Fragment(I)

Every year, this time of year I’ve got this feeling of impending doom that screams “THIS is FUCKING real and there’s not a damned thing YOU can do about it”. Eight years feels so short and so far away all at once, and the feeling leaves me wondering how the hell people can ever get over stuff. Mind you, losing your parents and your sister all in one go is, believe it or not, much worse than you would think it would be, even AND especially after all this time.

About eight years plus three months ago I was maybe sitting in a lawyer’s office while they spewed bullshit at me about how things would take time and that they’d be on it so it wouldn’t be too long and I’d be able to get on with my life. I already had signed some papers and closed some bank accounts (much to their surprise I wasn’t as dumb and stunned as I looked) to speed things up and keep myself moving. During that time I mostly drank coffee and ate mangoes to stay productive. I think at one point I weighed 102 pounds, an all-time low in my adult life.

Months and months later, my dad’s will still had not been probated, despite talk of things not being too long. I remember one day being a pissed off and traumatized nineteen-year old sitting across from the lawyer giving him a mighty stink-eye and a cold shoulder as he rambled on about how things were taking so long but oh they would keep moving and things would get done. I’m positive it was my bitch-stare and terse words uttered that afternoon that was the final impetus for the probate to go through.

I sit here and think about these things eight (fucking) years later and it feels like a dream. Memories that feel like dreams during the day and dreams that feel real in the night are the lasting essence of trauma.

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Kindness from Sadness

“Something I’ve noticed…in my career and as a therapist…is that, people who’ve been through a lot, seem to have a look to them…you can just kind of tell. They all have that look” is what she says to me, her eyes glowing and serious. I had just relayed how I’d noticed the ways people react- a stiffening, or a gaze of uncertainty, unsure what to say. I had either been overly paranoid, reading into things too much, or remarkably perceptive- that session, my therapist confirmed the latter for me. I trust what she says, thinking about how many faces she’s seen and raw emotions drawn. I let her words sink into me, and I allow myself to feel reassured – and even a little proud – of my own intuitions.

You start to notice more after going through something that tears your life apart. As I grow up, becoming more educated and learning more about people and the world, I also know more about myself. I now know that I am and have always been highly sensitive. Through experience, the world around you changes because you change. You learn to discern subtleties in people- hue of the eyes, the meaning of a smile. Some people have a warmth, or innocence, or serenity, ¬†or something else that’s indescribable but nonetheless present. If there’s something in others that I see, then others see something in me, and I notice. We are mirrors facing mirrors.

I think of my own tragedy sort of like a boulder that’s been unexpectedly dropped into a still lake. When it happened, it created a tidal wave- a tsunami. Water and sand and pebbles were displaced as the giant rock was dropped in, and little pools of water formed on the surrounding shores. Even after the waves settled into ripples, and the ripples eventually subsided and dissipated, things were different. I am not the same. I’m different relative to how I used to be, and different relative to everyone who hasn’t had the same experiences. People pick up on things too.

I remember the way people treated me when everything was fresh. Obviously people knew very clearly (as clear as what I knew at the time, anyways), and were very much affected too. Fake smiles are unmistakable. It’s the eyes that always got me the most, though. Seeing something in you, and searching your own eyes for answers to questions of “what can I do? Are you okay? Will you survive?”. You learn that people feel useless, or guilty, or even angry if there’s nothing they can do in the moment to help.

I think about a passage from a book that resonates with me, and how it really hits home for me:

“But there is a kindness here, a complicated kindness. You can see it sometimes in the eyes of people who look at you and don’t know what to say. When they ask me how my dad is, for instance, and mean how am I managing without my mother. Even Mr. Quiring, the teacher I am disappointing on a regular basis, periodically gives me a break. Says he knows things must be a little difficult at home. Offers to give me extensions, says he’s praying for us. I don’t mind.”(A Complicated Kindness, Miriam Toews).

People, they mean well and are kind, even if it’s moreso for their own consolation. If that’s all they can give, it’s the best they can give.

 

 

 

 

 

Reasons to do/to not do something

1.You’re too stubborn to quit.

2. Peer pressure

3. You’re standards for yourself are exorbitantly high

4. You’ve invested $8000 (plus rent and eating-out and bus money and moving to a new city)

5. Impress people you love.

6. Spite people you no longer like.

7. Prove yourself as a minority in your field.

8. Prove yourself as a minority in your life (given your own personal fucked-up  circumstances)

9. Have a reason to not lay in bed all day listening to music and avoiding people.

10. Be the only person from your high school to do what you’re doing.

11. Because it hurts and you’re moderately masochistic.

12. You’re afraid to not be this busy.

13. You’re straight-up too stubborn to quit.

 

love letter.

When I dream of you, you’re still alive, but you’re not here. I haven’t seen nor have I heard from you in so long, and I’m confused- dumbfounded, really- as to why. It’s so cold and callous of you to have left me like that. I’ve finally reached you after all these years, and you’re so cool and calm about it. Long lost sister living in a different city. I finally found you, and you don’t so much care.

There were times growing up, later on, when we were older, that I felt like you didn’t like me. I don’t blame you, I guess. I wish I would’ve been nicer and a better role-model instead of being insecure and feeling threatened a lot. But I didn’t know, and neither did you. We were really just kids. During those times- all pubescent- you were secretive and did your own thing. You had your own friends and did your own thing, and being more older and mature (finally), I tried to include you. I wanted so badly for us to be best friends. No, it wasn’t that way when we were little, but I clearly grew out of that before you did. I can’t blame myself though. You were a teenager.

When I can actually remember, I cherish the times we hung out. I remember when we went down to the park in phase six, wearing our big hoodies with our dark hair up. You brought Skye the dog- your dog- with you. It was windy as hell, just like it always was in that town. Around that time it was cool to take pictures on a disposable camera (as if we could afford a digital one anyway), so that’s what we did at that park. I remember we had fun that day. You weren’t withdrawn, and I wasn’t angry or sad. We just had fun. I think I still have that picture of you at the top of the playground, leaning against the fireman’s pole, with a wry smile and your dark doll’s hair framing your face. I snapped the photo from the ground, and so you’re above me.

I don’t know what went wrong. All this time and I still can’t comprehend you being gone. I’m so happy for the good times, but in my dreams the bad is expressed. I always feel abandoned or even disowned and wake up feeling sick. It’s a sick that pervades and permeates every corner of my life. If only you knew what it was like to live this kind of life- one eye open and your head on a swivel. Just in case, you know? I’m anxious a lot and sleep isn’t the same. The worst is the slowness (how things move so fast).

I wish I could tell you what happened. I’d tell you how fucking much I miss you and need you. It’s a hole that hasn’t been filled and can never be. I’ve wrecked relationships and can’t form new ones because everything is tainted now, like how a drop of ink just spreads into a glass of water. But that’s how it is, and I’m trying really hard.

I try to fool myself every second of every day by not thinking about you (or mom or dad- but this is about you this time). It’s sort of like damming back a river- eventually that shit’s going to leak through in some way. The agony that I keep frozen during the day (so that people can tolerate me) comes out at night when I’m too tired and in my dreams. So there you are, cold and uncaring. It doesn’t matter that you haven’t seen my in years as that was your intent. You’re indifferent to my presence while I’m burning inside. What can I do though, but sit and burn, as I’ve been doing. I can’t bring you back, and you can’t see me. I can feel you though, in me, and remember you through my love for you. Sister- with your black doll’s hair and your soft features, your coolness and that knowing sparkle in your eye, your warm energy and rare sensitivity, your you-ness that can’t ever be described fully but only felt by those who knew you- I feel you and I love you, and I carry you with me every single day.

Hard Things

Sitting down I’m bent over, one arm across my middle, other arm bent, with my phone in my hand up to my ear. I stare at my lap, half-listening, mumbling “yeah,” and “mmhmm”. She’s rambling, yet concise, filling me in on the details of her day, her week, and her month. She had called me during the weekend of the latest anniversary and left me a lengthy message telling me she’s thinking of me and that she loves me but that I need to take care of things- take care of the ashes. Except she framed it in her own way that she does, telling me that she’s been setting her intent to the universe that they would be brought home. My mouth tasted sour. I hadn’t called her back until today.

She asks me what’s new in my life- do I have any new friends, do I have any new special friends? I laugh a real laugh and tell her that I always have new friends, but no, no-one special (and that I’m okay with that). I don’t really know what else to say, so I talk about the trip that I have planned later this month, and that the weather is so nice here but so dry. There’s always new stuff around here, but nothing really changes, is what I’m trying to throw down, and I’m positive she gets it. I sit there, more hunched over now, anticipating that question again.

Having to do hard things is all part of this. I tell myself that in the same way you would tell a child it’s okay to be sad sometimes. When I think about doing those hard things I’ve had to do, and the hard things I have to do in the future, it feels like metal on metal. It sounds like I’ve bottomed-out in a shitty parking lot. It’s a pain that will never really go away, so I grin and bear it anyways and carry on. We shall overcome.

My brain’s adapted, I think, and changed, so now it seems I process things bit-by-bit. The process is sequential, and each small hard thing needs to be isolated and dealt with on its own, because the whole would be phenomenally overwhelming. Take things as they come not to get bogged down and heavy. Having to live this way is not by choice. It sucks. Life sucks. Everything and everyone sucks. But not all of the time-when you have to be in pain, suddenly good things become better, and you start seeing magic in the previously mundane. Maybe that’s a consequence of growing up though, being able to see through the rain. Grown-up or not (I think not), I have this feeling that my experience has amplified my gratitude. As some law of physics turned cliche goes, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. You experience intense pain and all the while long for the hurting to stop, and as terrible or horrific the experience is, a voice in the recesses of your mind tells you it’s momentary and this too shall pass. No matter how bad it gets, you must tell yourself to LISTEN because that small voice is right. Keep pushing; punch through walls. Come out on the other side and you’ll feel the light. Revel in it.

We talk more about nothing, and I feel uncomfortable. Why does this feel awkward. In the end, the question doesn’t come (at least not directly). We hang-up, and I feel like I’ve swallowed a large pill, the discomfort finding its way into my esophagus. I’ve successfully avoided this conversation for now, although I know it’s future appearance is inevitable. I think briefly about all of the things I’ll have to do to get it done. Phone calls. Flight-booking. Time off work. All of that practical stuff. Then, seeing people I haven’t seen in years, people who were like family growing up when we lived back there (home). Their presence will evoke a lot in me, I know. Then, seeing relatives and being uncomfortable. I’m worried the whole saga will be not an experience, but a RE-experience, one that I really don’t want. I’m getting ahead of myself, and decide to put it on the shelf for later (I do that often- it’s a roomy shelf).

I get ready to go for a run- a welcome medicine- to shake it off. The sun is bright and hot and I can feel myself start to sweat immediately. I feel happy out here, and I feel deep appreciation for where I live and the decision I had made three years ago to move here. I had thought naively that I was through the thick of it, and I resent having to deal with more. Part of me also feels intensely guilty for avoiding for so long, but I now know how to counter that with the rationale that few people have (or maybe no one has) been through what I have, and what would anyone else do in this position? I squint into the light and remind myself that this all can be broken down into smaller pieces that can (and will) be dealt with individually. The reality of this is the discomfort and the hurt, but that each small piece will be momentary. Just hard things, and that’s okay.

In it together

“It’s not like a normal sweat- it’s a stress-sweat. You know the one,” is what she says to me, her eyes not quite frantic, but close. This is the first time she’s told me in depth of her experience of her circumstances and her PTSD. I say that she’s right, there’s a different between exercise-sweat or sweat from heat, and “stress-sweat”. She laughs, saying the latter smells.

When we’re done talking in fragments about our respective experiences with trauma, we’re both sitting there, revved up, needing something to do. A change in our thoughts, our feelings, our energies. We both try to distract ourselves- she shows me something funny on Facebook, and I chuckle forcedly. I look back to the monitor of my own computer, concentrating hard on some frivolous news article. The tension is there, and I realize that that’s our shared experience. Her story is completely different than my own and her life is a universe unbeknownst to me, despite her willingness to share. Me, I don’t share much by no fault of my own, but at this moment maybe I don’t need to. The response is the same- the striking tendency to avoid by staying busy, persistent nightmares and sleep troubles, feeling revved up by red-alarm fear (and “stress-sweat”). Similarly, we emote an incomprehensible yearning over what could have been and a sadness, frustration, and anger that follows because we can’t go back in time and instead have no choice but to endure what’s been given. There’s the guilt (good God, the guilt) that eats at us, and warrants a strict voice of reason to stave it off. Her story is hers, mine is mine, and every day is an obstacle course of triggers that can make us re-live aspects of our respective traumas.

I always struggle between wanting desperately to have my story heard, and needing to withdraw and avoid from the painful emotions of loss that follow the memories of another life. I have this fantasy of telling people the whole thing, unabridged, and not numbing-out or feeling intense fear, and not feeling freaked out by the fear and sadness evoked in others from sharing the story of what I’ve endured. It remains a fantasy though, because my PTSD brain still hasn’t yet put it all together. The memories and emotions are scattered shards of sharp glass, too pain-invoking to be put together again. But this is where I’m at, and I can’t fight it (I’ve tried without success). Some length of time has passed, and I’ve learned that I must trust the process, and trust my brain and nervous system to do its thing. Sometimes it feels like I’m going backwards, but I know I’m further now than I’ve ever been, and am going to get further along still. Right now, I’m very clearly not ready to tell-all, although I’d like to.

The tangible experience- my memories, my life, as well as your own- are very different. The response is the same, and we can be united without having to reveal anything if we are not ready to. We each understand that our reactive experience is the same, and in that way we are united. We are in it together, and I find solace in that.

“PTSD”: A label I can cling to

When I learned I had PTSD, I felt something like relief for finally having a label for the symptoms I had been experiencing since it happened. As much as we- myself, anyone with a mental or physical illness, or really anyone else with a heartbeat- does not want to be stereotyped or stigmatized, having a label provides a title we can offer to anyone who asks why. One can say, when the opportunity arises, “I have PTSD”, without necessarily having to explain why. It saves us from having to talk about the events that still affect us so deeply, which we might not be able to talk about in a coherent or meaningful way, or which could cause us to dissociate or just simply be overwhelming in some circumstances when we open up about it.

I remember when I was talking to my counselor at the time about the experiences I had been having and he pulled out the DSM-IV off the shelf for me to look at. He opened the book to the section about PTSD, and I carefully read the symptoms. Before this, I had been fairly clueless about it, in the sense that it was something that other people could develop, but that I was somehow immune to. I think at this time it had only been a year and a half after it happened, and I was often under the impression that I would just “get over it” or magically overcome it in a span of two years. I would explain how I felt really foggy sometimes, almost like being underwater, or how I had problems concentrating because all I could do was think about what happened. Sometimes, especially in the first few months, I’d lay in bed at night, terrified out of my mind because I felt like I was there, and that I could die too, like they did. These experiences that I would have that I often talked about were things I thought only happened to me, and things I thought would pass quickly. I felt naive looking at the pages of the DSM, like I should’ve known that this was something I now had, that what had happened had impacted me so much. Above all though, I was relieved that all of the symptoms I had been experiencing, were not entirely uncommon reactions and not entirely abnormal reactions to be having. My poor kid-brain was just trying to make sense of something entirely and shockingly un-sensible.

In the following years, I had done a lot of re-experiencing of feelings and thoughts and memories. It had been confirmed more than once that the umbrella term for what I was going through was post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s been six years this May since it happened, and I have bad dreams, my memories are sometimes mixed up, and sometimes I feel afraid for no tangible reason. I can’t always explain to people what my circumstances are, or how it affects me, but I can tell people, if the situation calls for it, that I have PTSD.

At Least

If I had to pick a word to describe my usual state of mind, it would be “confused”. At the risk of sounding melodramatic or even cliched, it has been the events of my life that have caused this permanent state. What I’ve been through have left a hole in me that needs filling, and I seem to be lacking the skills to be able to fill it. That said, it happened when I was 19- although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was a baby. I’m 25 now, and still a baby. I still don’t know how to cope- do you blame me?

On more than one occasion I’ve been “diagnosed” with PTSD. Yes. It’s been confirmed. Way back when I was seeing a counselor where I used to live, I’d been sloppily describing my thoughts and feelings as best I could during our sessions. Feeling disconnected from the world, like I was underwater, not remembering things correctly, having a new, misconstrued sense of time- that was gist of what they call dissociation. I remember it had been going on for a few months, all while I was still grieving (which hasn’t ended even today), and attempting to manage an estate (and remember, I was nineteen), when he pulled the DSM (the Bible of mental health professionals) off the shelf and showed me the criterion for post-traumatic stress disorder. My eyes scanning the page made me feel heard. In a sense, I felt relieved.¬†Ironically, reading something that I “had” listed in the DSM made me feel less crazy.

Part of me thinks it’s over-simplistic to keep referring to this as PTSD. Thats like taking a big, messy closet full of clothes and trying to fit it all into a tiny suitcase. There’s just too much to fit. If I really fold and stuff and cram though, I can get most of it in there. Such a label makes it one thing- a single entity- rather than the disparate mish-mash of memories and thoughts and emotions that it really is. It keeps me from having to explain to other people, and it also keeps my brain from having to try so hard to make sense of it all.

As confused as I always am, at the very least I’ve been given a label. Obviously I have no familial home-base to identify with any longer. I am no longer in a steady relationship (for reasons also relating to my circumstances, which I might talk about some other time if I feel like it). Where do I call home? Who can I be? I have yet to find someone who has gone through what I’ve been through, events so terrible and rare that that I can hardly talk about it with anyone. That makes me deeply alone. At the very least though, I can feel less so and more normal by being able to identify with the PTSD. It’s mine, but also that of others, people who I do not know. For that, I am granted a (somewhat shaky) sense of comfort in the midst of unknown people suffering though various traumas. Despite the shakiness, I can still bask in a tiny glow of comfort and relatedness, and feel more normal and less confused.