Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood

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The sunny day lured us to the park. I'd just picked my son Julian up from preschool. Parents sat on benches circling the play structure. They looked bored. I cried silently behind black sunglasses, my brain under siege, again.
Meanwhile, an aging Asian nanny read a dog-eared paperback. A dad in his office clothes draped his lanky body proprietarily across an entire bench and furiously sent text messages. Two women, noteworthy for their footwear (one in knee-high black leather boots, the other in designer flip-flops that showed off a recent pedicure) chatted loudly enough for all of us to hear over the voices of shrieking children. They leaned against the play structure a few feet from me, as if to appear engaged with their kids.

"That team of housekeepers you recommended is faaabulous -- their attention to detail is amaaaazing."

"Aren't they lifesavers?"

"Yeah, except our nanny said they're not very nice. They don't say 'please' and 'thank you.'"

The friend shrugged. Apparently her nanny didn't have such stringent etiquette requirements. "I'm just glad we have Fridays to spend with our little ones."

"Absolutely-without the nannies' day off we'd never get this quality time."

The women seemed unaware that one of their little girls had just stolen another child's sand pail and flung it down the slide.

My phone rang. My phone never rings. I only use it for emergencies.
This was an emergency. It was my therapist returning my call.

"So what's going on?"

"I'm really depressed and anxious and I want to kill myself." I began to sob.

"Where are you?"

"The park."

Her voice had an enforced calm about it. I was glad. "Should you be driving? Your voice sounds a little slurred."

"It does? I took some Klonopin. I don't know, I don't know, I don't know if I should be driving. But I'm only a few blocks from home."

"OK, you are going to drive home and then you are going to call Steve and tell him to come home immediately to take care of Julian, and then you are going to do whatever you need to do to stay safe."

Silence. Crying.

"Erika, do you need to go to the hospital?"

I might need to go to the hospital. "I don't want to go to the hospital!"

I was pacing now, circling the children, keeping an eye on my own, noticing nothing but his tow-headed form, working busily in the sandbox.

I could feel a panic attack coming on. I no longer saw the man who was texting or the nanny who was reading or the overprivileged women with their legions of help. I was thinking about how I went to the hospital once, before my son was born, and how it felt like prison.

"I know you don't want to go to the hospital. But I'm asking: do you need to go?"

More crying. "I don't know."

"OK. Can you do what I asked you to do?"


"If you feel worse tonight, call a crisis worker."

"But they won't know me, they won't know I'm a responsible person, and they'll throw me in the hospital against my will!"

My therapist's voice remained calm. "I'll put a note in the computer and explain the situation...OK?"

I couldn't talk. All I knew was that I didn't want her to hang up on me. I needed the sound of her voice. But she had other patients. She couldn't stay on the line while I paced for another hour. Suddenly I became aware that I was audibly crying. It hadn't occurred to me that anyone might be observing this meltdown.

"OK. Thanks."

I collapsed on my bench and looked around. Kids played, adults chatted or messed with their phones. Dappled sunlight played across the sandbox where Julian narrated his tractor action. A pair of grandparents pushed their granddaughter in a swing. And the two women with the shoes recoiled from me in horror as I dried my face with my shirt. Clearly they had overheard my conversation.

Only a fragile membrane separates life and death and I had my hands and mouth pressed up against it.

I need a seeing eye dog. To guide me through the mood swings. To offer a handle I can grip, guidance I can yield to. A reassuring nuzzle, a friend I need not find words for. Most of all, eyes to see the future when I cannot.

I am bipolar. It runs in my family. After years of research and the support of two therapists, one psychiatrist, and my OB/GYN, I went off almost all my meds and had a child. During that time, some professionals and family members treated me in ways they never would have treated a deaf, blind, or diabetic woman who had conceived. They believed I had no right to be a mother, despite the fact that I was responsibly managing my illness and always reached out for help when I needed it. Fighting the stigma was draining. No wonder I had learned to "pass," or pretend everything was all right.

By age eighteen I was class valedictorian and state tennis champion. By age twenty I was living alone in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I attended two colleges and worked two jobs. By age twenty-six I'd taught countless college prep classes, scoring well with students for my "cheerfulness." By age twenty-eight I'd spent two years circling the globe and married a computer programmer. By age thirty I'd written a book about my travels and published several excerpts.

Then there's the other story: By age eight I'd had my first psychotic experiences (I told no one; no one ever noticed). By fourteen I had my first major depression. By fifteen I had an eating disorder. By sixteen I was manic. By twenty-five I was diagnosed bipolar. By thirty-two I'd been hospitalized. By thirty-three I'd endured an extremely difficult pregnancy, a horrific birth, and postpartum psychosis. All the while, I'd tried countless medications--mostly ineffective, nearly all causing serious side effects like dementia, suicidality, and-this one's great--a potentially fatal rash on my face.

For years before Julian's birth, I'd wondered how I would explain my illness to him. Luckily, I had a role model in an aunt with lupus who'd handled her illness with grace. She and her son had had an enviable bond. She showed me we all have limitations, and our children will not punish us for them, but rather learn from them.

That morning simple tasks felt impossible. Like getting my son's lunch together. Making sure he had extra clothes. Putting sunblock on his face. Feeding him breakfast. I tried to keep it together.
But something overwhelmed me in the car on the way there. I started crying.

"You have sad eyes again, Mommy?" asked Julian.

"Yes, I'm afraid so."

"I want to give you a hug and a kiss, Mommy." His voice was insistent. He was two years old and he was going to fix this problem.

He is not an affectionate child--I have to take it when I can get it. So I pulled the car over and crawled into the backseat.

We hugged and kissed through my tears and he said, "You are so happy now?!", a question as much as an exclamation.

I could feel my heart cracking. I loved him so much and I wanted to protect him from everything. But I couldn't.

As the traffic rushed past us, I said, "You know Mommy is sick and that sickness makes her sad sometimes?"

"Like when Daddy was sick in bed?" His dad had recently gone through a bout of hepatitis.

"Yes, kind of like Daddy." I stroked his hair. "And you know I love you so so much!"

This same little person who threw tantrums in parking lots and screamed, "Don't look at me!" on nearly a daily basis, this same little person was trying to understand the incomprehensible and to help in the best way he knew how.

Obviously, Julian could not cure me. After I dropped him off at preschool, I spent the rest of the morning pacing the house, debating whether or not to overdose on my meds. I was agitated, I was suicidal, I was desperate. I have to kill myself, I can't kill myself played in a rapid, endless loop in my head. Yet I continued to play the proper mother, taking him to the park after preschool and packing a snack.

I survived that dark patch. Even without a seeing eye dog. I did as my therapist instructed: I called my husband to come home to watch Julian, I called supportive people, I distracted myself with TV and DVD's. I also debated whether to give Steve control of my meds, but decided not to, opting instead to increase my antipsychotic dose in order to slow the self-destructive thoughts and agitation (I was a pro at tinkering with my meds after so many years). When I could, I slept-my sole relief. I struggled to survive each second. In short, I hung on by my fingernails for a few days until the suicidal urges began to recede.

Unfortunately, it was not the last time I'd find myself marooned on my own bipolar island. I'll admit the repetition wears me down. But Julian keeps me from giving up. He did not choose a mentally ill mommy; I owe it to him to stay alive. I can only hope that someday he'll be proud of how hard I always fight to swim back to him.

Erika Trafton is the mother of a three year-old boy. Her work has appeared in Adventures in Wine and Encounters with the Middle East. She is the recipient of a Solas House Best Travel Writing Award and is at work on a novel.

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