DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #44: How You Get Unstuck

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Dear Sugar,

About eighteen months ago, I got pregnant. In a move that surprised both my boyfriend and me, we decided we wanted to keep the baby. Though the pregnancy was unplanned, we were really excited to become parents and the child was very much loved and wanted. When I was six and a half months pregnant, I miscarried. Since then, I’ve struggled to get out of bed.

Not a day has gone by when I haven’t thought about who that child would have been. It was a girl. She had a name. Everyday I wake up and think, “My daughter would be six months old,” or “My daughter would maybe have started crawling today.” Sometimes, all I can think is the word daughter over and over and over.

Of course, it seems that everyone around me is having a baby and everywhere I go all I see are babies, so I have to force myself to be happy for them and swallow how empty I feel. The truth is, I don’t feel much of anything anymore and yet, everything hurts. Most of the people in my life expect me to be over my sorrow by now. As one person pointed out, “It was only a miscarriage.” So I also feel guilty about being so stuck, grieving for a child that never was when I should just walk it off or something.

I don’t talk very much about it. I pretend it never happened. I go to work and hang out and smile and act like everything is fine. My boyfriend has been fantastic and supportive, though I don’t think he understands how badly I’m actually doing. He wants us to get married and try for another child. He thinks this should cheer me up. It doesn’t. It makes me want to punch him in the head for not feeling the way I do.

Then there is the reason I lost the baby. In the hospital, my doctor said he wasn’t surprised I lost the baby because my pregnancy was high risk because I was overweight. It was not an easy thing to hear that the miscarriage was my fault. Part of me thinks the doctor was a real asshole but another part of me thinks, “Maybe he was right.” It kills me to think that this was my fault, that I brought the miscarriage on myself. I can’t even breathe sometimes, I feel so guilty. When I got out of the hospital, I got a personal trainer and went on a diet and started losing weight but I’m totally out of control now. Sometimes, I don’t eat for days and then sometimes, I eat everything in sight and throw it all up. I spend hours at the gym, walking on the treadmill until I can’t lift my legs.

My friends and family think I’m doing just fine, Sugar, but nothing could be further from the truth. All I can think about is how I fucked up. Everything feels like it is more than I can handle. The rational part of me understands that if I don’t pull myself out of this, I’ll do serious damage to myself. I know this, and yet I just don’t care.

I want to know how to care again. I want to know how to not feel so guilty, how to not feel like I killed my baby.

My daughter, she had a name. She was loved. I feel like the only one who cares. Then I feel like shit for mourning “just a miscarriage” after nearly a year. I’m stuck.

Best,
Stuck

Dear Stuck,

I’m so sorry that your baby girl died, sweet pea. So terribly sorry. I can feel your suffering vibrating right through my computer screen. This is to be expected. It is as it should be. Though we live in a time and place and culture that tries to tell us otherwise, suffering is what happens when truly horrible things happen to us.

Don’t listen to those people who suggest you should be “over” your daughter’s death by now. The people who squawk the loudest about such things have almost never had to get over any thing. Or at least not any thing that was genuinely, mind-fuckingly, soul-crushingly life altering. Some of those people believe they’re being helpful by minimizing your pain. Others are scared of the intensity of your loss and so they use their words to push your grief away. Many of those people love you and are worthy of your love, but they are not the people who will be helpful to you when it comes to healing the pain of your daughter’s death.

They live on Planet Earth. You live on Planet My Baby Died.

It seems to me that you feel like you’re all alone there. You aren’t. There are women reading this right now who have tears in their eyes. There are women who have spent their days chanting daughter, daughter or son, son silently to themselves. Women who have been privately tormented about the things they did or didn’t do that they fear caused the deaths of their babies. You need to find those women, darling. They’re your tribe.

I know because I’ve lived on a few planets that aren’t Planet Earth myself.

The healing power of even the most microscopic exchange with someone who knows in a flash precisely what you’re talking about because she experienced that thing too cannot be over-estimated. Call your local hospitals and birth centers and inquire about support groups for people who’ve lost babies at or before or shortly after birth. Read Elizabeth McCracken’s memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. Find online communities where you can have conversations with people during which you don’t have to pretend a thing.

And stop pretending with your sweet boyfriend too. Tell him you’d like to punch him in the head and explain to him precisely why. Ask him what he has to say about the death of your daughter and do your very best to listen to his experience without comparing it to your own. I think you should see a therapist—both alone and with your boyfriend—and I strongly encourage you to call and make an appointment today. A therapist will help you air and examine the complex grief you’re holding so tightly inside of you and he or she will also help you manage your (probably situational) depression.

This is how you get unstuck, Stuck. You reach. Not so you can walk away from the daughter you loved, but so you can live the life that is yours—the one that includes the sad loss of your daughter, but is not arrested by it. The one that eventually leads you to a place in which you not only grieve her, but also feel lucky to have had the privilege of loving her. That place of true healing is a fierce place. It’s a giant place. It’s a place of monstrous beauty and endless dark and glimmering light. And you have to work really, really, really fucking hard to get there, but you can do it, honey. You’re a woman who can travel that far. I know it. Your ability to get there is evident to me in every word of your bright shining grief star of a letter.

To be Sugar is at times a haunting thing. It’s fun and it’s funny; it’s intriguing and interesting, but every now and then one of the questions I get seeps its way into my mind in the same way characters or scenes or situations in the other sorts of writing I do seep into my mind and I am haunted by it. I can’t let it go. I answer the question, but there is something else and I know it and I can’t finish my reply until I figure out what it is. I can feel it there the way the princess can feel the pea under her twenty mattresses and twenty featherbeds. Until it’s removed, I simply cannot rest. This is the case when it comes to your question, my dear. And so while it’s true that you should find your tribe and talk to your boyfriend and make an appointment with a therapist, there is something truer that I have to tell you and it is this.

Several years ago I worked with barely teenage girls in a middle school. Most of them were poor white kids in seventh and eighth grade. Not one of them had a decent father. Their dads were in prison or unknown to them or roving the streets of our city strung out on drugs or fucking them. Their moms were young used and abused drug-and-alcohol addled women who were often abusive themselves. The twenty some girls who were assigned to meet with me as a group and also individually were deemed “at highest risk” by the faculty at the school.

My job title was youth advocate. My approach was unconditional positive regard. My mission was to help the girl youth succeed in spite of the unspeakably harrowing crap stew they’d been simmering in all of their lives. Succeeding in this context meant getting neither pregnant nor locked up before graduating high school. It meant eventually holding down a job at Taco Bell or Wal-Mart. It was only that! It was such a small thing and yet it was enormous. It was like trying to push an eighteen wheeler with your pinkie finger.

I was not technically qualified to be a youth advocate. I’d never worked with youth or counseled anyone. I had degrees in neither education nor psychology. I’d been a waitress who wrote stories every chance I got for most of the preceding years. But for some reason, I wanted this job and so I talked my way into it.

I wasn’t meant to let the girls know I was trying to help them succeed. I was meant to silently, secretly, covertly empower them by taking them to do things they’d never done at places they’d never been. I took them to a rock-climbing gym and to the ballet and to a poetry reading at an independent bookstore. The theory was that if they liked to pull the weight of their blossoming girl bodies up a faux boulder with little pebble-esque plastic hand-and-foot-holds then perhaps they would not get knocked up. If they glommed on to the beauty of art witnessed live—made before their very eyes—they would not become tweakers and steal someone’s wallet and go to jail at the age of fifteen.

Instead, they’d grow up and get a job at Wal-Mart. That was the hope, the goal, the reason I was being paid a salary. And while we did those empowering things, I was meant to talk to them about sex and drugs and boys and mothers and relationships and healthy homework habits and the importance of self-esteem and answer every question they had with honesty and affirm every story they told with unconditional positive regard.

I was scared of them at first. Intimidated. They were thirteen and I was twenty-eight. Almost all of them had one of three names: Crystal, Brittany or Desire. They were distant and scoffing, self-conscious and surly. They were varnished in layers upon layers of girl lotions and potions and hair products that all smelled faintly like watermelon gum. They hated everything and everything was boring and stupid and either totally cool or totally gay and I had to forbid them from using the word gay in that context and explain to them why they shouldn’t say the word gay to mean stupid and they thought I was a total fag for thinking by gay they actually meant gay and then I had to tell them not to say fag and we laughed and after a while I passed around journals I’d purchased for them.

“Do we get to keep these? Do we get to keep these?” they clamored in a great, desperate joyous girl chorus.

“Yes,” I said. “Open them.”

I asked them each to write down three true things about themselves and one lie and then we read them out loud, going around in the circle, guessing which one was the lie, and by the time we were about halfway around the room they all loved me intensely.

Not me. But who I was. Not who I was, but how I held them: with unconditional positive regard.

I had never been the recipient of so much desire. If I had a flower clip in my hair, they wanted to remove the flower clip and put it in their own hair. If I had a pen, they asked if I would give it to them. If I had a sandwich, they wondered if they could have a bite. If I had a purse, they wanted to see what was inside. And most of all they wanted to tell me everything. Everything. Every last thing about their lives. And they did.

Ghastly, horrible, shocking, sad, merciless things. Things that would compel me to squint my eyes as I listened, as if by squinting I could protect myself by hearing it less distinctly. Things that would make me close the door of my office after they left and cry my heart out. Endless stories of abuse and betrayal and absence and devastation and the sort of sorrow that spirals so tightly into an impossible clusterfuck of eternal despair that it doesn’t even look like a spiral anymore.

One of the girls was truly beautiful. She resembled a young Elizabeth Taylor without the curvy hips. Flawlessly luminescent skin. Water blue eyes. Long shimmering black hair. A D-cup rack and the rest of her model thin. She’d just turned 13 when I met her. She’d already fucked five guys and blown ten. She’d lost her virginity at eleven to her mother’s ex-boyfriend, who was now in jail for stealing a TV. Her current lover was thirty-two. He picked her up most days on the edge of the school parking lot. I convinced her to let me take her to Planned Parenthood so she could get a Depo-Provera shot, but when we got there, she did not get the shot. She refused to let the female doctor give her a pelvic exam and the doctor would not give her the shot without one. She cried and cried and cried. She cried with such sharp fear and pain that it was like someone had walked into the room and pressed a hot iron against her gorgeous ass. I said a million consoling, inspiring, empowering things. The female doctor spoke in comforting yet commanding tones. But that girl who had fucked five guys and blown ten by the time she turned thirteen would not recline for three minutes on the examining table in a well-lit room in the company of two women with good intentions.

One girl wore an enormous hooded sweatshirt that went down to her knees with the hood pulled up over her head no matter the temperature. Across her face hung a dense curtain of punk-rock colored hair. It looked like she had two backs of her head and no face. To get around, she tilted her head discreetly in various ways and peeked out the bottom of her hair curtain. She refused to speak for weeks. She was the last person who asked if she could have my pen. Getting to know her was like trying to ingratiate oneself to a feral cat. Nearly impossible. One step forward and a thousand steps back. But when I did—when I tamed her, when she parted her hair and I saw her pale and fragile and acne-covered face—she told me that she slept most nights in a falling down wooden shed near the alley behind the apartment building where she lived with her mom. She did this because she couldn’t take staying inside, where her mother ranted and raved, alcoholic and mentally ill and off her meds and occasionally physically violent. She pulled the sleeves of her hoodie up and showed me the slashes on her arms where she’d repeatedly cut herself with a razor blade because it felt so good.

One girl told me that when her mom’s boyfriend got mad he dragged her into the back yard and turned on the hose and held her face up to the ice cold running water until she almost drowned and then he locked her outside for two hours. It was November. Fortysome degrees. It wasn’t the first time he’d done this. Or the last.

I told the girls that these sorts of things were not okay. That they were unacceptable. Illegal. That I would call someone and that someone would intervene and this would stop. I called the police. I called the state’s child protection services. I called them every day and no one did one thing. Not one person. Not one thing. Ever. No matter how many times that man almost drowned that little girl with a garden hose in the back yard or how many times the thirty-two year old picked up the thirteen-year old with the great rack in the school parking lot or how many times the hooded girl with no face slept in the falling down wood shed in the alley while her mother raged.

I had not lived a sheltered life. I’d had my share of hardships and sorrows. I thought I knew how the world worked, but this I could not believe. I thought that if it was known that bad things were happening to children, those bad things would be stopped. But that is not the sort of society we live in, I realized. There is no such society.

One day when I called child protective services I asked the woman who answered the phone to explain to me exactly why no one was protecting the children and she told me that there was no funding for teenagers who were not in imminent danger because the state was broke and so the thing the child protective services did was make priorities. They intervened quickly with kids under the age of twelve, but for those over twelve they wrote reports when people called and put the reports in a file and put the child’s name on a long list of children who someone would someday perhaps check up on when there was time and money, if there ever was time and money. The good thing about teens, she told me confidentially, was that if it got bad enough at home they usually ran away and there was more funding for runaways.

I hung up the phone feeling like my sternum had cracked open. Before I could even take a breath, in walked the girl whose mother’s boyfriend repeatedly almost drowned her with the garden hose in the back yard. She sat down in the chair near my desk where all the girls sat narrating their horrible stories and she told me another horrible story and I told her something different this time.

I told her it was not okay, that it was unacceptable, that it was illegal and that I would call and report this latest, horrible thing. But I did not tell her it would stop. I did not promise that anyone would intervene. I told her it would likely go on and she’d have to survive it. That she’d have to find a way within herself to not only escape the shit, but to transcend it, and if she wasn’t able to do that, then her whole life would be shit, forever and ever and ever. I told her that escaping the shit would be hard, but that if she wanted to not make her mother’s life her destiny, she had to be the one to make it happen. She had to do more than hold on. She had to reach. She had to want it more than she’d ever wanted anything. She had to grab like a drowning girl for every good thing that came her way and she had to swim like fuck away from every bad thing. She had to count the years and let them roll by, to grow up and then run as far as she could in the direction of her best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by her own desire to heal.

She seemed to listen, in that desultory and dismissive way that teens do. I said it to every girl who came into my office and sat in the horrible story chair. It became my gospel. It became the thing I said most because it was the thing that was most true.

It is also the most true for you, Stuck, and for any one who has ever had any thing truly horrible happen to them.

You will never stop loving your daughter. You will never forget her. You will always know her name. But she will always be dead. Nobody can intervene and make that right and nobody will. Nobody can take it back with silence or push it away with words. Nobody will protect you from your suffering. You can’t cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away or punch it away or even therapy it away. It’s just there, and you have to survive it. You have to endure it. You have to live though it and love it and move on and be better for it and run as far as you can in the direction of your best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by your own desire to heal. Therapists and friends and other people who live on Planet My Baby Died can help you along the way, but the healing—the genuine healing, the actual real deal down-on-your-knees-in-the-mud change—is entirely and absolutely up to you.

That job at the middle school was the best job I ever had, but I only stayed for a year. It was a heavy gig and I was a writer and so I left it for less emotionally taxing forms of employment so I could write. One day seven years after I quit, I ate lunch at a Taco Bell not far from the school where I’d worked with the girls. Just as I was gathering my things to leave, a woman in a Taco Bell uniform approached and said my name. It was the faceless girl who’d lived in the falling down shed. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail now. She was grown up. She was twenty and I was thirty-five.

“Is that you?” I exclaimed and we embraced.

We talked about how she was soon to be promoted to assistant manager at the Taco Bell, about which of the girls from our group she was still in touch with and what they were doing, about how I’d taken her rock climbing and to the ballet and to a poetry reading at an independent bookstore and how she hadn’t done any of those things again.

“I never forgot you, even after all these years,” she told me.

“I’m so proud of you,” I said, squeezing her shoulder.

“I made it,” she said. “Didn’t I?”

“You did,” I said. “You absolutely did.”

I never forgot her either. Her name was Desire.

Yours,
Sugar

**

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**

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