November 24, 2019

Cereal and a Flower Bed

As some of you know, I’m currently working on a full-length memoir about my experience with mental illness. It’s a lot of work, but I have a first draft completed and am working on the second – which includes generating yet more material. This week, I’m sharing an excerpt from the first draft. Not sure how this will show up in the final version, but here’s a sneak peek.

I woke up at 6:00 a.m. to the voice of defense attorney Danielle Melnick arguing with Executive Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy about her client’s right to refuse medication: “What you get is somebody who’s not competent to stand trial,” she challenges to which McCoy shoots back, “The hell he isn’t. Put him back on his medication.”

I was wearing my clothes from the day before. I’d fallen asleep on the couch again, this time watching a Law and Order marathon. It was still playing as I lay there, eyes barely open, head heavy with sleep, brain pounding inside my skull. Even though I hadn’t been drinking, I felt like I was hung over: queasy, ashamed, half wishing I would die.

“Shit!” I almost said aloud. “Where are the kids?” Heart racing, I jumped off the couch and ran to Hannah’s bedroom. There she was, sound asleep on top of her bed, mouth slightly open, still wearing her white turtleneck sweater and navy stretch pants. Caillou was playing on her TV. A half-eaten bowl of cereal sat awkwardly beside her, ready to tip if she rolled over. I picked up the bowl and set it on her dresser.

Then I stepped around the corner into Max’s tiny bedroom and stood at the foot of his bed. He was sleeping, partially covered with one of the patchwork quilts my grandparents had made. His favourite book, Where the Wild Things Are, was propped against his head. He’d obviously been reading it to himself while I slept on the couch.

The relief that both my kids were okay lasted only a moment before a wave of guilt washed over me. As was often the case these last few months, I’d let Max and Hannah down. I’d been caught up in my own misery, so overwhelmed with despair and fatigue that I’d inadvertently left them to fend for themselves. I felt like a failure in many ways, but failing as the mother of these two beautiful children was unbearable.

On my way out, I turned off the TV in Hannah’s room and said a silent thank you that she didn’t wake up. Walking to the bathroom, I cursed Larry for not being home. He was working off-Island again, leaving me alone and overwhelmed. Although his income was the only thing sustaining us, I resented his regular absences. I couldn’t cope. My life felt out of control, and I couldn’t seem to give my children the care they deserved.

I peed, washed my hands, splashed some water on my face, and headed back to the couch where I pulled the afghan up to my chin. Back in my nest, I felt comforted, transported back to my childhood when I would curl up in bed, my blankets a fortress protecting me from Wilhelmina W. Witchiepoo and other villains of my imagination.

This morning, my afghan was a cocoon, shutting me off from a world I didn’t want to face. Another episode of Law and Order was starting so I turned up the volume. I didn’t want to deal with my mind today. I was tired of the dark, despairing thoughts and worrying when the next anxiety attack would hit.

I had run out of ideas for making my life better. I wanted to have some sort of business that I could run from home: a tea room, a bakery, a bed and breakfast. I could still be with Max and Hannah while earning an income. But I didn’t have the money to invest or the energy to figure out how to go about those things. Easier to retreat to my couch and pray that for a while, my brain would stop working.

I heard footsteps. It was Hannah coming out of her room. From my vantage point on the couch, I could see her go into the bathroom. I heard the toilet flush.

“Wash your hands, Hannah,” I called out. I heard the water run for all of five seconds and knew that at most, she had wet her fingertips. She joined me, still sleepy-eyed, under the afghan. As much as I loved her, I wished she’d go back to her room.

“I love you, Mommy,” she said.

“I love you too,” I replied.

“I’m hungry.”

My jaw clenched. “Here we go.” I thought. “Another day of kids wanting. What about what I want?”

“Ok,” I said sweetly. “Stay here with me for a bit, and when Max gets up, I’ll get you both some breakfast.” That seemed to satisfy her, and she nestled closer.

Soon she started chattering about Caillou and his little sister. “Caillou was mad at Rosie because she wouldn’t stop following him. Max gets mad at me when I follow him.” I was too tired to pay attention.

Fifteen minutes later, Max appeared. I tried to look happy to see him. I knew I’d have to get up now because both of them would want breakfast.

The idea of leaving the couch was painful, the likelihood of having the strength to do so as remote as doing twenty push-ups with one arm. My whole body felt heavy, weighed down by my mere existence. Still, the guilt from leaving both of them on their own the night before motivated me to find the floor and stand upright. I dragged myself to the kitchen.

After breakfast, I told Max and Hannah I was going outside to do some work in Poppy Harry’s flower beds. My parents were living in Iqaluit, and we lived in my grandparents’ house right beside theirs. Mom and Dad kept massive flower beds on their property, and in my father’s absence, the beds had gotten out of control, their beauty obscured by weeds.

Dad had asked me if I would clean them up, likely thinking it would give me something to do. He also knew that I had many years of experience weeding endless rows of garden in our family vegetable business. I enjoyed gardening, and the idea of doing something useful appealed to me.

I decided to tackle the rose bed. It was a mess. Creeping, crawling weeds had overtaken the rose bushes, and my heart dropped as I stood there looking at the mess in front of me. I knelt down and started to pull at the ugly invaders.

Instead of yielding, the weeds snapped off in my hands. No wonder. The ground was concrete. I ended up having to slash at the unwanted greenery with a hoe. As I felt the sweat run down my chest, I realized that in all my years of outdoor work, I had never come up against a tougher job.

After about half an hour, I decided that I should bring Max and Hannah outside with me so that I could keep an eye on them. I went back into the house and told them to put on their coats and boots.

Once outside, they were soon bored, and Hannah began her familiar whining: “Mommy, I’m tired.” Max looked on innocently, knowing he wouldn’t have to say a word. Not wanting to listen to complaining, I ushered them back into the house with instructions to read, watch TV or play quietly.

That morning I had no appetite so I had eaten just a slice of toast with peanut butter for breakfast. Not much sustenance considering the job before me and the fact that my blood sugar had a tendency to drop quickly, leaving me weak, shaky and anxious.

This day was no different. As I lifted the hoe to strike at a particularly stubborn clump of weeds, I felt the last ounce of energy leave my body. My knees gave out and I was on the ground, my heart thumping against my chest. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t get back on my feet.

I almost believed I was dying. I was certain that I was having a panic attack and that it would kill me. Unable to sustain the chaotic beating, my heart would simply explode.

It took me a moment to realize that I would live to see the next day. It wasn’t a panic attack after all. I quickly recognized my body’s reaction to lack of food and utter fatigue. I had reached the point of physical and mental exhaustion, and my body was having nothing more to do with it.

Somehow, I managed to crawl across the yard to the house. I pulled myself up the steps and reached for the door knob. I willed myself to stand up and open the door. Inside, I flopped on a chair in the sun porch and called out, “Max!” He came running.

Disoriented, sweaty, and sure I was going to pass out, I said, “Pour Mommy a glass of orange juice and bring it to me.”

I’ll never forget the look of confusion on his face. Without saying a word, he ran to the fridge and pulled out the bottle of orange juice, then set it on the counter top. I watched while he crossed the kitchen, grabbed a chair and pulled it over to the counter. At seven years old, he was still small. Standing up on the chair, he opened the cupboard, took a glass, and carefully poured some juice into it, spilling only a few drops. Then he slid gently off the chair, and walked the few steps to the sun porch, carefully carrying the glass of juice in both hands. Hannah followed behind.

By that point, I hardly had the strength to breathe, but I took the glass and managed to take a couple of gulps.

“Are you ok, Mommy?” Hannah asked.

“I’ll be fine, honey,” I replied. “I feel a bit sick but this juice will help.” She seemed satisfied. Although he said nothing, I knew from the look on Max’s face that he wasn’t so sure.

Within a few minutes, I started to feel the effects of the sugar. I finished the juice and felt my energy start to return. I could see the clock in the kitchen. It was getting close to noon, and I was hungry. I got up and headed to the kitchen to prepare sandwiches for the three of us. As I spread mayonnaise on the bread, I wished for 8:00 to come because Max and Hannah would be in bed, and I could go back to stretching out in front of the TV.

However, I had to be strong. Larry wouldn’t be home until the next day to give me a break. I knew I needed to look after myself better, eat more regularly and go to bed instead of wasting away on the couch.

But for now, I had to get through this day.