When Susan Berg was 15 years old, she lost her parents and brother in a boating accident – she was the sole survivor. Susan suffered from survivor guilt and struggled to find any positive meaning in life. In the years that followed she delved down a path of self-destruction, looking for solace in casual sexual encounters and drugs. By the age of 19, she was pregnant. In this extract from her powerful memoir The Girl Who Lived she tells part of this story.
IT WAS THE tenth day of February when I woke at two o’clock in pain. I rose quietly, knowing that today would be the day I’d give birth to my baby. The contractions were several minutes apart, so to pass the time I ironed my partner’s business shirts, finished the last of the laundry and gave the house a tidy. When the pain became unbearable, I woke my partner, Stuart, and phoned my sister Julie, who had agreed to support me during the birth. At the hospital, when it came time, I pushed with every ounce of energy I could muster, keeping an eye on the mirror at the end of the bed that had been set up so that I could watch the birth.
William was born at twenty-three minutes past one in the afternoon. He was perfect. I was overcome with joy and full of unconditional love. I marvelled at his tiny fingernails and the smell of his skin. Along with William’s birth that day came my own rebirth. I had a new sense of self-worth and happiness. I had a reason to live again. I looked forward to going home and getting into a normal routine – to start my new life with my new family.
Everything was wonderful.
But being at home was more tiring than I’d expected, and Stuart refused to help out with parental duties.
‘Raising children and cleaning a house is a woman’s duty,’ he said.
I was wandering around like a zombie, in desperate need of a good night’s sleep. On my fourth day home from hospital, Stuart woke me. ‘Quickly sign these papers,’ he said, switching on the bedside lamp and shoving a pen in my hand. ‘I’ll explain what they are later.’ I was too tired to argue, so I signed the papers and fell back to sleep.
Later in the day I thought about them. I felt sick at the possibility of what they might have been. ‘Can I have a copy of what I signed?’ I asked. Stuart promised to bring them home the following day, but days turned into weeks, then months. ‘Stop pestering me about it,’ he eventually yelled. ‘The papers have nothing to do with you. It’s business stuff.’ I feared the papers had everything to do with me – and my apartment. But his aggression scared me and I was too afraid to raise the subject again.
Stuart was drinking constantly and becoming increasingly aggressive, finding fault in everything I did. One day he came home early and flew into a rage because the bed wasn’t made. ‘What have you been doing all day?’ he yelled.
I tried to explain the level of work that goes into keeping a house and looking after a newborn, but he became angrier and angrier. ‘It doesn’t look like you’ve done anything,’ he said.
I changed my daily routine, attending to the obvious household chores first and leaving the less noticeable things until later. I felt like I was on a rollercoaster, my happiness going up or down depending on whether Stuart was home or not.
For the past four years I’d watched other families celebrating Mother’s Day together. I’d hated it – it made me feel cheated. But now I was a mother and it was my day to be celebrated. Holding William in my arms, I had a new understanding of the level of love my mother had felt for me. I hoped she was proud of me. But, despite the joy of having a family of my own, there was still an emptiness inside of me that could not be filled. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ Stuart said, entering the room. ‘I miss my Mum,’ I said.