The Crazy One

Hadley Leggett

The doctors say I’m suffering from postpartum psychosis, that I need medicine to adjust the levels of neurotransmitters in my brain. Just a wee bit more serotonin and dopamine, maybe a tad less epinephrine, and they promise I’ll stop shrieking from the tabletops of crowded indoor playgrounds at three o’clock on Saturday afternoons. 

 A bit unfair, if you ask me, because that particular scenario happened only once. But perhaps they’re right. If I’d taken the drugs as prescribed, I might not be standing up here on trial today, trying to defend myself. But here I am, and here you are, and once you’ve heard the whole story, it’s your job to decide: Am I the crazy one, or is it all of you? 

Some background: I’m a climate scientist at the University of  Washington, and I study drinking water—where it comes from, where  it goes, what we’re going to do when it runs out. Like in fifty years,  when warmer temperatures are predicted to make more than half of all  US freshwater basins run short. Or in just five years—ten if we’re lucky— when America’s two largest man-made reservoirs will dip to critically  low levels, threatening water supply for more than forty million people. 

But I digress. The point is, if you strolled through my department  and perused the frames on my colleagues’ desks, you’d notice plenty of  sweeping mountain vistas and smiling clusters of sweaty bikers in spandex  shorts, but a conspicuous lack of offspring. We never talked about it, but  we all agreed: no point propagating a species that’s doomed to destruction. 

Being an aunt was bad enough. Ever since my sister had baby Andrew  twelve years ago, I couldn’t read a climate disaster scenario without calculating my nephew’s age. The Arctic will become ice-free by the  summer of 2035? Andy will be 28. Miami will be half underwater by  2060? Andy will be 53.  

He went to a progressive elementary school that focused on social  justice, and every year they asked me to give a presentation about climate  change for the fourth and fifth graders. The week after my first visit,  the teacher got a flood of hate mail from parents, complaining I’d given  their innocent children nightmares about superstorms and droughts  and wildfires burning down their houses. After that I just talked about  the little things kids can do to help—recycling, riding your bike, turning  off the water while you brush your teeth—but every year, I came home  feeling sick. Like I’d just handed out presents wrapped in colorful tissue  and tied up with big satin bows, each with a steaming pile of shit inside.   “Sorry kids,” I wanted to say, “don’t bother learning math and physics  and grammar, because none of it’s going to matter. By the time you’re  all adults, we’ll be lucky if we haven’t killed ourselves fighting over  water rights.” 

So obviously, no baby for me.  

But my body must have forgotten to read the latest U.N. report from  the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Because one day,  despite the tiny blue pill I swallowed every morning like a prayer, one of  my husband’s zealous sperm cells managed to infiltrate the zona pellucida  of my reluctant egg—a wall that should have been impenetrable because  of all those pills—and suddenly I was barfing up my avocado toast.  

“We can’t have a baby,” I told my husband, who was taking out his  shock and dismay on a dish towel, twisted so tight it would likely never  unwind. “It’s bad enough to imagine the world Andy will inherit.”   Besides, the planet couldn’t afford another human. We’d have to clear  it out.  

Except after I’d scheduled the clinic appointment, arranged to take  two days off work, and bought three boxes of whale-sized sanitary  pads for the bloody tide that would rid me of my fetus, I couldn’t stop  thinking about the tiny ball of cells swimming in my belly. A ball of cells  who might one day cartwheel across our front lawn and eat blueberries until her lips turned purple, who might share my passion for licorice  jellybeans or my husband’s adorably oversized ears.  

I thought I’d be one of those brave women hashtag-shouting my  abortion by pill to prove it was no big deal. “Nothing to it in the first  few weeks!” Instead I sat for two hours sobbing in the clinic parking  lot, too distraught to even walk through the door. When I came home,  snot-soaked and puffy-nosed but sans prescription for mifepristone, my  husband wrapped his arms around me and said we’d do the best we could. 

My body did a brilliant job, and for forty long weeks, I managed to  split my mind right down the middle as well: the data scientist half,  still crunching numbers that predicted the end of humanity, somehow  entirely separate from the mommy-to-be half, blissfully engaged in  choosing the right cloth diaper. After an uncomplicated pregnancy,  my daughter Sylvie slid into the world red-faced and screaming, and  for a moment I felt triumphant. Look what I’d done! Created a perfect  six-pound human, with the most beautiful ugly-old-man face I’d ever  seen. But the nurses had hardly finished scraping cheesy vernix from  her skin before the two halves of my psyche crashed together, birthing  a conflict—you might call it my “neurosis”—more painful than any ring  of fire.  

At first, my fears seemed to have little to do with our feverish Mother  Earth. As I swaddled Sylvie in a sheer muslin blanket, I’d imagine  finding her hours later, blue and silent in the crib, still wrapped in what  had then become a shroud. Carrying her down from the nursery, I’d  obsess about tripping, accidentally dropping her or—dear god—hurling  her down the hardwood stairs. “You just need to get out of the house,”  my experienced mom-friends told me. “You’ll feel better when you get  back to work.” 

Not my work. Once I was at my desk, adding expected rainfall to  melting snowpack and subtracting projected water usage, my paranoia  became more specific. I began to see climate change everywhere—not  just in the news or the numbers on my screen, but in every cloudless  cerulean sky and each purple iris poking through the grass. It’s too early, I wanted to scream, not even Valentine’s Day! I knew better than anyone that weather didn’t equal climate, yet something about Sylvie’s downy head tucked against my chest in the front pack made every sunny  day a harbinger of drought and doom. Rainy days were no better— just confirmation that as the planet heated up, winters in the Pacific  Northwest were getting warmer and wetter.  

Things got worse as the months went by and Sylvie began to delight  in the world around her. She’d laugh and point at a warbler in a tree,  and I’d think about the dwindling Boreal forest and how those birds  might disappear in a few short years. I stopped taking my daily walks,  and instead rocked Sylvie in the nursery with the shades drawn. 

“How about a sabbatical?” my husband said. “We could take Sylvie and  get away for awhile.” 

“To where?” I spat back. “Until we colonize a second planet, there’s no  escaping this.” 

Friends told me I should savor the moments I had with baby Sylvie,  that her chubby cheeks and drooly, toothless grins were a time-limited  delight. Everything is time-limited, I wanted to say—water in the taps,  food in the grocery stores, gas to propel all those same-day Amazon  deliveries we can’t live without. Every time I smiled at my daughter, I  felt like I was selling her a lie.  

“We’re like that woman in Titanic,” I told my husband. “That mom  who sings lullabies to her sons, putting them to sleep in their beds even  as the ship fills up with water.” 

Instead of arguing, he drove me to a therapist. 

After asking me three hundred questions, she told me there was a  specific name for my condition: climate depression. And the treatment?  Not suing Big Oil or impeaching the president, but a simple little pill,  taken twice a day with water. “You should start feeling better in one to  two weeks,” she said. I laughed until I broke down sobbing, and then she  added a mood stabilizer to my antidepressant. 

My sister Alison hoped to cure my melancholy through baby  playdates, and that’s how I ended up in that god-awful indoor  playground in the first place. It was a Saturday in August, Sylvie was now a strapping eight months old, and Alison had decided it was high time her niece socialized with other babies. We’d planned to go to a wading pool or maybe a splash park, until the thick blanket of wildfire  smoke rolled in.  

Before the record-breaking heat waves of the past few years, August  had been the only Seattle month warm enough to qualify as summer.  Now, for the third year in a row, our city’s one perfect month was  suffocated by smog. Ash blowing south from wildfires in Victoria mixed  with soot from the blackened towns of Northern California, and a fine  white powder rained down on the Emerald City. Public health officials  warned everyone to stay inside, stores sold out of N-95 masks, and  asthmatics flocked to the emergency room. “Our daughter will grow up  thinking this is normal,” I muttered to my husband.  

I longed to climb back under the covers and succumb to the oblivion  of sleep when, despite those warnings, Alison and Andy came knocking  at the door, bearing masks and smiles and a plan to explore Space Palace,  a 3,000-square-foot, space-themed monstrosity complete with coffee  shop and beer garden. I couldn’t fly Sylvie on a rocketship to a healthier  planet, but apparently I was supposed to pretend.  

We were all pretending, I realized, as I looked out the passenger  window of Alison’s car at masked bikers and masked dog-walkers and  even a masked tree-trimmer riding a cherry picker thirty feet in the  air. Smoke was clogging our city and choking our lungs, yet no one—including doomsday me—was doing a thing about it. What could be  done? All we’d get for taking to the streets was bronchitis.   “Why so glum, sis?” Alison asked. 

“Not glum,” I replied. “Just tired.” I knew better than to engage my  sister; divorced and recently remarried to a born-again Christian, she  saw everything—even burnt cities and melting ice sheets—as part of  God’s plan. Sylvie burbled from the backseat, and I resigned myself to a  day of faking it.  

Predictably, the playground was packed wall-to-wall with shrieking  children, all delighted to rip the scratchy paper domes off their faces and  breathe recirculated air. The place smelled of socks, pizza grease, and spilled pale ale. 

“How long do we have to stay?” I asked Alison. “I don’t think Sylvie  likes it here.” We were seated at one of the tables closest to the beer  garden, and my daughter bounced in my lap, whipping her head from  side to side as her eyes tracked the big kids streaking by.  

“She looks happy enough,” my sister said. “And Andy’s already  disappeared into the fray.” I squinted into the hamster maze of tubes  and slides, but couldn’t spot my nephew. The noise was giving me a  headache, and adding to it, from somewhere inside the play structure, a  disco-ball planet flashed a nauseating red and green. Twelve minutes of  small talk later, I couldn’t take it.  

“Here, hold Sylvie, I’m going into the beer garden. Want anything?”  It’s possible I drank too much cider that afternoon. I only remember  buying two pints, one for me and one for Alison. But after nine months  of pregnancy followed by eight months of nursing, the alcohol went  straight to my head. By the time I got back to the table, my headache had  gotten downright strange, and flickering halos sparked across my vision.  Sylvie had started to fuss, and her whimpers became a howl the  moment she saw me. “She needs a diaper change,” Alison said, trading  my daughter for a tall glass of cider.  

“I might be getting a migraine,” I said.  

“Do you get migraines?” 

I shrugged. “Didn’t think so.”  

“Let me change the baby, then. And here, drink some water.” My  sister pushed a half-empty glass my way, and reached out for Sylvie.  “No, no, I’ll do it,” I said. “She’s wearing those diaper insert thingies  you hate, and anyway, I have to pee.” Really, I just wanted to be alone  in a quiet stall for a few moments, away from the screaming kids and  flashing lights. But the bathroom speakers were pumping Imagine  Dragons at top volume, and two preteen girls discussed the smoke as I  unsnapped Sylvie’s soiled onesie—the diaper had leaked, of course, and  once again I’d forgotten to pack extra clothes. 

“Sorry your mama’s a disaster,” I whispered in Sylvie’s ear, sopping up  the mess as best I could. 

A high, strident voice interrupted my guilt spiral. “Ugh, the mask smeared my lip liner.” The first girl stared into the mirror and blew a  bubble with her gum, the same shiny pink as her pouty lips.  “Least now you don’t have to spend a week in the woods with your  family,” the other one said. “That’s lucky.” Scrubbing her hands together,  she admired the thick purple lather coating her fingers. “Think this is  going to happen every year?” Yes, I wanted to say, and you’ll be the only  ones celebrating. But Sylvie had just planted her heel into the dirty diaper,  and I was busy wiping off her foot. 

“Blame California,” bubble girl said. “My dad says it’s their own fault  for not taking care of the forests.” I yanked the flushable insert out of  Sylvie’s cotton diaper cover and rolled my eyes. Forest mismanagement,  everyone’s favorite excuse.  

“But I thought all the smoke was coming from Vancouver Island,  from Victoria.” 

“Victoria, yeah.” Bubble girl nodded. “That’s the town in California  that burnt down.” 

The door thumped shut as the girls filed out of the bathroom, and  I flushed the toilet. Victoria, California? Ha. We ignorant humans, so  confident in our wrong answers that we even convince other people of  them. I felt a bit perkier, buoyed by the thought that maybe mankind  wasn’t worth saving after all. Until halfway through washing my hands,  I glanced in the mirror and saw the squirming infant on my hip. Who  was I kidding? That round, trusting face topped by a single sprout of  dark brown hair, those chubby starfish fingers grasping at my breasts— I’d do anything to save her.  

The sound was a soothing gurgle at first. Like water flowing over  rocks in a river. Then a loud belch, followed by a splash of water hitting  concrete. When my toes got wet, I figured I must have dripped soap  suds from the sink. Looking down, I discovered an inch-deep puddle,  creeping ever higher up my sandals.  

“What the—?” 

The last thing I remember is racing from the bathroom, chased by a  torrent of water. Andy says I ran smack into him, hollering “Find higher ground!” and “Save the children!” before I leaped with Sylvie onto a tabletop. From there, apparently I launched into a screeching diatribe  about sea level rise for the bewildered patrons of Space Palace. Andy says  my apocalyptic predictions were quite convincing, what with the waves  of water rolling out from the bathroom and pooling on a concrete floor  already littered with breathing masks. 

I don’t think it was me who started the chant, but I can’t say for sure.  I do know it felt extremely satisfying to shout the truth, especially with  twenty-five kids as my backup cantors. I’ll admit, we may have gotten  carried away. Right before Alison dragged me down from the table, our  chant had become something along the lines of, “Exxon dies! Or else we  do!” Maybe that’s how they got the idea I did all this on purpose.  

I know it looks bad, what with the forensics engineers discovering not just Sylvie’s poopy insert down the toilet, but her whole cotton diaper  wrapped around a bottle of Xanax with my name on it. An accident, I  swear. How could I have predicted the bizarre glitch in those dual-flush  toilets that enabled a simple J-tube blockage to flood all 3,000 square feet of Space Palace? If I’d wanted to terrorize anyone, I would have brought  a pipe bomb. Besides, there’s no convincing motive. Flooding a kiddie  center and preaching to a few dozen Seattleites is hardly going to save  the planet; most likely, half of them already drive electric cars and make  their own backyard compost. But I get why I’m here, of course—we must  protect our dear, fragile capitalism from the ravages of wanton protestors.  Now, as I watch you all fidget in your pews and furtively glance at your  iPhones, I know you’re wondering how long this silly trial can possibly  drag on. Tonight you’ll go home and do the things you always do—order  takeout, binge on Netflix, curse the Mariners for their seventeenth crap  season in a row. But first, you have to make a decision.  

On one side, my lawyers plead insanity, and on the other, the  prosecution claims I’m an eco-terrorist, dead-set on destroying property  and traumatizing children. Ladies and gentleman of the jury, I assure  you I suffer from neither psychosis nor extremism. I’m just a mama  dinosaur, cuddling my baby close as we watch a black speck in the sky.  

It’s growing bigger by the second.