I have been in a place lately. A dark one. A place that’s cold like a cave, echoing my fears back to me, occasionally lashing out in anger at our healthcare system, at myself for being angry at a healthcare system given how lucky I am to be double-insured, back into the depths of the cave where I’m sitting on cold, wet stones, rocking back and forth wondering how much more strain my heart can take, this third time through hyperthyroidism, plus having endured too long of a time of anorexia. It’s never really anger, anyway. There’s always something underneath it, for all of us.
At times I feel manic. I am literally so excited. Quivering from head to toe, chemicals shooting through me like magic lightning, strung tightly, like usual, but it feels so positive. But beneath this, I’m still cowering in the cave, because I know that this, too, is part of my thyroid speeding, speeding, speeding everything up.
At time I feel like I will literally break. Thoughts swimming, heart racing, worry transcending its normal rhythms and boundaries of my generalized anxiety so that it diagnostically presents as obsessive. And it is. Because that inner girl is rocking back and forth in her cave of fear, a familiar diagnosis with unfamiliar elements thrown into formula this time, making the end of the experiment unknowable.
My muscles will not relax. I don’t know how much of this is thyroid-related.
I can’t run right now. Too risky.
And this song, this song keeps coming back to me. Especially these lines: “Can I be the one to sacrifice? Or grip the spear and watch the blood and water flow?”
I’ve been close-reading this song, and I think I’ve landed on the meaning of these two lines. Or maybe it’s my projection from this place that I’m in. Because that girl in that cave doesn’t know how to accept His sacrifice, not now in this place, and often not in other areas requiring mercy and grace. But I have worked through that part of faith, still am, but I get that second part, too, because maybe if I will accept His sacrifice, at least let me pay penance in that way, by being that close, that guilty, and that able to see proof, too, because faith is hard.
And I pray this song whole-heartedly, I have throughout my life, at these times when so much is unknown. Because when I recognize that I’m retreating to that girl-in-hiding place, when it seems I’d want stability and security the most, I recognize that this is absolutely when I need to accept my world being dismantled. Because “what I need and what I believe are worlds apart.”
This morning, I pushed through fear and found the faith to beeline it to the after-service prayer corner. And I felt Him, through the hands and words of those praying with me. In the way the Spirit whispered hidden prayers of my heart into the mouths of my friends, fears I hadn’t mentioned or asked for, but part of what healing will mean for me. And while the endocrinology appointment still sits waiting so distantly in November for now, I’ve felt peace. I’ve felt the tightening in my chest and mind relax. And I’ve remembered the last two times my thyroid went into over-drive, the precursors to it, and I see connections that bring hope for healing and prevention and maybe not-so-drastic measures.
And I think what I need and what I believe are coming closer.
Augustine is recovering from HFM, otherwise known as the dreaded hand, foot, and mouth disease. He has spent a few nights sitting up in his crib, wobbling out of exhaustion and whimpering out of discomfort. As I would go in to hold him, feeling him twist and hearing him cry in frustration my heart broke for him. But I couldn’t cure HFM through my wishing, just like he couldn’t through his efforts. I had to quiet my fears, and listen to wisdom in order to provide my boy comfort. When my own temperature spiked into a fever and the blisters formed in my own throat, too, I knew for certain that this would be a stretching experience not soon forgotten. I was not expecting it to go as figurative as it has, however.
Hand, foot, and mouth disease is a spreading sort of skin condition that creates countless blistering bumps (among other things). These blisters do what blisters will, but they also dry out and peel off as the body heals. I was told this, and expected something similar to a peeling sunburn. Instead, I was surprised to find the shedding to be hard, thick, and almost sharp, like dragon scales.
Immediately I thought of Eustace Scrubb in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of the books in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Eustace is a spoiled, whiny child who wanders away from the Dawn Treader’s crew on an enchanted island. He finds a horde of treasure, places a bracelet upon his arm, and falls asleep. Upon waking, he discovers that he has turned into a dragon. This literally transformative experience is figurative as well, of course. He realizes his monstrous behaviors and attitudes. He wants help from the crew, is even able to make them see him for him, but they cannot fix it. While still in his scales, he does manage to become helpful and contrite. But he is terrified, and during a mysterious scene he tries and tries to remove the dragon skin. He sheds it multiple times only to find it still remains. He is eventually transformed back into a boy, but not as he expected. We’ll come back to that in a bit.
Reflecting on Scrubb’s experience made me think of my own efforts this year. So much has shifted, literally and figuratively for me as well. Motherhood has both toughened my resolve and softened my harsh edges. You see, my own dragon skin is this deep-seated need for control. It has manifested itself differently over my lifetime, and to varying extremes. The tricky thing about a control issue is that in order to “fix” it, I can’t overdo. I can’t take control of a control issue, because that is the control issue controlling me. Confusing, right?
Control comes from this place of fear. It is the illusion that if I am in charge, nothing can go wrong. And if it does, at least it is my fault. It is understandable. Fixable. Controllable. Illusion probably is too innocent of a word. Just like Eustace’s transformation was not just a trick of smoke and mirrors but of actual, physical flesh, my control issue is a vicious lie that I tell myself on repeat without even knowing it most of the time.
In the past, it reached a crescendo through anorexia. That happened at a time of transition and identity shift; graduating from high school while my parents separated and my brother moved out while not having any definite plans of my own for the future. Recovery from anorexia, that ugly arm of control, took years and treatment, medication, counseling, supportive relationships, and divine intervention. But recovery from the eating disorder wasn’t deliverance from control.
To understand the difference between recovery and deliverance, it’s time to look at Eustace’s transformation:
Part 3 from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
“Then the lion said — but I don’t know if it spoke — You will have to let me undress you. I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was jut the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know — if you’ve ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” said Edmund.
“Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was lying on the grass, only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again. . . .”
While recovery from anorexia was a huge transformation, over the last 10 years I have quietly slipped back into my scales of control. Like before, this dangerous suit of armor has proven ineffective when ambushed. Parenting is another transitional cannonball into the realm of the unknown and uncontrollable. In most ways it has been delightful. Unexpected smiles, milestones, snuggles and slobbery kisses are joys on a level I never before knew. But in other ways, it is so hard. I chose to breastfeed, but not knowing exactly how much he was eating, if it was enough, was mental anguish for me. His sleep regression was another painful reminder of how much I cannot control in my life anymore. These are good challenges, but they have all offered a choice. Will I pick at my dragon skin myself, owning that I have an issue and working through it partially so that I see some evidence of growth? Or will I let a bigger change be effected?
When I went back to work in February after maternity leave, a few other chaotic factors sort of imploded, and I found myself in Eustace’s shoes, painfully aware that I could not remove my own scales. I will not go back to an eating disorder. I will not go back to smoking cigarettes to numb it all. I had to go beyond myself. I saw Aslan on the beach, if you will, and I knew it was time for more than myself. Because more than myself is counting on me now. So I went back to counseling. And I went back to anxiety medication.
Eustace didn’t need to DO so much as he needed to be still. He needed to reflect, recognize the areas for change, but also his own limitations. As I continue to grow as a person, a professional, and a mom, I see my own efforts to peel my dragon skin. But there are cases when in order for a thing to be done thoroughly, it needs more than I can rush through under the frenzied guise of control. My scales are still peeling. I don’t know if or when they’ll leave me forever. But letting go of knowing is definitely part of letting go of control.
Augustine has let go of trying to stay awake through his illness and is sleeping peacefully in his crib as I write this. Soon I will go in, wake him up, and embrace the unpredictable chaos of spending my day with an 8 month old who is recovering from HFM and leaving literal scales in his renewed energy wake. And I will trust that by doing what I can, and accepting help for what is beyond me right now, I am losing my scales, too.
I’m not in a season of publishing most of my writing. As a writer, it is hard to admit this, but it’s my truth. I’m in a season of reading, observing, and soaking up my summer time with my son. And I’m also in the expected season of renewed self-discovery with the identity shift that momming brings. Sometimes, though, it takes my keyboard to help me fully form the things I’m learning.
I’ve been reading a book I never would have picked up on my own called “The Best Yes” by Lysa TerKeurst from Proverbs 31 Ministries. If you know me and know about Proverbs 31, you know I get my feathers ruffled by about 90% of the people who use this passage. So much so that I’m going to link an article at the end to help people realize that the woman described in that passage was a lot more like Wonder Woman than domestic goddess.
OOPS I went on a tangent in the introduction.
Why to Read
Regardless, this book has been extremely helpful for me as my identity has expanded to include that of Mom. A lot has changed since baby boy, but a lot hasn’t. What this book is providing is a way to reflect on the before and after and reset boundaries as is more necessary than ever now that it’s not just mine and Mike’s time being questioned.
Case in point for why I’ll admit I need this book: one night, two close friends and I were sitting around thinking of one word to describe each of us. They both used the word “driven” for me, and my own word wasn’t far off. Heck, the name Emily itself means “industrious.” I don’t do sitting still well. And I certainly don’t do anything half-heartedly. If what I’m working on doesn’t bring joy, I cannot continue it. But if it fulfills ideals, then watch out! The downside of this go-getter mentality is time. There simply isn’t enough physical or emotional space to do everything that I want to or everything that I’m asked. That’s true for all of us, and it was true for me even before motherhood.
This book has several filters to put requests or plans through to make sure that it fits before saying yes. That it is truly helpful towards meeting goals. I’ll admit I skim past some of the anecdotes, but the technical aspects of it have been eye-opening. Reading always brings along introspection and reflection, and through this book I have discovered a deeper truth about myself.
There is a lot in this book about saying yes in order to please others. Honestly, I have considered myself a people pleaser for years. Primarily because I THRIVE on feedback. As far back as I can remember, when I received back a paper I had written without at least a paragraph of commentary, I was devastated. The same is true professionally today; I crave getting feedback. I think I’m one of few teachers who look forward to being on an observation year. I might as well have a sign on my forehead that says “TELL ME HOW I AM DOING WITH SPECIFICS AND AS MANY WORDS AS POSSIBLE PLZ THANKS!” I assumed this meant I was a people pleaser. Yet, last year, while reading the book “Growth Mindset” by Dr. Carol Dweck with the rest of my building, a contradiction became more clear. This book talks a lot about extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. It showed me that I am intrinsically motivated…but that contradicts my deeply embedded need for feedback. Or so I thought.
Looking back, I am a bit surprised I didn’t analyze this contradiction more thoroughly. Except that I am a Gemini, and sort of use to personal dualities. And a new mom. Who was largely sleep deprived last school year. Regardless of why, I didn’t second guess this information about myself too much. I continued to tell myself that regardless of receiving clear approval, I could be content in my work. I tried to make that my reality, but it didn’t solve this nagging need. It took an incident on a sidewalk in Evanston, Illinois to click the pieces together, turning the puzzle into a clear picture.
I was walking just behind my dear friend, who was carrying her almost 2 year old daughter. An elderly woman walked past us, smiling warmly at my friend and her girl. As I was just a few steps behind with my own adorable bundle of joy in my arms, I’ll admit I expected the same reaction. Instead of focusing on adorable Augustine, however, her sharp brown eyes fixated on my left arm’s tattoos. She shook her head and scowled. Now, this didn’t really upset me. I sort of laughed, and I remember thinking to myself that I signed up for being noticed, for better or for worse, when I decided to get visible tattoos. And I truly didn’t care what she thought of me…but wouldn’t a people pleaser care?
THE ANGST OF SELF-REFLECTION
So I continued to read The Best Yes and dwell on this people-pleasing picture of myself that contradicts so many areas of my life. I thought back to how comfortable I am challenging others, even risking their opinion of me. But then I thought of how upset I get when I am misunderstood or disliked/unfriended as a result. I thought about myself in high school, constantly getting in trouble with the administration although in reality the worse thing I did was oversleep and thus arrive late. But I dressed like a punk, and so I was treated like a punk kid. And it still bothers me, although I continue to dye my hair bright red and that whole tattoo thing. I thought about professionally, how I often know deeply I am doing good things for my students but if it ruffles feathers I am questioned or worse. And I realized something big. I am not a people pleaser. Pleasing people is not what I am seeking when I crave feedback. Approval is not something I have really ever concerned myself with. It’s something different; it’s recognition.
Recognition to me doesn’t mean that you agree or adore what I suggest or work on, but it means that you are willing to look at it and see where it came from and/or where it’s going. I didn’t need my high school vice principal to like me. I didn’t and still don’t care what people think of my physical appearance choices because I didn’t and still don’t do these things to create an image that pleases anyone else. But I did need her to recognize that I wasn’t doing drugs, drinking, or smoking. I was academically unchallenged and dressing the way I did because of Christian punk rock bands and discovering Hot Topic. That’s all it was. I don’t need my superiors at work to hold me up on a pedestal. In fact, if they did and I knew I didn’t earn it, I would be uncomfortable. What I crave is their knowledge of what is happening in my classroom and their questions as to why. It’s far more about others understanding me, my work, etc. than it is about others liking any of these components. Having the Board of Education tell me they were going to help me fight for license conversion because they saw my transcripts and test scores and believed in the difference I could make for students felt a lot more meaningful than the certificates of achievement I received.
That last example brings some light to the fog of my confusion all these years about what really drives me. Because sometimes recognition does look like approval. And I am human, so I’ll own that feels pretty neat sometimes. But approval alone isn’t satisfying to me. Another way I have realized this is my post-baby body. I’ve gotten a lot of compliments on how great I look. My body bounced back quickly. Like freakishly so, compared to my expectations. But I didn’t really do anything to ensure that. I had no control over it. So those compliments make me uncomfortable (which may be another issue I have to work through).
Writing this feels a little uncomfortable, too, because there are some descriptions of things that I recognize can sound like bragging. Which connects to my whole desire to be understood. I’m good with you disliking some of the things I’ve shared about myself…as long as you recognize that I shared them in an effort to be understood and maybe – just maybe – help someone else understand themselves. Recognizing ourselves is important to keep that intrinsic motivation going, after all. And it CERTAINLY helps with decision making and boundary setting!
*The link to the promised article about Proverbs 31/Wonder Woman!
Not just my Auggie, but the Saint for which he is named. We didn’t name him because he was born on this day; rather, I like to think he was born on this day because we had already named him Augustine.
But who ever really knows why babies come when they come?
Augustine’s due date was November 22nd or 26th, depending on the medical professional that you asked. I picked Thanksgiving as his due date since it fell on the 24th in 2016, right in the middle. Like almost all pregnant mamas, though, I began to think that maybe an early arrival wouldn’t be so bad…then again, November rolled around and things were far from “ready.” But the midwives assured me he wasn’t in any position to come early, so I kept my preparation pace slow and steady.
Until Friday, November 11th. Driving home from school, I was hit with this burning desire to get groceries and make some returns and purchases at Buy Buy Baby. I was exhausted, but I just *had* to do it. It was inexplicable. The next day we had planned to go to Indianola for the day to celebrate my dad’s birthday. Mike had to fix one of our cars, so he couldn’t go, and while I could have gone myself, this same strange and driving impulse pushed me to stay home and finish baby prep. I was irritated about it. Irritated at everyone and everything, but I could not resist the impulse.
You’re seeing where this is going, right?
That night, Mike and I took Dad to see Doctor Strange. During the movie, I’ll confess I was drinking a LARGE Pepsi. #cravings. Auggie was kicking around like crazy, and at one point I felt/heard a pop. I attributed it to the bubbly goodness of Pepsi, and took it as a hint to slow down on the soda guzzling.
I mentioned it, though, so let’s jump ahead to 11pm that night, when I got up, as usual, to pee. What wasn’t usual was the extra…liquidity. A coworker had told me just a few days before how she wasn’t sure if her water broke, because things were just a little extra-extra. No big gush like in the movies, no contractions. This was in the back of my mind, so I decided to call the midwife but not wake Mike because probably nothing, right? The midwife said to wait an hour and see what happened. If things kept up the same way, give her a call. So I went back to bed, still not waking Mike, and laid there. My thoughts went something like this:
This is totally not happening. Duh. I’m going to sleep.
This is probably happening. Crap. I haven’t graded the Greek/Latin Roots Pre-Test yet. Maybe I should go do that now, just in case.
You know what? This isn’t happening. I’ll grade tomorrow afternoon. I’m not even going to call back.
I should definitely go dust the house. I haven’t in weeks. That should be done before the baby comes, if this is happening, which it probably isn’t.
An hour later, the signs were pointing to “it happening.” No contractions, though – which is what made the midwife demand we head in right away. It was about 1 in the morning. I finally woke Mike up – you know that startled gopher of internet fame? That’s about what happened when I whispered “Hey babe? My water broke.”
We grabbed our bags, adding some other potential needed items (who really knew at that point what we would need!) and headed to the hospital. That drive down Woodland was surreal. It was dark, but not cold despite it being November. I texted the parents, maybe even called my mom. I’m confident that if I had been having contractions, it would have felt more real. Probably urgent. It wasn’t at all what I had expected, needless to say.
A large group of nurses and staff were hanging out at the counter when we were buzzed in to the maternity ward. They were all smiling; I want to remember that. It set the tone for the delivery – one of welcome and warmth. We had to hang out for a couple of hours in the triage room while they jumped through hoops of confirming that the by now obvious leak of amniotic fluid was what it was. While that sign of labor was apparent, nothing else in my body was ready. This was when I was grateful that I’d taken my labor & delivery nurse friend Allison’s advice and not gotten married to a birth plan. You can’t be disappointed in a plan not working out if you don’t have one in the first place! The first midwife, when she made her final check, said that we should prepare for an epidural because of the Pitocin we’d be using. “Pitocin already means that you aren’t having a natural birth anyway,” she said. I remember it with the permission it granted. She even told us a story of another patient who had a similar birth story and how the epidural was super helpful – and the comfort that brought was on a deeper level, because I was 99% sure I knew exactly who she was talking about.
As you probably guessed, I had to be induced. They got us to a room, told us to try and get some sleep, that we would be induced around 6:30am. This was around 4. I did not sleep. How could I? I emailed my work to let them know that I wouldn’t be in the next day. I continued live-tweeting the experience.* And soon enough the midwife showed up to do some final checks before she started the Pitocin. They hooked me up to the IV, and Mike went home to let the dog out one last time before my dad could make it over to house where he would dog sit for the next few days. We thought we would have a good amount of time before the Pitocin did its thing, but I don’t think Mike even made it to our house before the contractions started. Pitocin is NOT A JOKE.
The next 4.5 hours or so were spent with contractions. It didn’t feel like that amount of time. It didn’t feel like anything. There were only 90 seconds of slamming contractions and a brief 30 second respite between them. I had to be hooked up to all of the monitoring things, but thankfully I could still move around a little. The nurses (who were the best people on the planet, may they be blessed forever) kept offering suggestions for different ways to sit, lay, squat, etc. but the only thing I wanted was to sit on the giant exercise ball. It was like:
Me, content on exercise ball. Eating a popsicle and breathing through things while gripping Mike’s hands.
Nurse: Here, try getting on the bed on your knees with your face in this pillow but don’t move but do move or lay on your side but don’t lay down or walk around the hall even though ungodly things are just leaking out
Me: tries half/refuses half. Hates everything but the exercise ball. Demands exercise ball and twitter.
I did try the jet tub for awhile, but that felt like drowning. I think I actually almost drowned my nurse. She smartly encouraged me to relax through contractions, not grip the edge of the tub, so she took my hand to hold it reassuringly but then contraction so I almost pulled her in. Oops.
Mike and the aforementioned nurses were incredible support systems during this time. I felt strong…until I didn’t. After the tub, the uncontrollable shaking and exhaustion were hitting me hard. I couldn’t take it anymore; I asked for the epidural. The midwife did her job and asked Mike about my intentions towards epidurals before the pain of contractions set in. I remember reminding everyone (loudly, perhaps? Whose to say!) that I never said I was above an epidural. Mike said the right thing. I don’t remember what it was, but it was right, because the call was put in. When the anesthesiologist finally showed, she was the worst – yelling about shutting off phones all while hers was ringing full blast (and yes, she took the calls.) But finally the medicine kicked in, and I SLEPT. I slept for two hours, and I still daydream about those two hours as the last moment of restful sleep I may ever have.
At that point, the nurses and midwife checked me out and told me to “labor down” for an hour. I still don’t know what that means, but whenever I tell medical people, they nod very knowingly, so you know it was a good choice.
When the midwife came in, that feeling of warmth and welcome really took over. The epidural had taken not just the pain edge off, but the nap it allowed had helped me focus on the moment instead of the what-ifs. Between pushing, we all laughed and talked about a variety of things like haunted houses in Iowa, what people assumed about us based on our looks (one of the nurses was very tall and very tired of the ol’ bball assumptions). I remember Natalie, the midwife, asking right away if I was a runner based on my breathing and I felt this moment of pride! that was quickly squelched as she told me to stop it and breathe out in the opposite moments of what I had been doing. There is no room for pride in labor and delivery. (Nor shame – I have never cared less who saw what was in, on, or about me).
It took two hours of pushing to get Augustine out, despite calling in the rest of the instant-infant care team prematurely (this is absolutely not what that group of professionals is called. But I don’t know what they really are called.) I didn’t mind the extra people in the room, though, because that welcome/warmth and joyful laughter theme was only extended by their presence. Everything was peaceful. Everything was happy. I will always be thankful for this blessing; I know this isn’t the experience for everyone. Despite the epidural, I could feel just enough of everything to feel like I knew what was going on – when to push, when to stop, but no pain. For real – that drug is pure magic.
Despite the long labor, Auggie didn’t go into distress until the very end. His heart beat started to slow. We got some scissors involved real quick (if you know what I mean) and then the next thing I knew, as I pushed with my eyes closed, Natalie was saying “Take him! He’s yours!” and I had no idea what she meant. I opened my eyes, completely in shock that he was out! She handed me this chubby blue baby, who was probably crying, but all sound blurred into something like a melody as I held the most beautiful being I had ever seen in my arms. The nurses reminded Mike to take pictures, and while he did, I remember locking our teary eyes together, messy crying out of pure love and disbelief. I wish that I had a photo of him from that moment, but I don’t think I will ever forget it.
While I held him, they scrubbed at him a little, but since he was pretty blue they took him under the lights right away and had Mike go with. My eyes followed that baby everywhere he went, my heart forever chained to this external representation of love before anything else on earth. I know that Natalie was giving me instructions, but I couldn’t hear a word of anything until that boy was back in my arms.
Augustine Lewis was born at 4:13pm on November 13. He was 7 pounds, 3.7 ounces, and 19 inches long. Gratitude is second nature thanks to this blessing. Whether it was the super blood moon that weekend or too much Pepsi giving him a caffeinated kick that broke my water or the fact that he wanted to share a birthday with his eponym, November 13, 2016 was the most amazing day of our lives.
*For those interested, and for documenting purposes, here are the live tweets: