I spent the fifth and sixth weeks of my daughter’s life in a psych ward. During the baby’s first week at home, I didn’t take any pictures, I didn’t make any announcements on Facebook, I didn’t answer the phone for our friends and family who called over and over again to wish us congratulations. I stayed in bed, my mother and my husband Patrick taking turns comforting me as I keened, repeating to them how much I no longer wanted to exist.
My feeling of unreality had become so severe by that point that the only sensation I can liken it to is having taken a handful of hallucinogens and not being able to come down. The houses on my block became mocking faces, their small window eyes on the upper floors glared down at me, the wide windows on the lower floor were a menacing smile. The colors of the cars parked along the sides of the street burned so bright that they appeared to be at their melting point, hot to the touch. I could see the evil residing within each person who passed me, their hollow eyes sagging inside their sallow faces taunted and judged. Unlike being in a state of psychosis though, I didn’t slip inside these delusions. I remained fully present, knowing that what I was seeing wasn’t real. Somehow, the knowing made things even more painful.
The outside world was terrifying, and I quickly stopped trying to venture into it. I stayed inside, moving between our bed and the living room couch. Even the kitchen had become too frightening; the fluorescent bulb in the ceiling left me exposed and raw. In the car, on the way to the hospital, I put my head in my lap and my hands over my ears, willing the city to disappear.
I later learned that I had a rare, pregnancy related mental illness: depersonalization derealization disorder. I had never heard of it. Unfortunately, neither had any of the doctors on the ward. It would be months before I found a doctor who could treat me and years before I would be able to fully heal.
Patrick would come to visit me on the ward in the late afternoons, alone. We were quiet, leaning up against one another on the couch in the common room, half paying attention to the local news on the large screen TV.
One afternoon, someone changed the channel to VH1. An old video took over the screen. The Bee Gees, singing How Deep is Your Love? Our wedding song.
How many ways, I wondered, could the world conspire to make my heart break?
About ten days into my stay, the team of doctors and social workers overseeing my case called for a family meeting to discuss plans for my discharge, an event that wouldn’t end up taking place for another eight days.
The conversation at the family meeting surprised me. I was used to having to talk about myself, but at the family meeting we talked about Patrick. We talked about what he needed in order to support me, what he needed to support himself.
In every therapy note from that year, each time Patrick’s name is mentioned, he is referred to as a ‘very devoted and loving husband’. And he was. He is. But I took it for granted, expected it. What else would he be?
I didn’t realize until much later that most couples who had endured the kind of trauma that we did don’t make it, that taking on the role of the caretaker of a severely mentally ill wife is too much of a burden to bear, leaving the marriage irreparably fractured. I was lucky, but I was wrapped up so tightly inside my mind that there was no room to feel gratitude. The family meeting was the first time Patrick expressed his own needs. I had forgotten that he had any.
During that first year of trying to survive with a mental illness and an infant, it was like our family was being held in a liquid suspension. We remained quiet and still, petrified of sinking to the bottom.
Patrick and I never fought during those months. I never complained. I never cried. We held our breath. I tumbled downwards through dreamless sleeps.
Life inside the liquid suspension, the controlled confines, couldn’t last forever, though. The resentments between Patrick and I began to loom large and unspoken.
As we crept closer to our daughter, Nora’s first birthday in March, the resentments we were trying to will away by barely breathing, were becoming inescapable. Their pressure created cracks in our lithosphere, fault lines patiently awaiting the inevitable quake.
I hadn’t really drank much since I had Nora. Maybe a beer or a glass of wine here and there when we got together with friends. I didn’t even drink coffee anymore, I was so afraid of altering my reality any more than it already was.
At Nora’s first birthday celebration, though, someone offered me a glass of prosecco. I drank it quickly, surprising myself. After a year of living with a mental illness, it seemed like prescription drugs and therapy and all my hard work hadn’t done a thing. But alcohol did. I had finally discovered the perfect medicine. I sank swiftly to the bottom.
I got mean. I bullied Patrick all the time. His job paid too little, his clothes were all wrong, he needed a haircut. Little papercuts that began to grow and fester into large, unhealable wounds.
At first, Patrick maintained his steadfast composure, even as I went completely off the rails.
“Maybe you should slow down, honey,” he would say gently, as I fixed myself a third vodka tonic on a Sunday afternoon. “We can have more after she goes to bed.”
If I passed out on the couch, he would still stroke my hair until I awoke, the room spinning, as he led me into the bedroom, his arm wrapped around my waist.
Soon though, Patrick started to stand his ground and every time I started hurling slurry insults in his direction, he began to hit back. The glass tank we had so carefully built around ourselves quickly shattered, the water flooding all around us.
It’s either too painful or I was too drunk to remember what we said to one another. All I know was that we tore each other apart until we were unrecognizably raw. I didn’t care. I kept drinking.
I spent the summer drunk and online. After Patrick and Nora left for work and daycare, I would walk around the corner and buy two bottles of cheap rose. Then, returning home, I’d park myself at the dining room table, pour myself a big, pink glass and open up my laptop.
After I drained the bottles of wine, I would lay down on the couch and pass out, setting an alarm to wake myself up and wash my face before Patrick and Nora returned home from their day.
By the end of the summer, Patrick was exhausted, weak with defeat. One evening, after we put Nora to bed, he sat down facing me, on the couch.
“You always talk about how much you wish you had been more present when she was an infant,” he started. “You always look at pictures, saying how you wish more than anything that you could get that time back. Now, you’re not totally better, but you have the chance to be more present. To be here for your little girl. And now you’re going to miss this part too.”
We stared at each other across the gulf between us, tears streaming down our faces, saying nothing. There was nothing more that we needed to say.
Next door to our apartment was a VFW. Each night, the VFW hosted a meeting and each night, after Nora went to sleep, I went next door, sat down in a folding chair, and I listened.
That fall, I began to feel better, yet things between Patrick and me were still fragile. Like two magnets of the same poles, we orbited around one another, never touching, pushing each other away. We had forgotten how to be together outside of the crisis mode, how to function without holding our breath, waiting for the next trap door to open and pull us further downward.
I brought up our relationship struggles in my sessions with my psychiatrist. She had a simple solution to the problem: date nights. I demurred. Babysitters were twenty-dollars an hour and that on top of dinner would end up being almost two-hundred dollars for a night out. She shrugged. “Take-out and Netflix on the couch then,” she said. “I don’t think it’s the money, I think you’re afraid.”
She was right. I was afraid to be alone with Patrick again. We spoke through our daughter now, crowing over her achievements and milestones. Reminding one another to write the check for daycare, to schedule her check-ups, or checking in to see whose night it was to read bedtime stories. I was afraid that if Patrick and I were alone together, we would discover that our relationship couldn’t be saved, or worse, that there was nothing worth saving.
We hadn’t been on a date since Nora was born. It was another part of parenting that we still hadn’t learned. For our first date, we had one of Nora’s teachers from her daycare come over to babysit. We were nervous that she would cry when we left, but Nora was so excited to have her beloved teacher in our home that she didn’t even look up when we said goodbye.
Patrick and I went to a local restaurant that served comfort food: mac and cheese, burgers. The atmosphere was low-lit and cozy, perfect for an early December night. I wore a dress and boots and blow dried my hair straight. I put on red lipstick. We were nervous.
At the restaurant, we sat across from one another, but the table was small, and we could lean in close to talk. We were shy, talking about safe subjects like work, but it didn’t feel forced, and the restaurant felt safe and warm.
Outside, after dinner, we kissed on the sidewalk and held hands on the walk home. When we got back to the apartment, Nora was sound asleep in her crib. Nora’s teacher sat reading on our couch. “The baby was perfect,” she said.
My psychiatrist checked in every week to make certain that I was completing my homework assignments. In each session, I was to describe the date, what we had talked about and how I had felt. We continued this routine until she felt that Patrick and I had begun to heal. Eventually, she didn’t bring it up anymore.
We had skipped over our second anniversary, staying home with Nora, but for our third wedding anniversary, we planned for a night out. To Nora’s delight, her teacher came back and shooed us out the door as quickly as she arrived.
We had dinner reservations at a beautiful local trattoria and on the walk over, we admired the over the top Christmas decorations that lit the neighborhood homes, still up before the New Year arrived. We talked about music and friends and reminisced about our wedding. We kept talking long after the dessert plates had been cleared away.
After dinner, we took a picture together outside the restaurant. My bangs are dark and shiny, and my face is flushed with pleasure. My eyes are focused, and my smile is real. I look at this picture all the time. It reminds me of when I started to return to myself and when Patrick and I started to return to each other.
We came home and paid the babysitter. We leaned over the top of Nora’s crib and kissed her sleeping face. We fell asleep soon after, tangled up like we used to. We were always trying to heal, always healing.