Published on May 17th, 2022 | by Naomi Racz0
Smash It ‘Til You Break
Content note: depression, suicide, pregnancy loss
Smashing it meant starting a career transition in the midst of first trimester nausea and fatigue; it meant being a pregnant intern (and pushing any shame I felt about this fact deep, deep down inside myself); it meant buying an expensive climbing harness that could accommodate my expanding belly and continuing to do indoor climbing every week; it meant starting driving lessons at seven months pregnant and taking my driving test at one month postpartum (and sobbing the entire way home while my husband drove because I had failed); it meant writing on my phone in the middle of the night as I fed my baby; it meant not getting the baby blues (though I cried when I dropped a jar of salsa and it shattered on the hard, cold kitchen floor, and I don’t think I was crying about the salsa, but about the fact that my husband had bought it even though it was the expensive brand because it was the one I liked best, and any small gesture of kindness was enough to undo me then).
Smashing it meant pulling on my old climbing harness as soon as my obstetrician gave me the go ahead; it meant going back to studying for a certificate in publishing when my daughter was three months old; it meant launching an issue of my literary magazine when she was nine months old while also wading through the intricacies of a copy editing course; it meant that when the first pandemic lockdown was announced, I would only allow myself to be depressed for one week and then I would be done with depression (I was undone).
Smashing it meant moving across Canada from Toronto to Vancouver Island with a ten month old; it meant I didn’t have time to grieve when my grandmother died, half a world away, and I watched her funeral on a video call from my mum’s phone; it meant volunteering to write a book review and do an author interview when we were living in a two-room Airbnb and the baby wasn’t sleeping and the last thing I needed was more items on my to do list.
I smashed it until I was lying on the pleather couch in that Airbnb, the baby crying in her travel cot in the room next door and me wondering if I shouldn’t perhaps walk out of that basement apartment and down to the nearby bridge across the island’s highway so I could plunge my body and the dark swamp of my mind into the tarmac below.
I don’t know exactly where this conviction that I would “smash” motherhood came from, but when I was pregnant, I held firmly to the belief that life with a baby would be my old life without a baby + baby. A simple equation that would equal all the thrills and edges of my old life, with the added joy of sunlit mornings in bed with my husband and a cute, cooing baby between us. People told me it would be hard, but their comments were vague. Besides, I’ve always had a perverse conviction that I am not a statistic. And yet, I became a statistic, though the numbers on how many parents suffer from postpartum depression are murky.
I was never formally diagnosed with postpartum depression, but I had a baby and five months later, I was depressed. It wasn’t my first experience with depression. I’d been depressed from the age of thirteen until I left home for university at eighteen — though in truth that black dog has always haunted me. As a teenager I had anorexia, self-harmed and thought often about how I would kill myself. It was an unhappy concoction, brewed up in the storm of teenage hormones, against the backdrop of a family that slowly and then spectacularly fell apart.
Raising a baby during COVID-19 while being thousands of miles from my family, in a city (Toronto) my husband and I knew, almost as soon as the airplane wheels touched down, we did not, and probably never could, love — this was a perfect storm, too.
After that afternoon on the pleather couch, I tried to give myself a break by taking two semesters out of my studies. We moved from the Airbnb to a rented apartment with a view of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Olympic Mountains. It had the most spectacular view, but when I sat on the couch, baby on my breast, and looked out at that wide expanse of snow-capped mountains and sparkling water dotted with container ships and, sometimes, the backs of whales, the only thought that rolled through my head was: I am worthless; my life has no meaning. Swiftly followed by I’m a bad mother, a terrible mother; my daughter’s life will be better without me in it.
At the end of that terrible first pandemic year, we packed up all our possessions again and moved up island to a house of our own. I took a writing course and got a freelance role editing a monthly in-house publication. It was a job I could, in theory, do around the baby, though there were many nights when I stayed up into the small hours to meet my deadlines. The combination of stress and tiredness was fatal. I was irritable and sometimes felt like smashing all our plates and glassware. Instead, I threw laundry I should have been folding at the bed.
In the spring, I went back to studying. By the end of the spring, I’d signed up to volunteer on the committee of my local editing association because I thought it would look good on my résumé. In the fall, I started another course. I also applied for, and got, another editing job.
I was like the towers my daughter constructs in the game Jenga. Every decision I made to add yet another item to my endless to-do list was like the improbable moves of a toddler taking out bricks no adult would think to take out. It was only a matter of time before the entire structure came crashing down.
All year, we’d been trying to get pregnant without success. The week before we were due to fly out and visit my husband’s family on the east coast of the US, I got a positive pregnancy test. That evening I started bleeding; by the next day, it was clear I was miscarrying. Blood tests at the hospital confirmed it. Jenga.
But it wasn’t until we returned from our US trip, after two weeks of non-stop assignments and work deadlines that saw me staying up late into the small hours again, that I found myself crying uncontrollably, unable to force down the lump in my throat or will back tears as I got my daughter up from a nap and dressed for a walk. I had another assignment on the horizon, so I emailed my instructor to let her know I was dropping out. I didn’t want to admit that it was because of my mental health, so I told her it was for “health reasons.” In the end, I got an extension and my course instructor said she hoped I would feel better soon. Feel better. What if I treated this thing like an illness?
When I suffered from depression as a teenager, I sometimes imagined my body as a robot that had been smashed up into pieces. To get out of the depression, I just had to put the pieces back together. Years later, I read Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Springs, her examination of the connection between literature and alcohol through the lives and works of six male writers, including poet John Berryman. In the book she quotes from Berryman’s The Dream Songs:
Hunger was constitutional with him,
women, cigarettes, liquor, need need need
until he went to pieces.
The pieces sat up & wrote.
That last line stayed with me for many years. I saw in it my own belief in the power of words to cure what ails me. But I had always overlooked the lines that come next:
They did not heed
their piecedom but kept very quietly on
among the chaos.
I love that word: piecedom. Not pieceness, but piecedom. – dom: noun suffix, a state or fact of being.
Slowly, I began to see that there are some things that cannot be fixed. I began to see that I had been chasing a moving target all my life: a state of perfect achievement in which I would have enough diplomas, enough experience, enough children, enough friends, be enough. I began to see that I was allowed to enjoy my life. I began to see that there was no other option: the other option was me and the bridge and the tarmac below. From brokenness came piecedom.
I wish I had a secret formula that I could dole out. But I don’t. All I know is that in my piecedom, I say “no” as often as I can, until it becomes a reflex I take great pride in, and my calendar is almost empty. In my piecedom, I try to go to bed early but often fail, so I let myself nap when my daughter naps, if I need to. In my piecedom, I floss my teeth. In my piecedom, I have made tentative forays into doing crafts with my daughter, though we still watch Bluey before naptime at least once a week. In my piecedom, I am no longer trying to smash it (or plates), and strangely enough, I feel happier without a chokehold round my neck. In my piecedom, I take pleasure in the sight of my daughter’s face pressed up against the bars of her crib in the morning; in this moment, in my piecedom, I do not worry about the slip ups and imperfections that the day will bring. In my piecedom, I sign up to volunteer with my local community forest group, not because it will look good on my résumé but because I think it will bring me joy. In my piecedom, I bend towards joy, but the baby blues are welcome in my piecedom too.