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Renowned Psychotherapist and author of A New Approach to Women and Therapy (bio)
Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair
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Chapter Two - Vulnerability: The Power of No Protection
What I know about vulnerability I learned in a crash course that started when my first child was born. I was thirty-four years old. I was deliriously happy. Colors were more vivid, music more transporting, the air pulsed with a vibrant energy. My senses were amplified, as though I’d lived with only a fraction of their force until now. I was lucky. By any reckoning, this was a good pregnancy. I had none of the usual assortment of pregnancy ills, and seemingly endless reserves of energy. I ate brown rice and vegetables, healthy organic sources of protein. No chemicals or preservatives passed my lips. I didn’t even chew gum, because it contained minute amounts of artificial coloring. I walked every day—two miles around Jamaica Pond—and swam several times a week. Dedicating myself to nurturing this child within me, I felt stronger and healthier than ever before. Everything was going as planned.
Then abruptly, it was all swept away. A tornado came through, ripping out my roots and whirling me in a hellish circle before throwing me back into my life in an utterly new place. The dark emotions were the whirlwind in which I moved, the energies I had to master in order to stay alive.
Suddenly, I was in hard labor a month before my due date, filled with an ominous dread. Every cell of my body knew that something was wrong. My husband, Roger, found me on my knees in the living room, praying aloud. This was totally out of character. I was a secular humanist and a social activist, not a spiritual seeker or true believer. I had never prayed before. My prayers were wrenched from a fathomless depth, an acknowledgment of my smallness in the face of what was coming. I prayed because I knew I was going to need help.
All my plans were overturned. Instead of a cozy home birth with a chosen midwife, I entered a large Boston training hospital with a birth assistant I didn’t know, laboring in a room with sharp lights and gray walls, and a host of people milling about. With the exception of Roger at my side, I recognized no one. Labor assistant, obstetrician, hospital staff—all faces were covered in blue face masks, the contemporary purdah of institutional childbirth. And instead of a miraculous bonding experience with a brand-new human being, flesh of my flesh and blood of my blood, I released a baby from my body who was whisked away after barely a glance into his wide blue eyes. He was limp and unresponsive. He would have to be observed. Tests would have to be done.
Time stood still until I was able to see Aaron. I remember approaching him as he lay in his little plastic bed in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and being awe-struck. He was perfectly formed. Lacking the usual baby fat because he was a month early, his muscles were finely contoured and pronounced, like those of a Greek statue in miniature. With his heart-shaped mouth and downy scalp, his beauty offered some modicum of reassurance. And yet it was clear that something was terribly wrong. Searching his eyes for a clue, I saw only a great and nameless suffering, an ageless sadness. More than anything, I wanted to comfort him.
But little comfort was to be found for any of us.
Aaron became the hospital’s baby, living in a tiny isolette, a plastic baby cage in the neonatal intensive care nursery, surrounded by medical equipment, poked and prodded with needles and electrodes, tested and retested to determine what was wrong with him. And we lived with him, pleading with the hospital staff to make room for this seemingly irrelevant dyad—mother and child. Not to mention triad—mother, father, and child. We campaigned for a room in which Aaron could be with us. Apparently, this was the first request of its kind on the neonatal ICU. They would look into it. When no such room was available, I camped out in a sleeping bag on the floor of the ICU with Aaron at my side —a rampant breach of ordinary hospital etiquette. I was a mother and not a mother, trying to find a way to love this baby who was of me but did not belong to me.
Within a week, we were moved to Children’s Hospital’s neurology floor, where my son’s condition was given a terrifying but altogether vague name: brain injury. Aaron had been a very active baby in utero. During my eighth month, there was a period of two days when I felt no movement. This was probably when it happened. For reasons we would never know, he had lost oxygen inside me. The medical term was anoxia. In the womb, universal symbol of safety, Aaron had been unaccountably vulnerable to harm. Something happened that had cut off his life support and sealed his destiny.
We think we are walking a path toward a planned destination. Then there is a turning in the road, and we find ourselves in a place nothing like the expected ground. We had thought there would be a bright meadow with a tranquil lake, but we find instead a deep crater and a devastated landscape.
At such times one has a sense of the inherent mystery of existence. There is a primal terror at the sheer vulnerability of being alive. In Job’s day, that terror was perhaps mitigated by an overarching awe of God’s power. For me, the experience was rather more precisely expressed by Shakespeare: “Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.” I had no faith in which to find shelter. So I looked instead for signs and portents, a talisman to clasp to me in this hapless wilderness into which I’d been thrown.
Copyright 2003 by Miriam Greenspan