Browsing Tag

health

Guest Posts, healing, Illness

I Got Sick

September 3, 2020
sick

By Dakota Antelman

I had a favorite phrase when I was young.

“My body hates me.”

I did, after all, spend quite a bit of time in hospitals.

First, there was the epilepsy. I underwent four EEG monitoring procedures on my brain where doctors glued dozens of electrodes to my scalp. Each time, they’d send me home wearing an electric ponytail of wires that slid down my back and into a string bag carrying a shoebox sized computer. My mother hovered through it all, staying close, playing the Brandi Carslile music she loved when we drove to and from the neurology clinic.

The doctors didn’t like what they saw on any of those EEGs. So, they diagnosed me with a mild form of epilepsy and prescribed me Depakote, an anti-seizure drug. A month later, my body exploded in hives in an anaphylactic response to the medication. I switched drugs. The seizures were well controlled with minimal side effects from then on.

“But it’s worth keeping an eye on,” my neurologist said.

Then there was the Marfan Syndrome workup. My mom said I looked too tall and was worried that my pre-teen propencity for spraining my gangly ankles or jamming my fingers while wrestling with my brother could actually be the result of a connective tissue issue. Both those symptoms, she read, were common of Marfan patients.

Her fears proved unfounded. But all that did snowball into a series of EKG monitoring procedures that, in turn, led to ultrasounds examining my cardiovascular structure. Those found that I had grown up with an artery wrapped around the wrong side of my heart. It wasn’t necessarily dangerous.

“But it’s worth keeping an eye on,” the cardiologist said.

Around the same time, doctors identified a curve in my spine. They diagnosed me with scoliosis and fitted me with a custom plastic brace. For two years, I slept in a clamshell contraption that encased my entire torso and pressed a metal bar into the space just below my collarbone.

Every night, I stood dejected in front of my mother or father to be ratcheted into the brace by the three velcro straps on my back. Each morning, I woke with deep gouges in my flesh from the seams of my undershirts.

I would dress for school drenched in the sweat I’d formed under unbreathable plastic skin.

“But at least that got better,” my orthopedist said.

As I finally tossed the brace to the trash, though, my dentist referred me to an orthodontist who, in turn, referred me to an orthodontic surgeon. She told me my conflicting crossbite and underbite were so severe I would need major surgery to correct them. At my parents’ suggestion, I took a year off of school before college to let doctors chisel my jaw loose from my skull and pin it back in place with 42 titanium screws and plates.

Finally, in tandem with all of that, my mental health collapsed in my senior year of high school. Lifelong anxiety crippled my studies and depression led me to the brink of suicide. I spent a week in a locked inpatient psychiatric hospital where I befriended everyone from a 71-year-old heroin addict to a girl my age who could not speak and who tried to kill herself twice during the week I knew her.

The boy with scoliosis, a misaligned jaw, epilepsy, depression and anxiety, I learned to love the hospital waiting room for its absence of blood draw needles and antibiotics that made my stomach churn. I began to think I looked cutest in hospital gowns.

But, looking back, it doesn’t even feel like those days lost to the warp of hospital time were even mine to begin with. The world gave me those ailments. My mom got me to the hospital. And the doctors ruled my days when I was there.

Thus, for all my nights spent hearing the beeping white noise of blood oxygen monitors and the sounds of nurses’ clogs in the hallways, it doesn’t feel like I ever got sick until the eve of my 20th birthday.

***

I went to the doctor just two days after Christmas in 2019. I had been sick with a brutal sore throat since finishing my first semester at college 13 days earlier. My neck also ached. My lymph nodes were swollen.

An urgent care doctor at my primary care clinic gagged me with a strep test. She shoved a flu test up my nose and sent me upstairs for bloodwork.

I didn’t have the flu. And I had dodged mono despite several of my friends coming down with that in the previous months. Most of my hormones were normal and the strep test that came back positive didn’t worry the doctor too much. She assigned a single course of antibiotics.

The grape sized white lump on my testicle, though, did worry her.

“That’s something,” she said.

She ordered an ultrasound that came back inconclusive. She referred me to a urologist.

I scheduled the appointment but, in a matter of days, realized I could not wait for it to come. The growth quadrupled in size after the ultrasound. It hurt to walk. I was scared. My dad nearly died of testicular cancer in his 20s, after all. The stuff was in my DNA.

So I checked myself into the ER the same afternoon I moved back into college for my spring semester. After a half dozen doctors examined and interrogated me about my medical history, one eventually came into my room and told me they would conduct an emergency operation to remove and analyze the top part of the still unidentified mass. They couldn’t name it, but it looked bad.

***

A nurse later told me that the acidic nature of the growth had neutralized the numbing cream and injections the surgeon tried to administer.

I felt everything.

Now, my throat hurt from the hot heavy gasps I took as the knife cut into my skin.

The side of my hand showed red, bearing an almost cartoonish bite mark from where I had clamped down to avoid cursing in a pediatric ward.

And I felt the dry salt of sweat clinging to my face and chest after erupting forth when I tightened my muscles in pain.

I collapsed into the arms of my roommate who had been waiting outside the ER doors. I was exhausted. I felt violated.

***

I wrote part of this essay the night before the follow up appointment after that ER visit. I didn’t know what the biopsy found. I didn’t know if I would soon be in an operating room under bright light waiting for an additional surgery.

I know the answers to those questions now. I still don’t want to include them. Although I will say I’m better now and free of any cancer.

I leave this story incomplete because this is not the story of a cancer scare. And this is not a trauma memoir. This is a testament, a macabre note to self about the ways these moments somehow felt grimly empowering.

Throughout my childhood, I went to the hospital when my mother told me to, or when my primary care physician found a problem during my annual physical.

This time, though, I needed no prodding. It was my gut instinct and my pain that made me peel my body off my dorm room floor and say, “I’m going to the ER.”

Throughout my childhood, my mother drove me to the hospital regardless of who I saw there. She loved me. She wanted to take care of me. And I’m grateful for it all. But, with few exceptions, she was the one always transporting my body from my safe home to the unfamiliar hospital. That meant she was the one effectively submitting my body to the often-invasive work of these doctors.

This time, though, I did the transportation. I walked down my stairs. I hobbled down the cracked streets of Chinatown, dodging puddles and waiting for walk signs. I stared confident mature daggers at building numbers and marquee style signs reading “Main Entrance” and “Emergency Room.”

I walked into that building. I placed myself before the triage nurse. And I said “I need help. Do whatever you must.”

Throughout my childhood I knew that the body named “Dakota” was often sick. I knew when that body hurt, and when that body’s brain spun with anxiety over needles, thus passing out and scaring nurses. I knew that body hated hospitals with every bent bone, misfiring neuron and deformed artery it possessed. But I never did feel like I was sick.

When I was with all those doctors, I didn’t have to look inward and articulate what I felt. I didn’t have to interact while they verbally or physically invaded my sick body. My mom, or my primary care physician’s referral did all of that for me.

Thus, the true agony of these years was not the pain, the surgical rehab, the discomfort of the back brace, or the confusion of waking up after passing out. It was, instead, internalized automatic dissociation. My body wasn’t mine when I laid on those tables. It was a slab of diseased nonverbal meat being cleaned and purified to be fit for the normal human world.

This time though, I didn’t feel that way. I got myself to that hospital. I articulated my pain and asked for help to relieve it. That meant that, as doctors worked on me, I was the one asking, “What are you putting in my IV?” I was the one saying, “I have a low pain tolerance, I will probably pass out.” And I was the one guessing “What’s next?”

Self-advocacy forced me to come back into my own body that day in the ER.

And that independence wiped the phrase “My body hates me” from my lexicon. My body alone didn’t get sick. No, my body and I were one.

I got sick.

Then I got help.

Then I stepped into the hospital vestibule. The door didn’t open, so I waved defiantly at the black box atop the metal door frame, a sick boy stumbling out of that hospital with unfamiliar association and confidence.

Now, the motion sensor saw me. And the door opened.

Dakota Antelman is a young freelance writer from Massachusetts with experience in traditional AP style journalism and personal essay/column writing. His essays have been published in a variety of outlets including the non-profit, Let Grow.

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Chronic Illness, Guest Posts, pandemic

What Doesn’t Kill You Still Sucks: HIV & COVID-19

August 28, 2020
covid

By Martina Clark

The last time I went outside it was March. March 2020, I believe, but who actually knows. Time has become the intellectual equivalent of holding water in your hand.

Like most of us, I’m under ‘stay-at-home’ rules during this pandemic. I live in Brooklyn, NY which has had approximately the same number of cases of COVID-19–and twice as many deaths–as all of Canada.

Like too many of us, I’ve also been under quarantine. It is almost certain that I have contracted COVID-19, although I can’t confirm this with 100% certainty because it is nearly impossible to be tested for the virus. The only viable way to get a test is to go to a hospital. On the off chance I have some other illness with identical symptoms, the last place I want to go is to an Emergency Room filled with people who are already ill. I don’t want to expose myself further. I don’t want to get on public transportation to travel. And I certainly don’t want to add to the burden of overwhelmed health care workers just for a test.

I’m about three weeks into this journey and I count my blessings every day that I’ve had a ‘mild’ case which, from my experience, presented as such:

  1. Fatigue. Extreme fatigue. Early on in this global health crisis, I joked that my ‘quarantine adaptive gene’ was strong because I’m quite happy to stay home and am never bored. But being lazy is not the same as fatigue and this virus made it nearly impossible to get out of bed many days, and the smallest of tasks wore me out. I’m slowly getting back to normal, but I still need more sleep than usual.
  2. Body aches. Again, I’m not a super sporty person, but walking up and down a flight of stairs is normally not a challenge. With this virus, however, one flight of stairs–up or down, not even both directions–felt like I’d done a thousand squats, run a marathon, and been poked with needles all at the same time.
  3. Chest pain. This is the part that lingers but, mercifully, with lessening intensity. In the first week of illness, I felt as if I had claws inside my rib cage. I’ve had bronchitis and I’ve had shingles. This was more painful than both combined. Today, three weeks later, it only feels like a Shrek-sized creature is squeezing my chest. Tightly. It hurts more if I sit too long. It particularly hurts in the morning when I wake up. But it is better. Much better.
  4. Nausea. Motion sickness on steroids. I choose to believe that whatever creature was clawing inside my chest was also making sardine milkshakes for fun. The worst was waking up to the nausea, although going to sleep with it wasn’t much fun either. During the day, it would sometimes abate, but not for long. It also lingers but is much milder than before.
  5. Headaches. I thought I’d been spared the headaches, until I wasn’t. They hit me quickly and like a brick. I’ve only ever had one migraine, but this was reminiscent of that experience, although without the light-sensitivity. Thankfully, those were neither constant nor lingering.
  6. Sore throat. Similarly, I thought I’d missed this symptom, but it joined my COVID entourage in the third week. It is not unbearable, but it is unpleasant. But I can swallow and breathe so I count myself lucky.
  7. Dry cough. The least annoying and, luckily, the least severe. I’ve definitely had worse coughs in my life, but this remains worth noting, as it is a regular reminder that I’m still not over this virus which is still working its way through after three weeks.
  8. Fever. Apparently, I’m a bit cold blooded because my temperature never topped 99º.
  9. Loss of smell or taste. Never happened. The litter box still needs regular cleaning.
  10. Shortness of breath. I count every lucky star in the sky that I never experienced any shortness of breath. My breathing has been shallow, and still is, but I’ve never struggled for air. I am so very lucky.

But this is not my first virus rodeo. The real kicker in this story is that this year marks the fact that I’ve been living with HIV for half my life, 28 years to be exact. I sincerely believed I’d served my time with life-threatening viruses but, apparently, the universe thought otherwise. I followed the guidelines, socially distanced, washed my hands, sanitized surfaces, and used face coverings before they were cool, but I still got exposed.

Most likely I was at higher risk because I have HIV. On the other hand, I’m wondering if I managed to avoid a worse case because I already take antiretroviral medications for HIV. I don’t know, nobody does. My doctor said that they are designing trials to study COVID-19 in people with HIV so perhaps they’ll be able to, one day, find out. I will gladly volunteer to be studied, as I have with WIHS, a natural history study of women living with HIV for the past 25+ years. My nephew calls me a ‘living resource’ which makes me proud and gives my survival that much more purpose.

Last week my doctor told me I was cleared to go outside, like actually outdoors, but I haven’t yet. Each day I look out the window and think, maybe tomorrow. I have amazing neighbors who shop for me when needed.

I have an extraordinary crew of siblings and niblings who check on me, send fruit baskets and cards, and offer to do grocery runs on my behalf and then drop and dash, leaving the goods at my doorstep.

My partner, by chance, was away visiting family–and is now stuck in another state–so I have not had the added burden of worrying about putting him at risk during my quarantine. Thanks to FaceTime we’re connected several times a day so although I am alone physically, I am far from lonely. It may sound strange, but I am grateful he is not in New York right now to experience this catastrophic chaos or the incessant wailing of ambulance sirens.

Friends check on me, my doctor checks on me, family check on me, and my beautiful cat, Sangha, reminds me that she is still in charge and needs more snacks. She snuggles with me and provides feline contact. She’s a tiny warm body, but she still counts.

And, surprisingly, (or maybe not) I feel far less alone than I did when coping with my diagnosis for HIV. We don’t know much about COVID-19, but this pandemic has hit like a tsunami. The numbers are staggering and horrific, but I know I am–tragically–not alone. 

With HIV, however, I’d never seen another woman with HIV–that I knew of–and so I felt I was on my own. I wasn’t, but that was how it felt. Today we are building on the experience and knowledge borne from the response to HIV and AIDS. While it is a reminder that we didn’t act quickly enough in the 1980s and 1990s to that pandemic, it is, at the same time, gratifying to know that all of the work that has been done by activists and scientists, and others, has not been for naught.

I’m so blessed that my story continues to transition to a happy ending, yet so very sad not everyone else is as lucky. My heart goes out to all who have lost loved ones to COVID-19, as well as to HIV and AIDS and all of the other awful fatal causes. Stay home if you can. Stay safe as best you can and know that you are not alone.

Martina Clark teaches writing for CUNY, but previously worked for more than 20 years as an HIV educator for the United Nations system, notably for UNAIDS, UNICEF, and UN Peacekeeping. She holds a BA in International Relations and an MFA in Creative Writing and Literature. Martina lives in Brooklyn, NY, but will forever be a Californian.

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aging, Guest Posts, motherhood

Well Played

April 23, 2020
run

By Natalie Serianni

The buzzer sounds as I pull up my white soccer socks. It’s freezing; I can see my breath.

I’m inside.

Inside but outside. An old airport hangar converted into a three-field soccer complex.

The scoreboard reads 10:52 pm.

The game is a few minutes late to start, people like ants piling on to the pitch.

It’s familiar territory, this kind of a field; my home for at least 20 years of my life.

The highlight reel:

Suburbia 80’s soccer: Members Only jackets on the sidelines; my mother, her frosted hair and Reeboks cheering and clapping as we whizzed by. Kids running around orange cones or picking flowers in the corner. Learning to kick. To run.

Elementary soccer:  Billy Ocean blaring as we drill, drill, drill. Stations: moving us along down, down, down the field.

Teen games: Sweltering summer games. Cold washcloths, straight from the Coleman cooler, strategically placed on wrists and necks. On the face, the faint smell of Tide during an inhale. Calves aching, but young bodies craving movement. Able to rest, play. Repeat.

High School: Hot sun and short shorts. Boys. Are the boys looking? Here comes the boys team. Learning how to play dirty. Sitting on busses. The spaghetti dinners and “We will Rock You” piped through the PA. Warm up tapes, mixing the power of Public Enemy and Led Zeppelin. It was theatrical: the show, the spectacle instead of the game. There were parents in the bleachers; my father at every game. Home or Away, home or away. On the cusp of a bigger game.

College Soccer: Always away; so far from home. Different state, different soil. So many sprints. Practices that were competitions. Late nights lit by black lights and Rage Against the Machine in cement block dorms rooms. Hung over mornings that began with pushups, noses tickled by fresh mowed grass, trickling temple-sweat. It was four years too long.

The muscle, the memory. That competitive monster. It does not fade.

And now, present day: Indoor and on the team. 43. I’ve returned. I’ve paid my dues. I paid my registration fee and there won’t be a trophy. Or an end of season banquet where we don something other than sweats and eat Chicken Marsala in a Holiday Inn conference room. 40 year old soccer is having carpet burned knees and burning lungs. After-game pitchers of cold Coors Light and forty year olds circled around a table, talking about “sweet shots” and back slaps with Nice move out there! Sweaty socks, tiny turf bits falling out as we munch stale, hours old popcorn under buzzing fluorescent lights. It’s the joy of knowing I’ll be sore for two days; my husband tucking my babies into bed. Returning home to a quiet house. A lone, dim light above the oven, my midnight invitation to solitutude. A late, silent shower.

There is freedom on that field.

An ability to fly. Away from preparation, or list-making, or lunch-packing for others. The anchor of motherhood and other demons temporily lifted.

It’s a game and I’m playing.

It’s just play.

And I’m just a mother running and running.

Finally, running.

***

Running was my extra-curricular activity as a women’s college soccer player.

I was running to stay in shape; training for the next match. Preparing. And also, strangely,  whittling myself down to a muscle; stripping away to the leanest version of myself. Past the woman I hated; past the woman who had to be playing a sport. I ran away from myself, from my disdain, running at 5:30 in the morning to think, and think and think and think and think

…about how much I hated playing soccer.

How much I hated my body for playing this game that was no longer a game.

I remember being a college sophomore in a dank, sweaty basement gym, floor fans blasting at 11pm.

Alone.

My old monster: Working out. Losing all traces of myself.

Fanatically exercising. An hour plus on the Stairmaster was normal. Push down, push down, hold on, hold on. Whoosh, Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.

Incremental Red lights on the machine dashboard, dots, Screaming: go faster! Push harder! Pulsing: Don’t slow down! 275 Calories to go! Dripping with sweat, my hands slipped off the black handrails. Add a scratchy white hand towel and the sliding became more comical: the towel and I slipping further down the machine. I prop myself back up, my sweaty body hunched over the machine in agony, pushing myself.

And this was after two hour practices on the college soccer field.

Self-sabotage. I had to work it off because bigger, stronger, meant fat.

I wasn’t. I was a muscular 20 year old woman playing a collegiate sport, feeling betrayed by her body’s strength. Where it showed; the armor I created. I needed the heaviness gone.

Why did I confuse strength with size?

More Cardio. More stairs. Only eating small sections of apples. Maybe a few raisins.

The cycle continued for a year, my legs becoming chicken bones.

Can a competitive sport turn you into the opponent?

Trying to disappear, shaming myself away from my muscular thighs and too-strong arms.

To combat this, I:

ran at odd hours and ate salads with no dressing and drank hard liquor since my college friends told me there were no calories and wore too baggy jeans and woke up starving in the middle of the night and dreamed of delicious cheese-y lasagna all while I could not brush the stench of hunger from my breath. 

There was a warped, seductive power in wearing a white v neck t-shirt with your clavicle peaking out. It screamed small. In control. Look at me, dammit. See me. I’m more than the game.

My body wanted nothing to do with this warfare. It didn’t fight back. It collapsed. A non-female body; period loss for a year and a half. Complete disconnection.

There was running. Morning miles and marathons. Hip flexors tight from repetitive repetition.

There was pulling: a row machine. Picking up: Black dumbells from their home on the rack.

There was pushing: leg lifts. A heavy bar away from my chest.

And later, babies.

Mothering is its own kind of sport, birth the ultimate sporting event. There are not many spectators, but the world has a wager on you.

Growing big and small, and big and small. The weigh ins. Once, both of our growths recorded on charts, listening for two heartbeats and placing hands with measuring tape on bellies. There was a pre-game type of excitement, energy and even anxiety: delighted worry mixed with sweet longing.

Two different babies, two different births: a 15 hour overnight labor; a quick two hour event. No medications. Contractions that split my body from its core; hunched over on all fours. Reaching through legs to pull out my bloody heart.

I pushed, plumbing my body for a strength I didn’t possess. Searching inside, trying to get out of my own way.

And then, the after. Lightness. Relief. Like the athlete, there’s recovery. Loss of fluids, blood and energy. To be replenished.

There is a sweet decline. Loss. The gestational heft that buoyed you both, your plump – the admirable warrior who carried and grew another.

Then, moving on to figuring where you fit: new mom groups, old jeans. A new life.

The focus is on the baby. But it’s also about you. Where are you?

Nine months at the mercy of a growing body: cells restoring, blood volume doubling, hearts beating simultaneously. Placenta placement? Fine. Baby measurement? Small, but healthy. You after birth?

Just you wait.

I made an intentional choice to be big, not small in mothering –  done listening to me tell me I wasn’t up for the job. I could no longer be steam rolled by my inadeqauices. Or my core-shaking anxiety: that my baby might slip through my fingers and fall on the hard wood. That I couldn’t drive with a baby in my backseat. The imagined terror that she would tumble off the overpass while strapped in the stroller. Or stop breathing without my hands lightly on her chest, feeling for movement at 3am.

I’m left to wonder about mothers, the wounds we have. The weight we carry.

Are we ever in control?

It’s what we all know: it’s work to keep the motherhood monster in the cave. The one that consistently tells us we’re not winning, but failing; we’re doing it all wrong and one step away from messing up our children. When I can’t control, I manipulate: my mind. My body.

No more.

I question my ability to protect my child. It haunts me at night. But I name my faults and know my weaknesses. I know the enormity of living a life. There, I find myself.

***

Motherless at 25, my body was betrayed. Again.

My stomach felt it first; a sucker punch to the solar plexus.

Aching: on and on and on, through the fibers of my interior.

Her body was betrayed, too: a stroke. So fast. Was there a chance for her?

For recovery, for a life?

After eighteen years of grief, I’m finally, nearly, out.

The body does, indeed, keep score.

There is emergence: the catalyst was my baby born on September 2nd. Also, My mother’s birthday. And, also, the day my mother died. Eighteen years before.

September 2nd.

At the dawn of my daughter’s life, I’m taking my mother’s lifeless, leftover years and converting them into a kind of currency.

I’m ready to play again.

I’ll slide quarters into the machine

Put me in coach I think to myself.

I gather my curls and rake them into a ponytail.

I’m warmed up, I’m primed. Loose.

I’ve loosened around my mother’s absence.

In returning to the void, I’ve found connection. Connecting me to her, me to my body. There’s power when you inhabit what you fear. Loneliness. Longing. My body used to be a container to evacuate, curse, question and crush. Today, I can embrace. Even when grief’s tentacles have taken over the ship, how we become our bodies dictates our course forward.

***

“SUB!!!!” I hear my teammate scream from the field.

I scan the field for her voice. I look to the clock: 2 minutes and 37 seconds left in the game.

I tuck my shirt in.

I’m looking forward to that field.

I wait for her to run over. She looks me in the eye, and our sweaty hands slap each other.

At the same time: “Good work out there” I said, starting my jog.

“You got this,” she says, breathless, winding her run down to a walk.

Let me out there, I think.

Watch out, I think.

I run towards the game.

I run towards the things I know.

Natalie Serianni is a Seattle-based writer, teacher and mother of two. Her work has appeared in Seattle’s ParentMap Magazine, Ruminate Magazine, Sammiches and Psych Meds, and various blogs and literary journals. Her writing centers on grief, gratitude and motherhood.

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aging, Guest Posts

Wait, and Hurry Up

April 19, 2020
clock

By Susan Goldberg

The clock radio in my younger son’s bedroom is gaining time.

At first, it was a couple of minutes a day. I’d tuck him into bed at night and notice that the time was off, and sigh, and reset it, syncing it back to my iPhone. I assumed that a child had accidentally pressed the minute button, or that one of the cats had walked across the clock — originally purchased by me at the age of 14 from Consumers Distributing — pushing it ever so slightly into the future.

Except that it happened every night, every bedtime, until I finally clued in that the clock, after more than three decades of service, was dying.

“I think it’s time to replace this thing,” I told my son one evening. He protested. He liked the clock radio, perched like a loaf of bread on his dresser. He liked the way it made mornings come earlier. He thought it would be mean, not to mention environmentally unfriendly, to get rid of it over something as trivial as a few minutes each day, to throw it into landfill when we could just reset it each night.

I was inclined to agree. The frugality of his position, his make-do attitude, appealed to me. I, too, liked the clock. It reminded me of the 19-year-old cat we’d recently lost. She had held out for so long, years and years of the same routine: sleeping in her red chair in the corner of the living room, making her slow way up the stairs each winter afternoon to the same bedroom that housed the clock, basking on my son’s bed in the warm light of the southern exposure. She deteriorated so slowly that it was hard to really notice it: the way she weighed a little less, shed more fur, took a little longer to climb the stairs each time. Until a week before she died, when her decline sped up markedly: her eyes suddenly milky, her gait stiffer and wobbly. I found her, one evening, on the floor in my older son’s bedroom, tiny and gone. We wrapped her body in one of the boys’ old satin baby blankets and buried her underneath the rhododendron bush in the back garden, next to the previous dead cat, also wrapped in a satin baby blanket.

In the past week or so, though, the clock seems to have taken its cue from the cat, speeding ahead each day not in increments of a few minutes but dozens. It’s 2:08 PM as I write this; the clock’s display currently reads 3:21. After years of perfect health followed by incremental degeneration, it has suddenly upped the ante. The curve of its demise has turned sharply upward; has become visible, measurable, pretty much literal in its countdown to the inevitable end, when we unplug it and put it in the box with all the other e-waste.

These days, some days, I feel like that clock.

Like this: One morning this past summer, I sat down to journal and realized that the words were blurry on the page. I’d been journaling nearly every morning for more than 20 years, the same Hilroy 5-subject notebooks, the same Pentel RSVP fine-tipped ballpoint pens, and all of a sudden it was almost intolerable, the way the words fluttered subtly on their light-blue lines, the way the pen strokes seemed to bleed.

Or this: at the end of the same summer, I was besieged suddenly with waves of nausea, unexplained, unbidden. Almost daily, I’d close my eyes and breathe through the sensation, sour and shaky: the clammy skin and dizziness, the tightening of the ligaments in my neck. It felt like morning sickness, although there was no earthly way I could be pregnant.

Now, all of a sudden, I am the person with four pairs of reading glasses: bedroom, office, kitchen, purse. For more than 40 years, since I learned to make sense of print, I could easily read the words on a page, and then one day I couldn’t. And now, I have a prescription for Zantac, admonitions from my doctor to cut back on caffeine, alcohol, mint, onions, garlic, fatty foods. I’ve been diagnosed — after a series of highly invasive and unpleasant tests involving tubes and barium and fasting and suppositories — with reflux. The sphincter between my stomach and esophagus is weak, loose; stomach acid slips past it and up into my throat, burning it just a little bit each time.

“And that’s what’s making me nauseated?” I asked my doctor. It seemed incongruous.

She nodded. “The body,” she said, “doesn’t always have the best ways to tell us what’s going on.”

I thought of all those nights, countless nights, in the past few years, when I woke up, chest tight, feeling like I couldn’t catch my breath. The tightness was familiar: it was the same feeling I’d had since 11th grade math class, when I began doubling over in pain around exam time. “What are you worried about?” my doctor had asked me, not unkindly, when I went to see her with my teenage complaints. She diagnosed me with math stress and suggested Tums, trying to relax.

The reflux diagnosis — which came on the Friday before my 46th birthday — felt on the one hand like a relief: I was heartened to know that there was a physical, medical explanation for what was going on (and that the explanation was not, say, cancer), that it could be treated through medication and “lifestyle modifications.” On the other hand, I found it oddly unsettling, even a betrayal: for years, I thought — because my doctor had told me as much — that my gastrointestinal issues were all in my head, purely the result of anxiety. All those times I woke in the middle of the night feeling sick with what I assumed was worry, when I tried to soothe the burning in my chest with calming self-talk (or, in a pinch, Ativan or sleeping aids), I could’ve just taken a Zantac and waited 20 minutes.

It’s strange, to rewrite that kind of story about oneself. Yes, of course I was anxious: about math class, my mother’s cancer, my separation, every other stressful event in the intervening three decades. Yes, stress triggers reflux; the two aren’t entirely unrelated. But I had never thought to ask about, and no one had told me, that its manifestations had physical causes, that I could do something more than breathe through the nausea or up my meditation practice (and be stressed at my lack of initiative when I didn’t).

Most unsettling, though, was that sharp upward curve in symptoms. Arguably, I’ve had reflux since my mid-teens. And then, in August, my body — like the clock — upped the ante, hastened the decline, doubled me over with a queasiness I couldn’t identify and finally couldn’t ignore.

I can see, already, how the same story could, probably will, play out with menopause. Right now, it’s still, mercifully, on the horizon. Despite everything I’ve read in my Facebook perimenopause group, I have lulled myself into thinking that it will be a smooth transition, unnoticeable: cycles that will gradually shorten until they one day disappear, without drama, without fuss.

Logically, of course, my assumption makes no sense: a series of increasingly shorter spans between periods doesn’t lead to a gradual cessation but, rather, to one long, unbroken bloodbath. My friends’ testimonies bear this out, as does math. What I should prepare for is that sudden, dramatic onset of symptoms: headaches, chin hairs, weight gain, insomnia, hot flashes. It’s not like I haven’t been warned. I was born with a finite number of eggs, and, one day, the last one will be released and then, suddenly, there will be no more. (Each month, I am half-amused and half-irritated at my ovaries’ persistent hope that this time might just be the time. “What exactly about my life,” I ask them, “makes you think that what I really need right now is one more baby?”) And yet I persist in imagining that I can get it “right,” that with regular exercise and (even) less coffee and alcohol, and some well-chosen supplements, I might be able to avoid all of that, to continue along my straight and narrow path toward menopause rather than slamming into that sharp, sudden curve of night sweats, broken sleep, the 10 pounds (more?) that will appear over the course of four months, no matter how many carbs I don’t consume.

It will feel sudden, but it won’t be. Just as, although I persist in thinking of the nausea as coming out of nowhere, really it’s the culmination of decades of acid, the slow weakening of muscles, associated nerves finally frayed that nanometre too much. Ditto, I imagine, with my vision: it’s more dramatic to think of my need for reading glasses as sudden, but isn’t it really the culmination of years of gradual decline? Aren’t we all dying from the moment we’re born? What’s that saying? Even a broken clock radio is right twice a day.

Can we really prepare for the passage of time? More specifically, can we really prepare for the number it does on our bodies? More and more, I’m inclined to think that I’m asking the wrong questions. You don’t really prepare for decline. You confront it, the way you confront grief, in stages: At first you deny its possibility, and then you ignore its symptoms, and then you rail against it, compensate subtly for it, think you can overcome it. Finally, with more or less grace, you get used to it, incorporate it into your daily life. The curve flattens out, becomes the new straight line. Until you’re hit with the next curveball.

I think of my friend J, whose own stomach upsets were, in fact, cancer. Ovarian. I’ve watched her move through precisely that cycle: ignoring or putting up with the symptoms until she had to drive herself to the hospital, puking in the parking lot from the pain. Her initial impulse to “get cancer right”; to arm herself with information, make the best decisions, to leverage every ounce of privilege and training and gumption she possessed (and she possesses all those things, in spades) to be the best cancer patient ever, to elude (or at least best manage) side effects, to stay in control of this whole thing. As a friend and fellow perfectionist, I have watched how cancer, how the system itself, has steadily countered these impulses. Ovarian cancer, her doctors told her, is now considered a chronic disease, one more damn thing to incorporate into daily life. I think of my own mother, diagnosed at 37, dead at 59, the decades in between and how she, how we all, learned to incorporate the disease and its possibility into each day. What she taught us, what I see in J, was how to live in a state of grace, gritty and hard-won though it may be.

If you’re lucky — and I think I’m lucky, so far, knock wood — you notice the grace within the grit. In the midst of your various declines, you begin to notice some sharp trends toward the better: how the friends you have now are the best friends you have ever had. How you are so much happier living single in your own house than you ever were married in it. How wonderfully sharp the reading glasses render the words on the page, your reflection in the mirror — now you can see every chin hair in high definition!

Your focus sharpens in other ways: now, all of a sudden, you no longer have any patience for the friendships that drain your energy, and give them up, revel quietly in the space their absence creates, the increased calm. How you stop beginning your sentences with the phrase I think or I might, and start saying I want or I am. Or I did — because you’ve stopped asking permission in advance. You have enough money: to buy a new clock radio for your son, for plane tickets when you really don’t want to drive, for new lingerie (not the utilitarian stuff) when perimenopause makes you spill out of the old bras.

You unplug the clock from its outlet and can’t quite help running your hand over its 1980s-brown plastic casing. You were so young when you bought it. You feel a bit silly, laying it down gently rather than tossing it into the box with all the other digital and electronic detritus: the immersion blender your former mother-in-law gave you one Christmas, an ancient cell phone with a cracked screen. You think of every milestone the clock witnessed, the way it kept the time, held the space, even and unruffled, all those years. If you had one handy, you might have wrapped the clock in a satin baby blanket. You think, but don’t quite say out loud, the words Thank you.

Susan Goldberg’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Catapult, Full Grown People, Toronto Life, Stealing Time, TueNight, Today’s Parent, and a variety of anthologies and websites, as well as on CBC, to which she is a regular contributor. She is the coeditor of the anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. She lives in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

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~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood

One Morning With Amy

December 8, 2019
shouts

By Susan McGee Bailey

For years, mornings with my daughter, Amy, began with shouting.

“Don’t you dare come in here, Mom!”

“Mom, I need you!”

“Mother! Where are you?”

Most mornings a familiar uneasiness in my stomach had already pulled me awake. My body learned long ago to hear Amy’s cries before any sound registered consciously. Since her birth more than forty years ago, she has survived complicated surgeries, spent endless months in rehab centers, and endured painful therapies. Her father and I made different choices when she was young. We divorced. I made a life with Amy on my own. I long for answers, for solutions to the difficulties my child confronts. But as is the case for most people with developmental and physical challenges, there is no single diagnosis. There is no silver bullet that can address all my daughter’s medical, emotional, and intellectual needs.

Years ago Amy moved from home to a more independent living situation in a group house, then home again when the anxiety of rotating staff became too overwhelming. We tried other group situations with similar results. Now she lives in a shared living situation with a young couple. Together we celebrate each new aspect of her independence: carrying her own house key, presenting her CVS gift card to the clerk, laying out her clothes for the next day. But I still jump up in the dark, half out of bed before remembering the sounds that awakened me are no more than the rustle of a birch branch or a breeze stirring the porch rocker. Some nights I fall back on the mattress and sleep. Other nights, I’ve fallen too far awake. Amy is not here. The house is empty and silent. A passing car breaks the stillness, a dog barks in response—daytime sounds out of place in the lonely night. I rock on the porch, hug my knees, and try to banish images of Amy calling for me.

One memorable weekday morning when Amy was in her late twenties, her voice was unusually loud. “Mother, I need help! Now! Right now!”

“I … am… coming…Amy.   I…am…here!” I hoped my voice was both audible and calm. Without her hearing aids, Amy hears only loud voices, words spoken a beat slower than normal.

Amy’s bowel problems, the ones that first developed when she was fifteen, had been worsening for several years. The many surgeries designed to help, instead weakened the muscles in her rectum. Controlling her bowels required constant vigilance to avoid daytime accidents. This success consumed her energy, increased her severe constipation, and worsened the nighttime situation. Four or five mornings a week she woke up with her body, her bed, often her walls, a smelly, smeared mess.

That morning I was glad it was winter. Every window was shut. Her agonized sobs, angry words, and slamming of doors would not disturb the neighbors. I would open the windows in her room and the bathroom before we left for her day program, never mind what it would do to the heating bill. The new deodorizer I’d paid twenty dollars for barely made a dent in the stench.

Once Amy was showered, shampooed, dressed, medications taken, bedroom and bathroom clean, her bedding in the washing machine, it often required the bribe of a store breakfast to get her out the door. By the time we’d reached the car that morning I was exhausted and close to tears. How would I make it through the workday?

The meeting of the project directors’ group at the feminist research center I directed hovered uneasily in my head. I needed time to think, to go over my planned remarks, but at this rate everyone would be assembled and waiting before I arrived. They would understand. Many had children. Those who didn’t were equally committed to a work environment that provided space for children, for families, for emergencies. Still, I didn’t want to take advantage of my position. The mornings when things went smoothly with Amy were fewer and fewer. She was not improving. New rounds of medical appointments would need to be scheduled.

I took a deep breath and started the car, trying to focus on the moment, not my meeting or Amy’s medical problems. “Where should we go for breakfast this morning, Amy?”

“I don’t care, I hate you! You are an ugly, stinky mother! I hate stinky!”

“It’s okay, Amy. What about Vidalia’s?”

“No, I say the Coffee Mug!”

The Coffee Mug was actually named The Clever Monk, but Amy’s hearing loss makes fine distinctions difficult. She often misunderstands words she does not know or has not heard before. She has always insisted the little shop was The Coffee Mug. When a couple of attempts to correct her resulted in angry shouts of “No, you are not right! I am right!” I surrendered to her certainty.

Two men on a ladder were putting up a new sign with the name “The Clever Monk” in large gold letters as we arrived. Amy was distracted from her anger, her blueberry eyes intent on this new activity. She rarely failed to embrace the excitement of the unexpected.

“Mother, look. They don’t know how to spell Coffee Mug! It should be C-O-F- E-E space M-U-G, right? They have C-L-E-V-E-R space M-O-N-K! That is silly! Can I tell them?”

My hopelessness faded. I was struck by her self-confidence, her persistence. Her designation was a more accurate description. Should I try to explain again that her version of the name was wrong? Should I use this opportunity to correct her spelling of coffee? I did neither. She was happy and had regained a sense of control, why spoil it?

“Amy, let’s just get some breakfast. You don’t like me to correct you….”

“Okay, Mom, I love you so much!”

She ran into the shop, her bad leg trailing a bit, her blond hair all higgily-piggily and still uncombed—my energy had failed at that final morning step. Her smile was broad, confident. “Besides, Mom, the sign looks really good anyway!”

“Yes, it does, Amy.” My smile was almost as wide as hers.

We lingered, ordered juice, coffee, warm, sweet muffins. We watched the painters. Amy’s day program and my office could wait.

Moments of joy must not be wasted. They are luxuries to be savored.

Susan McGee Bailey is a writer and a feminist. She directed the Wellesley College Centers for Women for 25 years before retiring to spend more time with her daughter and study creative nonfiction at Grub Street in Boston. Her non fiction has appeared in MS Magazine, The Boston Globe, and Gulf Stream. She is working on a memoir, “The Education of a Feminist.”

 

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Anxiety, Guest Posts

I’m A Meditation Teacher, And I Live With Anxiety

April 20, 2019
anxiety

By Megan Winkler

When you stand up in the front of a class or – in my case – sit at the front of a class, you’re the expert in the room. The pressure to be perfect is almost permeable for teachers. The same is true for meditation teachers, even though our job should be totally relaxing. There’s a lot of responsibility to the experience.

We are charged with creating a safe environment for complete strangers to take a few steps on the path of their personal transformation journey. We have to deliver our guided scripts in a calm, soothing manner. And we have to be prepared for just about anything: tears, snoring students who fall asleep, the kickboxing gym right next door suddenly starting up their class, stern and doubtful questions from participants, or the guy who got dragged to class by his girlfriend who rolls his eyes more than a sitcom teenager. (I’ve had ALL of these things happen in my classes.)

It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve meditated yourself, by yourself. When you sit in front of a class – or even post a video online – there’s a ton of pressure to be flawless, perfect, and utterly expert in everything.

But here’s the catch: I’m not perfect. In fact, although I teach people how to overcome their fears and conquer anxiety, I’m continually battling it myself. Continue Reading…

exercise, Guest Posts, Health

Getting Up Offa That Thing

March 11, 2019
trainer

By Nina Gaby

Before we start, the trainer asks me if I can get up and down off the floor. We are standing in front of a contraption known as PF360. As I am devoted to the idea of changing my life right now and keeping the dark shadows of my mood on the periphery, I force a good-natured laugh. “Now why are you asking me that? Do I look like someone who can’t get off the floor?”

Well yes I probably do. My white hair flies out from its clip, my left arm trembles a bit from the exertion of the Matrix machine that I’ve just done again for the first time in a year, and my numb right hand can be pretty worthless as evidenced by having just dropped my iPhone again. I’m pale from insomnia and worry and disappointment. And then there’s the belly, an appendage with a life of its own. I’ve already been called “hon” and “dear” by staff twice today. No one ever called me “hon” or “dear” until I hit sixty-five and now I rue every condescending sweetness I ever bestowed on any old person in my life. It’s a micro-aggression, I want to tell them, but off course I don’t. At least they are trying to sprinkle a little kindness in an inhospitable world.

Dexterity and stamina suspect, I surprise the trainer by holding plank for 45 seconds and being able to synchronize “dead bug” and move on to the ropes and pulleys without incident. “I do yoga” I tell her. “Not well,” I add. “I used to exercise all the time…” I trail off. She is glancing out over the football field sized Planet Fitness and worries that if anyone else shows up for the training she won’t make it out in time to pick up her kids from day care. She is a working mom who doesn’t have time for my reminiscing. We move on to the kettle bells. Continue Reading…

Child Birth, Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood, Pregnancy

Delivery

July 9, 2017
delivery

By Amanda Parrish Morgan

I discovered babycenter.com shortly after I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. Babycenter consists of watered-down medical advice, product-placement-heavy blog posts, weekly produce-comparison updates about the size of a growing fetus (“your baby is the size of a butternut squash!”), and message boards. These message boards are like the comments section of a clickbait article: full of deliberately provocative personal attacks, unsolicited advice, and rampant misuse of your and you’re. Also like the comments section, engaging with the message board posters had the effect of making me feel like I’d been part of something unhealthy and malicious.

I noticed that the vast majority of Babycenter posts appear between midnight and dawn. The anonymity of the message boards invites confessional postings: women admit pornography addictions, cigarettes they’ve sneaked despite being aware of the well-documented dangers of smoking during pregnancy, suspicions of spousal infidelity, spending binges using a borrowed credit card. None of these particular transgressions speak to my own strain of pregnancy guilt and fear, but guilt and fear themselves were the defining emotions of my pregnancy. Perhaps this is what makes this collection of strangers, awake and typing away online across the country, so appealing.

***

At the beginning of my third trimester, I somewhat grudgingly, but dutifully, reported for my glucose screening test. I chose a midwife group for my obstetric care, and was surprised when, just as she’d finished complimenting my un-swollen ankles, continued running routine, and fundal height, my midwife presented the screening as routine and mandatory. I knew the screening resulted in a lot of false positives. I’d read that even for legitimate positives, the treatment was exercise and a balanced diet, which I felt proud–desperately so–that I’d maintained throughout my pregnancy. On one website, I found a list of criteria that might exempt a woman from the screening. The only one of these I did not meet was being younger than 25. I felt skeptical, annoyed, haughty. Though, ultimately, it was my intense desire to be a good patient (how much had I internally gloated after being told my belly was perfect?) that kept me from asking about the procedure to waive the screening.

She said nothing.

“What are the alternatives?”

That night, although it was already late by the time I got home from the meet, my husband Nick and I went out to dinner so he could eat a normal meal and I could order something with no carbs. But, not until after I squeezed in a short run around our neighborhood. I was tired, and had thought I might skip running any more than what I already had on the course during the meet, but in my Gestational Diabetes-googling mania, I’d read that exercise helps metabolise glucose. I was worried if I didn’t run more, I would fail the three hour test in the morning. That I was more concerned about passing the test than actually seeing results representative of my typical diet and lifestyle didn’t then strike me as irresponsible or self-centered. I didn’t exactly logically feel that I’d done something wrong in failing the screening, but I certainly didn’t feel I’d earned the right to start exercising less.

I couldn’t sleep that night, and the next morning I was waiting at Quest Diagnostics when they opened at six, already hungry.

This is when I made my first Birth Club post: sitting at Quest Diagnostics five minutes into my three-hour glucose screening test, defensive, worried (but unwilling to admit that I was worried), surrounded by pharmaceutical pamphlets.

Several people responded with tales of twelve pound babies spending weeks in the NICU due to undiagnosed GD, others responded with anecdotes of vegan yogis with GD. One woman accused me of fat-shaming. In the second before I got control of my consciousness, I thought, “yes, of course.” I’d like to think that the only person I felt deserved shame was myself, but I’m afraid that’s giving myself too much credit.

I’d brought a book to read during the test, but after I had the drink, this one twice as sweet as the one from the one-hour screening test, I couldn’t focus. My heart was racing and my mouth was dry. Were these signs I was going to fail the test? Between blood draws, as I grew increasingly exhausted, I obsessively googled. Who gets gestational diabetes? Gestational diabetes causes. Gestational diabetes treatment. Gestational diabetes outlook. Gestational diabetes complications.

Later, with the security of having passed the second test, I’d been able to admit to myself that there might be some relationship between my feelings about the gestational diabetes screening and years of insecurity about the intersection of weight, self control, and worth. I explained to Nick that when I’d gotten pregnant, for the first time I could remember, I hadn’t dreaded going to the doctor, getting on the scale, or getting my blood pressure taken. I liked the drive to the office, giving me distance from teaching and grading and coaching to enter into the mental space of expectant motherhood. I liked the appointments themselves, meeting all the midwives, hearing the baby’s heartbeat, and then leaving buoyed by reassurance from the checkup. I was sad, I said, that this once-positive medical experience had begun to feel like every visit to my pediatrician, every team weigh-in at in college, every look (real or imagined) from skinnier girls on the starting line of races.

The closer my due date drew, the more I read. I was–for fear of going to the hospital with a pile of ninth grade essays–totally caught up on grading, the days were short and cold. The mobile hung over the crib, clothes washed, sorted, and stored. I couldn’t think of anything to do but wait. For the most part, I was too anxious and distracted to read or write much. The notable exception were labor stories. I read blog posts detailing the labor experiences of professional runners. I read Labor Days, an essay collection of women writers’ birth stories. I spent more and more time on Babycenter’s December 2014 Birth Announcement thread.

I might have been able to tell myself I was looking for camaraderie, a way to feel less alone or confused or scared had any of the interactions I witnessed through the message board been supportive. Instead of downplaying anxieties and offering reassurances, women posted stories of prenatal cancer diagnoses, sudden infant death syndrome, horrible birth accidents, tales of spousal abandonment, emergency hysterectomies performed before the fog of general anesthesia had even worn off. The spectres of loss and death–mine or my daughter’s–that felt increasingly menacing as I tried to heed advice to focus on the positive. I couldn’t verbalize these fears precisely. I guarded vigilantly against negative thoughts which meant I couldn’t even bring myself to confront them.

But before this–before I’d given birth, before I’d become a mother, the most concrete and tangible way that my life was changing seemed to be that long-distance running, my primary social activity and vehicle for self worth was off limits. The end of years of keeping bodily shame at bay through distance running, was the loss I feared. Mostly, of course, the notion of control over my body was an illusion, but it was an important illusion that had defined decades of my life.

I wish what I felt viscerally that I needed had been as simple as a cheeseburger. What I craved instead was connection. Not like “I’d like to spend the evening with some friends,” but deep, insatiable yearning for a connection both to the person I’d spent thirty-two years understanding myself to be and to a much bigger and even abstract community of mothers.

Before I got pregnant, I thought of myself as someone who needed a lot of alone time. When I was about five months pregnant, Nick was gone for a week at a conference, and instead of enjoying the opportunity to watch independent movies while eating all the pregnancy-safe-sushi a person could ever want, I grew lonely, and moved to fill my evenings with plans. I went to my parents’ house for dinner, caught up with friends from work. But, all the while. I couldn’t shake this feeling that I was still lonely. That the real me was watching a different me go through these motions.

I once heard depression described as a floating sensation. In Marjane Satrapi’s graphic autobiography Persepolis, she depicts herself as a teenage Iranian refugee floating with terrifying rather than joyful weightlessness in an almost entirely black sky.

The first time that the sensation of loneliness got strong enough to knock me over, I sat on the bottom step of our staircase, crying inconsolably, imagining myself as a hybrid of Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity, space shuttle untethered and tumbling hundreds of miles a second in some unknowable direction, and the image of young Marji, lost without a place that feels like home (and how absurd, I realized even as I imagined it–I was not woman fighting for oxygen in outer space, nor a refugee in the Iranian Revolution, but a lucky, healthy, American woman with a good job, a kind husband, a supportive and loving family, expecting her first baby after few months of waiting for a positive pregnancy test). Over and over again, I kept telling Nick, “I’m so lonely,” to which he kept responding, hurt, confused, “But, I’m right here.”

Even before I met my husband, I wanted to be a mother. I had an uncomplicated vision of what this relationship meant in the same way, I had wanted to be a teacher, a wife, a friend. I thought that I’d share my passion for literature with a classroom of undistracted and eager students, or that marriage would be cozy Sunday afternoons with chili on the stove, that my childhood friends and I would remain close for life. That none of these relationships were as simple as what I’d once imagined didn’t make me any more prepared for the disconnect I’d feel during pregnancy. I still could not envision motherhood or pregnancy as nuanced in the way I’d come to understand these other relationships. What kind of person would I be to admit fear and loneliness, sometimes building on one another until I’m floating, untethered in the middle of the night? What did my preoccupation with fear and my feelings of shame mean? That I would be a bad mother?

***

In movies, pregnant women are often shown crying at commercials about puppies. Hormones! Ha! I both did and did not want to blame hormones. I wanted to be able to explain to Nick that he really had done nothing wrong, and that in the light of most days, I could see how irrational my panicked, lonely tears really were. But, the emotions were as real to me as any others I’d experienced, and so, it seemed unfair to dismiss them as a side effect of pregnancy hormones.

I’ve tried to think of all the rational reasons I might have felt so lonely while pregnant. I do not have many friends, at least not friends from before motherhood, with kids. Although Nick and I were going to become parents together, I was the one who was pregnant. With daylight savings, the nights came early and those exhausted hours between the end of the work day and bed felt bleak.

There was some voice in my brain telling me that I should not feel so alone. That pregnancy connected me, not only to my own mother, but to women everywhere, and for generations before and to come, who have carried and borne children. All these women on babycenter.com, even the ones who named their children something I found tacky or who posted pictures of baby shower cakes with a doll’s head crowing from a frosting vagina, had something fundamental in common with me.

***

The last time during pregnancy that I cried, I cried about fear of labor. Much of what I tried to explain was the same feeling of alone-ness, of being alienated from myself, that I’d tried to explain on past nights. On a logical level, all I could explain was that I was worried about complications. Somewhere, floating far from my space craft, I mumbled aloud that I was scared I might die.

That fall, one or both of my parents began attending my team’s cross country meets. At first, I thought they were just really getting into the team’s success. Then, somewhere around the third week in a row when my dad made a ninety minute drive one-way to watch my girls race across a field in Manchester, CT, I realized that they were worried something might happen to me. Not necessarily that I might die, but that I might go into labor while far from the hospital where I planned to deliver, far from my husband and his car with its infant car seat carefully installed, that it might take longer than it needed to, or be more uncomfortable than it could have been for me, their daughter, to have her daughter.

I grew up with the unquestioned understanding that it’s bad luck to even mention early symptoms of a cold outloud, and that denial is a powerful tool of self-preservation. I feel immense guilt that I allowed myself to vocalize my fear of dying. And even now, pregnant with my son, that I might have courted disaster by articulating the unspeakable fears of my first pregnancy. I’d like to think that I meant “dying” metaphorically. That I was afraid the self I’d always been would be replaced by a new, unfamiliar self, and that the process would be one of death and rebirth rather than of transformation. I was reading a lot of Joseph Campbell then, so that may have been a part of it. But, I’d also been reading all those labor stories, many of them natural childbirth testimonials (meant to be empowering, but often quite the opposite), and that fear I articulated was at least on some level literal. Childish, wimpy, selfish… everything other than what I believe myself, or an ideal mother to be.

***

Some of the posts are marked “*trigger,*” the warning women use to label threads about seriously ill babies or domestic violence, and it was here, not in the news that I first learned this term. One of the most common pieces of advice I received while pregnant was to shield myself from negative thoughts. That I should avoid the sensationalist, violent news coverage, cut out obligations that drained me, sever ties with the kind of friends who would judge me if my house was dirty in the months after my baby was born. I took this advice seriously.

But what about darkness–triggers–that are of my own making, sprung from within? I like to think of myself as positive, kind, hopeful, optimistic, energetic. It wasn’t just the life I’d always known, or the friends I’ve always had that I feared I might be floating away from on those rough nights (though of course I was), but that in facing the darkest parts of myself, I feel I’d found something in myself that was meant to remain locked away and banished. Maybe I was lonely from myself because I’d come face to face with a part of myself I never wanted to acknowledge existed, a part of myself I don’t want Nick or any of the people he so gently suggested I reach out to to know about.

“Maybe you should call Laura,” Nick suggested an hour into my sobbing. I was curled embarrassedly into the corner of our brand new couch (I picked it out imagining our little family of three snuggling here). And, because I was worried that all these lonely nights were taking a toll on Nick before the sleepless nights of the baby even began, I did.

Laura and I got lunch, but there was only so much I could say. We sat at Panera, where I picked at a slimy turkey sandwich (many women on babycenter.com don’t eat cold cuts during pregnancy; I ate any protein I could stomach, but always felt guilty to be seen eating turkey in public). Laura is a woman who’s opened up to me about her own postpartum depression. We’ve been friends since before she got divorced from her first husband, before she got remarried. She introduced me to Nick. But, when she asked how I was feeling, although I managed to tell her that I’d been having some hard nights, I couldn’t help myself: I steered our conversation away from the places my mind goes untethered, and we talked about work, about running, about our sandwiches.

I’ve heard some women say that labor is less frightening the second time around because they know what to expect. But, I felt so keenly aware of death’s proximity during labor, which is something I had tried to stop myself from realizing beforehand–and I know that now. I was a healthy, thirty-two year old woman with no history of complications or serious medical issues. But perhaps it was something I had considered. Or, if not considered, known. Perhaps that’s what I was looking for–an acknowledgement of this dark side, a validation of the fear I felt, not just of labor’s pain and unpredictability but, for all of medicine’s advances, the extent to which the life of my child, even from the very beginning would depend on me. And not in the passive way of pregnancy, but on my work–my labor. Instead, I read the confessions of women hundreds of miles away, I kept track of my weekly running mileage, tried to find new ways to wear the few pieces of clothing that still fit and I said that I missed being able to put myself in pain.

Next week, when I’ll be 28 weeks pregnant with my son, I’ll go for the one-hour gestational diabetes screening. I haven’t had any cravings this pregnancy, either, and I’ve still been running. Is it different this time?  I haven’t been on Babycenter much–just every few weeks to check in on the physiological changes my baby and I are experiencing. Motherhood has undeniably separated me from decade-long friendships, and at the same time precluded forming new friendships of the intensity I once took for granted. In the mom’s group or at preschool drop-off, women ask my due date, how I’m feeling, if I know the baby’s gender. Sometimes we even talk about why our toddlers are crying, but in these stolen moments of adult conversation between women who are not exactly friends but part of the community of mothers, we don’t talk about shame or guilt or fear or where the word delivery really comes from.

 

Amanda Parrish Morgan taught high school English in Connecticut for seven years. Currently, she is raising her young daughter, coaching the local cross country and track teams, and working on a collection of essays. Her short story “Teratoma” was named a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Contest for New Writers. Her essays have also appeared in N+1 and The Rumpus and The Millions.

 

Join The Manifestation Retreat: Manifesting Under The Tuscan Sun. Sep 30-October 7, 2017.. Email retreats@jenniferpastiloff.com or click the picture above.

 

Join Jen Pastiloff at her signature workshop in Atlanta at Form Yoga on Aug 26 by clicking the picture.

 

Donate to the Aleksander Fund today. Click the photo read about Julia, who lost her baby, and what the fund is.

Guest Posts, Health, Women

Endo

June 21, 2016
pain

By Janet Frishberg

Age 12: In the afternoons when I’m bleeding, I double over as I stagger home up the hill. I hold onto a telephone pole on the way to the white-walled apartment where my mom and I live, where I can sit on the toilet and cry, trying to imagine myself out of my body, writhing on the carpeted floor, wanting to find a place of comfort. I slouch at the computer console, my feet resting on its grey plastic side, crying and playing games to distract me from the pain. It feels like my insides are a room and someone is peeling off the wallpaper very slowly, with a straight-edge razor. In the quiet apartment, alone, I know I can scream or groan as loud as I want; everyone is at work. My mom and I go to doctors, more than two, less than five. They say, “That’s part of being a woman.” And, “Sometimes menstruation is painful. You’ll get used to it.”

The pain overwrites the past. It becomes difficult to remember my body from before my body is in pain. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Mental Health

The Year I Lost My Mind

May 24, 2016
doctors

By Sarah Fader

In 2011 I lost my mind. After I had Samara, I remember sitting in a hospital bed hysterically crying. When she would cry, I would cry. It hurt to nurse her. Every time I placed her on my breast to nurse I felt my uterus contracting and I yelped in pain like a puppy that had its paw stepped on.

I told my brother in the hospital when he visited “I don’t know how I’m going to do this. I’m scared.”

“Don’t worry,” he assured me, “mom and dad will help you if you need them to.” His words reassured me, but I was still scared. I was afraid to be a mother of two. I’d had Ari for almost three years and he was my one and only. I doted on him, I read to him, we painted colorful watercolor works of art together and we went out to eat muffins and juice frequently.

But now things were going to change. I had a new little person to take care of and add to our family. I had a little girl. She was beautiful and squishy and pink and I loved her immediately. However, I had no idea how I could love two human beings equally.

So I tried to be the best mother I could be. I did not stop. I went to the library with an infant and a 3-year-old, I went to the playground with an infant and a 3-year-old, I went everywhere with an infant and a 3-year-old. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Marriage

In Sickness

March 23, 2016
marriage

By Kristen M. Ploetz

Thirteen years ago, I passed the bar exam and got married.

Needless to say, I was not quite paying close attention when we planned our wedding. I was spent. Four long years of law school at night followed by the bar exam eroded my capacity to make decisions, especially those with multiple choice possibilities. Plus, after living together for nearly all of our eight years together, marriage felt like a mere formality. I’ve always leaned toward practicality more than passion, and our wedding was no different.

Still, we indulged in some creative control. My bridesmaids would wear crimson and carry candles instead of flowers. Letterpress for the invitations, seafood instead of steak. Otherwise, I just didn’t have it in me—time or desire—to let the planning of those eight hours consume my life.

A few weeks before our wedding, we met with the officiant to discuss vows and readings. I knew that I didn’t want to hear “I now pronounce you man and wife” (feminist!), nor did I want any religious anything (atheist!). But beyond that, and the fact that I would not be changing my last name, we were pretty much traditionalists—and pragmatists. Just give us the bare minimum required to make our bond legitimate in the eyes of whomever it matters for taxes and ratify our mutual trust to make life and death (and life after death) decisions for each other. And then let’s party.

So when we got to the part about selecting vows, we skimmed over the book of options. We took the steadfast road already traveled by millions of others.

for richer or poorer,

in good times and in bad,

in sickness and in health. Continue Reading…

Anxiety, courage, Guest Posts, Self Image, Self Love

Fix Me

January 27, 2016

By Timna Understein

This story is dedicated to Aidan, who thankfully has found the truth…that there is NO magic pill, and who has discovered his gift of writing, which is ultimately a way through. The song that should accompany this piece is entitled “Falls Asleep at the Wheel” by The Hissy Fits.

Once upon a time, there was a tired girl.  Well, really, it was beyond tired…she was exhausted at best…and pretty much all of the time.  After the first cup of coffee quickly exited her body (by 10:00 AM), the ability to function in a regular day, became a struggle, to say the least.  Example: Up at 6:45 AM, coffee, moderate exercise, shower…typical actions taken by many each and every morning, was followed up by the feelings of, “If I put on my make-up, I’m going to have to take a nap, or maybe I can do my make-up laying down on my bed…But if I do that, I’m not sure I’ll get up.”  She knew this could not possibly be normal, nor did she want to continue to feel this way…everyday!

Many attempts were made through out each day to not feel this way…to fix this..to change it.  These attempts could look anything like drinking 6 cups of coffee a day, to running to doctors to beg for blood work, to plead for information, to be heard.  But…to no avail.

There were times of acceptance about feeling this way, living this way.  No.  Actually, there were not.  Never acceptance, but rather a sense of defeat, of, “Yea, I guess this is how I will feel each day.”  But then, there were also times of hope.  Hope looked like this: a lab result of severe anemia, or a low, positive ANA with the possibility of an autoimmune disorder.  THAT’S hope?!?!  Jesus fuck!

Recently, the girl came to the conclusion (after 7 years of feeling like this, and having every test available in this country done) that this must “just be” fatigue.  Pure and not simple, fatigue.  Ok, fine.  Chronic fatigue.  Yay.  A name for it.  Good.  When there’s a label, then there’s the ability to research, seek solution, obsess.  And oh hell yes, that is exactly what occurred.

This process was swift, just the way a girl like this would prefer- the faster the better.  Urgent.  Make it go away fast.

One day, the girl asked her pharmacologically gifted son if he knew of a drug that helps with exhaustion, but is not a stimulant {insert fact that this girl is in recovery and can not touch a lot of drugs that others might consider}.  He mentions something the girl had never heard of.  Well, actually, she had seen a movie all about it, but didn’t know at the time of viewing, that this was the drug the movie was about (Limitless).

Provigil (Modafinil).  What’s THAT????  The girl dives into the endless praise for this drug, how it’s life-changing and amazing, with no side effects at all.  WAIT!  Life-changing?  That was all she needed to hear.  The quest was on.  Within 24 hours, the girl had a poster presentation showing her valid need for this drug, research to back her, and an appointment with her doctor…for the next day.  Whirlwind into Provigiland. Continue Reading…

depression, Guest Posts, Yoga Classes, Young Voices

Sometimes Smoothies and Yoga Aren’t Enough

January 20, 2016

By Emma Faesi Hudelson

I suffer from depression and lately, my mat has felt like a life raft. Not in a “yoga is saving my life” way. Not even in a “my practice is the only thing keeping me sane” way. It’s a life raft because I feel like I’ve been shipwrecked in the middle of the ocean, and if I don’t hang on to my raft, I’m going to drown.

Depression feels like roadkill looks. Unless I’m in the middle of one of my sobbing spells, I may look OK, but internally, I’m flat and messy as that raccoon I saw on my way to the grocery store this morning, all bared teeth and gaping guts.

When my brain gets like this, my practice changes. Sometimes, it becomes the only bright spot in my days. I look forward to it, even if everything else sucks. My mat is a place of refuge. I may not know if I’ll make it through my day without snapping at my husband or crying because I got hummus on my shirt, but I know I can inhale, exhale, and take a goddamn vinyasa.

More commonly, practice becomes a chore when I’m depressed. It’s another dreaded task on in infinite list. When brushing my teeth feels like an impossible effort, spending ninety minutes jumping around, folding, and twisting seems laughable. Even on those days, I’m sometimes able to force my way through it all, and I usually feel better for it, even if my body is so knotted with emotion that I can barely touch my toes.

The physical part of yoga does help. Working up a sweat means that exercise-induced endorphins release into my bloodstream, giving me a temporary mood boost. Breathing deeply soothes my nervous system. Backbends energize my emotions. The three closing lotuses give me a chance to consciously open a channel to God.

I know all this, but sometimes, I still can’t force myself to practice. Those days are the worst. Not only do I feel so bleak inside that I’m praying I get T-boned by a semi on my way to work, but I can’t do the one thing that I know will make me feel better. It’s hard not to beat myself up. Continue Reading…

Binders, Guest Posts, parenting

Consumed

July 16, 2015

By Liane Kupferberg Carter

I am at a fish restaurant in the theater district the first time it happens. My sister in law Susan and I have tickets for the matinee performance of “Love, Loss and What I Wore.”  I have just ordered the filet of sole, when suddenly the room gets too bright, the clatter of glassware too loud. A swell of nausea washes over me. My heart pounds; my throat constricts. I can’t breathe. Is it the smell of seafood? A panic attack?

I flee to the ladies’ room. Eventually the sick feelings subside.

But several days later it happens again. Nausea.  Racing heart. Tightness. I go see the cardiologist.

“Everything checks out okay,” she says. “I don’t think it’s your heart. You should see the gastroenterologist.”

I dread the idea of someone threading a camera down my throat. But the nausea quickly becomes unrelenting. I feel systemically sick. After I wake nauseated one night, teeth chattering, I schedule the endoscopy. When I wake up from the anesthesia, the doctor tells me, “The good news is that you don’t have an ulcer. You have some reflux. We’ll have the biopsy back in a week. We’ll start you on a proton pump inhibitor, but if you don’t feel better, come back and we’ll explore further.”

The futuristic-sounding proton pump inhibitor, it turns out, is a fancy name for a Nexium- type medication.  I am hopeful. And for a few weeks I do feel better.  Then the nausea and constriction come back.  The doctor calls it non-specific gastritis. Is he suggesting this is all in my head?  Anxiety gnaws at me. I start to dread eating. I find myself cancelling social appointments, because they all revolve around meals. I am consumed with feeling ill. I think about the many meanings of that word consumed.  Swallowed.  Spent. Drained.  Depleted.   Devoured.  Destroyed.  I wake in the night with a suffocating sense of my own mortality, thinking, I can’t be sick.  Mothers of special needs children have to live forever.

I return to the doctor. He palpates my stomach and weighs me.  I have lost 12 pounds. “I think the medication isn’t helping as much because you have a hybrid form of gastric reflux and irritable bowel,” he says. “Are you under stress?”

I tell him that my younger son, Mickey, has autism and epilepsy.  He nods sympathetically. “Okay, let’s just get an abdominal ultrasound to rule some things out.” Continue Reading…