For impoverished mothers living with PTSD, most blessings are oddly shaped and paltry. This week, my first blessing came in the guise of my in-laws being here for the first and worst day that I acquired the stomach virus which my daughters lovingly brought home.
But let’s rewind.
The Sick Week began with Penelope, my youngest daughter. She got the virus first. I discovered she was sick when I was giving the sisters a bath. I discovered she was sick by scent. The scent of diarrhea. Penelope, not yet two, is known to poop in the bath on occasion. So, upon smelling feces, I immediately looked to her rump. I saw no telltale caca blob floating in her vicinity and attributed the stench to a fart. Nonetheless, I figured a true poop was coming, and turned to gather the towels. I heard a second fart ripple through the water. I turned, quick, ready to snatch the girls out if there was fecal matter, and was momentarily stilled by what I saw. Floating behind my youngest daughter was a thin, translucent waft of light brown smudge. It hung there for a moment, turning slightly like a leaf adrift in a breeze, before thinning, shaping tendrils in the drift, and then undulating toward the drain in diarrhea-jellyfish formation.
Then it was gone. As though it had never been. But for the lingering stench. I realized that this is what had happened before, except the first time I had missed the ghost-poop-jellyfish. So I snatched the girls out, wrapped them in towels, and began to drain the tub as quickly as possible. Of course, as I was bending over to pull out the cloth we use to plug the drain, Penelope, my littlest one, my sweetie-pie, ran to their room, lay tummy-down on the floor before the foot of her bed and, little butt raised high in the air, completed her diarrhea.
This time it was not so mesmerizing. This time it was projectile, and across the carpet, and the backboard of her bed, and pooling in the Mrs. Potato Head hairpiece that was under her bed.
This was the beginning of the Sick Week.
I got it next. Which is another oddly shaped blessing, I suppose, because normally these things hit one girl, then the other, and then us parents. But the sickness gave Anabelle enough reprieve to enjoy her birthday sick-free. It actually skipped her birthday completely; I wrote about her birthday already; it was fun.
And the next day was fun too. My in-laws stayed in town a couple extra days, and took both girls overnight to their hotel room so that Rick and I could actually spend some time together. I recently lost my ID, so that time didn’t get to be spent like free adults in a bar, but it was time and it was alone together, so it was good.
The next day, his parents invited us to lunch. I ordered vegan spinach enchiladas in verde sauce. One of my favorite dishes, and one I rarely get to eat because it is expensive even to make at home. I ate about two bites; the leftovers are still sitting in the fridge. After those two bites, I began spiraling into a dense vertigo of fatigue and nausea. We finished lunch with only about ten minutes to get my husband to work, which meant that I spent the bumpy, too-fast car ride huddled against my husband’s comforting mass, pushing his arm away from my abdomen, eyes closed, teeth clenched. After I gave him a tense, stingy kiss goodbye and the doors had closed behind him, I asked, with no pretense that I wanted to spend more time with the people who had just paid for my lunch, “Can you drop me off at home?” Rick’s mom would later whisper to him that I had a hangover.
I tried not to seem over-eager as I gave a hurried goodbye to my in-laws and daughters, but all I wanted was to get inside. The air in my apartment was sharp with the scent of alcohol. We had drunk the night before, but being exhausted and unused to drinking, neither of us had finished. Rick had left his sitting out, and this is what I smelled.
I was sick. It wasn’t a hangover, but at the time part of me thought it could have been, and I guess the psychological association was enough. As soon as I walked in the door and smelled the alcohol, I began to vomit into my mouth. I stumbled through the living room, across the mini-couch and cushion we set up by the TV for the girls, managing to hold back the vomit until I reached the toilet. Readers: This is heroism in the everyday.
There is a dissociative component to PTSD. You know this already if you read my “About Me+PTSD” page, or have any personal understanding of the disorder. I do not live, at least not fully, within my body. This gives my life an unreal effect. A distancing. A feeling that maybe nothing is real, that I am a bystander witnessing my experiences, and that they only connect to me in a vague, disembodied way. Sometimes I intentionally bring myself home to my body. By doing yoga, for example. This is a positive thing. I control it. I breath through any arising discomfort, or stop it, if it becomes too much.
Sometimes, something happens to me which forces me into my body. This is not a good thing.
Vomiting brought me back into my body. Hard. My plant-based diet makes the act of vomiting relatively pain-free, but this vomit, which brought with it my sudden, violent embodiment, was excruciating. The partially digested spinach and bile that burned down my throat and poured from my nostrils only stopped my access to breath for a few moments, but those moments were long enough to return me to the other moments of breathlessness. The moments when my larynx was crushed beneath the hands of my lover. The moments when my body, still conscious, still feeling, lost control and seized. The moments before the moment when I would have died, if he had not let go just then. As I splattered the toilet bowl with puke, leaden with the weight of my flesh, I seared with hatred. I hated my body, for having been through so much abuse. I hated life, because to have it I have to stay in a body that holds memories I hate. I hated existence itself, for its being, for its persistence, for its constant inclusion of me. When I remember puking this week, I see flashy, psychedelic reels of violent memories spewing down with the waste, spinning in the toilet bowl as I flush away the sick.
When I was finished, I looked into the mirror. I looked into my eyes, I calmed, and departed myself once again.
Anabelle was the next one sick. She got it the day after my in-laws left, when I was still sick and my husband had symptoms as well, on a Thursday when her daycare was closed for staff training, and my husband was scheduled for a work-shift. She didn’t show symptoms until after he left. She didn’t show symptoms until she woke from her nap around four, and spewed creamy vomit across my bed sheets. And Penelope’s special blankie. And, somehow, into one of my pillowcases. I remember thinking as I wiped the chunks with a towel, how remarkably sweet-scented it was, because it contained almost nothing but soymilk. Oddly shaped blessings.
After settling and bathing Anabelle, waking Penelope and settling her from the rage of being awakened, I gathered the sheet and the blankie and the pillow and a couple of towels and led my daughters on an expedition to the laundry room. I tossed in the laundry pods, shoved in the pukey assemblage, and led us back to our apartment. The machine was full, I will admit this, but I have seen those machines stuffed far fuller, so I thought nothing of it. When we returned to transfer everything to the dryer, I found the washing machine displaying an incoherent message, and still full of water with my laundry sopping inside.
My mother never really made me do chores as a child. Or taught me how to keep house. I was an only child, and spoiled. At my father’s house, where I was the illegitimate product of his extramarital affair, I was an afterthought, and neglected. Raised between these two extremes, I was never taught the basics of home-care. I only learned how to properly fold shirts two years ago when my mother-in-law showed me.
I had no idea what to do with my unfinished laundry. All I knew was that one of my daughters was liable to begin vomiting across the tenant laundry room, the other was crying for her (now soaked) blankie, I wasn’t feeling so well myself, and if I spent the quarters in my pocket putting the bedclothes through another wash cycle, I wouldn’t have enough to dry them after that. So I wrung each heavy, dripping item over the washing machine and then slapped them into the dryer, while my daughters stared at me with confused expressions. By the time I was finished, the floor was drenched. It was pooled around the washer and dryer both, and across the floor. There was no hiding what had happened.
This all was not my fault; I have seen these machines break on other tenants before. Like everything else in the building, they have been haphazardly patched back together a few dozen times, but not actually replaced in years, possibly (probably) even decades. But another key aspect of PTSD is the tendency to blame oneself unduly, and to avoid being caught and punished. So I began pushing the water with my feet, covered only in black ballet-slippers, toward the drain. This delighted my daughters and I had to shoo them away several times to keep them from joining me. It was difficult, futile work; in the end all that I accomplished was to spread the water a little thinner across more of the floor.
So I gave up. I slammed the dryer door closed over the heavy wet sheets, pushed in sixty minutes worth of quarters, went back upstairs, helped both girls out of their boots and coats, turned on their movie, slumped onto the couch, and Googled “can you put soaking wet things in the dryer?”
Two minutes later, I was pausing the movie again, stuffing little limbs back into boots and coats, and dragging us back to the laundry room, bag in hand. I stopped the dryer, brought each item to the sink in the corner, wrung them each again, and then put them into my bag. Except the bed sheet, Penelope’s blankie, and the pillow. I figured those few essential things, wrung extra well, could at least be machine dried. Of course, while all of this was going on, the girls were dancing in the puddle on the floor. Amazing, since they were supposed to be sick. I tried to stop them once or twice, but they just stared at me for a moment, and returned to their dancing.
Anabelle somehow managed to keep herself from puking again until we were at the table molding My Little Ponies out of playdough. She even missed the actual playdough, and got most of it on the easily cleaned tabletop. Another oddly shaped blessing.
A body that doesn’t fully rest doesn’t fully recover. As I write this, I still feel the virus within me. Dying, yes, and not causing vomit and flashbacks anymore, but still noticeable. As I was hacking my way through the obnoxious brambles of evening responsibilities, I discovered, at the bottom of my potato and onion basket, a forgotten, rotted yam. And the nest of cockroaches it attracted. My girls, at the time, were entranced by the Curious George cartoon. I could have rested. Maybe even closed my eyes for a moment or two. Healed, at least a little a bit. But instead, I cleared cockroach debris, and delivered a new scene to my nightmares.
As I went to bed last night, I thought it was over. I thought I would feel a little extra tired and crabby and take a couple more days to fully get over it, that maybe the same would be true for Rick, but that the kids, at least, were better. I thought I would get some rest last night.
Once again, life proved that my positive thinking is hugely false. In my trauma-tinted reality, this might even mean that my positive thinking, that the act of hope itself, causes negative events to happen. It’s called cherophobia: the fear of happiness, and it’s why I don’t think ‘happy thoughts’ very often.
Penelope, who has not yet spent a night in the bed we bought her several months ago (correction: the bed my in-laws bought her), spent the night clawing at my tank-top, pulling it aside and nuzzling, open mouthed, onto my nipple with a hard pinch upon latch…all night. When I forced her off, she yowled. When I slid her away from my chest, she flailed her long arms outward until she landed on nipple. I produce little, if any, breastmilk anymore, but this has not deterred Penelope from her obsession with my breasts. Every night, she clamps her mouth over one nipple while squeezing and pinching the other. Everything I have tried to prevent any of this-dear god at least the grabbing!-has failed. Most nights, though, it isn’t all night. Last night it was all night.
So, I barely slept. And it’s a Saturday, which means no daycare. When Penelope awoke, waking everyone else with her, I tucked my sore, maraschino-red nipples back into my shirt and followed her to the living room. She was cheery. Why shouldn’t she be? She spent the entire night with her beloved ‘tete.’ I was pretty much sleepwalking. Anabelle was pooping in the corner, because although she can hold her needs enough to wear panties without making a mess, and even sometimes pees in a potty, she absolutely refuses to poop in anything but a diaper. I could hear the liquid of it as she pooped. I knew it would be an urgent clean-up, that I could not wait for my husband to get out of the bathroom and take care of this one. (After all the crap, both literally and figuratively, I’ve dealt with the past week, hadn’t I earned a small, morning reprieve?) I knew all this, and still I had no idea…
Morning caca completed, Anabelle ran to the television demanding cartoons. She lay on her side. I went to the kids’ room to grab the changing necessities, and Anabelle rolled onto her tummy. No big deal, right?
Liquid shit was pooled on the floor next to her, in two distinct formations, one big, one little. Liquid shit was washed across Anabelle’s belly and midway up her chest, drenching the lower half of her shirt. It was dripping out of the sides of her diaper, smeared across her privates, and even smudged, somehow, on one knee. I hadn’t even had coffee yet.
In the world of sane human beings, those strange noble creatures whom I do not know or resemble at all, these events would appear unconnected. In the darkly magical world of PTSD, they are portends. But portends of what? My birthday is next week. On my birthday eleven years ago, I was nearly killed by the man I then loved. On my birthday one year ago, I nearly killed myself. Do the portends lie in the illnesses, the inconveniences, the series of disgusting events, or in the oddly sized blessings scattered around them? What is waiting for me, in the next seam of my fate?
At least I was able to confirm Penelope’s recovery from the virus, because when she pooped in the tub last night, it was solid.