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Letting Go

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Meredith Abend: One phone call brought on the toughest days of my life ... and then healing.

Meredith and Ben
"Your son has a translocation on his 16th chromosome, and we don't know what that means." The call came from a genetic "technician" on a Wednesday evening on our home line. My son was three days old, and we had been home from the hospital only 24 hours. I remember holding on to my baby as tight as I could -- as if the technician were trying to come through the phone and take him from me. What did that diagnosis mean? Nothing? Death? Something horrible in the middle? The minutes crept by like hours as my husband and I pored over every horrifying syndrome relating to chromosome number 16. I have a hard time remembering what I felt that night except for being completely numb. When the shock began to wear off, I began to lock every window to my heart. I needed to save my baby, and I could not risk falling apart.

Many describe receiving a traumatic diagnosis as being punched in the gut or kicked in the head. I felt my pain in my heart. It was broken. The days and nights that followed were filled with panic, dread and guilt. Why did I take Zofran for my nausea during my pregnancy? Why could I not nurse this baby who might be sick? What kind of mother was I? Guilt and fear washed over me, day in and day out.

Being a therapist who had worked in the wake of 9/11 in New York City, I knew trauma. I had seen many people in my office day after day who were unable to function. I had dispensed advice and supported victims during the acute trauma phase immediately following the attacks, and watched many continue to suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder as time went on. I was strong, empathetic and resilient. My patients relied on me to help them pick up the pieces -- not fall apart.

After my son's diagnosis, I recognized that my symptoms mirrored what I had seen in my practice. My ability to concentrate was dampened, and I was visibly shaky. I had difficulty calming myself down. I awoke every day telling myself what I "needed to do." Eat healthy foods. Try not to drink too much alcohol. Lay off the caffeine. Try to exercise. While all of this would help, I faced a long list of doctors to contact and experts to consult. I did not have time for my agony and desperately wanted to shake myself out of it. During this time, I met with a therapist, thought about consulting a higher power and tried to read books about living in the now. These attempts took too much time, however, so instead I took Lexapro, then Ativan and then nothing at all once I started to feel like a zombie.

Just as I had seen with the many trauma victims I had counseled, the more desperately I tried to bury my feelings, the more power I gave them. What kind of mother are you? Just love him, just love him, stop it and just love him. I told myself this every moment of every day, and I hated myself for feeling like I wanted to run and hide -- or to go back and start all over. I could not believe that I kept asking, "Why me?" about my amazing baby boy.

Change came not from anything I did, but from what I stopped doing. As I tried to nurse my three-week-old son, the sobs came in waves. I tried with everything I could muster to stop the feelings, but the sorrow was powerful and I could not fight it. Once I gave in, the despair struck me like a hurricane -- and then quieted into a soft, gentle rain that soaked me to the bone but was a relief nonetheless. I crawled into bed next to my son and allowed the anguish to take me over. I couldn't stop crying as I stared at my perfect, sleeping baby boy. Afterwards, for the first time in weeks, I slept.

After I awoke, I looked at my son differently than before. He was no longer someone who was breaking my heart, but someone who would strengthen and mend it. Little by little, minute by minute, my heart began to heal. I began to cry regularly and freely. While I looked weaker on the outside, each tear was a release. There was time to cry and time to feel. Each tear was a reminder to slow down and realize that my son was still alive, and I loved him.

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2 comments so far | Post a comment now
Marci  April 21, 2010, 10:18 AM

My son was born in July of 2008, 3 months premature with a congenital heart defect, neigther of which I knew about or was prepared for. I cried the way you talk about for about 2 hours on the third day of his life. He spent 4 months in the NICU. He’s now almost 2 and the light of my life. He has overcome many of the major obsticals that the doctors thought he’d face. He is still delayed & not walking yet but his strength has brought me more courage than I ever knew I had. He smiles at me when i get home from work & everything else goes away. He is my baby and the love of my life.
Your son only needs your love.

nancy April 21, 2010, 4:51 PM

Thanks for sharing your story with such honesty and vulnerablity. Every mom can relate to the fear of not knowing how sick or endanger our child may be and the feeling of powerlessness to help them. Thankfully we are not powerless to love them. And that’s the greatest medicine.

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