In my studies of Ashtanga yoga, I’ve been told several times that life – the sum total of it – is essentially a breathing exercise. It is a breathing exercise to walk across a busy street. It is a breathing exercise to place one’s body in dwi pada sirsasana (both legs behind the neck). It is a breathing exercise to have an orgasm. It is a breathing exercise, albeit a failed one depending on one’s perspective, to die. It must also, then, be a breathing exercise to have a complete, thorough, and perhaps unending nervous breakdown, or, as the entrancing Allan Cummings puts it, “a nervy-B.” This is what happened to me a few months after I became pregnant with my third child in the winter of 2013.
When I gave birth to my first living child, after a horrific loss of identical twin boys at 24 weeks gestation, I told my husband, quite literally as the birth was occurring, that “we must have four!” Strange words coming from a woman who before her 30th birthday had never so much as glanced at a child, much less craved a bushel of them. But somehow, for all the complicated reasons humans have, the vision stuck, and from that moment I rather pictured myself as both mother, lower case, simple and every day, and Mother, connected in some sense to the creative forces of Artemis and whatever other goddesses and creatures who drive the reproduction of a species. As grandiose as this sounds, and certainly feels, motherhood made me vastly more alive, and attuned to the gift of Joy. I felt, and thankfully still do feel, a divinity in motherhood. Unsurprisingly, I fell pregnant again almost exactly 9 months later.
Two children. A boy. A girl. Healthy. A busy, ambitious husband who, while adoring his family, also saw the wisdom of looking outside its closed circle of love and domesticity toward other subjects, such as savings. And sex. And other adults. Who could blame him? For two years I begged, explained, analyzed, manipulated, and wept for another child. We argued, even as I saw the perfect reasoning and sanity of his position, and the rash, almost compulsive one of mine. We kept to our corners, solidifying our positions.
Until we didn’t. I began to look around a bit. Perhaps I could return to a regular yoga practice, and take up my studies again. The children would soon be in school; daily ballet class became an actual possibility. And perhaps two children, given the conditions of the world and my already fragile mind, was more than fine. Perfect, in fact.
Relationships are a pendulum hidden inside a warped mirror. Just as I began making my plans for my foray into “the world,” my husband acquiesced. In a month I was pregnant with a healthy girl. Four months after that, as the baby grew more and more into her own small self, I lost myself.
We took a trip in the bright month of June to Arroyo Seco, New Mexico. There, in a house that had for years been my most revered refuge, I stopped sleeping. I stopped eating. I could not see beauty, could not feel joy, or even really pain. It was not dullness that took over my mind. It was fear. Nameless, of course, for if it had a name it would also have a prescribed action.
It has now been almost a year and a half. My body, my brain, have been through trials any living soul would say are akin to torture. It is debatable whether or not that torture could be called self inflicted. Some things, such as intermittent joy and a great deal of pain, have returned. The fear, however, has never left. It lines my consciousness as reeds do a river. It has taken up residence or, as my shrink insists, it has always been in residence, in my brain, and it has now revealed itself, the face of a neglected ghost lifted to the light. But from the light it does not cringe or fade. The darkness, though, does indeed make it ever so much stronger.
And so, in the autumn of 2014, as my infant daughter prepares herself to turn a full year old, I live every evening as though I am being hunted. On the good days, the days in which I revel in movement, in my children’s faces, in sunlight piercing a tree branch turned golden outside my window, the stalking fear seems to have retreated; there are perhaps a few miles between us. But it is only because I’ve outrun it for a moment – or perhaps on that day experienced a particularly successful exercise in breathing.