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Repetition compulsion.

Why do we look at things which we know will trigger us? Both my psychiatrist and my psychologist have told me to stop looking at content that is likely to trigger me, and yet, I can’t seem to stop. Or I will stop for a short while, then go right back to it. I often spend time reading online about medical procedures and birth. The last time I forgot to take my meds and I stayed up all night, I watched Faces of Death so I could look at an open heart surgery.

Some psychologists and neurologists refer to this as ‘repetition compulsion.’ Rather than remembering something as a part of the past, we revisit it repeatedly in an attempt to master it. This makes sense, because the more I see triggering material, the more desensitised I become. Yet this would not be mastering the trauma, but instead, numbing it.

When I first awoke from the birth, and Natalie was crying, she then told me what had occurred. I remember feeling anaesthetised emotionally, like my mind was putting up walls to stop me from feeling the shock. It didn’t come until later when I became unwell that I really started to feel it, in the form of night terrors, flashbacks, and intrusive thoughts.

What is keeping me stable at present is medication. If I forget to take it for a day, I suffer immensely. I don’t sleep, I have strange thoughts, and then my mood will be extremely low for days, even after I’ve caught up the dose. The medication, in essence, is flooding my brain with chemicals so I don’t have to feel the significant lows or the debilitating anxiety brought on by the birth. It is a numbing agent, to some degree.

I wonder sometimes if this numbness is good. Then I remember what psychosis is like, and I will take numbness any day.

I guess this is my reality now. In many ways, I have had to grieve and adjust because the old me, the pre-birth-me, is never coming back.

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I am here to live out loud.

Earlier this year, I completed neuropsychological testing, referred by my psychiatrist. She wanted more insight about how my mind worked and organised ideas, so I completed the testing. A lot of it was puzzles, some of it was vocabulary, and I had to draw a clock showing a specific time. I failed at that task, drawing the numbers outside the clock face. I lost points.

“You do realise you have ADHD, right? And that’s not a pejorative.”

Unbeknownst to my treating doctor, I had actually been diagnosed by a paediatrician in 2001, aged 11. This was due to my impulsiveness and poor behaviour, as well as my disorganisation. At the time, I had been prescribed dextroamphetamine. I was on it for only a short time as my parents didn’t believe I had ADHD. It made me kind of spacey, but it kept me on track.

As an adult, I couldn’t imagine how I could have ADHD. I thrive in my studies and my work. I finish my assignments early and I get good grades, even in the face of multiple obstacles.

But I do get distracted.

So how do I cope?

I start everything early. If I have 60 days to complete a 4500 word assignment, I divide the number of words by the number of days and become micro-productive. It usually ends up being about 100 words per day and I can finish on time. When I’m in my flow state, I keep writing. That’s how I manage to finish early, most of the time.

So where do I feel it the most?

I am impulsive. I have racing thoughts and ideas. The fact that I took on a masters degree with a full time job was a complete whim, and one that I have managed to stick with.

I fidget. I constantly crack my knuckles, move my legs, and fiddle with my phone.

I am disorganised. As a specialist teacher, I move from classroom to classroom throughout the day. By the end of the day, my coat, instruments, hat, lunchbox, and water bottle are in all different places. This is how I managed to lose a box of LEGO when I was a learning support teacher, at 30 weeks pregnant.

I get distracted a lot. One assignment is usually full of many hours of looking at memes and true crime documentaries, as a side road to actually getting stuff done.

As a teacher, I often hear ADHD used as a pejorative to describe children who are not a ‘good fit’ for the classroom environment. However, I would urge people to give these children time. As an adult, my ADHD is my greatest strength. My impulsivity has forced me to make beneficial decisions for myself. My stubborn commitment to tasks sees me through to the end, though I do get distracted a lot.

Many so called pathologies have huge benefits when they are channelled in the right way. For some, this means medication. For others, it means finding ways to compensate.

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Don’t have much to say but felt like sharing this

Every time someone has a baby “naturally”, I feel such a sense of jealousy and resentment. I don’t mean to, but I can’t help it.

Lately I’ve been thinking differently, though. My birth was such a mess and nothing could have saved it. The psychosis I had afterwards as a result was the second scariest time in my life. However, since this has happened, I have become more stable, stronger, more resilient, and more aware of myself.

As difficult as it was, I don’t think my son could have been given to me under any different set of circumstances. His story is our story and it binds us together.

Loving him is the easiest thing in the world.

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A semi-colon means there was a pause, you didn’t come to an end

I had always bitten my nails, but in the months leading up to the birth, I made a new friend who told me not to anymore.

“You don’t want your baby to have a Mum with chewed fingernails!”

That statement was enough to make me stop, and I had nicely shaped nails when I went in to give birth. I had photos of my beautiful, naturally grown nails inside the pulse oximeter they’d attached before they induced me. My wrist had reasonably fresh ink, a little crucifix next to a semicolon. It was a reminder that although my life had had some pauses and sad punctuation, there was more to come before there would be a full stop to finish it.

Three days after the birth, I was lying in bed and stroking that very tattoo while I let my brand-new son drain me of my nutrients. That was the day they had finally gotten me out of bed to walk to the shower, but I didn’t shower myself.

The pain of getting out of bed was nothing on labour, but it hurt just the same.

One of my friends told me that first baby labour could often last thirty-six hours and that I was lucky I had only endured around thirteen.

“It could have been so much worse. You could have torn.” She said as she held my baby for the first time. I had initially felt like an absolute goddess for enduring as much labour as I did, but she reminded me I’d only been able to do it with an epidural. I still maintain that induction hormones make the contractions a thousand times worse.

“Yeah, well, the contractions were unbearable. Remember I was induced.”

I had spent my days since birth tethered to the wall by three cannulas; one with anti-biotics for my infection, one with hydration, and one for something I can’t even remember. It made for a very cumbersome trip out of the bed for every feed, but I had no problem ringing the buzzer.

I had finally relinquished some of my control in the name of doing the best for my son.

He had taken to the breast like an absolute champ. He had an excellent and natural latch and I adored having him nuzzled into my chest as he guzzled intently. Despite my train-wreck of a birth, this was one thing I held onto as a measure of my motherhood. I never got bored as he spent his time snoozing, sucking, and swallowing.

Although it all appeared to be going well, my milk was yet to come in. Not surprising, considering I’d lost almost half of my blood in the birthing process. He was sucking a whole lot of colostrum and air, which was beginning to not be enough for his growing body.

The next time he stirred, I started to thread myself free from the cannulas to get him for his next feed. I struggled to pull the bed rail down and my abdomen sent pain all throughout my body. Up until that point, a nurse had been bringing him to me for feeds night and day because I was simply unable to after the birth. As I crawled out of the bed, half bent over, I became overwhelmed by my desire to pee. I rang the bell anxiously, worried that I may wet myself. The nurses had only just removed my catheter that day, so I was still getting used to the sensations of knowing when I needed to go.

A minute passed and I could feel my anxiety welling up, so I rang again.

“Ooh, someone’s a little needy.” I heard one of the nurses say in the hall.

After all, I was just one of many new Mums who needed help.

I rang the bell again, and a small amount of urine trickled down my leg.

“Please!” I whispered.

I shook and moved in my half-standing position, utterly helpless. Still chained to the wall, I either had to pee my pants or wait patiently, but time was running out. As I tried to regain my composure, I noticed small, brown streak coming out of my son’s nappy.

Maybe he hadn’t been hungry at all, I thought.

A nurse pulled the curtain aside brusquely and asked me why I had rang the bell so many times.

“I’m sorry but I really need to pee and I’m attached to the wall.”

She narrowed her eyes, silently pulling the drip machine out of the wall.

I moved as quickly as I could, relieved myself, and returned to my dirty, crying baby. I struggled to undo his nappy as my hand was thick with cannulas.

“He’s hungry too, you know. You need to feed him.”

I could feel tears welling up. I wasn’t one to cry, but I felt so hopeless and alone.

“I know. But I really needed to pee.”

The nurse noticed my tears but carried on aggressively.

“Why are you crying? This is your life for the next eighteen years. Buckle up, princess.”

I was indignant, but she was right. I sobbed, trying to wipe the tears from my eyes, but it was hard with a hand full of needles.

“Come on. You just have the baby blues, this is normal at day three. Don’t ring the bell unless you really need us.”

I gently removed my son from his swaddle and took him back to bed with me, sobbing at my complete failure to meet his needs. This was day two, and I was already failing him.

As the night wore on, I continued to feed, feed, feed, but the more I did, the less he was seeming to enjoy it. His wails were matching my exhaustion, hour after hour. As the clock ticked past midnight, he started to bash his head against my chest. I tried to reassure myself that it was all normal and I refrained from ringing the bell, the nurse’s ire fresh in my mind.

Even though I felt alone, you’re never really alone in a hospital and I could hear the nurse’s rubber Crocs grating against the floor, irritating me so. I worried that if they caught me on my phone, they’d think I was even more of a failure than before. As soon as I knew they were occupied in other rooms, I whipped out my phone and started Googling frantically.

Baby + headbutting + autism, Baby + headbutting + poor + attachment.

These were all threads of thought I had come across in my studies and I was worried that it wasn’t normal. He cried and cried in my arms, though I had long stopped, now just desperate for answers.

I was still cradling him when out of sheer exhaustion, I nodded off. It was somewhat peaceful, until I started to dream. In the dream, a man stood with his head fallen, cradling his own baby against a brick wall. He was rocking his baby, perhaps a little too hard, with a bottle teetering on the edge of his thumb. The baby was wailing. I felt compelled to help him.

In the dream, I edged slowly forwards to this mysterious stranger.

“Sir! Sir! You can’t feed him like that! The latch isn’t right. The bottle isn’t in his mouth.”

I felt my body melting into the perfectly groomed lawn around us. My forearm detached, then my hand, and then my legs caved in beneath me.

He looked up and scoffed.

“Why would I take advice from you? You can’t even feed your own baby. He keeps headbutting you.”

I jerked awake, ashamed that not only could I not feed my son, but I had fallen asleep on the job. As I looked around the room, I noticed that there were plumes of smoke emanating from the corner of the curtain.

No. Surely not?

As I grounded myself, the smoke drifted away. I was safe, for now.

At three am, I took a photo of the both of us when he’d finally cried himself into sleep. I figured I’d need a reminder to show myself in the future what I could get through when I tried – and more important, why I needed to get through.

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Of psychiatry and Pinterest

Before I became a parent, everybody was full of advice about how to be a parent. I wish someone had pulled me aside and warned me to be more selective about the company in my life, especially with new friends.

purple and pink plasma ball

Back when I first became a parent, I admittedly invested too much time into toxic friendships. One in particular stands out as this person was what I would call an armchair psychiatrist. Early on in motherhood, I was struggling with certain relationships in my life and so I sought counsel. This friend offered me the view that some people in my life had narcissistic personality disorder and introduced me to Pinterest and Reddit communities that were full of people whose lives were dominated by narcissistic partners, exes, parents, children, colleagues, and dogs.

I became wrapped up in these communities and after awhile, became convinced that the people I was having trouble with were full blown narcissists.

Reading some of the articles, I realised that just about every human tendency could be labelled as narcissistic. Self-centredness, ambitiousness, the desire to speak highly of oneself, or healthy self-esteem. It was all narcissism, apparently.

The deeper I got into Pinterest, the more I started to think that perhaps I was the narcissist. As time went on, the armchair psychiatrist continually posted and sent me articles about narcissism. I started to feel overwhelmed, but I had no idea how to back out of the friendship. In desperation, I sought out the help of a former colleague who had a knack with people. I considered her an empath and a wise counsel. She told me, kindly, to cut and run.

Since becoming more aware of this subculture of individuals I refer to as armchair psychiatrists, I have noticed it everywhere. I quit Pinterest as a result, as my feed was continually being flooded with narcissist articles and boards as a result of conversations I had with this friend. As a true-crime buff, I noticed that narcissistic personality disorder seemed to be the first diagnosis the armchair psychiatrists would jump to when a person had murdered someone or committed an awful crime.

There are books promoted to audiences that talk about how to deal with narcissists and psychopaths. I see them on my Facebook feed all the time. Realistically, these people only make up a very small portion of the population. They are not people you would meet across multiple contexts in your life, if most of the people you spend time with are average.

The most interesting thing I found about the armchair psychologist subculture is that a lot of the people who claim that everyone is a narcissist have multiple broken relationships in their lives, often with their children. I feel that more could be achieved by working on human relationships and promoting articles about that, rather than marinating in half-truths about narcissism. We are all broken but most of us are not narcissists.

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The first coffee after birth

At the very least, I had shed the skin of not wanting to disclose my birthing story by going to the Mum’s group. Before Soren and while we had been saving for IVF and world travels, Natalie and I had been living on a shoestring budget. As an adult, my love for iced takeaway coffee drinks had evolved a full-blown daily caffeine addiction. Because we were saving our pennies, we limited ourselves to two weekend dine-in coffees and one on every Wednesday morning. We often conversed about what our life would be like after having a baby, full of idealism about bringing the babe along for our mid-week dates. We certainly had high expectations.

After spending my teenage life as an outsider, I had become rather deliberate about surrounding our budding family with good and accepting people. We’d set up house in the inner-city and made a lot of equally coffee-addicted friends with whom we’d become quite familiar. Some were friendly acquaintances, baristas, and some we considered our inner-circle. Our coffee people watched my belly grow in anticipation, getting to know us over our coffee orders.

The first coffee morning after the birth, Natalie sent me into our favourite café to get our usual orders. I clammed up in a way that I couldn’t grasp at the time.

“It’s just two lattes. Don’t order yours on skim milk, I don’t want to end up drinking yours.”

“It’s… It’s too much for me to remember, Natalie. You go in.”

Natalie took the hard line with me, which I needed, but hated it at the time.

“Just go in and order it, you look fine, you’ll be fine!”

I wasn’t really afraid of screwing up the order. This was the first time I’d been seen since the birth. What I was really afraid of was being asked how the birth went. I didn’t want to explain it. I didn’t want pity. I just wanted to lick the wound silently with my takeaway coffee cup at home.

But I relented. I ordered the coffees, and nobody asked so I didn’t tell.

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We could have had it all

The sunlight poured onto pallid, blood-deprived face as we left the hospital. Despite losing nearly half of my blood, the doctors had decided against a blood transfusion. The inside of my mouth felt hard and gritty, like sandpaper every time I swallowed.

“Let’s take a photo!” My wife begged.

“You’ll want to remember this!”

I posed next to the pram, tilted on an angle so that the camera didn’t capture my paunch against the inside of my white shirt. CHOOSE LIFE was printed on it in big black letters. Life I had chosen indeed, and I was ready to share my new one with the outside world.

We wheeled our tiny babe into the enclosed carpark, so dark even despite the light of day. He vomited before we got to the car, and we spent about fifteen minutes playing with the seatbelt.

“No, like this! It clips in.” I insisted as my wife fiddled around, growing frustrated.

“It’s been six days! I just want to get out of here!”

“What if the police pull us over? It’s not done up properly!”

We tried and tried, but the seatbelt would not click in.

“Fine, let’s just go.”

I sidled into the backseat and rested my hand on his chest, a futile attempt to contain the impact, should the worst happen. We arrived home without incident, our apartment fresh and clean as it had only had one resident for six days.

“Let’s give him a bath!” Natalie squealed excitedly.

“But you’re not meant to bath them every day, he’s only a newborn. His skin can’t take it.”

I was so obsessed with getting it right, that I forgot my wife was ready to relish in new motherhood. We bathed our baby, under the afternoon light.

“Check! Check! He’s kicking himself! He’s doing the kicks!”

He looked up into the distance, gently kicking against the water with his long, thin legs. I realised that he trusted us so much and we had to protect him at all costs. It may have been a relatively inconsequential moment, but I felt it deeply.

As I was getting used to being a Mum, my parents were getting used to being grandparents, though it was an awkward process for them. For all intents and purposes, my son was the first proper grandchild, since my brother chose not to talk to them.

“Where’s our little president?” My Mum squealed, opening the door to see us the first time since the birth.

“He’s in his bassinet. He’s sleeping.” I replied, coolly, ready to stamp down a boundary in case they tried to be overbearing. I’d read all the horror stories of new grandparents, and I was determined to hold my ground as a new Mum.

“Not in the cot?” She asked.

“No. He needs to be close to us. We need to check his breathing because of SIDS.”

“Are you going to get family photos done?”

I paused, glad she was so excited.

“Yeah, we’re booked in next week if you want to come along.”

“I’d love to!”

Eleven days after the birth, we had our first Christmas as family. We picked at barbecue chicken and prawns, with Soren sleeping soundly, wrapped freshly in a pastel rainbow swaddle.

It wasn’t everything I’d built up in my mind as a first-Christmas-with-a-child, but we unwrapped a pile of gifts and listened to music together as a family all the same.

“I’m still feeling sore.” I complained.

“Have you been taking your painkillers?” My Mum asked.

“Yeah. I wish the birth didn’t happen the way it did. I hope you’re not angry that I insisted on the whooping cough vaccines. I don’t think I would’ve handled it if Soren got sick.”

“I understand. I know you wish the birth could have been different but look at your son. He’s perfect. I know it’s bad that you nearly died but you are here.”

I felt the pang of post-traumatic stress hit me like an uppercut. I turned away, hiding the tears that were streaming down my face. It was all so sobering to realise the fragility of life with a brand-new infant and I didn’t know what to do, so I kept on pushing my feelings away. 

While I was still unable to drive, I took the 15-minute bus trip to the library for Rhyme Time. Having no access to my best means of transport filled me with dread, but my son didn’t seem to mind. He slept through the whole trip and I was so enthralled by him that I missed my stop. I was now a kilometre from the library. Not willing to be defeated, I trudged the precarious main road, determined to take my baby for a morning of nursery rhymes.

When I arrived, the community room was filled with radiant Mums. I looked down at my lanky body and my infant, then back into the glass door at these buttery, bouncing women and their babies. The door was closed. I didn’t want to knock and draw attention to myself, so I walked back to the courtyard, sat under a tree and sobbed. I pulled out my phone and texted my wife.

I never made it to Rhyme Time. The door was closed when I got there and it had already started.

So much for all the confidence I’d built up during my years as a teacher

Running on my new-motherhood high, I signed up for a Mummy’s group. I had always been a little apprehensive about stepping foot into the Mum space, because I knew how heternonormative it was likely to be. Because Natalie and I had carved out a neat inner-city life, I made sure to sign up for the inner-city Mummy’s group. I felt that even if I was engaging in unknown territory, the littlest favour I could give myself was some familiarity.

The day it started was my first day of freedom to drive again. Although I was physically feeling a lot better from the major abdominal surgery, it had been doctor’s orders to refrain for the six weeks. I followed prudently. Because I had to work up some courage, I spent the morning at the Powerhouse to do an arts session with Soren. Unfortunately, he had fallen asleep before it started, leaving me free with forty-five minutes to study. I left him in his pram and pulled out my laptop.

Some people say you lose some of your intellectual prowess after birth -that the muddle of baby brain causes people to defer their studies and watch Netflix on the couch between feeds – but I wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down.

When the session was underway, I schlepped my newly-woken babe up to the runway to do tummy time surrounded by costumes, feathers boas, and fancy hats. Amongst the boisterous crowds of terrible twos, I spent the time enamoured by my baby in an octopus hat, taking selfies of a time I knew I would grow sentimental about in the years to come, when my son would become a withdrawn and smelly teenager. At least, that’s what the seasoned Mums had told me.

By the time I drove to the Mummy’s group, I was ready to show the other Mums that I fit, and was as much Mum as they were, even if I was a bit awkward, a bit intellectual, and married to a woman. 

The nurse running the group ushered me to a seat. The other women seemed friendly, though some seemed a little sleep-deprived, yawning through puffy eyes as they chatted amongst themselves.

I didn’t understand this need for sleep. My short catnaps throughout the night were punctuated with night terrors and feeds, yet I felt unstoppable. It wasn’t even midday and I’d punched out another 500 words.

“All right, ladies, let’s establish some rules for our group.”

A peppy blonde girl called Sarah cut right in.

“Well, I think there should be no judgement, Whatever we share in the group, should stay in the group.”

There were affirmative nods all around.

“And I think we should let everyone share their story. Everyone should have a turn to talk.”

I looked around and noticed that ever other Mum in the group had their baby on their lap. I looked over at my son, in his pram, not seeming to be bothered, but it bothered me.

“He’s really heavy and I had a C-section.” I explained, though nobody had asked and in hindsight, I doubt they’d even noticed.

“That’s okay. Now let’s start by going around the circle and sharing about our birth stories.”

I shifted uncomfortably, not wanting to share at all, but the group rules had been established. It would be weird if I took a pass. 

I was the last in the circle, so I heard everybody’s birthing story before mine.

“I went into labour spontaneously. My waters broke over dinner one night. My husband drove me to the hospital and I laboured for twelve hours.”

“I had a planned C-section. I’m a vet, so I have seen what can go wrong.”

“I had a bad birth with my son, so I had a planned C-section. It was better the second time around.”

“I was in a private hospital. I had to be induced, and I had a little bit of pain relief, but my birth was everything I had planned for and expected. And let me just say, I have high expectations!”

I dropped my eyes to the ground.

“Well… I was induced. My baby and I got an infection. He was delivered by C-section under a general anaesthetic where I nearly bled to death. I still feel like I’m recovering.”

There was so much more I could have said, but I really preferred not to. The birthing stories of the other Mums were pretty standard, and I felt like I’d opened a fear-mongering dialogue.

“Oh my God. That’s like 1% of birthing cases. You must be so glad he was all right.”

I dropped my eyes, feeling an almost-sense-of-shame. These women seemed to have had it all planned – either out of experience or privilege – but it had given them an experience I couldn’t help but be envious of.

 “Are you planning on having any more children?”

“Um, no, I wouldn’t take it off the table, but I think we’re done.”

The nurse, obviously not wanting me to feel ostracised, redirected the conversation to safe sleeping and self-care.

I felt remorse. Before the birth had gone down, Natalie had stressed the importance of our private health insurance.

“You know, birth is so barbaric. We don’t want anything to go wrong. Are you sure you don’t want to give birth in a private hospital?”

But I was stubborn.

“My pregnancy has been uncomplicated so far and I don’t want to be talked into having a C-section. That could cost us $10,000.”

“We’ve got the money.”

I insisted. I had heard so many stories of women who were talked into elective C-sections, only to regret it during the recovery period. Although I considered myself to be fairly logical in my thought processes, the Mum in me had wanted to try my hardest for a natural delivery.

“If the public health system is good enough for anyone else, it’s good enough for me.”

And that was how I closed down every conversation.

If only I had listened. I may not have avoided a C-section delivery but going about it electively would have saved me from the many hours of labour which tired out my uterus, leading to a haemorrhage and poor clotting. It would have shielded me somewhat from the loss of control and the infection. Then, I wouldn’t have been waking every night in cold sweats, in a variety of disturbing death scenarios involving my son and I.

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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.

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A fertile vessel

Beep. Beep. Beep. I could hear heavy, laboured breathing and the sounds of machines working around me. Then I realised it was my own breath, going in and out. My eyes were too heavy to open and I felt disconnected from myself, like a butterfly outside of its chrysalis.

Was I dead?

My whole abdomen pained, like I’d been slashed through the middle. I suddenly needed to cough, and it felt like I was crushing my whole mid-section with each motion. My throat was filled with phlegm so I needed to keep coughing, but it was painful. I opened one eye. I could see the most perfect looking baby on my chest. No blood, no fluid, just a perfect, smooth head and a peaceful little face.

“Why is my throat so phlegmy?” I asked. I couldn’t stop coughing.

“I’m not sure, I think that’s the anaesthetic.” Natalie said, avoiding my gaze.

I was too far gone to be suspicious, but she was definitely keeping uncomfortable truths from me. I wasn’t ready to hear the whole story yet, but she gave it to me in parts.

“Why are you crying?” I was confused.

“It was just a C-section. They do these all the time.” I assured her.

“You don’t get it, Beci. I almost lost you.”

I raised my eyebrows, still under the heavy weight of the anaesthetic.

“You lost two and a half litres of blood. They had to stabilise you. It took a long time. Soren was delivered by forceps and he was fine, but you nearly died.”

“That’s fine, but how was his APGAR score?”

“He was fine. Crying and alert.”

Then it hit me with an overwhelming sense of numbness. I felt like how a person feels when they have had part of their body locally anaesthetised for a procedure. I could see and hear confronting facts being shared around me, but I couldn’t feel it myself. I felt nothing but I knew I was going to feel this later. Part of my numbness was the exhaustion of many hours of labour followed by an anaesthetic, but part of me put defences up, refusing to believe I had just faced my own mortality with a brand-new infant. We didn’t even have a will in place.

The next time I woke up, I was greeted with the ‘it’s-a-boy’ moment I’d been looking forward to, as his nappy was pulled down in my face. Although he was freshly born, the nurse stood him up and he looked like a little president – a name that would stick through his childhood.

Before they took me off to the ward, they wallpapered my insides with fabric to stop the bleeding. I had never felt womanlier in my life, a fertile vessel of blood and guts. Labour had broken me open, but medical science was putting me back together.

The day I discovered my insides, I thought I had boy bits tucked in there.  It made sense because I’d always had this unusual red crease on my skin that started just below my belly button and finished right where my vulva started. It was the same colour as my mother’s caesarean section scar, which she received when she gave birth to my brother. I never paid it much mind until my cousin was born, in 1995. My aunty had given birth to three daughters in quick succession like gunshots and she had finally gotten her son in baby #4. His arrival was much-awaited and much-wanted.

The day we visited him in hospital for the first time, I spent time carefully curating the best bouquet of flowers a five-year-old could manage. By the time they were all tied together, some of them were drooping, their different stages of decay succumbing to gravity to form an unusual exhibit of childish home garden floristry. When I finally saw him, his skin had been bald, red and patchy in different places, kind of ugly but endearing in a weird sort of way –like a baby mouse, squinting and wrinkly. When we arrived at the hospital, my mother could not stop gushing about how vital it was that my aunty had finally gotten a son.

“I was so lucky, I had a pigeon pair straight away,” my mother said, almost condescendingly, as if no other combination of genders would ever be as good as getting one of each. “But if she’d been born a boy, that would have been it.” She nodded at me. In that moment, I wondered if I had been born a boy, but hastily swapped with a surgical procedure. Why else would I have the scar? It was perfectly reasonable for me to think that I had been reassigned at birth and this was just something people didn’t talk about it, if they did it. Why else would I, like a boy, have those fluttery butterfly feelings every time I saw a pretty woman? What other possible explanation could there be? Girls just didn’t like women. It just wasn’t how things were.

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ECT – a miracle cure or a controversy?

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In June last year, I was failing to deal with my birthing trauma. I was up at 3 o’clock every morning, running 30 kilometres a week, breastfeeding, and dealing with a brand new infant. When I would go for a run, it felt like the shadows were falling around beside me.

One night, I was Googling furiously when my partner asked me what was wrong.

“I think I need to be hospitalised. I think I’m having a psychosis.”

“No. What if they take Soren from us?”

It was a sobering thought but I was too far gone to realise it would never happen.

I was up most nights chatting to a friend who had me convinced I was narcissistic, that my disorder was malignant, and I would never connect with my son. I started believing that I was passing mental illness to him through my breastmilk.

Scared, I saw my GP. I asked for a referral to a psychiatrist.

“No, you can see your psychologist. You just need to deal with your birthing trauma.”

I went to the doctor down the road for a second opinion. He told me to kick the cat when I felt traumatised and to see my psychologist.

I went home, defeated. Later that afternoon, I formed the belief that the police were after me, there was a conspiracy, drugs had been planted in my house, and I was going to jail. I believed that a former friend had planted the drugs the last time she visited me. I deactivated my Facebook account and begged my wife to hospitalise me.

She did.

That was when I ended up in Belmont’s Postnatal Clinic. Fortunately, I got the best psychiatrist, Dr. Lyndall White, who stabilised my medication, gave me sleeping tablets, and suggested Electroconvulsive Therapy.

I swallowed.

“Are you sure? Isn’t that shock treatment, like the old days?”

“Yes, but it’s come a long way. It’s nothing like it used to be. It is performed under general anaesthetic, so you won’t be awake for it. It’s highly effective and considering your graphic night terrors and intrusive thoughts, it is likely to be very helpful.”

I agreed to six treatments and the next day, I was wheeled into theatre.

In the treatment, they put electrodes on my head, and gave me a needle to put me to sleep.

I woke up about ten minutes later, groggy, but okay. Because I was an inpatient and Soren was in the hospital with me, I was able to rest until the afternoon.

Since treatment, I have had no night terrors and I feel generally well. Although this is a treatment shrouded in controversy, it has certainly worked for me.