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One step forward, two steps back

A little while after the birth, I decided to take Soren in to see my old co-workers at the job I had grown to miss. I had organised with another co-worker who had been pregnant at the same time as me to visit together.

Despite not having a plan for the birth, I’d attended a birthing class. In it, we’d practised dealing with labour pains by holding ice cubes in our hands. The lady who ran the class was also a pelvic floor physiotherapist who had warned me that if I was to run a temperature after the birth, that I was to go straight to emergency because it could have a recurrence of the infection that prompted our c-section. When she felt inside me, she told me that my pelvic floor was of a gold standard and I was fine to return to running, as long as I didn’t hit it too hard right away.

On the morning of our visit, I could feel myself burning up with pelvic pain, so I cancelled.

I drove straight to emergency, where they felt my belly and asked if it hurt.

“Of course it hurts, that’s why I’m here.”

The doctor came back with bad news.

“It looks as if you’ve got endometritis.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s an infection of the womb.”

I was admitted again.

“Can I still breastfeed?”

“Yeah, and we’ll make sure to get you pumping when he goes home. It’ll keep your supply up.”

I fastened the purple hospital robe around myself and settled into the bed, knowing I was once again in for the long haul. The nurses hooked me up to another cannula full of anti-biotics. The hours passed slowly, except when Natalie would bring Soren up for a feed, then they seemed to pass quickly. When he rested against my chest, he was beginning to smile.

“If you’re just going to sleep, then I may as well go home.”

I was detained for four days in total, but it felt like a lifetime. When Natalie had gone home to get supplies or catch up on work, she recalled that she’d noticed all the little additions I’d made to the home to welcome our new baby. On one of the days I’d been in hospital, she told me that she had gotten angry when the basket I’d filled with bath toys had fallen off the wall.

She wanted me to be home, and I wanted to be home.

After birth, it felt like I was bouncing from one specialist to the next. Because my birth had been such a shitshow I decided to see a psychologist. I had a long-term history of depression and anxiety with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, as well as a genetic predisposition to mental illness. I knew if I didn’t get help now, it would create work for me in the long run because the wheels would eventually come off as the challenges of motherhood set in. I knew that although I wasn’t feeling off now, I had just dealt with a hugely life-changing event that had forced me to face my mortality. If I didn’t address it now, it would come back to bite me later.

May as well deal with it and get it over with now, I had no time for a full-scale breakdown.

If my psyche was game of Ker-Plunk, then resilience and resolve were like a layer of plastic sticks, keeping my marbles together. This arrangement, although thin, was strong enough to get me through regular adversity, which seemed to bear cumulative but tolerable weight. However, when faced with the sudden build-up of the heavy boulders of my own mortality, all of my traumas pushed down. The pile of plastic sticks that had gotten me through comparatively easier stressful days was beginning to buckle.

I thought I was coping just fine. The thrill and joy of my birth – even with its physical trauma – had me riding a swift and hormonal high. This was compounded by the breastfeeding, which was as good for me as it as for him. With every feed, I felt the dizzying drain of my nutrients from me to him. I felt euphoric. Every morning I woke up on a renewed high, ready to tackle life. The only problem was, I’d been told to put my running on hold. Instead, my thoughts raced all day with no outlet, right up until bedtime.

Am I being a good Mum? Is he getting enough milk? Will this single stretch mark go away? What if I lose my mind in these four walls? What if I slip back into the bad habits of my past?

I kept reassuring myself that my son was fine and that I was doing fine, all things considered, but then the doubt would creep back in like a tide going in and out. Like Sylvia Plath, God, I ricocheted between certainties and doubts.

The thoughts would slow down in the evening as I had an extra mind to bounce my ideas off when my wife would crawl into bed with me, feeling the exhaustion for both of us as I continued running on fumes.

I would get a momentary break from the flow of ideas only when my head hit the pillow and I transitioned into early sleep.

That was when the night terrors came back, in the still of the night with nothing to keep me busy. My thoughts had been cooped up long enough and they had nowhere else to go. Like starving birds, they writhed at the confines of their daily cage, wanting to be let out.

The first night it happened, I fell asleep only to wake, desperate for a drink. I slid quietly out of the bed and shuffled out of my blankets to walk towards the bathroom. I scrabbled around for my cup. I thought I must have put it in the bathroom cupboard when I was cleaning the house.

When I pulled it open, my blood ran cold.

Inside the cupboard was a sealed body bag with my hospital number stuck to it. Inside the body bag was my dull and lifeless body, with my dead newborn still attached by his umbilical cord.

I jerked awake, but I was unable to move. Pinned to my bed, I felt cold sweat beading down my forehead.

Was this it?

My heart was beating so hard against the bones inside my chest, that I realised I must actually be alive. It was a dream on steroids, but it felt so real. When I did finally fall back asleep, it was time to feed again.

On these nights, Natalie would pull up a seat on the couch next to me, placating her midnight munchies with peanut butter on rice crackers. I would envy her as she drifted right back into peaceful sleep, clearly able to cope with this birth stuff better than me.

After a week straight of these night terrors, I booked in to see my doctor. I sat across from her and tried to explain, but it all sounded so stupid.

“It’s like a dream but I feel stuck in it. I wake up suddenly thinking I’m dead and then I struggle to get back to sleep because I feel anxious.”

She prescribed me escitalopram and a 10-session mental health plan to “work through my birthing trauma.”

“This is just the baby blues. It goes away in time.”

The very next week, I booked in to see the psychologist who had previously walked me through how to deal with the workplace anxiety that had plagued me years earlier. That particular experience didn’t give me night terrors, but instead caused me to toss and turn all night on high alert, worried that someone might find out I’m gay. I knew all along I could lose my job and that they had done me a favour to hire a gay teacher in a religious school. Back then, I’d lived with daily paranoia of being found out. These feelings had been helped along by the early experiences I’d had of coming out.

It hadn’t been an easy time.

Years earlier, when I came out for the first time, I had been living in Bundaberg. Have you ever been in a place so small that everyone knows one another, but big enough that the connections between them form knotted threads that pull together tightly that you’re always a secret away from hanging yourself? It is a weird purgatory of populace. People always muse about this odd familiarity with small-ish places, they talk about it romantically as if having the whole town’s social network connected by the milkman is a good thing. I am certain that realtors capitalise on such a thing for mid-life crisis folks seeking the simple life, I am certain of it. I can always hear it in my mind:

“Oh, YES, Susan! With a population of 45,000 spread out over a large expanse away from the hustle and bustle, you can be certain that you’ll find a place in THIS community…”

Personally, I find myself amazed at the power people had to find things out. They create twisted narratives that traversed the town quicker than a greased marble rolling down a trap, playing to an audience too afraid to question them, lest they be seen as “outsides”. I realised early on that it was advisable to remain enigmatic if you were to keep your soul in a tight postcode. The only problem I kept running face first into was that everyone thought I was an aloof, anti-social arsehole city slicker and I never fit in. But – I figured I wasn’t going to anyway, what did it matter? I tried to keep a tight persona in that place, to stop the gay within me from spilling out into the city’s rumour mill.  

Rattle. Rattle. Click. Whistle. Whirrrrrrrrr.

“Mornin’!”

My usual barista flashed me a grin as a steady plume of steam emanates from the coffee machine, but she knew my usual wasn’t a hot drink – it was an iced coffee with cream, sprinkles, and most importantly, marshmallows. Hopefully, no less than three and all white ones. There was no point looking at a menu when I knew damn well that I was going to drink the same old thing every time – in keeping with my predictable, city-slicker ways.

“Just the usual, luv?” her chipper face reached me eye to eye and probably a little too close as she placed her hands on the counter, ready to make my drink. Her sweaty, blonde hair was pulled back off her fifty-in-the-shade face and the whole shop smells pleasantly of coffee beans and chocolate sprinkles. Delicious.

“Yup.” I replied, looking forward to the sugar hit. She turned to the ice blender and poured cold drips of coffee into it, whistling merrily as she works on the drink at hand.

There were upsides to life in that small-ish, back-to-front place. All the shop assistants knew my orders and living in a house that was walking distance to a beach had its perks, but you could never avoid people. They talked to any old stranger in the street, and because I was never one for unsolicited conversation, everyone there thought I was anti-social. Perhaps I would have been more social if everything didn’t suck so much. You couldn’t even loiter to deal with the intense boredom, all the shops close at midday on a Saturday and they didn’t open on a Sunday.

 The guts of the city were held together by a messy, yet weirdly specific six degrees of separation. The connections are tight and the run deep. Two girls I go to school with have fathers who have worked together in the sugar cane farming industry since the edge of the 1990s, before the Macarena came out as an A-side cassette, and they were born in the same hospital, on the same day.

Before the womb, baby.

All those kids played for the same hockey team and had the same collection of friends, most of whom had lived in Bundaberg for their entire lives. Their lives were playing out in old Queenslander houses with slightly-peeling-paint, all round the corner from each other. My grade at school was filled with people just like this. Not only were they all best friends, but their younger siblings were similar ages, so they hang out like one big family, calling each other’s parents ‘aunty’ and ‘uncle’ There were clusters of cousins here and there, as well as lineage that went way back. It was a perfect and sentimental upbringing and in many ways I found myself jealous of it. Their entrenched, though artificial siblinghood was something I would never have because I just couldn’t stay fixed in a place without fucking it all up.

Imagine trying to keep a secret in such a tightly-woven net of association, or trying to find an in-road to a myopic crowd that had known each other so well, for so long. Although the people of Bundaberg found all of this endearing and grounding, I knew that these links and ties were enough to hang me in the knot of my biggest secret.

“So how’s school, luv? Still at the Christian college?” the barista asked as she poured the cold coffee mix into a plastic vessel of environmental damage.

“Yeah, I am.” I shifted on the spot, guardedly, breaking eye contact. 

I hated talking about that place and am somewhat embarrassed to be associated with it. Unfortunately, my flat response closed off the conversation and I feel kind of rude. What I really want to say is, ‘I hate it and I’m seriously considering killing myself because I think I’m gay but I can’t figure it out for myself because it’s not allowed, and the internet in this town is too slow to load any means of finding out in the comfort of my home’? It just didn’t go well with a cold beverage, nor would it be softened by the marshmallows. Sometimes, a closed one-liner is all the truth a person can handle over a coffee transaction. 

“All right, well that will be four dollars,” she said dryly, ignoring the rewards card I had held out in my hand.

“Tell your Dad I say hi.” There she was, holding me accountable for my bluntness with her familiarity. I nodded back silently and turned on my Converse heel to walk away, guilt heavy in my heart, though that feeling was like a constant ball and chain,

The fixer-upper was to take me to a smaller, quieter place and directly into a fundamentalist Christian school that still caned students with a ‘Jesus loves you’ paddle in the hope that I would straighten out. After all, there is nothing like religious guilt and corporal punishment to keep a rebellious city gal on the straight and narrow.

“It’ll be a lifestyle change!” both of my parents had said.

“A completely fresh start for all of us! Just don’t tell anyone the real reason why we’re moving. It’s a lifestyle change. A lifestyle change.”

Ah. The endless loop of good family cover-ups.

It wasn’t just all about me, of course. My father’s career benefited from the move, too – selling hearing aids to old people – of which there was no shortage in that little, backwards place – was lucrative business. It was a fucked up idea from the very first moment of piling our shit into Two Men and a Truck, and any opposition was promptly drowned out by the roar of our family vehicle travelling 385km north to this unusual, somewhat faraway place.

When we got there, I gathered that in giving my Big Secret any sort of airtime, the smiles would fade, the looks would become suspicious and the curtains would be drawn in my face. There was a friendly vibe, but one that definitely belonged to an ‘in-crowd’, one to which the homosexuals did not fit. For survival’s sake, I figured it would be best if I didn’t say anything– at least, at that point in time. Lacking life experience, part of me also wondered if I even was gay, or if it was “just a phase.” I wondered if this could be fixed, if I had come out of the factory line with defective parts that needed a careful hand – or the right cock, as the I’d overheard boys in my last school saying about girls who weren’t interested in having sex with them.

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