“Successful”

Posted: 28 July 2017 in therapy

Another go at EMDR was more successful than the last. For me, anyway. Phoebe (that’s the therapist) says it’s all successful in that even talking about the trauma and not “doing” anything about it helps. I’m not entirely convinced I A) should even be there and B) am at all capable of getting through this. She looked a bit mystified when I told her that and, after reassuring me that I was actively getting through it, wondered at part A. Why do you think you shouldn’t be here, she asked?

It’s because there are so many worse traumas in the world. Like the friend who lost his dad in the twin towers on 9/11. Or the children who are abused. Or the adults who are assaulted. I can’t quite reconcile my role in these memories with the level of trauma I think counts as actual trauma. Why can’t I get over this, after all? Why is it so hard? Phoebe is struck by the disconnect and reassured me, again, that this is trauma with the big T.

We spent most of our time revisiting the moment I witnessed the drowning. It’s so distant when I put it like that. So…third person. It was me who threw the life preserver. Me who could have jumped off the bow of the boat to try to lift him up to breathe air. Me who watched, helplessly, as the life preserver drifted on the surface of the river. Me who reeled it back in and rode away in the boat. I did everything I could, that much I’m sure of. I could only have jumped in but there were hippos and crocodiles and I didn’t know why two perfectly good swimmers hadn’t been able to stay afloat. It wasn’t safe. That was a fair choice.

During the EMDR I focused on that moment. Which brought me (of course, it’s always the same) to fast, hot tears. I ached for his mother. I felt overwhelmingly sad that his life had ended in a cold muddy African river and not in old age, quietly, in some sort recliner, equally old dog at his side. Phoebe asked me to dive back into my own physical feelings and I did. In that way it’s much like mindfulness. My stomach hurts, my shoulders tighten. The EMDR sets were shorter than I remember them from the first time but perhaps that’s because I lost my shit and so we’re taking baby steps.

He should have gotten to have a baby of his own. I can’t even remember his name.

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**frank talk about my head horrors. also, assume I’m okay with my therapists and their opinions and I’m confident it’s the right choice.**

EMDR has not been a roaring success. Or maybe it has. On my second visit, we tried using two handheld vibrating eggs (which I had trouble not equating to questionable sex toys) and headphones. The eggs buzzed alternately in time with an unpleasant chime in alternating ears. The chimes made me think of ambulances in foreign countries which made me think of hospitals in foreign countries (my experience being limited to two other countries, to be fair), which made me think of hallways in all hospitals, which made me think of dying people in hospitals, and from there it was an easy jump to code whatever color, morgues, and a capital letter Panic Attack.

I took off the headphones, tried again, and shortly after completely crumpled. I thought it was pretty intense but assumed that was me being trapped in my brain until one therapist talked to the other (I KNOW, TWO) and recommended stopping in favor of a gentler approach less likely to cause a total mental break. They called it something else probably, but it sounded like that, and it’s scary as fuck to think that I can’t even trust my own brain to cooperate.

That said, I suddenly spend less time spontaneously seeing decaying corpses in front of me at meetings, on the sidewalk, at the dinner table, next to me in bed. And, as I reflect, it seems that probably wasn’t normal. At least, not as many as three times an hour, which adds up to approximately 42 visits to a crowded, un-airconditioned, steaming hot, third world morgue each day. I suppose that COULD break a person. I’m down to a dozen or so, of a more general dead body sort. I get to see my yellow-grey father at least twice a day of course, not exactly the way I’d choose to remember him; more than a few random bodies on the side of the road; and, the cool, sterile, final-ness of a CSI morgue which, given the alternative, is a gold star imagination path.

Maybe it’s because we’ve had the memorial for my dad. I wasn’t particularly attached to his ashes (after all, he and I spend a lot of unpleasant time together every day) but I have been hopeful that this will give my mom a place to move forward from and provide some closure for my sisters. I’m sure on a subconscious level the end of the dying process had an impact. At the third EMDR appointment, we skipped the vibrating eggs (ha) again (see above concern about breakage) and talked in depth about what continuing could mean and the alternatives. I’m pretty sure trying again is the right decision and she feels confident that I have the skills to “keep myself safe” which sounds flaky but makes sense in the sense that I have a stockpile of tools to physically reground myself in the present and not end up lost among the flies which *can* happen but isn’t likely in her super lovely office.

I’m worried though. Worried that my wife secretly thinks I’m a disaster. Or worse, that she’s afraid of me. At best, I hope it’s only that she wishes I’d dealt with this sooner or that she hadn’t married me. She did it twice though, so she’s pretty much lost her opportunity to complain. I worry she doesn’t understand that the reason I’m telling more stories about the good times (when I can remember them) is because I’m trying to repair all the broken places. I’m afraid she’ll think I’m stuck in the past or making something out of nothing. I’m worried she goes to sleep at night wondering when I’ll wake her up with a nightmare next. I’m worried she thinks this foever will be a weight around our collective necks.

I’m also worried about myself. What happens when my wife and I are doing something more…well, you know…and I get an unwelcome and unrelated memory? Are my personal tastes in that area because I need intensity to rule out any other thoughts? And is that bad? And does that keep us from connecting frequently, because what I want is not what she wants? I suppose I could leverage my not inconsiderable time in therapy to address this but it’s embarrassing and I never remember to think this clearly (well, it’s clear to me) in the office.

Turns out I have about four more paragraphs of anxieties, none of which are the actual trauma on repeat in my brain, all of which relate to my wife, my work, and my relationships. I feel ridiculous for spelling them out, so I won’t go further. Here’s hoping that it was the EMDR, as the therapist suggests, and that a second attempt will keep helping.

More Therapy Less Counseling

Posted: 16 June 2017 in therapy
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Well I thought I was going to tackle some EMDR. I didn’t. Mostly because I spent the better part of the hour reminding myself to breathe so that I could talk so that I could be honest because I’m not taking time and spending money to still be having night terrors. And I was honest, more honest than I usually am talking about the scary stuff. I guess honest isn’t the right word. Open, probably. I don’t lie but I do withhold. Lots.

And lots.

And lots.

I had to breathe so I could ask questions and say the really dumb stuff, to get it out of the way. This trauma probably isn’t bad as far as trauma goes. This isn’t something that needs therapy. It’s a waste of her time. I’m preventing her from helping me because I can’t seem to get my shit together, unclench my fists, breathe the color back into my lips. I suppose you know the answers to those and of course you know that she did, too. I also know the answers but that’s what crazy is. It knows the answers and it doesn’t care.

This therapist is the sort of smart that works for me. Frank, compassionate, confident. She was certain that this would happen (though my kind of smart also includes a purposeful lie here and there) and that we wouldn’t be doing any explicit EMDR that visit. She defined therapy as different than counseling. She said that we were still doing the work, if if it didn’t appear that we were doing the work. I could tell she believed this fully although I’m still not sure. She told me that my story had haunted her and then she assured me that it was okay to have told her, that it didn’t damage her, but that this is big and terrible trauma and while it isn’t going away, she and I together can stop it from screaming into my ears.

The last week has been better. Fewer nightmares but more details. The color of the shirt on one dead child, dressing him in the hall of the morgue as he flopped, no, stood stiffly, somehow both, between two men. Blue. The room full of body-sized boxes stacked to the ceiling, empty but shiny silver. Not what an American coffin looks like on TV. The demonstration of the seal and the sympathetic but graphic explanation of the function of the plug to drain bodily fluids. I wish I’d listened more carefully. You’d think that if I was going to be stuck with this horror, I’d at least get some good writing material out of it.

My next visit is Friday and I’ve given myself one monstrous task before then. This trauma is not nothing. Anything that can strip a person of part of themselves is not nothing. I will believe that and treat it with respect.

 

It’s Not in the Bag

Posted: 7 June 2017 in therapy
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I am struggling to breathe. My heart is racing over in over in short bursts all day long. Even when I think I’m focused, or calm, or even bordering on relaxed (though let’s be honest, lately relaxed means something entirely different than the actual definition of the word). This isn’t grief over the loss of my dad in the sense that I need his presence or miss the role he played in my life. You can argue with me, but I have so much else, I believe wholeheartedly that I’ve handled those specific things well enough. My pounding heart tells me there is so much else.
My relationship with my mom, of course. It’s a lot, of course. Our connection is frayed and knotted together, different textures and itchy, abrading, too rough to hold. I don’t like it, I’m not strong enough to sever it, and I’m too practical – every so often you wish you had a piece of rope and anything will do, as long as you have it.
My relationship with my colleagues and professional commitments. Suddenly I feel like my work was less important that it was. Maybe that change was coming before my dad died. I feel like it happened when I wasn’t looking, while I was too distracted to try to catch the rudder before it turned. I feel like others have taken on my responsibilities and my value is reduced because I prioritized my family over my work. I feel unduly punished and taken advantage of by people I’d have considered above it.
My relationship with activism and my own identity as a highly privileged person who is shockingly (to myself) fragile. I’m angry about that and while I want to fight and advocate and resist, I have needed to rely on others to do it. I’m ashamed of that and I know I need to do better.
My relationship with death. I hold a lot every day and I’ve fit it into a sloppy, ripped bag in my brain where it regularly leaks and smells and leaves stains I have to scrub for days. My chief coping skill with so many other things is to write. Sometimes it’s in my head. Scrolling words I don’t share. Sometimes it’s here or on an ever-unpublished note between meetings. I do not write about the things in the bag. I don’t acknowledge the bag except to constantly clean around it. The closest I’ve gotten is a Facebook message to a former teacher who publishes raw works about witnessing the death of his friends in the Vietnam War. His advice was to write it down, even if others read it who can’t unknow what they’ve read. I’ve tried, here, I can’t. It’s not so I can keep it in the bag. I just…can’t.
I’m spending a lot of energy and committing intellectual space to take each of these relationships and find a resolutions. I’m also seeking my courage which is pitifully lacking. Most of these are daily pursuits. I can’t always look my shame in the face. I can’t manhandle my work environment minute to minute when I can focus on my emotional reaction to those minutes. I can’t look in the bag. The contents of the bag look at me. Death doesn’t care what I’m doing or what other things I’m tackling. The things in the bag prefer dreamtime, the moments when I think I’m on a break from this work, and undermine the accomplishments I make in any other area. The bag dines on my confidence.
That’s bullshit.
Tomorrow I’m going to the new therapist to tackle some EMDR. I’m hopeful but it’s weak hope. I’m scared and anxious and (there goes my heart). I don’t have the required safe space I’m supposed to have discovered by now. I don’t know what this looks like and I didn’t (was unable to chose not to) do any research about the technique. I told myself when I tried that it was “confidence in my therapist” or “a commitment to avoiding misinformation” It was probably more of the same though, more of my inability to navigate my brain with the bag. I have to go to work afterward. It’s a tangle.
I’m terrified.

If you’re here from Counting Chickens, welcome (or welcome back) and know that these posts are more about death and dying than life and love. Or maybe it’s both.

I’m the one who cleaned out your hospice room. I took down each photo carefully, saying names aloud like a litany. Your two brothers, both silver haired and older than you are. Your best friend, clad in denim and plaid, standing next to you against a desert cliff. You were smiling at me, watching me aim your old 36 millimeter, getting the focus just right. Your youngest and her family; her husband, their white-blond three year old, and brand new infant. I know you remember the day this one was taken, you with your arm slung over mom’s shoulders, settled deep into a couch in the 1980s. She looks happy here, dad. Like she hasn’t been in awhile. This one’s of me. I miss you dad, so so much. And here is my other sister, sunglasses and a hat at your old house in Wyoming. Your grandkids, here and here, and here. And RR, of course, she loves you so much. I take them down one at a time, fold up the ones in frames, tuck them into a canvas bag to take home.

Moving to your few possessions, I name the things I touch. Mom won’t want this blanket for a few days, I’ll put it in my bag. We ate almost all those jellybeans, didn’t we? I’ll leave your comb here and put your toothbrush with your phone and slippers. These are pretty flowers, dad, but you wouldn’t have liked their scent. I unstick my daughter’s drawings, folding her artwork into the trash, along with the hospice literature that helpfully told us what to expect while you died in front of our eyes.

I’m keeping my back to you and I feel ashamed for doing it. I’m a coward for not looking into your face again, taking your hand, and telling you I love you. In my defense, I don’t believe you are here, but that doesn’t stop me from talking to you. My hands are deliberate and steady even though I’m quivering inside and out. I tell you how I’m feeling, and I notice that my voice is higher, but quiet, with a definite shake, words strung end to end. I’m going to miss you dad. It’s too soon but I’m so glad you’re done. It was time to stop fighting.

I’ll just put the rest of your things here. And, well, dad, it looks like that’s everything. Not much was there? But so much.

 

 

Avoid Media on 9/11

Posted: 8 September 2011 in observations
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Americans have a “where were you” moment.  Oh, your sister says, I was folding laundry in front of the TV.  Your neighbor was trying to get through traffic to work (and then home again – no easy feat).  Buying flowers.  In a meeting.  On an airplane.  That doesn’t begin to cover the other half (and you know who I mean).  I can’t speak for them.  I wouldn’t.  I’m not eloquent enough.

I speak for myself.  If you want to listen, I can tell you where I was (at my desk in a warehouse in Africa) and how I found out (the phone rang; the Embassy called an emergency meeting) and what I did then.
Lost my temper.
Slammed my hand down on my desk.
Cursed.
Looked out the window at the crisp blue sky.
Cried.  So angry.

And then I just stopped remembering.

Missing: the reaction of my coworkers, the meeting at the Embassy, the drive home, sharing the news with my partner.  I assume the guards at my house had words of sympathy.  I gather I got more information as the evening wore on.  Probably I didn’t eat dinner, or sleep well.  And here’s something I wish was missing: watching my friends drink bottled and bottles of wine and the same one minute clip of a plane flying and then crashing over and over on the only three news stations we got – one in French, two in Arabic.

I think I had it easy.  I know I did.

As hard as it was to cope with the shock in a small community far from the States, doing it in the context of a small community far from the States might have been a blessing.  We grieved together and leaned heavily toward one another both then and in the anthrax scare following (and the death of two of our friends, two marines, after that).  We had the same limited collection of images and the same French and Arabic news.  The internet in Africa in 2001 was not the internet of today.  My wife, in Virginia that day, tells a very different story.  Videos, pictures, audio, personal interviews, different angles, repetition, misinformation, chaos.

I will tune out on Sunday (probably Monday, too).  I won’t look at the internet or watch the news.  It isn’t the memorial and the recognition of the victims, it’s the replaying of the day.  It’s the news station that will – you know one of them will – rebroadcast events in real time.  The newspapers that will publish images I haven’t seen.  It’s the graphic blitzkrieg that I was protected from that day (and the days that followed).

Today over lunch, I saw a picture of people running down a street covered in dust and I thought, “why are those evacuees from flooded areas so dusty?”  It wasn’t current flood footage, obviously, but I haven’t ever seen pictures like that from that day.  I don’t want to.  My heart hurts enough without it.

Flush

Posted: 2 August 2011 in other folks
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I work in one of those sorts of places where the toilets are automated.  I walk in, take a seat and, when I stand again, voila!  Magic happens.  That toilet flushes like that’s it’s job.

Wait a minute!  You mean you’re supposed to flush after use?  Why yes, gentlemen using this building, you ARE!

We are not of the if it’s yellow let it mellow crowd.  And in the unisex, you may find that you don’t trigger the auto-flush doing whatever it is you’re doing.  But why, WHY, don’t you go ahead and hit that spiffy black button that makes it go manually?  Let me tell you, I don’t need to see your business first hand.  And, while I appreciate your effort to save water, you’re failing since no person in their right mind would want to sit down there and risk encountering your splash back.

Really.  Just hit the button.