*An essay every Friday in 2016*
I wrote a lot last week but anxiety grabbed me by the maw on Friday so I wasn’t able to get my Relentless essay up. I beat myself up about it to no end, as people who suffer from anxiety are apt to do, but now that the anxiety has ebbed, I felt ready to get this up and out, so here it is… Week 11.
I read somewhere that some psychologists believe that you are imprinted with particular emotions while in the womb. This idea isn’t entirely new to me. When I was pregnant, older women like my grandmother and my then mother-in-law told me to take it easy and try not to get upset because the baby felt everything I felt. I remember once getting really angry at my daughter’s father (over what, I don’t know). I was yelling at him and crying when I felt a tightness in my belly that scared me. I sat down and took long meditative breaths until my heart stopped pounding. Still, I’d never thought about what that meant for me until this week.
I thought about the stories mom told me about when she was pregnant with me. My mother spent the first four months of her pregnancy willfully trying to avoid me—she took birth control pills until she realized she was pregnant. When she told my father, he chased her into the street and tried to kick me out of her. He kicked her belly and her side. I picture my mother, so thin and young, just twenty-one years old with two little ones under five and me on the way. She is curled on the sidewalk, pulling her body into itself, trying to steel herself from my father’s sneakered feet. She bled for the remainder of the pregnancy.
She told me once that I too was the result of a rape, like my brother. She hadn’t wanted to have sex. My father pushed himself on her. She said this casually, no emotion in her tone. She didn’t even look at me. We were in her kitchen. She was cooking. Uncovering the pots, checking the meat for taste, adding a dash of salt, some extra comino. I looked at the decorative plate she has over her stove. It reads something like “My house isn’t a mansion but it’s filled with love.” I thought about my brother and how she loved him. I thought about how she struggled to love me. I hate that fuckin plate.
Every child wants to know about her birth and asks, Where did I come from? Many are answered with a birth story that speaks to the child of who she is and will be and that sets her life in motion in a particular way. Mothers know the story and tell it like a favorite fairy tale to the child, who rests her head on her pillow, on her way to speak.
But sometimes the stories of origin are troubled, riven with complexity and unanswered questions, and bespeak a cloudy future. ~ “The Art of Being Born,” by Marcia Aldrich
My daughter loves to hear her birth story. How my water broke in her father’s white Acura Legend, while crossing the University Heights Bridge on our way to my grandmother’s house for a dinner. How I thought I’d peed on myself at first but knew better when the trickle kept happening every few minutes. How the women congregated in my grandmother’s small bathroom to look at the fluid on my underwear. My grandmother, mother, aunt, and even my Millie all agreed that it was definitely amniotic fluid and I should call my OB immediately. How my aunt still tells the story about how she clenched her ass cheeks the entire ride down the Henry Hudson Parkway to the hospital because baby daddy (we’ll call him Lee) was driving like a maniac, he was so nervous. The labor pains. The tub. The telling my mother to shush because she was talking nonstop because she too was so nervous for me. My doctor coming in to tell me that she was going to induce me because my cervix had been stuck at 3 centimeters for hours. How she told me, almost pled, that I get an epidural because I was having back labor, the worst kind of labor. How she cupped my face in her hands, wiped my tears and whispered, “This does not make you weak.” I was so tired. It was the middle of the night. I’d been laboring for more hours than I could count. I was shaking so hard and trying to breathe through the contractions that didn’t seem to relent. How I asked my mother to stay in the room when the anesthesiologist came in to put the needle into my spine. The immediate relief. How my legs swelled and felt like tree trunks and I could barely move them at all. How hours later the OB came in to tell me they were worried about the baby. She’d been out of water for more than 26 hours. The standard was 24 before cesarean. I’d already gone over by two hours. They’d have to go in to get her. How my mother insisted that I let Lee into the delivery room when they carted me off. All I’d done was look at her desperately when I was given the news. The curtain they put under my chin. How the blood left Lee’s face as he watched them cut me. How he slapped my face softly when my lips turned blue and I started to tremble and lose consciousness. “Stay awake,” he whispered. I could smell the fear in the sweat lining his forehead. How it was Vasialys’s scream that brought me back. How I giggled when the doctor said, “Listen to that. You’re not even out of your mommy yet and you’re already yelling, sweetheart.” How squishy and beautiful she was when I saw her. How I don’t remember much after that until a nurse came into the recovery room to ask me frightening questions about my family’s medical history and I insisted, “Bring me my baby right now.” How it felt when I first held my baby girl. How she melted into me and latched onto my breast with ease, like we fit together, her and I. How she hated being swaddled and no one believed me when I said it, so the next day, a nurse swaddled her despite my insistence that she not. “All babies love being swaddled,” she said. “It reminds them of the womb.” I remembered how Vasia would stretch herself out those last few months of my pregnancy, her feet in my rib cage, she’d push so hard it ached so I’d have to stop whatever I was doing and talk to her softly while I rubbed the spot just under my right breast, “You’re hurting mommy, baby girl. Ease up.”
As soon as the nurse left the room, swaddled Vasia started chillando. The bassinet was just out of my reach. No one answered when I pressed the nurse button so after a while of hearing my newborn scream at the top of her lungs, I climbed out of bed and unswaddled her. She stopped screaming right away, of course. I put her next to me in bed and so began our co-sleeping habit we shared for years.
I felt the tear when it happened. I feel it every time it rains and when I’m having a particularly vicious moon cycle. Five of the staples on the outside of the incision ripped off when I got out of bed. I learned that when that happens, doctors do not re-staple you. They let the body heal itself, which let me tell you, is brutal.
Whenever Vasia hears the story, she asks to see the cesarean scar on my bikini line. She traces it with her index finger and looks up at me with wonder. “I’d let them cut me a millions times for you, baby girl.” She smiles that huge smile of hers and says, “I know, mommy.”
I don’t know my birth story. I know the after. I know of la carreras con Vanessa al hospital. I know about the many times I almost died but didn’t. I know that I spent the first year and a half of my life in and out of the hospital. I know that psychologists say that the first year of life is critical for bonding between mother and child… I know that me and mom never really bonded.
Therapy on Friday reminded me of how hard healing can be, how therapy can trigger so much. What triggered me? His question: what makes you angry? I started to spin almost immediately. I felt my chest clench. I couldn’t answer the question fully. I was ashamed to. My mind went to all the times I’ve been told I’m harsh. One person said, “You’re like Brillo.” The time recently when I was accused of being angry though I wasn’t. I was trying to make a point. Homie in turn said he was just trying to share his point of view. Textbook gaslighting. Patriarchal shit that I can see clearly when I’m not anxious but when anxiety hits, that’s where my heart goes. It’s evidence of all the horrible things flying through my head. Isn’t that the function of gaslighting? To make you feel like you’re the one who has gone overboard and is crazy, delusional, a lunatic.
I went for a walk afterwards. My feet took me east, past Madison Square Park, toward where my brother lived when he died, the Prince George on 28th Street between 5th and Madison. A woman nodded out out front. My step quickened.
When I got uptown, I kept spinning.
I tried to sit down to write my Relentless essay. I’d already done so much writing that week. Earlier in the day, before therapy, I thought it would be a breeze. When I sat down that afternoon, I looked at the pages in my journal…
I walked out the house and headed to the woods. I smiled when I saw my first daffodil and even stopped to take a picture…This is one of my self-care tactics when I’m in the eye of it.
I’m imagining a scene in the movie The Day After Tomorrow when the eye of the storm comes over Manhattan. As the arctic air spins down, it freezes everything instantly, windows shatter, steel crystallizes, water turns to frosted ice, humans freeze where they stand.
That’s how it feels when I’m in the eye of anxiety. There’s no escape. I’m stuck. I feel a weight press down on my chest. It shatters me. I wrote:
Tense and anxious. That’s how I feel. I had therapy today and a question triggered me. He wanted to know what made me angry. I didn’t know what to say. I thought about how often I get angry, how little things set me off, how I snip at people and roll my eyes and curl my lips. Of course I probably do it just as much as everyone else. I’m hardly the only person to have an attitude but in my mind, in my self-deprecatory mind, I am horrible. I am short tempered and attitudey and obnoxious. In my mind, no one should be my friend. I am not worthy of friendship. I am not worthy of love. I know this isn’t true. I know this is me slipping into that habitual cycle of thinking…the loop in my heart that I am this and I am that and none of it is good or positive.
I shut my laptop down. I canceled my plans to go out. I resigned to the reality that there would be no Relentless essay on Friday. I felt like a failure. That’s what anxiety tells me…that all this is just evidence of my being a failure.
On Sunday, I took a long walk in the park with my good friend, Jason. He’s one of the few people I’ve known for almost twenty years who I still consider a friend. He talked to me about a long overdue talk he had with his mother about the man she chose to make her life partner when Jason was just six. A Jewish man who has been an assassin and fought in multiple wars, this man in his 30+ year relationship with this woman, Jason’s mother, has never really shown her son tenderness. Jason told me about a time when he was seven and made this man a Father’s Day card. I imagine seven year old Jason cutting a tie out of construction paper to glue onto the card. I imagine him coloring the tie in. I imagine the care he put into that card. I imagine him thinking about his biological father, who had died just a few years earlier. I imagine Jason handing that card to this man. The man looks at it and pushes it back into the seven year old boy’s hand without even looking at him. “I’m not your dad, kid,” he says. Then he walks away. Jason’s now almost 40. He still feels the pinch of that rejection and told his mother as much. All she could say was “I’m sorry” over and over. I felt for her as a mother, myself. What can you say when your child tells you about how you’ve failed them.
I thought about the traumas we carry. The pains that follow us. The times we were rejected, our love thrown back into our faces. The times people told us, “No, I don’t love you.”
Most of the world doesn’t want to look at the ways our hearts have been broken. They’d rather pretend they don’t exist, that they’re whole and everything is all good, but these pains permeate our lives in so many ways. They leak in…they flood.
I read in Dinty Moore’s Crafting the Personal Essay that Toni Morrison likens memory to the Mississippi River which after being straightened and pushed into levels still strains at times to flood its banks and revisit its original, meandering route. “All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, that valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory—what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our ‘flooding.’”
There’s a price to doing this work, this digging. We try to build those levees just like everyone else does but our levees are weaker or perhaps it’s the memories that are stronger… They flood.
My therapist tells me that I have a leg up because I’m not afraid to look at myself and reflect on my past and these things that have shaped me. The price is when it weighs on me, like that question did. When the shame attached to some of those memories finds me and wraps itself around me and squeezes.
The costs of healing are high. It’s not easy confronting yourself and the pains you carry, but the only way out is in. I have to believe that. If I don’t, what do I have? Why do this work? Why do this digging? Why allow the floods?
I haven’t always been sensitive to people with anxiety. I’ve been unkind and impatient. I’ve pressed them to work it out, whatever it is they’re dealing with. I get it now. I was an asshole. I had no empathy. I was so wrong.
I watched Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash story last night. I was taken by the story line about his father. Johnny’s older brother, Jack, was killed in a horrible accident involving a whirling head saw. They were both just kids, but Johnny felt guilty about it for the rest of his life because he was off fishing when it happened. His father blamed him and told him as much. There’s a heartbreaking scene where the father is heard saying that Jack “was the good one.” I thought about how hard I’ve been on myself these past few days as anxiety has gnawed at me. I thought about the tape on loop in my head, all saying I’m this and that, all things bad, all things that prove me unworthy of love. The voice sounds like my mother. I thought about John Cash, played masterfully by Joaquin Phoenix; the scene where he’s coming out of horrible withdrawals from amphetamines and barbiturates. He wakes up to find June Carter taking care of him.
Johnny Cash: You’re an angel.
June Carter: No, I’m not.
Johny: You’ve been there with me.
June: I had a friend who needed help. You’re my friend.
Johnny: But I’ve done so many bad things.
June: You’ve done a few, that’s true.
Johnny: My Daddy’s right. It should have been me on that saw. Jack was so good. He would have done so many good things. What have I done? Just hurt everybody I know. I know I’ve hurt you. I’m nothin’.
June: You’re not nothin’. You are not nothin’. You’re a good man, and God has given you a second chance to make things right, John. This is your chance, honey.
I wondered about how hard I’ve been on myself much of my life. I’m not perfect, no. I tell people we don’t have to be but I needed reminding of that this weekend when the whirl of anxious thoughts were suffocating me. What happens when there’s someone there to tell us we are in fact worthy of love? What does it take for us to start to really believe that? What does it take for us to let love in?
I don’t have the answers for that yet… Perhaps that is part of my journey.
In a Rolling Stones article, it’s revealed that “as a boy, Cash was fascinated by the original Frankenstein movie. For him, the monster was a sympathetic character, someone ‘made up of bad parts but trying to do good.’” I thought of Chris Abani’s TED Talk “On Humanity” where he says, “I really believe that we’re never more beautiful than when we’re most ugly. Because that’s really the moment we really know what we’re made of.”
I guess part of this mission I’m on is just that: a search for the beauty in my darkness. Isn’t that what all art is? Trying to make beauty of this life…the darkness of it… And like the Force, we all have a dark side. It’s what we do with it that matters. But to do that, we have to first deal with it. We have to first look in and stare and turn it over and upside down and stare some more. And that’s where it gets hard… That’s where the flooding happens. It’s difficult work but if we are to make sense of ourselves and the things that have happened to us, this is what we must do. May we learn to be gentle and loving to ourselves when we’re in the eye of it. And if we can’t be, may we have someone like June to hold up a mirror and remind us: “You’re not nothin’. You are not nothin’. You’re a good man, and God has given you a second chance to make things right, John. This is your chance, honey.”