Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Cloud

The cloud hung heavy in the sky, directly over our house for months.  It was impenetrable, rays of sun failed to shine through and several times a day the cloud would burst, sending fat drops of rain down, heavy – pounding the roof and threatening to seep down through the space between the shingles and the chimney, creeping inside, rotting the sheetrock in the walls drop by drop, damaging the floors leaving permanent water stains throughout the house.  

Once in a while high winds would stir up, coming off of the mountains and slamming into the house, attempting to blow the cloud far away.   The winds would force the reluctant cloud to float on, settling in on the horizon – lurking at the end of the edge of the inlet, blocking out the sunset and mountain views.  It would sit there, sometimes for days at a time and through a few periods of high winds, it stayed out there for weeks, but the cloud was relentless – it remained a permanent fixture on the horizon, waiting to find its way back home.  

The cloud begun to move in late the winter I was pregnant with George, before the spring came and the baby arrived.  No one seemed to notice the cloud that had moved in, resting upon the mountain tops, blocking out the early morning sun.  The cloud went unnoticed – overlooked by us, the expectant parents, our family, and friends.  The combined stress of planning and preparing for a new life to enter the world, our home, and the medical emergencies of pregnancy and frequent hospital visits served as a fog that blocked out the presence of the cloud -- temporarily.  

It began to creep closer when I was placed on bed rest.  Alone in the house all day, lying in what was supposed to be the baby’s new room, but instead was painted a radiant sea foam green with orangish-brown carpet and a water stain that hung above the door, rotting sheetrock threatened to fall in at any moment.  

I would lie there and stare up at that spot, feeling discouraged, knowing that this room would not be done when the baby came home.  At first I accepted the company of friends and family, and even learned to accept help. In the beginning I would watch television throughout the day, attempting to read but could not manage any reading material what was not a comprehensive guide to pregnancy and motherhood.  

After a while I stopped watching television, then I quit knitting the blanket for the baby growing inside my very pregnant belly. The radio was turned off, I could no longer tolerate the sound of other peoples voices - silence.  I stopped answering the phone and when I did, excuses were given early in the conversation – I was resting, contracting, tired, not feeling well, and could not talk at the moment but appreciated the call.   

The curtains were the last to go, they were drawn and light was no longer allowed to fill the room, night fell she would let out a sigh of relief that the intense daytime sun had set and given way to the darkness.
“The breaking of so great a thing should make a greater crack.” 
- William Shakespeare 

Within twenty-four hours of the new baby arriving home on a sunny springtime Saturday afternoon The Cloud fully settled in, it was observed to arrive somewhere around 11 am on that Monday, but was dismissed and excused by everyone – being labeled a temporary change in the weather, something that would subside.

The cloud settled in, making itself comfortable, now noticeable to all who called or came to visit. Very few visitors were welcome to the home, and so the onset and settling of the cloud was not visible to those who called and were told that the baby was sleeping and they were not able to receive visitors.  Family and friends noticed the shift, but dismissed it easily, making excuses – a new baby, the nighttime feedings, the demands of early motherhood, not the fragile begining of a what would later turn into a complete and total breakdown.   

A close friend who had a similar cloud settle in on her life after the birth of her first child took notice and rather than addressing the issue, chose to ignore it, but not entirely.  At first she started calling to check in on me a couple times a day, and when there was no answer, did not leave a message.  She would call again, and again – allowing just the right amount of time pass until making another call, enough time to have the calls seem less like stalking and more like sporadic dialing.  Being faced with a phone that continued to ring, relentlessly, slowly I began to crumble – with every ring a reminder that the cloud had settled, I was unable to answer the phone, unable to connect to the outside world.  

The friend would continue to call and after several attempts her efforts would be rewarded by a dark and mysterious answer on the other end, and so at least once a day my friend had the chance to check-in, provide humor to what had become a difficult situation.  She used these conversations to share her experience with her own dark cloud, but in  a concealed and secretive manner, as though she were speaking in code – teaching it to her friend, bit by bit, knowing that it would take a long time before she could understand the language and communicate clearly.   

After a few weeks realized Parke took note that I was perpetually dark and sad, but was unsure of how to interpret it because I also had confusing periods of overwhelming joy, relief and thanks for our new son.  I would tell him how happy I was and how much I loved our son, and within a few minutes to a few hours would sob, unable to speak, feeling apologetic for expressing the sadness.  
When I brought George in for his two-week check up, the pediatrician asked a series of questions, and in sensing the my anxiety over my new mothering role asked how things were going and I responded in a way that led the pediatrician to note in the new baby’s chart “Mum seems a bit depressed”.  She had made a note of it, but did not follow-up, and whenI brought our growing baby in for his next appointment she the pediatrician was gone, having quit shortly after the last visit, the only person who had been able to write the words “depressed” and thus gave the darkness a name, had left without saying a word. By that time the post-partum depression had settled into full-blown clinical depression, making itself comfortable within the nooks and crannies of the house. The cloud had settled in and was not going to budge any time soon. 

On my darkest days I would also experience her happiest feelings, sandwiched in between overwhelming grief and sadness.  The depression that had crept in before George was born, was rooted in fear.  A normal feeling for anyone who is about to become a parent.  I worried that our new son would die of SIDS, or that he would stop breathing when I got up to use the bathroom or take a shower while he was fast asleep.  I sat in the glider rocker, holding our infant son, day after day, holding a private vigil for his survival, as if he were fragile and about to break at any moment.  Retreating into the dimly lit living room, watching him sleep, waiting for him to take the next breath.  I held him constantly, and found hard to put him down or to let Parke help to care for our son.   

One night I fell asleep while sitting on the toilet, holding George tightly in my arms, I began to dream and was jolted awake realized I was still holding the baby – I instinctively checked for signs of life, delivering him from sleep and jolting him awake to share in the madness with her – letting out piercing wails that amplified off the tile and sent a wave of panic through her mind and body.  

I kept a meticulous log filled with notes from every event of the day – every diaper change, detailed descriptions of his stool, every feeding, and how long he slept.  In the early days, before my milk came in, I had to syringe feed George formula, reluctantly I would give him a few milliliters after he had fed on each breast – sucking what little nourishment was stored in my dry breasts.  I prayed for her milk to come in and fill my breasts.  I prayed for the nourishment that would sustain our son’s life and save my sanity. I decided to add another category to my notes and began to log how much I slept, and thus discovered that I was getting no more than two consecutive hours of sleep at any given period.  I causally made a mental note of it and got back to her routine.

When the milk did come our son was five and a half days old, he was starving, and eagerly began to suckle the nourishment my body had to offer taking everything I had to give.  I felt feverish all over, hot tingling sensations filled my body, like a heat rash.  I handed our semi-awake, well-fed son over to my husband so that I could take a shower and during the course of what would have otherwise been a short, 10 minute shower, I stopped to get out and listen for George, peeking out the door while letting the water run, hoping I would not be discovered spying on my husband.  

When Parke would leave to work in the morning, he would kiss us both goodbye, softly as they sat in the rocking chair together.  He would walk downstairs, step out the front door and look up at the sky – making note of the cloud hanging above the house, and he got in his truck and went to work, having no other choice than to keep his job, to provide for our new family.  As he walked downstairs to get his shoes on I would begin to tear up, holding back sobs so that he wouldn’t hear, wouldn’t know the grief and sadness I was experiencing – protecting him as much as I could so that he too did not have to bear the weight of the dark, heavy cloud that had settled in on their family. 

 I would cradle our new son in my arms, rocking him softly watching him sleep – his perfect pink cheeks and peaches and cream skin, relaxed and smooth, he would move his lips to suckle in his sleep and wiggle slightly to nestle deeper into my arms.  I would hold him like this for hours and without warning I would begin to cry, muffling my sobs by thrusting my mouth into my shoulder and upper arm.  I would repeat the same phrase day after day, week after week, month after month “he will never be__days old again”, and I would sob as though someone had died.  Sending salty tears down onto our son and the receiving blanket he was swaddled in, blessing him with each salty, loving tear – praying for his well-being, his survival – her survival.  Life.

Some nights I would get up from her rocker and carry our son carefully down the hall and into the bedroom, setting him in his bassinette that was placed tightly against the bed in the room Parke and I slept in.  The room that was supposed to be the baby’s room, but was still our room – the ceiling still rotting and threatening to fall in.  Reaching over into the bassinette I would rest my arm on the side and place my hand on our son’s chest, feeling for his breath, listening to the sounds – feeling alarmed when he paused a moment longer than I thought he should.  I would hold my breath fearful that he would not take another breath, I would wait, in fear, for him to take his next breath. 

 After I had felt for and listened to him breath for a while I would lay there in bed, keeping my hand in the bassinette, next to our son, but not right on his chest and then I would drift into a semi-conscious sleep, my mind prevented me from sinking too deeply, I was constantly standing guard, waiting for her queue to take to the stage and act out the scenes she had rehearsed so many times in these early days.  

One night I fell asleep quickly after placing her son into his bassinette, I woke in a panic, feeling our son nestled close to my body, I felt his chest waiting for him to take a breath, listening for sounds of life.  He did not breathe, move or make a sound that would indicate he was still alive.  A wave of terror washed over me and I began to move his lifeless body around, handling him in a slightly rough way, hoping to arouse him from his corpse-like state, pushing him to take a breath, listening for sounds of life.  

When I was not able to rouse him from this state my mind began to race and I tried to piece together the puzzle and figure out how he had come to be in their bed, next to her, tightly held in my arms.  I quickly realized that I must have picked up the baby in a sleepy amnesic daze, after he had made a slight sound, my maternal instincts taking over – wrestling with my mind and body which at that point had no other option than to sleep.  I realized that I must have drifted into a deep sleep, the deepest sleep I’d had since he was born – possibly since I was 28 weeks pregnant (when the pre-term labor started),  and in that deep sleep had rolled over onto our son, suffocating him before he could even make a sound.

 The weight of my tired body stealing the breath from his lungs and the life from his soul.  The very breath and life I gave him, taken away in an instant, and in that moment I knew, with absolute certainty, that I would end her my own life because my beloved son had been taken by my own negligence. My worst fear had come true.  I knew that I would not be able to face my husband, let alone myself, that I could not live with the guilt and shame of such a careless mistake.  It took her a few moments to fully come to and when I did, I realized that the “baby” I was holding was soft, and the more I pressed on it to feel for signs of life, I realized that I was cradling my pillow in my arms. My pillow was safe and secure, tight against my body, as though it were our son.  Even in my sleep I was not able to let go of him, even in sleep I held him close to my heart.  

I reached my hand over and placed it in the bassinette, finding our son’s chest, feeling for the rise and fall of his breath, tuning my ears in to hear the sounds of life, once I confirmed that he was still alive, still breathing – I would hold my hand there for a long time, waiting for the next breath, and the next and the next as tears flooded my exhuasted eyes, making the pillow that was now back under my head salty and wet, I drifted back to sleep and woke with an irritated face and a heavy feeling in my heart. 

“Her love was so full-throated and all-encompassing and unadorned. Every day she blew through her entire reserve.” 

- Cheryl Strayed, Wild 

*I wrote this piece in February 2011 when I first sought treatment for post-partum depression, 22 months after George was born.  I thought of it the other day and re-read it only to realize it is the blueprint for my bi-polar disorder which did not begin with my pregnancy, nor did it end there, this time period is just a piece in the puzzle and illustrates the dangers of post-partum depression and it’s ability to transform to post-partum psychosis, particularly in someone who is bi-polar.  I wanted to share it because there is power in story and if my story can help someone else find their way to the right kind of treatment, it’s worth sharing.