Unlike the Heart: A Memoir of Brain and Mind

Unlike the Heart: A Memoir of Brain and Mind

by Nicola Redhouse

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After the birth of her first child, Nicola Redhouse experiences an unrelenting anxiety that quickly overwhelms her. Her immense love for her child can't protect her from the dread that prevents her leaving the house, opening the mail, eating. Nor, it seems, can the psychoanalytic thinking she has absorbed through her family and her many years of therapy.

In an attempt to understand the source of her panic, Nicola starts to thread together what she knows about herself and her family with explorations of the human mind in philosophy, science and literature. What role do genetics play in postnatal anxiety? Do the biological changes of motherhood offer a complete explanation? Is the Freudian idea of the mind outdated? Can more recent combined theories from neuroscientists and psychoanalysts provide the answers? How might we be able to know ourselves through our genes, our biology, our family stories and our own ever-unfolding narratives?

In this compelling and insightful memoir, Nicola blends her personal experiences with the historical progression of psychoanalysis. In the end, much like in analysis, it is the careful act of narrative construction that yields the answers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780702261909
Publisher: University of Queensland Press
Publication date: 04/01/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 914 KB

About the Author

Nicola Redhouse is a writer and book editor living in Melbourne, Australia.

Read an Excerpt


Before that second time – a few years before – I was seated in a supremely comfortable but ugly feeding chair in my newborn baby's room, sobbing. Not about the chair, although the fleshy symbolism of its pleather folds did provoke some sorrow in me in my vulnerable state.

Crying seemed to be what I did now, even though I felt in love with Reuben, couldn't stop stroking his soft belly, placing my finger in his palm and watching his fingers close around it like an anemone. He was preternaturally strong, and startlingly big: nine pounds ten ounces, a figure that caused my mother, Maxine, to ask repeatedly over the next few weeks if I was sure I hadn't had gestational diabetes. (My mother habitually worried about me developing the illness she had spent her life monitoring in her own body – any time I got very thirsty as a child, she would prick my finger, take blood from me and test my glucose levels.) Reuben latched onto my breast with ease, and sucked strongly and capably, which was lucky for me because I was feeling less than capable.

I hadn't stopped crying since he was born: first, from a truly clichéd maternal joy that I had not expected from myself, and relief that my gruelling labour was finally over. Then, from physical pain – the kind of pain you would expect after delivering a baby that size and needing what felt like several hundred stitches. And finally, from this feeling in me that I couldn't explain or understand or rationalise, but that was like falling at great speed down a black hole. Being un-born.

I wondered if the crying might be a sign of shock; a normal response to my altered life, to my having birthed another human.

Perhaps it was delayed shock at my debilitating pregnancy state. In an epilogue to three months of overwhelming nausea, I had developed a condition that softened the ligaments of my pelvis and caused a sharp ache in my lower back. It destabilised me: I couldn't keep myself upright without a bone-deep gnawing at my pelvis. As the pregnancy progressed, the muscles in my legs, my hips, all trying to hold me together in spite of my loosened joints, cramped and seized. I went to a physio, who taped me back up; I performed repetitive movements on machines that would engage my core; over my clothes I wore a strangling velcroed apparatus to keep my ligaments together; under my clothes I wore a thick ribbed elastic sheath to reinforce my growing abdomen; I worked at my glutes with a spiky ball designed to loosen the overcompensating muscles; I iced; I heat-packed; I kept my legs together, as the physio had instructed me, with no trace of irony; I did not lift things. But nothing alleviated the pain.

It had been a lonely time – I was only comfortable lying on my side, so I'd had to surrender not only the things I liked doing but many of the things I was used to taking control of. Cooking, grocery shopping, seeing a friend, getting to work – I could only go places where I could park directly outside or where my husband, Gideon, could drop me, and then I would need to find a seat immediately. I tried using crutches to get about but, lacking a normal centre of gravity, gave up.

Gideon had done most of the baby-preparations that I had hoped to do: the pram-buying, picture-hanging, linen-sorting. I had become entirely dependent on him for anything physical. I'd stopped my work as a book editor a few weeks earlier than I had hoped to, unable to make it up the stairs to my office, or even to sit at my desk anymore. Instead, I lay on the couch at home with the dog, an icepack on my lower back, watching a cat in the neighbouring apartments watch me back. Soon after, on one last hurrah before parenthood, we went to Canberra where friends we had come to visit found a wheelchair I could use and took us around Parliament House. I spent the rest of the time lying on the bed in our extravagant presidential suite feeling little more than the gnawing pain and my own incapacity, and pushing away a growing fear that if the pain did not go after labour I would struggle to look after my baby.

Perhaps all mothers who gave birth to babies Reuben's size cried like this, I now wondered, marvelling at his long legs. I'd had no premonition that he would be a big baby. At my hospital check-ups, where I'd sensed a bureaucratic emphasis on measurement that seemed curiously detached from any purpose – stacks of blood-glucose test strips in the toilet for patient use that were never collected – a midwife had used a measuring tape to ascertain the rudimentary distance from the highest point of my abdomen to the lowest point. This was meant to correlate with the number of weeks' gestation I was at, but at thirty-three weeks it had been four weeks behind what it should have been. Concerned, they'd sent me for a scan. 'He'll be average, about three kilos,' another midwife told me, glooping cold gel around my hardened belly with an ultrasound stick.

But when Reuben was born, the midwives gasped – 'He's nine pounds ten!' one exclaimed, and when I looked at her blankly she translated: '4.35 kilos!' In the year that followed, I would get used to women pulling their lips back into a grimace, hissing out breath or puffing their cheeks when I told them how much he weighed. Not one item of the clothing we had bought for his foray into the world fit: in his first photo he is bursting out of a white terry-towelling onesie, buttons popping.

Or perhaps I was in shock from my labour, which had not been bearable even for moments, as I had hoped. I had blacked out for some of it. 'You're not progressing,' a midwife told me too many times. They had tried to coax progress out of me with the drug Syntocinon, with a student midwife who I began to feel responsible for letting down, so that when she stretched my cervix clumsily and caused me searing pain I couldn't bring myself to cry openly.

And then the real pain had unleashed itself, wild and ruthless. I couldn't find a gap to breathe, and they told me the baby was posterior and my contractions were coming without breaks, and I was still not progressing. I had been lucid, then, in the way one is in a dream, aware of how odd my thoughts were, how loose. I took whatever drugs were on offer: pethidine and gas, anti-emetics. My voice was hoarse – 'I'm being run over by a train!' I screamed at one point, and begged for an epidural. Finally it came, and I had five hours of numbed rest. I drifted in and out of sleep, opening my eyes now and again to a window overlooking a courtyard in the hospital, where a lone poplar tree stood in the half-light of dawn. I found it alien, as though I had never seen a tree.

At 5.50 am a midwife woke me and said it was time to push. I couldn't feel the lower half of my body, so I concentrated on a theoretical idea of pushing instead. They pulled Reuben out with forceps and laid him on my chest. He was extraordinary: solid, alert, with eyes downturned like my mother's, skin slightly jaundiced to make him look olive. He looks like a Himalayan Sherpa, I thought to myself, although I later realised I was, in my dream-state, thinking of a beautiful Inuit baby I had once seen in a magazine. Gideon took him to dress him in the too-small onesie, and the medical team descended on my disembodied lower half to put me back together. I was hazy and exhausted, emptied of both the baby and myself. I cried as I stood in the shower of the delivery room and tried to remain upright on my wobbly legs, which were slowly regaining feeling. I cried as I washed away blood – a lot of blood – that had come from me, and that, despite the prenatal classes and all the books, I did not know would come with such ferocity. I cried as I tried to eat a smoked salmon bagel – my request – that my in-laws had brought me, and as a nurse wheeled me to my room, and as I tried to get into my bed, and as I realised I couldn't lift Reuben with the pain I was feeling. I cried when I looked at my perfect baby and when I didn't look at him. And then, when Gideon was sent home for the night, I cried the hardest, so that the woman in the bed next to me was forced to stop her chatter with her visitor – it was her fourth baby, I'd overheard – and ask me if I was all right. 'It's her first,' I heard her tell the visitor, which made me think it might be normal that I was crying so much.

Gideon: dependable, calm, an un-maimed bystander, slightly shocked by his new role as father but whole, bodily intact and able to recognise poplar trees. He had been sent home on account of there not being a bed for him in my tiny shared room, and the implications of that practical fact came crashing down upon me: he was not essential to this new dyad of life. The baby required only me.

The crying hadn't stopped that night either. I couldn't sleep at all in the hospital; even in the snatches of time when Reuben was quiet, I lay crying. I didn't get out of the bed unless it was to go to the toilet, where I was confronted with the way my body now no longer seemed to abide my needs: urine that came when I did not expect it to, and that did not come when I wanted it to. There, in the tiny cubicle I shared with the mother of four, I cried more, feeling my body was irrevocably wounded. Once, I laughed, but it was a laugh of self-reproach: when I saw the toiletry bag I had packed for my hospital stay and remembered I had packed make-up and a hairdryer, as though I had thought I might still be in my same skin, and capable of applying eye shadow in this new life – or caring to. In the mirror I saw not myself but a gaunt replacement, a kind of avatar, strangely younger, paler and with a body I couldn't recognise – a new flat stomach and breasts now swelled so huge they were comical.

My mother had visited that first day, bringing paper bags full of muffins and rye-bread sandwiches and magazines. 'Who delivered him? Which doctor?' she asked, always interested in that kind of detail. But I had no recollection of who had been there or who had handed him to me, only of the feeling of his warm heaviness on me, and I cried. She had come from Sydney and had been staying at a motel near our house as my labour approached, but now returned back to our house with Gideon, who was in his own kind of new-father shock.

In the middle of that first night, in that lonely hospital place in which it is too bright to sleep but too dim to see properly, I'd stared at the light of my phone, my umbilical cord to life before this. Midwives came and went, shifts clocking over, and when the sun rose I phoned Gideon and cried. 'Baby, you'll be fine,' he whispered to me. I held Reuben and cried.

In between the crying, I'd felt an overwhelming affinity with other mothers; a disbelief that I had not realised they had all survived this. I'd wanted to message even my enemies who were mothers, to say: 'I forgive you. Tell me how to survive.' I'd marvelled that I was crying and I had made it this far with smoked salmon bagels and a hospital and a mobile phone and a husband and an epidural, and that so many women did it without any of those middle-class accoutrements.

In all those days at the hospital I hadn't been able to lift Reuben up; when I tried to it felt as though a knife was slicing me in half; I thought of harakiri, wondered if I had been disembowelled. I'd had to ring a bell for a nurse every time he cried. Sometimes it took ten minutes for the nurse to arrive, and his and my crying merged together, the two of us lying helplessly in our separate cribs.

When the midwives came, they issued a lot of instructions, but I couldn't take any of them in. It was as though someone had short-wired my brain. The feeding and latching and changing and burping came surprisingly instinctively, but I was also told how to care for myself: how to sit, how to strengthen my pelvic floor, icepacks for blood-vessel engorgement when your milk comes in, warm washers to reduce swelling when your supply is too much, what medications to take and when, how to lodge a birth certificate, what the scores on the baby's hearing test meant, which genetic diseases they were checking for with the Guthrie heel-prick test.

Registrars and orderlies and doctors and obstetricians and nurses had come by to check how I was healing. They'd pulled the curtain aside, exposing me to whoever was walking past as I tried to coax Reuben onto my breast, my shirtfront wide open. I didn't care. I didn't care about anything anymore but keeping the baby happy, because when he cried it felt like I was being squeezed by the throat. A woman had come to offer to take professional photos of us and, used to having my stitches checked every few minutes, I'd lifted the blanket up to show her, too. We laughed at my awkward mistake, but quickly my laughter had turned to crying, so she left. I'd let Gideon bath and change Reuben, because I was still in too much pain to lift him. I'd also given Gideon the hospital menu to fill out, because I couldn't understand it. I couldn't understand wanting food.

On the third day, they'd sent us home. I walked into the hospital corridor just outside my room, still wearing pyjamas – getting dressed seemed a preposterous show developed by people who didn't know about pain – and felt as if I had landed on a new planet. The gravity of Earth felt different: my body felt both lighter and heavier, with the baby outside of me now but requiring my movement to attend to him. The gnawing in my pelvis had gone, replaced by the pain of stitches.

And then I was home. I had my beautiful, thriving boy and my husband alongside me; family members were bringing pots of soup and tidying the house. None of my parents lived in Melbourne yet, but my mother, father and his partner had all flown in from around Australia in the days before Reuben was born to meet their first grandchild. By the time we'd arrived home from the hospital, though, tensions between them had reached a crescendo and my mother had flown back to Sydney after a blazing row with my father. No one could quite explain to me what had happened, but Maxine was not there when I walked in the door, and I needed her with an intensity I hadn't felt for years. The warm, communal space of my own house felt steely cold to me. I was mobilised to flee a great terror I couldn't name. If I drifted into a half-sleep on the couch, when I woke it was with a dread I could not attach to any specific thing. Why was I so scared?

My crying should have stopped, I was sure. I should have been able to eat, I felt certain. But it hadn't. And I couldn't. I had already lost all my baby weight. I was thinner than before I was pregnant. When I tried to eat my throat closed up and the crying started again.

It was the postbox that had caused me to cry the most. I'd seen it from the living room couch, beyond the front windows, out in the territory of the world that continued to exist despite my collapse, and it had terrified me. Letters and gifts were arriving for Reuben, and I cried and cried and cried, and told Gideon that I would never be able to attend to the post again. I begged him to promise me that he would always manage our correspondences.

Outwardly, I seemed to be doing okay. It turned out I was good at feeding my baby; I was good at holding him. I was good at loving him. And because I was afraid of what all my crying meant, I laughed in between it all. I posted pictures on Facebook. People wanted to visit and, although I had begun to feel panic set in about having only slept a handful of broken hours in a week, I let Gideon co-ordinate their visits, and I moved my mouth and sound came out, and I wore clothes and I seemed like a composite person. People came, bearing gifts, and I tried to behave normally, though I was still in agony, unable to move without wincing, carrying a cushion around with me to place on whichever seat I had to sit on. I opened the gifts aware that I was not feeling the requisite pleasure in them: knitted hats and embossed trinket holders seemed incongruous with the endless human mess of our experience, the spurted milk and poo. The careful effort I had put, during pregnancy, into hand-making pompoms to hang from a mobile in Reuben's room now seemed ludicrous, as though I had been in a state of delusion. All the baby home-deco magazines and blogs now seemed like nothing more than a giant ruse, an attempt to stave off the corporeal truth of this whole endeavour.


Excerpted from "Unlike the Heart"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Nicola Redhouse.
Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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