I pressed the buzzer of my therapist’s building, a small Victorian in downtown Berkeley. I hadn’t been to see her in four years. I felt like a wind-up toy just before its key is released. I needed to tell her the worst before I lost my nerve. Right after we sat down I said, “I’m just going to say this without thinking, I need to do it.” I clenched my hands together and lowered my head to let my hair cover my face. I had to force the words out. I explained quickly how my emotions had overtaken me, how I had been banging the wall in frustration, biting myself on the hand if Simon wouldn’t sleep or if Jack and I would argue. I ended with, “Sometimes there are bruises, bite marks on my hand. But not so much that you’d notice . . .” I couldn’t look at her.
I breathed in. Slowly I raised my eyes. She was right there, with empathy — not the disgust or surprise I had imagined. She told me about the many women who had previously graced her office, my compatriots whose existence I couldn’t possibly have imagined. Some would tear out strands of their hair. Some locked themselves in the bathroom and ranted and screamed into a pillow. Some cut themselves. She said “We can find another way. You can get through this.” I exhaled.
In the next weeks and months we trained a flashlight on the darkest part of me. I forced myself to find a babysitter in order to be able to go to therapy alone. That in itself was a huge step. I was able to walk deliciously unencumbered to her office, noticing trees and storefronts on the way. My line of vision changed. I looked up when I walked. I’d come in wearing only the clothes on my back, carrying nothing. I’d sit down and immediately start talking, gesturing, my hands open, releasing what I had taken in, what I had written on my body.
She saw everything and didn’t flinch. I trusted that. I had expected her to think badly of me, to treat me like a crazy person. Instead I got love, understanding, and respect. My world slowly got bigger. The whole story came out. The accident, the months I spent barely leaving the apartment, the harsh judgment I imagined from other mothers, from her. She helped me see that it was all about the guilt; that often when women feel guilty over conflicting feelings concerning their children, they lash out at themselves. They do this rather than lash out at their children, or their partners, or the society that pressures them to be perfect. Self-inflicted pain is a release, a way to demonstrate inner pain on the body.
Sitting in her office that day, hearing her explanation about mother-guilt, my head pulsed. I dug my fists into my thighs. How could this be? “Since my first jolt of hormones, my first period, my first inkling of consciousness as a woman, I’ve been working against this kind of oppression! I’ve spent my adult life a feminist for God’s sake!” It sounded so textbook, so pat and rational, so depressingly sexist in a depressingly sexist society, but it was true. I was living proof. I still hated myself for the accident. For wanting a break and deciding to take Simon out and have fun. For hoping he’d fall asleep. For dressing up that night. For Simon’s skull fracture. For letting him fall out of my hands. And for all the weeks after, for letting the sadness and anger take over. Wasn’t I stronger than this?
I needed to really convince myself, to the core, that it wasn’t my fault. Feeling sexy and wanting to go out that night wasn’t a bad thing. One day I went home and pulled the blue platform sandals from the bag where they had sat in back of my closet since the accident. I traced the height of the heel with my finger, examined the soles for scrapes, skid marks, evidence of the fall. I touched the shimmery blue sandal straps and remembered that night, getting dressed for our first night out with Simon. How I had wanted him to sleep so I could enjoy time with Jack. That was an okay thing to want.
All my memories of that night had been steeped in Jewish superstition — depression combined with sayings from my childhood like “bite your tongue” or “kayn ein hora,” the Yiddish expression meaning “to ward off the evil eye.” It struck me that all that superstition centered around being punished for reveling in happiness, showing off joy or pride, or around warnings such as “be careful what you wish for.” I didn’t need to live my life like a hounded Jew in a Russian shtetl.
My experience could be different. I could relax, walk tall. Literally. Be a proud Jewish mama. No contradiction in terms. I had hidden the sexy shoes away as if they had jinxed me. But no magical power had said, “I’ll show her, I’ll make her evil wish come true!” I put the shoes on. Wanting to have my own self wasn’t bad.
It. Was. An. Accident. I was not God.
My therapist showed me that post-partum depression is treatable. I hadn’t lost complete touch with reality, though often I felt crazy. There were days when I would come to her, sobbing. Once I said, “I yell at Jack and I don’t even know I’m doing it. I feel crazy. I can’t see myself at all, I have no objectivity. Seriously, am I going crazy?” It wasn’t the first time I’d asked her this question. And this time, like every other time, she repeated, “No, absolutely not. You are not crazy.” Each time I believed her a little more.