I've been listening to a lot of Sigur Ros recently. If you haven't heard of them, they're pretty great. Their music sounds like a sweeping mountain range. And sometimes like an empty star-lit valley. And sometimes like the bottom of a deep warm pool. And sometimes like being inside a heart monitor.
Anyway, one reason I've been listening to them is that they're from Iceland, and that's one of the places we're going on our big trip. So listening to them is even better at the moment because it evokes in my mind images like this:
OK, so the point of this post isn't to skite about our awesome upcoming trip to Iceland (but come on, it's pretty freaking awesome right?). Instead I wanted to talk a bit about the future.
A few weeks ago Annamarie talked about the power (and the pain) of hope. I talked before that about the stress of planning. I think those two things summarize the way humans deal with the future - it's either a constant worry or a delicious (or maybe unbearable) anticipation. It's hard to find the middle ground.
And yet thinking about the future is so important. Many scientists argue that humans' ability to project out likely outcomes was an evolutionary super power. It's why I, at 178cm and 74kg of pasty whiteness, am a fucking apex predator. It is what allowed us to prepare for this trip in the first place. I think that is why so many people struggle with addiction to smartphones / social media - your phone is essentially a portal into the future, or at least into the stuff not happening right here. Our brains haven't evolved to catch up with the tech yet (or is the tech the next evolution in our brains - an external, self created Darwinian next step? OK, I'll stop now).
We are often told to "live in the present". Be mindful. Be here now. I think it's important to do that sometimes. I'm always amazed at the way Sam can spend 30 minutes getting dressed because he's invented a million silly games to play with his clothes. Cultivating that joy of living is a good thing, even if I'll never get back to preschooler levels of excitement over a bug. But you know, sometimes the present sucks. Sometimes the present is filled with pain and sadness and loss. And it's good to live with that too, I think - at least for a while. But for me there's a fine line between acknowledging and allowing my feelings, and getting stuck in them. At some point the present becomes a trap. If I don't think about the fact that we've got no food in the fridge, bad things will happen. If we don't plan and save for our child's education, we're doing him a disservice. Planning has it's place.
I guess this is where I (and maybe a lot of people) struggle. I worry a lot. I worry about big things, like whether Auckland property prices are going to crash and take down the value of our heavily mortgaged home. I worry about whether we're doing a good enough job with Sam, whether I'm teaching him the right life lessons, how what he sees me do influences him outside of what I tell him. And I worry about dumb stuff - keeping on top of the laundry, whether I replied to that email, general life admin crap. I don't want to worry. Worrying is basically just thinking about a problem you can't do anything about. It's the definition of a wasted emotion. I know this. But I still worry. And I worry about what all the worrying is doing to me.
So clearly I don't have any perfect solutions. But I have some thoughts, some things I'm trying.
I keep a to do list. Just the one, but it's stored on an app and I can access it from anywhere. There are lots of options, but I use Toodledo which I find simple and quick to add something. That's important to me, because the point of my to do list is that it's a big box for me to throw in all my worry. If it's in there, I know it will get done at some point, and I can stop thinking about it when I'm playing with my child, or enjoying a nice walk. This doesn't always work, but it's more effective than churning the thing over in your mind a million times.
Of course having a to do list creates its own problems, because now you're worried about the list itself. Sometimes I'll find myself endlessly prioritising and re-prioritising the list, shuffling tasks around instead of actually doing any of them. Sometimes I end up checking the list every 5 minutes just to make sure I haven't missed anything.
But I'm getting better at managing that. These days I'll try only look at the list if I am actually in a position to do a task. That means I need at least 5 minutes of clear time. So not at dinner, not during bathtime, not when I'm spending time with Annamarie. Speaking of my darling wife, the list used to piss her off something chronic. She would make sarcastic remarks and tell me I was tied to my phone. she thought I was being anal retentive. She was probably right. But now she gets it. I won't say she loves it, but she knows that if she wants something done around the house, she needs to see me add it to the list, or it won't get done. And I've learned not to overcommit myself, so I have time to do all the stuff that needs doing, and to spend unstructured time with the family, without feeling the need to check my phone every 5 minutes.
I traveled to Australia recently and my mobile phone roaming didn't turn on properly, so I had no internet access except from the hotel WiFi, and no way to call or text the other people I was travelling with. That was an interesting experience. It was freeing in some ways and allowed me to "live in the present". There was no point in checking my phone because it had nothing on it. I enjoyed wandering city streets looking up and around, noticing subtle differences from the way things are at home.
At the same time it forced me to plan more. I was travelling with a group, and I couldn't just text them to co-ordinate where I needed to be and when. Instead we had to plan locations (usually a pub) and meeting times in advance, and then actually be there on time. If I wanted to go somewhere, I couldn't just load up Google Maps - I'd have to check at the hotel and then either download the map to my phone, or just try to remember it in my head. So I'd need to plan out travel times, know what time it was and how far until my next destination. In some ways lack of technology made me less present and more concerned with the future.
I think that's the battle, and in today's sense-assualting world it is a fight. Here vs there. Now vs later. Schedule time to be unscheduled. Do some things, but try to be some one. Achievement vs appreciation. The way our brains work mean the war is never over, but I guess the key is to make sure you recognise that you are in one. You can make a plan of attack, but then you have to adapt to the enemy and the terrain. The point is we are in charge, so let's act like it.
I was about halfway through my first pregnancy, having a miserable time. I had just come back to work after 3 months of leave, bedridden with fatigue between bouts of vomiting. I was working for a magazine publisher at the time & all of a sudden there was a massive "hullabaloo". Excitement, people rushing about, lots of noise. In the world of tabloid news, the biggest story you could get had just been broken - the Duchess of Cambridge was pregnant! And not only was Kate preggers, but the poor lass had to announce her news early because she'd been hospitalised for symptoms of this strange unheard of condition Hyperemesis Gravidarum, AKA HG.
Hyperemesis gravidarum: 'Kate Middleton's ongoing condition is much worse than just morning sickness'
Hold the presses! Let's release a special early edition! There were urgent meetings called, the logistics of going to press early needed to be worked through, a whole lot of filler information & pictures needed to be found. It was the most exciting & pressurised week in a long time.
"Poor Kate", "What an awful thing to have to go through", "She's really sick, it's quite serious". The editorial team were fascinated by the story. Not only was Kate pregnant with our future heir to the throne, but she was so sick! And then, in one of these crisis meetings, our HR Manager said: "You should just talk to Annamarie. She has that, she's just come back to work, she's been bedridden". And suddenly things changed. I was no longer someone who just couldn't handle "a little nausea". I was someone with a serious medical condition. And the sympathy was outpouring. All it took for people to understand this awful condition I had was for the most famous woman in the world to get it too. Kate Middleton's misfortune changed the landscape for women unlucky enough to suffer from HG (sorry Kate, but thanks).
My experience during my pregnancy with Sam and my consequent birth experience made me very wary of willingly signing on to have another baby. But in the end, I did agree, knowing full well that I would have HG again and that I would likely suffer for 9 months and put my own health at risk.
I actually had the Dr's appointment to confirm I was pregnant on Sam's 3rd birthday. As apprehensive as I was about what was to come, I was thrilled. I think that might actually be the last time I've felt extreme joy in the last 18 months. In those early days, with no symptoms, you just have the excitement of what's to come, what kind of person you'll create and the adventures you'll have as a family. The symptoms kicked in about week 6, and from week 7 I was taking Ondanestron (AKA Zofran) for nausea (it did nothing FYI) and was bedridden, unable to function. Within a few days I was vomiting multiple times a day, unable to keep any food down.
But I still had hope. And I was so positive. I was working for a pregnancy spa at the time, and I wrote a guest blog post that didn't end up getting used about my nausea experience. Reading back over it now I think about that person who had no idea what was coming. That person who thought that the worst that could happen was some bad nausea.....
Home Truths from the First Trimester
Well, it turns out I'm definitely pregnant again... if the positive test didn't tell me, the nausea that has started this week has confirmed it. And it has me wondering why I agreed to do this again! I mean, I did wait three years, and honestly, there is no way I could have done this before now. At least now my son has his 20 hours childcare and is well on his way to being toilet trained - what would I have done a year ago, or even six months?
I think back to my first pregnancy when at this stage - 7 weeks - the nausea was amping up and the vomiting was beginning, and I was still trying to work full-time and pretend to my colleagues I was fine. I had to give that up at 9 weeks when I was hospitalised for dehydration and bleeding from my oesophagus from the acid when I threw up again... and again... and again. And for the record, I had Hyperemesis Gravidarum a good 5 months before the Duchess made it 'de rigeur'.
So this time, I'm petrified that the awful nausea I'm already feeling is going to escalate and I'll be unable to cope. Last time I was forced to take leave and undergo bed rest from week 9 to week 18. Turns out you can't really function without food. The little bean was fine though, continuing to grown into a healthy tiny human, continuing to suck any meagre nutrients still found in my body.
I know I sound a little dramatic, and certainly I don't paint a pretty picture of the first trimester. It's not like this for a lot of people, and hey, it may not be that bad for me again this time. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best... But I did find that no one really speaks about how awful the first trimester is. I say being forewarned is far better struggling for weeks with everyone assuming you just can't cope with a "little morning sickness".
This time I have so much knowledge that I didn't have last time. Like choosing a midwife. I did this at 5 weeks because I wanted to find the best person who would support me with a potentially traumatic pregnancy and someone who would understand my desire to birth naturally despite my previous c-section. I need someone who makes decisions and is no-nonsense. My last midwife was so wishy-washy and wasn't there to make the hard calls, leaving them to the awesome team at the hospital, one of which I initially thought of us as "the dragon", but who actually became the biggest support for me through my induction and eventual emergency caesarian.
So, from a jaded but hopeful newly pregnant mama, to all other mamas in the same situation - I hope you've enjoyed my post.
Just a couple of thoughts to add from the Chief Spew Bowl Washer.
Firstly, although the Kate Middleton thing has definitely increased the profile of HG, I have found (at least in my circle of friends and colleagues) that most people still greet you with blank stares when you try to explain it. It's more well known now, but people have short memories and now the celebrity hype is over I find myself having to talk it through more and more.
Secondly, the ignorance about HG is unfortunately not limited to "normal" people - it extends to the medical profession. Many doctors and nurses we spoke to either weren't aware of HG, or had very little experience with it. And hey, that's fair enough - it's a rare illness. But we also found there was a general lack of interest in the medical institution around pregnancy conditions, or at least those that impact the mother and not the baby. We were told there is not a lot of research out there on stuff like HG, in part because it isn't really ethical to do testing or research on pregnant women - but we suspect also in part because it is seen as a "temporary issue". If you're a doctor dealing with it, you know what the "cure" is - have the baby, problem solved. That is all fine and well, but of course it doesn't help the poor woman who is suffering through hell, nor does it fix the long-term damage that such an experience can to do that woman's physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. And look, I get it - it's not an easy problem to solve. But it is a problem, and I think as a society we need to recognise that.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that we've all rolled our eyes at illnesses or issues that seem silly or made up. If it's not inside your sphere of experience, it's easy to be cynical. It is difficult to summon compassion for something you may not fully understand, or even believe. I felt that way at certain points in our first pregnancy, but I had a pretty stark reminder living with me every day. If this blog achieves anything, I hope it's that you'll think twice the next time you go to dismiss someone's suffering (even if it's just in your own head), that you'll stop, take a moment - and think of Kate Middleton.
You know how we all have those phrases we over use, to the point where they become meaningless? I have a few. "sweet as" is one. "You doing OK?" is probably another. But my biggest one, and I use it all the time when confronted with others showing sympathy or concern for me (so it's happened a lot recently) is this: "It is what it is". Got hit by a car? "it is what it is". Lost a loved one? "it is what it is". Got another cold from your germ ridden four year old? It is what it fucking is.
I mean, really. What a nothing phrase. Of course "it" is what it is. What else would it be? Why do I even open my mouth? But more and more I have been reflecting on those words recently, and I think they are a little deeper than they appear.
A friend was telling me recently how he really felt like his life had turned a corner. He'd been going through a bit of a flat period, even going so far as to see a counsellor (something we should all probably consider more often). His wife had some health troubles (welcome to the club mate), his career was at a bit of a plateau, things just felt a bit empty. But then all of a sudden things had turned a corner, he'd started exercising more (he enjoys running, the crazed fool), found joy in the good things, focussed on the positive side of his job. He felt like things were on the up.
I think we all go through similar rollercoasters in our lives. Either it feels like all cylinders are firing and we're flying down the road, wind in our hair, or the car won't fucking start and you're locked in with no cellphone coverage. That's a very real feeling, but it's probably not true - objectively things are probably never absolutely desperate, nor is the world ever perfect.
Why do we feel these wild swings? I think part of the truth lies in the way we think of our lives. As humans we're always in a rush to judge things, to label then positive or negative. How was your weekend? Pretty good. How's that project coming along? It's terrible. How are you feeling? Great thanks..
But maybe all this labelling doesn't actually do us any good. Maybe things are what they are. What is the use of slapping a judgement on stuff anyway? Who does that serve? You were there, you don't need the descriptor do you?
Annamarie and I have tried meditation in various forms recently, with varying levels of success (she is doing much better at it these days than me - but look at me, labelling things) and one of the big things that comes up again and again is the practice of observing without judging. of watching your thoughts float by, letting them be. Even observing yourself - if your mind starts to wander, bring it back but don't chastise yourself for the lapse. You're also not supposed to judge your own practice - you can't meditate "well" or "badly", you just do it.
This can be really hard to wrap your head around. I certainly struggled with it, prone as I am to bouts of self-flaggelation and comparing myself (often unfavourably) to others. In the past I've been worried that if I don't judge or compare myself, I will somehow fail at life, that I won't be the best version of myself. What if all my success today is built on challenging myself to improve? What if I stop whipping myself and that means I just stop everything?
But I think there is a difference between trying to be better and making yourself feel terrible all the time because you're not measuring up to some arbitrary standard. The best way I've found to express it is to think about nature - a field of grass, a mountain, a lake. You might think the lake is beautiful, but the lake doesn't give a shit. The lake is a lake. It is what it is, it doesn't need your judgement or validation, and it wouldn't be a lake if it did.
So I'm trying to judge less these days, trying to measure less and observe more. And I'm trying not to judge myself when I do end up over-judging myself or the world around me. I'm not getting it perfect every time, because the world isn't a perfect place. Because you know, it is what is is.
This week I decided to write a letter to myself a year ago in a bid to reflect on what I've been through. It was actually quite cathartic to write this, but it's also really confronting. I decided to share it, despite my reservations, because we agreed to be honest about our journey. I also think the letter writing concept could be a good tool for someone else struggling to recover from traumatic experiences.
Hello from the other side (I must have called a thousand times - wait, shut up Adele, get out of my head). Seriously though, hello from future you. I often think about future me, I think about making life easier for future me, so it's apt that I'm writing this letter. And yes, Nick, this is why I like to be thorough about things - because it will be easier for future Annamarie. A little time now, a lot less stress later.
Stress, you're probably starting to feel it right about now. While your body is physically healing and you think you're on the right track, what's really happening is that all the emotions and anxiety about what you've been through and subconsciously building up and you're going to break down sometime after Christmas. Right now you're still waiting to be cleared from having treatment for the big C. That scary word that has been haunting you since that awful day you found out about losing the baby. I can tell you you will get cleared. It will take until October and you'll have a scare near the end when your numbers plateau, but you will get there. It won't feel satisfying though, so be prepared. It will constantly haunt you. Every time you feel nauseous (which is a lot of the time by the way) you'll think that it's manifested itself somewhere else and no one has picked it up. You'll resent the Gynecology Oncology team for dismissing you from their service when everyone from other countries in your Molar Pregnancy Support Group has monthly monitoring for at least 3 months after you get their first negative result.
You will continue to be unwell. You will be blindsided by it. More "women's troubles" - cramping, bleeding, irregular periods. That pregnancy and the surgery to remove T.J will continue to wreak havoc with your body for a long time. You will need medication to combat it, even though you won't want to take it. You'll also find that you have some diseased bowel tissue. That'll need to be removed and the recovery will be the worst, seriously, The. Worst. If I could tell you one thing, it's that you can expect the worst agony of your life and you will get very depressed about how long you'll be in pain for. You will be come "chronically unhealed" and need further treatment.
You're also going to continue to have gut problems. Your nausea will continue and you and your gastroenterologist will have no idea how to fix it, though you will try a lot of things. You will have daily medication for reflux but it will not be enough. Your gut issues will be there every day. Your nausea will make you crave foods you shouldn't be eating that will make your gut & bowels worse. It will be a daily struggle and you will gain weight and feel terrible about it.
And on top of your physical challenges you will struggle mentally in a way you have never struggled before. You will have extreme anger for seemingly insignificant reasons, it will consume you, making you feel a physical burning in your abdomen. You will develop anxiety and feel awkward in many situations. You will have to tell yourself to say no to things and start putting yourself first. You will need to find time every day to spend on your mental recovery. But you'll have a lovely psychologist who will help you and support you through it, giving you some awesome coping strategies.
Basically, I want you to know that the next year is going to get harder. I know you thought that the grief you felt after losing T.J and the physical suffering you went through during your pregnancy and in the months after were the hardest things you'd ever been through. You survived that and that's awesome, but now you have to survive your mental health. You have to survive lots of little health issues, all reminders of your pregnancy that will challenge you like you've never been challenged. Together all these things will nearly break you but you will get through it.
My advice is to "just be". To just survive each moment and not expect too much of yourself. And if you can manage it, be nicer to your husband. He will be supporting you when he's having his own physical battles and he'll be struggling mentally too. And try to love yourself just as you are every day. Getting mad at your body doesn't help. Accept your situation, and know that it won't always be this bad and things will go easier for you.
I'm not going to tell you you're so strong and brave, such a coper, because let's be honest, we hate that. So I'll just say this: Look, life isn't going to be the same again. It's going in a different direction now. You just have to deal with where it's going. You need to remember that life is short, and there are more important things to worry about. Let it all go.
Love yourself, be kind to yourself. Love your family and hug your nieces and nephew as much as you can. Tell Sam you love him more than anything any chance you get. Try to find the strength and energy to give Nick the love and attention he needs.
You will survive.
We are a family of 3. This blog is the story of how we almost became 4, why we didn’t, and what we are doing to recover from that experience.