Put the past behind you.
Be happy about how far you have come since (fill in the blank).
These are all common phrases people love to shoot off when they know someone is struggling to deal with something which happened in the past. While they are certainly lovely sentiments, the one thing people who give voice to these phrases do not know is that memory is very organic. Sure you can do your best to decide to deal with a tragic event in a positive way but then there are the memories which sneak up on us and scare us to death. The anniversary of the birth of my daughters and the anniversary of my time in a mental ward for Postpartum OCD are a few memories which did just that to me.
I am not alone in this experience.
Many women struggle when reaching their child’s first birthday, their hospitalization date, miscarriage date, or the date on which they lost a child. These are all events that leave more than a glancing blow. The fight to return to the “new normal” is an uphill battle. And once the “new normal” arrives and you’ve unpacked the last box, there’s a looming date trouncing your way ever so cheerfully. Sure you can bob and weave but even the best of us may find ourselves down for the count after a few sucker punches.
A fellow PPD warrior mom, Helen Crawford, shared with me that her 1yr anniversary was very traumatic. She could smell/hear the memories of the year before. “My fingers burned. I talked with my therapist. Surviving severe depression is like surviving extreme trauma. I took the finger burning as a reminder to ‘love myself more’ and say thank you to my body.”
Today my three year old daughter found pictures of herself as an infant. Awwwwww, you say. But these particular pictures included a feeding tube taped ever so gingerly to her less than 24 hour old cheek with cute teddy bear gauze tape. Classic symptoms consumed me – heart in throat, check, rapid shallow breathing, check, rapid pulse, check, dizzy, check. Oh.CRAP. She’s been flashing them here and there for the past week and I’ve been ever so nicely sidestepping the issue. But today, today she wanted to know WHAT that was on her cheek and why it was there. Oh boy. And I thought the hard question with kids was supposed to be “Mommy? Where do Babies come from?” (And for the record, I GOT that one today too from her 5 year old sister – what a day!)
Suddenly, there I was again. Curled up in the hospital bed, crying my heart out, aching, hurting, wanting to go back in time to BEFORE the birth, for someone to warn us about the rabbit hole into which we were about to trip. What.the.hell???
She knows about her cleft palate and knows doctors fixed it. She also knows which belly button came from mommy and which one belongs to the doctors. But we have never discussed the tubes. NEVER. As playfully as I could, I explained to her that because her mouth had a hole in it when she was born, she had to eat with a tube which went in through her mouth and went allllll the way down to her stomach. (I can still hear her laughing because I tickled her as I told her this.) Inside, I was dying. I smelled the NICU. I heard the sounds, the crying, saw the tense faces, the reserved mouths as they asked about worst case scenarios. I thought I was going to pass out when she said she wanted these pictures – the tube pictures – up on her bedroom wall. I softly replied that Mommy would have to think about it.
I thought about it all day. ALL day. Once she got home from her 2 hours of special needs pre-k for her speech, we talked. Honestly and age-appropriately. I told her that when she was born while I was very happy to meet her and get to know her, all of the medical stuff surrounding her birth like the tube feedings and surgeries were very difficult for Mommy to handle. And that it was very hard for Mommy to look at pictures of her with tubes and such attached to her. I promised her we would find some different baby pictures to put up on her wall. I also told her that it was ok she had to use a tube – and I was glad the nurses and doctors knew just what to do to help her grow strong so she could become the amazing silly little girl she is today. She was sad but seemed to take it in stride.
To top things off, 12 years ago today, my maternal grandfather passed away suddenly after experiencing congestive heart failure. Yay for anniversaries, right? (And in 19 days, I’ll be marking the anniversary of my paternal grandfather’s death which left me grandparentless. I was a real ball of joy 12 years ago, I tell you what!)
Grief is a tough thing to handle. 12 years ago I dealt with it in a very physical and raw manner. I remember crying, screaming, and punching my then boyfriend until I would literally black out. Healthy, right?
The thing is to give yourself PERMISSION to mourn/remember/accept whatever it is that your anniversary centers around. Celebrate how far you’ve come since said event. Honor the event but also do something to help propel yourself forward. One of the last things my maternal step grandmother said to me (in what I now know was her I know I’m dying soon so I better get this out while I can speech) was to always be the best that I could be no matter what stood in my way. Those words have stuck by me. And even in failure, I’ve always strived to do every single thing that I possibly could before giving up. It’s part of what got me through my PPD. I knew I was better than PPD. I KNEW I had to turn and fight. And every time I have an opportunity to help another mom through her struggles, I am celebrating my anniversary. I am celebrating no longer being alone. I am paying forward the help I received. I am choosing to walk the line between remembering the past yet striving for the future. I AM HERE to do that. And for that, I am grateful.
Remember to celebrate YOU on your child’s birthday too. It’s not just your child’s birthday – it’s YOUR own personal Mother’s Day. Don’t rush around for the kid without stopping to breathe for yourself too. Sure, Hallmark doesn’t make a card for this but that makes it all the more special, right? You’ve earned it. You’re worth it. And doggonnit, we like you. In addition, the more positives you make out of a negative, the less power it holds over you. Darkness cannot win when bathed in light. Choose to regain those reins as you approach your anniversary – whether it’s childbirth, miscarriage, hospitalization, recovery – it’s ok to cry. But it’s totally awesome to party too.