The light was too bright. The walls too baby blue. There were three cameras on the ceiling, each from a different era. I tried to imagine what the 1950s model, still encased in its bulky wire cage, must have seen. Had it witnessed women strapped to beds with bits in their mouths to save their tongues?
How the hell had I ended up here? How come no one warned me that it was possible to end up hormone and sleep deprived enough to land in the psych ward?
Her arrival had been nearly perfect. Iʼd had a gentle 10-hour home birth with my husband, Eric, and our midwife, Sandano. At 8 pounds 10 ounces, I hadnʼt needed one suture. I settled into a sleepy state of bliss with her fat, furry body in my arms, thinking, motherhood? Bring it on!
I couldnʼt have imagined what came next. I mean, I know that sleep deprivation is an international form of torture and that, anyone, if sleep deprived enough will lose their mind. It had never occurred to me that breast-feeding Adelaide every two hours for a month would constitute enough.
Next thing I knew, I woke up in lock down with mastitis and rock hard triple Ds, wondering where the hell is Adelaide!? From the moment one cell became two, we had been together. I ached, with every fiber of my being, to hold her. A bottomless wail filled the halls.
One of the profound gifts within this peculiar, painful experience was that I never felt alone. I seemed to sense God in everything.
Much like the one thread of a Navajo blanket that finds its way completely off pattern, leaving room for God within this imperfection, I searched the face of each person for a loose thread, a sign that they too were divine. I searched their gaits, their smiles until I found it. One nurse had a wandering eye. Anotherʼs eyes were permanently opened wide as if caught in surprise. Another had scars on her neck. I laughed when I realized that my social worker and psychiatrist, the two people that had to truly hear me in order for me to return home, both wore hearing aids.
One afternoon I laughed out loud at something I have long since forgot. Just then a gust of wind catapulted a load of golden leaves beautifully through the air. Their pattern seemed to mimic me. This inspired another belly burst. Again, the wind produced a perfect repetition. The wind and I went on like this for a while, as if we had our heads on each otherʼs bellies.
As the giggles faded, tears returned. Here I was sitting in the most bewildering moment of my life. The agony of missing Adelaide was accompanied by the shame of abandoning her. Adelaide was the most vulnerable being I had ever known. She needed me unlike I have ever been needed and I simply was not there. The guilt was relentless.
Each day seemed to last an eternity. I lost all sense of time. It took me almost two weeks to understand that my psychiatristʼs primary goals were to find a diagnosis, manage my meds and send me home safe.
After nearly a month, the day came. The doctor decided it was time for me to go home. Heʼd decided many things during my stay. He decided that I was bipolar. He decided to try nine different psychotropic drugs, as many as seven in one day. He decided that Lithium was the key to long-term stabilization, functioning and safety.
Before my departure, I was warned that if I were to go off Lithium, I would end up back in the psych ward and would likely physically hurt Adelaide. Could I love myself if this were true? I felt utterly stripped of my sense of self.
At home with Adelaide in my arms and Eric by my side, I deeply exhaled. Iʼd been diagnosed, medicated and stabilized. The worst of it was over, right? The details of my days told a different story. Depression, multiple anxiety attacks, incessant insomnia and emotional detachment filled my every day.
Before I left the hospital, the psych team made it clear that sleep was to be my number one priority, if I wanted to remain at home and in my right mind. You can imagine the horror I experienced when, within a few days of being home, I couldn’t fall asleep.
Adelaide and Eric slept in another room to provide me quiet. Many nights, I could hear her cry but I had agreed to let Eric console her. It took every ounce of my strength not to go to her. Without me, without the warmth of my breast, would she know she was safe and loved?
There were loads of side effects to Lithium; Physical exhaustion, muscle tremors, an inability to taste food. By far the most terrifying was emotional detachment. I was completely flattened. I knew that I loved Adelaide but I could not feel it.
Was this love? Was this living?
After a few days of utter confusion, strength and determination flooded my being. I thought, wait a minute, I know who I am. Iʼm one of the most grounded people I know. I’ve never experienced depression or mania. Shit, Iʼve never even had a panic attack. I just had a baby at 40 and didnʼt sleep for a month.
This surge of self knowing inspired a series of conversations with my aunt Dorothy, a psych nurse for 40 years, and her trusted colleague, a psychiatrist. They concluded that I was not bipolar but had experienced postpartum psychosis mania. My independent research brought me to the same conclusion. I was not bipolar.
There had to be another way.
My midwife connected me with naturopath, Dr. Christine White. A full hormone panel revealed critically low levels of progesterone, estrogen, dopamine, serotonin and melatonin. Dr. White was astounded that I was functioning at all. It took about three weeks of vitamins, minerals, naturopathic remedies and hormones to bring my body and brain back to stasis. The insomnia, depression and anxiety attacks faded to nothing.
Only the detachment remained. In the face of uncertainty, I got very quiet and listened to my inner wisdom. I had a choice. I could live flatly and in fear or I could follow my heart.
I refused to raise Adelaide not feeling love for her.
I stopped taking Lithium. Within a few days, my emotions came back. I cried. I laughed. I felt things and, you know, I was me. Loving, gentle, present me.
Over a year has passed. The details of my peculiar experience fade. In their place emerge Adelaideʼs comic timing, her moonwalk, her obsession with the color red and all things Elmo.
Along the way, I have made the choice to show up fully each day. I refuse to live in the pain of what happened or the fear of what could be. Fused at the hips, Adelaide, Eric and I dance, laugh, chase each other, get messy, wrestle, make art, play in the snow…
This is love. This is living.
The essay was originally published in Mamalode's print magazine themed Memories.