Finding the Words: Where Fact and Fiction Meet

One thing I’ve noticed recently is that I don’t always know what I feel. I may feel it fully, but my throat closes in on itself when I try to name the feeling. This happened to me all the time as a kid. Sometimes–and it can be years after the fact–I’ll be reading something and come across a word describing someone else’s experience, and it’ll hit me like a slap in the face. Oh, that’s the word for it.

I remember reading a book last year in which the author detailed a woman’s response to her husband leaving her for their teenaged babysitter. She felt humiliated. That’s never a word I had used or thought to use to describe myself, but I realized then that’s how I’ve felt so many times. Before, I might have said I was “embarrassed” or “anxious,” but that’s not quite right. Those words lacked, glossing over the full terror of the experience and the deep, abiding shame that lingers long after the original event has faded.

As terribly as the feeling is, I’m glad to have that word to hold on to. To give meaning to what might otherwise seem a futile experience in powerlessness. Still, even now, I feel the sting of rebuke: Can I actually talk about this? Can I bear it? Can others? I think maybe that’s why these words, true meaningful words, evaded me for as long as they did. They are almost, it seems, unspeakable when applied to the self and everyday lived experiences, especially the domestic. No one wants to hear about how bad you felt, especially not at the hands of those who were supposed to protect you. Instead, you get over it. Move on. Become resilient. But there’s a fine line between moving on and denial, which only serves to cement the shame in your psyche.

I read an article recently about a Norweigian novelist. She wrote a fictional novel about a woman who was abused by her father as a child. However, the novel so conspicuously paralleled her own life that it has led many people to believe it is autobiographical. And she’s not the first writer to (allegedly) fuse fiction and fact. I think most writers do this to some extent. And I can certainly understand how trauma can seem a better fit for fiction. Not just for the consumption of the general public, but also for one’s own sake. Maybe some distance is helpful to cut beyond the culture of silence, of “just move on.” Hopefully, the fiction becomes the catalyst for that forward movement. The first step is simple: Find the right word.

Holy Cross

This is the nonfiction essay I wrote that I am using (with great artistic license) as part of my NaNo novel. N.B.: this is a rough draft, and I don’t usually write non-fiction. Also N.B.: This is a pretty personal story about my traumatic experience pregnancy and childbirth, probably not a topic for everyone, but I hope that it resonates with someone out there.

The Virgin Mary watched as the doors parted and we entered Holy Cross. I was 42 weeks pregnant—eager, full, expectant. They placed me in the High Risk pregnancy unit, the standard procedure for inductions. I was ready, but I wasn’t prepared for the grimness, the culture of fear the permeates the walls of the labor and delivery wards. The nurses and their veiled threats of “let’s hope you don’t have a C-section,” or how they would run around frantic every time I moved, dislodging the wires that flimsily held my baby’s heartbeat. Once, after a dose of Pitocin, the rhythmic beeps disappeared. Four nurses rushed in. They positioned me on all fours as they yelled and moved the sensors, searching for the heartbeat. The baby had shifted. Once stable, they left us alone with the machines and the beeps. It all seemed so fragile.

The next day, my water broke. But the baby was stuck. And my blood pressure continued to rise. As I was given magnesium, I was told that I would have to wait 24 hours after the birth to hold my baby. I did not know what magnesium meant. I didn’t know it would make my vision double. I didn’t know it would make me retch. What choice did I have anyway? At midnight, I was told I would have to have a C-section. My husband suited up in that pale blue gear as I was wheeled into the OR. Four people had to flip me from the hospital bed to the shining operating table. I was nothing but dead weight.

I shivered and shook on the table. The pain in my right shoulder was as sharp as the scalpel in my stomach. Over my left shoulder, my husband begged me to stay awake. His voice was insistent but far away. The cold kept me awake, but I did not want to be. I was trapped in a body that was no longer under my control. All I wanted was an end to suffering. Somewhere in the distance, the doctor was counting her instruments. I didn’t even care about seeing my daughter, the one I had hoped and waited for. A nurse pushed her close to my face so I could see her, but I barely even moved my head. By the time I did, she was gone.

Back in the labor and delivery, I was told my daughter was in the NICU. Her face was deformed. They suspected it was a genetic disease, but they needed to run some tests to be certain. After five hours, my husband was allowed to visit her. I laid back in the hospital bed, as the encroaching dawn cast a livid glow on the machinery surrounding me. I waited from news from the NICU: nothing but neon green lights in the glinting dawn.

Twelve hours later, my husband wheeled me down to the NICU where I met my daughter for the first time. She was bruised and fragile, hooked up to wires and boisterous contraptions. She had a tiny iv inserted into her tiny little wrist. I worried about pushing the needle further into her skin as I picked her up. I sat awkwardly cradling her in my wheel chair, adjusting the wires, and fumbling with my nursing bra in the middle of the NICU, flanked by one-pound babies in incubators and their sullen-looking families. A NICU-nurse hovered over me as I tried to get my daughter to latch. She adjusted my nipple and pressed my daughters face into my breast. She admonished me for stroking my daughter. “A newborn’s skin is too sensitive.” I felt like a failure and I was ashamed.

Afterwards, my husband would wheel me back up to my room, and I would cry. I cried because I was in pain, I cried because I wanted to hold my baby, I cried because I wasn’t sure she or I would ever leave. A nurse said I had postpartum depression. I lied and said I was crying because I was so happy. I wouldn’t let them see me cry again. I didn’t want them to keep me any longer.

On the fifth day, the hospital chaplain paid a visit, she made the rounds to all the parent’s with babies in the NICU. She asked how got through the difficult times. I looked at my husband and said blandly, “we support each other.” I wanted to say, “What choice do I have?”

I left Holy Cross on the seventh day after my arrival, feeling beat up, defeated, exhausted from the ordeal of having to protect my fragile self against the onslaught of fear. I took my daughter with me.

My daughter will turn two in November. Every day I look at her and know I have so much to be thankful for. She is healthy, exuberant, joyful. People look at her and say “all’s well that ends well.” But some things linger. I can’t go into a hospital, not even to visit my sister in the maternity ward. Every cough, fever, or sniffle from my daughter elicits a deep pulse of panic within me—please, god, don’t let her be sick again. I can’t go back. Precious moments are stolen away from me through anxiety. Fear lurks around every corner.

When I tell people about this, they often act as if I am expressing something unspeakable. As if talking about the ordeal makes my child any less precious, or childbirth any less miraculous. Perhaps it is an affront to god to feel disappointed. But I think if there is a god, she would welcome it. After Holy Cross, I am acutely aware of my own weakness and fragility: I thought I was going to die and I did not fight back. I did not fight to see my child. I lied down, defeated, and I cried until fear caused my tears to stop. I curse my body and it’s failed machinery: I will never have children again. These are some harsh truths about me. Sometimes, there is no choice to be made. But, I am learning to lean into the fear, the disappointment, the uncertainty. Just a little. And bit by bit, I embrace it, tentatively, like a newborn.