Two girls once said: ‘You must be a mother to survive this disease’

It is difficult to understand how the epidemic of grief that happened to those mothers does not qualify as a disease. I can read “Face of a Boring Mom” and not ever suspect that it is a book about someone who might have learned something about living. But that is how I have been framed by the illness that I have been dealing with for the last ten years, and I know how that framing works.

I have been suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder. I never called it that when I was in the throes of it. That is too long a term for something that is ineffable. When I was a teenager, I walked into my high school bathroom and found myself masturbating to lines from a John Hughes movie on the mirror. I realized that I was very young and that this was a brain injury, but I became fixated on what I was seeing in those lines, and on wanting that same feeling in my life. I went to therapy to improve my body and my understanding of the physical injury and it was the only time I have ever wanted a procedure.

Years later, I went to work as a nurse in a pediatric intensive care unit. I went home every day thinking I was going to die. I walked through pediatric units full of beautiful, colorful children and I thought the moment I got home, that too was going to end. But my life did not stop because of PTSD. I kept working and as I got older, the relationship I had with my patients improved.

I went home at the end of those days and I wasn’t going to go to bed so devastated because I had not had enough to look forward to. As time passed, and I learned more about trauma, the books I read reinforced that image of dread, fear and death, but they never acknowledged that the trauma happened to the mother and not to the child. Of course, I should have learned that the child is protected in life, but that does not mean the mother cannot be prey.

When the connection was made between trauma and PTSD, and the mother got connected to PTSD, that did not mean that my therapy ended, I did not stop going to the meeting where people were trying to talk to me about my memory of a scary clown. That did not mean my mental health went away, I was still in therapy. When the evidence that the mom could develop a new medication that worked better, my underlying PTSD continued.

When I decided that in order to take care of myself and get out of my shitty place, I needed to get off that nursing-care floor, I faced all of the above. I woke up one morning, came downstairs and put on my x-ray and that was the first time in my life I knew what I was going to say to my psychiatrist. I said to him, “You can tell the story of this patient, that I am a patient. I know I am a patient, it is the very power that I have, that is what motivates me. I am not a parent, but I have the knowledge that you have and I do not even know how to provide you with the help you need.”

I was lucky I did not make that diagnosis that day. Maybe, that day, even if I could not conceive of being a mother, I still could imagine how motherhood would change my life. The sad thing is, I have never thought that way about motherhood. I have never thought that motherhood was a piece of art to be enjoyed. I would never have believed that the only way I would ever be okay is if I stopped growing. The other thing I have never thought was that this disease could be cured, a very important I do not believe that of myself.

I have not thought I could take care of myself, I have not thought I could heal, I have not thought I could trust myself, I have not thought I could forget about the clown. I have not thought I could do the work I am doing to reach my daughter, the work I once thought the end of my life meant. I think of Mommy as a mother, and not as a woman with a brain injury, not as someone with post-traumatic stress disorder. I have not thought that maybe those visions of the end of my life were just my imagination. I have not thought that maybe the mother I have become is not the mother I need to be.

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