Any situation even slightly beyond my control was completely defeating.
Almost six years ago now, I posted an ad on Craigslist offering to listen to stories that people couldn't share with anyone else. Secrets. Traumas. Mistakes. Painful memories. I wanted to create a space for these marginalized narratives—give voice to issues that are too often mired in shame and stigma. I met with people anonymously, and I listened for free. No time limits—no magic advice—just pausing my own thoughts in order to immerse myself entirely in the lives of others.
That is what I do: I am a listener. Before I posted that first ad, my life was quite different. I was working as a lawyer and lobbyist in downtown DC. I found so much meaning in the stories I heard that I decided to quit my lobbying job to listen, full time. I've spoken to hundreds of people from all over the world who have shared with me some amazing stories of love, loss, regret—stories that complexly capture what it means to be human.
I love what I do. Because of the stories I have heard, I will never be the same. Listening is the undercurrent for most of my adult experiences, and it has informed everything about who I am and changed the trajectory of my life dramatically. I was convinced that it was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of transformation.
And then, almost two years ago now, I became a mother. It was the most heart-expanding thing that had ever happened to me, and the most traumatic. I found myself turning inward and looking into the lives of others for what I desperately needed—strength. And I found it in one of my subjects.
I had first spoken to her when I was about six months pregnant with my son. She'd shared a deeply moving story about her own experience with motherhood—her daughter was born with a relatively rare heart defect that landed her in the hospital for most of her childhood. Due to her efforts and determination, she'd gotten a series of life-saving surgeries that have enabled her to lead a happy and healthy life. Maybe because I was pregnant at the time, her story took a seat in my heart. I thought of her often.
I had my son in August 2018. He was born jaundiced—a tough case that doctors couldn't really understand. He needed light therapy, and he responded to it. But then, days after, his bilirubin numbers continued to climb and doctors started exploring more sinister diagnoses.
When he was only 10 days old, we rushed him back to the pediatric ER on his pediatrician's orders. His bili was high and still climbing—we needed to figure out the reason. A couple of doctors looked at his numbers—not at my son, just at his chart—and the order came down: phenobarbital, an anti-seizure medication that had been used back in the 1960s, with some questionable success, to lower bilirubin in infants.
The doctor who'd ordered it wouldn't even come down to see us. My husband, who works in the same hospital (different specialty), dug his heels in—"If I'm putting my newborn on a barbiturate, I need her to look me in the eye and explain why."
We waited for about an hour and the doctor finally came to see us. My husband pressed her for answers: Have there been more recent studies? This gets the bilirubin down, but does it tell us why it's high in the first place? We're just treating the number — do you have any idea what might be causing it? Were the infants treated with phenobarbital followed — do we know if there were any long-term effects to having been exposed to the drug?
She had no answers. She just … shrugged. She actually shrugged and told us it was just her recommendation. We didn't need to follow it.
And we didn't. We took our son home and put him by the window in indirect sunlight. And his numbers came down. He is a healthy baby boy with a slightly immature liver that needed a little extra time.
He was all right.
But I wasn't.
The damage to my mental health was unbelievable. For months, I battled depression and anxiety. I had crushing PTSD. When my son was 4 or 5 months old, my mother came to visit us in New York. We were taking the elevator downstairs to go for a walk and as I pushed the stroller inside, the unmistakable smell of Chanel Mademoiselle greeted us. I started sobbing. This was the perfume the nurse had been wearing on our second visit to the ER, and just smelling it again brought me back to that day; it was enough to completely decimate me emotionally.
The triggers were everywhere—I couldn't walk down the street where his pediatrician was located without breaking into a cold sweat. Any situation even slightly beyond my control was completely defeating—taking a cab crosstown, a gigantic ask. I'd spend the days leading up to a pediatrician's visit just working up the nerve to be there. And my brain was untrustworthy: it tricked me into believing that my son—my healthy son—was unwell.
I couldn't accept my blessings. The dissonance was unbelievably powerful: my heart knew my child was well; my brain was on a tireless crusade to prove it otherwise. I was in a deep well, unable to see sunlight, unable to accept help in the form of reason.
Doing my work as a listener was out of the question—I was in such a delicate mental and emotional state that everything was a trigger, a reason to waste a whole day or longer going down the rabbit hole of anxious thought.
During dark hours, I returned to her story. At what age was it that her daughter was diagnosed? I counted the months until my son passed that milestone. I asked the pediatrician to listen to his heart extra carefully. I had my husband do it, too.
An unwell child is every parent's worst nightmare. The fact that it could have been a possibility for my son tortured me—should we have given him the drug? Did the high bilirubin cause brain damage? Did I fail him? I felt so responsible for guarding the watchtower, for making sure that he was okay. And, struggling to restore reason and order, my brain refused to accept the randomness of our connection—there must be a reason that I spoke to her while pregnant with my son, a reason why her story stuck with me—why I thought of her constantly. What was she trying to tell me?
And then, out of the blue: an email from her.
I've thought about you so many times in recent months. I don't mean to be intrusive, but I would love to know how everything is going with you.
I answered tentatively and we set up a time to talk on the phone. In the hours leading up to the call, I wondered if this would be yet another trigger—coming face to face with a mother who actually lived through her own worst nightmare. How would I process this? Would I cling to any details she offered about her daughter's illness and personalize them for my son, as I'd done before? Would I let my anxiety hijack the power in her story?
I spent most of our first phone call telling her that I was okay—no, really. She told me about the little creek behind her home in Montana, and I imagined myself out there, sipping coffee next to her in the peaceful quiet. Over the months, our calls became more regular. I felt at ease with her, effortlessly comfortable. She seemed to know something I didn't. She asked questions and made observations that were two steps ahead of me, of what I could process at the moment. Eventually, I fessed up.
I am not okay.
What a relief it was, to have said it out loud. I'd been thinking about it for a long while but I kept hearing that it would pass. That I needed to just look on the bright side. I don't understand why you do this to yourself, my own mother once told me.
In a way, telling her what I had been going through —just saying it, out loud— snapped everything into perspective. I'd been feeling so sorry for myself because nobody was helping me. I was expecting my husband to jump into action and set up an appointment with a therapist. I was expecting my mom to swoop in and take over. I was expecting my OBGYN to call and check in on me. I was expecting my kid's pediatrician to refer me to someone when I failed my postpartum test. But none of that happened. And I realized I needed to swoop in for myself.
I got help for my postpartum anxiety—I went on Psychology Today and just cold-called and interviewed therapists who specialized in anxiety disorders—and my hormones stabilized, over a (surprisingly) long time. Some days, I felt like I was still stuck in that cold, dark well. But with increasing frequency, I had days during which I managed to climb halfway up, just high enough to feel the sun hitting my shoulders. I was making progress. Eventually, the fear that I would never be whole again began to feel less suffocating.
In her, I found someone whom I trusted, who knew, from her own experience, exactly how to listen. It will get better, she wrote once in an email. Just that: It will get better. Like she knew that it was exactly what I needed. My very own kindred spirit.
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