What to do when you feel like you're going to lose your mind: lead poisoning, stolen bike, life-long guilt

Pluck
Kim Schomburg

My life is a bit of a cruel joke at the moment. 

For the past four years, I’ve continually written about the dangers of lead poisoning in Chicago. In fact, in November, I had a front-page article in the Chicago Reader on how lead poisoning continues to affect our city’s kids and our schools.

I’m known to my friends as a bit of a lead Nazi. Ask me something about lead poisoning, and you will get a spontaneous lecture with lots of information you never wanted. When we moved into our new apartment after I got pregnant, I carefully looked for a place with new windows and no peeling paint. I tested the paint on our back porch, just to be sure, even though the real estate agent assured me the place was lead-free. 

So you can imagine how my heart sank when the doctor called on Tuesday and told me Teddy’s lead level was 12. Lead poisoning is anything higher than 9 by most accounts, and recently, that was changed to 5. 

“Twelve?” I repeated to the doc, my heart in my throat. 

“Yes, but it’s not a big deal,” pleaded my doctor, probably hearing the tears mounting. 

“It’s a very big deal,” I said. 

We now know that there is lead on the back porch. Just not where I tested. I tested the porch floor and railings, which are lead-free, but the stairs are not. The stairs where Teddy learned to climb up and down. “Kimb!” he shouts when he sees them. Where he put his hands and feet, and later, as babies do, stuck them in his mouth, ingesting the lead that’s coursing through his veins, depositing in his bones and settling in his brain. 

This is perhaps my worst nightmare. Okay, maybe not my worst nightmare. I mean, the kid could have cancer. He could die. I could die. There are worse things. But this is a nightmare. 

I doubt the guilt will ever leave me. Why didn’t I test the stairs? Of course, most people would assume, like I did, that the paint on the stairs was the same as the paint on the railing. It certainly looked the same. 

Teddy’s prognosis is a lot better than most kids in Chicago who are diagnosed with lead poisoning. He already has a good diet full of fruits and vegetables. He walks and talks and is very healthy. He has two parents who are educated and can afford to get him help. His exposure time was relatively short, and he was tested early. A lot of kids who have high lead levels are also dealing with high rates of poverty and health problems, and their parents are so busy worrying about how they’re going to put a meal on the table or keep their kids from getting shot that paint seems harmless in comparison. 

But it is harmful. Lead crosses the blood-brain barrier and disrupts the child’s growing brain. It can lead to serious learning disabilities, hyperactivity, irritability and anti-social behavior. There’s a strong link between lead exposure and violent crime, as well as standardized test scores. 

We’ll be doing what we can to get the lead out of Teddy’s system, but I know it’s in there. It is harming him. Even if I can never point my finger to the effect it’s having on him, I know it’s there. I feel like I’ll never be able to shake that. 

When my doctor called, Teddy and I had just finished dinner out in the neighborhood, and we were climbing on our bike to go home. I cried all the way home, and cried carrying him inside. I put the bike against the fence and forgot about it. 

The next day, we discovered our bike was stolen. Fat old Huffy cruiser bike with a giant green baby seat on it. They even stole Teddy’s tiny helmet. Can you believe that?

I felt like such an idiot. First, I didn’t check the paint on the stairs. Then, I didn’t lock up our bike. Ugh. And what kind of person steals a baby’s bike helmet? I wanted to crawl under a rock. I kept saying to Jeff “I don’t want to be a person,” which is my usual line when I’m feeling depressed and want to run away from my troubles. 

My husband is solid in a crisis. He reminded me that Jesus told us that if someone steals your cloak, give him your tunic as well. It’s not our job to keep people from stealing stuff from us, he said. They took the bike. That’s their affair. If we want to get another bike, we will do so, but it wasn’t for me to feel bad about. 

We’re still waiting for the city inspectors to come and tell us the extent of the lead problem in our building. I’m getting the soil and the water tested. We’re having a filter installed. We’re amping up Teddy’s diet full of good foods to help him excrete lead and absorb good nutrients. Kale smoothie, baby? Yes, mama. 

We are doing all we can do. And yet, it’s just really hard. It’s hard facing the reality that this thing I read about and researched and worried about is happening to me. It’s embarrassing. It’s frustrating. 

I want to know when the anxiety will go away, and I’m starting to wonder that it may be never. Having a child is anxiety-inducing as it is, but this is our first big thingl. A point of real concern, not just my imaginary what-ifs and internet readings. I keep hoping I’ll wake up, and it’ll all be a bad dream. Or that the grownups will come and fix it. But this time, I’m the grown up, and it’s not a dream. It’s my kid, and he needs me to advocate for him, not run away. 

I titled this post “What do do when you are going to lose your mind,” but I guess that’s more of a question than a statement. What do I do? The only thing I know how to do. Be Teddy’s mama, and do the best job that I can. I hope it’s enough.

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