I have lost parts of myself, but my illness isn’t the cause. It just put that loss into stark relief. I now believe that my illness is, at least in part, an effect of years of setting unrealistic standards for myself, of being incredibly self-critical, of feeling like I had failed, of shame. No wonder I got a bit lost in there.
So what happened? I began losing myself 15 years ago when I became a mother for the first time. I had had an easy, uneventful pregnancy, so I anticipated an uneventful birth. A few hours of labor, a light epidural, some quick pushing, and out our mystery baby would pop. Instead I was in labor for 17 hours, pushed for two and a half, and then had an emergency c-section. Wyatt was born on his due date and was completely healthy. But as soon as I heard the doctor announce that I would have to have surgery I felt like I had failed. I could not push a baby out of my womb, even though women have been doing just that since the dawn of time. And things went downhill from there. We brought Wyatt home from the hospital, and I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to care for him. My motherly instincts took a while kick in. I didn’t immediately bond with my newborn. Fail. Breastfeeding was a struggle. It hurt like hell, and I didn’t trust that Wyatt was getting enough milk. Fail. I developed postpartum depression. Fail. Wyatt, in turn, was colicky and wailed constantly. I didn’t know how to comfort him. Fail. I stopped breastfeeding after several weeks so he wouldn’t inadvertently ingest any of the psychotropic ingredients in the medication I was taking. Fail. He was allergic to the formula. Fail. It took trying 4-5 different brands before we found one he could tolerate. I took responsibility for everything.
Once Wyatt was several months old things smoothed out for awhile. But then I got pregnant with the twins and delivered them 10 weeks premature (another failure of my body). For six weeks Harlan and I alternated between time in the NICU and time at home with our toddler. When we finally brought our 4 1/2 pound baby girls home their mouths weren’t strong enough to pull milk from my breasts. So formula once again. Ava and Ellie were easy babies, but life with three children under the age of three was exhausting. I developed anxiety and found it hard to be present.
Failure upon failure upon failure. Failure led to shame, and my sense of self began to chip away. If I couldn’t properly give birth to my babies (how on earth had I failed at this most elemental of womanly experiences?) or soothe them when they lost control, how could I expect to succeed in other areas of my life? After several years of stay-at-home mothering I started to feel antsy. But I didn’t know what to do about it. I had lost confidence in myself and my abilities. I felt I no longer had skills that would be useful in the wider world. There were periods of inspiration and action over the years. Moments when I felt like myself. Volunteering on a parental crisis hotline, swinging on the flying trapeze, singing in a chorus, studying nutrition, seeing clients for a time. But the moments didn’t last. The weight of my perceived failings was greater than my belief in myself. Eventually the burden became too heavy and was, I believe, one of the reasons I succumbed to illness.
So what now? It’s time to start treating myself with the same love and care I would offer my dearest and most precious friend. It’s time to change the story I’ve been telling myself. It’s time to see that I didn’t fail, but simply stumbled in the face of life’s inevitable road blocks. It’s time to let go of the past and embrace the present. I’m about to turn 45. For a little while I thought it might be too late. I thought I had missed my window on a life well lived. But as my oldest friend’s mother reminded me recently, “How wonderful that you’re figuring this out while you’re still young! I didn’t start this journey until I was in my sixties. You have so much time.” Now I see that I am right where I need to be. Now is my window. It’s not too late. It’s just the beginning.
It’s time to start living again.