Undoing the laces

This past month, I skipped a period. Thanks to the current state of my social life, this was fortunately no cause for alarm, and the only reason I noticed it is that, for the past couple of years, I’ve been using an app to track it (for the times when it would be more pertinant to know). When I was younger, it took years for my cycle to stabilize; as a late teen and even into my 20s, I’d sometimes go two or even three months without having one at all, though I have no idea why it took so long to even out. This is only noteworthy now because it jogged a memory in mind which I typically am able to successfully avoid thinking of. The last time I skipped a period, it was because I was pregnant.

This is not something I even have to actively shy away from thinking of often, both because a good amount of time has passed now, and also likely because of how strangely I processed it as it happened (namely at a strange remove from both myself and my body, in hindsight, likely as a means of self-preservation when I felt frighteningly out of control of both). But every now and then, some small thing or comment might bring it back to me, and I try to dodge it as quickly as possible. I don’t feel any pain or emotional distress about it, and I’m not sure that I ever really did; I simply don’t see the point in staying with that thought. It is past. It happened, and then it didn’t, and life goes on.

My sex life in general, and with the partner in question, is irregular enough that, once I figured out what had happened, I knew immediately when it had happened — two days before the end of 2014. It had been a relatively busy day. We worked, we had a business meeting, we drove back to my place, we talked and relaxed a little while. He discovered there was a health scare with a relative, after receiving a phone call from a family member. (Ironically, the relative in question passed away later that same day, though he didn’t find this out until a bit later, probably the following day. Insert whimsical musing from a more spritual person than I about the cycles of life and death: here.) I remember it still as some of the most intense and intimate sex we had ever had up to that point; I remember looking down at his face in the dusky light coming through my window, and the way he looked back up at me. (I even hit a fun personal record that day, actually, if I remember right; I have yet to top it.) We made it last a long time, and I remember plenty of what was said, still, and how it felt. All of it was quite memorable even before the date gained any extra significance. I still get a little warm, even now, thinking back on it.

Thinking back now, the most recent time we were together was New Year’s Day, the start of this year, and it was a lovely and surpring way to start it. But I also remember, later that same day, suddenly realizing, I think while sitting and reading in a cafe, that at that same time, two years prior, I would have been (unknowingly) pregnant.

The fact is, I didn’t find out that I was pregnant until it was already over. I found out because of that, in fact. That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t aware that something was different; I was. (Describing it to a friend later, one who had also had a pregnancy scare earlier in her life, she agreed with me completely that the only way to describe it was just: “weird.”) I didn’t feel sick, or in pain; I just knew that something was fundamentally off about my body, whatever it was. I couldn’t explain it, but it was foreign, and it frightened me. I gaslighted myself about it a good bit for a while, because plenty of other factors in my life at that time were putting me through the ringer. I was being systematically abused and harrassed at work, to the point that the stress was affecting my health in numerous ways, both mentally and physically, though I couldn’t see just how badly so until it was over. I assumed, at first — or at least told myself, because it was less frightening — that I felt so weird simply because I was so stressed about money, constantly under attack at work, and never felt free from stress. And when I missed my period, I told myself that these were also the reasons why. Stress causes skipped periods all the time. It was nothing to worry about, and I certainly didn’t need any extra worry. I am fine. Stop thinking about it. I am fine.

My partner, and dear friend, of course picked up on this. There was even a moment where I could tell he suspected, consciously or unconsciously (I still don’t know which), exactly what I was afraid was happening, even as I denied it to myself. He gave me a particular look, at the end of a work day, while holding me by the hips; I said, “What?” and pretended I didn’t know what had just crossed his mind, and he said, “What? Nothing,” back, just as defensively as I had, and we were then united in pretending that neither of us was thinking about this at all. After this point, I’m sure he dismissed the thought entirely, because he told me later he hadn’t known what specifically I was worried about. And why wouldn’t he forget about it? This was my body that was beginning to feel foreign to me. He couldn’t feel any of it. Still, he asked me to come over later that night, after I was done with work, because he was still concerned about me, and I did. He knew that I was seriously worried about something, and did not pry. I was relieved, because I was completely incapable, at that moment, of confessing what I was thinking. I was terrified; both of myself, and what he would think of me, however irrational that was.

(My Google search history around this time, in retrospet, was hilarious. It had started as simply as searching for the strangely unquantifiable “symptoms” I was experiencing. Once “what are the signs of early pregnancy” became the first suggestion to pop up, I felt singled out by a fatal spotlight like an inmate attempting to escape from prison, and panicked. Once I let myself go down that rabbit hole, I moved fully into terror. My search history then shifted: First, “Does Medicaid in California cover abortion?” Then, “What does abortion cost through Planned Parenthood?”, and so on. I started reading about what going through one feels like, and felt sick, and more afraid than ever. I wondered if I would have to go alone, before I even knew if I’d have to go at all. The only way I could answer that question was if I confronted how cowardly I felt about telling anyone what was happening, or even what I suspected was wrong. I told no one. I was entirely paralyzed by fear.)

Curled up in his lap on his couch, I still did not tell him. I justified this by telling myself: We’re both anxiety-prone and mildly hypochondriacal. I don’t want to tell him anything until I know there IS a concrete thing to even worry about. This was a purely honest reasoning, but I’m not sure I’ve ever decided whether it was the fair or right thing to decide. But ultimately, I kept quiet. He held me close and tight, stroked my head under his chin, and said: “It will be okay. I’ll always take care of you.” Despite my crippling panic, I believed him. And I felt a bit better. Better enough, at least, to leave his place near midnight, drive immediately to Ralph’s — lying and saying I had already made it home — to buy my first ever pregnancy test. It was not cheap, because none of them are. I silently begged the young male cashier to not judge me for coming in, alone and pale, after midnight in the middle of the week, and buying nothing but that. Blessedly, he said nothing, and simply wished me a good night. I smiled, because I felt like throwing up, and didn’t feel capable of speaking to anyone.

I had read online — because, in America, shamefully, that’s likely your best source of sex ed, and it was never a question I’d needed answered until then; I was 28 — that the best time to take a pregnancy test is in the morning, just after waking up. This meant attempting to sleep first, which felt impossible, but I must have, because I do recall waking up the next day, feeling like a stone had replaced my entire stomach. By this time, though there had been some spotting and inexplicable pains very different from cramps — which was what had set me off on my bouts of paranoid Googling in the first place — my period was over two weeks late.

I got up and did what I had to, then sat and waited. I think I had to put my head between my knees to calm down, as I hadn’t eaten yet, and felt like I might pass out. Every joke about how long the two minutes is where you are waiting on one mark or another to appear in a little white window are true, and I can only recognize now what a cruel joke that is. I finally checked it, and my hand was shaking. What will I do? What am I going to do? What is going to happen to me? kept flashing across my brain like a visual siren. I still hadn’t even begun to answer any part of that question. I had never been so frightened, nor felt more alone, that I could recall, in my life. But then: it was negative.

I wouldn’t find out until the following month — when that period seemed to arrive early, heavy, bloody, and more painful than any other I had ever experienced — what had happened. By the time I took the test, I had already miscarried. That early on, it’s called simply a chemical miscarriage, which I found out — now searching online through a haze of stupid relief and mild confusion — actually occurs a large percentage of the time, but is rarely talked about, because it happens so often and so early (though is part of why there’s something of an unspoken rule about announcing a pregnancy until after a later benchmark has already been reached). It was extremely painful, and I knew what it meant, but I still did not tell him. I kept the blood and pain to myself. I still cannot say why I did this, because I do not know. I did not ever actively decide to keep silent. I don’t even recall thinking of doing anything differently.

I was racked with too many other worries, I suppose, to even consider doing more than laughing hollowly to myself, “Well, there’s an abortion I don’t have to get!” and moving on. But all the other stresses from before had not gone away; many had, in fact, only gotten worse. In just two weeks, I would be wrongfully terminated from my job. I had never been fired before, and had — at the most generous and optimistic estimate — no more than three weeks in which I could conceivably be without work before I’d have to start thinking about whether I could survive living out of my car. I had no time or space in my mind to think about it. It was over. Before I even realized what had happened, it was already over. So it didn’t really matter, right?

I didn’t even use the word “miscarriage” until several months later, in the midst of a conversation with a trusted friend; I think it was as late as November. We were discussing how crazy my former job had gotten toward the end, from the safe remove of hindsight, and I shocked even myself when the words “It caused me so much stress I literally miscarried” came out of my mouth. She looked as surprised as I felt to hear them. But, of course, Oh. That is what happened.

That night, I finally did tell him. I knew immediately that he was shocked and hurt that it had taken me nearly an entire year to confess this to him — though I had never actively kept it from him, as far as I knew — and felt horrible. But I had just… moved past it. I didn’t think of it. It happened, I barely examined it, concentrated instead on getting a new job, then adjusting to that job, and so on. Life moved on, and the more time passed, the less I thought of it, if at all. I tried as best I could to express this to him, but I’m not sure he ever understood. He was able to laugh a bit and shakily joke about it, just as I had done (“I guess that’s your free pass!” and “We would make really cute children, but uh, not right now.“), but not before he said, “I’m sorry you lost it.” I didn’t dare ask him what that meant, because I realized it likely didn’t mean much of anything, but maybe that I felt the same, and that I couldn’t fully understand what that meant to me.

I know, in hindsight, that it complicates my feelings on children somewhat, which I have never wanted — a woman like me should never bear a child — and in particular, these days, with the current state of the world, it feels just cruel to me to even consider. My mother, though never the sort to expect me to procreate, nor push me to, used to gently say, now and then, “You might change your mind someday!” Because, yes, one can never truly say “never,” and also because that is what had happened to her. But I always quietly resented it. Once, just before I moved to Los Angeles, when I was riddled with those particular fears and stresses, I had the most vivid and horrifying nightmare I could recall having as an adult: though I wasn’t yet sexually active at the time, my worst stress dream manifested in a fiction where literally everything else about my life was normal and exactly the same, except for being roughly 7 months pregnant, and having no idea how it had happened. I felt deep, visceral horror at it, that I was hosting a parasite (not an inaccurate comparison). I woke up just on the very edge of what would have been the first fully-fledged panic attack of my life, nearly hyperventilating. It took me at least a half hour to calm down. My mother finally stopped dropping her little comment after that.

I’ve never asked what he meant by that Sorry; I imagine it was mostly more along the lines of, I’m sorry you had to go through this, or I’m sorry for my part in this, or I’m sorry that you didn’t tell me sooner, or simply I’m sorry that a bad and painful thing happened to you. It might have been all of those things at once. Maybe he even shared some of the inexplicable sorry that I also felt, and could not explain, but that would hover in the back of my mind when I would remember, at random moments, the fact that, somehow, despite protective measures, at that time, some of his cells began to combine with mine to make what might, theoretically, have eventually been a new person, but of course, for so many reasons, never could have. That this was likely, for better or worse, the closest I would ever come to having a child. The inexpressible sorry that says: It’s just… strange to realize that that’s something that happened to you (to me). I don’t know. But it did.

I do know how silenced I was by so many irrational and shamefully selfish fears, surely heightened by my anxiety disorder, back then: How could it not change everything between us? What if he never wanted to touch me again? How could I even justify to myself having both those worries in my mind at the same time? Some small part of me is probably just as irrationally (if not even more so) afraid of the same things now, simply in writing this. Whether this is because of the strange stigma and silence that surrounds women and miscarriage, or the constant change that exists both in relationships and in life, or simply because love — being as hideously complex as it is — involves both selfishness and selflessness, simultaneously, and pokes at our very deepest fears, I don’t know. I do know that I am a worrier, to a typically ridiculous degree, because that is the largest part of what having an anxiety disorder means, and I also know that most of the time, my worries end up being completely unjustified. But I also know that some form of this post has existed in my head, off and on, for many months, and apparently needs to be written down somewhere, because it has not gone away. It was keeping me from sleeping last night, even. I don’t know what that means, either.

I do know that, almost exclusively, my favorite songs — or at least ones that I can fixate on or end up sitting with on repeat for hours — by artists trend almost exclusively toward the melancholy or mournful: Michael Jackson’s “Stranger In Moscow,” Peter Gabriel’s “Mercy Street,” Pink Floyd’s “Take It Back,” Aimee Mann’s “Real Bad News,” Bloc Party’s “Signs,” David Usher’s “Devil by My Side,” Genesis’s “Carpet Crawlers,” Harry Nilsson’s “Remember (Christmas),” and so on, and on… And I know that, long before I knew what the lyrics were largely about, my favorite Fleetwood Mac song was “Sara.” It still is. But the way in which it speaks to me now, I realized when listening to it recently, is slightly different. And I don’t know how to feel about that. I don’t know that I’ll ever know.

Hold on
The night is coming, and the starling flew for days
I’d stay home at night, all the time
I’d go anywhere, anywhere, anywhere…
Ask me and I’m there
Ask me and I’m there, I care…

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Sliding scale of value

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Sunset on Vermont, East Hollywood
December 2015 © Eleanore Studer

Had something of a revelation today, while texting with a lovely and supportive friend (and hopefully not distracting her too much from actual work in the process). I already can’t recall whether it arrived in mind because of something specific she said, or just came as a result of having an illuminating conversation that allowed me space to see things I otherwise have trouble seeing about myself; perhaps it was a combination of both.

I’ve spent a long time — possibly my entire consciously developing life, since leaving the relatively carefree period of childhood  (pretty early, as most gifted and overly intellectual children tend to do) — struggling with self-worth. I will be harder on myself than any other person apart from me could possibly ever be, and criticize myself more harshly, too. It’s a big part of what gives me so much trouble forgiving anything I do or say that I perceive as a mistake. I’ve tried what feels like countless ways attempting to combat this, and re-frame my way of viewing myself. But when messaging with this friend today, I had a new thought that seems quite obvious in retrospect, but is nonetheless an angle I’ve never tried for handling this issue.

We were talking about our issues that we can be most sympathetic with between each other, due to whatever similarities they might have, and when she mentioned being a “caretaker” and having to learn to divorce her own self-worth from the concept of that burdensome “job” she assigned herself with people, I countered that I tend to view myself in terms of “usefulness” (e.g. if I find ways to make myself of use to people, they’ll be less likely to abandon me when I really need them). Guilt has all ways of finding me, and “Maybe I didn’t do enough” is a familiar refrain of that same old song of mine. (“You can never do enough” is what it turns into when things get much worse.) We moved on to discussing learning to recognize and acknowledge negative thinking and self-criticism; learning to call yourself on it, even if, for the moment, you’re not able to correct it, and recognizing it is the best you can manage… And I guess that got me thinking.

Maybe, as opposed to attempting to attack low self-worth head on, it’s a problem that needs to be approached in a more roundabout way. Maybe that makes it easier to work through, or at least less daunting and seemingly impossible. I realized suddenly how easy it is for me to view things I do for others as worthwhile, but how hard it is for me to accept any time I spend on myself as the same. I always frame my own time in terms of usefulness, too — did I get enough work done? did I get the work done I wanted to get done handled the way I wanted? was I productive? — and if it feels as though it wasn’t useful, that can make me feel like a failure. If I were to assign a visual to the value of my time, it would be a sliding scale, and most of the time, the way I see things, time spent on myself inevitably falls to the bottom. Maybe I need to try going at it almost backwards. Instead of fixing self-worth first, and judging how I spend my time less harshly as a result… maybe learning to value myself better can start, among other things, from learning to view whatever time I spend on myself as valuable, regardless of how productive (or not) it is.

I realize this will still be hard. None of this comes to me naturally or easily, and it can be exhausting sometimes. It won’t stop me from a genuine desire to do for and give my best to the people most important to me, because that’s one of my instinctive, natural ways of expressing love and care. But maybe trying to learn this concept of framing my own time and its value might be at least slightly less difficult than what I’ve tried for myself in the past. I suppose there’s really only one way to find out.

I’d say, “It’s a start,” in order to wrap this up, but that really isn’t true of a process you’ve been struggling with for over two decades. Maybe all I can say is, “It’s an idea,” and for now, that will have to be good enough.