Newton’s Second Law by Kaly Sullivan

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In high school physics, we learned Newton’s Second Law; the force of an object is equal to the product of its mass and acceleration. F = ma. After my second son was born, I started experimenting with physics. I started throwing things. I craved the release of hurling an object through the air. I relished the moment of impact when the object hit its target – laundry detergent pooled at the bottom of the basement stairs, a board book flung through a glass door, a green smoothie splattered on a white kitchen wall, a dozen eggs smashed in the back of a mini van.

It seemed only fair. My sons, 17 months apart, they got to throw things. They threw blocks at each other’s heads, food on the floor, pacifiers over the edge of the crib, and sippy cups out of strollers. I wanted to throw things too. I needed to throw things. Every object that went sailing through the air was a confession, an admittance of defeat.

These crying, needy, babies with their never ending list of demands and preferences were out of control. You want to see out of control? This is what out of control looks like: grab and release.

It was impossible to tell what would set me off. There was no rhyme or reason to the kind of incident that would activate propulsion. A seemingly regular event like a toy bin emptied of all toys or an ungrateful whine or a grocery trip run off the rails, was enough force to set things into motion. For a split second, as an object took flight, time froze. All of the tension of the moment was released. And then with impact came the shame. Another mess to clean up. Another failed attempt to control myself. What is wrong with me? What kind of mother throws things?

Instead of searching for the source of my anger, I was quick to judge myself.

The first and last time I saw my own mother throw something was a few weeks after my brother was brought home from the hospital. In the weeks after his birth, I peered over the edge of the bassinet set up in a dim corner of the master bedroom. I was eight years old and having my mom who usually worked full-time home during the day felt special, almost illicit.

In the weeks after my brother was born, I could feel something else in the air, like that crackling feeling before a thunderstorm. I could feel it bumping off the walls like a bouncy ball unleashed in a small room. I tried to make myself small and scarce. But it was only a matter of time before a collision. It was only a matter of time before impact. One evening, my mom was making stir fry for dinner. We had a wok that went right on the stove, and there was a colander of vegetables on the counter waiting to be cooked. We ate a lot of stir fry probably because it was easy, fast, and healthy. My step-dad walking in the door from work said something about dinner, and my mom’s reply was to pick up the colander and throw it against the wall. Vegetables scattered across the kitchen floor. I don’t remember what my step-dad said or the tone. He could have said, Oh stir fry, or You’re really into stir fry these days, or Stir fry again? and the result would have probably been the same. Or maybe it was what he didn’t say that sent green broccoli across white checked linoleum. How are you? Are you hanging in? Why don’t you rest while I finish up dinner?

The vegetables flew, and my mom walked out the door barefoot, empty handed, leaving too quickly to take anything that might be useful in an escape–shoes, car keys, wallet. It comforted me to know that she didn’t have shoes. My eight-year-old logic told me that without shoes, she would have to come back. My stepdad, baby brother and I gathered around the dining room table, because that is what we would have done if she was there. What did we eat? Did we sheepishly salvage the stir fry or did we turn to peanut butter and jelly? I don’t remember. But we stayed calm, because we had no other choice. We acted like this woman walked out on us every day. All we could do was wait, taking turns glancing at the door and out the window for a glimpse of the woman that connected us all.

She reappeared just as the street lights started to come on, the broccoli long swept away with eyes red from crying, breasts swollen with milk, and feet blackened from asphalt. The maternity clothes she was still wearing postpartum were rumpled and damp with sweat. I was flooded with relief. I didn’t want to cry but felt that pinch in my throat a sure sign that tears were close.

Under regular circumstances, my mom was not a yeller or a thrower but an expert at keeping everything neatly contained. She rarely raised her voice. She was not one for dramatics, and I never saw her throw anything again. It was as if that evening, she was under a temporary spell, and with one throw she snapped out of it. The spell was broken.

I now know that after my brother was born, my mom experienced the postpartum blues, and the throw I witnessed was part of a more complex story. As a child I only saw pieces of what she was going through. I wonder now, was the broccoli the beginning or the end of that story? I don’t know how long it went on or if she ever saw a doctor or sought help or if she just pushed through in her own calm way.

When my first son was born, I was on high alert for signs of some sort of postpartum meltdown. I didn’t know if these things were genetic, but I prepared my husband for what I expected was the inevitable. Seventeen months later when my second son was born, I was too tired, too preoccupied, too overwhelmed to have thoughts about my postpartum emotional health. It was one foot in front of another. Every day a new exercise in survival. Because I had made it through my first son’s early days without incident, I thought I was in the clear. Then I started to throw things. As I ratcheted up my own throwing habit, I wondered if my mom’s one throw had unlocked something in me. Had her one throw given me silent permission for all of mine? Throwing became my go-to reaction when life with small children got out of control. And the more throws I made, the more addicted I became to the equation: Force = Mass X Acceleration.

Every parent of small children knows that things get out of control on an hourly or sometimes minute-by-minute basis, and my inability to deal with that chaos left me propelling whatever innocent object I was holding in my hand. More than frustration, I felt an empty disappointment. And anger. I was putting everything I had into being a mother. And I was still failing. If I wasn’t good at this, what was I good at? I underestimated the force of my children’s demands. The space they took up in my world felt like a punishment instead of a gift. Was this what my mom felt? The crushing weight of expectations? A sadness that felt like it would never pass? A disappointment in her bones? A baby that was never satisfied? A husband that questioned her choices? A situation spinning out of control?

As my children got older, and the rational moments outnumbered the out of control ones, my impulse to throw faded away. I grew out of my throwing phase just as my kids were outgrowing diapers and pacifiers and naps. But it did happen. I worry about how my throwing impacted my sons. Have I shown them that it’s okay to throw things?

Or have I shown them that control is not something we can hold in our hand?

Being a mother is not always graceful or fulfilling. It often feels to me like a series of tests gauging how I will react under different circumstances. Sometimes the reaction creates a mess. But all we can do is clean it up, forgive ourselves and try to do better next time. We make a new equation. One that trumps even the laws of physics. The Mass of Our Love x The Weight of Our Good Intentions = The Best We Can Do. And we have faith that it’s enough.

 

When Kaly doesn’t have her nose in a book, she wrangles and referees two elementary age boys and blogs at KalySullivan.com about her humorous attempts to lead a mindful, connected life. She’s the author of Good Move: Strategy and Advice for Your Family’s Relocation, and the co-founder of Harlow Park Media. Her writing has been featured on sites such as Mamalode, The Mid, In The Powder Room, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Scary Mommy, to name a few. You can find her just about everywhere @kalysullivan.
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Passing the Bed

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He has asked so many questions that don’t have answers and I’m just so tired. I ask him to help his brother. I say, “He’s going to get hurt, can you help him?”

“Why will he get hurt?”

I answer through gritted teeth, “He just will! Just help him!” Then he sighs and his big blue eyes look sad and I wish I could find the strength for more patience and less surprising anger.

When I walk into my room to get dressed, I pass the crumpled bed and want to get in it. I want to curl up on my side and cry. I’m not sure why, but I want to do it. I start to walk that way and then I see her, the me in my mind’s eye, on her side in the bed where I am not. She looks like she’s repeating history. She is carrying this disease and she thinks she isn’t and then sometimes she thinks she is this disease. She is me and I am her and she is them and she is not.

She is so afraid that she’s given it to them.

I know that if I were to walk in and find her curled there, I’d think she should get up. I’d think she should shake it off. It’s not her fault she’s there, but she needs to get up, I’d say. Then I’d wonder if some of it is her fault, because I know memories of ridiculous choices can flood in and bring with them the funk, curling her up.

So I get dressed. I wash my face of yesterday’s make-up and I put one foot in front of the other to make sure that I’m not her or them or her past. I fight it because I know that when I do, it gets a little better.

I fake it sometimes, but strangely, most of the time I’m truly reveling in the buried joy. The miraculous happiness that comes through the eyes of my boys. We make a hideout in a closet and they are thrilled with their flashlights in the dark. I well up with joy because they are who they are and I believe we can change this. Even if it doesn’t stop, it can be lighter, it can get better. Even if they feel it, they can learn that it doesn’t define them. I will tell them. They can learn from the truths we speak over them…

You are lovely. You are worthy. You are good. Just exactly as you are. This heavy weight of sadness, it can never be who you are.

I can say it with words from my mouth, and I can say it by walking away from the bed, uncurled and dressed.

“Can we go to the park?”

He asks this carefully, and I say yes even though I don’t want to say yes. I put one foot in front of the other and he rides with training wheels beside me. He says, “You’re great, Mom.” Then through my tightening throat where my heart wells up with this mercy, I say, “So are you, little man.”

“I know,” he says.

I laugh with unleashed joy and I think, please keep knowing…please keep knowing…please…

We are sometimes sadness, but mostly we are grace.

 

{This post was originally published on The Extraordinary Ordinary. What I knew was that I needed to keep going, for my kids and for myself. What I had not yet realized was that there is no shame in needing help in order to keep going. Not long after the publishing of this post, I quit self-medicating with alcohol, I started taking medication for depression, and I went to a whole lot of counseling. Passing the bed got easier, and I am so grateful for the help,  sobriety, and the peace and joy that exists in surrender.}

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Reward and Risk: My Decision to Stay On An SSRI During Pregnancy

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postpartum depression medicationNearly two years to the day after my overdue diagnosis of postpartum depression and anxiety, I found myself pregnant and still on an SSRI antidepressant. We had been trying; I had done my research, consulted my OB and my Pediatrician for their thoughts on wether or not I should taper off of my medication prior to becoming pregnant again. They both agreed that the risk was outweighed by the reward-a healthy me was the best way to guarantee a healthy baby in the long term. When I specifically asked my pediatrician about the increased risk in heart and lung defects, she stated that we could handle it on the back end, IF it needed to be handled.

Fast forward three weeks. To our complete surprise, we discovered we were expecting not one baby, but two. Fast forward a few more weeks, a lot of tears, panic, a couple of therapy sessions, and dozens of honest conversations with my husband, doctors, and some other Warrior Moms later, and I had decided that the best thing for me and my babies was to remain on my Celexa until the third trimester of the pregnancy.

SSRI antidepressants do cross the placental barrier during pregnancy. This means that the fetus will be exposed to the medication while in utero. My doctor suggested that I wean off of the medication during the third trimester because some babies exhibit “‘withdrawal’ symptoms such as breathing problems, jitteriness, irritability, trouble feeding, or hypoglycemia (Psych Central, 2006).” However, she stressed that many of these symptoms, specifically irritability and trouble feeding, are normal for newborns and would likely be hard to discriminate from the normal behavior of newborn twins. [Read more…]

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Psychosis During Pregnancy and What It Taught Me

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Baby Viv

My postpartum psychosis episode in 2008 after the birth of my first child provided me with a deep understanding of the importance of medication in my long-term recovery plan. But it was the severe psychosis I experienced during the early weeks of pregnancy with my daughter that taught me the extent of the deficiency of certain chemicals in my brain and how I would need to adhere to my medication if I wanted to there for my kids. And I did. Without a doubt.

We had been trying to give our son a sibling for about nine months without luck, but in March of 2010 I saw the definitive pink lines on the home pregnancy test and I knew it was real. I’d been visiting my family in Florida over Easter with just my little man since my husband had to stay home to work when the timing was right to take a test. I couldn’t wait, so I did it late at night and when the lines showed up I called my husband right away, texting him a picture to show off the proof.

“Well, don’t get too excited in case it doesn’t stick.” he cautioned, reminding me of the miscarriage we had before our son was conceived.

“I know, I know. I just have a good feeling about this one. I think it’s going to work out.” was my honest reply.

He encouraged me to try to sleep, sensing how amped up I was by the news. And I was. My skin was buzzing with anticipation for the nine months ahead of us. I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that there were cells dividing and multiplying inside of my belly and those cells would grow into our baby. I didn’t take my usual medication that night since I had discussed coming off the med upon learning I was pregnant with my doctor. The miracle of life was starting within me, I needed to protect it, and I was so incredibly happy.

So happy I barely slept that night. My son and I had to be on a flight home at 7:15 in the morning, so we were up packing away the last of our stuff at 5am to get to the airport on time.

The hypomania was in full effect, but I kept it well-hidden from my parents as we kissed and hugged goodbye, my stomach in knots because I wanted so badly to tell them the exciting news, but also wanted to get home and confirm it with my OB-GYN before telling them they’d be grandparents again in December.

They didn’t have to wait long though, because the following week I was manic to the point of psychosis and had to be hospitalized. I was five weeks pregnant. They immediately flew up to help.

After returning home from our visit in Florida, I could barely sleep at night I was overwhelmed with the expectation of another baby joining our family. To try to get myself to fall asleep, I’d run through baby names in my head, my husband snoring melodically beside me. My technique didn’t work and the three hours of sleep I was eventually able to get each night weren’t nearly enough to prevent the mania from taking over my mind.

By the time my husband called 911 to safely get me to the hospital, it was evening and we had already put our little guy to bed. In hindsight I bet he did this to prevent our son from witnessing an event that may have been traumatic for him. But at eighteen months old and with his obsession with police officers and police cars, I remember thinking the exact opposite in the moment the officers stepped into our bedroom to talk me into going with them to the hospital. I even asked them if they would say hi to him before we left the house, as ridiculous a request it was, at the time it made perfect sense to me. That was how far gone I was without my meds.

My mother-in-law arrived to take care of our son, and my husband followed the police car to the hospital where I was held under a temporary detention order until the doctor evaluated me. By this point I was experiencing extreme dissociation and confusion along with hallucinations. The following morning I was finally admitted to the psychiatric ward, and was stabilized with medication over the course of the next four days.

No medication is completely safe during pregnancy, but together with my doctors I chose one I felt comfortable. One that brought me out of the psychosis and back to reality. Back to life, with a life growing inside me. I saw a High-risk OB-GYN, my psychiatrist, my therapist, and my regular OB-GYN throughout the duration of the pregnancy.

Taking medication during pregnancy is a gut-wrenching decision for a mother. But in my case, the benefit of me being on the medication that allows me to function as a human being greatly outweighed the risk to the fetus. Having kids while living with a mental illness has its challenges. The obstacles I overcame during my childbearing years were ones I wouldn’t wish upon anyone; rather, I hope people can learn from what I experienced.

There is no ideal way to do this. There is only the intense desire to have a family and the need to work closely with your doctors and therapist to achieve the best, safest, most ideal outcome possible.

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