I thought I hit my rock bottom the day my husband took his life. I was raising a three-year-old daughter and was three months pregnant with a son.
Four months later, I found a new rock bottom.
It was January, dead cold winter in northern Minnesota. The sharp loneliness that I wore like a shroud was all the more unsettling for the fact that I was carrying my son in my body—I felt like the unwilling meat in a death-and-life sandwich. I’d been shambling along, teaching a full load, parenting Zoё as well as I could. Life had become a numb routine: wake up, shower, drink coffee, get Zoё ready for daycare, drive her there, teach, pick her up, drive her home, feed us, play, give her a bath, head to bed.
Wake up and repeat.
Something that still surprises me about grief is how much time you spend not feeling anything. You expect the crying jags and the pain so sharp you think you’re having a heart attack. You can’t prepare for the long stretches of feeling nothing, though, not curiosity, not joy, not even annoyance.
Four months into my full-time grief, I actually thought robot-me was doing pretty well, which shows the depths of my depression. My wake-up call came on January 15th. Zoё was still three. She was also still stubborn, willful, and outspoken, like any respectable three-year-old plus a little extra because she’s always been my Princess Fury.
A blizzard had just roared through, and I knew the roads were gonna be tough. Plus, it was a new semester, so I had a whole slate of new classes, new students, new questions. Life felt extra heavy, a yoke on my shoulders and a person in my belly. And that feeling of nothingness was getting to me, a constant low buzzing that made it almost impossible to climb out of bed that morning.
But I did. I think it was muscle memory.
On this particular day, Zoё didn’t want to go to daycare, even more than usual. Yet, we went through the motions. Through a haze of numbness, perched at the top of the basement stairs and near the garage door, I helped her with her pants. She flapped her legs like a wind-up doll the entire time. I tugged her shirt over her head. She screamed. I tried to yank her jacket on, and she went no-bones, melting onto the floor.
Then it came time to wrench on her boots.
One of her flailing legs connected with my face. Smack. The pain was raw and white and I snapped. Just like that, the force of the kick broke through my nothing and released pure black rage and something terrifyingly primal, a monster I didn’t know I housed.
This is where I need to take a break and tell you that my parents, for all their foibles and deep dysfunction, had never so much as yelled at me, forget spanking or hitting. I was raised to be an organic granola pacifist, someone whose go-to in times of conflict and stress has always been research followed by earnest communication. The idea of striking a child was as foreign and abhorrent to me as cutting off my own finger. Hitting Zoё, my baby fuzz, the tiny precious peanut I’d played music for while she was in my tummy, planned a water birth for to minimize her stress as she entered the world, nursed her whole first year despite a full-time job and 40-minute commute each way so that I could directly deliver every nutrient she’d need to thrive?
Not on your life.
But dammit, I was gonna return that kick.
I was going to smack her back.
And I wasn’t just going to hurt her. I was going to punch her shut her up punish her make her hurt as bad as I did so help me it’s survival to finally feel something because I am drowning in numbness and I can’t go back to feeling nothing again so after I take care of her I’m going to—
I can still taste the mustiness of the basement wafting up the stairs.
I can still see her red face, shock suffocating those beautiful green eyes.
She recognized, smelled it maybe, what I was about to do.
Hand still in the air, I fled. Like a woman mutating into a werewolf, I raced out of that house before I became a full monster who’d eat her own children.
The icy air wasn’t enough to slap me back to my senses. I jumped into my car. I started it. I raced out of that driveway, the snowdrifts a sun-blocking wall of white on each side. My eyes were dry. Have you ever cut yourself so deep that it didn’t even bleed? That’s what I’d done, cut too deep to even cry. I just drove, abandoning my wispy-haired, short-armed baby girl, the child who’d walked into her first day of Just for Kix, all belly and knees in her black leotard, clapped her hands to get everyone’s attention, and in her high, precious voice thanked all the other little girls’ parents for taking time out of their busy day to come watch her dance, the first true love of my life, Zoё Rayn.
I ran out on her because I feared what I would do if I stayed.
It took just past the end of the driveway for my prefrontal lobe to calm the animal in me. My daughter was three years old and alone in our house. I don’t think she’d ever been alone in a room before. She was frightened of the dark and the entire basement, would grab my hand with her chubby fingers when strangers talked to her, was as defenseless as a newborn fawn.
My fear bowed to nausea. I tried to turn the car around, but the snow was too high, only a single lane plowed on my back country road. I had to drive two more icy miles before there was enough space to change direction, and by then, I was sobbing so hard that I was choking. I’d seen the look of betrayal on her face in the forever-moment before I’d raced out of the house. It had been ringed with terror.
I pulled into the driveway and leapt out of the car without turning it off.
I’d been gone for six minutes, a lifetime to a three-year-old.
I raced into the house.
Zoё was exactly where I’d left her, on the floor, boots lying beside her.
Potty-trained for well over a year, she had wet herself in fear. The dark stain flowered on the front of her elastic-waisted jeans. A puddle had formed underneath her. She was staring at the ceiling, shuddering.
She’d seen that awful thing in my eyes, and then she’d heard me drive away.
I picked her up. I held her until she stopped shaking and the sobbing came, that heaving gale of the shattered child. If my heart wasn’t already broken, it would have ruptured when she said, “I’m sorry mommy. I’m sorry about my shoes.”
I cried with her, promised she hadn’t done anything wrong. I apologized, but I knew there would never be enough sorries. I cleaned her up, me up. I wanted to stay at home and hold her all day, shut out the world, but sometimes you catch a glimpse of unbending Truth and I knew that if I didn’t step back into the stream of life that day, I wouldn’t ever again.
I drove her to daycare. I confessed.
When I arrived at work, I called her dad, Lance, and told him, too, what I’d done. I’ll never forget how kind he was in that phone call. I expected him to take her away from me, for daycare to call the authorities. They would have been well within their rights. Instead, everyone supported me with that peculiar aching sadness, like they knew something I didn’t.
I started writing my first published novel that night, after Zoё fell asleep.
Compiling journal entries wouldn’t have worked for me. I couldn’t survive reliving the pain, not then, not on my own. I needed to convert it, package it, and ship it off, and the mysteries I’d been devouring my whole life offered me a glimpse of the potential order I could bring to my own story, a way to rewrite my life. I know I'm not alone. There are many of us who need to reprocess our garbage, but who can't bear the idea of writing memoir, whether it's because we are too close to the trauma, don't want to hurt or be hurt by those we're writing about, or simply prefer the vehicle of fiction.
I kept up writing May Day, rubbing it like a worrystone, afraid to relapse into that gaping darkness where I was the monster. I wrote about laughter, the unexpected, a woman startled by the death of someone she loves. She thinks she’s responsible but is held up by unexpected allies. In the end, she solves the mystery of his death.
May Day is an uneven book, my first real novel.
It’s entirely fictional and was deeply therapeutic to write.
When I typed the last word of that book, I knew the darkness would never return, not at the level that I’d experienced that day with Zoё, not in a way that had the power to obliterate me.
The research would tell you that I was externalizing the story, habituating myself to it, inoculating myself against deep grief by exposing myself to it in small, controlled doses. All I knew was that my brain wasn’t spinning as much and I was beginning to feel again, even if it was the emotions of fictional characters. Little by little, I was carving out new space for thoughts that were not about death or depression.
Through the gentle but challenging exercise of writing a novel, I was learning how to control stories, which is what our lives are—stories.
Writing a novel saved me.
You don’t have to believe any of this for it to work for you, too.
You just have to write.
Here's how to begin:
*The above is partially excerpted from Rewrite Your Life: Discover Your Truth Through the Healing Power of Fiction, released May 1, 2017.