huge earrings.

She is still stunningly beautiful and this makes me sad.

It breaks my heart because I know all of her attempts to be different are really a cry of pain. She has struggled with mighty demons as she has wrested her way through adolescence.

Depression runs through the women in my family like a thick, pulsing vein. It strangles our self-confidence, saps our energy, and leaves us limp and lonely. I have watched my sister and mother struggle with it. I have fought my own conflict. I have listened to stories of my grandmother and great-grandmother taking to their beds.

But when I learn that she is cutting, my stomach recoils and I am physically sick—nauseous and clammy as if the flu has suddenly possessed my body. Soon, she starts wearing long sleeves all the time or a thick crowd of bracelets to hide her scars. I learn she has a secret blog and through a concerned friend of hers, I log on. It is so dark and disturbing that I lay awake at night thinking of what I’ve seen.

She had already been seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist for a year when the cutting starts. Now we up the ante. Intense, twice-weekly dialectical therapy, coupled with weekly visits to the psychiatrist and regular group therapy sessions take up much of her time. She visits the school social worker almost daily.

I suspect that she began cutting as a way to cultivate an image she wanted to convey: that of a hipster with a dark and daring soul. But the allure of the cuts quickly spiraled out of control, becoming its own form of addiction and destruction.

When she first came to me three years ago, crying and scared about her mood swings, I was concerned but not shocked. “I know I should be great right now,” she said. “But I just want to be by myself and be sad.”

But who as a teenager hasn’t felt some depths of despair? I remember those teenage feelings of angst and anxiety only too well, which is why in the beginning I was eager to direct her to a nutritionist or a new exercise group. Good food! Brisk air! Let’s just drum those bad feelings right out! For months I optimistically bucked her up, nauseating myself in my own faux cheeriness. I clung to her smallest request, as if an order of Kung Pao chicken could make her unhappiness disappear. But I also had a friend commit suicide in high school and I know the edge of the cliff can spring up quicker than expected.

Soon I learn that I can’t leave her by herself. I scrutinize every outfit. Grab her wrists. Take the sharp objects and prescription medications with me when I leave the house.

In the midst of her chaos, we transfer our home movies from videotape to DVD. The process requires it to be done in real time with the machine playing back what it is recording. I’m mesmerized. There she is as a baby, our first child, and her dad and I are completely in love with her. Her every move is recorded, nothing seemingly unworthy of the camera’s attention. As a toddler and a little girl, she is captivating. Her clear eyes gaze at the camera, lovingly looking at us. She is the ring leader, the head of family plays and sing-a-longs.

She orchestrates her siblings’ moves with confidence and assurance. I can’t stop watching, looking for some sign of the sullen girl who lives with us now.

Her clothing styles change as rapidly as her moods. First, she shed the trendy shirts and skinny jeans for men’s over-size clothing. That look gave way to black rock concert T-shirts which gave way to ’60s style bell bottoms and fringe vests. Each personality adjustment comes with a slew of other refinements. In addition to the new style of clothes, she adapts a new makeup look and a new personality design for her bedroom.

She draws all over her walls. Beautiful swirls, elaborate scrolls of flowers, inspirational quotes, and images. It’s stunning. She takes one wall and creates a vision board, filled with images she finds inspiring—yoga poses, New York City, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and plenty of other tortured souls who killed or nearly killed themselves with their creativity.

She silently glides out of the house. She has a new group of friends. Earlier, when she didn’t have friends and spent hours and days alone in her room, I worried. Now when she’s out with these new friends all the time, I worry. She tells me to relax, assures me she’s fine, her friends are what she needs right now.

I don’t trust this new group of friends, but without proof (and I desperately search for proof), I feel powerless as she slowly slips further away. Later I will learn that my suspicions were correct; she was engaging in high-risk behaviors on many levels. But I want to believe her. Desperately. Even though the line of pills I need to dole out to her every night is a constant reminder that she is anything but okay.

Eventually, I get a call from the social worker at high school, her voice belying her news. She tells me that there was “a setback” last night. I speak the language and know what that means. The social worker sent her to the nurse and when I go to pick up my daughter, I hug her and tell her I love her. She gently lifts her sleeve and I am stunned and heartbroken at the large hospital-like bandage covering the length of her arm. I am scared to see what lies underneath. Scared to see what she did to herself while I slept, oblivious, in the next room. My mind cannot go in the direction of the darkness she clung to last night. But I will fight for her.

*   *   *

A few hours later, we are on our way to check her into a psychiatric hospital; we stop for coffee and bagels—black for me and a coffee/hot chocolate/whipped cream concoction for her. We order bagels as well because, well, we’re hungry. And I’m not sure of the protocol for checking your daughter into the psych ward. Etiquette books don’t cover such topics.

I look over at my daughter, my first-born, my amazing girl, and try to imagine how we got to this point where she needs to spend time in what is euphemistically dubbed a behavioral health center. What words can I say right now that will make this okay? Do I optimistically give a pep talk about new beginnings? Do I break down crying like I want to? I’m hoping she recognizes the symbolism and love represented by the Dunkaccino. I sip coffee and chew my bagel despite the curious lack of salvia in my mouth. It’s almost painful to swallow.

She seems oddly calm, almost relieved. I fall squarely in the devastated and terrified category. I want to prolong the time I’m with her and perhaps commemorate the moment. I come up with a soppy, heartfelt, caffeine-laden toast to the future.

*   *   *

The adolescent psych ward is both everything I imagined and nothing I expected. The waiting room is full of people just like me, parents wearing the same expression of exhaustion, worry, and a tinge of relief. We don’t make eye contact; there is no need—it’s all too unbearable and we know it. And we are the lucky ones. In the hallway outside the waiting room, patients are being wheeled in, strapped to gurneys followed by familiar-looking parents. By familiar, I mean normal. Someone I would see at the grocery store. I don’t know why I find this surprising.

The kids getting checked in all wear a haunted, blank expression. The girls have the same black-rimmed, heavy eye-lined eyes and nails covered in black, chipped polish. Their clothes are grungy and baggy. The surprise is that my daughter fits right in. She looks just like them.

How had I not seen that before? In my quest to keep her out of the hospital, had I waited too long? How could a hospital stay possibly undo years of dark, deep depression? Where had my little girl gone who was on the soccer team and swim team, and loved going to church and hanging with her family?

We pass through three sets of locked doors before checking her in on the self-harm/eating disorder unit, where skeleton-like bodies with haunted eyes peer at her above their jutted collar bones. Quickly, these become familiar faces. A cross between a hospital ward and a bland dorm hall, the unit has both a nurse’s station and traditional dorm furniture (albeit, bolted to the wall). We have to relinquish everything from underwire bras to spiral notebooks and anything with staples.

This isn’t a retreat. There are no colorful posters or inspirational bulletin boards, encouraging residents to “hang in there, baby.” The nurses and clinical staff are professional but not sympathetic. I want them to smile or reassure me I am doing the right thing. But they don’t. They hand me forms to sign and packages of information, none of which are stapled.

The following days are a blur of phone calls to relatives, the school, teachers, doctors, therapists, insurance, and a few close friends. It’s exhausting and emotionally draining and every conversation seems to take an hour. I have three other kids who are scared and concerned. The younger two had no idea of the extent of their sister’s depression. We take a mental health day.

I spend the next week narrating my life, one step removed: I am folding the laundry while my daughter is in the psych unit. I am answering work email while my daughter is in the psych unit. I am driving a carpool while my daughter is in the psych unit.

I feng shui her entire room, cleaning, scrubbing, and airing everything out. I wash and refold her clothes, dust her shelves, take down the dark tapestries which cover the windows and buy a plant.

My feelings slide on a scale ranging from anger to relief to hope. I’m angry that it’s come to this—angry I didn’t do more sooner, even as I recognize that there was nothing more I could have done.

But there is also relief. Relief that she is in someone else’s care. That for a short while I won’t have to check on her constantly. That my heart won’t race going up to her room when she is the only one home. That I won’t need to look out the window waiting for her to come home.

That I can briefly stop questioning the medicine, the therapy, her psychiatrist, her school load, me, her father, our family—always wondering where we went wrong. Someone else can do all of that now. It is out of my hands for now.

And of course, there is hope. Hope that she is finally getting the help she needs. Hope that perhaps her future will be returned to her, a future where the possibility of college and a life outside of home exists.

We are periodically allowed one-and-a-half hour visits where we sit on uncomfortable chairs in a hallway near other patients and nurses. She is lonely and scared at first (which is hard) then excited and almost happy to have met so many people like her (which is maybe even more difficult) and finally desperate and anxious to get home.

We also meet for family meetings with other parents whose stories are just as awful as ours. And like my daughter, I feel an excitement and kinship with these people. Finally, someone else who understands the true struggle of watching a child battle demons.

Because the reality of mental illness is that it’s still extremely difficult to discuss. Those of us navigating the dark pathways are often too emotionally fraught to fight against other people’s assumptions or battle the stigma as we should. Many of us are too busy blaming ourselves as it is. And so the veil of silence continues. Who are we, the parents of children who suffer, who cut, who starve? Who among us shares this heartache?

When she is finally released, we walk slowly to the car and sit together for a while. She begins to weep. I hug her and cry with her. Then I ease the car into the road and begin the drive home.

*   *   *

The second time she is hospitalized it is less traumatic, but not easier.

She only made it a year before relapsing. After her first hospitalization, she participated in an outpatient program for an additional two months. She managed to keep up her coursework and return to her job. And to my relief, she moved away from her group of friends.

But if there is anything I’ve learned from this journey, it’s to expect the unexpected. Studies show that self-injury can be as addicting as alcohol and drugs.

The second time around, we are even more careful who we tell. My daughter’s illness is chronic and at times it can be life-threatening. And yet, her battles are fought internally, and sadly, we’ve learned that some people find it easier not to inquire.

My daughter, my husband, and I have each lost friends or distanced ourselves from people since the first round. Although we had told only a few people, we learned that the same folks who organize a chemotherapy support brigade don’t phone to check in. And the people who volunteer with the disabled don’t necessarily understand a psychiatric hospital.

But our family sticks together, at times straining at the seams. Before being hospitalized the first time, my daughter made me a CD (a mixed tape of love) and the haunting song “Beautiful Girl” by William Fitzsimmons swims through my brain in gentle laps.

Beautiful girl

Let the sunrise come again

Beautiful girl

May the weight of world resign

You will get better

Her doctors told us that the adolescent brain doesn’t completely stabilize until around age twenty-three. There is a good chance that she will age out of the cycle of self-injury and depression. There is also a chance that she will be fighting this battle the rest of her life. And so it’s up to me in the brief time she has left living at home and in our care, to make sure that she has the tools and knowledge to monitor her disease and keep herself safe.

For now that means supervising her medications, checking in with her daily, staying in communication with her school social worker and her therapist. And yes, ensuring that she is eating healthy food, drinking water, and getting exercise.

And sometimes it means simply ordering Kung Pao chicken on a bad night.

Author’s Note: Since this story isn’t mine alone, I showed it to my daughter before sending it into the world. Any hesitancy I had evaporated when she read it and encouraged me to put it out there. We’re hopeful we can assure someone who is experiencing a similar struggle that they’re not alone. Our journey continues, and although the path we’re taking remains murky, we’re both a lot stronger than we were when we started out.

Laura Amann is a writer and editor who mothers a brood of four in the Chicago area. Her award-winning essays have appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, Brain, Child, Salon, and Chicago Parent. Her reported pieces have appeared in Your Teen, Scholastic Parent, among others.

Illustration by Mikela Provost

 

 

Ex In-Laws at My Wedding

Ex In-Laws at My Wedding

By Sue Sanders

BC_FA2013_Final_layoutI stood in my ivory silk wedding dress clutching a bouquet with my six-year-old daughter by my side. Lizzie held tightly to a basket of rose petals with one hand and to me with the other. She pulled on my arm and looked up.

“Now we’ll be an official family? And Jeff will be my official dad?” she whispered. Smiling, I nodded, squeezed her hand, and scanned the small crowd gathered on our front lawn for the occasion. Nearly everyone important to us was there: our friends and family, my new in-laws and my ex in-laws.

 *   *   *

When Jeff and I had first met, it was electric. It was also complicated: we’d both been married before and carried bits of our past into our present. I brought my young daughter; he, Louis the dog; and both of us, a subset of ex in-laws. When Jeff divorced, he had only occasional contact with his ex-family: exchanging holiday cards and email and later, becoming Facebook friends. But I remained close to my ex in-laws, chatting on the phone frequently and staying occasional weekends with them at their house in suburban New Jersey. Lizzie, their only grandchild then, helped cement our relationship as did my ex-husband’s severe bipolar disorder, which made it vividly clear that divorce was our only realistic option.

My ex-husband and I met in college and were together eighteen years. His parents, Tom and Nancy, had seen how I’d spent the final five years of my marriage, desperately trying to get my husband to take the pills that could control his illness. We were bound by the horrific experience of seeing someone we all loved deeply refuse psychiatric help and get sicker as a result. His parents knew that their son’s illness was no one’s failing; that ours was the ultimate no-fault divorce. They’d welcomed me into their lives all those years ago and their son’s illness wouldn’t change that, would it? Part of me wondered, but I tamped down the doubt, sure we’d continue to have a relationship.

From the time my husband and I had separated, my ex in-laws continued to be both emotionally and financially generous with Lizzie and me (I had quit working to stay at home with our baby). When my ex’s “episodes” became more frequent and severe, finally leading to the end of our marriage, Tom and Nancy took Lizzie and me into their home while we worked with a series of doctors and New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to have their son hospitalized. They were there for us when their son, in an angry manic phase, canceled our health insurance and had all our mail forwarded to his house. They were there when their son frightened my upstairs neighbor into giving him a key and then let himself into my Brooklyn apartment. Much later, when I finally met with a divorce lawyer and we all realized that my ex-husband was in no condition for court, his father Tom became his son’s legal guardian and represented him in the proceedings.

More than a year went by. I eventually started dating and met the man who’d become my second husband. Jeff and I met online, flirting and getting to know one another remotely. When we finally met in person, we knew it was real. As time passed and our relationship deepened, it all seemed so easy and natural something I hadn’t experienced for ages.

After dating for a year, we moved in together, to a little house in a small town in the Hudson Valley. One afternoon, a few months later, Tom and Nancy drove the two hours from their house to ours the house that they’d loaned us money to help buy—where Tom would meet Jeff for the first time and Nancy, who had joined us all for Lizzie’s fifth birthday party a few months earlier, would get to know him better. I was nervous—I felt a bit like a matchmaker arranging a blind date. Would Tom and Nancy like Jeff? Would it be awkward for them to see me with someone who wasn’t their son and to see Lizzie treat Jeff as the father he had already become to her? Would they flinch if Lizzie referred to Jeff as “my dad”? How did they fit into our lives, anyhow? I wanted them to continue to be involved, but what are the rules for ex-family? I wasn’t sure, but we were grafting new branches to our family tree.

As I wondered what would happen, I realized I was really seeking their approval—even though the logical part of me understood this was ridiculous. I was an adult. I wasn’t their child. They knew staying married to their son wasn’t an option. Still, there was a tiny portion of me that felt guilty for abandoning my mentally ill husband.

When they finally pulled into our gravel driveway, we all dashed out to greet them. Nancy struggled on an arthritic knee to extract herself from the passenger seat, then greeted Jeff with a peck on the cheek. Lizzie and I escorted her into the house, walking slowly in time with her cane, while Jeff helped Tom pull multiple bags of brightly wrapped gifts out of the trunk. I could hear them laughing and talking. Jeff let Tom know how grateful he was for their generosity and compassion toward me. Tom told Jeff he really appreciated hearing that. When Jeff repeated all this to me later that night after Tom and Nancy had left, I felt incredibly thankful—and relieved. I hadn’t realized that I’d been holding my breath and I could finally exhale.

Their visit crystalized something that had been bothering me since my ex-husband and I separated: there needs to be better vocabulary to describe changing family relationships. Lizzie seems to be aware of this deficiency, and flips back and forth in an almost bilingual manner depending on her audience, referring to Jeff by his name when she ad- dresses him, and calling him “my dad” when she talks about him to friends and family. I find the lack of accurate words challenging, as well. What label is there for ex in-laws who are still in a person’s life? I’ve tried to refer to them in other ways, though nothing seems right. Using just first names when I introduce them to friends somehow doesn’t convey our bond. And introducing them as “my ex-mother-in-law, Nancy, and ex-father-in-law, Tom” maybe accurate, but it’s an awkward mouthful. I play around with possibilities, but none seem right: my mother-out-law; my father-ex-law; my parents. I can’t think of any short, pithy label to explain how our relationship, though changed, is still a close one.

*   *   *

A few months after that visit, when Jeff and I decided to marry, we didn’t hesitate to add my ex in-laws to our small wedding’s guest list. It felt right.

So there we all were: friends, family, ex-family. That June afternoon was a clichéd ideal of Hudson Valley wedding weather—sun peeking through wispy white clouds that kept the day from getting too hot. Though our row of peonies had already died back, dropping their petals all over the ground as Lizzie soon would hers as flower girl, the potted foxglove and geraniums on the deck overlooking the distant mountains were in full bloom. A scrum of kids played freeze tag and softball in the yard before settling into chairs with their parents. Then I said that I did and Jeff said that he did too, and we kissed. I grinned at my family and ex-family, so glad they were there for the very beginning of this newest phase of our life.

Jeff’s friends seemed surprised that we’d invited my ex in-laws to the wedding, after they’d been introduced during the reception with that awkward mouthful of words. Later, I poured a glass of merlot and brought it to Tom as he sat on a folding lawn chair in the backyard. He stood and hugged me, a genuine hug from someplace deep inside. I thought about how conflicted he must have felt to see his ex-daughter in-law so happy with a man who wasn’t his son, and to see his granddaughter bond so firmly with a “new” dad in a way that she never would with his son. I hugged Tom back.

“I’m so glad you came,” I said, as we sat back down.

Tom reached for his merlot and took a sip. He seemed at a loss for words.

“You’re part of our family,” I said, tearing a little for all that we’d been through together with his son—and for all that was ahead of us.

“And you’re part of ours,” Tom said softly, eyes moist.

I feel so lucky to have had even that brief conversation. Three weeks after our wedding, Tom died in his sleep.

*   *   *

Now, years later, we’re still writing our own rules about what family is. We visit Nancy in her Manhattan apartment every summer. She’s stayed with us as well. But we still grapple with explaining our relationship to others and what, exactly, to call one another. Lizzie has it easy: “grandma” is grandma no matter what. But I still don’t have a convenient word and perhaps I never will.

Our new nuclear family is celebrating its ninth anniversary this summer and we’ve each celebrated nine birthdays together. Lizzie’s homemade birthday cards to Jeff have progressed from squiggles and backward letters, with stick figures with curly gray hair crayoned on the front, to tiny, careful cursive with anime-like drawings. Some have said “To Dad;” others, “To Jeff.” But however she chooses to address them, he’s very much her “official” parent.

Author’s Note: I’m still wrestling with what “family” means and searching for a word that can describe ours to others less awkwardly—there aren’t any nice, concise expressions that easily explain ex-family still in someone’s life. I also sometimes wonder if these bonds will remain as strong over time as with “regular” family. I hope they do.

Sue Sanders’ essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Brain, Child, the New York Times, Real Simple, the Rumpus, the Oregonian, the Seattle Times, The Morning News, Salon and others. She is the author of the book Mom, I’m Not A Kid Anymore.

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Between Depression and a Hard Place

Between Depression and a Hard Place

By Anna Blackmon Moore

winter2009_mooreAs soon as I learned I was pregnant again, I shut myself into the bedroom of my two-year-old son, gazed at his train car blanket, his shoes on the floor that no longer fit, his stuffed penguin. I thought about my brain. Then I called my psychiatrist.

“This is a surprise,” she said coldly.

“I discussed the possibility with you at our last appointment, remember?” I said. I had actually discussed having another child with her at our last two meetings. Our appointments occurred only every three to six months and took half an hour; I used them for refills of anti-depressants. Five months before, I had started taking Lexapro, a switch from Prozac, which I had been on intermittently for nearly twenty years.

“I just wanted to ask about my medication,” I continued. “Should I go down to five milligrams? How safe is it?”

“Most women try to get off anti-depressants before they get pregnant, Anna,” she said. She had not mentioned this—not once, not in doctorese, not directly or indirectly or vaguely—in any of the appointments we’d had in the last four years, which is how long she’d been my doctor. During my first pregnancy, I decided on my own initiative to stop taking Prozac but then resumed it in the second trimester. I had not planned to do so, but anxiety, one of the many characteristics of my depression, became too debilitating.

“I’m only four weeks pregnant.”

“Well, I guess it’s too late now.”

Was she in a bad mood? Why was she talking to me this way? Why was I so incapable of asserting myself with doctors? Apparently, she wanted me to believe that I had already damaged my baby’s developing organs somehow, that there was no turning back. Too late now, she had said, since your baby is already ridden with birth defects.

“But they calculate conception by the first date of your last period,” I argued. “So the baby was really only conceived about two weeks ago.” She didn’t know this?

Women like me are hardly alone in their frustrations. Those of us who take anti-depressants and become pregnant are forced to make wrenching decisions about medication. Every piece of literature I have read on this issue, from studies in medical journals to user-friendly websites to sections of baby books, whether the drug in question is an SSRI like Prozac or a psychotropic like Lithium, summarizes the nature of our decision like this: Along with our doctors, we need to decide if benefits from our medications are greater than any potential risks they could bring to our baby’s health. If our benefits win, then we should take anti-depressants. If potential health risks to our baby win, we should not take our anti-depressants.

What a shit sandwich.

By the time I called my psychiatrist, I had already been served that sandwich. I was familiar with it; I had ingested the thing. I was preparing to ingest it again. But if my doctor was going to treat me with such impatience and disdain while I was going through a pregnancy, when women at any level of mental and physical health need as much support as possible, then, I thought, Fuck her. The following week I cancelled our appointment, recalling a poster that my best friend, sixteen years earlier, had taped on our kitchen cabinet when we were roommates in a tiny apartment after graduating from college. The heading was 20 Ways To Be a Strong Woman; below it were twenty bulleted commands. The only one I could remember was the last: “Walk out of any doctor’s office you want.” Instead of walking out, I just didn’t return.

*   *   *

When I learned I was pregnant with my first child, Ian, I was on Prozac. The average daily dose, the one I was prescribed, is twenty milligrams, but sometimes I’d skip a day (or two), sometimes I’d go down to ten, sometimes I’d wean from it altogether. Changing doses of medication without a doctor’s guidance is part of having a mental illness. For some people with severe depression or other severe mental illnesses, changing or stopping doses is a symptom of the illness itself.

I adjusted my dosage because I do not like being depressed. I would prefer not to have this condition. So self-adjusting is how I prove to no one at all (since I do not discuss my adjustments with anyone) that I do not need this drug. I still think I might not. Maybe I just need a good kick in the pants, a transformation of attitude, or time alone in a dark room where I can analyze my worthlessness and all its manifestations over and over again until I figure it out or until it goes away.

Pregnancy, however, made me think about my depression in ways that were less self-absorbed. My thoughts about how or whether I actually had this condition were no longer relevant or even important, I realized, because what if after I gave birth, I dropped into a serious depression? My mother had. She describes it like this: She had me, broke down, and then got into bed. She got out again “when it was spring.” Since I was born in the spring, this means that my mother was incapacitated and largely absent for the first year of my life.

For the rest of hers, she sought and received various forms of treatment at various times with varying levels of efficacy. She has always struggled with depression. As a result, my brother and I have struggled with it, too. (My alcoholic father shares plenty of responsibility here as well but requires too many additional words.) As a young adult, my brother’s mental illness institutionalized him for years; as a teenager, I was hospitalized for a suicidal gesture—I slit my wrist with a dull paring knife—and I was an in-patient in treatment programs for alcoholism and bulimia. I’ve been in and out of therapy since I was ten to “work through” the same “issues” that have influenced my feelings and thoughts for as long as I can remember. I’ve been on and off Elavil, Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Imipramine, Welbutrin, and Effexor. Despite my functional professional and social life—I’m a college instructor, a writer, a friend, a wife, a mother—I am always in some kind of emotional pain, or caught in a self-reflective ache, and in general I feel pretty bad about myself, who I am, how I behave, and how I think.

This state of being poses challenges for me and other depressed women when we become pregnant. Just a cursory glance through the various genres of pregnancy literature confirms that during pregnancy, a fetus needs a contented, functional mother. The mental health of the mother is even more important right after birth, because a depressed mother who neither smiles at nor interacts with her infants can easily be worse for them than most of the side effects they might experience as a result of anti-depressants.

And these side effects are a matter of mights. If pregnant women take Prozac or other selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, to regulate and adjust the activity of the neurotransmitter serotonin in their brains, their newborns might experience, according to the Mayo Clinic, “tremors, gastrointestinal problems, sleep disturbances and high-pitched cries.” These are withdrawal symptoms and go away within a few weeks of the baby’s birth. Knowledge of this dissipation, though, is hardly comforting to the almost eight percent of pregnant women who are prescribed these drugs during their pregnancies. No pregnant woman, depressed or not, could disregard visions of her newborn shaking uncontrollably or crying like a siren, especially if this suffering were caused by drugs she had passed into her baby’s system.

The possibilities of health risks grow mightier when we consider possible long-term effects on a child whose mother took SSRIs during pregnancy. According to my former psychiatrist, we do not know whether SSRI babies demonstrate a greater incidence of depression, attention disorders, mood disorders, or cognitive problems as children, teenagers, or adults. But I think we have to question the reliability of such implications, anyway: Since mental illnesses are often hereditary, children or teens could get them straight from the genes of their mother, whether she were medicated while pregnant or not. And if teenagers or even toddlers suffer from mood disorders, it would be impossible to prove definitively that fetal exposure to SSRIs was the cause.

What I do know is that my brother and I suffered from mood disorders—big ones—along with all kinds of other psychological and emotional problems; at the same time, while we were growing up, my mother’s depression was never consistently or properly treated. If it had been, I know my mother would not have been perfect, but it is fair to say that she would have been more engaged with her children, more attentive and supportive during our infancy, at least. Our family might have been stronger.

So we’re back to the shit sandwich. Treat it or don’t—which is worse, and which is better? Who knows?

Many doctors advise a weaning from anti-depressants before women become pregnant or early in the first trimester, when the baby’s organs are being formed. Both my GP and former psychiatrist advised me to stop taking them unless I was suicidal. I should “hold out” until the second trimester, they said, when the drugs would likely be safer for my baby. Their opinion is grounded not only in common sense, but also in the memory of the thalidomide catastrophe. From 1958 to 1961, pregnant women in the United Kingdom and Canada took thalidomide to ease first-trimester nausea, filling their prescriptions because the drug’s manufacturer and, subsequently, doctors espoused its safety. The manufacturers, in fact, had not tested the drug, and eight thousand babies were born with profound birth defects, from missing and deformed limbs to unsegmented intestines. According to Sandra Steingraber, in her excellent book Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood, what made thalidomide especially teratogenic—a cause of birth defects—was the fact that the drug interferes with the formation of blood vessels and protein production. Just as important was the timing of its ingestion: Pregnant women took it when their embryos were sixteen to twenty-one days old, during peak organ-formation.

As a result, the medical community now has clear directives on medications and pregnancy: Steer clear of as many as you can. The logic of this instruction is obvious. But as a person with a mental illness, I see perspectives and biases emerging on this issue that have little to do with thalidomide and untested drugs and lots to do with how we tend to blame mental illness on those who suffer from it. In a post to “Taking Anti-depressants During Pregnancy” on the Berkeley Parents Network website, an anonymous writer articulates perfectly what I was feeling: “There is a lot of discrimination against treating mental illness in pregnancy. Do you think a doctor would suggest someone with high blood pressure or diabetes just STOP [her] medicine while pregnant? Absolutely not.”

 *   *   *

After the incident with my psychiatrist (who I saw primarily for medication), my therapist helped me by discussing the Lexapro issue with two doctors she has worked with in the past. As I sat in my usual spot on her couch, she informed me of my options: Go off Lexapro completely or stay on ten milligrams; five is non-therapeutic and, therefore, would not help me. Since I had already adjusted on my own to five milligrams a week before, I wasn’t sure where to go from there. I was stuck: If I kept taking such a low dose, I’d be exposing my fetus to the drug, and I wouldn’t be getting any benefit from it. It was ten milligrams or nothing.

“I guess,” I said, “it’s time for me to decide what to do.”

She nodded.

That night, I looked through various articles and websites on Lexapro and pregnancy. I found mostly information I already knew, since Lexapro is an SSRI and the research on these drugs lumps SSRIs together. Eventually, however, I found a public health alert put out by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2006, which summarized the results of two studies published that year. The first, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, tracked a group of women who stopped taking anti-depressants while they were pregnant and a group of women who did not. The women who went off their meds were five times more likely to have a relapse of their depression.

The second study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that fetuses exposed to SSRIs after twenty weeks had a six-times greater likelihood of developing persistent pulmonary hypertension. The disease is very serious and sometimes fatal, but “[the] risk has not so far been investigated by other researchers.” So it would seem that going off Lexapro in the first trimester actually carries less serious of a risk to the baby than my resuming the medicine later on. All right, but what about me? Whose risks finish first?

It was time to decide. But with whom? I live in a large town. We have other psychiatrists, but not many. Even if I lived in an urban area, getting in to see a psychiatrist can take months, especially as a new patient. There were other options—GPs and obstetricians are doctors, of course, but the ones I had seen discouraged medication in general and offered little support. So I made what I thought was the most informed decision I could about my health and the health of my family: I decided to discontinue the Lexapro, at least for the first trimester. For the next week, I took my five milligrams only every other day, and then I stopped it altogether. Maybe I could do it this time.

*   *   *

Now, in my ninth week of pregnancy, I sleep poorly, cry often, and feel deeply angry all the time. This anger has been characteristic of my depression all my life. I have to watch what I say and how I carry myself and how I react for fear of alienating my students, friends, and colleagues. I yell at the dog, snap at my husband, shout at my windshield. With my son, I am less patient. It’s cute when he explores the potential of his toothbrush and brushes the drain, but must he do it every single night? Must he always choose to read The Biggest Book Ever? If I do lose control, I feel disturbed, unhinged, and terribly guilty. The most difficult parts of my day are transitions, which require what feels like tremendous effort of body and mind: bed to bathroom, car to office, desk chair to kitchen, couch to bed. I feel more than ever like I am a failure.

Come on, woman, I hear in a deep authoritative voice of some distant patriarchal figure, pull yourself together. But I’ve been pulling since I was a teenager, and my depression has not seemed to budge for extended periods of time without the help of drugs. I have pulled myself into pieces. I work against a cavernous sense of negativity, and this in particular has never felt transitory. I cannot therapize it away, or overcome it, or counter it through cognitive exercises. As I get older, my depression feels more and more biological, more deeply folded into the fluid of my brain. Stopping medication when my hormones are in flux, when I’m sick, when I’m teaching a full load, when the stress of another baby grows by the day … this seems more and more like a bad idea, my husband says. And I agree.

So yesterday, I went to my unaccommodating GP and asked for Prozac. Prozac has been around a long time, so doctors and researchers have published hundreds of studies on it. Prozac and Zoloft are the safest of all SSRIs.

During my first pregnancy, I took twenty milligrams of Prozac per day in the second and third trimester. I also breastfed my son while I was on the same, consistent dose. When I was in the hospital, recovering from childbirth and learning to breastfeed, several nurses expressed concern. What were the possible effects of Prozac on the baby? Did I know? Had I consulted with my doctor? (Why they didn’t learn the answers themselves and then share the results with me, since I was consumed by worries of feeding my baby properly while fuzzy with painkillers and lack of sleep, I do not know. Perhaps they expected more from me.) I explained that I felt very safe in what I was doing because of what I was told by a lactation consultant in the hospital following his birth. The consultant explained that any side effects Ian might have—the same he might have from exposure to Prozac in the womb—would go away within a month. (Ian was a product of the good odds: He experienced no side effects and seems fine in every way, developmentally and temperamentally.)

According to the specialist I spoke with at the nonprofit Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS), to which I was referred by the FDA’s Office of Women’s Health, SSRIs are indeed the most studied of all the anti-depressants on the market.

The specialist started answering my questions by first explaining that the baseline of birth defects for every pregnant woman is three to four percent. This percentage goes up with factors like age, health problems, and the genetic history of the mother. Then she summarized what the studies say about mothers who take SSRIs during pregnancy. During the first trimester, women who took high doses (between sixty to eighty milligrams) of Prozac increased their risk of having a baby with a low birth weight by one percent. (These results were not found in newborns whose mothers took other SSRIs at similar doses.) The babies of mothers who take SSRIs in the third trimester have a ten to thirty percent rate of toxicity withdrawal—and the withdrawal is limited to the newborn period.

Okay, I thought. Okay. I felt suddenly relieved—not because I thought SSRIs might be totally safe, but because I understood the studies more clearly. I realized later that what I felt was not a rush of relief; what I felt was a rush of informed.

*   *   *

The studies I have read on anti-depressants and pregnancy are structured, more or less, like this: Over a period of years, scientists and doctors gather records on a group of infants with birth defects and a group of infants without birth defects. The doctors then conduct interviews with the mothers or review medical documents to learn about what drugs the mother took before and during their pregnancies. They then compare the interview results or the medical documents to the birth defects and look for correlations.

They have indeed found them. One study of 13,714 infants (9,622 with birth defects and 4,092 without) was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in July 2007. The correlations the authors found between the infants with birth defects and SSRI exposure were very low—low enough to conclude “maternal use of SSRIs during early pregnancy [is] not associated with significantly increased risks of congenital heart defects or of most other categories of birth defects. [We observed] associations between SSRI use and three types of birth defects, but the absolute risks were small, and these observations require confirmation by other studies.”

This study and others like it did not keep my GP, when I saw her on my Prozac mission, from suggesting that she would “prefer” I didn’t take the drug until week twelve or thirteen.

“But if you can’t make it,” she said, typing notes into her computer, “I’m okay with prescribing it now.” She then stopped typing and looked right at me. “As long as you know the risks.”

My doctor has my baby’s health in mind, I realize. But—way to be supportive.

“Perhaps I’ll just hold the bottle lovingly for the next few weeks,” I said. “Like a teddy bear.”

She laughed.

I understand, I went on, that as a general rule women should stay off everything in the first trimester. But isn’t there any evidence that a depressed mother can also be harmful to her fetus? Not really, she said, because that’s harder to quantify. What I understood her to mean was this: We see toddlers with emotional problems; we determine that all of their mothers were depressed or anxious during their pregnancies. But since so much happens between birth and toddlerhood to influence a child’s emotional state, it’s much more difficult for anyone to verify a concrete link between maternal depression and childhood mental health.

So I gaze longingly at my Prozac. In only a few weeks, it will be building in my system, doing whatever it does to make me feel better. And I can do it. I can make it. I am like a runner with burning pain in her legs, a few inches from the finish line, or a dieter warding off desires for a piece of chocolate cake.

These metaphors are absurd, unhelpful, and demeaning. I am trying, in acting like a strong woman, in making my decision while consuming a shit sandwich, to reject this language and this way of thinking. My difficult doctors were right: There’s a big difference between suicidal and too sad, too sleepy, too pissed. Yet the mother and her body and her mind—especially her mind—are the center of the family; they are its source, its foundation. Mothers need to be energetic, positive, patient, loving, and as present as possible. If I need drugs to embody these adjectives, then I need to take them. My children need me to take them. The medical community should direct and inform my taking of them as much as it is able to, but for now I have to keep my expectations of their knowledge and especially their support fairly low.

Women often have to endure. To tolerate. They also have to negotiate, evaluate, assert, reassert, assess, deliberate, and wonder. And cry. Because as I make the decision to take drugs, to go on Prozac as soon as the last day of week twelve has passed, I cry.

Bullet #21 on 20 Ways To Be a Strong Woman: “Make your decisions. Then weep.”

 *   *   *

Author’s Note: My daughter, Adele, is now four months old. She’s a champion cooer, nurser, and puker, and she’s been doing beautifully since her birth. The rest of my pregnancy with her was very hard—I was chronically ill with colds and bronchitis, which affected my mood significantly. When I was about six months pregnant, I decided to go up on the Prozac—from twenty milligrams to thirty, and it helped get me through and be more present for my now three-year-old son. 

In retrospect, I notice how doctors, when they discussed anti-depressants and my pregnancy with me, emphasized the safety of the baby in my body but forgot entirely about the needs of the one already here. Mothers need to be functional all the time, pregnant or not; along with their gestating babies, they and their families also need to thrive.

Anna Blackmon Moore is a writer and writing instructor in California. Her blog is dearadele.wordpress.com/.

Brain, Child (Winter 2009)

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Visiting My Teenage Daughter in the Psychiatric Ward

Visiting My Teenage Daughter in the Psychiatric Ward

By Susan Dickman

CorridorThe door clicks open, and I begin the familiar drill: sign in, deposit coat and bag in a room which the attendant will lock behind me. I follow the small herd of parents shuffling down the hallway to the common room, where the residents will enter from a separate door. Within moments we meet in all our awkward embraces and hellos.

A smile plays on my daughter’s face when she spots me, but I know better than to hug her. She allows me to deliver a brief kiss to the forehead, and then we settle into chairs, trying to knit together a conversation from stray and tangled comments. What she ate for lunch. The winter storm that is brewing. The latest antics the cat has been up to. All normal conversation for the adolescent psych ward, where we are all in collusion, pretending that to be there is to be utterly normal.

My daughter’s hair is greasy, and she has been wearing the same black corduroys for days. Yet she still can, at this point, pass for your average fifteen-year-old teenager. Or are they all this much at-risk, ready to drop off the edges of their fragile little worlds?

After a few minutes of conversation that dribbles off into nowhere, I suggest a game. Scrabble is something solid to land on, with its wooden alphabet letters perched on wooden benches, with its highly detailed rules and mathematically designed board.

It is her third stay in the ward, not counting the out-patient program at another hospital last year, when everything came to a crisis point in February. She has the idea she is in because she became suicidal; her father and I thought it was because she refused to go to school, and then threatened suicide when he took away the television remotes. Our daughter sincerely believes her own story. This is not the first time the phrase “distorted thinking” has appeared in my head. It will take her father and me a few days to realize that, to her way of thinking, there was a real connection between no television and suicide, that even getting to this psychic place of what could have remained a teenage tantrum spelled death for her, because her mind works like lightning and moves from thought to thought without weighing any of them. Suddenly, without knowing how or why, she is in fight or flight, cannot evaluate clearly what is a threat and what is not, and then all is lost. Or she believes it is. And because she has been in this place—the hospital, this way of thinking and reacting—she assumes she will be there again. And she does, and she is.

 

***

The other families are playing Scrabble or cards, fooseball or talking in soft voices over meals they have brought in and have had a staff member check. For what? I’m never quite certain. The room hums with the steady sound of people trying to relate to one another. Once in a while during a visit a resident will suddenly raise a voice in anger or pain, and a staff member will intervene with a gentle directive for the resident to leave the common room. It is jarring when a visit ends abruptly—a raised voice, a threatening tone, pathologies playing out in the genteel atmosphere of the visitors’ hours.

Sometimes I look around me and spot my wish-list mother-daughter duo. They’re playing Boggle and laughing, whispering jokes and secrets to one another. The mother rubs the daughter’s back and embraces her in a long, loving hug. Hugs don’t come naturally to my daughter; she does not like being touched. Sometimes I can administer one gently, as long as I ask, but they are rarely, if ever, exchanged. When she was a very young child she must have parroted back the “I love you” of a toddler, but I don’t remember.

The day after she arrived, the weekend psychiatrist asked a battery of questions. “Diagnosis?” “Take your pick,” I tell her. “Depression, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Mood Dysregulation, Bipolar II.” I save that one for last; no one really wants to say that label, even the softer II designation. “Perhaps with a touch of Asperger’s,” I continue, repeating the words of the weekday shrink who has worked with us during the other visits, though I am not certain whether I believe these last two.  “And an as-yet undiagnosed Processing Disorder thrown in as well.” The professionals, and we are ensconced in a team of good ones, are not necessarily eager to diagnose. The teenage brain is plastic, they tell me: growing, fluid, highly at-risk and yet able to bounce back, morph and change. Still, when pressed, the outside-the-hospital shrink will admit to characterizing my daughter as bipolar, even while cautioning against labels, which she says can change. Me, I love labels by this point: they inform, guide, direct. It’s just hard to utter them for fear of people’s reactions.

“She’s bipolar,” I want to tell the people in our lives. “And she is also her own beautiful self: bright, artistic, talented, funny, and fun to be around when not raging.”

Still, I want to know this: Where is she? She was a stunningly gorgeous and artistic child with the ability to walk into a room and suss out every minor social nuance occurring. She drew whimsical pictures of creatures pulled from her vivid imagination. Intensely musical, she arrived in this world with perfect pitch and the ability to play, by ear and with two hands on piano, anything she heard. She still plays, sings, composes, writes screenplays, stories, film treatments, and graphic novels, though completes nothing.  Always a bookworm, she has barely read anything in two years. There is static in her head; her emotional life takes up most of the grey matter. Where did she go?

We thought we were guiding her. We enrolled her in art classes, music classes; she played soccer and joined an area choir. The house was littered with her sketchbooks and drawings, her stories and comics. She went from violin to guitar and began composing her own songs.

The academic side of school never impressed her much, though she is bright, the kind of student who drove teachers crazy because they knew she could do better work if she tried. With a high-achieving older brother, we didn’t want to pressure her, and figured she would find her own path in school. But something held her up, and her mind began to appear less and less organized. Differently organized. Something began to seem wrong.

How did this happen? I want to know. My daughter was a planned pregnancy, a hoped-for child. I ate well prenatally, was happily married, and gave birth to her at home after a rather brief and normal labor. I breastfed and stayed home with all three children, working part-time for years. The house was filled with books and music. I fed them organic food and baked my own bread. We sat down to dinner as a family every night and didn’t watch television or spend much time at the computer.

Of course, her father and I hadn’t planned on divorce. And so I think about what might have been red flags way back when. At age five, upset by something minor, she explained away her extreme behavior by claiming she was an artist. I remember her anxiety at day camp, and the time she threw a block so hard it broke a window. I think about the blank fuck-you stare she gave the camera in so many photographs, the subversive humor, and the strangely quirky drawings she did even as a young child. I think about my parents’ decades of depression and my father’s inexplicable rages, my brother’s drug use and brother-in-law’s behavior problems at school. I consider my own struggles with depression and mood swings, wonder if I might have been diagnosed bipolar at some point. Except that I wasn’t, and instead, although it took me well into my forties, joke about being a poster-child for therapy and anti-depressants used at the right time. As a child I did not rage publicly or refuse school. I didn’t push boundaries and move into the realm of special education. I was too afraid to assert myself to that degree. I was an unhappy and anxious child, but apparently not to the extent that my daughter is.  But now I am talking about myself, not her. And this is her path, her story, her life, and her illness is not my doing. And still I am defensive.

***

I had taken the highway up to the hospital, and Green Bay Road, which meanders through Wisconsin, back down. The snowy roads pull me past picturesque streets along winding ravines. The last time she was in the hospital, in summer, a statuesque buck suddenly bounded out of the surrounding scrim of woods at dusk, standing for a moment in the crosswalk of the quiet moneyed suburbs of the north shore. Now, crows wind in circles toward the frozen lake. Houses are dusted with new snow, and arctic temperatures are expected by nightfall. The winds have picked up to 40 miles an hour. But my daughter is safe and warm inside the adolescent psych ward.

And the truth of the matter is, my daughter is journeying into another landscape. We can only skirt the edges of the territory she has begun to traverse; we cannot go there with her. We can love and support and do our best to guide her, take her to appointments, try to keep her healthy, and continue working on being the parents she needs and not the ones she simply got. But we have to watch her walk out into this strange and troubled land without us, until she is ready—one day we hope she will be—to walk back to us, whole.

The evening she returns home she picks up her guitar and begins singing a tune she wrote with another repeat resident. Her sweet voice is full of light and mirth as she sings lyrics about the foibles of her sojourn in the psych ward. Like she did the last time she ended up there, she steadfastly refuses to cut-off her hospital bracelets. She is certain they will act as a charm against another stay.

Susan Dickman has most recently published work in Best of the Best American Poetry, Lilith, and Intellectual Refuge, and is the recipient of three Illinois Arts Council awards, as well as a Pushcart nomination.

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There is No Such Thing as a Perfect Waffle

There is No Such Thing as a Perfect Waffle

By Christine Ritenis

Waffle ArtIt begins, as usual, with a frozen waffle. It isn’t toasted properly; it is too crisp, too soggy, not hot enough, or burned, according to my high school sophomore (let’s call her Nicole). Today, a Friday, the waffle is insufficiently warm.

My face reddens and I sense the upward surge of a normally low blood pressure when the complaint registers. I always prepare it the same way: first toasting it on “light,” and then, when I hear Nicole padding down the upstairs hall to the bathroom, heating it a second time, carefully spinning the gauge to the machine’s “perfect” mark. The toaster lies. There is no such thing as perfect.

“I did what I do every day,” I snap at the disgruntled teen, whose blue eyes have barely opened enough at 6:00 a.m. to see the thing.

“It’s not hot at all,” she responds, fidgeting with sleep-mussed hair.

My voice pitches high. “Eat your waffle.”

“Stop! Just sto-o-o-o-o-p,” Nicole then says, stretching the “o” sound to infinity.

On cue, I start to cry. “I love it when you tell me to ‘stop!’ every morning,” I retort, whining like a two-year old. “It’s a great way to begin the day.” I think, but don’t say, that I’ve raised a spoiled brat. The sobbing comes next (mine, not hers). “Just because you stay up too late doesn’t mean you have to take it out on me.”

“Overreacting,” the only child mutters, lowering her eyes.

I blubber something argumentative, but unintelligible.

“Overreacting,” she repeats, as she cuts the crusts off the waffle and nibbles calmly on the lukewarm center.

She’s right. I am overreacting, but months of near constant physical pain in the neck, head, and foot have taken their toll, and having a fit is my normal response to stress these days. The word “stop” from Nicole has become a trigger that sets off rampages I can’t control. Embarrassing tantrums from a middle-aged mother who remained unruffled through all of her daughter’s previous crises—injuries to the dog, squabbles with friends, failed acting auditions— even undercooked waffles.

“You’ll make your own breakfast starting next week!” I scream, unaware that a hurricane will ravage the area on Monday, that there will be bigger worries than waffles. I’d likely have forgotten by then anyway. In fact, the entire incident will be relegated to the past by noon, except for the self-reproach. That will remain, strapped to my back like a too-heavy pack, further aggravating the already sensitive spine.

My psychiatrist told me that unwarranted violent outbursts are signs of a deep depressive disorder. We were talking about my 86-year-old father—he’s been raging without end at the staff of his senior citizen residence—but I recognized the symptom in myself as well. My father has been overly needy since he left his house several months ago, forced to relocate by my mother and me out of concern for his safety. He calls daily, often before dawn, and generally in a state of frenzy. He demands numerous visits, including weekly rides to have his nails cut, multiple trips to the bank (he’s unaccustomed to using the telephone for business matters), and endless grocery runs, especially for chocolate, cookies, and Diet 7-Up. He claims that the cleaning staff interrupts him on the toilet and accuses the aides of stealing his blankets. He is exhausting, his life a perpetual string of crises, emergencies, and absurdity, a tragicomedy starring a hunched-over old man with his crazed daughter in a critical supporting role.

When hysteria washes over me, tsunami-like, and cannot be contained, I worry that I’ve inherited his predilection for drama. A family member (it might have been Nicole) recently pointed out a sliver of spinach that had caught between my teeth at dinner. Ordinarily I would have plucked the offending strand from my mouth. Done. On this evening, I spun into a childlike frenzy. That casual comment felt as hurtful to me as hearing “no” can be to a youngster, and I morphed into that bawling stomping toddler in the mall, the one that insists on ice cream—the parents apologizing with horrified looks—that drives other patrons away. When the vocal tempest ended, I stormed upstairs, slipped into bed, and wept great pools of salty tears. About spinach.

Nicole knows that I’m seeing a doctor for feelings of sadness. We haven’t dis- cussed depression, but she witnesses the constant crying and fits of temper. The observant 15-year-old has undoubtedly reduced it all to one easy-to-understand word: overreaction. Our quarrels, however, are normal. “I’m a teenager. This is the time we’re supposed to be fighting,” she insists. She often rewards me with hugs and declarations of love after- wards, but they don’t compensate for my humiliation. I wish that depression were a life stage, a sort of midlife crisis, and could be ended by simply climbing a mountain or buying a shiny red convertible. I wish I didn’t feel responsibility for symptoms I can’t rein in.

Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between the bizarre blow-ups and typical parent-teen bickering. Would a non-depressed mother erupt when a daughter rolls her eyes or refuses to start her homework or help around the house? In calm moments, I recognize that it’s a matter of degree. Every parent must be tempted to yell, maybe shout at a youngster on occasion, but my tirades are grossly out of proportion with Nicole’s offenses. Think waffle.

Parents avoid certain actions in front of their children: cursing, drinking to excess, speaking ill of others, and losing control. We’re supposed to be adults, after all. I’ve been successful at refraining from swearing, unless you count calling the occasional bad driver an idiot, and Nicole hasn’t seen me abuse alcohol. I try not to gripe about my father, even when he’s acting foolish, which happens often. It’s the sniveling and wailing, the roaring, the storming about, and the general instability, much like Monday’s hurricane that felled hundred-year-old trees, pulling them out at the roots, some lifting the ground on which they stood, that’s scary.

I despise it, this illness. I want to rid myself of a disease I don’t discuss openly, the disorder that threatens to crack the foundation of our family life. I wasn’t always an unbalanced terror. Until recently, I could restrain unnatural emotional responses. The culprit is obvious. The unrelenting pain started the witch-like behavior, pain that first aggravated and annoyed and eventually became unbearable. Pain that continues, despite foot surgery each of the last three years, and a cervical spine fusion in January.

Pre-pain, I relieved stress through marathon running and an entire identity was tied to the sport. The vanity license plate on my car says IRUNALOT, but I refuse to replace it, a small act of defiance that will never recover what is lost. Now I can barely walk three miles and I shriek at my teen and become overly frustrated with my father and rely on my husband to keep it all together. Not one of us is happy.

It would require a simple keyboard click to unsubscribe, but I still receive Runner’s World magazine online Quotes of the Day, inspirational sayings that once motivated, but now irritate me, like this morning’s from Ben Logsdon: “There is no time to think about how much I hurt; there is only time to run.” I’m sure he’s talking about pain that a marathoner experiences, the type I was accustomed to, like racing 26.2 miles in freezing rain with a sprained ankle. He’s right. It’s possible to ignore almost any discomfort if the end is in sight, even 20 miles away. But when—despite the efforts of a medical team that recommends new sneakers, more supportive orthotics, a variety of pain meds, multiple steroid injections to the foot and spine, anti-inflammatories, physical therapy, surgery, and more physical therapy—there is no visible conclusion, and each day and week and month is a dizzying migraine of pounding, stabbing, and throbbing agony, whether of the foot or neck or head, there is little time to think about anything else. It is all consuming. Work, household chores, and errands play a distant secondary role and parenting the way I’d like has become impossible. That is the pain that causes insanity.

To most people, I look normal, and behave as I always did. Doing my job. Getting by with minimum effort and an abundance of take-out. My family suffers the misery, mostly in the evening when we’re all grumpy, and the affliction is at its worst. By day’s end I bawl if that rare home-cooked dinner is a failure or Nicole casts me a disapproving glance. When I imagine myself in full tantrum, I see a 52-year-old graying-blond toddler, face scrunched and crimson, as if I’m looking into a fun- house mirror where mother inexplicably becomes child.

Medication regulates my mood. Usually I function in neutral, not unduly joyful, but not particularly sad either. (It’s a good place to be, the physician assured me.) The pills haven’t been effective at reducing the number or force of the outbursts and I fear the impact of such volatility on my teen. Will she, too, flare up for no rea- son, like her mother and grandfather before her? She’s remarked that we’re alike, and that’s why we argue. I’ve also noted a new testiness and wonder if, inadvertently, she’s mimicking my behavior. Instead of sympathizing if I complain that a headache is particularly bad, she’ll mouth off, “NOW you’ll be cranky.” The temptation to lash out is overwhelming, until I realize that she’s probably acting like a typical teenager. Or maybe not. In my delicate state, it’s challenging to differentiate regular teen sass from bad behavior.

At the coffee shop where I write after the recent hurricane, the patrons share tables, power cords, and conversation, and the manager puts me in charge of answering the phone during an early rush. “May I help you? Yes, we’re open,” I repeat to each caller. “Yes, we have WiFi.” When an affable young man in a costume walks in, I remember that it’s Halloween, a holiday I’d nearly forgotten. Suddenly I notice the calm community that has developed in this customarily frenetic place. With schools closed, Nicole is asleep in our dark and unheated home. I wish she could wit- ness the friendliness of people pulling together under duress. She should see me as relaxed as I am now, telephone receiver and decaf coffee in hand. I want her to experience the old me, an energetic and spontaneous mom who doesn’t fall apart for random reasons. The mom who takes her and three friends to an amusement park and rides with them on Down Time, where we scream happily through the entire 185-foot drop. The mom who drives into a blizzard to visit the Crayola Factory so that we can avoid crowds. Not the mom who is angry, unmotivated, and requires afternoon naps. Does she remember that better person?

Earlier this week, when the misery became intolerable, a specialist again injected my spine with steroids. The doctor said that if this treatment worked, there could be residual discomfort for up to two weeks. I’ve done this all before and wasn’t optimistic, but the neck and head torment have begun to diminish. Naturally I’m now more conscious of how much my foot still hurts. It’s unclear whether this partial fix will lessen the depression, but there are positive signs.

Nicole complained about her waffle this morning, the one she would have toasted herself, had I recalled my pre- storm threat.

“Sorry,” I replied evenly.

She continued to eat. “There must be something wrong with the toaster.”

There isn’t, but I didn’t argue, and the meal remained peaceful. It was that easy. A normal mother and her teenager survive the morning routine without incident. (Some days from now I will learn how to toast the waffle to my daughter’s satisfaction, a skill that, unfortunately, will not last.)

By 7:00 a.m. Nicole is on the bus, and I decide to try a short jog. My father calls as I’m getting ready, leaving a message on my cell phone, but I disregard the interruption, lace my sneakers, and set off. It’s my kind of running weather, an early bright sky with a chill in the air. Without thinking, I begin what used to be a regular route. I start slowly, measuring my body’s response, observing the surroundings. Despite the massive pines that were felled by the storm, it didn’t tear all the leaves off the deciduous trees, as if to remind me that fall hasn’t yet ended. My toes cramp a bit, but not badly, so I speed up in the second mile, avoiding downed wires and tree limbs at the sides of suburban streets. Even with workday noise, it’s peaceful. The rhythm, the pounding. I smile as I break into a sweat, remembering other miles when layers were shed and turtlenecks felt too snug. Breathing rapidly, I take a quarter mile walk break and then run again, walking and running at intervals until I complete the loop, 4.2 miles. A feeling I had missed returns, barely recognizable. This, I believe, is contentment.

Still glowing, I listen to my father’s pre-sunup message. He called to say “hello,” nothing more.

After school, Nicole and I share news over a snack. She says that her day was fine; I tell her about my run. Nicole looks hopeful and asks if I’m feeling better, perhaps pitching for a trip to buy jeans at the mall. Although the question is simple, I sense its importance and think before answering. “Yes,” I finally respond, “I am feeling better.” Later I inform my husband that Nicole was in a good mood. “For a change,” he replies with a grin, having tolerated the months of drama with steadfast grace. On the edge of sleep that night it comes to me. I had a good day too, not quite, but almost perfect.

Author’s Note: When I began to craft this essay, I feared revealing weakness, worried that I’d be expelled from carpool duties. Yet as I chatted with friends, I learned that some of them too suffer from depression. “I’ve been taking Prozac for years,” one said, laughing. That alone freed me to write openly. In recent weeks, while storm cleanup continues, my doctor and I have cobbled together a more effective mix of medication. At the same time, Nicole has decided that difficult-to-botch breakfast sausages are vastly preferable to waffles.

When not shuttling her teenager or father around the suburbs, CHRISTINE RITENIS writes, runs, and knits recycled plastic totes. She also serves as New York Arts Correspondent for Connoisseur magazine. In 2010, she was a finalist for the Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize and her essays have appeared in Still CrazyThe Fiddleback, and The Writing Disorder. Christine earned an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College.

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