The confusion of the next week would never be sorted out. I had indeed nursed David in the car. Stewart went in to get the strong tranquillizers Dr. Betts had prescribed. (I would later learn that the drugs were thorazine and haldol.) Stewart promised he would not be gone long. Then David started crying. It always upset me when he cried. “Wait,” I urged him. But, of course, David knew nothing about waiting. I got one of the blankets and covered us both so that I could feed him. No one would look in. And besides, those nursing mothers from La Leche did this sort of thing all the time.
As soon as I took the first one of these new pills, the nursing would have to stop, of course. Mother had prepared for this event, by stocking in bottles and showing Stewart how to sterilize them. But he waited until she returned from South Carolina on Monday night to begin the new routine.
The tranquillizers hit me like a huge breaker, and I went under in total confusion. With the tight binding around my breasts, I felt like someone in ancient China, with feet bound for the sake of beauty. David was now sleeping in the crib in the nursery with Mother. I would hear him cry and long to nurse him, although I’d been told that would poison him. For the first few nights, mother would grab him and carry him downstairs with her as she warmed his bottle, to protect him.
I sensed that my feelings—my confusion about whether it was day or night, my fear of noises, and my reactions to the strangeness of the world in general—were like those of an infant. I was not sure which one of us was being born. I believed I now understood what it was like to be an autistic child, shocked into a world of self-absorption by the trauma of birth.
I wouldn’t keep my clothes on. I told Mother, “I used to be aloof. Now I could be intimate with anyone who came along.” Mother covered me up and stifled a groan. Several times I checked to see if I could find the birthmark on my hip. If it was still there, I must still be the same person. What would an unmarked individual do in such a crisis? “Why are all these hundreds of doctors tampering with my delicate thermostat?” I complained.
Actually, at the moment, the only doctor was Dr. Betts. But his drugs were certainly affecting my internal thermostat. Dr. Betts was now seeing us on his lunch hour every day. He was doing everything he could to keep me from having to be locked up in the hospital. I was anxious every time we left David with my Mother to go to an appointment. It was a real act of faith to believe that the car would not leave the road like a spaceship and that we would get back home to David. It was an act of faith to believe that Stewart would come back into the waiting room from behind the doctor’s closed door and that I would recognize him when he did.
One day Stewart stayed home from work to help me put together the laundry cart that had been a gift from Ann Dickens. Square bars had to be fitted together, and if one side was too tight, the other could not be connected. The project seemed to take us forever. ‘This is the longest day,’ I thought. ‘We are like two retarded children, but even two retarded children could start life again if they were left alone on the planet.’ When I slept afterwards, I imagined the new washer and dryer floating down the street, along with the swing set from the neighbors’ yard.
I was convinced that I was swinging back and forth in time. I tried to guess what day it was by looking at the things around me. If there were three clean robes folded at the foot of the bed, perhaps it was Tuesday. If the robes were there the next time I looked, we must have swung back to Tuesday again, even if we had been propelled into another day in between. When Mother let me hold David again, he drew up his feet. Maybe he was growing backwards. Or he snorted with little pig-like noises. ‘I’m just as glad to miss the pig stage,’ I thought. When the candlestick on the dining room table was turned away from me, so that I could not see the usual wax drippings, I thought we must have gone back in time to when that candlestick was new, before we had even moved to Raleigh.
Only a few close friends were coming to visit now. When they came, I said very little because I kept seeing weights hanging over their heads. Several times a visitor would be knitting or chrocheting while talking with Mother. I stared at their moving hands, as they repeated the movements of my earlier visions—up and down, back and forth. Maybe these gentle motions sustained life after all.
The nighttime visions stopped. But little phrases came to my mind and sometimes burst out of my mouth with the urgency of prophecy. ‘I am a gene in a washing machine’ was a secret I kept to myself. But I did try to share some of my new wisdom with others: “Follow your fundamental instincts,” “Hang on to your plants and they’ll hand on to you,” “Go with the flow,” “If anyone builds a dream house, it becomes a tomb,” and “Betts know best.” I made a little chant of the words “normal, normal, normal,” with which to comfort myself. And before I ever heard the Beatles’ version on the radio—I was sure of this—I made up a little song: “We can work it out, we can work it out, we can work it out—together.”
A print by Sister Corita Kent in the dining room was a message for me. The big orange letters said, “COME ALIVE.” The smaller blue ones said, “You can make it.” The tenth time I studied the picture I decided it meant, “You can make it come alive.”
Stewart began to play little games with me. He would sing along with me in the shower, “Normal, normal, normal.” Or he would say, “Hang on to your fish,” and wait for me to respond, “And they’ll hang on to you.” On our daily trips to Dr. Betts, he would ask, “What does this remind you of?” I would stop staring at the billboards to see if the letters had become dislocated and fallen off and reply, “Our trip to Europe.” In truth, this errand through the streets and avenues of Raleigh had very little in common with our camping trip through Europe two years previously, but we were riding in the same car and, I suppose, moving through unknown territory.
As part of his reality therapy, Stewart would remind me. “When was Polly Potts’s baby born? Not the day you called the doctor. A week later. And everything was fine.”
Dr. Betts persisted in his efforts to keep me out of the hospital. Even at my lowest paint, I wanted to be with David and Stewart, and he realized that being suddenly shut away from them might make it more difficult for me to recover from my psychosis. But Mother, despite all her competence, could hardly be expected to carry out the functions of childcare, housekeeping, and psychiatric nursing for a long period, especially since it was part of her job to protect the child from the psychiatric patient. Dr. Betts and Stewart began to consider sending me to a mental health center during the day.
“No day care,” I protested when I overheard this conversation. “I don’t want my baby sent to day care.”
“Oh, not the baby,” sputtered Dr. Betts. “We were talking about your mother, something to help her out.”
“That’s OK,” I replied, thinking that my mother might be sent somewhere during the days.
On Friday, Stewart and Dr. Betts decided that I would begin spending my days in a mental health center the following Monday. But on Saturday morning, I came down the stairs, took the calendar Mother handed to me, and began to sort things out.
Mother was delighted at the progress I was making. When Stewart came home to lunch, she told him, “Grace is so much better. Look here. She’s been making a record of what’s happened.”
Stewart looked at me and smiled. “Your eyes look better,” he said. “And I didn’t hear that high pitch in your voice just now.”
I suddenly remembered that Stewart had been meeting with a couple planning a wedding. “I was all worried about your feelings at the baptism for Ed and Diane’s baby,” I told him. “It’s going to be even harder for you to do a wedding, I bet.”
Stewart admitted, “Some of those words about in sickness and in health do have a new ring to them. I’m not sure I could have held out indefinitely.”
I recalled a moment from the night before. Stewart was trying to get me to take my medicine, and I couldn’t get the pill to go down. He finally got so frustrated that he slugged me. Not hard. But it was the first time ever during our marriage (and it would turn out to be the last).
“I can’t swallow,” I told Mother. “And those drugs are making me full of milk again.”
Mother brought me a memo pad and a pencil just as quickly as she had produced the calendar. “Here,” she said. “Write that down. Make a list of all the things you want to ask Dr. Betts on Monday.”
When Monday came, Dr. Betts said, “Hold out your hand. Um hum. It’s trembling. Drug-induced Parkinsonianism. Well, we can give you another pill for that.” He checked a reference book and found that lactation, indeed, was a result of one of the tranquillizers. “You’ll just have to handle that the best way you can,” he said. “Use the binding again if you have to.”
With each visit that followed I felt I was giving up some of my crazy powers, peeling them away. I gladly let go of the illusion of swinging back and forth in time. It was harder to stop beaming messages to friends and relatives. On one occasion, Stewart read Dr. Betts some notes he had jotted down, recording things I had said. I had been talking about life and death, agony and ecstasy.
“Still having ambivalent feelings, I see,” said Dr. Betts.
Ambivalent feelings! I was incensed. Hadn’t he read Heraclitus? Didn’t he know that all seers and mystics saw the balance of opposites in the universe?
But I didn’t object out loud. I was willing to give up some of my insights, too, if that was required for me to be able to function as a wife and mother.
I offered up accounts of several of my dreams, which Dr. Betts, fortunately, refrained from interpreting. They were even more clinical than Polly Potts’s typical conversation. In one, I was helping one of the younger brothers who had crowded into the family when I was not much more than a baby myself. As I helped him toward the bathroom, I imagined that his bowel movement fell down, down into the basement and out of sight. In another dream, I was nursing David. But when I looked down, the face was Mother’s.
“Doesn’t it feel better not to hold in those secrets?” asked Stewart.
I wasn’t sure.
But Stewart wanted no part of secrecy about my breakdown. He had been furious when I told callers, “I’m just fine,” in a hysterical voice. He would take the phone and say, “Grace is manic. We’re hoping she’ll soon be better.”
After having wanted to be the perfect mother, after even considering being the second Mary, I now had to face up to being a total failure, and to having that failure made public. My humiliation was complete when Stewart would take me for a walk in the neighborhood, or to the grocery store, over-drugged, my eyes dimmed, my feet shuffling. ‘If anybody recognized me, they’ll just have to recognize me,’ I told myself.
During the days I now worked hard at proving that I could be competent. I mastered the complicated sterilizing process that Mother insisted was necessary. I let Mother show me how to work the new washing machine. I took over the meal preparation.
Mother was careful to shift various tasks to me gradually, as she worked herself out of a job. She decided it was safe to leave David in the nursery, and she moved to the sofa-bed downstairs to sleep. Finally convinced that Stewart and I could manage on our own, she made preparations to leave.
At night, I was weaving together a new sense of myself. I saw that although I had changed because of what I’d been through during David’s birth and afterwards, I was also in many ways the same person I had always been. As a drowning person, they say, sees all the scenes of his or her life flash by, I began to remember happenings and feelings I had long forgotten—a childhood bout of hepatitis that left me weak and dependent, intense religious experiences of adolescence, my early days of falling in love with Stewart. I was putting together the pieces of my identity.
I wanted so badly to seem well that I became crafty about what I said and didn’t say. Just before we left to take Mother to the airport, she insisted that we take apart the drainpipe in the kitchen sink to find a butter knife that had slipped down the drain as she washed dishes the day before. ‘Do you know what this reminds me of?’ I wanted to say. I remembered one Christmas when, after dinner, Mother had gone to the kitchen alone to wash the dishes while the rest of us engaged in a lively conversation. She didn’t leave the dishes in the kitchen to come join us, and she didn’t call any of us to come help her. But perhaps resentment played a part in what happened next. Mother cut her finger on a knife hidden in the soapy water and had to be taken to the hospital for stitches.
That memory seemed very significant, but I refrained from mentioning it. If I did, Mother might not leave. And more than anything, I wanted Stewart, David and me to be on our own.