Getting better

Sometime round about the beginning of Autumn 2010, I started feeling not quite right. It was hard to put my finger on what it was though – I had hypertension, an upset stomach, overall unhealthy, quick to anger, forgetful and generally emotionally unwell. The problems nearly always surfaced around the office, and a colleague was the one who finally diagnosed it as stress. Stephane had commented that I was quick to over-react to simple questions, and complaining a lot more about work than was really reasonable. As someone who was unfortunately familiar with stress, I think he was more able to pick it out.

It was a surprise to me. I’m a very chill person by nature, and had never really felt stress before, and it had been at least a decade since I had been introduced to a new emotion. Stress, as it turns out, is the kind of thing that builds up slowly, and can take you by surprise. It also is the sort of thing that you can’t just shed. Like Christmas kilos before beach season; what snuck into your life takes a long time to shoo out, even if you’re trying.

I spent a lot of time thinking about it, and chalked it up to work. I’d been working on a project that was going gangbusters in terms of users and reach, but was bleeding resources like a stuck pig. As much as I was happy to be in demand, I couldn’t meet it if I was the only person left working on the project. I tried taking vacation, working with management to change things, investing time in hobbies, home life, church life, whatever, and the stress-o-meter continued to rise. Slower than before, but it was still going up. I hadn’t reached burn-out yet, but I was very close.

So, I quit. I decided that if work was having such a negative impact the best thing I could do was cut it out completely. I signed up for a 1 year sabbatical, with the intention to resume my old position after 12 months, and moved to the other side of the world. I didn’t stop working entirely, but I did make a dramatic change in my work environment, and responsibility levels. I also did everything in my power to not talk about the previous 6 years or so of my work life, hoping that shutting it out and starting over would make me better faster.

And 12 months later… I wasn’t better. This was my second big surprise.

A year felt like a long time. And as far as years go, it had been a great one. I spent all of my free energy on making Xavier’s life awesome, and by consequence had spent 12 months having an absolute blast myself. We soaked up a ton of vitamin D, met a lot of happy people, completely reversed our financial situation (from debt to solid savings) and ‘discovered’ a lot of wine and friends along the way.

But, the stress wasn’t gone. I know this because around the end of January 2013, I spent an afternoon going through the motions of planning a move back to my old job like I’d originally planned, and I had a remarkably violent reaction. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as vomitus of the psyche, but this is what happened, and it took several weeks to wash it all off again.

So I did a bunch of other things. Some of the things that I probably should have done in France. Things that really weren’t that important in the grand scheme of it all. But things that got me moving again. And, as of this past Thursday, I can say that I am fixed. This time for real.

I know this because on Thursday someone sat me in a room and started talking about the hideous, boring, terrible things that I spent three years in France talking about. And I didn’t die inside. I got excited. I literally jumped from my chair to help them explain their ideas, to draw pictures for them, to refine things, and to cheerlead where I could. I knew this stuff, and wanted to share my experience with them.

And at the end of all that, I felt good. Not because I’d helped someone, or because the result of their project was anything super interesting. I felt good, because I didn’t feel bad anymore.

That was really nice.

It took about two years of active recovery, and I still have to actively manage my stress levels, but I think I’m finally getting better.

How was the birth?

Sometimes people ask you unexpected questions — sometimes a lot of people unexpectedly ask you the same question. We had prepared ourselves for a lot of “How are you?” or “How is the baby?” but by far the most common question was “How was it?”

For me? Easy peasy.
For Sarah? Less easy.

Having been relatively removed from much of the process, the best answer that I could truthfully give was that things went pretty well. When pressed, I would add: Giving birth is like a 10 step marathon, with an explosion at the end. Things were good up until the explosion, and then there was yelling, and then there was baby, and then there were smiles.

Sarah made it through the first 5 steps with little to no issue (and nothing in the way of pain killers) in a relatively short amount of time. Steps 6-8 involved a lot of yelling, and the last bit was surprisingly short (at most 40 minutes, I think the pushing part was less than 10). The entire process lasted just over 9 hours from start to finish, which I think is pretty good for a first timer.

There are a few more details that I’ll record here so that I can remind my wife from time to time. It seems newborn babies emit a short term memory erasing pheromone that causes mom to forget everything that happened in the preceding 5 hours. By writing this down, and regularly emailing it to Sarah, I hope to prevent having to buy a minivan in a few years. Those of you who are less interested in the details can safely stop here. There are no big surprises.

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First of all, it’s important to mention that the birth was induced. This concerned a lot of our friends back home, as induction is normally only done in North America when there is a problem or when the mother is overdue; in all other cases, they take a wait and see approach. In France, it is much more common for Dr’s to intervene directly in the health of their patient. When we asked the Dr’s about why they were intervening (French Doctors are not likely to volunteer information) we got two solid answers. First, the baby’s weight gain had been slowing down, and the Doctor hoped that the little guy would gain more weight, faster, out than in. Second, the date of the induction was a Friday, the last day before the weekend. By inducing on their schedule, the Hospital could be sure that all of the right people and facilities would be available. Adding to the whole thing was the fact that Sarah was basically ready to go, and had been at that state for about a week. Even though the estimated date was about a week later, the timing was right, so we might as well act.

On Friday morning, bright and much-too-early, we packed a bag and walked the six blocks to the hospital. After arriving, Sarah was given some time to make herself comfortable, and the mid-wife came in to conduct a few tests. At around 11:40, they hooked her up to an IV with a baby-inducing hormone drip.

As a side note, it’s worth mentioning that the mid-wife does nearly all of the work in a French birth. A Doctor did come in a few times, but only to confirm an opinion or to see if everything was going according to plan. During the pushing part, the role of the Doctor was really quite limited… all he did was stand back and yell “Allez! Allez!”. He should have brought pom-poms.

By noon, the contractions had started, and about twenty minutes later someone asked if Sarah would like her epidural now. For at least three months leading up to the delivery room Sarah had been going back and forth as to whether to do a natural vs epidural assisted birth. The Epidural rate in France is extremely high (over 95%), so it was just naturally assumed that drugs would factor in as early as possible. As the contractions began, she took the Canadian decision: wait and see. The mid-wife assured us that she could choose the epidural at any stage later on, so the risk was pretty minimal. After that, she came back in every 20 minutes to see if Sarah had come to her senses. Each time we said no, she smiled and gave us the ‘crazy foreigner’ look as she left the room.

So, what happened after that?
Well, like I said, the first five steps were really went by really quickly. It took a few hours, but Sarah averaged about 40 minutes per cm until she hit the halfway point. During this stage, pain relief can actually be managed with some back rubbing and words of encouragement. Sarah was hooked up to a machine that monitored both her heartbeat, and something related to contractions. About 10 seconds before each contraction the beeping from the machine would quicken in a kind of ‘grab-something-pain-is-now’ alarm. Between back rubbing, and teeth clenching, this part was actually, surprisingly, not so bad.

Part way through this process we realized that I was fulfilling the role of a tens machine — small electro-pulse massagers that attach to your lower back. When I popped out to the nursing station to see if they had one, a nice English speaking mid-wife explained to me that Tens machines aren’t used in France because everyone takes the epidural. And, besides, they are only really useful for the first 5cm, and Sarah was at 4, so there wasn’t much point.

Turns out she was bang on with her estimate. Once Sarah made it to the halfway mark, the husband masseuse was fired. You’d have to ask her to confirm, but my impression is that the pain from 5-6cm was roughly equivalent to the sum of the sensation from 0-5cm. No amount of back rubbing seemed to help. It was time for drugs.

There are two really cool things about Epidurals here compared to Epidurals back home. First, when you get one back home, you are toast from the bellybutton down. Here, you are still completely functional (but walking is discouraged). Second, when they give you the Epidural here, they only set it up; they don’t actually administer anything. All drugs are self-administered by the patient, with a machine regulated maximum set by the anaesthesiologist in advance. The patient is given a little button, and whenever you push it you get a beep, and a hit of drugs. I think the end result is the same as if the Dr had drugged you up herself, but the aspect of control is nice.

Forty minutes and four beeps later things were calm again. Our pastor — who has much experience in this matter — had warned me in advance that Sarah would swear like a sailor through much of the ordeal; hurling vitriolic obscenities at the person who ‘got her into this mess’. But, I managed to get off relatively easy. As I texted to a friend during the 7th hour:

Things pretty much stayed that way until just over 8cm. The rest of what happened was very blur like. To put things in perspective Sarah hit the 8cm mark around 8:00 pm. After that, things went sort of like this.

The Mid-wife came to see what was happening, and then called for the anaesthesiologist. She asked if Sarah could feel her legs. Shocked that the answer as yes, she administered one, two, three more shots of whatever liquid magic she had given her earlier in the evening. Then the mid-wife yelled something in French, and people started pouring into the room as if an ambulance shaped clown car had just pulled up in the lobby. The table was lowered, stirrups were raised, tools were pulled from whatever nook they had previously been hidden in, and I think someone may have started boiling water, but I’m not sure.

The drugs started to kick in a little, and Sarah began losing feeling in her legs at the same time that I was losing feeling in my fingers. The nice lady with the drugs gave Sarah another shot and lined up dose number 5 while the pushing began. This is when I noticed that Sarah’s sense of rhythm was a little off (not normally something I’d dare comment on) so I asked her a few questions and didn’t get much in the way of a response other than something about tomatoes. My first thought was “Oh no! No wonder the drugs weren’t working, you’ve put the thing in backwards and numbed her brain!! What are we going to do?!” I think that I may have vocalized that thought, because the anaesthesiologist stopped talking to me at that point. But, she did seem to agree that a fifth hit of magic juice was probably too much. There was more pushing, and a whole lot of people explaining to Sarah exactly when she was supposed to push, and that she should hold her breath when she does so, and that she she stop holding her breath when she stops pushing, and that she had to breathe in at certain points too, and, and and… of course all of this was coming at her in French, English, and some mixed dialect in between. The Doctor came in at this point to cheer like a football fan, and then everyone started yelling ‘Go Go Go’, ‘Push, Push, Push’, ‘Allez! Allez! Allez!’, ‘Attaque! Attaque! Attaque!’ and so on. Then yelling, cutting, yelling (from me this time — I almost hit the floor during the episiotomy. If you don’t know what that is, don’t look it up. You’re better off not knowing.), cheering, pulling, pushing, and finally baby. All was done at 9:02 pm.

At 9:05, she was holding our son.

At 9:06, she asked me to turn on Strauss’s Second Horn Concerto. By 9:11, feet still in stirrups, covered in gore, and still breathless from the pushing, I kid you not, she used the words “…for the next one…” and then “…it wasn’t really that bad…”.

So, there you go. The official verdict right from the mommy’s mouth —

                 “It wasn’t really that bad.”

Sympathy Weight

I never expected to get so big during pregnancy.  I’m not even the pregnant one!
But, it’s finally happened, yesterday I stood up straight, looked down, and saw nothing but belly and floor. With no feet to speak of, I’d officially failed the tubbiness test and moved into the realm of fat guy.

I guess a lot of this has to do with the Sarah’s quickened eating schedule, and my portion control being relative to hers. When she’s hungry, I make food, and I always serve her about 20% less than I serve myself. It is not wise to compare diets with a pregnant lady. She’s saving up for something, I’m just getting fat. I think I’m going to have to start taking some drastic measures and cut back on the butter and beer until I can tell what colour of shoes I’m wearing.