The weeds in the lawn are tall and heading out to seed, the view from our front stoop full of henbit, broadleaf plantain and pepperweed. The purple flowers of the henbit are easy to spot from any window in the house, forming a raised mat of contrast against a green understory. We haven’t mowed in months, haven’t bothered to pull the grasses from the mortared cracks of the brick stairs that descend from the street towards the slightly sunken house, haven’t trimmed the waxy looking holly shrubs that edge the house. Because of this, the city of Durham has attached a large red and white cardboard placard to the small mailbox affixed to the house. The sign gives notice – in bold, uppercase letters – of an impending fine for homeowner’s indolence, for creation of a public nuisance, and for failure to clear a lot.
I remove the notice and catch song sparrows in the act of building a nest in the mailbox. A clothespin attached to the lid to hold outgoing mail has provided just enough of a gap for the birds to get inside the box and go about their work. I open the lid to find twigs and very old leaves, brittle and translucent from months of exposure to wind, rain and sun. There is also dry green moss, pieces of polyester fluff and strands of fine bluegrass, all soft enough to eventually cradle the eggs underneath the exposed brood patch of the mother sparrow. In the right mood, I would view the nest as a beautiful creation. Instead I scoop all the material out and dump it behind the bushes that grow wild and crooked beneath the mailbox. I stick the clothespin in my pocket, go inside and lock the door behind me.
As I destroyed the nest, I realized I was losing my formerly intact sense of right and wrong. I am not myself in this moment. Or maybe it is better to say I am just a fraction of myself, a splinter of the person who had opened that same mailbox a few short weeks ago. Circumstances changed; I became a father, brought home a creature so delicate, so needy and demanding that it has become hard for me to maintain simple daily functioning, let alone keep up with consistent self-appraisal.
The lock clicks, and I set the notice on the end table. My body collapses onto the nearby couch. I stare into the translucence of the sheer window curtains in front of me and fade slowly into a daydream. At first I imagine myself as a plate glass window weakened by successions of thrown stones. I stop the stones from fully breaking me, but then I think about real windows and how it is only a matter of time before the glass cracks and slides against itself, falling forward into whatever it is the window defends against. The visions change rapidly, moving from the broken glass, to how the shapes of trees remind me of ancient fences, to a panic of thinking I have left my child in the car seat. I hear the sounds of the baby crying from the bedroom.
There is the newborn, the lack of sleep, the trauma of participating in a long and painful birth. Then there is the child’s poor latch on its mother’s breasts. I look at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. Despair saturates my face; anguish grows around my eyes, thick and sharp like steel wool. I catch myself staring into the spiral of a draining sink or lingering too long at the washing machine. I hold my hands on the corners as the old machine shakes through the spin cycle, the vibrations somehow reminding me of plowed soil, of the coldness of concrete, of impossibly blue skies. I want to be something else, somewhere else: I look out the door and see a plastic bag in the street, imagine the bag is the spirit of a great horned owl. It calls who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all? Why can’t we be like birds, laying eggs and taking our turns incubating them, all the pain long gone before the first of our children emerge? Why can’t we be like birds, short-lived and compelled by instinct?
I am not well, not well at all, and I think that there is not one thing I can do about it that makes the least bit of sense. Impulsively I open the closet door and look at the shotgun nestled quietly in the corner, the same shotgun I received as a present on my sixteenth birthday, the same shotgun I once used to shoot at deer and rabbits. I think about loading one single shell into that gun and going outside and just sitting down in the backyard under the sweet gum tree and sucking on that barrel like a steel-flavored Popsicle. I think about it, but I can’t imagine my finger pulling the trigger. This isn’t me; there is no way this could ever be me.
I have kept this gun clean and oiled for over twenty years, kept it out of sight and mentioned it only in passing as the birthday gift that it was. Kristin didn’t care for it, but she also didn’t care about it. As long as it wasn’t mounted above the fireplace or trotted out for show-and-tell during potlucks, Kristin was fine with my keeping it. Five years after we first got together, Kristin and I bought a large piece of land in rural Chatham County, about an hour from where we live now. We envisioned creating a self-sustaining homestead, asking the soil and the forest for the things that we needed. When we lived on that piece of land, the gun had a purpose. It could be used against coyotes or dogs coming after the pigs and chickens, it could be used to shoot targets in the woods, and it could be used to hunt for food during the lean times. When we moved back to the city, its purpose became less certain and more imaginary.
“Let’s be realistic here,” Kristin said when I mentioned the gun’s potential in robbery deterrence. “You’ll never get to the gun and then to the bullets in time if some fictional home invasion takes place. Just put one of our knives on the top of the dresser. If something ever happens, it will be better than nothing.” She’s right; a knife is intuitive. Either of us could use it. She’s pragmatic; the bullets – old target shells that, used in bad faith, would hurt and mangle but otherwise not be lethal – were stored too far away from the gun itself, a form of childproofing that rendered the gun useless for anything as unplanned as a robbery attempt. Kristin is not nostalgic for a time when my brother and I walked into autumn forests to make bird-shot scream into the leafless canopy, dropping dead squirrels to the crunching, wooded ground.
But still, looking at the gun and imagining what it could do is the darkest it can get for someone like me. This is one of those “zero” moments that a psychiatrist would later have me label on a calendar.
“If ten is the happiest you have ever been, when was your last ten?”
“I have never had a ten. What does that even feel like?”
“A ten would be a person’s peak euphoria during the experience of something unique and special. It is a completely personal scale, not something that we all share. Does that make sense?”
“No. And I have never had a ten. I honestly don’t know what that feels like.”
“Alright. We’ll come back to it. Do you know what day it is and where you are?”
It’s hard to explain your depression to others, even therapists, who have never experienced the need to block out the sunlight with heavy curtains and remain still within that darkness. Depression can be like a frost: unpredictable, furious, disappointing. You hope it doesn’t descend at a time that won’t afford disruptions, a time of delicate growth.
I think about an image from a thin photo album kept amongst other artifacts at my father’s house. In the photograph my father stands next to my stepmother. She is holding their small dog. They are both well dressed, standing there on her mother’s back porch. She is smiling, he is not. A bandage covers most of his upper lip and a piece of his jaw. He still has stitches from a weeks’-old dog bite he suffered at a friend’s house. I think they are dressed for Easter service, but I can’t be sure.
In the image my father is thin, maybe the thinnest he ever was. He and my stepmother had been trying to conceive for years at that point, without success. I recognize myself there, recognize in his eyes that he is not mentally well, fighting something that he doesn’t know how to speak about, maybe doesn’t even know is something that can be talked about at all. He is suffering there on a porch, thirty years ago, in one of the smallest towns in Western New York. There are no facilities for him there, no helpful caregivers, no discussion of possible medications. For him there is only alcohol and wishes and too-short summer vacations with his children.
I see the way my father’s eyes meet the camera, how his posture is frail and uncomposed. I looked the same when I set up a tripod and took photographs of myself and Tennessee in the first month of her life. A shadow lengthens from the photographs of the past and present, merging both fathers in ways that will not contract. Neither of us is truly there in those images.
I close my eyes and forget the photographs. I walk to the bedroom and reach for my screaming child.
Kristin was twelve hours into labor when I fed her a small dollop of honey. Our midwives told me it would help to keep her strength up. She hadn’t eaten since we had some cheap comfort food the night before. Her energy poured out of her in a summer sweat; I tried to capture it with towels as it seeped from her reclined body. She quickly vomited the honey along with some tea one of the midwives had her drink. Her vomit was green and frothy and smelled like recently turned compost. I was thankful that we had thought to line our mattress with a new shower curtain.
The smell of blood, feces and amniotic fluid created a thick and humid blanket around her. This barrier warped my perceptions, bent the light, muffled the sounds. I silently bothered myself with questions as I stifled my gags: “Is this how this is supposed to work? Are we going about this correctly?” “No,” I answered. “No, we are lost out here.”
The home birth process was a sick joke. We were naïve about childbirth in general – about the basic process itself – let alone how do go about it on the same bed we slept on every night. We did all these crunchy things we learned in birthing class – self-hypnosis, visualizations, nightly perineum stretching. “The words,” we called them, this thin bound notebook full of hypnotic mantras meant to make the whole process go smoothly and with minimal pain.
Kristin was nude. She had shed everything in an impossible pursuit of comfort. I could see her neck and chest muscles moving with her heartbeat. I imagined the pulsing umbilical cord inside her exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide, swapping toxins for nutrition. Her skin was blotchy in spots where she had been rubbing against the bed covers. Her hair was wet from the washcloth I kept returning to her head, strands of her hair stuck to her face like tributaries on a geological map. All of her was beautiful and pure.
She shut her eyes tight. Her eyelids were pink with capillaries that I had never noticed before, a net holding in the visions she was unable to articulate in anything other than groans. I listened and watched and tried to think of what I would say to her the moment we’d first meet our child. Would it be something we would remember forever, a passing piece of knowledge so genuine and simple as to make all this time and pain seem like nothing? I hoped so.
2:00 AM – wake up, bloody show, contractions :54 seconds, 3:50 apart. 3:30 AM first midwife arrives
This is the only record I managed to write down about the birth as it happened. I had wanted to document the whole process, scribble down all the little victories and write inspirational notes along the margins of the notebook. I had no idea that writing or even concentrating for very long would be impossible. All of my attention was focused on comforting the uncomfortable, forcing Kristin to drink water and breathe through the contractions. The midwives kept saying we were almost there. “It won’t be long now,” they repeated as the moon came and went and came again. “We’re almost done here.”
We stopped timing contractions sometime during the first day. Instead we all focused on getting the baby into the correct position to make everything work as nature intended. The midwives shifted Kristin around, made her walk and bend and get on all fours. They made her sit on the toilet for as long as she could bear it. We stood her up in the shower to spray hot water on her back. When she emerged pink and shaking, she would lie back down on the bed. The midwife would stick a hand inside her to try and move the rim of the cervix, asking Kristin to push against the pressure point of their fingers. She complied as best she could. The base of my guts fell apart each time they did this. I was sick with the feeling you get on the downward stretch of a roller coaster except this coaster had no bottom, just a constant drop at an unimaginable speed. Nothing was helping or working. The clock seemed to read hours and days instead of minutes and seconds.
When the midwife removed her gloved and bloodied hand it was always the same story – the baby was too crooked to let the cervix fully dilate. Her cervix was stuck at nine centimeters; Kristin pushed against what may as well have been the bolted door of a bank vault. “Next time we’ll get it. Rest for a bit, and we’ll try it again.” Sometime during the second night they ran out of gloves.
“Say the words,” she muttered from the start. I held the notebook close to my tired eyes and read slowly to her: Drifting down, mind and body becoming more serene and peaceful…hypno-anesthesia becoming much more powerful now…Deeper and deeper now, that’s good… This went on for hours without progress or change. With the realization that the words were not helping, I felt old and useless.
Kristin became hoarse from a constant and primitive moaning. No matter which room I entered, my head was enveloped in the hum of her throat. Yet I could not leave her for more than a few minutes; the moans called me back as quickly as water spilling down a hill, eroding my ability to inhabit my own self and make decisions. Her pain was becoming my pain. All of our meticulous plans became hallucinations.
One of the midwives asked if we would consider leaving the house and going to the hospital; each of them promised they would stay with us and advocate for what was best for Kristin and the baby. It took little time to decide. “Yes, let’s go to the hospital. What do I need to do?” We had not planned on going to the hospital. We were not prepared to go, and we were emotionally vulnerable to the idea. Kristin’s greatest fear was being weak and talked into a Cesarean. She knew it was irrational, like her fear of snakes. We joked that she should feel sorry for snakes since they don’t have any legs; we didn’t have any such jokes about Cesareans.
While I packed a bag, I silently wondered: Were we going because the midwives had given up on Kristin and wanted their own involvement eased by the equipment of a hospital room? I buried my cynicism, moved quickly while the midwives got Kristin cleaned up. Slowly, they clothed her and helped her out of the house. She didn’t speak, she just continued to moan.
There is a blurry period between when we left the house and arrived at the hospital. One of the midwives drove Kristin. I drove our car with another midwife. I remember the drive was silent; we were not talking about the birth, the radio was off, the only sound was the occasional clearing of a throat. The white dashed lines of the highway passed by quickly, glowing in our headlights. They looked like the perforations of a massive notebook page that we were about to rip out. The rough draft was finished.
I parked the car and went to look for Kristin. I found her moaning in a wheelchair in the hospital lobby while one of the midwives negotiated the admission process. One midwife spoke to us about our options – epidural for pain management and sleep, Pitocin for controlling the contractions – all of which would be done under her guidance, as we were still technically in her care. OK, I told them. But we want the smallest amount of pitocin as possible.
There wasn’t much settling in the hospital room before there were machines hooked up and making their distinct noises. There was some back and forth about what was happening. Someone brought me coffee. The caffeine went in but never resurfaced. Kristin arched her back as the anesthesiologist inserted the epidural catheter. She was soon able to sleep. When she was comfortable, I stretched out on the vinyl couch under the windows and slept as well.
I awoke to noise and busyness. The room was full of people, most of their lower faces covered with masks. Someone calmly said the baby was crowning. The unmasked midwife quietly urged Kristin to push and breathe, push and breathe. By the time I knew what was going on and got to my feet, the head and one shoulder were on the way out. As I grabbed Kristin’s hand, her final pushes brought the rest of the body out. There was an instant relief on her face. Our daughter was soon up on Kristin’s chest, squirming and pink and alien. They were both very quiet. “There are no bones in this one!” the midwife announced as the placenta came out. We were barely paying attention as she held up the organ to show off its deep red beauty, the afterbirth as an afterthought.
We took turns holding our daughter. She was quiet. The doctor and nurses packed up their equipment, signed off on documents. I stared at her, felt the softness of her skin, ran a trembling hand over the light hair on her head. We named her Tennessee Lynn and made plans to bring her home before another sun set. I could think of nothing memorable to say.
You and I cannot remember the day of our births. It is not possible or even desirable. We arrive in a foreign atmosphere, colder and drier than anything we have experienced. Our lungs inflate for the first time. We take a few quick pulls of air from this new planet and then cry out for a return to the liquid weightlessness we have come to know so closely. Fear is the first thing we know, a fear that is instinctual and unconscious. We scream out and make an announcement of our position to all the predators hiding nearby.
I remember it was sometime in the fall of my junior year of high school; all day long the cool air dried my throat on its way in, the same air emerging warm and humid, personal clouds of breath falling up and away into the surrounding atmosphere. High school was in the small town of LeRoy in Western New York. The sky was gray, barely concealing the threat of snow or sleet. But it was too early for snow, even for this small town sandwiched between Lakes Ontario and Erie and its lake effects.
Fallen leaves blew into the street, crashing and skittering into each other like poorly made paper airplanes. Against that threatening gray sky the variant colors of leaves haloed the limbs of the nearly empty trees. Beginnings and endings are buried in this particular color contrast; browns and reds fidgeting against the dirty white background above us, those few final leaves holding on to that last stage of senescence just long enough to end up right on the top of the pile, the last to land, the last to decay.
What am I remembering exactly? It is the first time that I can – in hindsight – identify myself experiencing a period of depression. Sometimes I lay in bed for an entire day, stomach down, face toward the wall. I was immobile, pushed into the mattress by a compression of something outside of my control, something I did not understand. Breath came short and shallow, the room dark enough to give shadows very little running room into the corners. The sheets on the bed warmed rapidly and cooled slowly, crumpled in the middle and taut at the corners, stagnant under my weight and despite my darting thoughts. I felt like a leaf caught in the bushes.
When you are young, you can’t assign a name to it, this thing, this depression. You think it is just a part of life, something that comes along with breathing and aging and carrying a heavy mammal brain. A decade or so in the future, visiting a psychiatrist for the first time, I learned that, left untreated, the first bout of depression will usually lead to another several years down the road. From there the half-life continues to decrease until a handful of minutes is all that stands between the dusk of one episode and the dawn of another.
At forty-one, I am old enough now that I no longer have horizons on which to seek shelter. It just comes on, a quickly spreading net of thoughts and inaction. There is no refuge, no chance to turn it back. It just comes.
There isn’t anything particularly emotional about what I feel, just a low energy custody of hopelessness and sullenness, a cold thin soup of existence. My sighs become autonomic; I chew my teeth and vibrate my fingers imperceptibly. I lose words, become silent as a conservation of energy, stare at things as if they hold me upright.
Having a new child magnifies all of this to levels I never thought could exist. Weeks after the birth, I searched for “postpartum depression in fathers” online. Casual reports indicate that one in ten men can be affected by postpartum depression during the first three months after birth. But according to a 2010 meta-analysis of medical studies, the Journal of American Medical Association found that this number surges to one in four during months three through six. And the risk of paternal postnatal depression increases in fathers who already have experience with depression.
But it is easy to miss this research. Before I found the JAMA study, I’d scanned medical websites related to postpartum or postnatal depression and found find little or no mention of men. In many of the journal articles I read, men were listed as a footnote, their depression offered as a symptom of dissatisfaction with marriage or with the baby itself. A man might be depressed because he wanted a boy but got a girl, because his wife is preoccupied with childcare, because sex is non-existent, or because there is no time to socialize, not because he has a stigmatized yet treatable disease.
There is no time to be sad, and if you are sad you are weak. That is how I felt. I became a ghost unsure of my manner of haunting.
We kept the bedroom drapes shut tight for days. I used the darkness as a blanket. Tennessee would cry as I held her there in the room. She was so small yet so powerful, loud, her dark blue eyes wet under smooth eyelids. Even in the darkness I could see the tiny blood vessels in those almost translucent coverings. Was she wet or hungry or crying just because? Was she in pain? I told her I would feed her if I could, take her to where she needed to be if this room was too little or too big, if only she could just stop crying and tell me what I needed to do. I just needed someone, anyone, to tell me what to do.
At night, headlights passed over the thick curtains of the bedroom and sprayed glowing lines onto the far wall and ceiling. The light moved unevenly, and I imagined the noise the car tires were making on the warm, dry pavement. There is a rhythm to the street outside: the squeal of a loose alternator belt, pitch changes as gears shift down under a depressed gas pedal, bass lines escaping from old speakers. There is no quiet in the city. There are train horns and highways full of personal and professional freight. There are loud arguments and gun shots, sirens and laughter. I listened to Tennessee grunt and root as she lay on my chest.
I look back on the photographs of our new family and see my father’s blank affect on my own face, a flatness in my appearance. I stare into my own eyes and remember how I yelled at Kristin, how I told her I couldn’t do it anymore. “What can’t you do anymore?” she asked. “Everything,” I said, and that is exactly what I meant, that is exactly how vague I felt. My own skin and mind held nothing but a vapor.
I felt I could not participate in the raising of this child. I was done. I so desperately wanted out. I did not know what to do when the baby refused to latch on and eat. I’d never been so helpless, and I thought that by walking away from my family I could regain some order, some normalcy.
I thought about that gun in the closet almost every minute I was awake. It was in my vision even as I changed the diapers and made the lunches, heating up roast beef slices to take to the room I could barely stand to enter. Suicidal ideation is just what it sounds like. It is imagining ending your own life and imagining what other people’s lives would be like without you.
Kristin and I looked at each other from across the bedroom. Ten years together and she knows when I am defeated. “If the thought ever crosses your mind, you need to tell me,” Kristin said, barely concealed fear beneath her delivery. “You need to tell me.”
Her second sentence was the punctuation that brought me to silence; she rarely repeats herself. She sat on the bed holding the baby, and I stood slumped against the door frame, waiting for an opportunity to get the words out of my mouth: “I have thought about it. I am thinking about it right now.” I couldn’t tell her the full extent of what was going on with me. I could see no positive outcome from any discussion about harming myself. If I was going to pull out of this pit she had to know – or at least feel – that everything was going to be alright. I had to make it seem that recovery was coming. I told her that I was going to need help, that I needed her to help me. I told her I was weaker than she knew and that she had to see and accept that. Later that afternoon she gave me a list of mental health services in the area. I called and made an appointment for the next morning.
We open the drapes and let the sunlight enter the room unfettered. My head is clear for the most part. I drape a blanket over the shotgun and do my best to forget about it. My anxiety softens to a whisper, and I accept that there are certain problems that are best addressed with mainstream solutions. Through several long weeks of intensive talk therapy, a nightly dose of 20 milligrams of escitalopram, and a morning dose of 150 milligrams of bupropion, I have opened myself up to a reprieve from this illness. This wasn’t an instantaneous transformation, more like a bird hatching, methodically cracking pieces of the shell apart, expanding and stretching slowly as the big pieces fall away, realizing that the worst is over and it is bright outside.
Taking these steps was something that I knew had to happen but was unsure how to explain to Kristin or even to myself. The home birth, the aversion to medical intrusions: these beliefs did not exist in a vacuum. We eat pastured meat and know our farmers. We don’t have a television. We use cloth diapers and dry them in the sun. I bike to work. Kristin planned to breastfeed until Tennessee turned two years old.
But: we use antibiotics as needed. We drink fluoridated tap water. Tennessee is up to date on vaccinations. We prefer the warm light of incandescent light bulbs.
We survive. From my previous experience with depression, I know that meditating and acupuncture and happy thoughts will not work. This illness is as much a part of me as my heart. I know that nothing other than pharmaceutical intervention will make me the person my family needs me to be. I will need to keep taking the drugs this time and accept that I may need them for the rest of my life. I explain to Kristin that just like she needed the support of a hospital to complete the birth, I need these prescriptions. It is not a weakness to accept this type of aid.
Now I mow the lawn when it needs it, chewing up all that henbit, knocking down the other weeds before they can spread. There is no malice, only a drive to keep things neat and trim and managed. One cool summer evening I mow while Tennessee stands framed within the screen of the front door, looking out and waving to me each time I pass. I can see her lips moving: “papa, papa.” The sun falls lower as the smell of grass and gasoline spreads like ivy. All I want to do is live.
Trace Ramsey has written the zine Quitter since 2004. In 2008, Trace released an anthology of the first five issues. Quitter: Good Luck Not Dying was re-released by Pioneers Press in 2014 and includes issue number six. Ramsey continues to publish Quitter (he finished Quitter #9 in February) and is currently writing Carrying Capacity, a memoir. He received a Certificate in Documentary Arts from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University in 2014 and is a recipient of the 2015 Ella Fountain Pratt Emerging Artists Award in Literature.