Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Land of Misplaced Memories

I originally read this piece aloud on May 7, 2015 as part of the Little Rock, Arkansas edition of  Listen to Your Mother. I was both awed  and humbled to be included with a cast of charming storytellers whose stories were diverse but still familiar on some level with anyone who heard them. Click the link above to find out more about LTYM and to get on the mailing list, so you will remember to share your own story next year!  

     After my daughter was born, I did everything I was supposed to do. I pat-a-caked; I peek-a-booed; I counted pink little piggy toes, but I still didn't feel it. "It" being the overwhelming sense of adoration and affection that I felt after each of my first four children were born.  It wasn't my little girl’s fault. Aubrey was a beautiful baby who ate well and slept well; never mind that after four boys, she was the sweet little bundle of sugar and spice I had always dreamed of. Still, I could do nothing more than go through the motions: feeding, changing, bathing, repeating, day in and day out.
With my other children, even though life grew increasingly dark as each pregnancy progressed, everything brightened after delivery. When the depression didn't lift after Aubrey’s birth, I tried to break free the best I knew how: I exercised more. I took vitamins and herbs and used essential oils. I threw myself into hobbies, trying to ignite even a spark of interest in life.  I finally resorted to antidepressants, which hadn't served me well in the past, but I was desperate for relief. None of it worked, and the depression gradually transformed from the thin dark air of a starless night to a thick black tar that both suffocated and paralyzed me.  Eventually, my psychiatrist told me we might want to try something more radical: electroconvulsive therapy or ECT, which is more commonly (and dramatically) known as “electroshock therapy.” This term often conjures up images of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and Jack Nicholson in the throes of sweaty, violent convulsions, but reality is much more sedate. Literally.
ECT is actually performed under general anesthesia with some muscle relaxers thrown in, so there are no convulsions when a little electricity induces a seizure.  I always imagined myself being hooked up like a car battery that needed a jump start. Looking back, it still sounds a little frightening, maybe even barbaric, but it’s amazing what you’re willing to do when your life is on the line. I was so sick by the time the doctor explained the risks of ECT to me that when she said, “Anytime general anesthesia is involved, there is a risk of death,” all I could think was, “That would really simplify things.”  Over the next six weeks, I was put under and shocked into a seizure nine times.  Just before the sixth or seventh treatment, as the doctor was injecting anesthesia into my IV, I rushed to slur out a question before the meds kicked in: “I’m actually afraid I won’t wake up this time. Does that mean it’s working?”  The nurse patted me on the hand, smiled, and said, “Yes. Now go to sleep.”
It’s odd that I remember so clearly the conversations I had with the medical staff just before each treatment because memory loss is one of the most troubling side effects of ECT. Since what I like to call my “electric summer,” I have discovered many things I didn't know I had forgotten. Some of them are silly, like when I opened my cabinet and noticed a box of Jake and the Neverland Pirates Band-Aids. I said, “These are so cute! When did we get these?” My husband informed me that I was the one who bought them. Some lost memories are just strange, like when I found three batches of soup in my freezer that I don’t remember making.  And sometimes the lack of memory is painful. Luckily, I have an email transcript of my interaction with my oldest son Alex, who has already moved away from home, but I don’t remember watching my second oldest son, Eric, graduate from high school. I can’t recall dropping my third son, Jacob, off at scout camp for his first summer job. A trip to the zoo with Aubrey and her three-year-old brother, Aidan, only lives in photos. And three people who held special places in my heart passed away around the time of my treatments. For several months, I would see or hear something that reminded me of them, and it was almost like learning they were gone all over again.
I also have trouble making new memories. Sometimes I struggle just to recall what I did yesterday, but other times I remember with clarity something that happened a month ago.
The good news, though, is that in the moment, I’m finally feeling it. I treasure the moments when Jacob, who has become the last teenager living at home for now, looks up from his phone long enough to grunt at me a little more than usual. When Aidan goes into great detail describing the ins and outs of the latest Angry Birds game, I want to hear it. When he informs me that I am one puppy or another from Paw Patrol, I play along, barking for good measure.  And even though the first two years of Aubrey’s life are a blur, I no longer cringe when I hear her chattering on the baby monitor as she wakes up in the morning. And when she dances to the theme song from Curious George, I get up and dance, too.
I never stopped loving my children, even in the darkest hours, but now I can really feel it. I adore them again. I enjoy the time I spend with them again. And even though next week or next month, I may not be able to remember the little moments of joy that we create together today, I hope they will. And in the end, that’s all the really matters.