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April 10, 2016

The M Word: Heather Birrell on Talking to her (M)Other Self


This is the second in a series of posts catching up writers from The M Word, and finding out what they’re up to now. (Find out more about The M Word and read its rave reviews right here.) From last week: “Kerry Ryan on Wishing and Washing“. 

Heather Birrell’s “Truth, Dare, Double Dare,” opened the collection, a beautiful story about second-chances, forgiveness, and the reality of what it takes to make a family. But the essay’s happy ending would turn out to be the beginning of a more complicated story, which she delineates here. 


Promise to Repeat

My sister used to talk to herself when she was about four; at eight, I overheard her chatting away in her bed. She was not discussing the world with an imaginary friend—she was talking to her Self. We knew this, my parents and I, because she used the actual word: ‘Hello, Self,’ she’d say. ‘How you doing today, Self?’ And then she would let her Self know exactly what was up.

In the essay I contributed to The M Word, I talked about my mixed feelings about having a second child—how my first child’s traumatic arrival and aftermath gave me pause. Then I got pregnant (unplanned) and I was so scared. But going ahead with that pregnancy turned out to be a wonderful choice for me and my family. My essay had a happy ending.

But, when The M Word was on the brink of publication, I was struggling through a new crisis; a kind of delayed post-partum depression characterized by Pure OCD that saw me mired in a horrible muck of guilt and fear. Pure OCD sufferers experience repetitive intrusive thoughts that usually involve violent or taboo images. As new (and new-ish) mothers can attest, being so close to fragile new life cannot help but call up thoughts of death. We imagine we will somehow—accidentally or on purpose—hurt our kids. Pure OCD amplifies those thoughts in monstrous, seemingly inescapable ways.

When I was being treated in a Toronto hospital’s short term mental health unit, one of my psychiatric nurses asked me to write a letter to myself. ‘But,’ she said, ‘imagine you are talking to a dear friend in your same situation. We are often much harder on ourselves than we are on our friends.’ The idea was to show myself the compassion that my depression had transformed into criticism and cruel falsehoods. This was a surprisingly easy exercise for me—maybe because I truck in fiction, the words came readily. Writing the letter did not heal me; I didn’t recognize myself in writer or recipient. But the next day, when I re-read what I had written, I felt a measure of comfort. The exercise felt artificial, but the result was something authentic and poignant.

In a blog entry I posted just before The M Word came out (and I use the term blog loosely; I am an infrequent, undisciplined recorder of life when it comes to my online presence), I bemoaned the fact that the essay in some ways did not feel like the ‘truth’ anymore: “I was ashamed that my relationship to motherhood had once again become so challenging, so darkly complex.  I felt like a fake.” My truth had changed drastically; my sense of myself as a mother had been shredded by months of despair. The end of my M Word essay is a tempered triumph. And I was feeling far from triumphant.

This past winter, I published an essay in Canadian Notes and Queries as part of their Rereading Series (‘Further Up and Further In: Rereading The Last Battle In the Wake of Mental Illness’). In the essay, I explore how the stories I have absorbed and told myself shape my reality. That essay is one of the many conversations between selves I have been having since I became a mother.

Here is another:

Things I Might Say to My M Word Self

Hello Self. How you doin’? You know, our brain is sailed by some mighty ships. They carry precious cargo. But those ships? They’re vulnerable to our body’s tides, its hormones and adrenal secretions; when they capsize, they send some powerful chemicals sloshing over the sides. Self? You will believe some things about yourself that are not actually true. Or if they are true, they are not true in the everlasting, evil way you are thinking.

Oh, Self, in the next year or so, you will endure some of the hardest, most heartrending days and nights of your life. You will have a moment on a subway platform. Another with some pills. You will not be thinking solution, you will be thinking relief. And I will not tell you suicide is wrong. Because I don’t judge those who wants to end suffering. But I will tell you that what you are feeling will not last forever.

It’s like those nights where the baby will not sleep, and will not sleep, and will never sleep. And then, the baby sleeps. But not every night! Just sometimes, Self. The way forward will be like that.

You check yourself into the mental health unit on your oldest girl’s birthday. This is a detail which will pester you as proof of something. Back up, Self. Recall that you also collected her birthday cake and delivered it home on the way to the hospital. Remember that a mother takes care of herself so that she can take care of her children.

All of this will be hard for your husband to understand. Let him protect the children from this; let him cook for you even when you aren’t hungry. Love and loyalty can take many forms.

Hey Self! Call and email and text all your friends. Say: I need you. Go for walks with them. Watch Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Let your mother fold your washing and sort out the kids’ hand-me-down shoes and don’t imagine she is thinking, ‘This sort of couch-loafing behaviour is typical of the selfish, ‘sensitive’ daughter.’ Also: So what if she does think this? Your clothes will be folded and the kids’ shoes sorted.

You are sick. The hard part about this sickness is that they don’t always know which is the right medicine or how long it might take to work. Take the medicine anyway. But don’t shut up if it’s making you sicker. If you can’t speak to the doctors—because this sickness can steal your voice—ask your sister, her voice is strong. Talk therapy is a medicine. Sleep is medicine. And so is time. Do yoga too; you can’t om your way to happiness, but taking deep breaths and rolling around on the floor can’t help but be good for you.

In the hospital, they will ask for your religion. They will ask if you have any hobbies. You will stare at them vacantly. That’s okay; ‘hobbies’ is a dumb word.

Self, I am here in the super-future. We made it.

Heather Birrell’s most recent story collection, Mad Hope, was one of the Globe and Mail’s top 23 Canadian fiction titles in 2012. The Toronto Review of Books called the collection “completely enthralling and profoundly grounded in empathy for the traumas and moments of relief of simply being human.” Winner of the Journey Prize for short fiction and the Edna Staebler Award for creative non-fiction, her work has appeared in many North American journals and anthologies. She currently lives on the Isle of Lewis with her family. 

4 thoughts on “The M Word: Heather Birrell on Talking to her (M)Other Self”

  1. Sandy Milakovic says:

    Heather ,this is so real and your extraordinary writing ability puts in words what others who may experience some of the same cannot. You are a brave,honest and amazingly grounded young woman. I am proud to know and love you
    Auntie Sandy

  2. Nathalie says:

    Heather, this is extraordinary. I love your writing. Thank you.

  3. Susan says:

    Thanks for your bravery, Heather. I have yet to write about such things; indeed, may never do so. But you give me courage. Bless you.

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