What Fades Away
Katherine Anderson Howell
The baby was 3 months old.
I wasn’t happy.
I spin and spin around the living room. My head feels lopsided, like it does when I’m too tired, or when panic leaves me hollow. The baby is in my arms. The baby laughs. I spin. I bounce the baby. I force a smile, which becomes a slightly more real smile, which becomes a little laugh. “Shake It Out” plays on repeat. Florence Welch and I sing the old platitude, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” The baby doesn’t know darkness. He thinks I am sunlight.
I spin to shake out the dark. Not off, like a burden to lay down or a gnat to swat. Out because something is inside, and it holds me down. Not a stone, but something like vomit, the morning sickness that plagued me, sent me to the hospital. The bad body emptying itself. The devil is in me. The devil is me. I am bad….I am to be shaken out, like a rug hung over a porch rail and beaten.
I keep shaking and spinning to stop regret from falling back on me like dust. But I run out of breath easily, and I’m tired, and I feel like I can’t endure. But I do. I bounce the baby. The baby laughs. Dawn might come.
It is almost impossible to describe what I was. Words that others use, the clinical words, fit when I heard them: intrusive thoughts, rage, feeling overwhelmed, guilt, isolation, disconnection. The words themselves didn’t belong to me.
Nothing really belonged to me. I was mostly a vessel, and what I carried seemed to have soured within me. I would sit and wonder why I kept thinking, “You have no purpose. Your life is useless.” After all, wasn’t I staring at my life’s purpose – the blue–eyed boy who wouldn’t sleep unless he was nestled on my shoulder? The persistent voice inside spoke clearly to me of my worthlessness. I wept for the mother I should have been, the one I felt my son deserved.
Later, things clicked when I read the phrase “intrusive thoughts.” Which is a strange way to describe them, as they are intrusive, they come unbidden from somewhere, but they aren’t exactly thoughts. They are more like whispers. You don’t expect others to hear them. You know they likely aren’t real. The sounds they make seem so like truth.
I could not have named these symptoms then; I could only label a day good or bad. The good days, we left the house. We saw a friend. I did things right. I didn’t cry.
The bad days, I screamed at nothing, at myself, at the cat, at the baby until I sobbed.
In “Breaking Down,” Welch sings that her “old familiar friend” would slip into her bed, “creeping in the streetlight.” This lyric, referencing the Victorian euphemism for a spirit or devil that tormented, resonated with me. I had spent much of the previous year teaching Jane Eyre. In that novel, Rochester tells a bewildered Jane that Bertha was “prompted by her familiar” to do horrifying things. My familiar was quieter than Bertha’s, more like the one in “Breaking Down,” but it tore me apart internally. It did not alarm me at first. It was a creature I knew. I had plenty of excuses. I was tired. I was hormonal. Even though I knew to be afraid, the line between “okay,” “baby blues,” and “postpartum depression” is not a walled border. It is an attic door that opens in the night when the guard is asleep.
The bad days began to outnumber the good. More days than not, I couldn’t get up the energy to move around, shifting from the rocker to the Ikea chair I had bought to nurse in. More days than not, I saw normal things – a little fussiness, some diaper rash, a cluster feed, another call to the pediatrician – as testaments to my grave failures as a mother.
I made the decision to ask for help with my husband. I asked him if I was ok. He said the bad days came more often than the good. I researched antidepressants and breastfeeding. I called my OB. I sat on my couch, the western sun streaming in the beautiful diamond–shaped panes that had made me love this house. I felt like choking. The nurse left a note for the provider. The doctor called me back. I had a prescription. I had an appointment.
There was no one moment where I clicked back into myself. Psychiatric and medical language provided a definition, if not a meaning, for the things I experienced, and the things I became. I spent a lot of time listening to Ceremonials by Florence and the Machine. The music gave me something more than a definition; it made these gut wrenching feelings seem peaceful, okay. I could fantasize about drowning during “What the Water Gave Me.” The crescendo that accompanied the lyric “Lay me down/Let the only sound/Be the overflow/ Pockets full of stones” conjured images of Virginia Woolf, and other women, slipping away into madness. It was not scary. Instead, it was what must be done. The water was peace. The water was, as the song says, “a cruel mistress/and a bargain must be made.” Someone has to drift away.
This could read as suicidal, and perhaps, it was a little. I did not want to harm myself. I wanted to be taken away, for that to be a protective choice for my child. Floating away, letting myself drown, could be a gift. I fought against that, but “What the Water Gave” me let me accept that I was separated from the world by mist. It let me accept that I wanted that separation, even as I refused it.
It began to feel okay to fake it: a fake smile, a fake thank you. Lots of little white “I’m okay” lies. Getting back to work helped. I expected to sob when I dropped off my son at daycare the first day. I was elated. And I was happy to pick him up – rushing out after that first class to get to him, not out of fear, but out of a desire to be with him again. It was a new feeling.
It wasn’t always a straight line to better. When I was at work, I wanted to be with the baby. When I was with the baby, I wanted to be at work. I felt horrible on date nights. I felt horrible staying home. It took a long time for things to settle. I spent my commutes savoring being alone with Ceremonials.
The song “No Light, No Light” still lingers as a relic of that time. In it, Welch begs her lover “Would you leave me if I told you what I’d become?” I did not want to admit what I had become, but worse, I did not have the language to describe it beyond “bad” or “depressed” or “PPD.” I was more than just not myself. I was a new, worse, miserable self. If my normal self was a well lit photograph, my new self was a smudge on the lens, and shadows in the background.
That new self still shades me, when I am instantly enraged for no reason, when minor (and major) mothering mistakes flash into my mind as I try to sleep, when I think I see myself in my son. Anger and a sense of powerlessness are triggered by the kinds of things that triggered rage and despair before. Postpartum depression rewired my brain. It isn’t easy to undo. As “No Light, No Light” insists, “you can’t choose what stays and what fades away.”
I became not a monster, not a shell. But something else that can only be alluded to in crescendo and crash.
Katherine Anderson Howell muddles through writing, teaching, and parenting in Washington, D.C. She is an adjunct at the George Washington University, where she teaches writing. Her work, academic and creative, can be found in On The Issues Magazine, Gargoyle Magazine, Pennsylvania English, and The Rumpus. She has two young sons, both of whom love music.