The honey heavy dew of slumber

For Cathy

I went to a meeting this morning, and because I was told to do this when I woke up at 29 years old suddenly sober, naked and terrified, I shared: I am in pain.

As it were, I’m not the only one. 

Living a sober life can be like sinking to the bottom of the ocean, a black, unknowable, blind pit, in a one-woman submarine, only there’s no release valve for the air pressure, so you go up and down in the water, you can’t see a thing besides what the dinky lamp attached to your craft shoots out, miserable and too small a light, and the pressure just builds. You want to open a window but it’d kill you. Gin is the window. 

So what you’re supposed to do is get on your knees and say, please god release this pressure so I can go help the next one-woman submarine who looks like she’s 5 minutes away from drinking the window. Or you meditate and learn to quietly tolerate the sensation of drowning. Lighten up, as they say.

And if you learn to stop obsessing over the fact that you’re alone in a tiny tin can in huge, unknowable, dark ocean, if you can shut up for long enough about how we’re all dying down here, maybe you notice a fish. Maybe it’s an ugly fish, and you curse at it’s weird lips like two stacked lumbar support pillows and it’s eyes which, due to bad placement (who invented these things?) can only see you with one eye at a time. Fuckface. It swims away and now there’s nothing but plankton, little flakes of white cascading in whirls and whooshes, directed by some kind of physics, I’m sure.

Another fish, less beautiful than the first.

And then you think, fuck, how can you guys stand it down here? This is terrible. It’s dark, it’s wet, it’s boring. The pressure is killing me. An ear pops.

More fish. A school! Numerous slimy silver bullets. Man, what I wouldn’t do for a Coors Light.

The way the light catches them, the little flares like stars on a space highway, it’s not bad. Groovy sci-fi stuff. A moment of grace punctures how sorry your feel for yourself, because suddenly: you’re there, you’re noticing what’s right in front of you, some mundane thing, numerous and circular and bigger than you. 

So you stare out your window and watch them move. After a minute they swim away again, and everything goes dark outside your one woman submarine. For this instant, you’re not so angry. The pain dissolves. Like everything else, it’s fleeting.

You glance down and notice a button. It says SURFACE.

It was always right there in front of you. 

You press it. Up you float.

You remember that you know how to swim. You move towards the light. 

There’s a prayer: It is in self-forgetting that one finds. You die all day to understand what it is to be alive. 

Lucky for us, nothing is solid. Not death, life, feeling, memory, truth, gin, fish, ocean, air. 

For my dear friend who is dying: thank you for showing me the SURFACE. Thank you for helping me find the light.

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The F Word (Also, Many Uses of the Word “Horse”)

What’s worth doing, even if I fail?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. If I’m feeling pessimistic, I can trace the years of my life from age 5 to 29 along a craggy line on a depressed graph of little failures.

In elementary school, my best friend was a mouth breather, and my nickname was cross-eyed bucktooth beaver (does that need more hyphens?). At summer camp, Sasha deigned to call me over and tell me that she was “going out” with Ben and I said, “Cool, where?,” which was NOT cool. My freshman year of high school, I got straight D’s. At NYU, I majored in drinking. I was a well-meaning but muddled friend; once (wasted) I tried to set my friend Sarah up with a homeless person and their shopping cart outside of Mars Bar. After college, I spent two years working at Urban Outfitters (they fired me). I’ll stop there.

The common thread through all these years, the upward trend opposing the downward spiral on my theoretical graph, is fear. I was afraid of being laughed at, afraid of not knowing as much as other people, afraid I wasn’t good or cool or smart. I let that fear dictate how I lived; I mostly stopped trying to be anything other than numb. I stuck to the low road.

My main anesthetics were liquor and men. At bars, I could quickly disappear into a cup, or the possibility that the guy in the corner with the emo haircut is smarter than he looks (and wants nothing more than to whisk me away from my own head and into a Paul Rudd movie).

I don’t rely on those vices anymore, but changing those behaviors didn’t change the audio loop clanging in my head: BE AFRAID. Of strangers, earthquakes, toxic shock syndrome, people not liking me, global warming, lung cancer, saying the wrong thing, being the wrong kind of mother. Give me any topic at all, and I can tell you the most self-destructive way to worry about it. I am very good at being bad at this.

It’s not that I stopped being scared the last few years, but that I stopped letting that fear boss me around. I came to realize that I could be afraid and still do things. I could brave the potential failure inevitably looming darkly in the distance. Sometimes it catches you, and you fall down. Other times, you cruise right by it, on your way to some real thing. Either way, you just move on.

As I got older, my world got bigger. I had nothing, and then eventually had a person I loved, a home, a baby, now a business. The cliche is true: the more shit you have, the more you have to lose. The potential failures get wider, deeper, they sting more. They ride in on an evil horse (no offense to horse people) and tell you not to dream too big, that the horse can shatter anything with its giant failure horse hammer.

The answer to the question about what’s worth doing despite failing is: everything. I want to go to California even though I read that New Yorker article about the impending doom of the next crushing earthquake. I want to speak up even though I might say something deeply uncool. I want to make art even if other people think it’s shitty. I want to write even if no one ever reads it. I want to sit my ass down in the world, own my spot, look fear in the face and say, “Oops, I didn’t recognize you. Is that a new horse?”

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image via tammierokz.deviantart.com

My Big, Fat Baby

Of all the difficult things about pregnancy, the insomnia can be the hardest. The middle of the night is a very lonely time. There is nothing to distract you from yourself, no way to turn off the ticker tape of worries that keeps rolling through your brain like an old film reel. I’ve tried podcasts, noise machines, iPhone games, trolling social media, reading, movies, getting up and doing something, changing positions, counting sheep (counting sheep!), doing nothing and hoping for the best. Despite my best efforts, I usually wake up 4-5 times a night, and am usually awake for one long stretch between 2am and 5am; the no-man’s land of sleep.

Every night is like this, but last night was the worst night like this I’ve ever had.

When I found out I was pregnant, I decided to seek the care of a midwife rather than an OB. There is a lot of evidence out there to support that midwives are safer than OBs for low risk births, with less chance for surgical or other intervention during labor. I also didn’t want to have an anxious pregnancy, which I felt I’d have with an OB. Doctors are trained to diagnose medical problems, and I don’t believe that a pregnancy is a “medical problem.” I didn’t want to spend 9 months chasing the next screwy chromosome, or right femur bone that may be slightly longer than the left, or other types of medical insights that cause stress and worry and offer no result besides fear, because I’m going to have this baby. I’m going to love her. I don’t need to medically scope every potential, scary imperfection. I’m going to love her.

I have nothing against science or doctors. My day job is running clinical trials for one of the largest cancer treatment centers in the country. I work with brilliant doctors and nurses every day, who save lives with solid, evidence-based, often brutal (chemo, radiation) medical intervention. I don’t believe you can treat cancer with herbs, I will absolutely vaccinate my daughter, and I want to give birth in a hospital so that any medical intervention that may become essential is very close by. But I want a vaginal birth, and I want the option to labor for as long as I want without medical intervention. Also, I want a fucking epidural.

(I talk about cancer and birth in the same paragraph because this is how the stereotypes work: people who use midwives are anti-science hippies who all want a home birth so they can tend to their pagan rituals during labor and have their partners rub basil on their vaginas for pain relief. Like most stereotypes, the ones about midwives and low-intervention care for low risk pregnancies are complete bullshit.)

Please note that these are MY choices about MY birth, and nobody else’s. Let me state plainly that I applaud the woman brave enough to birth at home without so much as a tylenol, the woman in the ER having a scheduled cesarian, and the woman squatting in a labor tub or the desert or the back of a pick up truck. I don’t get to have an opinion about how anyone else gives birth, and neither do you.

A few weeks ago I went to see my midwife for a regular visit. Part of the low intervention care model is that they don’t order a lot of tests that are medically unnecessary (doctors love to order tests; after all, hospitals are big business, and medical testing is big money). I’ve had three sonograms throughout my pregnancy, at 8 weeks, 12 weeks, and the 20 week anatomy scan. I asked the midwife about getting another ultrasound. “I just want to see her,” I said. “It’s been a hard pregnancy and I just need something, like seeing her little face, to get me through this last stretch.” Sure, she said, and gave me the prescription.

I procrastinated for a few weeks with a busy schedule, and went in for my appointment yesterday. I was so excited on the drive over; thinking about seeing her, wondering who’s nose she got.

After checking in and waiting a while, the ultrasound tech called my name and invited us back for the sonogram. I wobbled up onto the table, got a towel tucked into my crotch, a squirt of warm jelly on the stomach, and we were rolling. “Wow,” the tech said, “your baby is HUGE.”

I told her that all the women in my family have fat babies. “Yeah, but this baby is huge. She’s 7 pounds, 9 ounces, and you still have 4 weeks to go. She’s in the 87th percentile for weight.”

“You’re officially high-risk. You’ll need to be induced to get this baby out,” she continued.

I lay there in shock. I told her that my midwife said she was normal in size.

“Well, that’s why you shouldn’t trust midwives. They just don’t provide the same level of care as OBs. I would never trust a midwife.”

At this point, my husband, seated behind her, was openly making faces and giving her the middle finger.

Can I see her face? I asked. The tech laughed. “Is that what the midwife told you? You can’t see her face. She’s head-down, face-down. You can’t see anything at this point.”

She finished up her measurements, toweled me off, and left the room.

While no pregnant woman is a stranger to unwanted questions, opinions, and statements about their bodies and choices (a daily occurrence during pregnancy), this tech’s opinions were particularly horrifying. I’m a rational woman, but when someone in a very medical-looking office who is looking at my unborn baby with a magic wand tells me that I’ve made shitty choices for myself and my baby, that my baby is not safe, that something is terribly wrong, it is deeply, horrifyingly unnerving.

I left the building in a state of shock, unable to process this information. My baby is not okay. I am not okay. This is not going to be okay.

Once we got in the car, I called my mom and started sobbing. Everything just fell apart.

I called the office for my midwives, and had them leave a message for the midwife on call. I told the girl at the answering service what I was calling about. “I’m 36 weeks and my baby is 8 pounds.” “Wow,” she said, “Sounds like they’re gonna have to induce.”

Waiting for a call back, with no idea what to do with myself, we drove to a nearby mall. There’s something about the predictability and sterility of a mall (the inevitable Macy’s and Starbucks) that was vaguely comforting. I found a kiosk where I could get my eyebrows threaded. We waited.

Somewhere between the Express and the food court, I got the call. She listened to my story in disbelief. She told me, first of all, that ultrasounds at this point were wildly inaccurate assessments of weight (up to 1.5 pounds off in either direction). She was most likely not 8 pounds: the statistical model the machines use to predict weight just isn’t very good. The only thing an ultrasound can tell you this far along in the pregnancy (36 weeks) is whether the baby was in the right position for labor (she is). There is no medical reason to start discussing induction or C-sections. There is no evidence to support better outcomes for early induction of “big babies,” particularly when the tools used to measure babies’ size in utero are not accurate. Further, ultrasound technicians are not obstetricians, gynecologists, nurses, or any other kind of licensed care provider. The only thing they’re qualified to do is squirt jelly on your stomach and click the buttons on their machine.

This woman had absolutely no right whatsoever to insert her opinion about the state of my pregnancy, or the type of care and support I’ve chosen for my pregnancy and delivery. 

Even though I believe my midwife, and had a couple of comforting phone calls with my mom and texts with my best friend who’s an L&D nurse (who agreed completely with the midwife), and talked to other friends who provided comfort, support, and distraction: I am still scared. Labor is already a totally, scary unknowable thing. It can happen at any time, under any circumstances, and you can’t know how it’s going to go. I want to face it and be brave, be secure with my choices, believe with everything in me that I can survive the experience, hopefully without trauma, and meet my daughter at the end of it. Someone will hand her to me and we’ll both be alive and okay. I’ll get to see her face for the very first time. My husband will finally get to fall in love with her the way that I have.

This little web of expectations and support is so fragile. It’s so easily pierced by a sociopathic tech with a very limited medical background and a squeeze bottle full of warm goop, despite knowing better. There is too much to fear.

Heading to bed last night, I knew it was going to be rough. I knew I’d wake up around two, and stay awake until five. Last night, the insomnia had a fresh batch of terror to exploit. Even the soothing balm of a 5-row match in Candy Crush was not enough to relieve the gnawing anxiety produced by this woman’s comments.

Please, let’s all make our own choices about how we want to handle our bodies, pregnancies and deliveries. There are as many ways to do this as there are women on this earth. Let’s support each other, even though we are bound to disagree. Let’s not make statements about things under the guise of medicine that we are not qualified to make. Let’s not assume that the choices we might make for ourselves are the best fit for someone else.  Let’s take care of each other, because deep down, all pregnant women are scared.

A special thanks to my friend Nicole, who came over yesterday afternoon in the midst of all this panic. Thank you for listening to me, and then feeding me that delicious eclair, for the arepas stuffed with black beans, sweet plantains, and queso fresco, and the little tacos and churros dipped in caramel sauce. My big, fat baby is grateful, too.

We’ll be okay.

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