All posts by A-Jae Woodberry

About A-Jae Woodberry

Angelina (A-Jae) Woodberry is a Bay area born storyteller that draws upon the experience of life to colour her fiction. The award-winning author has published short stories, poems, academic and personal reflective essays in several literary journals over the past two decades. A children’s play she wrote was performed by a local theater company. She has also served as editor on various educational texts. A-Jae lives in Sacramento with her husband and two teenage children.

Heavy on my Heart

Recently I have had the opportunity to spend time with several teenagers from various backgrounds that all have one thing in common. They are all living with, dealing with, and suffering through some form of mental illness. Regardless if they were labeled Bipolar, Depressed, Schizophrenic, or some other DSM designation, they remain children.  I think this point is often swept under the rug like so many dust bunnies. 

Treating young people like adults when it comes to mental health treatment does a disservice to everyone in treatment and the profession as a whole. 

Long ago, in a California, far far away, middle and high schools had licensed therapists on their payroll. In this land of school buses, quality lunches, and plentiful homework, children struggling with the pressures of being forced to conform to whatever definition of popularity was popular at the time, were able to reach out to a trusted professional during school hours to teach them coping skills. Today’s children have so much more to deal with and none of the support children had a few decades ago. 

In the eighth grade I was struggling with how to be who I was inside and conform to who the world wanted me to be on the outside. A teacher could tell I was struggling and cared enough to refer me to the school therapist. I remember the day I met with him…

Spring dew covered the bare limbs on the growing saplings that flanked the path from the quad to the main office. The small brick building lined the front of the middle school. I opened the door to find only one child sitting in the row of hard back chairs that lined the wall in front of the vice principal’s office. The receptionist looked up briefly from her keyboard and asked for my hall pass. I handed her the pink slip of paper and waited. She glanced at it, handed it back to me, called for Mr. Ryse, and told me to sit down. I nodded in agreement, and sat in the chair that was farthest away from that other kid. 

As I waited, I examined how the swirls on the lime green carpet wove their way under desks and down the small hallway. Soon, brown hard soled leather topped shoes smashed the swirls while walking toward me. Mispronouncing my first name, he called for me and when I acknowledge him, I was asked to follow him. He spun on his heel and led me down the short, narrow hallway to the third door on the left. The door was open and I followed him inside. A window the size of a few sheets of binder paper, faced the door.  There was a chair next to the window that he motioned for me to sit in. I removed my backpack, set it on the ground by the feet of the armless chair and sat down. He sat in a brown leather chair in front of his desk and by the door. A pen was in his right hand and a long yellow notepad in the other.

“Are you comfortable?”He seemed genuinely concerned with this detail. When I didn’t reply, he asked it again and shifted in his seat.

“I guess so,” I managed to eek out. I wanted to say I was everything but comfortable. I wanted to say that I was nervous and confused. Members of my family had mental issues. They had been labeled “crazy” and I wanted none of those labels to fall on me. 

“Good. Let’s begin with a few standard questions.”

I nodded in agreement and the flood gates of things needing answers came spilling out of his mouth.

“How old are you?” 

“13” I thought he really should know this already.

“What grade are you in?

“8th” 

“Ok, now tell me about your class schedule.”

“You should have it there somewhere. I’m in five honors classes, student government, and have a zero period enrichment class.” 

“I see. Are there any extracurriculars?”

“I am on the academic quiz team and a student peer leader.”

“I see, and what are your thoughts on school? He asked as he jotted down notes on his yellow pad.

“School is fine. There are a lot of things to deal with, but it’s fine.” I saw no point in lying to the man. School was okay. It had to get done and there was no alternative. 

“What are your plans for when you grow up?”

“I wanted to become President of America, but was told that black girls can’t do that.”

“And how did that make you feel?”

“It is what it is. If I can’t be president, I want to become a judge for the supreme court. I know that no one black has done that yet, but I will be the first.”

He continued to write his notes down and ask me a few more questions. After each question, his notes seemed to take longer to write down. One question really stood out to me and comes to my remembrance often. He asked me if I feel like I’m smarter than other people. My response was yes. I knew this to be true because I was getting A’s in honors classes and had a desk full of medals at home that proved I was at least smarter that most of the 7th and 8th graders in the County.

The doctor then asked me if I thought I was important like Jesus? I said that I was important but I didn’t know how important. And being a smart ass, I asked him how did he know that I wasn’t Jesus? My level of sarcasm clearly sailed clean over his bald head. About an hour into this line of questioning, he placed the notepad on the desk and asked me if I had ever heard of bipolar manic depressive disorder. I said that I had and that my mother had it. He said that made sense because it’s transmitted in families. He said he would write a report to my parents for me to get started on medications.

I remember leaving with a sealed envelope to take home and give to my mother. I wasn’t really sure what had happened as I made my way to my next class. The class was PE so I doubt I made much effort to get their quickly. Nerds hate PE. 

I went home that day and gave the letter to my mother, who quickly read it and said there was nothing wrong with me as she balled it up and tossed it in the trash. That ended my middle school mental health services. 

I spent the next four years dealing with depression and thoughts of ending my life with no one to talk to or support me through those times. At the age of fifteen, after being sexually assaulted, I tried to take me life. It would be four years before I ever told anyone that. Ironically, it was a therapist that my college mentor suggested I see when I was struggling with my course load. At the age of 19, I found a sounding board of all of the dark and terrifying thoughts I had over the years. This therapist worked for the college and saw me regularly during my time there. She referred me to a psychiatrist and my two years of taking the mood stabilizer lithium began. It helped to stop the mood swings but did little else for the general sadness.

I’m not saying that medications don’t help. They help some people a great deal. They just didn’t really help me. It was the years of talk therapy, support groups, and boundary establishment that helped me the most. 

Today, I feel that we are way too quick to not really listen to our young people. We are quick to throw drugs at their problems instead of taking the time to really be present in their lives. 

I try to make time and listen to any young person who wants to talk to me. I try to listen without prejudice or judgement. I strive to be a safe place for them to share what they are going through. I am the mother of two teenage children. They have tons of friends who confide in me. They know I’m going to “keep it real”.  They tell me all sorts of things they feel they can’t tell their parents. If it’s a big life altering thing, I comfort and encourage them to tell their parents. I have even mediated some of those discussions. Most of the time, they just need a sounding board. I am happy to fill that role and wish someone had done that for adolescent me.

It Gets Better

As you wait for the second pink line to form on the one test that will actually change your life, you begin to dream and wonder all the what ifs.  What if it’s positive? What if it isn’t? What if it’s a boy? What if it’s a girl? What if it’s twins? The three minutes pass slowly at a quick pace. Congratulations! The second line is bright pink! You are pregnant!  Yay!?!

Now what. You spend the next seven to nine months watching in awe as your body transforms to accommodate the growing life inside. You shop for clothes, diapers, strollers, and cribs. You have showers and parties with family and friends wishing you well. You read books on what to expect while expecting and how to cope with the first few years. You think, no problem, I’m ready, I got this. And you do, for a while. 

You change diapers. You chase them when the walking starts. You cry at the first day of school. Years pass by and your little one grows and blossoms into a skillful, charismatic, navigator of the world. There are times when the two of you are inseparable and as you watch a movie on the couch with this wonderful little person that you made, you think that life can’t possibly get any better.  In a few years, you learn that you were right, life was as good as it could possibly get. 

Suddenly the unlucky number 13 descends on your household like a tornado on a sunny clear day and you are tossed into the disaster of being a parent of a teenage monster. Gone are the days of loving adoration for the tasty meals you make them or the selfless way you put their needs above yours. Never no more will you see the joy on their faces when you pick them up from school or have those deep car conversations on the way home. Their hellos will be replaced with a series of grunts and sighs. Getting details about their day will require pliers and a well placed stack of C-4.

 No one tells you of these days when they suggest that having children is the greatest adventure you’ll ever have. When young parents think about the joys of parenthood, they think of the first steps, first words, and the first day of school.  No one ever thinks about the first time they slam the door on you or the first time they roll their eyes and suck their teeth at you. You can be the best parent the universe has ever seen and still have teens fighting you as they try to figure out their place in the world. This doesn’t mean that you have done anything wrong. Chances are, you’ve done everything right. You’ve given them the comfort and confidence to test their boundaries and discover who they are. Think of the teen years are part two of the exploration of the toddler years. They mean no harm or disrespect. They just have to figure out where and how they fit in. It’s annoying. But, as I have been blessed to observe first hand with my older nephews, this stage passes and on the other side, a butterfly emerges from that sticky cocoon of adolescence. Once the late teens and early twenties take hold, the rebellion eases and they start to value your existence once again. So, hold on, it  gets better.

It’s A Girl!?!

Surgical lights flooded the room casting shadows of two doctors, two nurses, and my husband.  Flat on my back looking up toward the heavens, my heart prayed for her to be alright. The doctor relayed a play by play like a baseball game announcer on an am radio station.  Medical personnel scattered to and fro following her orders. My husband held my left hand and squeezed it twice. He was smiling and nodding while his other hand caressed my face.  A sharp metal on metal sound jerked my head away from facing him. A nurse had dropped something on a tray and hurried to roll some machine across the room.

“She’s out.” The doctor’s drone like emotionless voice said.  My husband echoed her statement. With my breath held hostage in my lungs, I waited.  At some point my mind started counting. One…two… twelve…thirty-four…fifty-eight,,,a loud cry from the corner and tears streamed down filling my ear.  Before I knew it, the nurse brought a tiny yellow blanket bundle to me with a face the size of a small apple and coffee brown eyes refusing to blink looking at me.  I smiled and said hi to the little one who had spent the last two months tap dancing on my bladder.

I knew from my second ultrasound that I was going to give birth to a girl.  What that meant for me as a mother was never clear until I saw her small, fragile tiny face.  She was born six weeks early and would no doubt have struggles as a result.

Growing up as a female in America is an obstacle course full of physical and emotional pitfalls.  Girls are expected to dress, speak, and act a certain way. Girls get blamed for just about everything that happens to them.  If a boy teases her, it’s her fault because the boy is just expressing that he likes her. If another girl teases, her, it’s her fault because the other girl is jealous of something about her.  As she grows, she is told that if she dresses a certain way and gets attention, or eve assaulted, it’s because she wanted it. This poor girl is responsible for how she behaves and how everyone else around her behaves.  Basically, being a girl is hard. How would I be able to guard, guide, and equip this little baby girl for the hostile world she is going to encounter?

To Get An Answer

When we last left our heroine, she was waiting. Waiting, waiting, waiting.

Like the breaking of the dawn, the little pink line slowly worked its way across the window.  The first line, indicating that the test was working was a bright flamingo pink. This second line resembled blush on barbie doll, faint, but just enough to recognize its existence.  Butterflies cautiously began to flutter in my stomach. At least I thought it was butterflies. For the first time in two years, I began to think it might be a little adorable clump of cells.  I was excited, but cautious the way a child is on Christmas morning, hoping that Santa brought her wishes but not getting too excited just incase the gift giver forgot something. The second test was as clear as mud in the dark.  The control line came in strong, but the results line only came in halfway. Final verdict…I was pregnant? Yay?

I was more confused than ever at that point.  I returned to the bedroom to a gently snoring sleeping man and slipped back into the bed.  He stirred and slipped his arm around me. He asked it everything was alright. I said no. He mumbled a sleepy reply. I laid there trying to get comfortable. Trying to make sense of it all.  At some point, I dozed off. I was awaken by a rather loud, “what!” Instinctively reaching out or him, I found his side of the bed empty. His six foot frame came stumbling like a newly turned zombie with a test in each hand.  I sat up and looked at him while shrugging my shoulders. We discussed if the tests where accurate and began to research ways to find out for sure. Calling a my healthcare provider, who promises to help their patients “thrive”, yielded the expected outcome of come and take a urine test in the lab.  Our excitement grew. The lab would be open in thirty minutes and then we would so know for sure. I began to drink several glasses of orange juice and water to build up enough ammunition in my bladder. It wasn’t until I had registered and been given the urine sample cup that I was told that given my urine would not be adequate because of a few false positives in my chart. The technician recommended that I do a blood test as well.  I agreed and was told that the results would be available within 48 hours. 2 days! I was on the verge of tears when a fellow patient in the lab, who had clearly been listening to the whole ordeal, suggested I go to a community clinic that could do a urine test with same day results. There was hope.

After breakfast and more liquids, we headed downtown to a local women’s clinic.  They asked me questions about my last cycle dates and collected my sample. It was the practice of the clinic to take the woman back for the exam and test by herself.  My partner had to wait in the lobby. Since then I asked him what that was like for him. He said all he could do was call his mom to keep his mind occupied because he was nervous. Sometimes I think I forget how hard all this had been on him.  In what, he assures me, was only 20 minutes (It felt like a million minutes), this small clinic had been able to tell me what two tests and a major medical conglomerate could not. It was about 11:00 am on a Monday. I came out of the clinic to find him in the courtyard on the phone.  I walked up to him with a folded sheet of paper and a poker face blank stare that would make the best card shark question his hand. He turned towards me and tried to read the look on my face. Trying hard not to give anything away, I asked him what he was doing in September. He asked why and I told him he was going to be a daddy.  What felt like the end of a journey, was only the beginning.

Three Long Ass Minutes

When I started this blog, I set a goal for myself to post every Thursday and Sunday.  The best of intentions get sidetracked by the rest of life. That’s what happened when I was told that I could not conceive a child through good old fashioned methods.  I made other plans. I continued working and was set to begin a graduate program at the local state university. Here’s what happened…

October 2001

As I mentioned in a previous post, my cousin gave birth to a baby and I was devastated.  It seemed like everyone could have a child but me. Joy in everyday things was nonexistent.  I went through the motions. Work, school, sleep. Work, school sleep. More of the same. For months life continued this way.

November 2001

Nothing monumental.  Life as usual. Oddly enough, I continued to hit my menstrual cycle like clockwork the last week of the month.

December 2001

Christmas!  Guaranteed to lift my spirits.  At least it always had in the past.  Red, green, yellow, blue, and white twinkling lights dancing to the smell of pine and warm fires.  All was well, until the last week of the month. Monday came, but spotting did not. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday more of the same.  I didn’t think too much about it. I figured that my uterus was up to its old tricks of withholding. Around new years eve, I was feeling under the weather and we stayed home.  I was spending quite a bit of time emptying my bladder and complaining about breast soreness. I was aware that these are often symptoms of being with child, but the specialists told me that wasn’t possible without intervention.  I thought there was no way that I could be pregnant.

January 2002

Around the middle of the month, I began to get curious.  Was it possible? Could the doctors be wrong? I went to the local dollar store with the hopes of finding a cheap test, just to check.  The dollar store did not disappoint. They carried two different types of pregnancy tests and one ovulation test. I purchased the two pregnancy tests and a peanut butter cup covered in chocolate.  Nothing left to do but wait till the morning, when the tests claimed that I would get the most accurate result. Spinning in my head all night, I was sure the sun would never rise. I didn’t want to tell my partner, because I didn’t want to get his hopes up if it was all in my head. Sleep did not come easy.  If I was not shaking like a paint can being mixed, I was tossing and turning like mixed vegetables in a woc.

Three minutes.  Pee on the stick and wait three minutes.  I don’t know if you know how long three minutes are.  I’ll explain. Three minutes is straightening up the sink and realizing that you have two minutes left.  It is cleaning the toilet only to discover that in one minute your whole world might change.

PCOS 2

When you try to not see something, that’s when you see it everywhere.  I wanted a baby, but couldn’t have one and started seeing babies everywhere.  Stork covered cards with good wishes were passed around work in plain manilla folders like vital documents.  The bank teller waddled to the safe in her “bun in the oven” tunic and leggings. Every woman on the sidewalk had a stroller, baby carrier, or the sticky hand of a toddler struggling to keep up.  The couple in front of me in the check out line bought diapers and formula while they giggled about sonogram pictures and heartbeat sounds. And then, to add the cherry to the sundae of misery, a cousin of mine had a baby four months earlier than she should have.  I was expected to visit and be supportive and crap. Yeah, I said it. Crap. The last thing I wanted was to see anyone’s child. Especially the child of someone that I thought didn’t deserve a child. Sounds harsh, I know. I would venture to say that every woman who has struggled with infertility has passed silent judgment on those around her who seem to be able to conceive with just the mere thought of sex.  We don’t like thinking about those thoughts. We are just so hurt and scared that it won’t ever happen for us.

For the next few months, I would lay awake nights with silent tears slipping down my cheeks and hiding in the creases of my neck as my husband lay there snoring peacefully.  Despite him being there every day and being supportive, I felt terribly alone and defective. Women are supposed to have babies. It’s one of the primary things that makes us women. With the frequent facial hair removal, I needed something to make me feel like a woman.  I could grow a beard but not a baby. And that just plain sucked. A gripping spiral depression had me in its clutches and was fighting to keep me there. To make matters worse, the winter chill settled in and drove the optimism of the sun far from me.

Meanwhile, I had managed to lose another job. I had started graduate school and was looking forward to classes starting in late January.  Depression does not stop us from being active, it just makes it harder to be active. Part of the PCOS madness is emotional unrest. This can range from mild mania to deep depression in a lot of women.  The future was getting brighter, or maybe I was just too busy to notice that nothing really had changed.

PCOS

I always felt that I was different somehow.  I just wasn’t really sure how. As my body morphed from prepubescent to adolescence, my doctor had no problem defining the difference.  The telltale signs of irregular menstrual cycles and stray strands of unwanted facial hair confirmed a diagnosis of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).  This was nearly 30 years ago when much was not known about the disgusting disease. The condition was blamed on my weight and I was told that if I lost 20 pounds, I would be cured.  Well, I did that and guess what? Still had fifteen day periods and a beard. So, clearly, weight wasn’t the issue. This was solidified for me when I met a young woman at the specialist’s office who was a size 2.  She was told it was in her genes and there was nothing that could be done. I felt defeated and helpless.

Girls are not supposed to have facial hair. My peers, especially the male ones, never let me forget that I was a freak.  The girls were a bit better and more understanding. Some of them struggled with similar issues or had aunts or cousins that did. It wasn’t until I was in college that I would meet friends who had hairy upper lips and bizarre cycles.  In an all-female dorm, there was a mix of everything. Unfortunately, the teasing did not stop with adolescence. It carried on throughout college and my weight increased as a result of feeding the hurt.

In my late twenties, I met a man.  A man who was aware of my condition because his family members had the same issues.  He was understanding and supportive. Our relationship grew and soon marriage was on the table. We both wanted children and with some research understood how PCOS causes fertility issues in women.  Returning to the same specialist who diagnosed me with this hideous disease, we were hoping for some good news. Ok, well, maybe not good, but at least not devastatingly bad. Sitting in that office, that had not changed much in the past decade or so, I was surrounded by girls and women who held their head down or wore a bit too much concealer and foundation to mask the large pores from the hair follicles on their face, chins, and necks.  I too worked to blend the shame of this manly feature. Leafing through magazines in the waiting room, I came across an article linking the hormone imbalances that cause PCOS to increases in weight because of insulin resistance. The ah-ha moment rushed over me. PCOS was the cause of the weight. It was the cause of diabetes. It was the cause of the hair. I also found out that day, that it was the cause of my inability to get pregnant.  Two years of trying, only to be told that I should stop because it would never happen. The doctor said science would have “to do it for me.” My eyes wept while my lips smiled. Having an answer, I relaxed. I was not the lone freak I had grown up believing I was.

Getting Started

I am usually very good at getting a conversation started.  The exception is when I have honestly don’t know how to begin, where to start or what to open with.  Essentially, I got nothin’.  All I know for sure is that what I am going through demands to be written about and explored.  Any test of courage that requires sheer faith and fortitude to pull through, lends itself to the writing of epics.  Epic poems generally begin with a quest.  I don’t know if I would classify my impending journey as a quest.  There are definitely heroic elements to this tale.  Homer could not have imagined the twists and zags this journey will take the heroine on.  As I stand at the precipice of an uphill climb on a downhill slope, I question the sanity of the attempt.  The sanity of the first step.  By definition, insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.  What then, is doing a different thing and expecting the same result?