Closing the Door
I have been grieving over the loss of a dream for many years. The feelings of profound emptiness and sorrow have overwhelmed me. I have always wanted to have a child, and I knew that I would make a wonderful mother. I would break the cycle of critical voices that played a big part of my childhood. Ideally, I would be a loving, nurturing, and accepting parent. I have been grieving over the loss of a dream for many years.
Whenever I see a mother and a child holding hands in the park, or a mother strolling her baby with other mothers, or watch my sister read Harry Potter to her son, I cry out: “Why not me? It’s not fair!” I tell myself to try to move on with my life—to remind myself that I have a loving and supportive partner, family, and friends. I have a rewarding job teaching English to immigrants and refugees, that I am a passionate and published writer. But is this enough? Do these things take the place of being a mother? Is this the dream? Is this something I have been dreaming about my whole life?
My mental health has suffered tremendously from bipolar disorder, a chronic mental illness. During my teenage years, I endured severe depression and was hospitalized due to suicide attempts. In my twenties, a psychiatrist prescribed antidepressants, and I immediately shot into a full blown manic and psychotic episode. I was living with my mother at the time, and while in a heightened state, I impulsively packed all my belongings and took the train from New York to San Francisco. While living there, I was reckless and impulsive. I slept with a lot men, I spent most of my money, and I lost a lot of weight. I remember calling my grandmother in the middle of the night to tell her I was a model and an artist. She must have told my father because the next thing I knew, I was on a plane coming home for a “rest,” as my dad had convinced me, “it was for the best.”
What I didn’t know is once you are committed to a mental hospital, you cannot leave. I didn’t believe this. I thought for sure after I got stabilized, I could leave. At first, the doctors figured out the right combination of medications, and I got better. But then I became depressed. Why was I still there if I was better? I had a tough time coping in there because I saw many sick patients, a lot worse than me. The only way “out” of there was to write. I found poetry. The staff allowed me to sit in an empty room with a computer. And that is what saved me. That was my escape. The staff at the hospital recognized that I was well enough to take day passes out of the hospital. They came up with a plan for me to attend classes at a local liberal arts college. I worked closely with some very fine poets. My writing improved, and I became a student there. I even graduated without any my classmates knowing that at the end of the school day, my ride had been a shuttle that took me to a locked mental facility on the outskirts of town.
After I graduated, my friends had moved away and sister relocated to Seattle. I wanted to live nearby her, so I moved to Portland, Oregon. Little by little, things started to improve again. I took my medication, entered a Master’s Degree Program, and got my first job as an English teacher Portland Community College, where I have taught for almost twenty years. I was finally stable, happy, and productive.
After teaching for a couple of years, I became restless and wanted to travel. Some of my friends were teaching abroad, so I thought that would be fun if I did, too. I signed a year contract to teach English in Prague. The stress of being in foreign county, of not knowing the language, not knowing my way around, not having the support of friends or family, all resulted in a full blown manic and psychotic episode. I was hearing voices. I couldn’t sleep. I got fired from my job. I was living in a room without hot water. I was drinking and smoking pot to calm myself down. I lost so much weight, I had to wear layers of clothes to fit into them. I was scared so I put myself in a Czech Mental Hospital. It was terrifying. No one spoke English. The patients had never met an American, so they didn’t talk to me. The doctor gave me medication, but I didn’t know what it was, so I just put it under my tongue and spit it out later. When the nurse asked me for my passport, I thought I was never going to leave, that I would be stuck in that 18th century drafty stone building for the rest of my life. But, luckily, when they realized that I wouldn’t be able to pay for the hospital, they returned my passport, and told me to leave. Since I didn’t have money, I pleaded with my friend to buy me a plane ticket back home. I remember the night I left. It was the first snowfall. It smelled like winter. It was time to go. To get better.
After months of rest and recuperation, I felt strong again. I was ready to settle down, get married. I married a man twelve years younger than me. Another impulsive decision! Then, I found out that he didn’t want children. He didn’t even like children. I was so upset because I knew if I was stable, I could have children. I did everything I was supposed to prepare myself for motherhood. I took my medication, I continued with my teaching job, ate well, and exercised vigorously. I remember talking to my doctor about medication and pregnancy. It was a risk, he said, but I would be monitored carefully. Still, my husband wasn’t interested in having children or having sex. He finally did give in, and we tried to get pregnant for a year, but something was wrong. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t getting pregnant. By then, my husband became increasing withdrawn from me. He stayed at work late, and when he came home, we hardly ever spoke. I was devastated. I wasn’t a mother and my marriage was falling apart. I felt empty. My husband and I had split up. And I was a lone without a child. By then I was in my 40s and it was too late for me to conceive. I thought about adoption, but I was single, so I knew it would be difficult to raise a child on my own.
Since the divorce, my life has gotten better. My doctor put me on new mood stabilizer. I have been mentally healthy for almost 10 years. My relationships are strong, life is easier, not as many ups and downs. Things are more manageable, there are no longer as many crises, no more fires to put out. Even so, sometimes the quiet times are the hardest. Those are the times you start thinking about the past, delve back into the darkness, settle on a painful spot, an old wound that hasn’t healed.
Many people can tell you to move on, but it does not help. Letting go is part of the grieving process. Losing someone is the most difficult part of life. I believe that raising a child with a mother who has a chronic mental illness would not be fair to the child or to my family. It would put a heavy burden on all of us.
I have thought about what it would be like if I did choose to be a mother. I might have to stop taking my medication during the first trimester. This risk could cause me to become manic or depressed. Then, after I gave birth, sleep deprivation could also cause an episode. Who would take care of the bay? My husband who was absent most of the time? My 80-year-old mother? My sister who lives in another city? And what if did became ill while raising my child? Would I be in the hospital loaded with medication? Would the court take away my child?
Some dreams do not come true. I have had to close the door on the dream of being a mother. It doesn’t mean I don’t still grieve, but the intensity of grieving has waned. I have learned to accept the reality of my situation. I put my efforts to my art and my writing. My work has been published in various journals, and I have been hired to a be a Poetry Editor of a literary magazine. I have a loving partner who has a young son. My friends and family are all around me. I realize that embracing loss is embracing life. As I close the door on my dream, other doors will continue to open.
Sherri Levine is a poet living in Portland, Oregon. Her work has been published by local and national magazines, including Timberline Review, the Sun Magazine, the Hartskill Review, and Verseweavers. She is the recipient of the First Choice Poet's Award for the Oregon Poetry Association judged by Joe Wilkins. Her chapbook, "In these Voices," will be coming out this year.