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Author of MAID: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive. Follow everywhere @stepville

Grieving, but Calmed by a Different Kind of Storm

Photo courtesy of the author / Getty / Photo illustration by Longreads

Stephanie Land | Longreads | April 2020 | 12 minutes (3,059 words)

 
Almost a month into COVID isolation, I curled up on my bedroom floor under the window I’d opened to rid the room of my children’s lunch aromas — the ketchup and chicken nugget smells that relentlessly crawled up the stairs every day before noon. John Prine’s “Souvenirs” drifted out of my laptop’s speakers, drowning out the blaring screens full of TikToks and my youngest’s kindergarten Zoom meetings that were even more ridiculous to see in real time. On my own screen was the ever-faithful blank document, its cursor drumming, reminding me of my inability to produce, my failure to do my job that day. At least I showed up. Kind of.

I fingered the carpet inches from my face, watching the dog hairs vibrate as I breathed in and out. It was the hair of our newest dog, the husky. Everything in our bedroom seemed coated with a layer of it. Last fall, my husband and I drove nine hours down to Salt Lake City to adopt her on the same morning the pregnancy test came back positive. The twins would have been somewhere around 24 weeks by now. As big as eggplants. Imagine that.

***

I began 2020, the year of perfect vision, wondering if I’d ever be able to write again. The last time I’d written anything creatively was August, when I realized I wasn’t able to go to the grocery store alone anymore. It happened in that moment between turning off the car and opening the door when the panic attack occurred. This was only a few days after we’d returned from our honeymoon. I was on my way home from the therapist’s office. I’d made a frantic appointment after I woke up to a message from an acquaintance that began, “Thought you might want to know” and continued with the information that my abusive ex was in town. This was the man who’d strangled me and kept me imprisoned in his anxiety for a year after that — yeah, that one. Someone saw him in town the night before at a bar. “He was with a girl,” the messenger said. “They looked pretty cozy.”

I began 2020, the year of perfect vision, wondering if I’d ever be able to write again. The last time I’d written anything creatively was August, when I realized I wasn’t able to go to the grocery store alone anymore.

My panic attack wasn’t about that specifically, though in some way I guess it was. I’d ended the appointment with my therapist by admitting I was too embarrassed to go out in my small town because I’d gained 25 pounds in the past year. “I can’t look people in the eye,” I’d said, “because I just start telling myself what they must be thinking.” My ex’s snide attitude toward anything but his idea of a perfectly fit body was at the root of this. He had been my daily critic of what I wore, ate, and the progress I’d made, through exercise, to shrink my body to the smallest size possible. It was my ex’s words, but in other people’s imaginary voices.

For the six months before that, since people started referring to my first book as “critically acclaimed,” every time I saw myself on a television screen doing an interview with a morning show host, I saw my ex watching it just long enough to turn to the person next to him and say, with arms crossed, “Look at how fat she is.”


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For 15 minutes that August afternoon, I gasped for air with the windows still rolled up, hot tears falling on my bare thighs, before I felt safe enough to drive home. I’d offered to pick up a few things for dinner, and now I’d be forced to admit I hadn’t been able. That I’d had a panic attack in a grocery store parking lot because I couldn’t go inside alone, fearing I’d run into someone I knew, or didn’t know. A lot of people had approached me in that grocery store since my book came out. Some wanted to tell me their story, often with tears in their eyes, then ask, “Can I just give you a hug?” I felt pressured to say yes. Now I’d admitted out loud what I imagined them thinking, and that seemed to make it real.

After that, whenever I had to go somewhere in town, my husband always came with me. He was a good buffer for those situations — something to physically put between myself and the person who wanted to talk to me. Every person who made eye contact became a potential “fan” who’d ask for a hug, only now I saw it as a potential threat. An imaginary mockery of my appearance, an invasion of my private life, the one I kept close since the swarm of interviews started the year before.
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