Part 3: A parental call to arms

You can read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.

I hit publish on this when the phone rings. Not my mobile, which I expect to ring, but the home phone which we only keep connected because parents and in-laws tend to be averse to using their mobiles. My heart is in my throat as I have no idea who would be calling that number and why. I hurry to answer it.

After pleasantries are exchanged I am asked if I am Mum to Ms 5. I answer in the affirmative. “She just vomited” the voice on the phone tells me. “I will come and get her right away” I answer.

A parental call to arms. Regardless of the other dramas that might be happening, and my overwhelming compulsion to sit around feeling sorry for myself, I race to Ms 5’s school.

I park illegally and half-walk/half-run into the office. A kindly office lady brings my baby out. She is pale and shaking, vomit splatters the front of her school tunic. “There was red in her vomit, did she drink red cordial?” she asks kindly. “At a party yesterday, yes, red cordial” I reply, hoping that it is in fact red cordial and not a sign of something more sinister. She did attend a party yesterday, against better judgment she drank red cordial. But what if? I shut that thought down quickly. That is not an option.

I bundle her home. Bubble bath is run, toast is made and promptly goes cold. A fever has gripped my baby, we argue about medicine which she stubbornly refuses to take. She is now in bed, on my husband’s side, watching a movie on our TV. I am jumpy, every movement sounds like the beginnings of a vomit. I hear my phone making phantom noises. What if someone needs to contact me? What if what if what if

Plans are rearranged. No ballet for Ms 5 this afternoon, likely no school tomorrow either. Work commitments flicker on the edge of my consciousness. Lists and lists and lists of tasks to do. Time critical tasks. A husband in surgery who needs me. A child in bed who needs me.

I want to not be needed for five minutes. That doesn’t change the fact that I am.

I feel sick I feel sick I feel sick.

It isn’t even 2 pm.

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Part 2: “I’ll have the special”

I went from the hospital waiting room after saying my goodbyes, to the beach. Well, not directly to the beach as I had to navigate the labyrinthine car park in order to even leave the premises. The parking machine didn’t take credit cards, I somehow took three wrong turns in the car park itself and for a while found myself unable to leave. Trying not to cry, trying not to become overwhelmed, failing on both counts.

Eventually I escaped and found myself at the beach. I left the hospital and went to the beach without even really knowing why. I drove there because it is a scenic place to be, and I know how to get there, and the parking is easy at that time of the morning. Mind you, I don’t have to justify that decision to anyone as there is no one to justify it to, but here we are.

A man is sitting in the gutter, covered in blood. A police car is next to him, with its lights flashing. His bike lays mangled up on the grass. I don’t know what happened. He is alive I guess, as am I. Traffic slows to take in this spectacle. I avert my eyes and park my car.

I sit myself in a cafe after being directed by wait staff to sit anywhere I like. I wait 20 minutes and realise no one is coming. I don’t have the mental energy to flag down a waitress so I sit somewhere more public. When asked what I want I order my usual coffee (you know the one) and “the special”. I order it because reading the menu is confusing, plus the special has mascarpone which a) sounds delicious and b) i have never had. Now seems like as good a time as any to try mascarpone. I am not entirely sure what it is but if pressed I would say it was a kind of cheese.

When the food comes I take a photo of it and post it to instagram with the caption “heaven”. I have no idea why I do this as heaven is a place that some people think dead people go to. I don’t. The food isn’t heavenly. The pancakes are slightly burnt and weigh heavily on me. I cram it into my mouth in that half distracted way that you do in order to satisfy yourself, in an attempt to not feel feelings. Despite the pancakes being burnt and sickly, when the waitress returns I tell her “it’s lovely, thanks”. What else can I possibly say?

On autopilot I drive home. My daughter is at school so I am bouncing about the house. I write a blog post. My sister-in-law (who I appreciate more than I can ever express) drives out to my house and sits with me. I spew stream of consciousness things at her about my worries and fears, work, the recent death of my Father, clothes we both like. She brings me coffee and listens and offers no solutions because sometimes there are none to offer. She leaves as she needs to and should, full of unnecessary apologies. I am now alone.

I am agitated. My hands are shaking. People are sending me supportive messages on Facebook and Twitter and I reply with smiling face emoticons. There is no “agitated, hands shaking emoticon”. I am running on adrenaline and caffeine.

My husband was admitted at 6:30am. It is now 12pm. I will see him in 3 hours.

For now I will wait.

The Smart Casual sure is Punctual!: on Mental Health and Academia

It is all too common to see PhD students work themselves to the point of physical and mental illness in order to complete their studies. It is less common to see PhD students who feel that they are under such pressure that the only option is suicide. But it does happen. There is a culture of acceptance around mental health issues in academia – and this needs to change. (source)

I have read a few recent pieces from The Guardian about mental health issues and academia. This has caused me to reflect upon my own experiences as a woman with OCD, a casual academic, and prior to that, an undergraduate and postgraduate student. In this post I am not speaking for all people with mental illness, or even all people who have OCD. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a term that encompasses a wide selection of behaviours and compulsions, and the experience that one person has is likely far different to that of another, even with the same diagnosed condition.

OCD has manifested itself in different ways for me, in different points of my life, however one thing has held true for me for as long as I can remember. The reason it took so long for me to realise I had anxiety because I didn’t know that was what it was. I became so used to being consumed by panic and worry that it never occurred to me that it was even a problem, it was and is my default setting. I am always fucking worried, or as I would tell myself, a “realist”.

I was not diagnosed with OCD until after my daughter had been born. My pregnancy had been horrendous to say the least and I had become extremely unwell. One observation I had made, even before this diagnosis, was that the behaviours I had adopted during my pregnancy (obsessive thoughts, rituals, obsessive Googling) were just an extreme manifestation of behaviors I had experienced since I was a teenager. However many of these could easily be written off as quirks, or eccentricities. I have always been a “worrier” and come from a long line of worriers. My Mum is a superhero whose superpower is the ability to leap to the worst conclusion in a single bound and I found that I followed suit. I used to do silly things, that I recognised as being silly as I was doing them. The pegs on the line had to match in colour on a single piece of clothing or something would happen to my brother. That is ridiculous. I know it’s ridiculous, but it was an easy enough ritual to do, would make me feel relieved once I had done it, so really what was the harm?

Insidious.

I was never particularly successful at high school, a point that some people find surprising given the academic aptitude I displayed once I got to university. The only subject I gave a shit about was 3 unit English. Whether or not that still exists or how that system works I have no idea, but that’s what it was called in the shadowy era known as the late 90s.  I got to uni and I crashed head first into Cultural Studies and English and Sociology and fell in love. I loved the thick books of photocopied readings full of Stuart Hall and Foucault and Dorothy Porter. I loved the writing and the reading and the discussions. I loved discursive analysis and semiotics and ate it all up. What I didn’t realise at the time was that I began to engage in behaviours which were unhealthy, and perhaps even damaging, but because these equalled success within the academic context it didn’t even occur to me to question them.

Inimical.

I lived only a ten minute walk away from campus, if that. However it became my mission to always be “on time” to class. However what is “on time” for me is actually grotesquely early for others. I had to be the first person in the classroom, I don’t know why but I had to be. I would sometimes get to class as early as 60 minutes before it was scheduled to start in order to avoid the shadowy spectre of ‘lateness’. I don’t know what would have happened if I had have been late, and I never asked myself the question of why it was such a big deal either. I would use this time alone in the classroom to review the readings and mentally prepare for class discussion.

The Smart Casual is so punctual!

I would hand in assignments at least a week earlier, if not more. This was in the pre-eLearning era which meant that I handed my beleaguered tutor a physical print out which they would then have to store until the assignment was actually due. They would be astonished, or annoyed, or confused. I had to do it, to give myself at least temporary respite from the anxiety that was a part of my daily existence. Once I had handed it in I would feel okay, it was one less thing on the list. Why would I want to leave it until the night before when I could relieve some of that grinding worry by getting it out-of-the-way a month or so before?

The Smart Casual is so organised!

My marks were of the utmost importance to me. If I didn’t get at least a D I would be devastated, and to be honest less than a HD made me profoundly unhappy. I worked and stressed and worried and in the last two years of my undergraduate degree I got a HD average, but at what cost? I wasn’t in any social clubs, I had only a small group of friends, and I worked only short-term temp jobs between sessions in order to make my studies my absolute number 1 top priority above all else. My only respite was Thursday “uni night” drinking sessions where I would drink to get drunk. Drinking culture was a massive part of undergraduate life so this wouldn’t have even stuck out as unusual. I drank to escape my own stupid mind.

The Smart Casual is so smart!

Now I am not arguing that being punctual and organised and smart aren’t all good qualities to have, because they are in fact all exceptional qualities to have and will serve you well both in the workplace, and in life generally. However they must also be weighed against the personal cost that they present. However to me none of the above ‘symptoms’ I mentioned signalled that something was wrong. I cast these behaviours in a different light: they instead meant that I was a born academic, I hit the milestones, I got the marks, I submitted the First Class Honours thesis and if constant “worry” was what it took to get it done, well so be it.

It is this element of my personality that has brought me the most personal success and recognition, is also a part of me that has caused me the most anguish. It was my (unrecognised and undiagnosed) OCD that was part of the reason I dropped out of my PhD without seeking assistance or guidance from anyone else. I had been so successful as an undergraduate, I never needed help to get the HD’s, so it seemed to be an admission of failure to put my hand up and say “help me”. I didn’t want to need help. I had worked as an undergraduate in isolation and it had got me places, I don’t know why this stopped working when I was a PhD student.  I think it was the isolation, the fatigue of working on a massive project with seemingly no end in sight. I felt like I was a burden to my PhD supervisors. Coupled with the breakdown of a long-term relationship it got to the point where the only option I had was to walk away. While I did what I had to do to cope at the time, I have regretted that decision ever since.

I have learned to recognise these unhealthy patterns in myself now. While I have learned to temper my more extreme tendencies, these patterns still remain. I am early to work. I get things done always. Deadlines are not a challenge to me, as the only way to avoid the extreme anxiety they cause in me is to face them head on and get that shit done. The point of this post is that I understand the pressures that undergraduate and postgraduate studies can cause, and I empathise with the myriad ways that students may usocd-nightmare-memee to cope. Many students procrastinate, I could never do it myself but I get that is what works for some.

OCD has kind of become a buzzword, shorthand for ‘anal retentive’ or ‘obsessed with cleanliness’. Image macros about OCD make it about patterns and hand-washing. That’s not my thing. My house is almost always a shitfight, and a crooked picture or mismatched pair of socks has zero impact on my well-being. According to Jeff Szymanski, OCD in pop culture tends to focus on the disorder as being “cartoon-like” with individuals “portrayed as eccentric, sociopathic, or dismissively (just another hand washer)” (source).  The reality of OCD is much messier. Yes it can be hand-washing, and Monk style obsessive counting and cleaning, those are real manifestations, but they are not the only manifestations. Really OCD just refers to the myriad of ways that different people choose to alleviate their extreme symptoms of anxiety. I was and am a master of keeping my symptoms imperceptible. I don’t scream or swing from the rafters or scream obscenities at the train station therefore I must be okay. Except sometimes I’m not.

I have visited friends who’ve said offhand remarks like “I am so OCD about my dvd collection” or “I am so OCD about cleaning” and while I get it, it also makes me sad because it completely dismisses the reality for me and others who have this particular brand of mental illness. Our painful reality becomes a quirky idiosyncrasy. I don’t take it personally, the people who have said these things are almost always the most caring and empathetic people I know, but it reminds me that there is a thing wrong with me, a thing that is somehow good but also bad, a thing that makes me strange and wrong but also punctual and smart.

If you are reading this and it strikes a chord then I urge you to reach out to people around you. Some people get driven to the point of illness by the stresses of academia and this isn’t okay. For others, academia just exacerbates the tendencies that already exist, and that’s not okay either. Don’t drop out. Don’t disappear. Don’t think that you are lesser than, or weird, or sick. It’s okay to be a worrier, it’s not okay to be consumed by worry. Your campus should have mental health facilities available for both students and staff, please make use of them. If you are experiencing more urgent issues and are in Australia then call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Only the Lonely: on my decision to parent an only child

The Doctor leaned over the desk towards me with an earnestness that was touching. “You really need to think about this” he said “your fertility will start to decrease after you turn 35”. He then leaned back in the chair and tented his fingers, gazing into the middle distance “mind you, that doesn’t make it impossible, it’s just something you should keep in mind”.

This interaction doesn’t come across as striking until you take into account why I had visited this doctor in the first place. I went to him regarding my toenail fungus.

Almost from the earliest days of bringing my now 4-year-old daughter home from the hospital, it had been asked of us when we were planning to have another. This I now understand is not a unique experience, and has become the default question for almost all new parents of healthy children. I said “never again”, the way many new and first time mothers probably say it. I meant it though. And 4 years later I continue to mean it, for so many reasons.

Now my pregnancy and birth were both high unpleasant for me, both physically and emotionally. I suffered from extreme vomiting and was on the verge of dehydration for five draining months. Lifting my head from the pillow became an event worth celebrating, and the term “morning sickness” made me angry and reesentful. I didn’t have “morning sickness” I had entire life sickness and it left me physically drained. Unfortunately after my so-called “morning sickness” subsided, I went into a bad emotional space. I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which manifested itself as having repetitive, obsessive, and highly distressing thoughts that I had brought specific harm to the developing fetus. Overall I missed out on the glowing pregnancy stuff and instead was catapulted straight into hormonal, vomiting, obsessive, crazy-lady hell.

The internet also isn’t short of horrific birthing stories, so I won’t add mine to the list. Suffice to say my daughter was diagnosed with IUGR of unknown cause at 34ish weeks, and I was induced at 37+6 in order to accommodate for my obstetrician’s upcoming Golf tournament (this is not a joke, this is an actual thing that happened).  The whole event was a clusterfuck of epic proportions and the only good thing to come out of it was my tiny 2.495 kilo baby. However this was not the end of my nightmare. While I have heard it said by some Mothers all of their fears were swept aside when they held their tiny bundle of joy in their arms et. al. my own experience was that my fears and obsessions only took hold of my life and I was hospitalised for OCD and depression when my daughter was around 6 weeks old.

I never glowed. I never nested. I never counted tiny fingers and tiny toes. I never debated the benefits of one brand of car seat or pram over another. Instead I cried and vomited and at my lowest moments I thought about taking my own life.

You don’t see that on the cover of Mother and Baby magazine.

There isn’t a glowing redemption story. I never really had a moment of clarity wherein I experienced “the true beauty” of motherhood, or any such thing. I did some counselling, took some medications, and slowly came to terms with the idea that maybe I was wrong about the things I had invested so much emotional energy in. Life goes on. My tiny baby grew into an average sized child, I got some “Mum” friends to whom I partially owe my life, and eventually my life started to resemble something vaguely normal. My daughter and I went on play dates, swimming lessons, all the stuff that parents and children apparently do, and while there have been some dark moments, it all didn’t feel as foreign and dark and soul-devouring as it perhaps once did.

Many of my daughter’s little friends now have younger siblings, 1 or 2 years old. My daughter wants a sibling, she tells me so regularly. She loves to play with her baby dolls, I watch her as she watches other kids play with their siblings and I feel like shit doing it. I feel like the worst Mum in the world. Feeling like shit becomes the default emotion of a parent I have since learned. Child last to get picked up from Daycare? Feel like shit. Child’s speech not developing at the expected rate? Feel like shit. Child asks for a sibling you aren’t able to give them? Better believe I feel like shit about that.

I could physically have a child, and I feel very lucky for that. I am very sorry for the people who desperately want children and are unable to conceive them. My heart breaks for those people in fact. When my GP was advising me about my declining fertility that was coming from a good place. I wasn’t offended, although given the context I was a little surprised. But society expects multiple children. Bring 2 or 3 children into the world and nobody will question your decision. Claim that you only want a single child and you will be asked to explain that decision again and again. The only child confessional has become a genre in and of itself. So this is my contribution to the genre. It isn’t an easy decision, and I am not always even comfortable with having made it, but it is the only one I am able to make.

People say it could be different next time, that I don’t know. Maybe they’re right, it’s impossible to say. But all I know is that I have joy in my life right now. I am working, and planning for the future. Ms 4 and I have so much fun together, and she is the funniest person I have ever met (she calls spaghetti “twosghetti” and speed limits “speed lemons”. That is ADORABLE). I am sorry that my child doesn’t have a sibling to play with, but if her options are a sibling, or a desperately ill mother, then I know what she would choose. I am choosing to be the mother to an only child, and if that makes me selfish then so be it.