At about half past midnight on a hot January night in 2009 I sat bolt upright in bed with chest pains. A golf ball was quickly forming in the middle of my chest. I stumbled to the kitchen for some warm water and threw down an antihistamine.
What followed was the most frightening experience of my life…
When the chest pain worsened I panicked and woke my partner in desperation. He was dazed and confused and asked what I wanted him to do.
“Call an ambulance!” I said first to myself, then out loud.
I walked to the phone and called ‘000’. The operator spoke calmly and assured me an ambulance would be there within a few minutes. She was right. In no time two ambos arrived and started the challenging process of calming me down.
In the minutes that followed I could feel myself moving in and out of an adrenalin-driven anxiety fog I had never known. I was about to die – from either a collapsed oesophagus or a heart attack – and no calm medical professional was going to convince me otherwise.
My daughter Lily was away up the coast with my mother. I was due to drive and pick her up the next morning. At this point I was positive I’d never see her again. I sat on the stairs inside my house wearing a heart monitor. They informed me I had a mild arrythmia, common for people over 40.
“I’m only 39, God DAMN IT!” I screamed in my head.
I calmed a little and the anxiety fog seemed to be lifting. It was time for me to decide whether to take the ride to the hospital or stay here at home. Ambo number two mentioned the fact that, if I decided not to go with them, they could not legally be responsible for what might happen once they left.
I was still hooked up at the heart monitor and we all listened as my heart rate escalated at the thought of being left here alone. I opted for the ambulance ride. The 30-minute trip to the hospital (no siren, thank God) was surreal. I sat in the back opposite ambo number one. He monitored me with conversation. I could hear my own voice slowing under stress. I was managing about two words every 10 seconds. What ensued was an anxious confessional of motherly proportions.
“Have you had enough sleep lately?”
“Have you been working hard?”
“Have you been eating well?”
“No.” (Four take-away Asian dinners in one week isn’t something my body handles well).
“Are you under any stress?”
That was the BIG question. My daughter had been away from me for the last five days. Knowing she was staying without me at the beach was a stress I’d been too afraid to admit to myself until this moment.
I had several attempts at describing how I was feeling to the ambo. I mentioned the claustrophobia I discovered on a flight to India in my mid 20s. I also mentioned the magic mushroom experience I had around the same time in Byron Bay (I didn’t have the capacity to tell the whole innocent story). His questioning turned to modern day recreational drug use and I reassured him what he was witnessing was not a drug-hazed freak out!
We arrived at the hospital and the antihistamine and adrenalin cocktail started kicking in. I sat in the registration area answering questions for the triage nurse. I felt like I was entering some mental institution and must have looked the part with my long paranoid stares and delayed answers. I must admit I’d hit the emergency department jackpot! The ward was as empty as the ambos were quick. (Note to self: mid-week breakdown = much greater chance of emergency silver service).
Over the next couple of hours God sent me his best health care team. The nurses were angels, the doctors wore wings. Robert had driven down to join me in emergency after only just getting to sleep around midnight. He’d been pacing the corridor patiently for two hours. I had blood tests and heart checks and blood pressure checks. All looked good and I was finally feeling the pain subside.
When the doctor asked me how I would rate the pain in my chest, I was embarrassed to admit that, despite the pain being only a 4/10 at its worst, my anxiety levels felt they’d gone through the roof at about an 11! The realisation – that I’d really LOST IT – now seemed more frightening than the anxiety levels that had earlier sent my heart racing.
The final test was a chest x-ray. As I lay on the bed watching the ceiling pass by while being wheeled through to x-ray, my (strange) thought was: “the next time I’m in this damn hospital, I want it to be in maternity, not emergency!”
Next minute, as I stood shakily up against the x-ray machine, the female staffer asked, “Not pregnant are you?”
“I………don’t know,” was the long, slow answer. The fact is my periods are about as regular as CityRail trains. (Just when you think you can feel one coming, you realise it’s a false alarm and you’ve been delayed yet again).
I was wheeled out of my chest x-ray and wheeled in for a pregnancy test. In the moments they took to analyse my wee, hubby and I had a great – somewhat nervous – chuckle to ourselves about the most dramatic pregnancy announcement in history.
Finally... “It’s positive!” said the doctor. “Two lines.”
We laughed and cried at the madness of it all, exhausted by the night we’d had.
In the week that followed, I spent a lot of time in the fog of fear I’d felt that night. It had only temporarily lifted and returned thick and eerie the next morning. At times I found myself frightened by absolutely everything and anything. I remember feeling afraid I wouldn’t be able to make my daughter’s sandwich. Sometimes even walking to the bottom level of my house to pee was overwhelming. The safest I felt was lying down.
I ate small amounts of food very slowly, fearful of choking, I slept constantly, more so because I was afraid to be awake than tired. I watched hours of sport to zone out from my reality (thank God for the distraction of the Australian open and Test cricket!) What I feared most was that this fearful state could become my new reality, that perhaps this was a place that – once visited – could never be left behind.
At its worst, I remember feeling so afraid that all I could think to do was close my eyes and repeat the words, “I choose love and light.” I had a visual of light under a doorway in a darkened room and I lived with the hope this light would grow greater and the darkness subside.
Each time I seemed to be improving – able to socialise and function normally – I’d feel the fog returning and loose my grip once again. What I feared most was never being myself again, the person I had come to know as ME.
For the first seven days I kept the depth of my fears to myself. By the end of that week, with little improvement, I began to get really emotional. Those pregnancy hormones kicked in nicely (and in hindsight, were perhaps my savior). I was pretty sure by now I’d had a breakdown, but it wasn’t until the tears started things started to shift and it felt more like I was breaking through to another place. Each time a close friend or family member called, I was brought to tears by their concern and I began openly sharing my reality (whether they were ready for it or not).
Then, after a conversation with a loving and wise friend, a light went on. If I never was the same again, would that be such a bad thing? I had a history of overworking, overdoing and overthinking just about everything and – the fact was – it was a bit bloody overwhelming! I’d continued to live this way up to 36 weeks into my first pregnancy and returned to work full-time just eight weeks after my daughter was born.
The decision was rational/ financial and set me up for a slow and painful hormonal and emotional death. The facts were clear, the decision made sense to hubby and I. But my baby and my body felt quite different. Nevertheless I soldiered on regardless towards my corporate paypacket.
This recent breakdown just didn’t seem to make sense. I’d convinced myself that, since moving to the Blue Mountains, life was a whole lot easier, slower. I moved for more space, more time, less work and less stress, yet here I was three years, later hospitalised with a breakdown and a pregnancy.
I remember clearly in the three days before my breakdown, that I struggled physically and mentally in the searing heat. We were in the middle of the hottest January in 50 years. My three days had been physically and mentally challenging. Most importantly, when my body had asked me to stop, to take the bus up the hill that day instead of walking, I hadn’t listened.
Perhaps this physical and mental breakdown was my body’s way – and my baby’s way – of saying I had no choice but to do it all differently…
At the end of my foggy week, I found myself in the local bookstore searching for a birthday present. While Lily browsed the kids’ section, I asked the shop assistant to point to point me in the direction of the parenting section. She walked me to it. There I stood looking quizzically at the titles. I was standing right in front of the ‘Fear/stress/anxiety’ section (and it was a sizeable section).
I laughed out loud at where I had found myself and the fact it was so aptly placed next to the parenting section. The assistant asked what I was laughing at, “I’ve just had the most fear-filled, stressful week of my life,” I answered, “and here I stand.”
“Well, there you go!” she answered. On my way out of the shop, a woman approached me with her two small children and touched me gently on the arm.
“Excuse me,” she said in the warmest way. “I couldn’t help overhearing what you said back there and I just wanted to say it does get better and it’ll be okay.”
I was overwhelmed by her generosity and her courage in extending a kind word to a fellow traveler.
About six months into the pregnancy and just days before my daughter’s sixth birthday party, I fell into a deep dark hole with a panic attack like no other. Although I’d suffered with frequent attacks since the breakdown, they’d been relatively minor.
This one took me to a whole new low.
Robert had grown confident in my ability to recover from my minor panics and was often late home on his two-hour commute back from the city. This particular night not only was I frozen with fear but, for the first time my head, filled with dark thoughts of harming both my beautiful daughter and my unborn child.
So gripped was I by these thoughts (and for days after) that I feared they may become real, that I might actually harm those I loved the most. Equally frightening was the fact that Robert was so far away from me. I felt alone and paralysed with what I thought was some sort of inner demonic power.
The next morning the only thing I knew for sure was that I couldn’t handle this alone and for the first time in my life I wanted professional help. The first thing I did was tell Robert what had happened. I was petrified about revealing my thoughts about our gorgeous girl and unborn child. I was convinced I’d be separated from Lily, possibly lose my unborn child and even be committed to a mental asylum.
Robert listened and his reaction convinced me he loved and believed in me. He suggested it sounded like hormones were raging inside me and supported me in seeking help. I cannot explain the weight that lifted in sharing my deep, dark secret. He simply said – in his wonderfully rational male way – “Well I think it’s hormones messing with your head but if you are afraid of acting these thoughts out, wouldn’t you prefer to know and keep your child safe?”
I rang a dear trusted friend trained as a psychologist who agreed this sounded hormonal. She helped me work out a support action plan I could put into place.
I took action straight away and made my appointments, started sharing with my close friends and family what had really been going on all these months and my most recent deep, dark hole. What surprised me was that no one, not even my mother or father, tried to fix it. They were just there for me. One of the main reasons I moved to the Blue Mountains was to be closer to my family. I had no idea when I made that move that in three years time I would relish that support like a lifeline.
In the month that followed, I found myself openly sharing my panic attack story and even my ‘deep dark thoughts’ with my mum friends. I was astounded to hear their stories. One woman confessed she was too frightened to cross the local pedestrian bridge for fear she would toss her child over the edge. Another told me of her persistent weekly thoughts of putting her crying child out into the bin on garbage night.
I heard story after story from mother after mother confessing her feelings of anxiety frustration, fear, resentment and sheer panic while sitting in the driver’s seat of motherhood. Each time I shared and listened, my own dark thoughts seemed to lighten, the burden gradually lifting, until I could talk and joke about them rather than feel totally consumed by them. It was helpful to remind myself – as I’d been taught in meditation – that thoughts are not WHO I AM, and that like all other thoughts, these too would pass.
Towards the end of my pregnancy it occurred to me that, realistically, I would be parenting full-time for the first time. With Lily, I was so fully entrenched in full-time work by week eight that I really wasn’t in the frontline of parenting for the first 18 months of her life and missed the tough day- to-day stuff.
What I had experienced was sleep deprivation and the madness it can instill in you.
In the mad, mad world of men and wars sleep deprivation is used as a severe torture tactic, now outlawed. For a mother of a small child, it’s everyday reality.
When Lily was about 18 months old and fell sick with a high temperature, I remember sitting up with her through the night. I was working full-time and sleep was like gold as far as I was concerned. I tried several times to give her paracetamol and when she flatly refused, I screeched at her, “What do you want me to do?!”
She stopped in shock then fell into my arms in tears. All she wanted was cuddles from her mum and all I could think about was how exhausted I was already and how shattered I’d be at my desk come 9.00am.
Six years later, living in the Blue Mountains, with my second child….this was what I had asked for, what I wanted. Surely up here in the fresh mountain air, without the stresses of the city and work, I’d be a cooler, calmer mum and shrug off the sleep deprivation.
I was totally deluded.
One day four, after a two-hour crying session, I left Amy on the bed, stood up and yelled at her to “Shut up!” She cried, I felt rotten. I decided it was time to take my war-torn body and overwrought mind and just walk away. I left, turned off the monitor and checked the clock. I gave myself 10 minutes. I ate my cold eggs (breakfast in waiting), drank warm chamomile tea, ran a hot bath and pulled out the Tai Chi DVD I’d bought months ago. I decided that as soon as she settled I’d sink into my bath then try some tai chi.
After ten minutes when I turned on the monitor she was – of course – fast asleep. A doctor’s appointment that afternoon confirmed her glands at the back of her head were swollen and all the holding and consoling I was trying was probably causing her more pain. And despite the doc’s insistence there was no ear infection and no first tooth, two days later up pops bub’s first tooth!
The guilt monkey came and sat on my shoulder for a while. But, I’ve find he gets smaller each time I forgive myself for being human.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem