Friday, August 2, 2013

How it Could Happen

Hi, it's me. Tara.   
I know I usually try to be lighthearted, but I'd like to say something about the Lisa Gibson story.  If you live in Winnipeg, MB, Canada, as I do, you've probably heard of Lisa Gibson.  She was suffering with postpartum depression and allegedly drowned her two children in a bathtub.  Then she committed suicide.  I only know what I have read and the pictures I have seen, but she was young, beautiful, smart.  And extremely ill.

Postpartum depression and mental illness are very real.  I know some people don't "get it," so I wrote a story to explain myself better.   Although it is fiction, it contains very difficult subject matter. I feel strongly that the stigma surrounding mental illness needs more dialogue. It's easy to say: "this person is ill" but hard to understand unless you've been there.  

I wanted to reach out and show others how mental illness can destroy a person's life.   I tried not to sentimentalize a tragedy, but write with compassion. I know what I would be like if it had happened to me.

I entitled it How It Could Happen because that's the question you hear when something like this occurs.  How could something like this happen?  

This is how I think it could happen. 

How it could happen
by Tara Robinson

She is on the precipice between dozing and true sleep when she hears the baby crying. The sound jolts her wakes instantly, but the fog of exhaustion means she's still hazy, groping around for her glasses, focusing on the baby monitor, which is silent. The baby hasn't been crying at all.  She's hallucinated that he was -  she's that sleep deprived. 
    She's been having this particular hallucination frequently in the past few weeks, always when she's about to fall asleep. It bolts her awake every time and she knows very shortly the baby will wake up and need her. She looks at the clock and feels like crying. 
    She can't seem to get comfortable in her own bed anymore. She's been experiencing a lot of anxiety, her mind can't seem to shut down. It's racing, always racing, even when she is bone-tired and can barely speak. If she finally starts sinking down into unconsciousness something will tug her awake: the need to pee, the baby crying (real or imaginary) or she'll be too hot under the blankets, too cold without them. If she manages to find the perfect temperature and distribute her limbs correctly so that she is finally comfortable, she'll realize that a part of her body – a fist, her jaw – will need to be unclenched. 
When she's awake, there's a disturbing, growing distance between herself and everyone else. When people talk around her, there's just a drone of noise. It's increasingly difficult for her to focus on words, untangle their meaning and reply. She finds herself asking for questions to be repeated a lot. Better is when they left her alone. It's taking too much energy to engage with other people.
    The well's run dry, she might have said or at least thought. But in some way she can't fully explain, she feels like she is the well, or stuck inside one, trapped at the bottom. People ringed in sunlight she can see above her, but can't feel the warmth for herself. It's too cold and damp and dark where she is. The sun blots out their features, making one person indistinguishable from the next. They all seem very far away from her. No wonder their voices are muffled. 
    She went a few days ago to a doctor and was diagnosed with postpartum depression, given some pills. She knows exactly how these pills are supposed to work; she's familiar with terms like selective serotonin uptake inhibitors and neural receptors, but these clinical words seem meaningless. Her faith in medicine, in its ability to cure her, seems ludicrous to her right now. 
     She mourns this loss. She used to know so much, but her identity has been pared down, stripped away. The things she was absolutely certain about, all the things she knew, have been smudged or erased. 
    The baby really is crying now. She swings her legs off the bed, sits up, stands. She's lost a lot of weight recently and she was thin to start with, but her body has never felt heavier to her. Her legs wooden blocks as she moves towards the door.  Her movements might be slow, but her routine is so ingrained that she moves on auto-pilot. Changing the diaper, putting a fresh onesie on her son, hefting him up to carry him downstairs. She opens the fridge and puts the bottle in the bottle warmer. She feels the same sense of guilt that she always feels when she looks at the bottles. She hadn't been able to breastfeed. She tried initially, but it became just another stressor on her body and her milk dried up almost instantaneously after she gave birth. 
    Despite knowing this was probably for the best - (the best for whom? You or the baby?) - guilt prods her yet again. What's best for me is best for the baby, she reminds herself, not entirely convinced. This hackneyed, worn, often parroted phrase does not reassure her. Guilt flares, she nudges it aside; angles the bottle better to decrease the amount of air bubbles, pats the baby's back when he's finished until he lets out a soft burp. Seeing but not really looking at him, her mind ensnared with her own thoughts.
    Her daughter awake now and calling, she's stuck at the top of the stairs because of the baby gates. Carrying her son with her, she opens the gate and she and her daughter exchange a good morning kiss. Her daughter can descend by herself, but she likes to keep an eye on her. Her daughter holds each bannister rung in turn, placing both feet on each step before she moves down to the next one. She chatters excitedly to her mother, a two-year-old's combination of words and sounds. Her daughter likes to hum, squeal, sing, grunt; she likes to taste different tones as they come out of her mouth.
    She puts her son in his baby swing, but she knows from experience that this won't keep him happy for long. She changes her daughter's wet diaper, throws it in the garbage, washes her hands. Her daughter has carried downstairs her favourite stuffed animal, a white rabbit. She selects a few other toys to play with – soft blocks, a picture book, a few dolls and a firetruck that has battery-operated flashing lights and a siren. The baby cries when the siren starts. Wait, no.  He's wide-eyed in his swing, but not disgruntled, not yet. 
    She pours some dry cereal in a bowl and puts her daughter in her high chair. She locks the tray in place and her daughter automatically upturns the bowl and begins spreading out the cereal as if looking for irregular shapes or prizes. Finding none, she selects a piece, puts it in her mouth, chews. The mother starts rummaging around the kitchen for more food. She pours a sippy cup of milk for her daughter. She isn't hungry herself, she never is these days, everything tastes like ash in her mouth.
     She will have to get groceries today; there doesn't seem to be any in the house. The thought of packing up the kids and taking them out, just the image of it, overwhelms her. To orchestrate a successful outing requires a diaper bag to be packed – clothes, toys, snacks, sippy cups, diapers, burp cloths – not to mention putting the baby in the car seat he hates (she can already hear the screaming,) it all requires more energy than she has.
    Her daughter starts pushing her cereal on to the floor, a sure sign she wants something else to eat. The mother goes through the inventory of what they have: banana, no. Oatmeal, no. Peanut butter on toast, no. Egg, no. Yogurt, no. Back to banana, yes. She had known all along this would be her daughter's selection, but every day they have to go through this routine or she wouldn't eat. By the time the banana is consumed, half of it squished into the seat of the high chair and around her hands, her son is making distressed sounds in his swing. She picks him up and carries him about. Her daughter wants to be let out of her high chair now, saying: “down, down, Mommy, down,” as she bangs a banana-and-cereal coated fist on her tray. A cloth is produced, her hands and face are swabbed, one-handed and not very cleanly, but with the baby fussing on one arm and her daughter not holding still, it will have to do. She unlocks the tray, unbuckles the straps and her daughter runs off. The high chair a total mess of banana goop and cereal, the floor sticky. 
    She's tired of cleaning up these messes. She's tired, period. It's a constant racket between the two kids, the phone that never stops ringing, her cell phone bleeping with text messages, and the blaring cartoons she resorts to putting on to keep her daughter occupied. Friends and family members are worried about her and constantly barging in. Their dismayed eyes take in her messy house, their voices distressed chirps she can't understand. She finds herself irritated with them, although she knows she shouldn't be. They mean well, but an increasing part of her wants to slam the door in their faces, just so they can't see what she has become.  
    Her days, her life, used to be orderly. Her house clean, her clothes free of sticky messes, her hair styled. There is only unstructured, chaotic mess in her life now. People tell her it will get better, it's just a phase, they will help. Their voices only add to the churning, nerve-racking noise bearing down on her. 
    Her mind is pulled back to the present when a louder noise overrides the others. She focuses and finds herself back in the living room, her daughter yelling at her. Her daughter has repeatedly asked her to play something, but she wasn't answering. Tears splash down her cheeks. Her daughter looks up with concern, but no surprise. She has seen her mother crying before. Her daughter requests her favorite show be put on. She complies, watching her daughter hum along to the show's intro song, running the firetruck back and forth absentmindedly.  After a few moments, her daughter's voice becomes indistinct, blending into the babble all around her. The television. The toy firetruck. Her son fussily wanting to be carried a different way. 
   Her head fills with other people talking to her; meaningless dialogue with that quack doctor and his useless, stupid fucking pills that don't even help worth shit anyway. She used to understand so much and now it's like everyone around her is speaking Chinese. She is a foreigner in her own land, her own home. Worse, she's a foreigner in her own body. She doesn't recognize anything about herself anymore.  
    She can't articulate any of this; language has deteriorated. There's only the ceaseless, unrelenting noise bombarding her. She has to stop the noise. She lays her son down on a play mat, her daughter mesmerized by the television. She has to get out of this room, away from the commotion. She hurries out of the room, goes upstairs. She enters her bedroom – piles of dirty laundry, the unmade bed mocking her inability to sleep – no sanctuary here. She goes into the bathroom, leans against the counter, breathes deeply, relishes that she is alone for five seconds. 
Something happens then. The world tilts off its axis and grey-black static rushes over her. Deranged images overtake her: the gurgling sound of water as it fills the bathtub, her daughter beside the tub. That's all she knows. There's an image of her precious son crying in her hands, but they couldn't be her hands, placing him gently on top of the water as if it were a solid surface. She doesn't remember anything else. The grey-blackness relents for an instant, pops like a light bulb and she's standing alone in her bedroom. She can hear her son crying. Another hallucination. She's furious with herself but oddly relieved, too. Her son is okay, her daughter is okay. They are downstairs. They need her. Then she sees the water on her arms.
    She runs to the bathroom, a sense of dread and panic overtaking her, even though this can't be happening, she has no memory of doing this, she would never do anything to hurt her children. For what surely must be the first time, she looks inside the bathtub. Looks. Sees.
    Pain unlike any she has ever known grips her. An inhuman, keening wailing fills the small room. She drains the water instantly. It's not too late, can't be too late, she would never harm, never harm her children. She feels a faint pulse on each neck but is terrified to touch them further. She knows now she can't trust herself. She needs to get them help fast, immediately. 
    She calls 911, she's disembodied but somehow still has a voice. She states her address, asks that someone come to the house and then hangs up the phone. It will be the last words she will ever speak, trying to help her children.
    Her brain erupts, explodes, shatters. Language has dissolved completely, for what she has done there are no words. Her broken mind is filled with uninterrupted howling, the sight of her son and daughter laying prone next to her, barely breathing. She crouches beside the bathtub, hands over her ears, sobbing uncontrollably.
    The police will be here soon. They will come, they will find her beside this bathtub. It wasn't me, she wants to say. In every possible way, it's the truth. She can't bear to look at her children for another moment, not like this. She needs to get out of this house. Now.
    She's suddenly outside. Shoes are on her feet but she has no recollection of putting them on. Still in her pajamas, no time to change. She forces herself to move. How long had the grey-black static overwhelmed her? Surely less than twenty minutes. How can everything change so completely in under twenty minutes? But it has. 
    The roaring in her ears continues unabated. Her throat closes and her eyes stinging as she finds a path she didn't even know she was seeking until she is walking on it. She'd thought the noise was external, but it never was. It wasn't the talking, the television, the phone. It was never her children. It was always inside of her and maybe she could have articulated that at one time, but failed. Failed in the worst possible way; failed the people she loves the most. The grey-black rushing noise destroying everything. 
She stumbles blindly along the path and comes to the river. The river. A bathtub. Her children will be waiting for her. 
    She doesn't really believe this, not after what she's done, but she hopes for it. It's the only thing she hopes for. She slides down the muddy bank, wades in, swims. She needs to get as far away from here as possible. She can't be seen, can't be caught. She needs to get to her children.
    As she swims, she wonders briefly if this is all a horrible mistake. She couldn't have hurt her children. This is a terrible nightmare or another hallucination. No. She knows with certainty that she cannot trust herself around them. She loves them so much, so much and she needs to tell them. She can't go back so she forces herself to move forward.
    Her body - the body that carried, nurtured and gave birth to those two incredible, perfect children - will carry a final message. She has gone to be with them. 
    Her tears are swallowed up and absorbed by the river as she pushes on. Other images intrude upon her. Husband, mother, father, sister, her family and her friends. These images cause the screams inside her skull to increase tenfold, the pain excruciating. All the words, all language wiped out. She wishes she could have explained better about the noise.
    She doesn't want to be here, in this dirty brown water. She wants to be at home, with her children. She sees herself in her own King-sized bed with them. Her son cradled on her right arm, not even four months old. Tiny. Perfect. She breathes in the impossibly sweet baby smell of him. Smiles as he makes small sucking noises as he sleeps. Her daughter slumped on her other side, her golden hair the exact same shade as her own. Her daughter's arm casually looped around her mother's waist.
    She squeezes her sleeping children a bit tighter. Their collective body heat seeps into her, warms her. She barely notices that the noises inside her head have stopped. It's calm and quiet. Her chin drops down and her eyelids flutter close. She can feel her son's small fist against her right breast. He's still so little that he's curled half on her arm, half on her lap. His heartbeat almost audible as his chest rises and falls. Her daughter on the left, pressed up against her side, her daughter's head on her chest, over her heart. As it always was. As it always will be.
    She feels herself being pulled down and she, too, can finally rest and sleep.