Sweet Lamb of Heaven - Lydia Millet

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HALLUCINATIONS, EVEN IN THE SANE

WHEN I INSISTED ON KEEPING THE BABY, NED THREW HIS HANDS into the air palms-forward. He looked like a mime climbing a wall—one of the few times I’ve ever seen him look clumsy.

Then he dropped his hands and turned away, shaking his head. It was a terminal shake. Afterward his schedule got fuller, his long work hours longer, his attention more completely diverted.

And I have to admit it wasn’t just him who turned away. After we differed on that point, the point concerning the baby, I began to give up on Ned too.

So I was alone preparing. It had been an accident, technically more his fault than mine, but who’s haggling? And once it happened I felt I needed to accept it—I wanted to. I drove by myself to buy the various infant containers. I chose the doll-sized pieces of newborn clothing, set up a nursery and glued stars on the ceiling; I crept in at night sometimes to see how they glowed. I went alone to doctor’s appointments to listen for the heartbeat and see the first pictures, and when the time came I went through labor with mostly just medical staff keeping me company.

Ned did stop by the hospital, apparently, and spent some time talking on his cell phone in the lounge, but he stepped out again for a work lunch, later for work cocktails, and finally for a late work dinner. After dinner he drove home and went to sleep.

None of this was too far beyond the pale, I guess, when it comes to unfortunate marriages. After about twenty hours I lay against the pillows holding her slippery body. Her eyes, against my expectation, were wide open and there was a perplexing chaos of sound in my ears, too many voices in the room for the number of people—soundtracks that overlapped. A kindly nurse was telling me about the other babies he’d seen born with their eyes open when a stream of words intruded, covering his. I heard it most distinctly when the nurse paused.

Later I would hear volumes and forget almost all of it, but the first phrase I picked out stayed with me despite my exhaustion. It started out as a string of foreign words, only one of which resolved, to my ear, into anything recognizable—something like “power,” powa or poa. And then it was English: The living spring from the dead.

Delirium, was what I thought, and I dispensed with it by falling fast asleep. It was only when I woke up later, and the baby was brought back to me, also awake, that the stream of chatter started up again and was impossible to ignore.

AT FIRST I was mostly irritated, and went to get my ears looked at. Once, when I was a kid, I’d had an infected ear and heard a wavy music when I pressed my head against the pillow. Maybe this had a physical explanation, maybe some ear-brain interface was being disrupted. But my ears checked out fine. The baby didn’t enjoy the doctor’s visit, and the voice talked on—only for me, of course—throughout her noisy crying.

Next I made an appointment with a neurologist and insisted on an expensive scan: nothing.

For weeks I combed through psychology case studies, ready to discover the evidence against my sanity. I read up on post-partum depression, though I didn’t feel depressed. Of course I might be in denial, I knew; I had a newborn baby, after all, and a husband who had no time for either of us.

But I didn’t feel sad. I suffered from no flatness of affect. I was tired and confused—I felt besieged by the noise—but it was frustration, not despair.

I also gave schizoid conditions due consideration. No mother wants a woman with psychotic features bringing up her child, even if that woman is her. So reading accounts of patients who heard voices became my avocation for a while, since, as it turns out, mental illness isn’t required to hallucinate. Hallucinations, even in the sane, are quite common. They accompany certain drugs and medicines and an impressive list of diseases; they can be caused by blindness or sensory deprivation or even seem to come out of nowhere.

A stream of advice is often heard by people in extremis, fighting injury or the elements. Voices are heard by the sane in wartime or under other forms of duress, prison or isolation or grief. Sometimes the voices have no obvious cause, their origins buried in the electric labyrinth of the brain.

I was