In 2005, ideas that can’t have been true formed in my memory bank. After I had enough of these episodes to convince my family and doctors alike that I was suffering from more than the baby blues, I was diagnosed with postpartum delusional disorder, then psychosis in 2006. At first I underwent five months of treatment, then five years of treatment, then more treatment, until finally, in 2014, I changed providers and my diagnosis was reclassified as schizophrenia. Until they discover the cause of brain disease, I’ll need treatment for the rest of my life.
In 2006, when I departed from the world as others know it for the first time and entered the world of psychosis, I experienced something I didn’t know was possible. I had no exposure or reference to what psychosis was like, except for that movie A Beautiful Mind. My family had no awareness, and there was very little literature at the time available to me to understand my experience. When I came back from psychosis, it was soul-crushing to learn how drastically I had misunderstood my circumstances in my delusional state of mind. Still, those vivid memories remained a part of me, and I couldn’t free myself from them. So I decided to write a story. I made the book fiction, because everyone who loves me told me when I was sick that I was delusional, and that my stories weren’t real. They can’t have been real, can they?
I was born in 1977 and raised in a small, cottage-style home in a cultish community in Topeka, Kansas. I often played in the front yard with my big sister, Chloe, and my little brother, Erik. When I lifted the bricks that circled the strawberries around the lamppost,
I’d watch the roly-polies uncurl and march along the surface until they found safety beneath the edge of the neighboring bricks.
My parents and their friends had a tight-knit community that shaped our minds as we grew up and gave me all kinds of knowl- edge about religion and classical literature for delusional memories to spring from. They loved learning and sharing about the works of the Inklings, an Oxford literary group of which C. S. Lewis, J.
R. R. Tolkien, Francis Schaeffer, Charles Williams, and others were members. My parents’ fascination with these authors inspired many of their own ambitions. Their reading list included The Lord of the Rings, The Hideous Strengths, The Four Loves, The Great Divide, The Chronicles of Narnia, and many more.
My parents met their friends during a campus crusade in 1970 at the University of Kansas and joined the K Group—“K” being short for “koinonea,” meaning “friends.” During their gatherings, they talked about their hopes and dreams for their future—the greatest of which was to start a school, based on a classical education that included their deeply spiritual Christian beliefs, where they could raise their children the way they wished they themselves had been raised. The core K Group met twice a week and continued to grow its vision for years; it incubated during the wives’ pregnancies and gestated during the group’s professional-degree programs. In 1979 they chose to buy homes near each other in the Westboro neighborhood of Topeka. The small, cottage-style houses were within a few blocks of one another on a string of lanes and courts saddling two small parks. It was an intentional community with religious overtones.
The brand of Christianity I grew up with did not allow any objects to be glorified. There were no crosses on the walls, no Virgin Mary figurines, no votive candles or shrines, no saints or Jesus figures. There was only the Bible, and the Bible was the only word of God. I had a pink Precious Moments Bible that my parents gave me for Christmas when I was seven years old, with my name embossed on the cover in silver Times New Roman font.
My parents liked to go to church, although they believed that con- gregation and fellowship are anywhere you are and didn’t feel you had to physically attend church to fulfill the requirement for worship. However, Sunday mornings were a great day for all of us. We’d wake up, and the glory routine would begin. Chloe and I would search through our wardrobe and pick out the perfect Sunday dresses, and Erik would put on a little suit that made him look like a miniature man.
Our education was intertwined with our religion. After the private Christian academy’s formation in our attic, the founding fathers found a church over on Twenty-First Street to host Chloe’s kindergarten class. My mom drove Chloe and me to school every day past the strip malls and shopping center on the main roads. Then she turned into the residential neighborhood and sped up a steep hill to get to that church. When I was in first grade, the school moved to its current location, on Clay Street in Topeka, and took the name Cair Paravel, after the castle in The Chronicles of Narnia where Queen Susan the Gentle, King Edmund the Just, Queen Lucy the Valiant, and High King Peter the Magnificent once ruled.
Our mothers sat talking for hours while all of us kids roamed the neighborhood, playing in the clubhouse above a garage, in our fortress-style tree house, and at the park. When I learned about the concept of sin in a Sunday-school lecture and searched my memories for when I’d first sinned, I figured it must have been playing doctor
in the doghouse with the boys in the community. The lecture told us about Romans 3:23: “We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” After hearing this in class, I prayed to God to forgive my sins. Something about exploring one another’s bodies with the plastic stethoscope made me think I’d done something wrong, and prayer didn’t help the feeling subside. I felt guilty but wasn’t entirely sure why. I used to ask God for forgiveness for my sins frequently. It seemed as if I were part of some sin that was greater than all of us.
Maybe the guilt had to do with my dad’s getting in trouble at church. Even he wasn’t immune to temptation, it turned out. He was president of Youth for Christ, president of Cair Paravel, and active in the dental association, but he wasn’t perfect. He had an affair with his dental assistant, who happened to be married to the pastor’s best friend. Plus, the pastor’s wife worked as my dad’s receptionist. When Mom and Dad went for counseling with the pastor, Dad agreed to repent in front of the church. The pastor told him if he truly asked for forgiveness, the church would forgive him.
One hot, early Sunday morning at my parents’ church, I sat with my family in that sanctuary, waiting. Usually kids took church in small classroom settings away from the congregation. That day was differ- ent. Strangers came to get Chloe, Erik, and me, to guide us away. I didn’t know these adults who led us toward the back of the large lino- leum floor, with brown specks and folding chairs laid out in a U shape. But my instincts, even as a six-year-old, told me the look in their eye said they knew something was going to happen and we needed to go. I’d never seen adults act like that—my mother distraught, strangers approaching us kids to guide us away from something. We followed, but not quietly.
“Where’re we going?” I asked. “What’s happening?”
That morning, my dad repented in front of the entire congregation. The minister called him up to the front of the church. Head hanging low, my dad told the silent audience how he’d strayed in his ways and had an extramarital affair with his dental assistant. He apologized and, with tears in his eyes, asked for forgiveness.
Emotionally devastated, my mother passed out in the sanctuary, collapsing from the intensity of the drama and the summer heat in the poorly air-conditioned building. “Uncle” Carl, Dad’s best friend, gathered Mom in his arms and carried her away when the pastor told Dad his plea wasn’t good enough. Uncle Carl held my mom as he walked out to the hallway where Chloe, Erik, and I waited. The dense air felt oppressive. He led us to his white Oldsmobile while my father stood before the church. Chloe cried as Uncle Carl carried my mother limp in his arms.
It was quite the scandal for Topeka in the early 1980s when the pastor made an example of my dad, a nice family dentist and professional businessman, and banned him from the church for his affair. They called it an “exfellowship.”
My parents’ friends gathered close, and most of the people who watched the spectacle quit the unforgiving church and moved on to another Bible church. There were many good folks there, but it was the type of place that performed baptisms in the local lake. The Bible church was part of the revivalist movement—not what I consider a liberal church, but that’s the way my parents described it. The church “forgave” my father for his “sins.”
When my grandma Ronan, a deeply religious woman, heard this, she scoffed. “I think they’re full of themselves,” she said, in disbelief that a church would grant forgiveness. In her view, that was God’s job, not the minister’s.
The split in my parents’ relationship and the split in the church also meant splitting the board of the school. The divide in the con- gregation, and my parents’ and their friends’ exodus to the Bible church, was a big deal. It meant legal action needed to take place to restructure the Cair Paravel board.
My dad became materialistic and focused on his private dental practice. He compensated for feeling judged by buying things, including a new fur coat for my mom. He bought a new sports car, an RX7. He also bought land in the middle of Kansas. Our family often took road trips out there; I dressed in tight jeans and cowgirl boots, with my favorite black ballet leotard underneath. I still have a Polaroid picture of me wearing that outfit. One time, shortly after the “excommunication,” our car got stuck in the mud. We all had to get out of the car. My dad was furious. I remember my mother being afraid. He didn’t hit her, but I saw him as a man in the grip of anger. I don’t know why he was so angry all the time.
When I misbehaved, I was punished with spanking. It did not deter me. I was a very “strong-willed” child, as some would say. When my parents set rules, I did what they told me not to. I was stuck in middle-child syndrome, and my parents were trying to live up to some really religious standards. They used to read the Reverend Jim Dobson’s books about his Focus on the Family and listened when the reverend wrote, “The spanking should be of sufficient magnitude to cause the child to cry genuinely.” That didn’t work for me; the harder they spanked me, the more entrenched in my emotional stance I became. And beating me with a wooden spoon or a leather belt just strengthened my resolve. I refused to be broken by their tactics when I didn’t understand the rules. Finally, my mom learned that if she sat down with me and told me how she felt about what I did and why she didn’t want me to do something, I would break down and cry. I wanted to do what was right; I just needed to understand why it was important first.
In 1985, my father split with his business partner, with whom he had practiced dentistry for a few years. My mom became increasingly involved with the everyday management of my father’s busy dental office. Business was good. People liked my dad. He was funny and very sociable. I played in the operating rooms and observed many different dental procedures. I rinsed the instruments contaminated with blood in the sink when I was only eight or nine years old. I loved it when the assistants let me help them.
Our family joined the country club, and we started taking swimming and tennis lessons. I was never very competitive. I made my first best friend who wasn’t involved with school or church. Her father worked for a local pet-food company, and her bragging rights came from the fact that their house used to be the governor’s mansion. It was a fun place to go for sleepovers. We used to stay up watching late-night television on Cinemax, and go swimming in her pool. At night it lit up like a magical aqua bean set in the ground.
At my first slumber party, in the fourth grade, we played the dare game. Somebody dared me to take a midnight swim. That year she and I were tennis doubles partners at the country club. Our motto was that if we couldn’t outplay our doubles opponents, at least we could outdress them. Grandma Mera told us, “Girls, you’ve got to dress to impress.”
Grandma Mera played like she was an heiress. She wore cubic zirconias of a size that Flavor Flav, the rapper, would adore. When we went to the country club brunch, she would sing to the music with the pianist hired to serenade our breakfast. Everywhere she went, she acted like she knew everyone. She may have known them, but she also needed to be out with people, even if it was just going to the grocery store. She hated being home.
Just before my grandparents’ visit in the fall of 1986, Dad took me and our dog, Sandy, on a walk. “Honey, there are a few things I need to explain about my parents,” he said.
“Like what?” I asked.
“Because of living through the Depression and World War II, my parents have different worldviews than your mom and I do, and we agree to disagree on politics and religion,” he said.
“What do you mean, Dad?” I asked.
“Well, they are run-of-the-mill Goldwater conservatives. Goldwater ran against Kennedy and didn’t win,” he said. “My mom believes in God, but not the same way I do. She doesn’t believe in thinking negative thoughts; she is a Norman Vincent Peale disciple. As a humanist, she thinks she is a god and told me every day when I was growing up that I was ‘God’s perfect child.’ She kept the good parts of Christian Science and added the ideas of ‘positive thinking.’”
“What is Christian Science?” I asked.
“Christian Scientists don’t believe in modern medical treatment. Some groups are so extreme that they let people die of preventable diseases.” He shook his head. “But it was how she was raised. Great- Grandma Reba was a powerful member of the church in Owosso, Michigan.”
“Dad, how come you aren’t like Grandma?” I asked.
“Well, in college I joined the campus crusade, and all our friends were part of a Christian Bible study, called Koinonea ‘K’ Group, at Broadway Baptist Church in Kansas City,” he said. “I had an empti- ness in my heart that wasn’t filled until I started reading the Bible. When my mom and dad get here, let me know if you want to talk about anything they say.”
Later that evening, Grandma and Grandpa Mera and their min- iature poodle, Sugar, pulled into our driveway in a large recreational vehicle on their way across the country between their “yacht”— which turned out to be a houseboat when we visited them once in Washington State—and their “winter home” in Sun City, Arizona, a small, ranch-style house in a golf retirement community.
In 1987, my parents sold our little house on Pembroke Lane and we moved to Lagito Lane. The house was on four acres in the country, located across from what was a lake by Kansas standards, but a pond if you’re from anywhere else. The land we lived on looked like Kansas prairie. My parents let the grass in the back two acres go to seed. We rarely left the boundaries of our property. There was a cow pasture just on the other side of a hedgerow at the back of the lot. We were not allowed to trespass on the neighbor’s farm. Instead, we played on the swing set and spent hours videotaping each other and playing around the house. Chloe liked to have me videotape her while she acted out her favorite Michael W. Smith songs. I still tease Chloe about making me film her for hours on end as she lip-synched to Christian rock.
Then there were my mom and dad. The church split. The school board split. The business partnership split. My parents stayed together and had counseling with the pastor every week until the summer before fifth grade, when it came to light that my father was having yet another affair, this time with his new secretary. While staying at my aunt’s house in Peoria for a few weeks during school vacation, I got a phone call from my mom. She said there was something she needed to talk to me about. She told me she and my father had separated and were going to get a divorce.
My dad used to have these index cards with pictures of all his goals on them: tropical island vacations, cars, and men and women with perfect bodies. He made goals for each of us in the family scrap- book before he split. He had a blond, perfect model in a bikini in the wife section of his cards. That should have been a clue for all of us that things weren’t right. My mom was beautiful, but she would never be short, blond, or petite like the model. The secretary at the dental office, Lydia, looked like my dad’s ideal trophy wife.
During our weekly visits with my dad during the separation, we went out to dinner after our tennis lessons at the country club. My dad then drove us around in his oversize Mercedes-Benz. I acted out and told him exactly how I was feeling about this divorce.
“Don’t put your hand on the back of my neck,” I said, shrugging my shoulders to get my dad’s hand off the back of my neck while we were walking to the car after our tennis lesson. “You think you can just pick us up after not seeing us for a week and act like everything is okay?” I said, lashing out at him on the thin sidewalk by the tennis clubhouse.
Dad ignored me, but dropped his hand from my neck, and nodded at another family on their way into the tennis clubhouse.
“It’s not okay. You have no right to lie and pretend things are normal. There is nothing normal about seeing you just once a week,” I said.
Chloe and Erik felt the same way I did. One time, he put his arm around my car seat. I had wanted to sit in the backseat, but he wanted one of us to sit up front. I was so irritated about his arm being around the seat, I used the electronic seat-position button to get out of his reach. Chloe and Erik watched me, the middle child, reject my dad’s affection and started giggling from the backseat. My dad got annoyed at me but also had never had anyone test the limits of the seat position. He found it as funny as the rest of us by the time I was about a foot off the floor and my face almost touched the windshield.
I wanted him to be part of our family again. Seeing him once a week after tennis lessons was not enough, and pretending like every- one was happy infuriated me. I wanted real love, the unconditional type I heard everyone at church talk about. And I wanted my family back. I shared every dark and angry emotion I had, but I was the only one who did. Chloe and Erik had never tested their relationship with my mom and dad. They always cried when they were punished, and I don’t think they wanted to find out whether they would still be loved even if they acted out.
After my mom and dad separated, rumors about my mom and my dad’s best friend, Uncle Carl, began. The most hurtful thing happened when Chloe came home in tears after the trip to Lost Valley Ranch with her middle school class. One of her friends told her she wasn’t allowed to be around her anymore because of the affair our mom was having with Carl. That was our first clue that maybe he and Mom had something deeper than a friendship. The other kids’ parents didn’t approve of our family anymore. We were cast out because we were associated with “ungodliness.”
That rejection resulted in my wanting to grow up to be different from those people I once looked up to. Being shunned and stigma- tized for my parents’ behavior isolated me. Now that I was old enough to understand, I knew it was wrong to bear the burden of my parents’ actions. People called my mom and told her what she should be doing with her life as a divorcée. Dad sold the house on Lagito Lane, sold the dental practice, and moved away. Then we didn’t hear from him for months.
When people asked me how my father was doing, I learned to fight back tears of abandonment. “I don’t know,” I’d say, and move away from them, blinking back my emotion. At eleven years old, I just wanted to escape that question. Not knowing where he was or what had happened to him split up my heart; I worried about him.
One day, a postcard addressed only to me arrived in the mail. Dad wrote, “Dear Sunny, got hitched to Lydia and found my new life call- ing as a sea captain. Bought a boat, named it the Sunny. Love, Dad.”
After that postcard, I had an answer when people asked how my dad was: “He got married and became a sea captain.”
Everyone else thought it was funny. They imagined him in floral- print, button-down, short-sleeved shirts and khaki shorts, cruising the Gulf of Mexico with a straw hat to cover his balding hairline and sparse ponytail in the back. He had been telling people for months he wanted to be a sea captain. The dental office staff had even bought him a ship’s bell for his goodbye party. But nobody really thought he’d do it. I eventually became flip about it, but at the time, I felt only abandoned and hurt that he had left us to follow a dream. I loved him anyway. I got really good at telling the story, and eventually it didn’t feel so traumatic, and I could laugh along with the people I told.
Lydia and Dad had moved to Texas together and bought the boat, the Sunny. Lydia fit into his index-card goals, but not enough to last. The yacht was a light-blond powerboat with a small cabin in the bow and a head with a toilet and shower. My dad sent a picture postcard in 1988 from one of the ports near Freeport, west of Galveston, in the Gulf of Mexico, along the intercoastal waterway he called the Ditch. The aerial photograph showed the water stretching across the page horizontally, filling the space. There were little boats floating in the water. I looked to see whether I could find the Sunny.
It was just a fantasy, an implausible fantasy. On a Friday night in June 2004, my husband, Jack, and I went out to a little Mexican restaurant in Concord, New Hampshire, for dinner and a few mar- garitas. By the time we got home, we were up for having sex, but he
was so eager to finish that he left me wanting more.
Once he’d fallen asleep next to me, I brought myself to climax on the power of a fantasy. I imagined that a stranger wanted me so badly that he was trying to trick me into getting pregnant and had contaminated my sex toy with his sperm. I’d reached for the pink vibrator and felt it warm and sticky in my mind. The window was open, and an extension ladder stood against the wall leading up to our bedroom. I thought I heard a creak from the ladder outside the window. I had wanted to have a child for a long time, and the idea of this other man—not my husband—being the father turned me on immensely. Maybe I was just drunk, or maybe it was because I was already seeing cracks in my marriage—regardless, I loved the thought, and I recorded the story in my red notebook.
A few weeks later, when I got up one morning, a queasy moment made me think the weather change and pressure were making me dizzy when I got out of bed too fast. It was my day off, and I planned to prepare a special meal for Jack’s twenty-seventh birthday. I got up, took a shower, and got dressed, when suddenly flashes of heat came over me in waves, accompanied by nausea. I sat on the floor in the master bathroom and removed my offensively hot and restrictive outfit; I couldn’t stand the feeling of the clothes against my skin. As I sat there, pressing my face against the cool tile, I realized I must be pregnant. I did the math and knew my period was late, for the first time in my life, and pinpointed the night of conception to our date at the Mexican restaurant.
By noon the nausea lifted enough for me to put back on my clothes and drive to the nearest grocery store, where I purchased food for dinner and the weekend, and two at-home pregnancy tests.
When I got back home, I peed on the plastic stick with a paper wick at the end. The symbols changed. I could barely concentrate to read the paper instructions, so it took me a while to verify that the symbols meant I was pregnant.
I went to the computer to research the accuracy of at-home pregnancy tests, and when I discovered how high the success rates were, I called the doctor’s office and said, “Hi, I’m pregnant; I need to set up a prenatal visit.”
“How far along are you?” the receptionist asked.
“I don’t know, I just had a positive result with an at-home test kit,” I said.
“Let me transfer you to the nurse,” the receptionist said.
I waited for a while before they connected me. “May I help you?” a woman asked on the other end of the phone.
“Yes, I’d like to schedule a prenatal visit,” I said.
“Before we say you are pregnant, you will need to come into the practice and have a urine test to verify it,” the woman said sternly.
“But I already took a test, and it said I was pregnant,” I said. “Well, we have a very accurate test, and need to be certain you are
pregnant before we will schedule the prenatal visits,” she said conde- scendingly. The first person I’d told I was pregnant, and already my condition was making me feel invalidated.
We scheduled a test for the next available appointment, and I hung up the phone. For a while, I just sat there and listened to the rain tap against the thick, dense forest leaves out back. The house had no air-conditioning, so the windows were open to the sounds of nature. Thunder crashed in the distance, and my stomach tightened at the thought of Jack flying home in the storm. He was planning to fly into the Manchester airport that evening, following a fishing trip in Canada.
Compounding my anxiety about Jack’s flight was my nervousness about motherhood in general. Feeling as if I didn’t have permission to share my condition with my network and being alone in rural New Hampshire, with nobody to share my joy and fear with, chal- lenged me in a deep way. I didn’t have the skills in place to cope with the isolation. My deepest fear was learning to make it in the world while being responsible for a dependent. As a mom-to-be, I felt over- whelmed by the thought of another person relying on my success to thrive. But my fear soon dissipated as I flipped through the mail that had just been delivered and saw a letter from the University of New Hampshire in the stack. This was what I had been waiting for.
My pulse quickened. I swallowed hard, and everything slowed down as I turned over the letter and opened the sealed flap with my finger. I could feel my pulse keeping slow-motion time in the back of my neck. I tore apart the envelope, pulling the stiff white letter from inside. I scanned the page and found the key word I was looking for: accepted.
“We are in, baby!” I said, letting out a squeal of giddy pleasure and excitement. I knew I wanted a change, and between pregnancy and graduate school, I was getting what I wished for. I just needed to convince Jack. I imagined gestating while in classes, studying, and parenting as intellectuals. I wanted to share ideas with my child and feel respected for my knowledge. I saw myself being a mother who was present for her child, just as my mother was always there for me. I wanted so badly to talk to her, but then thought twice and forced myself not to. Jack would be unhappy if he didn’t hear first. And when he wasn’t happy, he held back emotionally. I couldn’t bear the thought.
I’d already tried his cell phone twice, and it was off. It went straight to voice mail. If I kept calling, he’d worry when he powered it on. And then he might be angry with me, and I hated the way his glare felt. Plus, I wasn’t going to tell him over the phone. I gritted my teeth and decided to deal with the onset of emotions in isolation, rather than risk the loss of intimacy in our marriage.
I tried to distract myself and do something with the afternoon, but I was glued to my computer that day. I feared the changes that my body would go through. The pain of labor terrified me. I had concerns about the child growing inside me. I worried about the margaritas we’d had the weekend before. I counted every alcoholic beverage I’d had since conception. I mapped it out along the growth and development charts.
That evening, I picked up Jack. “I need to tell you something,” I said the second he climbed into the passenger seat after loading up our Ford Explorer, located in temporary parking in front of the terminal.
“What is it?” he asked, closing his door.
“Well, first, I got into graduate school at the University of New Hampshire,” I said, pausing to make eye contact. “And I’m pregnant.” I started to tear up. “Happy birthday, Jack,” I said, and choked on my tears.
“I thought you wanted this,” he said, confused by my reaction.
“I do,” I said, feeling tears slide down my cheeks. “It doesn’t mean I’m not afraid, though.”
He reached over and held my hand. I wiped my tears away and drove us home. Mostly we talked finances and income on the drive home; I quoted tuition rates, and we estimated the expenses associated with having a baby and going to school at the same time. When we got home, he held me in his arms and I cried some more. I was pregnant—happy and terrified at the same time.
While we made Jack’s birthday dinner, we talked. I convinced him that if we drove our older cars a few more years, we could pay for my graduate school. He called it a “vanity degree,” but we made a deal. I would take care of the baby during the day, he’d watch her while I was in school, and we would make it work.
“You can spend an equal amount of our income on guns and things if I can go to graduate school,” I said. That sealed the deal for him.
Around the time I started graduate school, I quit my primary job but decided to continue with my volunteer positions and with teaching part-time until the end of the fall semester. Early that fall, I gave my first continuing-education lecture about prenatal health as a mom-to-be. With the organizers watching, I helped keep the presentation going and was asked to speak again at another course. Eventually, I gave the presentation in every corner of the state. I learned all about New Hampshire while driving the tree-lined roads and climbing through the curvy hills and mountains. I loved my time behind the wheel. It was time that was mine. I could think of anything I wanted and enjoy myself. Often I’d envision myself flying next to the car, dancing along the hillsides. It made me feel special.
Early that fall, my stepbrother, Brad, called me several times. He planned to get married. The phone call always had the same ending: “But why won’t you come to the wedding? Did I do something to offend you?” he’d ask.
“I’m afraid that something will happen to the baby if I fly,” I’d reply.
Whenever I got off the phone with Brad, I found myself having irrational thoughts. One of them was that Brad had placed a curse on me for not going to the wedding. I knew him to be a gentle soul, a warmhearted, kind, and good person. Nonetheless, this idea persisted, as did my inability to articulate what was the matter with me. During that same time period, guns got between my husband and me, as I began to believe that Jack’s hobby was putting the baby and me at risk of lead exposure. All he wanted to do was shoot guns. He tried to convince me that he should build a trench so he could shoot out in the backyard, and he wanted to smelt his own lead bullets after reading about it on an Internet gun forum. But all those ideas concerned me; smelting sounded like a very bad idea, and I knew enough about lead dust to worry when he swept up the brass casings to reload ammunition for his reloading press.
I did my research. I had reasonable arguments. It was a health issue. Jack agreed to go to a physician to get his lead levels checked, but only if he could see a male physician—he said he didn’t want another woman to touch him. Meanwhile, I took the basics of my knowledge of infection control and applied them to the lead issue. I asked him to use good decontamination practices, by washing his hands and changing and bagging his clothes before he entered the car after sweeping and getting covered in the lead-filled dust. Then
I’d make him take a shower as soon as he got home. He washed his clothes separately from our other laundry.
He thought I was being neurotic; I thought he was shirking his responsibilities by exposing the baby and me to lead dust. Eventually, he realized I would not budge on this issue, and he also found a lack of support from everyone with whom we discussed the subject, so he agreed to follow my rules, rather than give up his hobby.
We had our first appointment with our new family doctor, Dr. Richard, on a cold day in winter 2005. When we arrived at the medi- cal practice, I wore my heavy black wool coat, sturdy black boots, and maternity pants. I was serious. I wanted to be seen as a family, so I insisted Jack join me for the visit. I also wanted the doctor to talk some sense into Jack about the fact that he was potentially exposing the baby and me to lead from his guns.
We didn’t have to wait long in the reception area before a nurse escorted us to an exam room. I took off my coat and climbed up on the exam table; Jack took a seat near the counter.
A nurse poked her head into our exam room. She asked if we’d met the doctor yet. Jack and I both told her no.
“You’re going to love him,” she said in a conspiratorial whisper.
Another nurse stepped into the room a few minutes later. “Have you met him yet?” she asked. Jack and I both said no again.
“You’re going to love him.” I was spooked by the way she said it— as if it were a warning.
After that second nurse left, Jack and I turned to each other and chuckled. “I don’t know—I’m a little worried about this guy,” Jack said.
Neither nurse had heard the other’s comment, but we joked about the coincidence. Jack always knew how to make me laugh when I was nervous.
When Dr. Richard walked into the room, the first thing he did was lock eyes with me. I felt as if he knew some secret about me, and it scared me to feel so exposed to a stranger. As soon as that wave of embarrassment hit me, I broke eye contact and quickly turned my eyes to the tile floor in the exam room. What the hell? Why do I feel embarrassed? What just made me feel so vulnerable?
“What do you do? Are you working?” he asked me. I tried to be vague.
“I’m in school,” I said.
“Oh yeah? What are you studying?” Dr. Richard wanted to know. I dreaded that question. I wanted to stay anonymous; I wanted to experience the health care system the same way everyone else did. I knew the next words out of my mouth would change the doctor- patient dynamic by exposing my knowledge, and the thought that my providers might grant me special privileges as a result made me very uncomfortable.
“I’m getting my master’s of public health at the University of New Hampshire,” I said. My whole face was tight with embarrassment. But there it was, like a big elephant sitting in the room.
“Yeah, she just finished a course on environmental health and won’t stop nagging me about lead dust and my guns,” Jack said.
“Pioneer Sport Club allows only unjacketed lead bullets, and Jack sweeps up the brass casings to reload ammunition. I’m concerned about Jack’s exposure to lead and the possibility of passing along that risk to the baby and me,” I said, pleading my case to Dr. Richard.
Dr. Richard listened to us argue our stances and agreed there was probably little risk if Jack followed my protocol to reduce our family’s exposure.
My new bra seemed to have a mind of its own at that moment. The underwire pressed against my swollen belly, and the ends jutted out in front of my cleavage, creating an unusual effect. The sweater gathered where the underwire poked out and descended into a tented gorge into which the V-neck plunged.
Dr. Richard’s gaze fixed curiously on the area. Maybe he thinks it looks like a third breast, I speculated. But the more his stare lingered, the more I felt it—and I realized I liked the attention. As his eyes canvassed my body, I felt as if I could hear him thinking, Your body belongs to me.
My response to him unsettled me. I wanted a hero to save me from the lead dust, but I didn’t want to be attracted to him.
When I tried to explain how I felt to Jack after the appointment, he just got annoyed. “We can go anywhere you want; we’ve got great insurance,” he said.
A few days after the appointment, I stood in my kitchen, contemplat- ing changing to another physician in the group whom we had met earlier in the pregnancy. We had a solid rapport with him, but I was not physically attracted to him. But then I asked myself, What’s the worst that can happen? Why not stay with Dr. Richard?
“Don’t complain, then,” Jack said, when I told him I’d decided to stick with our original plan.
What if my feelings were just that? I remembered back to my discomfort with my old boss, back when I worked in Boston in 1999. He unknowingly touched people all over—the lower back, the elbow, the shoulder—guiding them down corridors as if in a dancehall. He’d grown up abroad, and I’d always figured he was just that way. He never meant his touches to come across the way I felt about them— uncomfortable—but he was older than my father, and I didn’t like it. It made me think about more than I wanted to with him. At one point, I confided my discomfort to the office manager about all the touching, and he was careful to be more hands-off after that.
But now, in our medical practice, I’d already changed doctors to see the same physician as Jack, and it had created a controversy: letters requesting why we’d made the change, questions from the receptionist. It had felt invasive, and I didn’t want it to be a big deal again, so we kept going back to Dr. Richard.
Ever since my belly had started to show in the fall, strangers (all women) seemed to get a kick out of telling me how much pain I’d feel when the baby came. It started to make me fear the birth. I was trying to prepare emotionally for the delivery; I didn’t want to be afraid. During one visit, as Dr. Richard and I talked about my birth plan, I explained that I wanted a hospital birth because I was terrified that something could go wrong and I wanted my baby to survive. The thought of a home birth sounded dangerous, and I accepted the idea of preventive surgical intervention if it were indicated. My fear of the pain of labor prompted me not only to sign up for an epidural but also to request a series of topical and cervical injections to numb everything. I didn’t want to feel a thing. When I told Dr. Richard how women who didn’t know me kept telling me scary stories, he rec- ommended I read Dr. Grantly Dick-Read’s book Childbirth Without Fear.
When I finally located the dusty old book on the bottom shelf at the library during the start of my third trimester, I thought I must have been mistaken. The leather spine flaked and cracked when I opened it to the first page. I scoffed a little at the suggestion that a text from the 1940s would be relevant today. I thought about putting it back, but instead, I turned the page and started the mysterious recommended reading. By the time I had to leave the library, I’d devoured the classic. Birthing hadn’t actually changed all that much—it was just medicine’s treatment of it that had changed—and that small treasure of a book changed my orientation to the birthing experience.
I began to imagine it as pleasurable. One passage said the uterus has only one function: to contract. I knew there was another time when the uterus contracted, and that was during the female sexual response cycle. So, to strengthen my uterus for labor, I focused on having better orgasms.
At first it was a secret. I didn’t talk about the orgasms, or my strategy, because I was so engorged in the third trimester of my preg- nancy that my only relief from the constant blood flow of my swollen clitoris was sexual release in the form of an orgasm. I wasn’t working much, I was a graduate student, and I had lots of time on my hands to practice. So I spent my third trimester climaxing in my free time. The first time I tried out this technique, my body responded quickly. When I climaxed, my baby bump pulled downward as if it were a basketball being dribbled in five steady contractions. It was a shocking physiological phenomenon. Then my baby went still. I wor- ried I’d done something terrible. I lay there and prayed to God that everything would be okay. It took half an hour before I rebounded and felt her move again. When she did, I thanked God and decided I had to try that again.
In 2005, there wasn’t much information available about orgasmic birthing, so I didn’t really know what I was getting into. By 2013, orgasmic labor was documented in scientific literature in a survey of midwives who had witnessed such births and said they were a matter of anatomy and perception.
As for my anatomy, nobody I know has ever been able to relate to the lurching climaxes I experienced in my third trimester. Labor wasn’t pleasurable for anybody else, and even my friends who mas- turbated said their uterus didn’t contract at climax. Nobody in my mother’s generation in Kansas talked about sex and masturbation, and she was horrified when I asked if she’d experienced the same phenomenon as I did, so I don’t know if the wiring is genetic. But I felt like I was engaging in some sacred secret by practicing my orgasm during pregnancy. There was no contraindication to sexuality that I could find about pregnancy. I’d followed Dr. Richard’s orders to read and learn about childbirth without fear; I wanted pregnancy to be fun, to enjoy my body, and to work out my uterus.
At the beginning of March, I sat alone in Dr. Richard’s operatory, waiting for him. I’d broken out in an itchy rash earlier that week, and I was miserable. When Dr. Richard examined me, he errone- ously and overconfidently misdiagnosed me with pityriasis rosea. I knew it was wrong, but when I gave him a look of doubt, he puffed up and told me a story about another patient of his who’d had the same condition once.
The doctor-patient relationship is a privileged affair. They have total reign over your body. They really can touch every inch of you if they want to. I’d never had a doctor touch me so much; then again, I’d never had to see the doctor every week before. By the time Jack and I went back to see Dr. Richard on Friday, to my embarrassment, Jack noted that PUPPP, also known as the rash of pregnancy, was what I thought it was after my intensive research on Google. “She looked it up and had it right,” Jack said. Despite my embarrassment, Dr. Richard corrected his misdiagnosis.
During the whole appointment, Dr. Richard had this sad, heavy look. He’d look me in the eye for a second and then look away, shoulders sagging. I felt sorry for him. I figured he must have to share bad news with someone, but I had no idea that it would be us, until Dr. Richard called later that afternoon and asked for Jack.
Jack’s lead levels were high, Dr. Richard told him—anything over ten was high, and Jack was near thirty-five—and those levels were disrupting Jack’s kidney function. Even though I now knew my concern was warranted and Jack had indeed experienced high lead exposure from the range, I didn’t want to win like that. I wanted the lead to go away and for Jack not to be impacted. I was terrified not only that he’d exposed himself but that he had hurt our daughter and me. I was due in just one week, and I feared that Jack would die and leave me to raise the baby alone.
Fortunately, Dr. Richard played a role in stopping the lead issue from progressing any further. Jack agreed to quit going to the range to stop the exposure from getting worse, and Dr. Richard announced a plan to have both the baby and me screened for lead exposure regu- larly after the birth.
On my due date, March 11, 2005, I had an office visit with Dr. Richard and experienced a contraction while I was there. When I mentioned it to him, Dr. Richard laid his hands on both sides of my belly and felt the contraction as I sat still on the examination table. His dark blue eyes felt warm and receptive when we connected. He smiled at me with a gentle, kind, knowing look. A wave of some- thing pleasant, almost paranormal, and certainly hormonal, rushed through my veins: sexual attraction to the physician.
The bedroom vibrated. Jack’s snowblower pounded against the pavement below our windows. One day past my due date, and we were snowed in. Jack was nervous. He’d told me his greatest fear was to deliver the baby alone with me, using the Internet as a guide. He preferred the idea of going to the hospital.
I woke, reached for my pink plastic–framed glasses, and swept a long strand of hair behind my ear so I could see. Snow clung to the window screens, and I could barely make out the blanketed evergreen forest that encroached on the back of the house. Our wedding photos shuddered in sync with the thunderous noise from his snowblower.
My big belly contracted beneath my maternity sweater when I rolled off the bedding. Dazed by an intense pulling sensation that wrapped itself around me, I held still for a second. The room’s walls suddenly felt closer, and my ears pounded. I could have floated if my perceptions had been right. In a gravity-defying motion, I moved my body off the bed. I wanted to know how much snow had come, because I expected my baby girl any day.
Suddenly, warm water gushed down my legs onto my bedroom carpet and my big belly tightened in a steady contraction. I slowed as I crossed the room, and when I turned, I saw a trace of a puddle that turned the mauve carpet dark purple and a trail of wet footprints behind me. I planned to tell the doctor about that contraction. This was different.
Every time I moved, more water flowed down to my soggy socks. I hoped Jack and I would make it to the hospital in time. I tried opening the window to yell out, but the ice had frozen it shut and Jack didn’t notice me in the window. Worried the baby would dry out if I kept losing water at the rate at which I was leaking, I continued to the landing of our house and waddled down the stairs. Jack had managed to plow the first pass through the center of the driveway. It would take about an hour before he’d finish his chore, and the snow was still falling. We were snowed in until he was finished. I found the cordless phone on the counter and dialed the doctor’s number by heart as I climbed back up the stairs to the master bedroom. There were no signs of blood, so I told myself everything would be okay.
I heard the woman’s calm voice from the answering service on the other end of the phone. I took a deep breath before I explained my situation. The woman transferred me to the on-call staff, and I waited for a while before I was connected.
I heard the sound of the snowblower as it kept rattling up and down the driveway. It had grown faint as it went toward the mailbox. At top speed, each pass took about five minutes; then Jack turned about-face and thundered back toward the house, clearing the snow. On the wall, the pictures I’d painted of daffodils in the spring of 2001, the year I won Best Spring Garden in my garden club in Boston, vibrated in response to the snowblower. I took a deep breath and practiced creative visualization as I waited for help. I imagined painting with my little girl someday. The yellow petals contrasted nicely with the energetic blue background, which echoed with traces of light cast diagonally across the canvas. It was one of my best paintings, and I took comfort in the brushstrokes and in thoughts of my future with my daughter.
“Hello?” The sound of a soothing voice answered at the other end of the phone. I knew it was him. I imagined his tall, masculine form seated at a desk, rolling his wedding band in a circle with his thumb and holding the phone to his right ear. A patch of facial hair framed his lips and stretched down his chin, and his rectangular wire-framed glasses and light brown receding hairline made him look like one of the physicians in Boston magazine’s annual Top Doctors issue.
When I heard Dr. Richard on the telephone line, I leaned back against the headboard.
“This is Sunny Mera. I think my water broke. What do you want me to do?” I asked him nervously.
“How far apart are the contractions?” he asked.
“I don’t really know; I haven’t timed them,” I said. It felt like they were coming frequently, but I’d always been sensitive to changes in my body. I’d felt them come spontaneously for a few weeks. The contractions were gentle and slow and felt comforting to me. They reminded me of the way I felt when I climaxed.
“Why don’t you come to the hospital maternity ward, and we’ll check on you? Take your time getting here; be careful, and stay safe,” Dr. Richard said.
By the time Jack finished clearing the driveway, I’d changed into my favorite herringbone wool maternity pants, with a wide, com- fortable, stretchy waistband, and put my suitcase near the door. The minute Jack came inside, I told him I’d already packed our bags and that the doctor had said we needed to go to the hospital. Jack drove me out of the driveway into the middle of a blizzard.
When we arrived at the hospital, we were escorted to an empty maternity ward, where a nurse handed me a hospital gown, then guided Jack and me down the carpeted hallway to the largest, nicest hospital room I’d ever seen and left us alone.
“I think we must have good insurance,” Jack said. A rocking chair stood in front of large windows facing east, with a view of a ridge lined with pine trees. There was an armoire with a television, a sleeper sofa, and a convertible hospital bed with a control panel on the side railings.
“I think we got lucky,” I said, as I settled in. We talked about our expectations, anticipation, and anxiety surrounding this rite of passage into parenthood, the impending birth of our daughter. We hadn’t called anyone to notify them we were going to the hospital. I didn’t answer the phone when it rang. This was my secret. It felt safer to guard myself in the private and personal moment of getting ready to give birth. I was one day past my due date, and I didn’t want anyone to worry. I couldn’t deal with their emotions when I was deal- ing with my own.
The storm got worse. At least eight inches of fresh snow had fallen overnight. Another two inches of thick snowflakes clustered on the sill just outside my window while we waited.
My labor progressed slowly. Dr. Richard reassured me and encouraged a little exercise to speed things up. When we walked around the maternity ward, I found myself listening for Dr. Richard’s hypnotic voice in the echoes of the hospital’s hallway. I searched for his presence, and that scared me even as I fantasized about the way his touch felt.
Jack didn’t touch me enough, and our sex life had changed. He liked it rough, so when the sex got uncomfortable during my pregnancy, most of the time I gave to Jack orally, and the intimacy that had bound us turned into distance. I worried that he would be unfaithful, but maybe it was my own lack of connection I should have worried about. There was not enough of one to bind me to Jack in the face of my forceful attraction to Dr. Richard.
My baby girl kicked throughout the whole labor. I thought she was awake because she was used to contractions and orgasms. As the contractions intensified, I asked for a yoga mat. The nurse brought me a thick gym pad instead. I sat with my legs in the lotus position and ran my thumbs along the soles of my feet to soothe myself. When Dr. Richard came in to check on us for the last time that night, he wouldn’t stop watching my hands stroking my feet. I felt self-conscious about the way he looked at me. I still was not in active labor, but I had started to sense the power of the contractions. The stronger they got, the more they reminded me of what I had read about pregnancy orgasms. I started to feel sexually aroused. It felt faint and distant, but I became less comfortable with having Dr. Richard in the room.
His voice cornered me. It was the only thing I could hear. Dr. Richard talked about his favorite pastime with the staff at the nursing station.
“I play word games. My favorite uses palindromes. I like to say things that have special meaning backward,” he said.
When I heard Dr. Richard’s voice and his story about playing with words, a primitive part of me awakened to the idea of his favorite game, with the palindromes, and put me under his control in that vulnerable moment. In my sacred space, I became transfixed by the game and by Dr. Richard. He had me. I was his patient, like some tribal lord’s property in the kingdom of Hospital Land. And I felt an animalistic allegiance to his aura. Those words about his favorite game haunted me.
The nurse applied pressure to my lower back to ease the intensity of the contractions while I vomited in a basin from the intense rush of hormones and changes my body was going through. When I felt Jack come to my side, he extended his arm to be there for me, but his touch felt like torture on my burning skin and I rejected him with a sharp “don’t.” As I pushed Jack’s hand away from me, I saw Dr. Richard watching us from across the room. Our eyes met, and he didn’t look away. He should have, but he dominated me with those eyes of his. He made me feel things I wasn’t prepared to feel.
As my labor progressed, the contractions felt more and more like orgasms. Jack stayed in the room with the nurse and me the whole rest of the day and night. He slept on the sofa until I went into active labor. For two or three hours after the transition, I breathed deeply, like I’d learned in yoga training in my early twenties. I rode waves of pleasure in counterpoint to the intense contractions. Birthgasms. It was like tripping on drugs—experiencing the most intense and hallucinogenic ecstasy of my life—only it was natural.
I moved about the room until I discovered sitting was the most comfortable position for me. At dawn they brought me a birthing chair, and I changed into a light blue hospital robe. I faced the panoramic view of rolling hills still cloaked in darkness. Jack wanted to watch the sun rise and had left the blinds open, until the nurse convinced him that in my state I’d do better with darkness. Jack stayed by my side as the nurse applied pressure to all the right spots on my back and brought a damp cloth to help me regulate my temperature.
I struggled to make sense of my experience and didn’t have words to articulate my feelings. I wanted Dr. Richard, even if it was inappropriate. I felt guilty and confused by my response to the erotic experience of the labor.
I heard the door open as Dr. Richard returned to my room in the morning. Going with the flow, letting the feelings wash over me in waves, I sat on the birthing chair. With my eyes closed, I breathed slowly and deeply, feeling the ebb and flow of painful contractions and euphoria. I saw a pulsing lotus flower floating in my third eye. Vibrant and ephemeral, the blossom emanated sparks of light and energy. Black flirted at the edges of my vision, creating a border, a periphery of darkness.
I went inside myself. My eyes were closed. I didn’t want to look the physician in the eye again. But I could hear his black leather shoes click against the linoleum tile floors on his way to where I sat.
I knew it was wrong that I liked to fantasize about Dr. Richard sometimes—I wanted to be feeling those urges toward my husband, who was sitting right next to me—but I couldn’t go back and take those fantasies away. Dr. Richard was so good-looking, and he was so nice to me. My eyes closed and focused on my third eye; the power inside felt primitive, like an animal’s instinctual urges. The vision of the pulsing lotus flower shooting sparks of light stopped when I opened my eyes.
I felt present in the moment the way you feel when you wake from a deep sleep or heavy meditation. My eyes opened and focused on Dr. Richard, and I willed him to leave to protect myself from desire. It was my last line of defense. When I looked into his eyes, he was so empathetic, it flooded my senses. I was afraid to feel my attraction for him in the most vulnerable moment of my life. I’d never felt anything like it before, and I didn’t know how to block him out. My eyes were my only means of telling him to go.
He jumped back a bit when our eyes met this time but said, “It’s time to check on your progress. You’ll have to lift the gown and spread your legs apart so I can examine you.”
I complied. Lifting the gown up, tucking it between my breasts and belly, I spread my legs wide on the seat. Dr. Richard put on blue nitrile gloves and turned to the overseeing physician.
“I just go back and forth to get in, right?” Dr. Richard asked another provider observing him. I heard his words again in my head. Go back and forth. Back and forth to get in. I smirked. I amused myself with the fantasy Dr. Richard would pass over my clitoris using this back- and-forth technique. After all, my clit was so engorged, how could he not touch it?
Once the gloves were on, he got down on one knee before me. I took a deep breath. Dr. Richard stabilized himself by putting his left hand on my right knee. His right hand went between my thighs. It was a moment in time where my idle imagination met a stiff clinical reality. With my husband at my side, one part of me was next to him and another part of me was in another world, some magical land with intensely rich internal sexual stimuli. Dr. Richard’s right hand was my portal between the two realities. I didn’t know where the fuck I was when he touched my core.
It was the best and worst thing that had ever happened to me. I felt his fingers sweep back and forth against my clit. He slowly entered me, using this technique over and over again. He reached my G-spot, and I felt his forceful twist as his hand slid deep inside me. All the while, I felt the pressure of his grasp on my other knee. I could feel him watching my every breath. I tried to deny my soft moan as he touched me deeply.
He explored my cervix carefully, then took his other hand to press down on my belly. It stung. As his index finger swept the membrane around the cervix, I winced.
He removed his hands from me. “You’re not ready,” he said. I lost my composure and started to faint. As I began to collapse toward Jack, he reached out his arms to steady me.
The nurse rushed to my side. “It’s okay, you’ll be delivering before you know it,” she said encouragingly. Dr. Richard had stepped away to remove his gloves but turned, surprised at the commotion, and cocked his head to the side at the sight of my swoon.
I felt devastated in response to his exam and discouraging words. Thoughts rushed through my mind in a stream of consciousness that I could not control. The labor, in particular the touch of the physi- cian, was a seminal event that started my cascade into a dysfunctional brain disorder or illness that included romantic, erotic delusions of a relationship with Dr. Richard.
Why did he touch me like that? Why did he go back and forth so many times over my clit? Did a man I’m physically attracted to just finger me like that in front of an audience? Nobody has ever touched me like that before, and everyone acted like nothing happened? How did he know my G-spot? Did he intentionally touch me like that?
I want him. What if he wants me, too? But it’s clinical; he can’t want me—he’s Dr. Richard. I can’t feel like this. I need to want Jack. Jack is the one whom I should be feeling this for.
I tried to deny my urges; it was an impossible fantasy to be wanted by Dr. Richard. Yet I felt euphoria like I’d never known at the thought of him. I wanted to belong to him.
After the exam, I sat and progressed through labor with my eyes closed, feeling the intense contractions pass over my body in waves. For an hour I sat and breathed through these orgasmic contractions. The sparks of light in the center of the lotus flower intensified. I had never done hallucinogenic drugs, but I’d read descriptions of opium dens inhabited by lotus eaters. When my pain pathway took me there, I figured I knew the same paradise addicts experienced. I sat and felt my body swallow up my thoughts like the tide rushing over a bed of sea creatures, pulling them from the shore. My mind lifted and flowered in another world, a land between reality and fantasy, my internal paradise. It was the place where the lotus flower streamed pulses of light. It was beautiful, but after he touched me, I was differ- ent. I couldn’t let the memory of his touch go. His presence haunted me. It was too much. In my sacred space, I felt him near me and I wanted him. Anyone else’s presence wouldn’t have gotten into my sacred space that way, but his touch had left me burning with desire. My hips began to feel heavy as I sat on the chair. By the end of the hour, I could feel my baby girl move down my body. I was almost ready to deliver, so I moved from the chair to the bed. I wanted to deliver with dignity, and somehow the thought of Dr. Richard crawl- ing on the floor wasn’t dignified. I tried to pretend he wasn’t present,
but he was all I wanted to sense in the room.
Jack trailed behind as I moved across the room. Once I was up on the bed, he reached out over the bedrail to hold my hand. I started to kiss his hand in a passionate way. It all felt so intense to me; I wished we could be together the way we’d made the baby, but all eyes were on us. I rolled toward Jack and buried my face in his hands, kissing his palms madly. I wanted to erase everything Dr. Richard made me feel: pleasure, disappointment, and now embarrassment.
I pulled Jack’s hand to my mouth. I felt the urge to bear down on something, and Jack’s hand was right there.
“She bit me!” Jack exclaimed, looking over me to Dr. Richard. “Oh, I didn’t mean to,” I said in a desperate voice. I felt out of control. “I’m so sorry.” I had tried to hold back the urge to bite hard, but my actions were primitive.
As the baby descended in my body, I felt the tears roll down my cheeks, and I winced in pain. “Slow and easy,” Dr. Richard coached, but it was too late—I wanted to be done. It was my time to deliver, and my internal sensations were impossible to deny. I listened to my needs. I felt an internal craving to bear down. I pushed hard. Seconds later, Dr. Richard caught my baby’s perfect little body in his arms.
Minutes after the birth, the blinds went up. The staff let Jack open them to the winter scene outside. It was eleven o’clock on Sunday morning. I listened as Celtic music played on the same radio station I’d tuned the night before to pop music. The nurses had asked Jack a few times if I was Irish. He’d said no but had missed the hint that the music might be untraditional during a hospital birth. The chanting of new-age Celtic music in the dim, cloaked room where I would go back to visit in my memories for years to come was inaudi- ble to Jack. Songs like “The Mystic’s Dream,” by Loreena McKennitt, played as I lay, still deeply inside myself but being brought out into
the break of light.
As I opened my eyes, I felt as if something was missing. I froze with panic. Where was my baby? She was no longer part of me, but I oriented toward her cries. The nurse stood at the counter, measuring. I looked across to my baby, trying to feel a connection. I’d read that I would feel an instant attachment. I searched inside for that feeling, but instead I felt an absence of the intrinsic bond we’d shared earlier. When they laid my baby on my chest, the nurse asked what the baby would be named. “I like the name Jamie; I think she looks like a Jamie. And someday I want to give her a brother named Sam,” I said, looking through my lashes at her lying on my chest. We’d already
“How did I do?” I asked Jack. I struggled to remember what had happened during labor, because no one else seemed to be disturbed by my recollection of how Dr. Richard had examined me.
“You did great.” He sighed and smiled. “You make me so proud,” he said. He looked into my eyes. “That other lady down the hall was screaming so loud, it sounded like a horror show,” he teased, then proudly snapped a photo of his two girls. It was the only picture he ever took of me with Jamie. I was too tired to look up, but he caught my smile and Jamie’s squishy face, so perfectly alarmed to be out of the womb. Her small cries sounded painful and filled me with a deep sense of anxiety, until she fell asleep on my chest. We were both drowsy. I lay flat on my back with Jamie snuggled up between my breasts, with warm blankets layered over us.
Dr. Richard came over to say goodbye.
“That was amazing. Once it’s over, everything is fine,” I said. His eyes glistened as he drifted back toward me.
“Yes, and everything is fine. I promise I’ll check on you tomor- row,” he replied gently.
Just looking into his eyes soothed me. I nodded in response, unable to articulate anything else from the complicated mess of emo- tions starting to bubble up. Knowing he would come to me helped me feel secure, but I felt the loss of my pregnancy. I missed having Jamie as a part of my body. Nobody had told me that could happen. I wasn’t close enough or connected enough with her. It was not enough for me. Jamie couldn’t communicate except to cry. The distance between us when I was holding her in my arms devastated me. When I held my baby, she did little more than sleep, cry, and nurse. I expected a baby like you see in the movies: alert, happy, and interactive.
After the labor, the nurse brought two large ibuprofen tablets with a cup of water. “Here, you should take this,” she said. It was the first medication I’d taken since I’d arrived at the hospital after my water broke.
I slept with Jamie on my chest. I kept hearing staff members’ whispers.
“It was natural,” one nurse told the other at the change in shifts. I breastfed Jamie as the nurses instructed me to do. But I struggled to wake every time she needed me. The loss of sleep from the labor had worn down my stamina.
In the middle of my first night of motherhood, a nurse came in to wake me. “Your daughter needs you,” she said.
“Why?” I asked in a foggy haze.
“She needs you to nurse her, and you need to wake up when she’s crying. This is your job, not mine.” The night-shift nurse shamed me for not being able to wake up and respond to my daughter, when my milk hadn’t even come in yet. I wanted to tell that nurse she was wrong. I wanted to say, I need sleep, and it is in fact your job to give me a break while I recover from the birth. But I didn’t say anything, and I felt like a failure as a mother.
The next day, Dr. Richard never came. By 5:00 p.m., another resident came to check on me. When I looked into her eyes, I knew. She loved Dr. Richard, too. Our eyes connected like we were both in a trance. I fought to gain control over my feelings of abandonment when she told me he couldn’t come to see me but that she was there instead. I don’t remember if she examined me or even touched me, but I looked into her soul and knew I wasn’t the only one who felt like this about him.
Those first two days in the hospital, we never let Jamie leave the room. I had read stories about hospital mix-ups, and I would not risk my baby’s being lost and getting stuck with someone else’s mother. When we did take Jamie for her hearing test, both Jack and I escorted her crib down the hall.
By the third day, I started to get into a routine. I showered and learned the basic skills of swaddling, and began breastfeeding, diaper changing, and holding, rocking, and just staring at my baby. I held Jamie in my arms as she latched on and suckled at my breast. I watched her connect with me and began to feel that stir of motherly emotion, but I still couldn’t totally distract myself from the memory of what had happened with the touch of the physician and how I felt about it.
I tried to connect with people when they came to visit, but I strug- gled to stay in the moment. I was too caught up in trying to come to terms with having experienced the most intense sexual encounter of my life. To make matters worse, it had been clinical; I hadn’t had permission to enjoy it the way I had my earliest sex with Jack.
I met Jack in the spring of 1994, during a high school musical production of Fiddler on the Roof. I was the spotlight operator, and he was the lighting director. I watched him as he gave instructions to someone managing the stage crew while he wound up a bright orange extension cord, and he was so bold and confident that I thought, I could listen to him for the rest of my life.
We had our first conversation over headsets. He tried to explain how to change the gels in the spotlight. I had never used a spotlight before, so this was a new learning experience, but after his explana- tion I felt moderately informed about how to run a spotlight. I did ask for help from him to change the gels for the first time, and that is how we met face-to-face.
A few months later, Jack stopped me on the stairs between classes and asked if I’d like to go out with him. For our first date, I met him at my favorite hangout, a coffee shop downtown. The inside of the coffee shop had exposed, raw wooden beams, plastic chairs, and tables with vinyl tablecloths. I knew all the regulars there and often sat and talked with them at one of the back tables to pass time. Jack, however, was not impressed by the location, and made multiple dis- paraging remarks about the decor and the patrons. I couldn’t help but feel offended. Looking back on his behavior, I think he was trying to impress me by how cool he was. When we parted that evening, I felt put off, but I hadn’t completely abandoned my hopeful vision of an infinite future.
So when Jack called to invite me to a concert, I agreed. He got the tickets as a birthday present. We held hands walking into the concert. When we saw people we recognized, I dropped his hand. The public display of affection made me feel like a “sinner,” and I blushed with shame. Because I grew up going to Bible school, my emotions about sin and sexuality were complicated. I’d come of age with the stigma of the scandal that split the school my parents started in my family’s attic. I wanted to rebel against the people who stigmatized us and made us feel unloved, but the views the Bible school had taught me still influenced me.
After the concert, Jack drove me in his red Mustang to a drive-in burger joint. As we sat in the car, waiting for our burgers and ocean- blue sodas, Jack reached for my hand. “You were ashamed to hold my hand earlier,” he said.
“It wasn’t that. Those kids went to Bible school with me when I was younger. All the crap that they filled our minds with about sin came flooding back.” I reached over and stroked his hair.
“I don’t believe you,” he said, continuing to hold my other hand. “Jack, it’s different when we aren’t in public—I can be myself with
you. But when we’re in a group . . . I was just socialized differently. I mean, have you ever been to the Bible church?” I asked.
“Yes, and I will never go back,” he replied. He described having witnessed a baptism in a lake. A girl he’d met had taken him there to try to “save” him, but he’d been too dense to realize her motive until he got there.
I laughed at his funny story, and when our burgers arrived, he told me he almost went to Cair Paravel, a private Christian school where the Bible church people went. But his dad, a Brooklyn Jew, didn’t feel comfortable with it, so he never went.
“You know that school started in my family’s attic, right?” I asked. “Really?”
“Yeah, it’s funny how everyone likes to say how it was named after the castle in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, but they skip over the history of Cair Paravel and my parents’ cultish bible study, the K Group, named for Koinonea, a fellowship. They’d love to forget the part with the scandal that split the school board.” Between bites I added, “Did you know a church exfellowshipped my father for having an affair? It was sorta like an excommunication. He was banned from the church. All my parents’ friends, the group who founded the school, gathered near and changed churches to the Bible church, which forgave my father for his sin. It took legal action to split the board, but the school lived on. It’s still graduating kids, training clas- sical Christians. It’s a mind-fuck of an education, if you ask me.”
“How so?” Jack asked.
“Well, they teach you to have blind faith yet question everything,” I said.
“Hmm, close your eyes,” he said. I shut my eyes, and Jack kissed me.
“What was that for?” I asked. He just smiled.
That summer of feeling loved by Jack was the best I’d ever felt. Our “first time” happened in his basement bedroom. I’d been reading novels about this moment for years, and I was filled with anticipation. I desperately wanted to lose my virginity, and I didn’t feel like a sinner when I was in Jack’s bedroom with him.
We debated our music selection prior to intercourse. I wanted to listen to something memorable, like the Twin Peaks soundtrack, but when we went to play it, Jack laughed and said no. Instead, he played Jackopierce’s song “Along for the Ride.” We’d broken his bed while playing around earlier in the week, so I sat on the mattress on the floor where the bed used to be.
Jack came to me and started to kiss me. I participated curiously, letting him take the lead. The lights were off, so I studied the flashing lights on his computer and his amperage rack filled with equipment. I felt my need build.
“Please . . . take me,” I begged.
He thrust into me hard, and I gasped at the intensity of him, but it wasn’t painful, since I’d started preparing the year before by mas- turbating. For the first time, I felt completed being with him like that. I wanted him. I loved the feeling of the intimacy of sex. When Jack climaxed seven minutes later, I felt a gentle wave of something pass over me as I stared at the digital clock above the blinking equipment lights. I wasn’t sure what to call the warm feeling that spread over my body. It wasn’t hard and fast, but it was pleasurable.
He rolled off and put his arm around me. I asked for him to hold me for a while, and he did. After the album ended, we got restless. Mostly we didn’t say much after we did it. It wasn’t as glamorous as I’d expected it to be, but it felt right having sex; he was nice to me, and that was what I liked. Even if we didn’t agree on anything, our physical connection was intense.
Giving birth was a sexual experience for me. When I say this, people reel back; they don’t want to hear it. But how could pushing some- thing that big out of my vagina not have been sexual? My dilemma was that nobody else gave me permission to experience my journey the way it happened for me. I was touched by the one person in the hospital I felt attracted to, who should not have touched me, and then I was hushed up, cast out, because of my minority opinion on birthing. It took years to find my voice, but my story was impossible to suppress. It needed a way out of me.
At first, I was not at peace with my experience, and I didn’t know how to bring it up naturally, so I tried simply to accept the burden. But not having a method to relate my story isolated me. I wanted to feel loved and to enjoy myself. I wanted Dr. Richard to accept me, but instead I felt like I threatened his career. Overall, I didn’t blame him; it wasn’t his fault that our system is broken, and that I found him attractive as a person. We were just two people, and everybody has flaws. Why did someone, somewhere, decide it was right to accept a pretense that doctors aren’t people and patients aren’t people and there is some construct that separates us?
I tried to ignore my feelings and put aside Dr. Richard’s back-and- forth technique. It was part of a standard of care to perform an exam, and I sat in such a way that he couldn’t access my vagina easily. It was the only place I was comfortable. I just wished he had asked me for permission to give me that exam. Instead, he simply told me it was time. If he had asked for my permission before he touched me, would I have been able to shake my head back and forth or say no? Would that have been allowed? I had tried to tell him with my eyes. I wanted to be a good wife and instinctually knew my attraction to the physician trumped my feelings for my husband.
I struggled in my isolation to process my intense experience. I was afraid to get the physician in trouble. I loved him as a person. I didn’t want to hurt him. Because of my desire for him, I felt guilty. In my emotional mess of feelings, I had a sense of loyalty to him. But I so needed to feel comforted. I wanted Dr. Richard to want me, or at least to understand the ramifications of his examination for me as a person, not just as his patient.
I’ve read physicians are trained to treat patients as something other than the people they are, and doctors are supposed to act like they aren’t flawed humans. Sometimes I wonder, if that construct had been removed and he had asked my permission to touch me, like every other man in my sex life had, whether things would have been different for me. All my power to protect my sacred space was taken from me by our medical system when I was assigned to the role of patient.
My mom came out from Kansas to help after Jamie was born. I needed help. It was my first experience taking care of a newborn. None of my brothers, sisters, cousins, and few friends had children yet, and I didn’t even know how to change a diaper. I relied on my family for support. I didn’t share my mother’s faith or have support from a spiritual community, yet I longed to feel as if I belonged.
That desire only intensified in 2005 after Jamie’s birth. I relied on my mom to teach me how to give the baby a bath, hand-express milk from my breasts when they became engorged after my milk came in, and learn to listen for what different cries sounded like. What did a hungry cry sound like? What did a tired cry sound like? I tried to listen, but for me a crying baby’s cries just sounded like a crying baby. Those first days, hours, and weeks, I wore Jamie in a sling next to my chest. Body against body. It bonded us. Jamie was happy whenever she was held close.
My mom stayed for over a week. Jack was ready for her to depart by the end of it. He had two weeks off from work but hid in the basement.
“Is everything okay with Jack?” she asked.
“Yeah, he just gets like this when people are around for a while.
Remember Thanksgiving?” I asked.
“Yes, I know, you told me. He was hiding,” she replied.
“Well, I think having company around is getting to him, and that’s why he stays in the basement while you’re here. I mean, not that he spends that much time with me when you aren’t here, but it’s not as noticeable. He at least will finish his dinner before heading downstairs when he is with me. And with Jamie, I think we need some space to adjust,” I said.
“Oh, honey, I don’t mean to make things hard on you by staying. It’s just that I want to be here for you and your baby,” my mom said.
“I know, but I think it’s time for you to go, Mom. It will be okay,” I said.
So Jack went back to work and my mom returned to Kansas. That left me alone with Jamie in that big house.
Slowly, my perceptions were changing. Nobody was aware of the significance of those changes. After my mom left, I soon found that the simple act of walking around the house, holding Jamie, was the easiest method to soothe my baby. Jamie didn’t like to be set down. She wanted to be with her mommy at all times. So I would walk laps around the first floor.
Our house stood on two acres in a small town. It was a large lot joined at the back to a spread of open land, in a friendly neighbor- hood. We had made acquaintances with the neighbors, but the homes were so spread out, I didn’t bump into people, except a few times run- ning errands or when I took walks with Jamie around the block, up to where I could look out over the rolling hills toward Concord.
When I saw my neighbors, it was a relief to have someone to spend a few minutes with, catching up, hearing about the movements of local wild turkeys, fisher cats, and flying squirrels. But it wasn’t like I saw a neighbor every day. Walking daily without seeing anyone reminded me of how isolated our home was. If I did go out to the grocery store, it was a twenty-minute drive. When I got there, people were friendly enough, but in a way that made me feel lonelier. It reminded me I didn’t belong to the community. Being alone with my baby made me feel vulnerable and trapped in my thoughts, and that took its toll over time.
Something happened with our phone service in the spring of 2005, about a month before Jamie was born. The phone rang often.
“Is Sharon there?” a strange man’s voice would ask.
“You must have the wrong number,” I’d say. Then I’d hear the line click silent.
As time went on, I wondered who Sharon was. I was busy studying, so I didn’t spend too much time preoccupied by the wrong-number calls. Somebody somewhere must have given out the wrong number.
But after Dr. Richard’s story about palindromes during my hos- pital stay when I gave birth, I began to wonder if he was sending me secret messages. When I got the call for Sharon, I interpreted it as an anagram, “no rash.” That was the name the calls asked for before I developed the rash of pregnancy. Or was he sharin’ with me? Get it—“Sharon”?
Once Jamie was born, the wrong-number calls slowed down. But one day while my mom was still visiting, the phone rang.
“I’ll get it,” my mom said. “Hello?”
“I’m sorry, there is no one here by that name,” she said. She hung up the phone. “Huh, wrong number.” She shrugged her shoulders and came back to sit near me on the rocking chair as I sat in my favorite spot on the sofa, near the window. I tensed up when I heard her say “wrong number.”
“Who did they ask for, Mom?” I tried to ask casually. “They wanted to speak to Karen,” she replied.
“Karen.” I thought immediately that he was carin’ for me, as I repeated “Karen” softly. But it was too far deep to tell my mom that I thought Dr. Richard was sending secret messages.
As Jamie’s first summer progressed and the problems with the feeding intensified. Jamie would pull away from my breast and cry after just a few seconds of eating. As my stress about Jamie not gain- ing weight increased, so did the wrong-number calls for Karen. By the end of the summer the name changed again, this time they asked for “Korin”.
When I heard the strange voices on the other end of the phone asking for Korin, I worried Dr. Richard might be obsessive-compulsive, particularly with his anagrams. Was I “near OK”? Or, I wondered, was I part of some “core” and I was “in”? I looked up a few of the phone numbers that were listed on the phone bill; they came from Republican Party members and the phone company. I searched the Internet and felt more paranoid. If I hadn’t believed in those calls’ meaning something, I would not have attached such significance to other events, but the phone calls made me buy into the idea that Dr. Richard loved me and was using his connections in politics to connect to me, or that there was a conspiracy unraveling around me. He was politically active, but so was everyone in New Hampshire. Dr. Richard’s love for humanity appealed to me intensely. I struggled to let go of the bond. Especially when I thought the random-number calls were from Republicans carin’ for me, or, even creepier, that they were “near K.”
But every thought led back to Dr. Richard. I wanted so badly to get away from the memory of him that I planned as many activities as possible to keep my mind occupied. I met some moms at a baby yoga class, and they invited me to another playgroup. There, I got to know other women with babies the same age.
I couldn’t help but talk with my friends about what was going on and why I felt like a daily failure as a mother and wife. It was the little things: forgetting the blanket to lay down for the baby to crawl on, when all the other moms protected their babies from the grass and pine needles; not knowing how to handle the awkwardness of having a fussy baby in public when nothing seems to soothe your child.
I shared with anyone I thought would be willing to listen: the playgroup, some of the moms’ club members, some of the people I met on the playground, some of my friends from classes at school, my old friends from high school, and family. What I learned, from how these people responded to my birthgasm story, was that every new mother could relate to the trauma of childbirth, and many sup- ported me in my journey to make sense of what happened. Many of the mothers had their own issues. Whether it was getting slammed with Pitocin, not having the pregnancy they envisioned, having an unplanned cesarean, not getting the epidural they wanted, or having some other intervention unexpectedly given or withheld, we were all left “touched” by childbirth. Our expectations and the reality of the experience were rarely well matched.
Going to graduate school helped me stay sane. It was my only adult interaction on days there were no playdates, doctor’s visits, or moms’ group meetings. I never missed a class in my public health program. Waiting for Jack to get home, when I didn’t have a packed schedule, made me feel desperate. I’d sit in the living room, looking out the bay window, waiting for him to turn up the long, stone wall– lined driveway. I cooked things he liked from Bon Appétit. On nights I didn’t have class, I’d cook filet mignon with a mustard sauce, served over spinach; rack of lamb with rosemary and garlic, served with roasted vegetables; beautiful salads tossed with specialty cheeses and homemade dressing; and fresh-baked breads from the store. I tried to be a good housewife, but I never felt like one. Jack wasn’t happy; he came home irritated.
“I really just want some alone time,” he would say, when he walked in the door and found me waiting for him. He was with people all day, so he really wanted some space, while I needed interaction.
“Come upstairs,” I pleaded at the top of the stairs one night, needing to connect to try to escape my thoughts about the birthgasm. The sound of his computer game as he attacked the enemy rumbled in the air.
“What?” He removed the headphones that played music beneath the loud rumble of the game.
“I want company. Come hang out with me,” I said, as I bowed my head down the stairs to see him. The basement was dank, with concrete floors and an exposed ceiling of insulated rafters held up by metal piers.
Jack finished and saved the game before untwining the wires, attached to large, padded earmuffs, from around his neck. He fol- lowed me into the kitchen, where I had lit a candle and set out two wineglasses. I handed him the bottle of red and the heavy wine opener.
I watched him pull out the cork and start to pour. “Ever since the birth, I can’t stop thinking about it,” I began.
“Yeah, I got it. You’ve already told me about it,” he said.
“I just want help to work through it.” I looked into his dark brown eyes behind his black metal–framed glasses.
“Can’t you just forget about it?” he asked, as his eyes grew cold and he glared at me.
A wave of emotion in response to his rejection of my experience passed over me, and I said, “No, I can’t stop thinking about it.” I felt tears begin to well up, and a salty taste in the back of my nose. “I need your help. I want you to work through it with me. I think if I could just reclaim the experience, it would help.” I tried not to sound as desperate as I felt.
“What do you mean?” he asked seriously.
“I want your help to go back into the memory and reclaim it. Sorta like role-playing. You could be the physician, and we could go through it together,” I said, envisioning someone loving me through the experience, wanting me in that moment in time. I needed to reclaim my mind from the memory of Dr. Richard’s touch, to take back my experience from his presence, and I wanted to do it with someone I loved.
“I’m not going to pretend I’m Dr. Richard. This isn’t what I agreed to when we got married,” he chided me snidely. “It’s too kinky.” He took a sip of wine, then glared at me again and said, “Why can’t you just be normal?” I felt his anger and annoyance seething from his every movement. His body was tense and unforgiving. He had no empathy, and I knew from his expression that my obsession with the physician wounded him deeply.
“You don’t understand—I need you to help,” I pleaded, wanting so much to find something better than a birth experience where I was touched clinically to be my most profound sexual experi- ence. I fought back tears. “Please help me, love me through this,” I begged.
“No,” he said, and, holding his glass of wine, turned back toward the basement.
Eventually he forbade me to talk about my orgasmic labor or even to mention Dr. Richard. Our sex life returned to normal within two months. “Normal” was vaginal intercourse with little foreplay and no aftercare. It worked for him. Jack’s anger at my desire for the phy- sician ate at my heart as he pounded his hardness into me. Jack’s wanting me helped a little, but his anger left me feeling empty. After Dr. Richard’s touch, because it was clinical and unintended, I felt deeply unwanted.
Still, Dr. Richard’s influence dominated everything I touched, everything I thought, everything I did. I didn’t care if it was an acci- dent. I wanted the lusty memory, because it was so powerful for me. It created very real, very strong emotions. I liked it. It aroused me. In rural New Hampshire, he was my primary care provider; he provided all our family’s health care services. So I saw him for everything. As my postpartum exam day neared, I created an entire fantasy about it. I wanted Dr. Richard. I imagined being in the stirrups with his head between my thighs as he studied me. Then, slowly, Dr. Richard touched me and pulled back my labia. I felt aroused and watched him insert his hard metal device, sitting up on my elbows. Watching him watching me. It did it for me every time.
When I arrived for the postpartum visit, our eyes locked and I must have looked desperate for him. His gaze slid to the wall, and he suppressed a smile. His exam was totally professional and quick, but Dr. Richard said something about my labor.
“The nurse knew how to touch you right,” Dr. Richard said, refer- ring to the woman who helped me through the labor.
The unspoken look in Dr. Richard’s eye suggested he knew that Jack didn’t know how to touch me. He exposed my sexually unsat- isfying relationship with Jack, and it scared me that anyone knew that Jack didn’t touch me right. When Dr. Richard referred to how I liked to be touched, it frightened me, because I couldn’t forget the way he had touched me. His six to ten strokes, with that back-and- forth technique, had been so powerful that I couldn’t forget them. I still felt him touching me at times. The experience was burned into my memory. The pleasure of his touch washed over me in waves, and his reference to how I liked it nailed me.
After a physical exam, physicians always want to ask about sex. That was the first time I relaxed during the whole appointment. We were standing at the exam table while he held Jamie’s feet. He was stroking the soles of my baby’s feet. It was beautiful to watch how happy it made her. Her reflex to spread her toes was perfect.
“Try to go easy at first. There are alternative ways to find pleasure,” Dr. Richard said about resuming marital relations. He smiled to him- self after he said it. I was speechless. How dare he prescribe how my husband and I behave in the bedroom? Plus, I couldn’t imagine Jack altering his technique.
I felt so exposed that he’d pointed out I was starving part of my sex drive, I wanted to disappear. But I was transfixed by the way his hands moved as he massaged Jamie’s feet. It reminded me of how he’d watched me rub the soles of my own feet to ease the labor con- tractions. Did he know what he was doing to me? When he reached across the table to pick Jamie up and his hand gently brushed against mine, a bolt flew through me and I pulled back. My pulse jumped, breath quickened, knees weakened. Another accident, I told myself. When I looked at him, I melted inside.
“I need to listen to Jamie’s heart,” he said at the end of the appoint- ment. “It’s easier if you hold her.” He pulled the stethoscope from around his neck.
I stood before him, and he came in close to listen. My shoulder touched his chest, as he put the stethoscope on my baby’s back and chest. I could have stayed in that moment for eternity. It calmed my senses. Standing with him like that, I breathed slowly into him. Warmth spread through my veins, and I felt the way I felt after sex with Jack—bonded.
One day a week, my mother-in-law, Candice, took the bus up from Boston to visit. I picked her up at the bus station in my Ford Explorer. Having Candice around helped me feel less isolated but intensified my feelings of inadequacy. My mother-in-law was an early-childhood expert and a saintly figure of self-denial. I was always behind on the learning curve. I read every book I could find about parenting and motherhood, trying to play catch-up. When I mastered one phase, Jamie was already starting the next stage. I wanted desperately to be a good mother, and I felt like everyone expected it to come effortlessly. I also worried about my baby because she wasn’t gaining weight.
Dr. Richard wanted appointments every other week. I also worried that I would act out with Dr. Richard and behave inappropriately, so I started to plan my physician appointments when Candice could chaperone. Then I had to go every week in July.
It was really hard going into those appointments week after week after week. I struggled to understand my feelings, my memory, and a growing feeling of isolation wrapping itself around me. I couldn’t connect with people unless I was talking about the birthgasm. It was all I could think about. I remembered the way it felt feeling his fingers on my clit, back and forth. I wanted to know his touch. To feel it. I craved him and his contact.
I would sit and daydream, wondering what the heck had hap- pened. I held my baby next to me and stared out the window and watched the birds at the birdfeeder. I took long walks with my baby. And I tried to breastfeed her all the time, but Jamie didn’t like to eat. I worried that something was wrong with my breast milk. I worried that my anxiety about Dr. Richard put stress chemicals in my milk and gave my daughter an upset stomach. Then I felt guilty for thinking about Dr. Richard.
Yet it seemed almost natural to focus on a nice person who cared for my baby and me. Jack denied my emotions and the memory of the physician’s touch. My thoughts of Dr. Richard became a powerful type of magic. The thought of him loving me enabled me to escape my reality. It released me from feeling judged by Candice and unloved by Jack. The more often I used these thoughts, the more entrenched the thinking became. And even when I was with my friends from class, other moms and their babies, or groups I volunteered with, I found the moments of isolation would move in and surround me, pulling me into their grip. It could happen anywhere, anytime. It happened when I had thoughts that I couldn’t share, because I thought the recipient wouldn’t accept the role of listener.
There were also times Jack reminded me that Dr. Richard didn’t want me, as he turned his deaf ears on me. I withdrew from Jack; our marriage was dying, and part of me was starved for love. A glimmer of hope deep inside me fed me in those moments. My hope was the thought of being loved.
In the summer of 2005, I started to lose touch with reality. What I didn’t realize was that my perception was off, in subtle ways at first.
I started having memories I couldn’t confirm. Strange things started happening around the house that I couldn’t explain. Plus, my skin was hot all over. The hot skin was a symptom of things to come. Every time I got sick, it was preceded by this prodromal skin sensation that I could describe only as “burning.”
I was also more emotionally honest with myself than I had felt my entire life. When Jack denied my emotions in my postpartum haze, I felt things I could not deny. Jack was looking for something specific. He wanted me to play a role that was limited in expression. He wanted a subservient wife, like you see in old movies, to bring him a martini at the end of the workday. This was the wrong space for me. I needed a man to explore my way out of that memory of the physician. I needed a quest to overcome the memory, and to find something that could bring me deeper pleasure than I’d ever known before. Jack didn’t want that role. He didn’t want me to talk about Dr. Richard and my memory of being touched.
Instead, Jack reached to grab my ass. I shook him off and closed myself in the nursery with Jamie for the weekend. I cried and tried to plan a way out from Jack. I snuck out to the deck to call my sister, Chloe. When I explained my feelings to her, she was worried about me.
“Jack will be such an ass as an ex-husband,” she said. “I mean, he’s barely civil as it is now. How will he behave when he has no control?” “I don’t know.” I paused, weighing the pros and cons of trying to leave. “I wish he was willing to help me. I feel so confused. Part of me wants to believe that Dr. Richard loves me, but I don’t know. I mean, he’s a stranger—I don’t know him.” I paused again, staring into the forest at the side of the deck, where I looked for him. “Do you believe in love at first sight?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. Not that I don’t like your story about the wrong-number calls, but you really think he’d risk his career to con- tact you like that?” she asked. “I mean, it’s just weird. Normally when someone is interested, they tell you directly.”
“I know. It can’t be real. I just don’t know how to forget what hap- pened,” I said.
After I made my first resolution to leave Jack, I moved a twin bed into the nursery and stopped sleeping in the master bedroom. By the Monday of the next week, Jamie wasn’t eating unless I was walking.
Tuesday afternoon, I went to clean the cat box. When I opened the cabinet under the sink, I noticed urine in the base of the replacement tray. There was no apparent spillage on either side, and the odor was not as strong as cat urine typically is. Did “urine” mean “near you”? Was it a game? Didn’t he ask at the last visit, “Have you seen urine?” It had thrown me off, but I hadn’t really thought anything of it at the time. Or did it mean “you’re in”? That is too bizarre. It has to be the cats. I locked all the windows and doors, then picked up the phone.
“At the last visit with Dr. Richard, did he say anything about urine?” I asked Candice.
“Why? Is everything all right with Jamie?” she asked, out of con- cern for her only grandchild.
“I think so. There’s just so much to pay attention to at the visits. I was trying to remember what he said.” I walked a slow lap around the kitchen, living room, and dining room as we talked on the cordless phone.
“Well, let’s see. We got there and the nurses had us check her weight, and he was concerned about her weight, but I don’t think he said anything about her urine. Maybe he said to make sure she is getting enough breast milk and supplementation with formula, we should check for urine,” Candice said, seeming to add and emphasize the concern about the weight gain, thus adding to my insecurity.
“I just don’t remember, but thanks for going with me. There’s another visit next week. Are you able to make it?” I asked hopefully.
“I think so, but there’s a meeting that I will miss,” she said.
I thought back to the appointment when Dr. Richard had asked me if I’d seen urine. “What are you talking about?” I asked him.
If Candice was right, and he didn’t say it as I remembered it, when would that appointment where the memory had come from have happened? I went back to my notebooks and searched the pages documenting each visit. There wasn’t an appointment I had gone to alone since the postpartum visit. It was impossible.
He was already married, and so was I. I tried to forbid myself to think of him, but I kept getting calls for “Karen.” The calls even found me in Kansas, where Jamie and I had flown to visit family, when my mom received a wrong-number call for Karen. There was stale urine under the sink again when we got home to New Hampshire.
Instead of him, I tried to imagine a fictitious character who would be near me: I called him Emraen. Emraen was free to love me. In my fantasy world, I wrote about Dr. Emraen and me in response to the phone calls and messages made up of the anagrams—sentences and words with special messages just for me when they were read backward. I needed a sense of control over my thoughts, and the only way I could control my environment was with creative play and fantasy. It was exhausting trying to harness my desire, and I had Jamie to care for. The constant little reminders took me too far. I didn’t know how to cope.
I imagined what it would be like to touch Emraen and be with him. I wanted to know if it would feel as incredible as I imagined it to be. Just to be near him. I’d spend entire walks dreaming. I listened to “Linger,” by the Cranberries, over and over with my earphones. I wrote down everything I was experiencing.
One Sunday in early August, Jack’s mom and her friend came to visit. Jack and I left Jamie with them as they tried to feed her. We went out in the canoe and floated by the wetlands in Little Turkey Pond in Concord. The red-winged blackbirds called out over the water, and the large blue dragonflies flirted with the skirt of the canoe.
“There’s something I have to tell you,” I said.
“What is it?” Jack asked, glancing across the canoe at me.
“I’m afraid,” I said, and looked intently over the hull at him. “Things have been happening that I can’t explain.”
He looked at me curiously.
“Huh?” He squished his face, not sure what I was talking about. “The wrong-number calls. They keep happening. I’m afraid,” I said.
“It is just the phone company. Somebody gave out the wrong number. It’s okay,” he said.
“But that isn’t all of it.” I took a deep breath and decided to tell him everything. “Remember that girls’ night out that I went to? Where I met two women who had recently lost husbands? I don’t think it was a coincidence. I think there may be something serious going on, and I’m scared. Remember how the other day I forgot and left the window open downstairs? Well, I’m afraid someone is sneaking into the house and leaving urine.”
“The cats have been misbehaving ever since Jamie was born,” he said.
“You don’t understand. This is scary. I think there is a plot to harm you. I am worried that you’ll be killed, like those two women’s husbands were, on the roads of New Hampshire.” Tears stained my cheeks.
He stopped when he saw my concern. He swallowed hard, looking bewildered.
A plane glided above the pond.
“Are they trying to find us?” I asked, terrified of the plane above. I told him enough to make him very worried.
“I think we need to go home,” he said.
That evening, I called a friend. I told her everything I’d told Jack. The friend had hosted the party and knew what I was talking about. That friend was the only person who could give an unbiased perspec- tive on my theory.
“Sweetheart, you need to see a psychiatrist. You are having post- partum psychosis. None of this is true. Those deaths were accidents. It was a coincidence. Please make an appointment to see a doctor as soon as you can.” It was already 9:00 p.m. when I got off the phone— too late to see a psychiatrist.
When my friend told me I was sick, I trusted her. When she labeled my condition as psychotic, it was then that I knew that things weren’t right. I struggled with what was real and what wasn’t real. I needed perspective to help me gain insight into losing touch. The little con- stant messages and reminders made me paranoid. I connected the dots when no connection anybody would believe existed. I theorized there must be a conspiracy to inflate the number of deaths on the New Hampshire roads by killing people. I worried for Jack, because of his legislative agenda. He supported the NRA and the Second Amendment Foundation. It was the first time anybody had told me that I’d lost touch with reality.
Single Black Glove
Te next day, I was walking laps with my baby around the house when I saw a single, black fleece glove placed on the arm of the sofa. I was home alone. How had it gotten there? It had appeared between one of the laps. I quickened my pace past the sofa, through the dining room, holding Jamie tight.
Was someone there?
My mind was ablaze with thoughts. In the O. J. Simpson trial, the key piece of evidence for the defense was the black glove found at the scene. I’d read the theory that one of the jury members believed in God and had heard a sermon about missing socks being evidence of a God. The idea was that God had interfered in the O.J. case; according to the article, the single black leather glove was God’s mark.
Is somebody gonna come and kill me?
Why the hell is there a black glove on the sofa? How did it get there?
I looked at the sofa, then turned back and walked through the kitchen. The lap took less than five seconds. A brief moment in time. The cats were nowhere to be seen.
How did the glove land on the armrest of the sofa?
Considering the options terrified me.
Who could have snuck in so fast? Is there a stalker in the house? Maybe this is an act of God. Or is it time travelers? I hoped it was the cats, but how could they have done it without my seeing them? Did I have selective vision?
I raced to the stairs. I held Jamie tight and rushed to lock myself and my baby in the nursery. I rocked her in my arms and cried. In my darkest moments of terror, locked in the nursery, holding Jamie in my arms, I prayed to God for protection from the terror of isolation in my country house and the thought of the single black glove.
Tears stained my face as I recited Psalm 23, a prayer I’d learned as a young child to deal with darkness when my parents turned off the lights. I relied on the teachings of my childhood that God is good. I didn’t know how else to deal with the fear and terror of my expe- rience. When things started happening that I couldn’t explain, my basic instincts led me to trust in God.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. . . .
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
When Jack got home, he found me locked in the nursery, still holding Jamie in my arms, distraught.
“What is wrong?” he asked.
“Jack, I’m so afraid. Please stay with me,” I said. “What happened?” he asked.
“I was home alone; then a single black glove appeared on the sofa, and I don’t know how it got there,” I said.
“I’m sure it was the cats,” he said, unable to connect beyond con- versation as I rocked Jamie gently.
I never knew fear like I did that summer I first lost my mind. Jack didn’t understand but realized by then that something was seriously wrong.
That night, Jamie and I moved back into the master bedroom. I was still afraid, and by morning I’d barely slept. My mind was racing.
“Please don’t leave me home alone,” I begged Jack when he woke up.
“What do you want me to do? I need to work,” he said.
“I’m too afraid to keep going on like this. I need help. My friend said I should see a psychiatrist. I need help finding one. I’m afraid to talk on the phone. I don’t think I can tell someone what’s going on without crying,” I said, feeling tears threaten my eyes.
“Okay, today I’ll stay home and look up providers, but you need to understand it’s all in your head. The glove was just the cats. I don’t understand why you’re making such a big deal out of this. It seems pretty simple to me,” he said.
He called everyone on the insurance company’s website until we found Dr. Bouley, whose office had an opening the next day. We made an appointment.
Dr. Bouley, a gentle older man, saw me right away when I arrived at his office.
“Tell me why you are here today,” he said.
“Well, I wouldn’t have come, but I’m afraid, and my friend thinks I have postpartum psychosis.” He waited for me to explain what that meant to me.
“She said I was delusional. I told her about the conspiracy to kill abusive husbands, and I’m afraid they will harm Jack. I’m so afraid,” I said.
He cut me off and asked, “Yes, well, how are you sleeping?” “Not well. Maybe a few hours here and there.” I felt exhausted.
“Are you experiencing any other symptoms? Hearing or seeing things?” he asked.
“Well, there are the images of people who visit me in the nursery,” I said. It hadn’t occurred to me that this wasn’t normal until he asked about it. I had talked to Jack’s dad’s spirit when he passed in 2000. But I had never dared tell Jack, because I knew it would upset him.
“How do you know they are images, and not real?” he asked. “They look like auras. They are not natural-looking. They have a light green ring around the outline of the shape. Not really a fully formed person,” I said.
“Hmmm. It may be a form of a visual migraine, or a seizure of some type. You need to see a neurologist, and we need to test your thyroid levels, and I want you to have a CT scan. It sounds like you are able to encapsulate these symptoms, but there are medications that may help you feel not so afraid,” he said. “Tell me what else has you concerned.”
“I’m afraid someone is breaking into the house, moving things around, and marking territory with urine. It’s their way of telling me I’m in. ‘You’re in.’ Get it—‘urine’? I think it’s part of a conspiracy. But my husband tells me it’s our cats behaving badly.”
“Are you involved in this plot?” he asked.
“No, I’m terrified of it,” I said. Tears filled my eyes.
“I want you to come back in two days. Okay? Call if anything gets worse.” He passed me the tissue box. He immediately started to write me prescriptions for the antipsychotic medication Seroquel and for Ambien sleeping pills.
“There’s something else I need to tell you.” I paused and care- fully considered my choice of words. “While I was in labor, there was something that happened during an examination. I was touched intimately during an exam to check my progress in labor. I found labor pleasurable—every contraction felt identical to the orgasmic contractions I had during pregnancy—but now I feel haunted by the touch of Dr. Richard, and I don’t know what happened anymore. Between fantasy and reality, I can’t stop thinking about it.”
“Memories are a complex thing,” he said. “How do I know if it was real?” I asked.
“Time heals the memory,” he reassured me. I leaned forward in the chair and held on to his words, praying that he was right. I wanted to be better.
I went home, took the medication Dr. Bouley prescribed, and fell asleep. I slept for the first time in weeks. Jack had called my mom to tell her what was happening, and she arrived the next day. It was her second visit to New Hampshire since Jamie was born. I could barely walk down the stairs to greet her. My limbs were heavy and dull. My mind was in a thick fog. My eyes squinted against the lights. We hugged, and she cried at the sight of me, knowing from Jack what was going on in my mind.
“I need rest,” I said. She nodded, and I turned back up the stairs and shuffled back to bed. I alternated between sleep, visions, and my emotional responses to what I was experiencing.
I went in to see Dr. Bouley two days later.
“How are you?” he asked me after I settled into the chair.
“I still see things, spirits are visiting, and I get scared,” I said.
At this second visit, Dr. Bouley prescribed Geodon, another anti- psychotic. Geodon was fine, other than the akathisia (a feeling of restlessness), sedation, and the inability to concentrate it caused. But I was still on the break between summer session and the fall semester of classes.
When I saw Dr. Bouley again, I sat in the chair and he looked me over. “How are you?” he asked.
“At least I’m sleeping well since I saw you last week, now that I have medication. I’m not afraid now. I can leave the nursery at night without terror when it is my turn to feed Jamie. Also, I haven’t seen as many of the spirits visit me. But I still feel the conspiracy, and there are still the wrong-number calls,” I said.
“How do you feel physically?” he asked me.
“This medication makes me feel like my body is strung out. I feel like time is moving in slow motion, and I’m sleepy,” I said.
“Well, you will grow stronger and less sedated as you build up a tolerance to the side effects,” he said.
On the car ride home after the appointment, my mom drove. “I’m worried about what you will do when I go,” she said.
“Mom, we can hire a nursing assistant to help out. We can afford it. I just have to make it a priority with Jack,” I said.
“But I’m worried about you,” she said. I could hear her voice wavering as she spoke.
“Mom, I can’t deal with your emotions about this when I’m still processing my own.”
Mom stopped with the probing questions but continued to call the psychiatrist and try to get information from him once she returned home to Kansas City. When I had my routine appointment with Dr. Bouley, he brought it up.
“Before we get started, there is something we need to discuss,” Dr. Bouley said. “About your mother: she has been calling repeatedly and would like information, but you have to approve it. She is very concerned about your well-being.”
I don’t answer her calls, because she is too worried, and it stresses me out and makes me feel bad about myself. She doesn’t have accu- rate information to share with you about my health. I do not want her to have access,” I said.
“Are you sure? She cares a lot about you, and I think it would make her feel better,” he said.
“I can’t have her calling you, saying she thinks I’m psychotic, every time I don’t want to talk to her,” I stated.
“Hmm, well, that would be a problem,” he said.
“I just wish she had hope for me and believed that the medication will allow me to lead a healthy, happy life, but right now I’m struggling to believe it, and the stigma really hurts,” I said.
“Stigma?” he asked.
“Well, I was at the moms’ group meeting last week, and I shared about what I’m going through with seeing things. A group of moms turned their backs to me at the end of the meeting, effectively shunning me,” I said.
When he saw the tears in my eyes, Dr. Bouley handed me tissues. He referred me to a social worker, Harrison, who could help me deal with my illness. This was one of the best things he could have done for me: to give me my own advocate who could train me how to cope with my issue.
On the first visit to Harrison’s office in downtown Manchester, I rolled off the elevator with Jamie in the Jeep stroller. The country- green diaper bag was tucked in the undercarriage, and we strolled down the corridor to the small office waiting room. I walked in and read the sign: new patients, please fill out these forms. I took the clipboard and started filling in the blanks. Jamie got bored as soon as I sat down, so I took her out of the carriage and held her at my hip, trying to fill out the form.
My anxiety had motivated me to leave far too early for the appoint- ment. It was a bright, sunny day, the reception area was deserted, and I wondered if I was in the right location. I looked around at the art on the pale walls and the dark green painted trim. A painting of laundry hanging on a line was humorous to me, as Harrison was a social worker and marriage therapist. There was also a copy of the American Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics on the coffee table, along with every issue of the New Yorker from the past four years.
By the time Harrison poked his head between the door and the frame, looking into the waiting room to check on us, I had filled out the paperwork. Jamie kept fussing, even though I tried to entertain her. When his previous patient departed, he waited a few moments, then invited us into his spacious office.
“So tell me, why are you here?” Harrison asked.
I explained that I thought I had postpartum psychosis and told him about my experience with stigmatization by the moms’ group.
He responded quickly. “Are you familiar with depression?” he asked.
“I guess I am. Why?” I asked.
“Well, everything you described fits the DSM’s diagnosis criteria for depression,” he stated.
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I’ll even show you the book.” He walked over to the bookshelf, grabbed the four-inch-thick diagnostic manual for mental health professionals, and walked back to the sofa, flipping through the pages. “Here it is,” he said, pointing to the entry. “I’m going to make you a copy so you can look at it and reflect on it later.” He walked back to his copier and printed a single sheet for me.
Harrison said people would be able to understand better if I called it depression. I didn’t understand it better, so I kept writing in my journal and took the Geodon, Ambien, and Ativan. I also started to study up. I wanted to know what to expect from my illness.
My difficulty concentrating had me on edge, but by the end of the month, I had read every book I could find about mental illness. One of them, which a friend recommended, made me doubt the medical model and modern psychiatry. It was the book Mad in America.
The psychiatrist had recommended that I not change a thing and that I continue seeing Dr. Richard. I didn’t understand Dr. Bouley’s logic, and Jack refused to allow me to go for Jamie’s well-child checkup without him. It caused me great anxiety and unhappiness to have to see Dr. Richard. Reality reminded me how sick I was. When I looked into Dr. Richard’s eyes, I felt so sad.
“How are you doing?” he asked.
“I take the medication every day, but my memories haven’t gone away,” I said.
Dr. Richard knew about the antipsychotics. When I’d started the medication, I’d signed a written release giving my providers permission to communicate about my case. My mother was concerned that I shouldn’t breastfeed, so she called Dr. Richard. He responded immediately to my mom that it was contraindicated to breastfeed while taking any antipsychotics. Dr. Bouley told me that he’d gotten a call from Dr. Richard about the breastfeeding issue.
After Dr. Richard talked to my mom, she wouldn’t let me breast- feed again. My milk dried up within a few weeks. It made me even sadder when I stopped breastfeeding. I still held Jamie in a sling most hours of the day and fed her with a bottle whenever she would accept food.
Dr. Richard sat behind the small computer desk in the operatory. Jack was glaring at him from the chair at the side of the room. Tears welled up in my eyes, and I swallowed them back. I hadn’t slept for days. The psychiatrist had to prescribe more sleeping medication and tranquilizers for me to deal with the situation.
“You know you don’t have to go back to Dr. Richard,” Chloe said. I finally decided to change primary care providers. I called and made an appointment for an annual physical with another physician. It was the right thing to change doctors. When the afternoon came, my burning skin was terrible, so I decided to do something to try to make it go away. I posted a new profile on AdultFriendFinder.com. I alternated between reality and fantasy. I hoped to find Dr. Richard this way. I believed if he loved me, we would find a way to communicate. I searched and searched for him, and that helped my feelings of desperate isolation go away. It was the best I’d felt in a long time. I was in deep psychological pain from the memory of Dr. Richard’s touch, yet I craved the physiologic rush of the memory. I’d become a junkie for the memory of his touch. I tried to juxtapose my own desire with the knowledge that my experience was clinical and he didn’t actually want me. The only thing that made me feel better was to talk about it, and the only safe place I could share was in my secret online world as Sunny, with my fictitious lover, Emraen. It helped me feel like I had some control over my thoughts. I started chatting with a Richard M., whom I met online, because I couldn’t talk about what had happened to me without upsetting my family.
I told Harrison and the psychiatrist about my online correspondence. I knew they didn’t think it was helpful, but I couldn’t stop. I needed to write. Writing acted as a temporary salve for my pain. Richard M. and others put up with my desire for Dr. Richard, hoping for something more. Jack knew I’d met some people online through Adult Friend Finder, and it upset him. I kept trying not to e-mail, but I needed an outlet for what was going on inside my mind, because Jack wouldn’t listen to or work through it with me. I couldn’t talk about my desire for Dr. Richard with Harrison or Dr. Bouley, because it made them uncomfortable.
“Imagine a probe being inserted into your brain,” Harrison would say when he wanted me to change my thinking.
I got the probe-in-the-brain metaphor every time I brought up my feelings for Dr. Richard. It didn’t help. I kept promising Jack that I would stop the correspondence.
Dr. Bouley prescribed something for my anxiety. He said my delusions about all the different conspiracies would go away, and they did, with the exception of my issue about being touched during Jamie’s birth and the encounters with Dr. Richard.
I asked Jack if he was okay with my going on adult websites. He wasn’t, so I deleted my posts. I was rude to my pen pal, and he went away.
The thought of failing out of graduate school scared me even more than my symptoms. The side effects of akathisia and a lack of concentration were too much to take. Geodon was not comfortable for me. I hated the feedback from my body about that medication, which left me with a pulling sensation that the medical literature called “inner restlessness”; I hated the feeling of being strung out. The only thing that helped to clear out the clouded fog in my thinking was cigarettes, which I snuck with a few of my mommy friends. Then I discovered eating eased the pain and pulling feeling in my body. I couldn’t stop eating graham crackers. After a few months, I decided it was too uncomfortable. I had forgotten to take my medication for a day, and on the second day I decided I just couldn’t take it anymore. I went off the antipsychotic meds cold turkey. I got the shakes and survived on hot tea. Hell.
I told my psychiatrist about my decision to stop the antipsychotic medications at my weekly visit. He told me I was lucky to have survived my sudden withdrawal from the antipsychotics; he said going off drugs the way I did can be fatal. He recommended I keep our visits going, to check in about my anxiety and sleep difficulties, and I agreed.
My burning skin also subsided with anxiety medication, but I still felt it a little. When I was on the tranquilizers, the sensation was still there, but the medication changed the feeling. I didn’t mind feeling my skin on sedatives. However, I could see people’s energy auras.
Somehow, I managed to make it through my coursework, take care of Jamie, and more. When I was working, I arranged child care with a community-based co-op behind the local strip mall, and with Jack’s mom. I volunteered in the moms’ club and at the co-op, non- profits, and coalitions. I could function in these groups as long as I didn’t open up about my mental illness and invite stigmatization. When I did allude to my struggles, I referred to them as “postpartum depression.” Six months earlier, Tom Cruise had criticized Brooke Shields for seeking therapy and taking antidepressants. When the public defended Shields’s decision to treat her postpartum depres- sion, I felt a sense of community support. I read her story in the book Down Came the Rain cover to cover and found that similar feeling of recognition I felt when I read Elyn R. Saks’s book The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness.
I would sit on the bench at the co-op, reading books to children, trying to stay in the moment, but as soon as the toddlers and preschoolers moved on to the next activity, my mind would return to trying to solve the pieces of my broken puzzle. The birthgasm had changed me, and I was trying to understand what had happened by going back to look at the pieces of my story. The only thing I truly knew was that an exam happened, I had a baby, and my mind kept replaying the vivid memory of the experience.
While my emotional path to recover from the memory progressed slowly, my academic rebound was swift. Since I’d quit the antipsychotic, I was taking only the sleeping and anxiety medications. I participated in class, contributed to projects, and could study well. My academic performance was my greatest strength. Focusing on graduate coursework gave me hope for a future that wasn’t delusional. I had the grades to prove it.
I was doing so well in school in the spring of 2006, I would graduate on time with my class. I had served as a president of an organization and volunteered with the policy committee of another. I’d even been invited to run for the board of directors of that association.
I wrote up my campaign bio in February, and the ballot with my bio in it came in the mail in March. It was early April when they reported the final tally. I got an e-mail telling me that I’d lost by one vote. At first I joked that I felt like Al Gore in 2000, but not to worry, because I didn’t want a recount. The group I e-mailed sent replies that they voted for Al Gore, too. Later that month, I would get an e-mail from the board saying that by a unanimous vote, they’d appointed me to fill a vacant board seat for the coming year. But it was too late— my thinking had already slipped by then.