I am awake and feeling terrible. I realized today, walking in the sunshine with Vesta happily biking ahead of me, feeling okay, good even, normal, that I have PTSD. It hit me like a ton of bricks, perhaps the most obvious “aha” moment in the history of the universe. Today I had some time when I wasn’t afraid of what was around the next bend in my life, waiting for the earthquake, the next person to die, some trauma or tragedy happening to Vesta, a fatal or maiming car accident every time I start my car. In that moment of enjoying and not feeling anxious, a break from nausea and toxic blood, these moments recently that I’ve had with greater frequency where I feel normal again, not afraid, not a low level of terror, not as easily overwhelmed by one small thing not going as planned, a sense that I have some control, some volition, moments where I almost dare to dream again about some relative contentment and ease in my days, I had a glimpse of myself as I was in my old life. Part of the trouble is that I can’t see past my own nose anymore and when I do, I imagine that others also feel so fearful, out of control and anxious like I do. But today this moment of normalcy brought with it this clarity about what a challenge it is to be inside my skin. That I live in a culture relatively untouched by traumatic events like war and famine and terrorism. That I devalue my own experience because it could be worse and it is worst for probably most other humans on the planet. Today I saw that all of those suffering also, very likely, find beauty and ease and peace in moments. That they eek it out. That I have joined the ranks of most humans who survive after tragedy.
I went into shock five times in thirteen months. It’s a physiological state. It’s a psychological state. It is moments, hours, days, weeks and even months of the body tapping out all of its resources to be able to handle the experiences. My child died: shock. I was whisked away from what I thought was a routine visit to urgent care with the strong possibility that I was bleeding out and headed for emergency surgery: shock. I almost died in surgery 6 months later and was left with a brokenness inside my body: shock. My husband abandoned me in the hospital just two days after that: shock. The marriage I thought we were trying to save ended in one night: shock. They each manifested themselves in different forms: paralysis, a sense that I was watching a movie and not in my life, staring off into nothing, literally leaving my body, uncontrollable laughter, ceaseless pacing and hair pulling. But all with the same feeling I began to recognize: a buffer, a sieve letting only the smallest pieces of the truth rest on the surface. And then days and weeks and months and now years of it all slowly and surely seeping in. Unable to trust myself, my thoughts. The unbidden thoughts of “why?” and “how?” and “wait. What happened, again?”. The being brought to my knees or to the floor, crumpled into this tiny form, the shape of myself surrendered to the elements, begging and pleading for some relief, some answer, a way to do it over again and differently. Searching for some way to make what was happening not happen. Some way to save my son, save my uterus, save my marriage. Wondering why I kept being spared. When everything felt like it was crumbling around me why did i survive the birth, why did i survive the surgery, why did I receive a literal miracle healing, when just hours before I was nearly convinced that Vesta would be better without this mother who’s spirit had literally been broken? And finding that the answer to all of those questions was just “because”. Same as for the unanswerable questions to each tragedy and each trauma “just because”.
I live in this culture that is incredibly uncomfortable with that. That it just is what it is is an impossibility.That we are animals who, despite our varied and reasonably successful ways of distancing ourselves from the fact of our vulnerability, are as exposed to the whims of nature, the world, the universe. That terrible shit just happens. That people do terrible, cruel things to each other. That we do our best to shield ourselves, to muster up resourcefulness and resiliency but when the anvil falls, it falls. And several of them fell on me, one right after the other. No wonder I spend my days looking up at the sky in the hopes of at least a little warning for next time.
And we fill each other full of platitudes and cliches, no matter how heartfelt, how truly believed, how well-intentioned: You are so much stronger now; This will open your heart so fully; There is some destiny you have, some work you need to do here, so you survived all of those dances with death; You are more “you” than you ever have been; Everything happens for a reason; God doesn’t give us more than we can handle; You are better off without him; Think positively; Focus on what you do have; Be grateful. I hear all of this but without the spaces in between the words, without punctuation or capitalization. Just a stream of words strung together that I have to read over and over and over again just to get the words in order, not even to find any sense in them. Gobbledygook. And once I get it sorted, maybe one in ten bring any solace. And that too depends on some chaotic force, some particular alignment of the stars, some unknowable combination of brain function and momentary emotional stability.
We are all just trying to make sense of things, create some meaning, feel some healing and move on to the bigger and brighter and better future that ultimately awaits us. But tell that to the terminally ill, tell that to the war veteran whose limbs have been blown off, tell that to the survivors of genocide. Not that I could understand any of their plights, any of the way they must remake sense of the their worlds, live through their own physiological, mental and emotional turmoil that ensues and carries on for years and decades after the events that so traumatized. But I feel myself in that spectrum. I listen now to books about people who lost their entire families to tsunami or disease or accident for some inkling on how to survive this, my own personal tragedies. I look to the people who have had it worse now and pray with bated breath that there will be some formula, some technique, some something that got them through. Something I can eek out of their stories that might be the magic pill. That might return me to normalcy in my physiology and my thoughts. Some way that they found to make it more bearable. But it’s not bearable. They go breath by breath. They lean into the nearly uncrushable human and animal desire to stay alive. They let the life force energy return to their bodies and just go on. These women, they are all women so far, write. They live their lives. They retreat to nature or a farm or a far off land. The inflict some kind of solitude, some kind of pilgrimage on themselves and, like me, like all of us, attempt to make some sense of things that don’t make sense,as Anne Lamott wrote, or try to make meaning out of the fact that shit just happens, that we are animals subject to nature, that people die or break our hearts and then just leave.
About ten years ago I read Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” about three times, something I rarely do, read a book more than once. It’s about the year or so after her husband literally dropped dead across from her at the dinner table, while their daughter was in a medically induced coma in an ICU across town. I was searching for that book to read again, when I came across a new title by Didion: Blue Nights. This one about the death of her daughter, 20 months and three different ICUs later. I almost literally jumped for joy “Joan Didion’s daughter died, too!” and gobbled up her beautiful prose as fast as possible. You see that? That right there where the suffering of another brought me great joy? How my heart leapt for an instant? Because here there might be something for me. Not past my nose. It’s an inhuman response. It’s an unfeeling, incompassionate response. The normal, typical, usual human response would be to catch your breath and feel your heartbreak for her. Maybe not even be able to read another book by the same woman about unimaginable loss and grief. Of being left nearly completely alone in the very same harsh, cruel world that took her family. Of being diagnosed, after inexplicable symptoms and several misdiagnoses, with her own debilitating disease shortly after her daughter’s untimely death, which was on the heals of her seemingly healthy and strong husband’s untimely death. Just over two years: bam, bam, bam. Anvil, anvil, anvil. She, thank God, had friends to rely on to care for her but, in her own words how could she “not need her daughter here”. And I’m guessing she could substitute “husband” in that sentence or just go ahead and shoot for the moon and mention them both. I found relief in that moment for another’s suffering because it meant I had found another of my tribe. And she had written it down. Again. I would venture to say that Didion is one of our time’s most eloquent and prolific writers and here she was, entering my tribe, or I her’s really, since it has been over 10 years since all of this has befallen her. Not past my nose. Which looks strikingly like a human nose but certainly could not be.
I, too, like Didion, have people who are not my immediate family, the nuclear family of my creation, who care for me. I frequently have more help than I need. I blame exactly no one, not one person, for giving me the platitudes and cliches that are at best meaningless to me and at worst create a greater sense of isolation. I blame not one person for not knowing they are not helpful, for not knowing what else to do or to say. Because they are still among the humans where all of that makes sense. And I want to keep hearing them because they actually are becoming more true again for me. But mostly because there is a person there saying those things to me. There is a person there brave enough to approach my pain and offer me a salve. And that is only scratching the surface of of the love and care that I receive. There are people in my life who listen to me every single day, once a week, monthly, often I am sure saying the very same things over and over. People who very likely can see solutions but who don’t offer them because they can see that I cannot see them. People who watch and listen closely to me and notice when I need a solution, when they see that I can see that my burden could be slightly lifted and then they tell me and then they help me implement it and it often, nearly every time, helps. I have people in my lives with real problems, terrible struggles, who routinely put themselves aside because I need them so badly. Because they see that the tip of my nose is as far as I can see and in that moment they can see farther or they can will themselves to.
I notice my mind trying to trick me: “what if I get really sick? Who will take care of me now that Danny is gone?” And my wiser self says “uh… All the people who have surrounded you and held you up this far.” I think “I don’t want to go to sleep alone tonight” and then I curl up next to the person I love most in the world and remember I am not alone. I tell myself that I am not the friend I used to be and then I show up strongly, as strong as I can, for my friends. I think “I can’t give massage today” and then I go to work and I am okay, I’m good, I’m great, I’m at my best, I’m in my element. There is tissue inside that body that is not functioning right and I can often find it and relieve, at least for a time, the pain it is causing. People can lay on my table and tell me their sorrows and joys and challenges and I can receive them with the same grace and compassion and empathy that I always have. Perhaps with even more, as the platitude goes. My beloved friends reach out to me with their troubles that seem to pale in comparison to my own and my thoughts think “Me? Really? You’re coming to me with this?” and then I can listen clearly. Then I can hear what they are saying and what is beneath what they are saying. Then I find gratitude that they believe in me, that they will still come to me, most likely with the same thoughts, “Her? I’m going to bring this to her?”. Because it would be just as bad as if I never heard the loving, well intentioned platitudes, if they kept themselves from me because they thought I already had too much on my plate. Basic strangers and ancient acquaintances reach out to me in private messages to share their pain with me because they see in me someone who might be able to hold it. They are suffering and they see me, like I see those who have suffered more than I, as a member of their tribe. Because I don’t jump for joy that Joan Didon’s daughter, Quintana, died. I jump for joy because I have found someone who I might understand. From whom I might glean some comfort and a path to meaning. There is no joy in her death, not for anyone she has left behind, those who knew her and those who know her from her mother’s writing of her. And this is no prize nor a reason for her death nor a lesson any of us can learn from her being gone but she has left behind connection. The ability for one human heart to connect to another. The possibility that our suffering will align and therefore create some ease, be it momentary or lasting.
I was on Facebook tonight and there was a sponsored post from http://www.rescue.org, on my feed because the best friend of a client of mine in San Francisco from close to a decade ago now, had “liked” it at some point and the Facebook matrix thought maybe I would too. For fifty eight american dollars, a girl in Congo or Afghanistan can have her tuition paid, her uniform bought, her supplies purchased in the hope that educating girls, giving them the possibility of life that is just beyond their reach across what I’m guessing feels like a giant chasm, will create a stabilizing force in communities in those distant lands. Will provide new leadership some day, new possibilities for a brighter future, the chance for girls who find no comfort in their own language’s clichés, to perhaps be able to someday find the truth in them. I will send fifty eight of the dollars I keep careful watch on these days to one of these girls. So that she may feel that there is someone looking out for her. That we can connect across continents and races and nationalities and give a hand to someone who is suffering more greatly or at the very least, in her own impossible way. As time goes on after the end of my marriage, I feel the loss of a sense of security. I feel the anchorless floating of the tiny life boat in the vast sea with no sign of life or land. At times, I don’t know how I will get through this life without him with me as my husband, most especially my grief for the son we made together, but also the confidence he brought to parenting, the steady belief in my dreams for myself, the near constant assurance that we were going to be okay. All of that security and love and anchoredness that came from his daily presence in my life. It’s a terrible feeling, being unmoored. And so, I think about these girls’ mothers, who likely feel that they cannot provide their beloved child with that sense, who lay awake wide eyed at what they have no control over. And the girls themselves, who can’t see past their own noses for the war and genocide and loss and terror that has plagued their young lives. At least I have a life boat and in some form, an anchor, which I may not be able to see or feel but which I can throw towards them and hope against hope that they will catch it. It’s the connection that counts. It’s the opening of my broken heart to those members of my tribe who suffer more than I do. To whom, I can throw, at the very least, an untethered anchor rope, if not the anchor itself.