I have worked hard over the last ten years to get my head together and my feet solidly under me. When I say I’ve worked hard, I’m not overstating it – I have given so much of my energy and strength and time getting to stability, so I don’t take it lightly and I don’t take it for granted. Despite how solid I’ve been feeling for the last few years, the events of this past week have showed me that it’s still a precarious status – that midwifery school has the capacity to undermine and unravel the scaffolding that supports my mental health.
The week starts off well. I meet one of my fellow students on Tuesday morning to work out at the gym at school. Hurray for sweat and endorphins and feeling strong and committed. Then we’re off to our first class and the subject is hard. Inferential stats. I’ve never been afraid to speak up and ask for help when I don’t understand something, but this was the wrong situation for questions. I’m trying to stay with the prof but I’ve lost her… I can’t get back into sync, either. The class is shouting things at me in an effort to make me understand, and my brain has shut off. I am floundering, desperate for the attention to go somewhere else. The prof keeps saying the same information, asking me questions I can’t answer. Everyone is staring at me. I cannot get my brain to sort out what’s happening so I tell her that I’ll try to learn it on my own time, and that I feel like I’m holding up the rest of the class.
The prof asks if we should move on. From the other side of the room comes a slap – an acidic, dismissive “Yes!… please!” from one of my classmates and my face turns red. I am not a stupid person, but in that moment I feel completely shamed and humiliated. How dare I show up to this class with my ignorance on display and make it everyone else’s problem? How dare I.
I want to go somewhere and cry. I want to quit. I want to scream a big EFF YOU. But I do none of these things. Instead, I rush home to make dinner and get ready for my 2 year old’s birthday celebration. We wear hats, we open presents, we blow out candles and eat some key lime pie. Then, when everyone’s in bed, I start studying for tomorrow’s mid-term. Anatomy and physiology. I’m not strong in sciences so I work extra hard at this. I’ve been studying for hours each day. I am determined to get this one right.
The next day, I consider skipping my first class. It’s kind of fluffy – an elective. Perhaps it would be okay to stay home and study instead. But I can’t. I can’t have saved and spent $6000 on this year’s tuition to just not show up. So I go. And it’s a mistake. The class reminds me that during our last time together, I cried and blubbered while learning about a family who is blogging through their 3 year old daughter’s terminal illness. Some of the students in the class are angry that the guest speaker showed their blog. They left the class rather than stay and be subjected to it. But the little girl’s family did not have that choice. They don’t get to get up and leave when it gets too intense. They need to hold vigil with their precious girl in her last moments on earth, and I feel like I owe them that respect too. I can’t leave, so I cry, imagining their pain. But it’s the wrong thing to do. I am a spectacle.
I feel very small, sitting there in the classroom, trying to convince myself that my value is equal to their value. I want this to be true. They’re stronger. They get mad about things I don’t even think about. Why does this translate as “more important” to me? When did all this self-doubt start creeping in?
It’s Wednesday night. Time for my mid-term. I have studied all afternoon (interrupted for short crying breaks over the week’s earlier events). I am ready for this test – I feel it. But my brain is my enemy – my memory does not work well. And my logic is toast too. Where did these questions come from? Didn’t the prof say she would only test us on the stuff in the slides? I’m guessing now, and I know I’m guessing wrong. I’ve never seen this stuff before. I don’t know how to figure out the answers…
In the hallway afterward, I make comments about not acing it. One student says to me, “Did you think you were going to?” And I realize how arrogant I sound. I didn’t mean it like that. I didn’t mean to come off that way… more wedges. My scaffolding it collapsing, one piece at a time. It’s crumbling. I cannot believe that no matter what I say or do, it’s the wrong thing. My sense of self is shot through with holes. I am suddenly in grade 9 again, wanting desperately to fit in but knowing that I don’t have the right kind of clothes, that I am too fat, that my stories are too dumb.
I want to run back to my old world, my old life. The people there liked me. They found me competent and funny and enjoyable. My opinions mattered. I did my work well. I belonged…
Instead, I do my readings for the next day, late into the night. My eyeballs are aching and sandy so I give up. I climb into bed, desperate for some healing sleep. But at 2:30 am the baby wakes up and he won’t go back to sleep. 3 am… I go to him and nurse him for awhile before putting him back in his crib. I feel like he’s never going to wean and our nights are always going to be interrupted by his pleading cries.
Now I can’t go back to sleep. It’s all finally caught up with me. In the dark, quiet dining room I am sitting with a twisted gut and racing heartbeat. The daily headaches. Most of my skin has become inflamed and itchy with eczema. I hear the voices reminding me that I’m not good enough. I am not smart enough. I tricked them into letting me in, and now I’m going to let everyone down. I gave up my awesome job for this. I put the burden on my husband to carry us financially for this. I made the wrong decision and now I just want out… I don’t want to sacrifice my hard-won mental and emotional stability for this. I don’t want to damage my children with this. I want to quit and stay home, making cookies and bread and quilts. I want to cocoon in a little nest where no one can interfere…
I head back to bed, resolved to at least try to sleep. I’ve learned enough to know that tomorrow is another day and a new beginning. The wee hours of the morning are the scariest. They echo the loudest.
My husband rolls over and says, “everything okay?” And at 4 a.m., on a Thursday morning, his gentle nudge sends me over the edge. My first panic attack in 8 years. I am shaking and sobbing, trying to tell him how sorry I am for all of this and how I know I won’t make it. His voice is so soothing and strong. He holds on to me and tells me that I’m smarter than I think, that it’s difficult because it’s new and I’m still trying to figure it out. He reminds me that I’m hard on myself and a worrier by nature. He talks to me for a long time. I know that he is going to be tired tomorrow, but he stays with me for as long as it takes for me to come back down. He says calm things, loving things. I really try to hear him. I don’t need to be a drama queen anymore.
Then I ask the one thing that keeps plaguing the back corner of my mind: is it okay to quit? He says, “Of course it’s okay to quit. You can always get another EA job if this is not what you want.” The permission floods me with relief. I have a new sense of control: options. I have power again. This doesn’t own me. If I can’t hack it, then I don’t need to stay. I don’t need to sacrifice myself on the altar of proving to everyone that I can be a midwife.
It’s just what I need to keep trying.
And tomorrow is another day.