By Elizabeth Newdom
To assuage the burning in my esophagus, I duck into the college bookstore to peruse the artsy gifts and office knick-knacks. Anything to stop the pacing, wild animal of my anxiety. I am about to have my first observation as a college professor and am hoping to keep down my lunch long enough to survive the assessment of my wobbly teaching muscles. I have almost two hours to go and am feeling rather seasick.
Fortunately, the store is quiet in mid-afternoon, and I can disappear into the colorful T-shirts with recognizable titles, like The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, and my personal favorite, Fahrenheit 451. There are even baby onesies on the bottom rack with titles like Babar the Elephant, and The Hungry Caterpillar. My fingers run across the word “hungry” a few times before I spot a shiny new display: a stand of necklaces with that local-artist quality. Fragile chains adorned with gold-plated book quotes. “I am. I am. I am.” is the one that draws me in, that brings a lump to my throat. I recognize it from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. A rather dark and dismal reference, perhaps, but these words resonate so well I don’t read the other quotes. These words and I have history. These words, will get me through.
10, 9, 8, 7…10, 9, 8…I can’t keep doing this. Why did my therapist think this could ever work? The ceiling seems closer than it did five minutes ago, or was it five hours ago? One minute has become virtually indistinguishable from the last. Except that sometimes a newborn is being placed into my arms for an hour or more of nursing. He is like a baby bird—small, soft, and in danger of falling from the nest.
I have been lying on this couch for what seems like 40 days. Walking through a desert of despair, my eyes keep tracing the swirling paintbrush strokes above me. At once, they are a blinding desert and a turbulent sea. And I am a lost sailor, a forsaken prophet.
There’s a vase of pale flowers on the side table. Sent from someone who obviously knows nothing about postpartum. I am unclear if these delicate stems were meant to be congratulatory or well wishes for a speedy recovery. But their presence reminds me just how far the island, how distant the oasis.
My stomach clenches as I begin greeting students under the watchful eye of a gentleman in glasses who sits awkwardly outside the circle of desks. Nonchalantly eyeing me and the students in the room. Judgment Day has come. I grab onto the quote that hangs between my collar bones like a life raft and begin easing into conversation, talking stiffly but casually with the few students who have shown up early. Maybe this won’t be so bad after all. “I am. I am. I am,” I visualize in the air, I speak inside my head.
7, 6, 5…The sun is not up. Has it been two hours yet since I last nursed my son? I almost forgot. I am off duty. My husband is the night watchman, spread out on the couch parallel to mine, a thousand miles beyond the coffee table between us. He is reading a book and is exhausted, yet blissful. He could be lying under the sun’s rays, waiting to fetch me some water or a sandwich, waiting to apply more sunscreen. This man doesn’t know the burning I feel, though. The blisters, the dryness, how endless the walk back home looks to me.
“I am. I am. I am.,” I begin saying to myself, feeling the slightest sense of a toe. “I am. I am. I am.,” and that’s all I know right now. I am above ground, and my heart is still beating.
The man in glasses is typing fast and furiously as I pivot between the board and the u-shaped row of desks in front of me. I hear words coming out of my mouth occasionally, words like “credible,” “bias,” and “warrant.” It’s as if I know what I am doing, but I am not sure about any of it. I could be getting everything wrong. And I won’t know until my colleague clicks send on his computer screen, as if reviewing a restaurant server or a Netflix film. He is a helicopter flying over my island, surveying the preparedness of my camp. But it doesn’t matter, because “I am. I am. I am.” Nothing can change that. Those words are my companions, my touchstones. I maintain the forward direction of my ship, while steadying an unruly shipmate or two who threaten to capsize us all.
4, 3, 2… It’s morning now, and I am in my therapist’s office. She is talking about rituals to keep me in the present moment. Things like meditation and mantras. But this woman doesn’t ask if I do these things already. She just assumes I am unlearned in the world of mindfulness. Me, with my unshaven legs and air-dried, wavy hair. Me, incapable of sleep, of simple hygiene. This doctor person doesn’t know I am feeling my foot while talking to her, or that I keep finding the weight of my hand on the armchair, noticing every finger, before answering another of her questions. Strategies I have used to anchor myself for years. “I am. I am. I am.” I visualize in the air. I repeat inside my head.
The lady wants to know if I am “staying present” by noticing the water temperature as I wash my hands. And for the second time, suggests I try counting backwards to kick in my rational brain during moments of unruly anxiety, moments when peeling off my skin seems like the only way to stop the fierce, radiating energy current coursing through my veins. The same current that has only allowed me two hours of sleep a night for the past eight days.
I take off my nice pair of shoes, my only uncomfortable pair, then place the chain into the clamshell on top of my dresser—like words spilling off a page. Dropping onto the bed, a smile of relief washes over me. The approaching tidal wave was only a warning. A distant threat that skirted by with only minor flood damage.
1…day at a time, she says to me. Just take things one day at a time. And she reminds me how living for each moment can bring me back. “I am. I am. I am.,” I repeat, clasping my fingers tighter around the armrest. I have stopped listening to her now as she is handing me pamphlets about postpartum anxiety and recovery. Pamphlets I know I will throw in the trashcan when ordering my decaf latte.
The calendar flips to July. And I am rocking Asher in the sand-colored rocking chair in his nursery, soaking in the yellow-painted walls and the cool A.C. during a hot summer. The words “I am. I am. I am.” reside in the hollow of my throat. Asher’s head is upon my chest; he rises and falls against my shoulder. I am becoming his shore. I am becoming his well. I am becoming his mom.
“You are. You are. You are. The most beautiful thing,” I whisper as he dozes off to sleep.
Elizabeth Newdom teaches composition, literature, and basic writing skills courses at a community college in Frederick, MD. She spends her spare time playing Wonder Woman or building Legos.