Bed rest sucks and I should know. I was on it for more than five months of my pregnancy. Four of those months were not what most people think of as bed rest: No doctor prescribed it. Instead, an extreme case of hyperemesis gravidarum (excessive vomiting while pregnant) made me so sick and weak that I was forced to stay in bed. I faced repeated dehydration and countless hospital trips. I couldn't eat because I'd throw up, but at the same time I was hungry. I lay awake many nights quite literally starving, but too scared to eat. After six weeks of that, I was put on a 24-hour I.V., which essentially confined me to bed for two and a half more months. I could eat and drink almost nothing, and every distraction, from reading to listening to music was too much. Even the alarm clock display was too bright to bear.
When I finally got over that ordeal and thought some degree of normalcy had returned to my life and my pregnancy, I was put on official bed rest for pre-term labor. In many ways, my initial experience made the second five weeks in bed seem easy. I was sad and angry that my life had come to a grinding halt once again, but I had perspective. I felt better physically and had already wrestled with the emotional upheaval of having to give up my normal life. I could eat, read, listen to music, talk on the phone, work on my computer and watch videos -- all things I couldn't and didn't want to do the first time around.
Many times in those difficult months I thought it would be great to have a book to validate my experience and let me know that others had survived similar ordeals. So I was interested to find out that Barbara Edelston Peterson had written "The Bed Rest Survival Guide," a book aimed at anyone confined to bed for a curable medical problem. In other words, me. Since Peterson drew from her own time on bed rest while pregnant, I thought maybe a book had come along to help some of the 700,000 pregnant women in the United States -- one in five -- who find themselves confined to bed each year.
"The Bed Rest Survival Guide" provides some useful advice, such as having a portable phone with a headset, putting a key outside so friends can get in and keeping money on hand to pay back people who do errands for you. If I had known about her book I could have prevented a friend from having to apply her rock-climbing skills to reach my second-story flat. Peterson also addresses common problems people in bed face, such as insomnia and muscle tightness, and makes suggestions for how to alleviate them.
Sometimes, however, her practical suggestions feel patronizing, and a sweet, even chirpy tone is pervasive. For example, she suggests keeping a journal, which seems like a good idea, but then the samples she provides are of sappy journal entries such as: "I could never have imagined myself being able to endure this for more than a day but it's not that terrible. The key for me is to stay busy and I'm somehow able to find many things to occupy my time." For Peterson, simply surviving bed rest was not enough, you had to enjoy it, learn from it and count it as one of the truly amazing experiences of your life. The one journal entry I wrote (and I wish I'd written more) was full of despair and frustration.
As I read parts of "The Survival Guide," I could almost see the author shaking her head, telling me I just hadn't been positive enough or open to the experience. She points out how difficult being stuck in bed can be, but it's almost in passing, something that needs to be mentioned before she gets back to how you can "truly benefit from this experience."
The first four months I spent in bed took a huge toll on my psyche and my body. When I first glanced through Peterson's book, all I could think was that this book would have enraged me at the time. Throwing up 12 times a day, being fed through an I.V. and having no idea when it was going to stop didn't put me in a place where I wanted to hear that a positive attitude would "improve my health as well as ensure a fruitful, creative, dynamic adventure."
Where is the adventure in being stuck in one room, totally dependent on someone else for months? There was nothing fruitful or creative about losing my connection to the world. At first I tried desperately to hold on to it: I dreamed that I would soon be out among the living, enjoying my pregnancy. But when milestone after milestone passed me by -- a friend's wedding, one last big trip abroad before the baby was born -- I had to accept my lot and try to keep sane. Sleep provided the one true escape, but I could only sleep so many hours a day. I wished for sleep, I craved it, but I remember countless hours, staring at the pump that administered my I.V.: 800 milliliters, 759 milliliters, 758 milliliters -- time was milliliters, endless milliliters.
In that state, none of the author's practical advice pertained to me. But even when I imagined a "normal" bed rest scenario, "The Survival Guide" lacks something I very much craved: the chance to commiserate. Every woman I've spoken with who has endured bed rest says it was difficult. It wasn't a great experience; it was just necessary. I felt these women understood me, even if their experiences were not as extreme as mine. In fact, most women feel physically and mentally fine on bed rest, but in many ways that makes for a more frustrating experience. I connected somewhat to Peterson's account of her own time in bed, but ultimately I felt distanced by the book's "positive" agenda.
The chapter "You're Not Alone," a collection of personal accounts of bed rest, had the potential to meet some of my craving for the shared experience. But in each account the focus was on the end result: "How did you benefit from bed rest?" And though most of the stories spoke of dealing emotionally and physically with confinement in bed, they were ultimately so uplifting I couldn't identify. I would like to have learned more of each person's struggles, what was hard for them, how they dealt with it. I wanted to know that ultimately they made it through, but maybe not with as much maturity and good cheer.
When someone is put on bed rest, people say, "Oh, that's too bad." They don't say, "You're so lucky, what a great opportunity to grow." In her book, Peterson tries to deny that, using spin to make a bad situation seem good. But tactics like cute little hearts above every page number give her away. She's dead set on making you think bed rest is a gift, not a curse. And that overly positive tone eventually eclipses "The Bed Rest Survival Guide's" helpful advice. Some dark humor about using a bedpan or having to cut your hair because it's too matted to comb could have brought a smile to my face and actually legitimated the book's syrupy tone. Imagery about being like bamboo, bending and growing in the wind, is just a turnoff.
People do grow and learn from experiences like confinement in bed. I learned many things, but I wouldn't characterize those lessons as either overly positive or horrendously negative. And while people should try not to wallow in misery, they should know that their feelings are perfectly legitimate. Peterson's book doesn't allow that freedom.