For a few years in my early twenties, I couldn’t walk more than a few blocks at a time. What started out as minor ankle pain dragged on and on, despite ibuprofen, crutches, acupuncture, and all other manner of treatments.
At twenty-six, I’d been down the tunnel of anxious midnight Googling and bone-deep despair. I was emerging at the other end with a resigned sense of my “new normal.” I had stopped trying to find silver bullets and had collected a handful of practices and treatments that helped me feel better, if not pain-free. I tried to imagine how my life could still be meaningful, even if I never got to hike the Camino Real in Spain or do a double pirouette again.
Then I got pregnant.
Pregnancy causes the body to release the hormone relaxin, which expands ligaments to accommodate the growing baby and undergo childbirth. As my joints shifted throughout the pregnancy, I noticed, bit by bit, the pain decreasing.
When I was nearly seven months pregnant my husband and I took a “babymoon” to Colombia. I brought pricey Mephisto sandals and motion-control athletic shoes with orthotic inserts, hoping I could withstand more time on my feet. To my delight, I could. My biggest feat involved trekking up a mountain and down through cattle pastures and jungles in the Cocora Valley, renowned for its wax palms. My husband took pictures of me gingerly inching across swinging rope bridges—belly first. I laughed, “Don’t let my mom see these.”
After my son’s birth I still had bouts of pain. But it wasn’t constant, and I could usually walk about freely.
If I had hoped the retreat of pain meant a subsiding of my fretful hypochondria, I was mistaken. For the first few nights of new motherhood, I woke up every hour to check that the baby was still breathing. When he got his first cold at two months I put him on his side in my bed and slept facing him, startling at every sniffle and pause in his breathing.
One evening when my son was fifteen months old, we waited for my husband to get home from the train. My son had a cold and followed me—snotty and wailing—from room to room. Exasperated, I put him to my breast. A few seconds later his eyes rolled back and he abruptly stopped nursing. I stared. A strange, involuntary cry left his mouth and his little body started twitching. I rushed out of the bedroom with him—was he choking on something? I frantically recalled that first aid class I took at the YMCA and flipped him over on my lap, thumping his back with my palm. Still twitching.
The word “seizure” dropped in my mind. I called 9-1-1. He was turning a shade blue. “Lord Jesus Christ, help me!” I shrieked into an empty dining room. Giving my address to the operator, I ran into the stairwell of our condo with the baby still convulsing on my shoulder. I pounded on the door across the hall, then ran upstairs and tried those doors. Nothing. By now he had stopped moving and lay floppy in my arms. The ambulance arrived.
My son recovered. He had had a febrile seizure—common among younger children who have a rapid temperature spike. There was no lasting damage to his health, though my own mental health is a different story.
I tell people I have PTSD from my children’s health emergencies (the seizure was the first of many). The ER runs and midnight doctor calls have fired up my amygdala—the part of the brain involved in the fight-or-flight response. Researchers have found that becoming a mother (or a primary caregiver) activates the amygdala. Mine runs in overdrive.
Coughs from run-of-the-mill colds trigger memories of my second son’s RSV episode, which landed him in the hospital on breathing treatments at nine weeks old. Unusually warm foreheads get me checking temperatures obsessively, recalling the way my heart dropped into my belly witnessing my firstborn’s convulsions. When my children get sick, I am a bundle of frayed nerves and outsize reactions, including—most unhelpfully—the itchy, jumpy feeling of wanting to run away from it all.
I start to resent how much their bodies need from me. I feel trapped by their fragile flesh. The decisions—Tylenol or not? See the doctor or wait it out?—are a corset around my ribs, each one laced with what ifs and second guesses.
I felt similarly in my early twenties living in the tunnel of chronic pain. I lay awake so many nights, flopping around like a dying fish. I wondered if I had seen the right doctor, if I was doing enough, if I was doing too much. What I wanted most was to put on sneakers and escape into the cool night air, to run until my lungs hurt and my muscles felt like jelly, to bust out of my body’s cage. But I was tethered down by pain and it-only-gets-worse-from-here thinking. I was alone in my body.
Now I have my children’s bodies pawing and bouncing next to mine, but I feel that same loneliness. It’s the loneliness of knowing our bodies’ utter vulnerability, the loneliness of pounding on doors in a cold stairwell and getting no response while the baby seizes. The loneliness of a little cough at night that could lead to an asthma attack.
Three babies and many years of pain later, I’ve realized I’ll never escape this loneliness. My children will grow up. My pain may improve. But I’ll still be human. Which means that my skin will still separate me from others. My body, and everything I feel within, is still only mine, though I try to find the words and gestures to share the ache.
I’m recovering from the PTSD of chronic pain and children, even as it is ongoing. My trauma is universal. It’s the trauma of having a body and loving bodies constantly exposed to danger—viruses, racism, toxins, climate disasters, and ultimately, death.
The antidote, I think, is presence. It is knowing someone is with you, feeling with you. Knowing that even if you’re free-falling, at least you’re holding hands. When I want to flee—to dissociate from my body or from my children because it simply hurts too much—I need someone to say, “It’s okay. Breathe. Stay with me.” I need a point of reference outside of my unreliable skin and bones.
My husband keeps me company when he can. Sometimes I reach for my kids’ warm sleeping bodies when they’re well and breathing steadily. I talk to friends. Hugs are helpful. I breathe deeply and recall Genesis 2:7, where God breathed into the dust-man Adam and imparted life. I remind myself: I’m here. I’m breathing. God is with me.
My new normal still changes, as the pain fluctuates and the children grow. One thing that won’t change is the loneliness—that knowledge of being a single, separate being in a world of pain. I’m making my peace with that. It’s only human.
Cover image by Alex Pasarelu.