Feels Like Despair
A Personal Essay
Gail Wallace Bozzano
I sit on my living room couch, newly home from the hospital. Friends and neighbors drop by with gifts, eager to see our new baby girl, and the house is filled with flowers and pink wrapping paper. Norah Jones plays softly on the stereo. My husband, Andrea, has taken time off work to help with the baby and our four-year-old son Mark, and the grandparents have stocked our kitchen with meals. I’m trying to see what everyone else sees: a happy occasion, one worth celebrating. But every time I shift position on the couch, pain sears my lower abdomen. Coughing is excruciating. I have to lean on Andrea to shuffle to and from the bathroom, my lips pressed together to keep from screaming because I don’t want to upset Mark; he’s stressed enough with all the upheaval, doesn’t understand why he can’t crawl into my lap.
No one really wants to hear the details of Lauren’s birth, about how I pushed and pushed for two hours but couldn’t get her nearly ten-pound body out of mine. About how the doctor accidentally sliced my cervix during the C-section and I lost three liters of blood and almost died. About how there wasn’t enough blood for the two transfusions so I ended up with saline, which there hadn’t been time to heat. About how I shook for hours and hours in the recovery room, icy cold on the inside no matter how many warm blankets the nurses piled on. About how the entire first day in the hospital, I was too hurt and sick to hold or nurse or bond with Lauren at all. No one wants to hear the story. They just want the ending: “But your baby is fine, right?”
And she is. I tell myself I am lucky to be alive, lucky Lauren is healthy. Beautiful. But my body fills with something dark and heavy that has nothing to do with the botched surgery. The vague melancholy I’ve felt on and off for most of my life has been growing, gathering strength, since we realized Mark has special needs. Now it completely consumes me. It doesn’t feel like sadness, or even depression.
It feels like despair.
Next to the couch, a pile of cards sits on the end table. I pick up the one on top, addressed to Lauren. It’s an expensive Hallmark card from my mother, pastel shades of pink and purple and yellow. A tiny baby nestles in the curve of a crescent moon, swaddled in clouds. “Twinkle, twinkle, little star. What a lucky girl you are,” the verse begins. My tears plop onto the top of the card, staining the pastels dark. I set the card aside. A few days later, I will tell my mother I’m having trouble coming to terms with Lauren’s birth. She will snap, “You need to get over the C-section.”
I sit in a chair in the examining room of a pediatric neurologist’s office. Mark fidgets on the table and the rest of us—the doctor, Andrea, and I—crowd into the space around him. For the past three years, Mark has seen specialist after specialist. Each doctor finds another thing wrong—Mark’s eyes don’t track properly, his muscles are too weak, his speech is delayed—but no one can tell us exactly why. In the evenings, after the kids are asleep, I research developmental verbal apraxia and hypotonia. Now, I hold five-month-old Lauren on my lap, favoring my right side. My gallbladder was removed the week before and the incisions –puncture wounds from the laparoscopic surgery—still feel sore. I’m tired all the time. Lauren still isn’t sleeping through the night. Mark demands my attention, his behavior more volatile. He can’t stand his baby sister. My closest friend moved away, taking his two little girls and our weekly playdates. I slog through autumn days with what feels like a bag of wet cement on my back, another over my heart.
The neurologist, a kindly-looking man who wears a cardigan instead of a lab coat, tells us Mark should not have his tonsils and adenoids removed, as an ear, nose, and throat specialist recently recommended. Mark’s body is not strong enough to be put under general anesthesia, the neurologist says. He might go to sleep and not wake up.
“He could die?” I am stunned. The ENT had scolded us for not scheduling Mark’s surgery immediately. He certainly hadn’t mentioned any dangers. What if we had gone ahead? What if, right now, we no longer had Mark? I meet Andrea’s eyes over the top of Lauren’s head. He looks as stricken as I feel.
The neurologist recommends a brain MRI—a brain MRI for our beautiful boy—and sends us on our way. Andrea and I say good-bye in the parking lot. He has to get back to work. Lauren fusses and Mark whines as I sniff back tears and cry as quietly as I can. “Hang tough,” Andrea says. He kisses me and leaves. Hang tough, I repeat to myself, over and over, as I load the kids into the car and drive home. Soon the words lose their meaning.
Back at the house, I have promised Mark we’ll carve our pumpkins for upcoming Halloween. After I nurse Lauren and change her, I bring the pumpkins inside and wipe them clean. Then I find a kitchen knife and jab it into the top of Mark’s pumpkin, working slowly, careful not to let the knife slip. A familiar, pungent October smell fills the dining room as I scoop out the cold, stringy guts, plop them onto newspaper covering the table. We’ve had the pumpkins for weeks, but I told Mark we couldn’t carve them right away. They rot quickly once they’re hollow.
A few weeks after Halloween, I sit in the blue rocking chair in Lauren’s room. I nurse Lauren, willing my body to relax so she will, too. But I’m listening for Mark. I’ve told him that once his sister is asleep, I’m all his. We can get out the Play Doh. Mess around on the computer. I’ll even let him play “Boo,” the endless, repetitive game where he pushes his green plastic lawnmower around and around the first floor. The lawnmower has little plastic balls behind a clear plastic panel, and every time the wheels turn, a little lever flicks the balls with a loud pop. “Boo” is a god-awful noisy game, but I’ve given up trying to keep the house quiet while Lauren naps. I’ve given up hope of a shower or time to write anything more than scribbles in the kids’ baby books. I’ve given up on the baby books. The only thing I want, the only thing, is to focus on one child at a time. Caring for both of them at once feels like trying to run a race with one leg tied to the other. Mark, of course, doesn’t understand. I don’t know yet that he is on the autism spectrum and has ADHD. My expectations are too high. I need him to step up, grow up, help me out every so often, and he can’t.
Lauren nurses until she falls asleep. I ease her off my breast. A milky bubble forms on her perfect lips and bursts without a sound. This is the most delicate time. If I can just get her into her crib without waking her up, tiptoe out of the room and shut the door before Mark comes to find me. . .
The door bangs open. Mark bursts into the room, spinning, shouting, wild-eyed. He darts over to the rocking chair and squeezes Lauren’s head. He tries to push her off my lap. Lauren startles, blinks, and begins to wail. I’m hit with a wave of rage which grows, builds, fills every part of my body like toxic gas. “What are you doing?” I yell as Mark dashes out of the room. I set Lauren in the crib and follow Mark down the stairs. I find him in the kitchen. I hit him hard on the side of his head. Twice. And I yell. Mark stands stunned for a second. And then—I will always be grateful for this—he yells back, right in my face. “Stupid!” he shouts. “Stupid, stupid, stupid!” I want to hit him again, but I make myself walk out of the kitchen, up the stairs, and into my bedroom. I shut the door and burst into tears. I can hear Mark crying downstairs and Lauren wailing in her crib. Never before have I hit Mark in a rage. I’ve grabbed him too hard from time to time, and once, smacked the top of his head after he bit me on the thigh. But I don’t believe in spanking. I was determined to do better than my own parents. Now, I have ruined absolutely everything.
Somehow, I make myself stop crying and the effort this takes makes me go numb. I go back downstairs. Mark waits in the kitchen. I kneel in front of him, wrap my arms around him, and kiss the place where I hit him. I tell him I’m sorry. I say it over and over. His body softens into mine, but I don’t know whether this is forgiveness. He’s gone quiet.
I sit on a couch in a softly-lit room. I feel too ashamed to look directly at the woman who sits across from me, a psychologist I’ll call Liz. She could be ten or fifteen years older than me, and she radiates deep calm and some dignified power. Her blue eyes, behind round, plastic-framed glasses, are kind.
“Is this your first time in therapy?” she asks.
“No,” I say, “but it’s been awhile.”
“Then you know this can be scary,” she says. I nod. Liz gestures with one hand, a small “go ahead, I’m listening” gesture.
I have to tell her. I’ve known I needed to talk to someone since the day after I hit Mark, when I couldn’t stop crying and couldn’t get out of bed. I told Andrea what I’d done, and he tried to reassure me. You’re a good mother. I didn’t believe him. I hadn’t drowned Mark in the bathtub or slit his throat with a kitchen knife or hit him so hard I’d damaged his brain. But I didn’t believe I was any different from the mothers who had done those things. I didn’t believe I deserved to be a mother. I didn’t even believe I deserved to live. But that morning as I lay in bed, unable to get up, something pushed through the despair, the sanest thought I’d had in a long time: I need help.
Liz waits, holding space until I’m ready. She’ll do this for me once a week for two full years before she knows for sure I’ll get better, and for seven more years after that. She will help me heal from postpartum depression and when I’m strong enough, we’ll take on the low-grade depression—dysthymia—and I’ll heal from that, too.
But first, I have to begin. I gulp. Blink back fresh tears. I think of Andrea and Mark and Lauren waiting for me at home. I think of our hollowed-out pumpkins rotting in a leaf pile. I think of how today was shorter and colder than the day I hit Mark, how the earth is readying itself for a different season. I think of all of this, and I feel my heart—my strong life pulse—beating in my eardrums. And then I know I can talk.
Gail Wallace Bozzano is a former newspaper reporter and editor whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Hair Trigger, Cactus Heart, and local newspapers. She lives with her husband and their three children in the Chicago area