Friday, September 16, 2016

PTSD and Wildfires: A Metaphor


I was listening to a story on NPR the other day about wildfires in the Pacific Northwest and one person who was being interviewed was part of what they call a “mop-up” crew. These are the people who come in after the fire is out and look for dead wood that might fall, trench areas that need it, and look for parts that still might be smoldering.  In large forests, it’s fairly common for roots to be on fire quietly beneath the forest floor and spontaneously erupt into new fires if the area isn’t checked thoroughly. It is these folks' job to be hyper vigilant, to scan the terrain for danger. 

I feel like that’s my nervous system in a nutshell. The original traumas were the raging wildfires that I worked to control and extinguish, but there are still hotspots in places I haven’t looked and when someone says or does something that triggers my original abandonment issues, I am suddenly right back in the middle of that forest with a raging flare-up. Hello, PTSD. 

Despite all the work I’ve done in therapy and on my own, learning to uncover my deepest insecurities and face them, sitting patiently with my demons and learning to embrace them, combating the mean voice in my head that says I’m worthless, there are still pockets of mess that I am occasionally surprised to find. Somehow, I thought I took care of this, but there was one more tree with smoldering roots just waiting for some oxygen to feed it. And oxygen feels like such a benign thing, right? Who is afraid of oxygen? Often, it is as much a surprise to me as it is to the person who said or did whatever they did, and as much as I’d like to be able to apologize for my massive response, the fact remains that now I have a new fucking fire to put out. I wish I had the time to explain or assure you that it's all going to be fine, but I don't. I have to put on my helmet and boots and fireproof jacket and wade in because ignoring these small flares isn't an option. 

There’s no way I have the time or resources to send out a mop up crew to look for every possible spot that might flare up some day. The most I can do is clear out the old dead undergrowth, set boundaries to help me feel safe, and look those damn flames in the eye when they rise up. The good news is that because I did the hard work to put out the original fires, it doesn’t take as much time or effort to quiet these smaller ones, and as long as I am completely honest and upfront with people about feeling triggered, I have done my part. 

Honestly, most of the time I go through life just admiring this forest of mine - wandering through its lush greenery and feeling blessed at the variety of things that grow there. I am so grateful to have come through those fires of my youth and be where I am today, and frankly, happy that I am in such a good place that I do get surprised when a flare-up happens. [That doesn't mean that I'm not annoyed as hell when it does. My inner monologue goes a little like this: Really? What the hell? Didn't we deal with this already? Who is the one in there that keeps flipping the switch? I told you, we're not in danger anymore. This is different.]

But these days, I can quickly move from frustration to compassion. Obviously, there's someone in there who is still afraid, who remembers all too well what it meant to be engulfed in flames, and she is hollering for help. And that's when I go into mop up mode. 



Monday, August 22, 2016

Choosing Grief

It has been a challenging few weeks around here and I feel like I'm learning a lot about grief and emotional overwhelm. The first thing I've noticed is that they both feel very different to me as an adult than they did when I was a kid, but maybe that's because I have a much stronger bedrock beneath my feet these days. Maybe knowing that the bills will get paid and there is someone to share the load of parenting and managing everyday things leaves me more space to just feel what I'm feeling. Or maybe being an adult means that I don't have anyone telling me that my strong emotions make them uncomfortable or that I'm over-reacting, or if they do say that, I don't give a shit.

My brother-in-law died quite suddenly at the beginning of July and even though I hadn't seen him in several months, I was acutely aware of the loss. Like me, he married into Bubba's family - a close-knit, fairly traditional clan - as someone who came from a very different background and family dynamic. We bonded over our "black-sheep-ness" and became allies early on. He was someone who always, always had my back, someone who was as sensitive and stubborn as I am, someone who always went to bat for the underdog. He was fiercely protective of me and my kids and Bubba's sister and we had great fun together - often in the kitchen during family gatherings. Even in my grief, I marvel at the fact that our paths ever crossed, given the difference in our ages and the fact that he was Croatian, and I am grateful for the two decades I got to share with him on the planet.

A week or so later, I lost my beloved CB, my "mostly companion," my shadow, my furry boyfriend. For more than a decade, he followed me through the house, prompted me to go for walks to clear my head, slept next to my side of the bed, scared strangers at the door, and cracked me up with his ridiculous dog antics. He was loyal and loving and when it came time to let him go, he sat with his head in my lap and trusted me implicitly. I still hear phantom toenail clicking along the hardwood floors and expect to see his smiling face at the door when I come home from the grocery store. Taking walks in the neighborhood without him is strange and disconcerting and I can't bring myself to move his bed from its spot in the family room quite yet. I feel his presence in every room of my house and my grief is tempered by the absolute joy he brought to my life each and every day, by the years he was there to wake me up with positive energy.

Two days ago, my grandfather had a stroke and reminded everyone when he got to the hospital that he doesn't want any lifesaving measures. He has lived a good, long life, outlived one of his children (my dad), two wives, and has struggled for a while to really feel as though he was thriving. He is my last remaining grandparent and my childhood memories of him are strong and clear. He is a gentle, funny man who was always ready to teach us something, whether it was a magic trick or how to use a belt sander. In my father's last months, he was such a comfort and source of love for my dad and watching the two of them interact was incredibly healing for me.

Yesterday, a dear friend of mine lost her husband in a freak car accident. He leaves behind two teenage children and my lovely friend who has been a rock for me more than once. I am overwhelmed. And I am thankful that I have learned a thing or two about grieving - at least my process for grieving.

I have learned that while it is often incredibly helpful to have friends and family around, ultimately I have to grieve in my own time in my own way. I have learned that grief - like life - is not a linear process, but one that requires me to circle back around to what feels like the same spot over and over again, but that each time I come back around, I have a slightly different perspective, an ever-so-advanced understanding of what I'm feeling and how it fits into the larger picture.

When CB died, I was home alone for a few days. Someone advised me to "go do something - don't stay in the quiet house - distraction is good," and while I know they meant well, I know from experience that distraction only leads to protracted grief. I came up with a sort of formula that consisted of deep, unapologetic dives into sadness followed by a period of mindless activity like laundry or cleaning out the fridge followed by social interaction. By allowing myself to really feel what I was feeling without descending into it so far that I couldn't get out, I was able to feel the edges of my sadness and honor them without letting them define me. I follow this pattern over and over again without placing any sort of expectation on how long it will take me to "finish," and the simple act of accepting my own feelings, whatever they might be, is an exercise in trusting myself.

I have also learned that it is important to surround myself with people who understand that grief is not a quick and dirty, check off the boxes kind of process. I need to surround myself with people who don't find my strong emotions uncomfortable or unpleasant because that means I either have to stifle my true feelings or I end up emotionally taking care of them. I actively seek those who are willing to sit with me during those deep dives without trying to fix or abbreviate or deny my feelings. These are often people who have really grieved themselves, and they 'get it.'

While there is a tendency to throw my hands up in the air and ask Why? as the tragedies pile on, I have learned that that is simply a distraction tactic that doesn't serve me in the end. It doesn't matter why. I am in the midst of sadness and overwhelm and the only way out is through. There was a time in my life when I would have wished for a magic wand or a time machine to transport me through these days quickly and efficiently, but these days I am content to take the feelings as they come and do my best to find the revelations that often accompany them. It can be painful and often overwhelming, but it is all part of this glorious, messy, beautiful, painful, honest life I choose to live.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Elephant in the Room

When the girls were little, I signed them up for a program at the local park where they could learn to ride ponies. They sat in a barn and learned about safety, donned bike helmets and boots, and climbed atop plastic step-stools to hoist themselves up into the saddle. Over a period of weeks, they learned to groom, feed, saddle, and ride these gentle creatures while I stood and snapped pictures on the other side of the fence. After each lesson, they were excited to tell me about the ponies' names and temperaments and the things they had learned about how to interact with them. When brushing the ponies, they knew to pat their way around the hind end so that the animals always knew where they were, and if they were walking near the ponies but in a blindspot, they were taught to do an "elephant circle" so as to be out of reach of a well-placed kick should the pony get spooked.

One thing you should know about me is that I prefer patting my way around to making elephant circles. If there is an elephant in the vicinity, I am the person who will point it out. I will tell you about it, indicate exactly where it is, tug on your sleeve to alert you, and describe it in great detail. Even if you indicate that you are not interested in anything having to do with this great beast in your midst, it is unlikely that I will stop trying to talk about it. In fact, if I am particularly affected by the sight of this elephant and you actively try to turn my attention elsewhere, I am likely to take you by the hand and lead you to it, make you stroke its leathery flesh, lean in for a sniff and ask you to look it in the eye.

It is not a characteristic of mine that all people appreciate.
I understand.

The other thing you should know about me is that this characteristic is necessary for my survival.

Most of my childhood was spent hearing that crying was an unnecessary activity. That sadness and fear were altogether useless. That the preferred emotions were happiness or anger and anything else was "wallowing" or "self-pity." From time to time there were entire herds of elephants living in my house that went unacknowledged. The adults perfected elephant circles as they went through their days, picking their way carefully through and around and underneath so as not to discuss any subject that might be uncomfortable. Living like this makes a person feel a little crazy. As a kid, I tried in vain to point out the elephants and was either ignored or reprimanded. I began to believe that I was the only one who saw them, that there was something wrong with me. Or that my ability to see them - my "sensitivity" (spoken with a sneer of derision) - was a fatal character flaw. I alternated between jumping up and down and pointing and cowering in my room wondering whether there was something seriously wrong with me. Eventually, I learned to avoid the rooms where they lived altogether and take cues from other people regarding which things were ok to speak of and which ones were not.

My tactics as an adult are quite the opposite. I have come to realize that, for me, ignoring the elephants is an exercise in self-destruction. To deny my feelings about any particular situation is to pretend that they don't matter. So while I won't ask you to see the elephant in the room the same way I do, or to experience the same emotions in response to it, don't be surprised if I lead you to it and describe it in great detail so that you are forced to acknowledge that it exists. So that you might begin to understand why it is something that is important to me. So that at least we can agree on one thing - that I am not crazy. I apologize if this makes you uncomfortable, but I've learned that leaning into discomfort is the best way to define its edges and begin to loosen its hold on me.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Bittersweet Moments

I will admit to being altogether unsure of how to begin. My faithful companion of over a decade is failing and, while he may live for another several weeks, things are getting rough.

We were away for three weeks at the beginning of the summer and I knew at that point that he had a small tumor on his liver and a few more "bumps" on his skin in various places, but none of them were causing him any distress. Indeed, he was eating and drinking normally and he still raced for the front door with a shoe in his mouth when the doorbell rang. The house-sitter said that had I not told her about the tumors, she never would have known.

By the time we returned, two of the bumps on his neck and shoulder had grown significantly and within another day one of them burst open. The vet said that it was cancerous, but given his age and medical status, surgery was not likely to be helpful. Still, he does not show any signs of being in pain, so I dutifully change the bandage a couple of times a day and make sure it doesn't get infected.

Over the past three weeks, he has both surprised me with his continued health and given me a scare or two. The tumor on his liver is now the size of a lemon, the one on his shoulder about the size of a lime. He has at least six more that I can feel along his back and head that grow larger every day. He is down to eating once a day and has less energy than before, but his eyes still sparkle when I come in the room and his tail wags. He makes it up the stairs to lie next to my side of the bed every night and perks up when I offer a walk. Last Thursday we had 15 people over for a backyard bbq and he made the rounds, poking everyone in the thigh with his nose and demanding to be petted with his tail thumping wildly. He slept for the rest of the night after making sure each and every guest acknowledged him.

Our walks are very different than they ever were. He also has some dementia, so it isn't strange to have him stop suddenly in the middle of the sidewalk or street and look at me in utter confusion. Other times, he refuses to walk unless we go on his chosen route, but that route has increasingly become a simple straight line away from home and when I determine that we must turn back or I'll be stuck carrying him, he plants his feet stubbornly and won't move. The tumor on his neck means that I can't tug on the leash to make him move, and today I was considering picking his 70# frame up and shoving him forward to get him moving. When I wrapped my arms around him, he sat down and licked my face. I waited a few minutes, coaxed sweetly, cursed the fact that I hadn't thought to bring treats to entice him, and finally did the parent-of-a-toddler-at-Target move. I left. I dropped the leash, turned my back on him, and walked away (don't worry - it was a quiet residential street and there were no cars around). After about 20 paces, I snuck a look over my shoulder and saw him slowly following me.

I don't know how much longer we will go on like this. I have spoken with the vet who assures me that  I'll "know" when it's time, and I hope he's right. At this point, he seems happy, he isn't indicating that he is in any pain, and he is still interested in eating and drinking. I am learning to pay really close attention to his cues and slow down. If he wants to take 40 minutes to go around the block, sniffing and lying down in the cool grass for a bit, I'm game. If he would rather snack on peanut butter and bison treats than his kibble, I'm fine with that. And if I need to lie down on the floor with him and scratch his ears several times a day, it's the least I can do for this magical creature who has loved me unquestioningly and wholeheartedly for eleven years or so. The fact that he continues to just be who he is and look to me for comfort when he needs it is all the encouragement I need to drop what I'm doing and just hang out.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Working on Getting More Compassionate With Each Passing Day

Sometimes I have revelations that are laughable. Things that I feel like I ought to have known or accepted years ago, but have only just recently sunk into my bones and opened my heart and mind up just a little bit more.

I had a boyfriend in high school that marked a huge turning point for me - a shift in the way I saw myself and the world. I think that's not unusual. I know many women who made choices that were seemingly unlike their previous personality; a "rebel phase," you could call it for some of us. It wasn't a bad relationship, but it ended badly and it went on longer than I was comfortable with and for many years afterward, my impression of the entire time we were together was colored by sadness and resentment that I had wasted so much time.  Over the decade afterward, I moved on, boldly and purposefully, and determined to never repeat the kinds of mistakes I made during that time. As I moved forward, my characterization of my ex became softer and more understanding. I began to take responsibility for my mis-steps and the ways in which I contributed to the unhealthy dynamic of our relationship - at least in my own head. We had no contact until one day several years ago when I got a Facebook friend request from him.

I declined it without hesitation.

A week later, there it was again. This time, I looked at his profile, curious to see what his life was like, and what I discovered was that many of our mutual high school friends were connected to him online. My sister was his Facebook friend.

I declined the request again.

A few days later I got a message from him asking why I was declining the requests. He was incredulous that I hadn't moved on, forgiven, gotten perspective on how young and stupid we had been. And the thing is, I had done all of those things. And I still didn't want to be his Facebook friend. I think I dashed off some message to the effect that I had no hard feelings toward him, but that my life has changed significantly and I am only interested in relationships that offer positive energy. I imagined the eye-roll when he read it. Hell, I probably even rolled my eyes at myself when I wrote it, but it was enough to stop the requests.

In the last several years, I have occasionally seen his comments on my friends' pages and thought not much of it.

Today, I saw something that my sister posted that reminded me of their friendship all those years ago - a shared love of skateboarding and punk rock music and aspirations for a particular lifestyle, none of which I had in common with them. And that's where the revelation came in. While I never begrudged any of my friends or family for not banishing him from their lives when I did (and I did, albeit in a very sloppy way), I never really considered what he may have meant to them. I didn't think about it. I never entertained thoughts of what he might have represented for my sister or another friend, what role he played in their lives, and how important it might have been. And as I sat and thought about it, I was struck by the notion that each of us means something unique to the people in our lives. The person he was with me is not the person he was with his skater-friends or his co-workers or his mother. All these years, I've been seeing him only through the context of my relationship with him and, while that was an important step in my own personal development because it taught me to define personal boundaries and honor them to keep myself safe, it is not the extent of the person he is. In terms of my personal relationship with him, it's fine for me to see him through that lens, but in terms of a definition of who he is as a person, it's unfair.

I know he meant a great deal to a lot of people I care for and it occurred to me that the more I can see each and every person I encounter through that lens, the better. Simply knowing, in my bones, that we all are so much more complex than we seem offers me an opportunity to open to compassion and understanding. If I can remember that everyone has the capacity for love and caring and likely offers that to someone in their own life, that each individual is important to someone else, I can begin to put less stock in my impression and allow them more space to show me those things.

I was in no position to do any of that in high school, to be certain. I was also incapable of seeing myself as a whole, complicated person, if I'm being honest. But the realization that different people can mean very different things to the people in their lives finally sunk in today and I think it has given me a higher perspective from which to see the world.

"Our goal is to have kind consideration for all sentient beings every moment forever." Katagiri Roshi

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Welcome to the Most Fearful Nation

Slowly but surely, inexorably, every step this country takes pushes us farther into a corner. It didn't start with 9/11, but it certainly accelerated our descent into fear, and we are now reaping what we have sown. A populace who succumbs to the shouted words of its leaders to "protect yourselves," "be alert," "report suspicious activity," and complies, putting police officers in schools, adding security protocols layer by layer, selling military-grade weapons to local police departments - this populace has come to this: snipers on rooftops shooting at peaceful demonstrations, punching each other at political rallies, spending millions of dollars attempting to block individuals from using public restrooms.

How can we be surprised? When we have all listened to the rhetoric that warns us about the Other?
How can we feign shock when we have been conditioned to look for what separates us and be on guard?
When our politicians increasingly skip over the step of diplomacy and build coalitions to "bomb the shit out of [insert country/terrorist group here]," can we not see how much of our collective American psyche is built on fear?

The thing about fear is that it is necessarily reactive. We like to think it is proactive, that we are simply PROTECTING OURSELVES, but the act of protection means that there is something we are afraid of. And in protecting ourselves, we build walls, we isolate ourselves and retreat into tight spaces where often the only recourse is to fight our way out. We have bought into the idea that in order to be safe, we must be feared ourselves, and so we arm ourselves with weapons and hateful words to be used against others.

And this fear takes on a life of its own - it prompts someone to report a suspicious character simply because of the way he or she is dressed or to be kicked off of an airplane for being middle eastern and doing math.

It takes us to the point where we are so fearful of sharing a public restroom with someone who doesn't look like us, act like us, think like us, that we try to enact laws to keep transgendered people from peeing in the stall next to us.

Every time an unarmed person of color is shot by a police officer, we live the result of that fear.
Every time a non-binary-gender-conforming person is killed or beaten, we live the result of that fear.
Every time we choose violence over dialogue and assume that the only way to protect ourselves is by shooting first, we reinforce that fear and paint ourselves farther into that corner.

The United States has become a country whose primary focus is on protecting itself, whose primary motivation - by default - is fear. It will only get worse from here unless we make a conscious effort to elect officials who come from a place of community, openness, shared humanity. The only thing we will get from fear is more fear.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Requiem for the Living

I read somewhere a reminder that everything is simultaneously living and dying. And, of course I knew that, but we do our best to think otherwise, don't we? We either work to ignore it or reverse it in almost every act we take. But the end is part of the beginning as much as green is born with shades of blue embedded in it.

And it made me wonder whether the best thing to do is simply to float along in full acknowledgment of this minute
 this moment  
 this adventure
Or should I work to give the living a little more advantage? Stretch out the living part a bit more? Use my energy to tip the scales?

It's easy to go back and forth from camp to camp. So that's what I do.

Sometimes I live in memory, stacking up joyful moments like gold bars, hoping that once the dying is done I will have this wall to lean back upon. And sometimes I realize that so much stacking means I'm not appreciating the living that is happening behind my back, and I set aside my blocks and turn around.

Spending time surrounded by the awareness that what is here now won't be forever makes for a certain quality of awake-ness that is uncomfortable. It requires me to be mindful of emotional connection instead of physical action.

"I love you" versus "let me do this for you" or "let's make new memories."

It is also difficult to define the world in terms of Not-me. That is, to not process every potentiality and new situation with regard to what it requests and requires of me and how it makes me feel. I have to float back and see myself as one part of the whole and that both humbles me and reminds me that I am an important piece of the puzzle. That in any moment I can choose to turn my back, shore up the living, or accept my place and experience what is. Perhaps the beauty in that is that I do. I choose. Among the breath and the pulse and the movement and the slowing and the dying, I choose. And the more I can remember that it is all beautiful and glorious and a gift that I am here, part of it, for a while, the stronger I feel.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...