It was two years ago today that we officially labeled what was happening to me as a problem.
It was two years ago today that my mother FaceTimed me when I had just woken up from a nap.
“How are you doing?” she asked, and I launched into a sermon.
“We’re doing great!” I shouted, “I’m really starting to feel like I’m making connections. I’m telling my story online. And the more I do, the more other women reach out to me about their experiences with childbirth. It’s like we’re birthing a new world together,” I said, without taking a breath- without realizing that I had said nothing about my one-week-old newborn, the real object of the question. In my mind, my answer was deeply connected to her, as she was at the center of all my stories, the purpose behind it all. But that abstraction did not translate to my mom at all.
“Yes,” my mom said, “But how are you managing to tell these stories in the middle of the night while feeding the baby?” I was annoyed to be asked about the mechanics of it all. I was having no trouble typing with Bailey on my breast. Yet in my efforts to explain this to my mom, I was ignoring Bailey’s cries to be fed, prioritizing my conversation with my mom over Bailey’s needs. My mom finally insisted that I get off the phone and feed her, so I did.
Matt paced back and forth while I nursed her, trying to explain what he was seeing. “You’re just wound up,” he said, “You’re talking so fast and… It’s hard to explain.” I smiled at him with affection, knowing that he didn’t understand that I was doing great, that I was just a better, more actualized version of myself after giving birth.
“Why don’t you call my mom and ask her?” I suggested. Matt thought for a moment, feeling hesitant to connect with her without me. Yet it did seem like a good solution. We were completely isolated in those days, so he had no point of reference for what was normal and no outside eyes to confirm or deny his concerns.
“Really, I insist,” I said, supremely confident that my mom would reassure him that nothing was wrong. That this was what the postpartum experience was like. He left to talk to her privately while walking in our woods.
When he returned, he appeared noticeably lighter and heavier at the same time. “Steph, she agrees with me. She said she was about to cry when she hung up from that call. We’re worried about you.”
I felt a momentary swell of panic. I trusted Matt and his judgment more than anything. He and my mom have different perspectives on many issues, but they were united on this. According to them, something in my brain had gone terribly wrong.
Based on descriptions they found on the internet, they suspected that it was postpartum-onset bipolar and began making plans: we would get a psych referral from my OB/GYN, we would get an official diagnosis, we would start to treat this thing.
Meanwhile, I was trying to square their new revelation with my own euphoria. How could I feel this good and be that sick?
“Oh yeah,” I remembered to myself, “I’m just faking having that disease so that people don’t get suspicious about the magic that’s happening to me.” I felt the calm set in. How else could I explain no longer needing sleep? Being so exceptional at everything I did? Having regained perfect eyesight? Something big was happening to me, and I needed to throw people off the scent to avoid any unwanted attention. “I must be doing a really good job to have Matt and my mom fooled,” I thought, as pleased with myself as I always was in those days.
“I’m so relieved you’re ok with this plan,” Matt said, “I was so afraid to tell you.”
“Why?” I said, obliviously.
“Well, you always told me your biggest fear was mental illness- losing control of your brain.”
“Oh, that’s so sweet of you to remember!” I said, “But I’m not afraid of that anymore! I should have told you.”
In my mania, it was nearly impossible for me to be afraid of anything. It was one of the distorted blessings that made the situation a little easier for me at the time. It was one of the symptoms that made the experience even more traumatic for Matt and my mom- one more way in which I had become unrecognizable to them, and one way in which I seemed completely insensitive to their own fear, heartbreak, and exhaustion as we faced this battle together.
Having to face my worst fear has completely changed my life, for better or for worse. It was hell, but I got through it, and I found resilience and strength I never knew I had. To different degrees, I continue to face my worst fear every day. While that exhausts me, it also provides me with a new perspective on what people are capable of when they need to be.
It’s been two years of grappling with my worst fear. Anniversaries of trauma are scary because it feels like you’re going to jinx things and make the bad times come back. I’m afraid to say, as I sit here at the island while Matt cooks up a Passover dinner, that it feels comfortable. That it feels a lot more like life used to. That it feels even better because Bailey will be able to join us when she gets home from daycare. But I’m writing it anyway, because just like on that day two years ago, we need to look the scary things in the face and address them head-on. It may be scary to say, but I am grateful for life as it is right now, two years after this journey began, and one day at a time we will face the next two years together.