Posts Tagged #healthcare
Today is my birthday. So much has happened since I exited my mother’s womb those many years ago. The story of my birth and my mother’s labor are lost forever. All I have are a few hazy details.
“Oh I had twilight sleep,” my mother told me. “No memory of any of it,” she said, shaking her head each time she mentioned it, as if trying, again, to summon the experience that her body had, to shake it out somehow. “They told me I said really awful things,” she confided once. “The drugs make you crazy.” She also said it was good thing, of course. She’d felt the pain of childbirth before; I’m not sure how many of her births were “twilight” but I’m pretty sure at least one of her preceding birth experiences had happened too fast for many interventions. Maybe she really chose twilight sleep, willingly. I don’t know, and I cannot ask her. Why give birth with pain? Twilight sleep was the modern way. Like formula was modern, better than anything a woman’s breast might produce. I can see how she would choose that, or maybe feel there were no other options.
I read up on twilight sleep. From the distance of the years (it was abandoned in the late 60s/early 70s) it sounds like the stuff of nightmares, like some kind of awful date-rape drug, a mixture of Morphine and Scopolamine. It erased any memory of labor and birth, but did not eliminate pain. Often women became panicked, or even psychotic, and attempted self-harm. They were routinely restrained to their beds with lambskin-lined straps, to prevent bruising as they thrashed, a common thing when the dose was wrong.
But the body remembers even when the mind forgets, and a shadow always crossed my mama’s face when she talked about my birth, about the twilight sleep.
“It was the strangest thing,” she said. She seemed to disappear as she said it. Her face misted over, like a mirror fogged.
“In twilight sleep, sensation is still present though in diminished degree; the patient feels the pains of uterine contractions, frequently she moans, draws up her legs, and in other ways shows that she is suffering, but these painful sensations are not recorded in the memory cells… if asked a question, she will answer often in a dazed and confused fashion.”1
Today, on the anniversary of my birth, I’m thinking about pain, about the necessity of feeling what you feel—emotionally and physically—in order to move toward wholeness and health. Of course, seeking pain relief is not a bad thing. But there’s the issue of agency. Who is deciding that this is the best thing? (The same people who decided midwives and unmedicated births were a menace, that’s who.) Even if it was what Mama chose, I struggle with the issue of awareness, and the idea of not having a loving advocate while in a state where you will not remember what is done to you. (Remember, husbands paced in the waiting room back then, banished). I imagine having twilight sleep presented as the only ‘sane’ option available. Of being railroaded and gas-lighted.
While my own birth-giving experiences were not without interventions, I remember them all and I consented to each one. I felt tremendous pain, which I lived through and processed. No shadows cross my face when I remember the births of my children. I’d do things differently now, given the chance, but I made my own decisions, and had my then-husband with me the whole time.
Reading about trauma taught me that what is not processed, felt and released properly becomes trapped. I think of the trauma of being split from your body as you give birth. Far from being forgotten, unprocessed trauma lies in wait. Perhaps it was the cause of my mother’s battles with depression. Perhaps it was the cause of mine, too?
Suppression of feelings is what leads to deep despair. But I’m not depressed anymore.
Now I hunger to feel what I feel, in real time. Still, I find myself retreating into old patterns of escape. Patterns so fine I cannot even see them. Perhaps they were died into the wool of me, during my twilight birth? Knitted in during childhood experiences that divided my mind from my body? Unraveling takes time.
Last summer, I worked with a life-coach in her final months of training, as her test-client. The coach asked me lots of hard questions. Questions like: “and how do you feel, right now?”
I often answered in meandering, rambling ways, embroidering. She’d cut me off. “Where are you? I’ve lost you,” she’d say. “Just tell me how you feel, and where you feel it.”
Often, I didn’t know. This stunned me. Really? I didn’t know? How could I not know?
“Say you don’t know,” she coached. “Say you feel confused.”
Slowly I wake. Reams of paper, hours of walking and thousands of sun salutations later, that “where do you feel it?” question still often makes a shadow pass over my face, still frequently dazes and confuses me, still makes me shake my head as if that will help the right answer emerge from the fog of disconnection.
With another birthday comes new threads of silver hair and some bit of wisdom. I see one thing, anyway: the heart of anxiety, or my anxiety, anyway, is avoidance of feeling what I am feeling.
Or maybe: the heart of anxiety is not feeling safe in your own body.
Or maybe: the heart of anxiety is being told how to feel, to having your lived experiences denied.
Or maybe: the heart of anxiety is feeling your body is not yours to control. To have men in power who want to take away your birth control, free your rapist/harasser (if you dare to speak up at all). On a day when we have an overt misogynist in the White House and many, many other such men leadership positions, when social media is filled with #metoo hashtags denoting individuals who have been sexually assaulted or harassed, I think of the assault of not remembering the day you gave birth. Of the men that decided that was a good idea, and the women who really didn’t get a lot of choice about their birth experiences, as men made those decisions for them.
“Even if I had been asked what I wanted during childbirth,” one woman who was given twilight sleep shared, “I wouldn’t have known what to say.”2
I think of the islands of memory that were considered a ‘side effect’ of twilight sleep. Of the women I read about, laboring alone for hours in a drugged haze, feeling the pain with their bodies, who afterwards could only recall being shouted at to be quiet. Of women with eyes bandaged shut, ears stopped up, so as not to have ‘sensory memories’ to latch onto. Of the fear their bodies surely remembered, while their mental memories were magic-erased by scopolamine, a drug made from deadly nightshade. I think of the breach of trust inherent in this treatment. Birth? Oh, who’d want to remember THAT? I read about a woman, surely not the only one—who didn’t believe the baby given to her was her own, and subsequently had no attachment to her baby. I read of children born as perhaps I was, struggling to breathe (a side effect of twilight sleep), whisked away from their mothers for hours because the mothers were under the influence of dangerous drugs that made their behavior unstable, and robbed them of memories of their own experiences. Of the fathers who were also robbed of the experience of being there during birth. Of the way misogyny wounds women, and also men.
I think of my mother’s obstetrician, the same one who told her twilight sleep was the way to go, the man who weighed her at each visit, insisting she keep her weight gain under 25 pounds, and berated her when she gained too much. Because he was watching out for her, so she could “regain her figure.”
That’s a whole other layer of #metoo.
How am I feeling? Grateful for my mother’s incredible strength. Wistful that I can’t ask her more questions about how she felt. Angry at the continued denial of cultural misogyny by so many. Happy for another year of feeling what I feel, and saying what’s on my mind, what’s in my heart—or doing my best to learn how, anyway.
Better late than never.
You’ve got to stay sane however you can.
Happy rebirth-day to me
I don’t know the actual date of my rebirth-day. It was a Monday, the day after Easter, 2012. I suppose I could easily google it, but I prefer to let the day float in time, tied forever to the anchor of Easter. I wanders through time the way the ancients believed a woman’s womb wandered in her body.
My rebirth day began like any regular day, only slowed down. It was so hard to summon the will to get up. I’m pretty certain my husband called goodbye from the hallway, heading in to work early. I made coffee for me, hot black tea for my daughter before she scooted off to high school. I sliced an apple, sprinkled it with cinnamon, ate listlessly.
I had a full day of deadlines ahead, but I was tired as I climbed the stairs to my attic office. When I walked, my leg throbbed. I couldn’t focus, and there was a tickle in my throat. Damned perimenopause. After working through lunchtime, I decided I should go to the doctor.
“I had a terrible charlie horse on Easter morning,” I told the receptionist. “It really hurts a lot. I need to get into see someone today, please.”
“Is it swollen? Red? Purple? Streaking?”
I looked again, but it wasn’t. It looked exactly like it had the evening before, when I’d rolled my yoga pant-leg up and asked my daughter if it LOOKED swollen. Cause I could see in the mirror: it did not. Like me, on the outside my calf looked normal. The hurts were inside.
“Dr. S has a slot Thursday at 3:30,” the receptionist offered. “Or call at 8 am tomorrow and we might be able to work you in same day.”
I felt defeated and suddenly tearful. Working from home, my bedroom was just across the hall from my office. I did something I never did. I laid down in bed, while the sun was shining bright in the sky.
I sank under the covers, felt so peaceful, amazingly peaceful. I began to drift off—and then, wham! I woke with a start, as if someone had shaken me. An insistent inner voice demanded that I go, now, to a doctor. Any doctor. By this time, my daughter was back from high school. I limped downstairs and asked her to please drive me to the urgent care. I was so exhausted I couldn’t have managed to get there. I felt numb.
In yogic philosophy, samskaras are pathways worn into your thought processes by repetition, like the ruts worn into a pasture by cows plodding to the barn at feeding time. Over and over, that trip to the barn. Conditioning. Samskaras can be positive, but most of us struggle with our negative ones. The ruts of repeated beliefs and behaviors are worn so deep. Change seems impossible. My samskaras—my willingness to turn away from my own pain, to ignore it, disown it, to discount my physical sensations and emotions—a path of not trusting my own body and mind—almost did me in.
At the urgent care, I got really lucky. They were slow, and I was seen quickly. The nurse who did the patient interview was thorough. After the question about family history of heart disease, when I said my father died from a heart attack in his mid-fifties, he made a note on his clipboard and excused himself from the room. Seconds later, he returned. “We’re not going to charge you, you need to get right to an ER. We think you are having a heart attack.”
“But I don’t have chest pain?”
“Tell the ER we suspect heart attack,” he repeated. “Have your daughter drive you straight there, so we don’t have to wait for an ambulance.”
It was, in fact, not a heart attack. My charlie horse was not due to potassium deficiency or even perimenopause, at least, not directly. It was due to deep vein thrombosis, thanks to the low-dose “safe” birth-control pills that were supposed to make me feel better. And the DVT had been throwing off clots, caught by my waiting lungs, slowly filling them. “Multiple pulmonary embolisms in all lobes,” the cardiologist said. “Usually, this is diagnosed on the autopsy table. Any one of those clots could’ve caused instant death. You’re very lucky to be alive.”
And so a new samskara was born on my rebirth-day. “Very lucky to be alive.”
I know now, I was always lucky to be alive. I just had been focused on the wrong things, avoiding confrontation, denying what was true, ignoring pain, smothering joy, trying to cover up pain instead of facing it. I’d had it wrong for so long. But that day, I began anew. “Very lucky to be alive.”
Old samskaras are persistent, though. My self-defeating ones haven’t gone away.
Turmoil falls like rain, slipping and sliding me into old familiar grooves. I pick myself up faster now, though. I let the rain wash over me. I even laugh at it sometimes, laugh at myself for slipping. I remember a summer day when I was with a dear friend, someone from this new lifetime. We were walking once, and got caught out in a deluge. I reflexively began to cover my head, futilely, looking for a place to run. Recoiling, I was trying to change the reality of the rain that was falling, reverting to old habits. He, on the other hand, laughed up at the sky, let the rain wash across his smile.
I felt a surge: I was lucky to be alive, in the rain, with my friend.
“Very lucky to be alive.”
We grow old, if we are lucky. Life hurts sometimes. Pain comes, uncertainty comes, loss comes. Sometimes it feels unbearable.
- This dewdrop world —
- Is a dewdrop world,
- And yet, and yet . . .
The Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa wrote that, after two of his children died when they were very small. He somehow found, even after such losses, beauty, and the will to go on. He too must have known he was lucky to be alive.
Life is hard, change is hard. I once thought perimenopause and my changing body and crumbling marriage were the end of me. That I was powerless, defeated. It seems almost comical now, looking back. Yes, my marriage ended, the imagined future I had hoped for ended with it. And yet—
“I’m lucky to be alive,” I think, with each pink bursting dawn, each deep breath, each morning’s first sip of hot coffee, each warm hug, each aching goodbye, each day and hour I get to live and write and walk and feel, the good feelings and the hard ones, too. Maybe someday I’ll wear away my old faithful, fearful samskaras with gratitude. Maybe someday my fears will dance hand in hand in the rain, smiling, laughing, transformed.
I’m still figuring out what comes next, and I accept I always will be figuring it out. Always falling down and getting up.
Always –“very lucky to be alive.”