Sweet Lamb of Heaven

Lydia Millet

Sweet Lamb of Heaven

1. 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 prepared to accept the hallucination hypothesis — the baby’s presence, her rapt attention caused me to hallucinate voices speaking to me — but I was curious beyond that and needed to cover my bases. I also went to worst-case scenarios, to the bizarre and outlandish. I studied the occult, including demonology, for instance — spent hours on the Internet reading myths and legends of demonic possession. I made trips to the library, the baby snug in her carrier, and moved from articles about people with auditory hallucinations to those who identified their visitors very specifically, brooking no disagreement.

Demons, they said.

They saw demons with claws, horns and pointed teeth, of course, but often demons appeared in the shape of seductive women and yet others were amorphous shapes that shifted beneath the faces of loved ones. Briefly those faces would distort, then swiftly resume their devious guise, pull over themselves the skin of normalcy.

Or people heard demons that had no physical form but only spoke, mostly in biblical tongues like Aramaic or Hebrew. Experts were consulted and that was often their verdict: what the demon-visited persons were hearing was Aramaic or Hebrew or Greek. The demons tended to speak in dead scripts, as though frozen in the time of early Christianity — the demons clung to the old, reluctant to embrace the new.

I was glad Lena’s mouth didn’t move when the words issued, as in some possession stories. Because it was only sound and words, invisible, the experience also conjured TV shows involving ESP. I looked into spoon-bending hoaxes and watched shows that featured ghost-finding teams that crept through haunted houses trying to capture stray ectoplasm.

I was worn down by the elements of my routine — the stream of words and my bewilderment during the days, the nights half-sleepless, a mesh of hours spent fitfully dozing or nursing my daughter when she woke up. Ned had moved out of our bedroom while I was pregnant and never moved back, claiming his restless sleep would bother me. Often he didn’t come home at all, in those first months when Lena’s crying disturbed the nightly peace, but stayed over at the office. It wasn’t long before I began to understand that at the office was a euphemism.

And when the baby was sleeping but I couldn’t sleep, I wallowed in pulp fiction. I read thick paperbacks set in old houses, where the devil took the form of flies and buzzed on windowpanes, or in upscale prewar apartment buildings in Manhattan, where babies were fed evil baby food and raised by Satan cults. Plus there were the movies about antichrists and child possessors, the one with the black-haired boy named Damien, the one with the blank-faced girl who floated over her bed, rasping obscenities. When I was too tired to read, with the baby mostly sleeping and the speaker fallen silent, I’d curl up in front of the screen with cheese popcorn.

But in the end the B-movie fiends were too showy for me to take seriously, almost self-parodies. Besides, the stream of words wasn’t malicious and my daughter committed no alarming actions. She ate and slept, lay bundled in my arms. Time passed and she rolled over, sat up, crawled; also gurgled and drooled.

She never fixed upon me a bold, sinister eye.

So by and by I let the demons go, telepathy I dismissed out of hand, schizoaffective disorders I further renounced.

I went with the hallucination theory.

Hallucination has the qualities of real perception: vivid, substantial, and located in external space. It is distinct from a delusional perception, in which correctly sensed stimuli are given additional, often bizarre, significance. —Wikipedia 5.10.2009

PEOPLE WITH MIGRAINES see colors and shapes fading and forming anew on the wall. Others, with visual hallucinations, believe strangers are sitting beside them dressed in old-fashioned garb. Next to these people’s apparitions my own affliction didn’t seem so grave.

It was true that the disturbance was constant, and I didn’t find an identical case in the articles I read, but this struck me as more or less a technical detail. At first I called it the voice, as others like me did. Because I wasn’t alone: there were whole support groups given over to non-psychotics who heard things, including a so-called Hearing Voices Movement (its mission: to empower chronic voice-hearers). There were affirming Listservs.

I avoided them studiously. I began to write in this Word file instead, a diary whose sporadic, rambling texts I’d tinker with for years. Over time I redacted, adding and subtracting until the entries formed a narrative that clarified my own story — at least to me.

I spoke to no one about what I believed I heard. I sought out no company in my infirmity.

WHERE WE LIVE now is a seaside motel in the off-season. We’re on the edge of rocky bluffs, so I can see a car coming when it’s a speck on the long gravel road.

There are few guests this time of year; in summertime they get the kind of tourists who, says Don the motel manager, bicker sharply ove ...

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