Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
White Noise

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Don't you weep you pretty baby
You and me and the Devil makes three
- Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch

The morning before I check myself into a psych ward, I sit at the kitchen table with the upstairs neighbor, facing a plate of rapidly cooling scrambled eggs. I ask Kayla, the twenty-something with an easy smile, to come sit with me because I am afraid to be by myself with my three-month-old baby. Frightened I might drop her. More frightened of what I might tell myself in the solitude.

I sip from a cup of scalding peppermint tea to calm blown nerves. Every night for the last several weeks, I've fought to surrender to sleep, only to bolt awake at 2:30 a.m., heart racing, doomed to pace in the dark kitchen in jittery exhaustion while my husband and baby sleep. Why this hyper-vigilance, I don't know: breastfeeding hormones, weeks of interrupted nights, the terror of new motherhood. I am desperate with sleeplessness. We've already been once to the emergency room because I was convinced my heart was going to burst from uncontrollable wild thumping.

The night before, I listen to a podcast called "Sleep with Me," a droning, hypnotic voice designed to bore the listener to sleep. This morning, in the liminal dream space between fitful sleep and buzzed waking, I could have sworn he said my name.

Kayla nods along. "Maybe he did say your name. Have you gone back and listened to it?" she asks. I play the podcast: Goodnight, Timothy…. Goodnight, Laura…. Goodnight, Patricia ….

"Did you hear that?" I stop the recording. Patricia is my mother's name. I'm not sure if I've heard it or not. Maybe I am finally—as the ER triage doctor had asked me—hallucinating. It is surely a sign of going over the edge.

She asserts that she definitely heard "Patricia," that it is her sister's name. I am reassured for a moment.

But then, a thought strikes me. Adrenaline floods my mouth and my lips go numb. My vision goes dark around the edges as the room shrinks in. My fingers and toes feel like static. It is a question that has no escape.

"But, what if you're not real?"

There is a flicker of panic in her eyes as she realizes I am not joking. I give a nervous laugh and bite my thumbnail, not because I'm someone who bites my nails, but because it seems like the gesture of a crazy person.

She tries to convince me that she is, in fact, real, that I'd seen her before all this happened, that she has lived upstairs for months.

I smile a desperate smile, "See, I'm losing it. I'm telling you, I'm losing it."

My husband arrives home from work twenty minutes later. By the time we are on our way to the hospital, I have half-convinced myself that my entire life is a schizophrenic hallucination and that I will come to in a padded room, wailing and wild.

~

The first time something is really wrong is Christmas Eve. My daughter is seven weeks old and my husband and I have flown to my parents' house in the Chicago suburbs. In the nights before our flight, I lie wide-eyed and restless, trying to urge myself back into sleep again after being awakened for the third or fourth time by the baby. My body buzzes like a live wire on the cotton sheets. Just go back to sleep. Please, just go back to sleep. I am grateful that we are heading to the airport at four o'clock in the morning because at least I have an excuse to be awake.

The next day, the stress of insomnia and travel has killed my appetite, so I pick at a small salad for lunch and wait for Christmas Eve dinner at my aunt and uncle's house. We drive to their plush suburban home where I float in an enervated haze of small talk and familial congratulations for the new baby. At dinner, I have full helpings of roast tenderloin and mashed potatoes. An hour later my stomach cramps, and when I complain of nausea to my cousin Rachel, a naturopathic doctor, she tells me that my sympathetic nervous system is in panic, and she performs some kind of witchcraft on me that consists of hands on my forehead and using my arm like a well pump.

I want to believe in her voodoo, but whatever trick she uses doesn't seem to work because I spend the rest of the night vomiting and shuddering in bed. It takes three or four days to recover from the dehydration and queasiness. I get out of bed at four o'clock in the morning to drink too much water and eat leftover turkey by the open refrigerator light.

A month later, under another full moon, it happens again. The baby has a stuffy nose and shrieks awake, sending cold blood coursing through me. I spend an hour shooshing her back to sleep and a second hour staring at the clock until I finally drift off, only to be awakened by a scream. The third night, I just give up and get out of bed, so revved up and exhausted that I cannot come back down. When my husband hands her to me with an apology and leaves for work that morning, I know it will be a bad day. I sob alone in my apartment as I bounce the baby, willing her to take a godforsaken nap so that I can lie down and get just an hour of sleep. I text my friend Melissa and ask her to come by after work. With family and friends on the other side of the country, it is the only help I can get.

 

I burst out sobbing, drool spilling out of my mouth onto the rug. Oh god, oh god, why this happening? Why can't I keep it together? I'm failing.

 

By the time evening rush hour hits, I call my husband in panic. "Breathe," he says. Can't breathe...can't breathe...mouth numb...tingle lips heavy can't breathe pacing going to drop my baby oh god I'm going to drop my baby.

"Just breathe, Honey," my husband instructs. "You can do it. Inhale…. Exhale…. Inhale…. Exhale." I can't breathe. Melissa bursts in. I thrust the baby into her arms. The walls are breathing.

"Melissa is here. I'm going to go." Phone off. Can't breathe, knees, hands, and knees, oh god, what is happening to me I can't breathe.

I drop and put my head on the ground and suck in oxygen. Oh god, is this what a panic attack is? I don't have panic attacks. Other people, weak people, have panic attacks, but I don't have panic attacks. I've done ten-day silent meditation retreats. I have a Ph.D. in philosophy. I am strong and capable, damn it.

Melissa is bouncing and trying to calm the baby. God my head hurts. Why am I so dizzy? Thank god she's here. What would I have done if she were not here? The carpet rushes up at me.

I burst out sobbing, drool spilling out of my mouth onto the rug. Oh god, oh god, why this happening? Why can't I keep it together? I'm failing.

Melissa puts an arm on my back. It's okay. The baby is crying. Inhale. Exhale. I am a competent person, damn it. I can live my life. I can take care of a child, of my child.

"I'm okay," I say as my heart slows down some and I crawl back to my feet. I'm okay.

I'm so glad Melissa is here. And now she's getting me a glass of water. And god, my head hurts. And now she's rubbing my back.

"Do you want something to eat?"

Oh god, I feel like I'm going to throw up. "No. No. Thank you. I'm fine. I'll eat in a minute. I just need to come down a bit." I sit on the couch and cradle my throbbing head in my hands. I don't want to do this anymore.

My fingers are shaking. I wipe tears from my eyes. Pull it together. Inhale. Exhale. There. You got it. You can do this. You're okay. Melissa is here now. She will help you. Is the baby here? Her cry has quieted to a whimper as Melissa bounces and soothes her. I wonder if perhaps she would be better off forever in the care of Melissa, of someone more competent than me. I hold my forehead, temples throbbing, and squeeze my eyes shut.

˜

The next three weeks after the panic attack, I feel high, like I have eaten one too many pot brownies. Something has happened to my brain chemistry and everything looks like a matte painting with 3-D transparencies layered on top. Every night, I try for hours to sleep, move from the bed to the couch, and back to the bed, listen to guided meditations, do breathing exercises, try to let go, feel the pulse of exhaustion.

My body trembles from the inside without respite. I cling to the present moment with a fierce terror of being swept away. I talk to myself. You are ok, Danielle. You're just going to put your laundry away. See, you're just going to put this shirt in this drawer and everything is fine. But everything is not fine. I catch a glimpse of myself, twitchy in the mirror, like the homeless ragged, talking to no one.

My husband has taken a leave from his visual effects job. He puts the baby down for naps and sends me off on runs, to yoga class, out into the fleeting sunshine of a Portland winter, to anywhere I can blow off steam and try to relax. I hold Warrior One pose in the yoga studio next to women in neon leggings who look centered and well rested. I call friends to try to tell them that I am going crazy from being home in the grey apartment with the baby all day. Too much stress, not enough sleep. "If this were a hundred years ago, a doctor would just prescribe me The Ocean," I joke. My doctor wants to prescribe me Zoloft.

 

I study my daughter, her body swaddled in fleece, her face nearly luminous. To look at her is almost painful. What poisonous breast milk am I feeding her, full of cortisol and anxiety hormones?

 

All I need is a few nights of good sleep. Instead, I lie awake and my muscles wind tighter and tighter as the red numbers on the digital clock taunt me with their unrelenting march into the night. In the blue light of the moon, I pace the living room, I read "The Yellow Wallpaper," I kickbox silently in the kitchen, I call the county Crisis Line in a choking whisper from the bathroom. "I can't sleep," I whimper from the shower floor mat. "I'm afraid I'm going crazy…please help me."

I remember my college roommate, a too-thin girl with an eating disorder who would spend two hours on the treadmill in the pre-dawn. I force myself to swallow an "autonomic recovery smoothie" of peanut butter, yogurt, bananas, and raw egg, and I am horrified when it all comes spilling out of me far too fast into the toilet an hour later.

In the evenings, I put my daughter in a Fisher Price swing that we bought second-hand because neither my husband nor I have the energy to hold and bounce her into the night, and we don't have mothers or neighbors around to hand her off to as families would in generations past. My parents have already come to help out for the few weeks just after the baby was born and returned back to their jobs in Chicago, and I feel that I cannot burden them to come again. I do not tell them the depth of my despair in these weeks. There is nothing they can do from across the country.

A sound machine under the swing fills the room with a haze of white noise that burrows slowly into my brain. I study my daughter, her body swaddled in fleece, her face nearly luminous. To look at her is almost painful. What poisonous breast milk am I feeding her, full of cortisol and anxiety hormones? What if she is not sleeping enough, not napping properly? What if her brain does not develop? What horrible neurological or psychological damage is being done? Autism? Abandonment? Deep core memories inscribed into her tiny body? What terrible trauma am I inflicting upon her that I cannot undo? She swings, unaware, hypnotically back and forth.

Every evening, I write down a list of fears and my husband and I sit at the kitchen table with my open journal and go through them one by one, attempting to subject them to critical inquiry. He is patient and kind and tries to get me to see that I am being irrational. Your anxiety is a bully and a liar. Your anxiety is a desperate bitch. And yet the list never gets smaller. I am not competent enough to be her mother. I do not sleep.

˜

I have just arrived home from the doctor, who has urged me to take anti-depressants, but I do not want to take them. I do not want to admit failure.

My cousin Rachel has come over to check in on me. I wipe away tears as I tell her about the last few weeks of sleeplessness. Rachel holds the baby, swaying gently, and I see her eyes twinge and redden, mirroring mine. "It looks like you have more tears in there."

"I could cry for a week."

She wills the moisture from her eyes, as though she is snapping into her doctor role, and says, "Then why don't you just let it out. Just cry." Her words are like an incantation and I puddle into the couch. I sob, and sob, and sob. She tells me I am doing great. I drool onto the couch pillow and wail.

Rachel puts the sleeping baby into the swing and leads me to the bedroom and on to the cotton sheets, the site of so much distress. "If you need to yell, just do it into this pillow." I bury my mouth in it and howl with my whole body. My head is fuzzy and I feel a throbbing in my gut. I swallow the pillow and scream. She tells me to keep going. I feel a fury building in my fingertips and I grab the cotton and scream again until my throat starts to hoarse. Head thumping, I collapse as another wave of tears breaks on my face and I sob again. Keep going. A wail flows through me and my body becomes filled with rage. Keep going. I pound the bed with clenched fists and thrash, kicking and cursing. Motherfuckers! Motherfuckers! I curse the generations who would allow women to suffer in isolation when babies are meant to be raised by a tribe. All this happened because I had no help. Snot running down my nose, red hot. Nauseous and furious. Why? Why? Why? I am wild and wicked, possessed as my body undulates and teeters onto knees and down again. I writhe and growl. I've got a devil in me. Get it out! I see myself for a moment as if from across the room and I am frightened and fascinated.

I thrash and cry for two hours, until my neck throbs and I taste stomach acid. I am blissfully exhausted.

I agree to take the drugs. My doctor tells me that as my brain is adjusting to the medication, the insomnia might get worse before it gets better. I cannot endure it. Over the next week and a half, I call the doctor’s office nearly every day, begging for help, for some relief from the anxiety that animates my whole body. The day I doubt whether the neighbor is real, we go to the doctor again, and I am told that I need a higher level of care than they can provide. We head to the psych hospital.

˜

The hospital is good because there is always something to do and people around to talk to. I pump breast milk every three hours, which my husband picks up for the baby once a day. He arrives at visitor hour with the baby and a brave face and I can tell that he is weary and afraid, even though he tries not to show it. Vital signs are taken twice a day, and someone comes in to my room every fifteen minutes to check on me throughout the entire night. I sleep a whole six hours.

One day, we are in a group therapy session. Killian is our therapist. He speaks like a classical music NPR host, and I get the sense that he doesn't smile much. We are seated in a small circle in a small cinderblock room under fluorescent lights. Killian moves from one person to the next, asking the group to say something nice about that person.

It is my turn, and I am jittery and raw. Lisa, who says that she is very sensitive to other peoples’ energy, tells Killian, "When we’re in the cafeteria for visiting hours, and Danielle is there with her husband and baby," she glances at me with shimmering eyes and gives herself a hug, "you can just feel the love from all the way across the room." My quivering nervous system bubbles over and I erupt into tears.

Killian gives me a concerned look. "What's going on for you right now?"

My sobbing surprises me as words tumble out of my mouth. "When I hold my baby, I just feel so scared that I'm going to hurt her or screw her up, it's like I don't even want to be near her!" Lisa's painted image of maternal bliss taunts me. I heave and weep, "What kind of mother feels this way about her own baby?" I bury my face in my hands, and Patric, sitting next to me, places a hand on my back.

Killian asks me to inhale and exhale, coming back to the present moment. I do as he says, having now weeks of experience in anchoring myself to my breath. I tell him that I am terrified to go back home. What if I lose control again? What if I can't handle it? Killian tells me that I spend a lot of time worrying about the future.

˜

Two days after I have been discharged from my four-day stay at the hospital, I am in a group art therapy session. We are told to draw to the prompt, Today, I am feeling…. I sketch furiously, as though if I do not do it fast enough I will be consumed by the genius flowing through me.

First, a picture of a human form with blue static at the brain and spinal cord, yellow sparks at the fingers and toes, and a red pulsing center. Second picture, a weary face with a green nausea encircling the head, like a crown of thorns. Third picture, a small mouse of a person being screamed at with red fury by a towering figure. Their Freudian meaning reveals itself to me even as I am drawing—a Christ complex, deep primordial shame—and the immediate transparency of it terrifies me. The art therapist, seeing me shaking and gulping breath at the end of the table, tells me to draw something to comfort myself. I sketch a swaddled babe, encircled in a blue light. As I share and explain my pictures to the others, I feel the last bit of quivering at the center of my body extinguish.

I am now an empty receptacle and detect the vibrations of others, vibrations of pain and desire that fill the room. Inside me is nothing but an eerie stillness—the centered calm at the eye of the hurricane. I am as unwavering as a Buddha. I feel the pulse of the universe and the turn of the karmic wheel. That night, when I go to sleep, I think of the monk who achieves enlightenment only after he gives up trying and goes to bed. As my head hits the pillow and I drift off—now aided by anti-psychotic medication—I think, Why not me?

The next morning, it is as if I have been tuned to hear and see a certain resonance, the frequency of church pipes. When I turn on the bathroom faucet, I hear a church choir in the wall. The distant train whistle sounds like a heavenly trumpeting. Strange coincidences lead me to believe that I have undergone a kind of Buddhist enlightenment—one spiritual rotation around the wheel of becoming.

For the next several days, in between therapy sessions and breastfeeding, I am receiving messages from the universe in the form of radio tunes, overheard conversations of strangers, signs posted in shop windows, the caws of crows on tree branches. These messages lead me to conclude that Rachel, with her Chinese medicine wisdom, is the world's next great spiritual leader. She will start the next major world religion and the journey to the new world order will be full of darkness and menace. The forces of good and evil will battle, and I will be called to be part of her spiritual army.

 

I look at her and then back at the tiny creature in my arms, who looks both familiar and strange. I don't know what to believe. "You really think she looks okay?" My mother assures me again. I pull my daughter slowly into my chest, feeling crazy, feeling like a monster.

 

My therapist watches me twist a tissue in my hands as I tell her about this, and she replies as gently as she can that these thoughts are psychotic. I understand that they sound crazy, and yet I can neither talk myself into them or out of them. I can only feel them vibrate through me.

A week or so later, I am giving the baby a bath. In spite of my grandiose revelations, the ordinariness of each day asserts itself, and I continue to care for the baby, driven by instinct and a sort of love that confuses and overwhelms me. My mother is in the kitchen. She has taken off work and flown into town to sleep on our couch for the next month and help care for me.

Warm steam fogs the bathroom mirror in one of the rare moments that I am alone with the baby. As I sit on the bathroom floor next to the little plastic tub and squeeze warm water over my daughter's cupped head, for a moment, I feel like her mother.

I lift the baby out of the tub and towel her off, then set her on the mat to put on a fresh diaper and get her dressed. Her four-month-old legs kick and jerk, her gaze moving around the room. The reflected light from the ceiling pierces her eyes. A feeling of dread comes over me. There is something wrong. I lose my breath, stomach tight. She doesn't look normal. I stare at her eyes, the light glowing in them. She looks alien and possessed. Something's wrong.

I scoop her into my arms, still in her diaper, and run into the kitchen. "Mom! Mom!" in panic. "She's looks really weird. Look at her!" My mother turns from the dishes in the sink.

She looks at the baby, but it seems not nearly long enough before she reassures me. "She looks fine, Honey." She turns me, eyebrows furrowed, and nods her head.

I look at her and then back at the tiny creature in my arms, who looks both familiar and strange. I don't know what to believe. "You really think she looks okay?" My mother assures me again. I pull my daughter slowly into my chest, feeling crazy, feeling like a monster.

˜

The next morning, I lie in bed, staring at the wall. I need to get dressed soon and leave for another full day of outpatient therapy. After enough therapists have told me over the last week that my religious discoveries and fears of the coming apocalypse are psychotic, the pull and tenor of these thoughts have lessened some. And yet, they linger in the edges of my mind as I wake, eat breakfast, and change and feed my daughter before I hand her over to my mother and head to therapy each day.

The image from the night before of my pink and freshly bathed baby in my rigid arms returns to me. I must have been imagining it, the dangerous look in her eyes. There really was nothing wrong with her. There is nothing wrong with her. Suddenly, the danger of worrying that she is damaged, broken, reveals itself. What kind of message am I sending? I don't want her ever to know that I once believed there was something wrong with her. You are enough, just the way you are. Yes, I want to tell her, I want her to know, that none of this is her fault, that she is unique and wonderful and doesn't need to be perfect. I need to believe that.

I peel the down comforter off my naked body, snug my feet into slippers laid at the bedside, and wrap myself in the white terrycloth robe my husband bought for me years ago. I rummage through the top of my dresser until I find a black dry-erase marker. On the wooden-framed, floor-length mirror that faces our bed, I write, in big letters, You are enough, just the way you are. I take a step back, and study the message, reflected back at me.


Danielle M. LaSusa is a philosopher, teacher, and writer. She holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy and a graduate certificate in Women’s Studies from Temple University. She writes about travel, philosophy, and motherhood at daniellelasusa.com, truthout, and on Medium. She currently lives and teaches in Portland, Oregon with her husband and 1-year-old daughter


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