(Very) Belated Mother Day Thoughts

It recently occurred to me: I have no photos of myself during my pregnancy or the first year of my daughter’s life. This strikes me as so sad, not because I missed out on the photo opportunity, but because it’s evidence of the self loathing I felt at the time.

Motherhood for me has always been a sort of a struggle. It’s not something that I would say comes easily. Most of the time, it isn’t that easy for me to enjoy. Motherhood, for me, came with a sense of loss. And a sense of obligation. With that came anxiety. Sometimes I feel like I am incapable of loving my daughter fully, because that would require a capacity for loss that I just don’t have. Love and loss being two sides of the same coin. Maybe that’s because I run towards pessimism. I think about these things too much.

When my daughter was born, it was awful. The experience of being in the hospital, plied with drugs, reeling from the complications of those drugs, being plied with more drugs to address those complications, all the while being treated like a problem and a liability by the medical professionals whose job, I thought, was to protect me. . . I’m not trying to rant about how the medical profession treats women (though I’ve got plenty to say about it), but rather how this experience was a telling frame for how motherhood would start for me. A lonely, wild sort of feeling. One marked by a painful awareness of how fragile everything is.

I say all this because I don’t think women talk about it enough. It’s just joy and blessings, and I-wouldn’t-change-it-for-anything-in-the-world generalizations and glosses. Maybe the occasional complaint about lack of sleep or free time. But it’s almost sacrilege to discuss pain and loss in regards to motherhood. You can’t even say that sometimes the world feels like an unsafe place and it feels almost stupid to bring another kid into that. You can’t speak of the heavy, heavy weight of all that responsibility.

Without the platitudes, can we just talk about it? Just to sit honestly with our fears for a little while?

After my daughter was born, I tried to speak about my experiences of fear, anxiety, terror. All these little griefs. And I was told just to be grateful, that “all’s well that ends well,” as if speaking of my pain would … what? Tempt fate? Anger god? Make people uncomfortable, most likely. But result of this silence was only to feel more isolated and shamed for feeling complicated feelings. To any other mothers out there dealing with their feelings: This life is not a box that you need to neatly fit yourself in. There’s much more space in this world than that.

The Shame and Secrecy of Trichotillomania

I’ve never liked my hair.

I was about eleven when I started pulling my hair out. I remember doing this at the school library, sitting at a table alone reading a book and compulsively pulling out my hair, strand by strand. Sometimes I would take a strand and pull it through my clenched teeth, like a vegetable grater, until the strand snapped under the tension.  Or I would take the black, sticky follicle and tear it apart with my nails. When I would do this I was in my own little world. It was like a trance: I was oblivious to the piles of hair I would leave on the tables and floors around me. The strands people were always pulling off my clothing. It wasn’t until my grandmother, visiting from out of town, started picking at the thick layer of hair surrounding where I sat on our living room couch that it even registered to me that this was a noticeable thing to others. She looked disturbed as she asked me, “where did all this hair come from?” I said I guessed i was just shedding, and laughed–as if that was some sort of joke that explained it all. For whatever reason, she didn’t push it and after that, I started cleaning up after myself better. That bought me some time, but soon I developed a large bald spot in the back of my head from where I would pull out the most hair. I couldn’t see it looking at my reflection in a mirror, I only noticed it after kids in gym class started pointing it out. I could feel it when I reached my hand to the back of my scalp. It was about the size of my fist, completely devoid of hair. One of my classmates started calling me Friar Tuck–I guess that’s what it looked liked.

Finally, my mom asked me what happened–my teacher had mentioned it to her. I lied the best way I knew how: I blamed it on my little brother, who was probably two at the time. I said he pulled the whole chunk straight out. The lie was unbelievable even to me, the bald expanse on my head was too big, and my hair was thinned in other places as well. My eyelids had swollen because I would pick the lashes out, and my eyebrows were uneven for the same reason. But, the lie did its job. After that, I promised myself I would stop pulling out my hair, and I did stop. In a perverse way, it wasn’t even that hard–the deep degree of shame and embarrassment at my public self-disfiguration were powerful enough. Eventually, mercifully, my hair grew back, although it’s always been more unmanageable, as if it grew thicker and more obstinate in response.

I learned later that year that this behavior has a name: trichotillomania. It’s an impulse control disorder often appearing alongside depression, anxiety, and OCD. As a kid, I was comforted to learn my behavior had a name, that other people experienced the same thing. That context helped alleviate some of the shame and disgust I felt. But some things still lingered, things that continue to bother me to this day: why didn’t anyone help me? Why didn’t they see past my secrecy and unbelievable lies? Back then, I assumed that it was because of me. I thought there was something deeply, inherently wrong with me and I carried that notion around for far too long. It ballooned into the depression of my adolescence, the reckless anxiety of my twenties.

It’s significant to me that I developed trichotillomania right around the time I started puberty. It seems like a no-brainer that the increase in anxiety that comes along with being newly minted and fixed in the male gaze could manifest in compulsive bodily mutilation, especially in regards to hair, which is culturally associated with sexuality and beauty. It inadvertently turns that dynamic on its head: Hair can also be a shield. It can be a deterrent.

We Don’t Know What “Normal” Is

I, like many others, suffer from anxiety. Often, it is just a generalized buzzing, a pervasive feeling of dread, this excess negative energy. Other times it is acute, sharp, and dangerous-feeling. These are panic attacks. To me, these feel way worse than the generalized anxiety, which typically starts in my head and stays there. Panic, on the other hand, hijacks my body. My heartbeat feels impossibly fast, my throat feels like it’s closing, my vision narrows and darkens. My chest feels constricted. Sometimes, I can’t feel my hands. I can feel myself spinning out of control. In those moments, I feel horribly damaged. Broken. Like there is something really wrong with me.

I haven’t really found a great solution for the panic attacks. For me, the best plan of action has been to avoid situations that tend to lead to panic attacks. But, once I’m in the middle of one, the only thing to do is ride it out, pray to a god that I don’t really believe in, repeat some positive affirmations that I don’t really believe in, lie through my teeth and tell myself that I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay. Eventually, it passes.

Afterward, I still feel shaky and weak. It’s like I’ve seen a part of myself and I can’t go back.  I’ve seen myself for who I really am: frail and fragile and struggling to keep it together, and usually failing. I don’t always see myself this way, but there’s something about the aftermath of a panic attack that makes me feel vulnerable and flawed. This feeling can last for days or weeks. I feel depressed and, ultimately, anxious again.

That’s when I try to remind myself that I don’t know what normal is. Not really. Have I ever been normal? How would I know? So, what am I striving for? Most of the time, I tell myself that I should be different or how I shouldn’t have this problem. I compare myself to some imaginary person who has all their shit together. Deep down I know it’s a fiction: to think you know about someone else’s interior life. We don’t know what normal is. All we have is our own lived experience. Start from there. All those shoulds and should’nts just end up giving you an inferiority complex.