First appeared in Stigmama, March 26, 2014:
"My son scared the living hell out of me."
This story brings me to my knees. Ann chillingly captures and takes us right to the rawness of being a mother facing a maternal mental health crisis. Her poem is called, ADJUSTING WELL. Who can relate to this?
Seventy hours of labor. A surgery I didn’t want.
A wild thing, he had tried for three days to come out ear first.
There was nothing any of the midwives could do.
It was up to the surgeons now.
The machine meant to give me the morphine was broken.
No one noticed, not even me.
Pain had become my familiar by then,
And I could no longer discern it as separate from myself.
The nurses in cheerfully colored scrub tops
Left my meds up to me,
giving me a complicated schedule and a key to a drawer with tiny bottles.
I didn’t know my own name.
I was so tired.
So I didn’t take them.
I wasn’t sure how.
We drove home on the third day and climbed the three flights of stairs to our tiny home.
He was too heavy for me to carry with my broken midsection.
His father bore him over the threshold and I followed, head bent.
We had no visitors traipsing in and out of our apartment.
His mother spent the first night on our too-lumpy couch,
and was gone before we woke.
My parents were states away, building their retirement dream home.
We hadn’t thought we’d need anyone.
And now we didn’t know we could ask.
He went back to work after two weeks.
I told him to go, yes, go.
We need the money. We can’t have you take too much unpaid leave.
But walking was impossible.
Getting myself something to eat was months away.
(Some of you asked how I “got my body back” so quickly.
What should I tell you? That I could not physically stand long enough to
prepare anything to eat? That a hungry breastfeeding baby
combined with no help will drive you to near starvation?)
But a baby must be held, kept clean, fed.
Diapers, ours anyway, had to be washed.
So I sidled up to pain, that ugly dark thing
that lived at my breast like some phantom twin,
and I wore my baby,
and I winced as I hung diapers on the line to dry.
And I waited for this nightmare to change.
My kidneys grew a horrible infection,
A parting gift from the hospital.
We had to go to back to the ER,
Where I had no doctor’s name to give,
No “primary care provider” in the system.
My midwives weren’t part of any system, that’s why I’d chosen them in the first place.
More IV lines. More plastic tubes.
I wondered how the bruises on my hands would heal
If I kept needing these needles.
My son scared the living hell out of me.
With him he brought a storm of agony-
Aggressors in white coats, turmoil, fear, death.
I saw him as a horseman of my own personal apocalypse.
His cries, which went on hour after hour, were like Valkyrie on the wind,
signaling a terrible oblivion.
What I remember most from that time was the solitude.
No, that is too friendly a word.
I remember the desperate, wall-crawling isolation.
The way a blackness would creep in at the corners up the walls and close in on me,
even as summer light streamed through the windows.
I hated that light. It was uselessly far away.
What meager help was offered,
from my partner,
from a friend cities away,
I could not bear to accept.
The situation was dire, you see.
I could not trust anyone-
Not loved ones, not my child, not even myself.
Hunkering down like a wolf caught in a trap,
I snarled that I could
do it myself.
And this ferocity lent to me a glamour of competency,
Even normalcy? Happiness?
Adjusting well, that’s what it says on my medical records six weeks postpartum.
Two weeks after that, I told my therapist my plan to end my life.
Death had always been close, ever since I’d lain on that operating table.
What better way to adjust than to move on?
And yet. I remained.
The phone rang that day, a call from my therapist, who was “checking in.”
In my madness I confessed my entire life-ending plan to her as though it was a stroke of utter genius, the solution to every problem we had been discussing in her office.
Calmly, carefully, in controlled tones, she brought me back from the brink.
And she sent my husband home immediately.
She told him that I was not adjusting well.
She told him I was ill, very ill.
He said he knew anyway,
But had no idea what to do
Besides love me quietly.
And now, three years later, with hair that glows once more,
with a child who fills the skies with shrieks of discovery and delight and pain,
I am still adjusting.
Some days I do this well. Other days I don’t.
I have stopped my snarling.
Not because I am no longer a type-A person
desperate to feel in control and capable.
No, I am still those things in my heart.
But, I learned a secret.
Lean closer. I will share it with you.
To not be seen in this work,
this humbling tutelage our children give us,
this education that eviscerates and rends and rebuilds,
is to risk invisibility.
When we are invisible, dear ones,
My precious ones,
We are dead.
So I gently, ever so gently,
Give myself permission to be seen.
I ask other mothers, friends on this road,
to look at me.
And I look back at them.
That is the alchemy I learned
A spell wrought from a dark place
By a mother