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The whole story


Throughout my life, I have always had extreme highs and lows. In high school, I was either on benders that involved no sleep and lots of guitar playing, or I would be sleeping, down in the dumps. I got to rock bottom a few times, where I could see no purpose in anything and I acted accordingly, but in my high times, I never quite fell into a full hypomanic episode. I would stay up for nights on end and then crash, rest, and reset, or hit a depressive stage. Alcohol was a big part of my life back then. Later in high school, I would drink four full-sugar energy drinks every morning during home room to give me an energetic edge. I had ADHD – which I still have – but I was unmedicated and very, very impulsive. 

Immediately after Soren’s birth, I was mildly depressed from the trauma of having to have my life stabilised after a massive blood loss, but otherwise, I was okay. I dealt with waking up every two hours and didn’t seem too tired. As soon as I was able, I started running again. I started off small, doing a few kilometres here and there, but somewhere along the way, I stopped sleeping through the night. I would wake several times a night to horrific night terrors, basically my own death in a thousand different ways – and sometimes, I woke up with paranoia that someone had taken Soren. Sometimes, I would leave the bed and check his cot, but he would be sleeping soundly. I would wake up at 3, toss and turn until 5, when I would leave the house and go for a run – usually around 5 or 6 kilometres. 

I was going pretty hard. About 3 months after birth, I ran my fastest 5km. I was barely sleeping, but I felt fantastic. I had a thousand ideas and I would bounce from running in the morning, to breastfeeding my baby when he woke up, to playing, to walking to the cafe and reading my textbook to my baby to get him to sleep, to walking home, to studying, to smashing out hundreds of words, back to playing, feeding, tummy time, and so on. I had no off switch. I remember thinking at the time, is this the motherhood that everyone complains about? 

I carried on this routine for quite some time. It probably started around mid-February of 2019. At the time, I was preparing to give a presentation about inclusion at a high school. I was also preparing a half-hour presentation for a conference at the Gold Coast. I was writing one paid article every fortnight and studying. Whenever Soren would go to sleep, I would get to work. No such thing as ‘sleep when the baby sleeps.’ I had stuff to do. 

One morning, while my wife was getting ready for work, I decided to bake. She asked me why I would do that? I didn’t know. I don’t even like baked goods that much. But here I was, at 7 in the morning, baking. When she told me to clean up the kitchen, I completely lost it. I could not understand why she wasn’t as excited as I was. 

That night, I had my first full blown panic attack since the birth. I was so overwhelmed by my love for Soren, that I felt death was around every corner. I would not let him out of my sight. I’m sure I must have needed a break, but I couldn’t imagine leaving him in anyone else’s care. I got panicky when someone else held him. I could not cope with these feelings. I went to see my doctor. 

My general practitioner prescribed me with an anti-depressant. At first, I felt okay. Then, I started sleeping the day away. I lugged myself from one baby activity to the next and then slept every time he slept. He was little, so this was a lot. I started to become worried that my two presentations were not going to go smoothly. I went back to my doctor and asked for a referral to a psychiatrist. I also went off the meds. 

“Psychiatrist? You don’t need one of those. Just keep seeing your psychologist and work through that birthing trauma.”

I found visits to the psychologist hard. Her office was in a small retail building off a main road. She had stairs. I would push Soren’s pram into her office awkwardly, then try to feed him to sleep in between discussing my intrusive thoughts. Sometimes, he would cry, and the appointment would be wasted. I counted every visit against my mental health plan and worried about burdening my wife with the bill of further sessions, because I was not getting anywhere with it. 

“So lucky I don’t have any clients in a wheelchair!” She said one day, as I pushed Soren’s pram down the stairs. I recall thinking that this comment was pretty off-colour, especially coming from a psychologist.  

By the time I had started seeing the psychologist, I wasn’t just tossing and turning. I was actively avoiding sleep. I knew I would inevitably be woken by a night terror, so I sat up most nights on Pinterest or chatting to friends on messenger. One such friend started to suggest my self-centredness I had adopted in trying to deal with my trauma could be a sign of narcissism or delusional disorder. The next time I logged in to Pinterest, my whole feed was flooded with articles about narcissism. I could not find any recipes or crafts, or the usual content I would look at. I idly wondered if Pinterest’s algorithms were targeting me to force me to confront something in myself that I had not been previously aware of.

No, I remember thinking. That’s mad.

I had started to unpack some of my childhood traumas to this friend, and she sent me articles about how childhood trauma leads to the development of narcissistic personality disorder. Well, I thought. It must be true, then. 

The more I read about narcissistic personality disorder, the more I became convinced I had it. I felt I would not connect with my son because of it, and I never stopped reading. I realised that it was malignant, incurable. 

One day, he was fussing while I was feeding him.

“I must be feeding him my mental illness through the breastmilk,” I cried to my friend. I was so conscious that I had not birthed him correctly, and I was turning him away further through the illness I was convinced I had. 

“Go and see another doctor.” She said. 

I booked in to see another GP down the road. The problem I had, was I would go to my doctor’s appointments with nice clothes, make-up, hair done, and speaking as an educated person. I did not appear as a mess. They assumed I was too high functioning to be mentally unwell. He did not give me a referral. 

“You’re doing better than you think. Just keep dealing with your birthing trauma. You don’t need a psychiatrist. They just deal in meds. If you get down, kick the cat.” 

And I paid $62 for that appointment. 

That night, I logged into Pinterest to see if I could find a recipe for baby food. I was keen to start the solids journey. What I saw shocked me. It was a “death cocktail” – an alcoholic beverage that contained Valium and vodka, designed to take someone out. My heart beat rapidly inside my chest as I was reading the ingredients. I never told my wife, for fear that she, too, would become sucked into my trauma with no way out. 

I started to really, truly believe that Pinterest was sending me secret messages that I needed to see, and I wondered if I was actually supposed to die during birth, and my death was actually waiting for me just around the corner. After all, my son did not need a mother who was a narcissist. 

Since seeing the cocktail on Pinterest, and becoming well again, I have never been able to find it. I actually question if this pin existed at all or if it was a figment of my imagination. 

The next day, I woke up for my morning run. It was still somewhat dark, with the slightest bit of sunlight peering through the fence of the high school I ran past every day. The light seemed to ricochet off the path and surround me, in a spinning, lighted tube that I was running towards. It was like a vortex, sucking me in. I could barely stay on the path because it was so bright and distracting. I kept hearing something behind me, so I paused my music and turned around. Nothing.  

When I was home alone during the day, I started to believe my son was not attached to me. Looking back in hindsight, he was so attached to me. He was very cuddly and excited when I would play with him or hold him – but I was so deluded that I thought I was a refrigerator mother figure, and that I was turning my son away from me. I kept telling my friends the attachment wasn’t right and that I was a narcissist. They assured me I was not, offered evidence to the contrary, and told me it was all fine, but my beliefs could not be shaken. One of my particularly clever friends asked who was gaslighting me into believing this nonsense. 

“It is not nonsense. This is the real me.” I said. 

By that stage, I knew something was gravely wrong. My frantic late-night Googling had offered me insights about post-birth mental health conditions, and I wondered if I was having a psychosis. I begged my wife to hospitalise me, but we ended up going to stay with my parents. She was worried that our son would be taken if I was in hospital. During that time, I became convinced the police were after me for misadventures from a decade earlier, back when I was a teenager. I became so paralysed, and so scared, that I could not even leave the house. I panicked any time I heard someone knock on the door, absolutely sure someone was after me. 

It got to a point where I believed my offences, my big, bad wrongdoings as a 17 year old, were to be dealt with by a federal authority. 

I still carried on conversing with the friend who had told me I was delusional. The conversations became increasingly dark and I realised she wanted revenge on her ex. When the friendship started to break down because I expressed to her that her revenge plots were a bad idea, I worried that she was going to set me up to get me in trouble with the law. I felt cornered and that I had no way out, that I was going to go to prison and never see my son again.

“Please make sure he grows up better than me,” I told my parents and wife. 

One morning, I woke before the sun at my parent’s house and began wandering the streets. I contemplated all sorts of things – including running away and disappearing. Ending it all.  Then I saw a car come around the bend, and I ran back to home base, terrified it was the police. I let myself in through the back door and I could hear my wife yelling for me. 

“I’m here!” I said. 

“I’m safe.” 

But I didn’t feel safe. 

The whole weekend was all about trying to get me admitted to a hospital. The first hospital we attended – a private one – refused admissions on the weekend. We then went to the Royal, where they left me in the waiting room with others who were going to be admitted. In the waiting room, I saw people who scared me. One man was playing with a tissue box.

“It’s a sign. Remember I took that tissue box home from work that one time? I may as well have stolen it. I am a bad person.”

I was so convinced that every tiny little thing I had ever done wrong was coming back to bite me. Every piece of technology – televisions, radios, my phone – they all had messages for me, and they were all telling me terrible things. 

After a wait, the nurse interviewed me. Her name was Rebecca Miles as well. I thought this was too close to be a coincidence. I felt like the police had set up an environment full of actors to get me to finally admit to all of my wrongdoings. I sat in the interview room, stone faced, not able to say a word. 

They assumed I just needed sleep and sent me home with a sleeping pill. 

The next day, I was no better. I was taken to another public hospital and interviewed twice, including once by a security officer, and then taken into the emergency department. It was absolutely terrifying. I sat on a bed with my family around me, unable to say much at all. The person in the room next to me was throwing chairs and screaming. Amongst her screaming, I heard her yell, “AND I HATE BUNDABERG!” I sat bolt upright in the bed. I had spent my teenage years in Bundaberg and had hated it too. 

Was she me, from the past? Or was she another actor? 

I was so agitated and when I did finally talk, I told the psychiatrist I was not going with her – I did not belong with those chair throwers. And I had an assignment that still wasn’t quite finished. 

“Here, take this,” she said, and handed me a pill. 

All I remember from that point forward was being seated in a wheelchair and taken into the ward, through the dark and dusty back hallways of the hospital. I could barely keep my head up. The porters who took me away started high fiving each other and moving the wheelchair all about the hallway. I was so tranquillised that I could not say a word or tell them to stop. 

I was taken to a shared room, where I apparently slept for two days. 

When I woke up, I was still completely paranoid. The nurses gave me olanzapine – an anti-psychotic – to try and help me come down from my paranoia.

The days in public hospital were spent watching many hours of TV – still feeling that it was full of secret messages – and attending group sessions. The nurses would check on me throughout the night and they shone lights into my face to check that I was safe. I never got used to that. 

At one stage, another patient cornered me in the laundry and told me about her baby who had been born with its cord wrapped around its neck, deceased. I told my wife, and she attempted to get me a referral to a private postnatal ward on the other side of the city. 

It took a while, though. In the meantime, I was allowed out of the hospital on day leave. My family took me to the Redcliffe Show with Soren and my wife. It was absolutely wild. There was a man with a puppet and smoke coming out of his stage. I thought he was somebody I used to know, and that he was going to follow me around to collect evidence on me. There was a police stand and they gave Soren a sticker when my parents took him to have a look. I would not approach them, though. I knew they could smell my fear. 

Once I got to the postnatal ward, I saw a psychiatrist who reassured me I was not narcissistic after interviewing me for what seemed like hours. I kept watching her phone on the table, wondering if she was recording me. She kept saying “Oh, that’s terrible,” an awful lot as I told my story, which felt oddly affirming. She changed my meds and got me booked in for an MRI, to prepare for electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). I was so scared of ECT that I barely slept in the nights leading up to it, but my son was with me and I was surrounded by other mothers who had mental health concerns, so I was beginning to recover and realise I was, in fact, not alone. 

After I was discharged, I began to feel normal in some ways. I started functioning again and the paranoia disappeared. I was sleeping through the night and after six rounds of ECT, I was no longer plagued by night terrors. 

Since that time, I have had mini-relapses while trying to find the right meds. This came about in the form of mini hypomanic episodes and mild depressive episodes. However, I was aware of what they were and able to keep them at a manageable level. 

After finding the correct medication and sleeping all night, every night, I have become completely stable. In my journey, I also found a Mum’s group for parents with mental illnesses, and a better psychologist more suited towards trauma. As my stability increased, I started to take on casual days at work, which built my confidence again. I started to feel like myself. 

Maybe not the ‘myself’ that I was before the birth, but a capable and high-functioning 2.0. 

In many ways, I have had to grieve. I did not ever foresee becoming so unwell and the whole process was very traumatic. Prior to his birth, I was very stable and functioned very well, despite having a history of anxiety and depression. I did not ever consider becoming so unwell I could not function, work, or leave the house. I grieve the “me” that was there just prior to the birth, and I grieve the fact that I will now likely never know a life without medication and regular appointments with specialist doctors. 

The silver lining is that I stayed engaged with my studies throughout, I have amazing friends who share my struggle, and I am well enough to do all of what I need to do, to fulfil the life I imagined for myself back then. I have an amazing psychiatrist and psychologist who keep me on the stable path. In 2021, I will be undertaking DBT therapy to give me internal strategies to deal with triggers. 

Everything will work out, and my son and wife absolutely adore me.

Felix culpa. I say it often, but life really is good.

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Motherhood, reimagined

The birth of my son split me in two. It happened gradually, then suddenly. As far as children go, he was dearly wanted and now that he is here, he is dearly loved. I’ll come back to the part about being split in two – because sometimes it’s fitting to take it back to the very beginning. 


June 2016. I was working in a stressful job. A gay woman stuck in a religious private school. After two years of loyal service, and after witnessing many fellow staff members take leave to undergo fertility treatment, I approached my boss requesting the same. 


“Sorry, I’ll have to get back to you. No one has done this before.”

They had – they just weren’t gay.


In the months that followed, I timed my IVF appointments cleverly around the school day. My doctor was willing to see me at 5am, which meant I didn’t have to tell my boss. When the big day of egg pick up arrived, I needed the whole day. I rang my boss and told her I had a migraine.


“When you wake up from the egg pick up, the number of eggs will be written on your wrist,” the doctor said. 

“Now just lay back. Soon, you will fall asleep…”


I counted back from ten. When I woke up, there were six circles drawn on my wrist. Six! I was 26 years old and I got a measly six eggs. I was despondent. 
In the days following, our little future babies were placed in dishes with donor sperm. There, they made the fateful journey to conception.


Each day, I called to see how my dish-babies were doing. 


Six.
Five.
Four.
Three. 
Two. 

Two! After all that effort, money, time, stress, and hormones, we got two embryos. One barely made it to freeze and was considered unviable for pregnancy but was placed on ice all the same. 


“We are not doing part two of this process until you find another job,” my wife, Natalie, had said. 


It took me over a year, but I finally found another job – in a state school. I loved it. It was inclusive, and I became part of the furniture. I took a paid sick day, and we went back to our clinic. When the day of transfer finally came, I laid back comfortably as my doctor readied his implements. 


“This is purely diagnostic. It is unlikely to work. Don’t do anything differently, just live your life.”

“Okay.” 


He spread my legs and inserted the syringe. As he did, an entire waterfall of emotion washed over me. I sobbed. It was finally happening. But it might not work! 

“Are you okay? We’re done here.”


“Yes, I’m fine,” I sobbed. 


He patted my back.

“Best of luck!”


As we turned and left the clinic, I realised I had a two week wait before me.

“Don’t pee on any sticks,” was the advice given to me by a friend. 


By day four, I caved. I peed on a stick. I sat anxiously on the toilet, tapping the test like I was trying to get ink out of a pen. About five minutes later, a slight line appeared. I kept my obsessive behaviour to myself. I didn’t even tell my wife about that first pee-stick. With every day that passed, I peed on another stick. By the end of the two weeks, I had confessed to my wife and we had a bag full of sticks, each line appearing darker than the last. They clattered in the bag, as we emptied them every day and lined them up like assembly line soldiers. It was amazing, the first signs of the miracle of his conception. 


My luck seemed to continue after the easy conception. I stayed relatively slim throughout my pregnancy, didn’t have any sickness, and I managed to work until I was 34 weeks along. Sooner or later, though, I knew my luck was going to run out. 


“What I’d really like to do is give birth in water.”

My midwife jotted this down and explained that it may be possible if a bath was available. Perfect! 

Mere weeks later, the day finally came. I was four days overdue and it was time to see what was going on. The sliding doors at the Royal Brisbane hospital welcomed us. We sauntered down the corridor with giddy excitement.  We were welcomed into one of the consulting rooms, where I lay flat on my back, wondering when they would suggest an induction. I had desperately wanted to go into labour spontaneously, but nothing had worked – vigorous sex, running, time in the bath. 


The midwife poked and prodded my belly. 


“The baby’s head is displaced, and I think he or she may be quite big. Had they told you that during the ultrasounds?”


“Yeah. They said the baby is measuring ahead.”


“How would you feel about being induced now?”


I paused.


“We don’t even have our bag packed.” 


“That’s okay, we can send your wife home to prepare everything. We can take you up to the ward shortly.”


“I see you’ve expressed a desire for a water birth. Because we’re inducing you, that option will no longer be available.”

I lay in a ball, awaiting the next step. Any time my stomach hardened with Braxton Hicks, I became excited that this could be it.


“Nope, not yet.” The midwife shuffled in and out, checking on me, then going to do her rounds. 

The Earth inched towards evening as the sky lit up an intense orange, and then darkened; not that I could see it overly well through the hospital shades. As the darkness of night crept in, my labour was induced. My body had let me down – but I was not done. The contractions started and I knew I could do this. I crinkled my nose, proud of myself for how well I was handling the contractions. I laboured on for hours, with cervix dilating on schedule. As I started to become tired from a lack of sleep, the contractions intensified. It was a consequence of the induction hormones and it became unbearable very quickly. Nonetheless, I stayed strong.


“Hold onto me.” Natalie said, as I stood in the birthing suite, leaning forwards every time I contracted. 


Time passed and I waved one midwife off as the next came in and wasted no time checking my cervix. 


“It’s 8cm. You’ll have a baby in two hours.” 


I beamed! It was finally coming together. I continued to feel the tightening of my body with each contraction as they became more frequent. Soon, I felt a sharp, choking feeling around my middle. It knocked the breath out of me.


“Is this normal?”

“Here do you want some gas?” The midwife passed me the inhaler. 


I breathed in.


“Ugh, it’s not working.” 


The midwife asked me to spread my legs so she could check my cervix. She looked inside me, then paused. 


“Your dilation has regressed…” she trailed off and walked out the door to get another midwife. 


“Hi, I’m Cheryl.” Another midwife walked in, accidentally brushing my forehead with her fingers as she turned around.


“Holy smokes, you’re hot!” she exclaimed. She took my temperature. 


“Forty degrees!” 


About five minutes later, a doctor arrived.


“You have an infection, which is why you have a fever and regressed dilation. Your baby’s head is still displaced. We need to call time on this labour for everybody’s safety.”


“Just sign this consent form and we will take you off to the theatre.” 


I signed rapidly and a midwife came to remove my hormone drip.

 
“Your contractions should stop now.” 


As soon as she said that, my contractions went from lasting around thirty seconds, to a continuous sensation. 


“Ahhhh!!! It won’t stop!” I screamed. 


They started to wheel me down to theatre, ready to prepare me for a caesarean section. When we got there, the doctor started to explain the spinal block.


“We’re going to insert some fluid into your spine. Then we’ll put some water on your belly to see if you feel it. Then we’re going to cut just below your bikini line to deliver the baby. Do you want your wife to say if it’s a boy or a girl?”


“Oh my God, stop talking!” I writhed in excruciating pain. The contraction that started when they took out the hormone drip hadn’t stopped. 


The doctor stabbed my spine and I remained curled into a ball with an oxygen mask on. 


I leaned towards Natalie and the doctor leaned into her ear.


“You have to stay strong, for her.” 


My forehead was sweating and I couldn’t move. 


“Can you straighten out, please?”


The doctor rolled me onto my back and patted just below my bikini line. The nurse poured a few drops of water on the area.


“Oh my God, don’t operate!” I yelled.

 
“Okay, we’re going to have to do a general.” 


The anaesthesiologist leaned in and inserted a needle, which I couldn’t feel above the contractions. It all happened so quickly. This was all completely out of my control now. I had to let go. I inhaled sharply and expressed my only wish. 


“Don’t tell her the sex of the baby before I wake up!”

That was the last thing I remember as the curtain of unconsciousness fell down around me. 


The next thing I remember is that my eyes were too heavy to open and I felt disconnected from myself, like a butterfly outside of its chrysalis. 


Was I dead? 


I opened one eye. I could see the most perfect looking baby on my chest. No blood, no fluid, no bruises. 


“He’s perfect.” I exclaimed, making an assumption about the sex of my baby before drifting back into the woozy stream of unconsciousness. 


The next time I woke, someone was holding my baby up in front of my face. They swiftly yanked the nappy down to reveal the sex. 


“It’s a boy!” 


We had already named him Soren, for a boy or a girl. It hurt so bad, but I smiled. 


 “Why are you crying?” I looked over at my wife, confused. 


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


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


“You lost almost half of the blood in your body. They had to resuscitate you and you had tubes down your throat. It took a long time. Soren was fine, but you nearly died.” 


I felt like part of my emotional self was anaesthetised. I could see and hear my own mortality being shared around me, but I couldn’t feel myself hurting. It was completely numbing, as if I’d been sliced through the chest and I was watching my heart exist outside of it weeping and bleeding, but not feeling so much as a twinge. It was almost like my brain was dismembered from my body and I was merely a spectator. 


The mental impact of his birth raged on and I still feel it today. However, I could not have had my son under any other circumstances. This was his birth. As traumatic and as violent as it was, it brought him to us. 


Sometimes I still feel split in two, but together, we are family. Felix culpa.

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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 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. Fortunately, I have only forgotten a handful of times. I set reminders on my phone.

I wonder sometimes if this numbness is good. Then I remember what the alternative 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 illness 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.