My first miscarriage happened in February. Jake and I had decided to start trying in January, and to my absolute surprise and delight, it appeared to work immediately. I went to the boat for my shift, and when I got off work I stayed at home with my mom for a few days but then headed out to the airport to fly home to Seattle on the usual Wednesday morning.
I lost it in the airport, right before I boarded my plane. I went to the bathroom and there it was: bright red blood, a lot of it. I knew it wasn’t my period, because my period was a week late and it is never late. I spent the flight feeling sad and anxious, and I hadn’t even told Jake yet (I’d been saving it for a surprise, but here we were) so I had to drop that bomb on him when he picked me up from the train. He had no idea any of this had been happening and did not really know what he could do to comfort me. I went home and rested, cried, and called my doctor’s office the next morning to talk to a nurse about it.
We got married three days later, in the snowy Cascade foothills. What should have been a wonderful day (though don’t get me wrong, it was wonderful) was colored with a shade of sadness I had never known before. I was still optimistic; I read that up to forty percent of all pregnancies end in miscarriage (this blew my mind, and I still don’t understand how any pregnancy has ever worked in the history of humankind) so I figured this was just my body’s first go and it would go better next time.
What I didn’t know was that your hormones get so crazy around pregnancy – and pregnancy loss – that you run the risk of developing what is basically postpartum depression. In March, I sank into a depression like none I had ever experienced before in my life. I came home from work, got up every morning for a week and sat in a chair staring out the window for hours, unable to get up and uninterested in anything I had cared about before. I had also gained a full ten pounds since, or because of, the short-lived pregnancy, and I did not feel healthy or well. I had been drinking too much and eating too much junk food in an attempt to numb and comfort myself. One day when Jake left the house to run an errand, I started having thoughts of self-harm that were disturbingly detailed and specific in nature. “There’s a shotgun in the closet… could I do it before Jake got back? Where would be the best place to do it? Probably the shower… where are the shells? Would I even be able to figure out how to use the gun?” and so on. I felt panicked, and very afraid. I had to get up, walk around, shake it off. I want to live! I don’t want to think these things!
I didn’t tell Jake about these thoughts when he came home; I was too scared and didn’t want to freak him out. But it weighed on me for the next week and when I was back on the boat, I realized I needed help, and I needed it right now. I emailed and then spoke on the phone with my therapist and my psychologist (who was in the process of diagnosing me with ADHD) to talk about the suicidal thoughts I’d had the week before. And I told Jake. I got set up with a primary care physician and made an appointment for my first day back at home in April. When I went in, I explained what was going on, cried a lot when she shared her sympathies, and went home with a prescription for Lexapro. I had never tried an SSRI before, and its effect was swift. Within a week, I was able to get out of bed and work out or go running, and I returned to enjoying the hobbies and crafts I love so much.
Life went on, and in May I unexpectedly conceived again. I was stunned to see two pink lines on a pregnancy test in early June! I was elated – this one would work, I promised myself. It was going to be ok. A few days later my numbers were confirmed with a blood test. I told closest friends and family, all the while joking that of course I could lose it so keep fingers crossed. I went back to work and did my best to deal with the fact that I was hungry all the time and I had to pee every thirty minutes.
But a few days into the hitch, I started bleeding. It was very light at first, and I was nervous but not too concerned. Spotting can be completely normal during pregnancy, especially early on. But it continued and didn’t stop; in fact it got worse. But it was still slow, and I kept asking my doctors and they kept saying it could be nothing at all. All the while, I needed to make sure I was focused and safe at work. Driving the boat was a welcome distraction and an excellent outlet into which to invest my efforts. Ultimately, I needed to know what was going on, so my local doctor sent me in for a blood test to check my hCG (pregnancy hormone) levels. I found out on July first: my hCG was half of what it had been two weeks prior. It was gone. But shortly after I read that report, I started having pelvic pain on one side, and became very concerned about a possible ectopic pregnancy. I still hadn’t had an ultrasound to confirm that everything was where it should be. We had no jobs for the rest of the day, so I swiftly made the decision to head down the highway to Walnut Creek and check myself into the John Muir emergency room.
I hate emergency rooms. My only other experience in one was at Providence in Anchorage, Alaska, when I went in with what turned out to be an acute appendicitis. It was the day after I crewed off from my four-week hitch in Valdez, quite a stroke of luck that it didn’t hit while I was on the boat. Bless their hearts, the people of the Providence ER were very good to me but they took forever to diagnose the problem, and I spent about seven hours sitting around hooked up to all manner of no-nonsense pain medications before they finally did a CAT scan and then rushed me into surgery. So as I knew to expect, I spent quite a lot of time sitting in a hospital bed in a little cotton gown (later they piled me with blankets when I asked, as I was getting quite cold) and crying quietly into my hanky, waiting for people to come and go and poke and prod at my belly. I had not lost hope until that morning, and now all that hope was feeling like a foolish waste of time and energy. After a few hours, they got me in for an ultrasound, and thankfully we could see it was not tubal, but they did confirm an incomplete miscarriage in the uterus. And that was it. Sadly, the nurse practitioner was a bit cold about the whole thing, but the other nurse was so sweet, handing me tissues and cooing as she patted my shoulder while I proceeded to fall apart. Eventually, I got dressed, gathered my things, and walked out into the sunshine to the parking garage. It took a monumental effort to keep myself together until I got to my car.
Once there, I climbed into my car – my own safe, quiet space – shut the door, and screamed. I scream-cried until I was hoarse, my forehead resting on the steering wheel, tears streaming down my face and neck until I was wrung out. The emotional pain of the loss was hard to fathom and still is, though I can’t remember it quite as clearly now. My heart felt like a raw, gaping wound in my chest.
I went back to the boat in Benicia and walked into the galley where my captain was sitting and eating his dinner. I sat down and told him directly, “I just had a miscarriage”. I felt comfortable telling him this, even though the topic might seem a bit extreme for casual conversation, because I’ve actually known him since I was a child, through the Russian community and through growing up in the world of San Francisco Bay Maritime. So I told him, I would have told the captain no matter who it was, because I had been away for a few hours and I didn’t want him to think I was just off having a lark. Of course, the emergency room had been anything but. He was immediately sympathetic and concerned, and said he was so sorry, which was a bit of comfort. He asked if I would like to go home, and I declined; because what would I do at home? Sit around feeling depressed and not make any money. I had already used up all my sick days last winter with a back injury. And work was actually keeping me focused on something other than my sadness. So I stayed for four more days and finished out my shift.
Luckily, I was already on my antidepressants from the first go-round, and they helped me get through the rest of that hitch. I went back to running, and one morning in Benicia as I was jogging through town – such a cute town it is, too – I slipped through a fence on a dead end street and ran through the grass along the edge of a baseball diamond to the next block. I saw a flash of blue, and then another, out of the corner of my eye. Not the usual scrub jays I always see in Northern California. These were bluebirds! They’re supposedly all over the United States but I almost never see bluebirds. They were the brightest cerulean blue I have ever seen and the sight of them made me laugh out loud. I counted one, two, three of them as they dipped from the telephone poles down into the dewy grass, snatching up bugs for breakfast. I knew this respite would not last, but I enjoyed the feeling of lightness the sight of their beautiful blue wings gave me, and held on to it as long as I could.
It wasn’t over though, unfortunately, as I would soon find out. When I went home to Seattle, I went in for the appointment that I had scheduled for what would have been my first checkup, but now was just to see if everything had cleared out on its own. It had not. This was scary because if things don’t come out on their own, you run the risk of infection and hemorrhage. There was still an empty sac and some vascular tissue firmly attached to the wall of my uterus, and it was going to take medication or a D&C (dilation and curettage, I’m not going to describe it here so feel free to google that one) to get it out. I fully intended to go back to work the following week so we didn’t have much time. We scheduled a more detailed ultrasound for the next day to identify what exactly we would have to remove. The morning of the ultrasound, I hemorrhaged. I was excited at first because I was hoping this meant everything was flushing out on its own, but when I went for the ultrasound and found out everything was still stuck, it was no longer exciting – there had been a lot of blood… like far more than I had ever seen come out of someone at once. After the ultrasound, my doctor called, and we settled on a D&C two days later. She offered medication to clear things out, but there was no guarantee the medication would fully work and I figured with my luck, it wouldn’t and I would hemorrhage on a plane somewhere over Oregon.
It was now over two weeks since I had gone to the ER in California, and I was ready for it to be over. I knew that a D&C with no anesthesia (there was no way to get me into full surgery on such short notice, so the doctor was doing it right there in the office) would be painful, but I had no idea what I was in for. The closest think I can think of to describe it is, it feels maybe like someone ripping your pelvis in half and yanking it from your body. I imagine it might very well be similar to unmedicated childbirth, or maybe even worse. I don’t know if it wasn’t supposed to be that painful, or if I just have no pain tolerance, but the doctor did not seem to expect me to be in so much pain? I was afraid to move, worried that I would jar one of the instruments and make it worse or cause myself an injury. So I just cried and shook uncontrollably, pressing a sweater over my face to block out the harsh fluorescent lights glaring down from the ceiling, and to muffle my sobs. I really wish I had asked if Jake could come with me to that appointment – he should have been there, but of course covid restrictions dictate that no one comes in to appointments with you, with the exception of your first ultrasound (to hear the heartbeat, etc.) and happily, now partners are once again welcome in delivery rooms when it’s time for the baby to be born.
When I walked out of the hospital to where Jake waited for me outside, I felt hollow and numb. I was traumatized, and I was still reeling from the shock of the experience I’d just had. I wasn’t in much pain once it was over, just sore, but the injuries were psychological. It took me the next few days to process it, and I had flashbacks for a few weeks. A strange thing happened though: 24 hours later while I was brushing my teeth the next night, I was hit with a wave of euphoria. I felt like if I could make it through what I had just been through, I could do anything. Anything. I felt like I had ridden into battle with my doctor and her assistant as my horsewomen. I went to bed feeling happy and relieved, but also knowing that it wouldn’t last and that I would have many sad days in the months to come. Those sad days did come, and they still come. We will keep trying, but in the meantime I am surrounded by friends who are getting pregnant and having babies, and it’s a kick in the gut every time.
I don’t need to find silver linings in this ordeal, but I have found them in spite of myself. One good thing is that this has pushed me to get a much better handle on my mental health. I’ve had depressive tendencies for most of my life and never realized it. Now, I’m managing it, thanks to help from doctors and medication and a lot of love and support from my friends and family. I speak honestly about my feelings and experiences without apology or shame. I no longer tolerate things that don’t bring me joy. Whether it is things, or people, if something grates on my nerves, hurts me, stresses me out or makes me upset, it is gone gone, no questions asked. I jettison anything that doesn’t positively serve me and my goals, and it feels awesome.
This whole thing has taken me out at the knees, which is why Sea Sisters has sadly languished a bit for the past six months. I finally feel ready to get things back on track, and to ask for more help when I need it. It took hitting the mental and emotional bottom to realize that I have been carrying far too much for too long, and it is time to take better care of myself. If you have read this far, I hope I can inspire you to do the same.