PTSD-ish-ness

I came to a realization yesterday. It’s both good and bad news.

It started when I was almost in another accident. The car behind me slammed on their brakes, screeched towards me, and stopped with only inches to spare. She would have hit me if I hadn’t left lots of space between myself and the car in front of me, allowing me to move forward and out of her way. The danger here wasn’t my life, just whiplash and my back bumper. But I had a meltdown. I couldn’t breathe, and I sobbed. Sobbed. Not from grief, from terror. I kept driving, sobbing, and missed my turn. I drove half an hour before I noticed I was still driving and wondered where I was, wondered how had I driven so far. That’s not good.

So, the bad news. That reaction clarified that I’ve slid into PTSD territory. I might not be diagnosable (I don’t have the objectivity to diagnose myself, teasing out what is trauma and what is grief), but I’m hanging out around there. If nothing else, I have PTSDishness. It’s been there in some form since the accident, but it’s gotten much worse in the last 2 months. I recognized that I was overreacting, but couldn’t name it.

The good news is I’m not going crazy. Now I understand why I dread leaving the house, and why I have library books that are weeks overdue and I still can’t bring myself to get in the car and drive to the library. It explains why I feel I’m among strangers even when I’m with friends. If I have PTSDishness, my angry outbursts while driving, my fears and anxieties all make a little more sense.

They feel excessive. They feel out-of-character and out-of-control.

They are.

But they are normal for PTSD.

At least now I know that when I get triggered while driving (lately that’s almost every time I get in the car), I should pull over and give myself time to calm down.

Unhappy Becoming

How is it that life can change so completely in a fraction of a second?

There was no warning that things were about to change, there were no screeching brakes. Just impact. And suddenly there were ambulances and helicopters, and we were frantic because all three kids needed help but there were only two of us, and we couldn’t even get them out of the car. And a week later we carried Jana out of the hospital because she could hardly walk. Her eye was swollen shut and she had surgery scars along with the injuries from the accident. We couldn’t hug her close because we were afraid to hurt her fractured skull, and besides, she was so mad she pushed us away. We comforted Michael, whose only visible injury was a scratch on his chin. Somehow that little scratch scarred into a thin red line, and he is proud of it. He doesn’t want it to go away. He can sense how deeply the accident has changed the identity of our family, and it helps him be a part of it. It says “see, I was in the accident too, I was there.” And I stood next to a casket that was way too small, staring at blue bunny tucked next to Samuel’s still face. His face looked funny, they didn’t do a good job with his funeral make up. I could see it in streaks on his cheek. I should have touched him, mother’s touch their children, but I couldn’t. And my world fell apart.

God was gone in an instant. The last thing I prayed was for God to heal Samuel, and I really, really believed he would. There was nothing the doctors could do? That won’t stop us, God has brought this child through so much, it can’t possibly end here. God is bigger than any doctor, we aren’t worried. But nothing happened. He never woke up. And God had nothing to say about it. In three months I can count the times I’ve prayed on one hand. I’ve started to pray a few times, and stopped myself. Why am I engaging God about this, when it doesn’t make any difference, when he clearly doesn’t care? I’ve yelled at God, doubted His goodness, and given him the silent treatment. I’ve pulled out my Bible to read it, and ended up more mad than when I started. The words are hollow, the reassurances are clearly meant for someone else. Or maybe they are empty for everyone, and I’ve been fooled for all these years.

I’m angry that I’m stretched so thin I can’t manage the little bumps that happen in every day. That I cry when I see mothers with wiggling kids at the store. That I get annoyed with my children for normal things, and that I can’t seem to put away laundry. That simple decisions overwhelm me and bring me to tears. That I can’t remember what shampoo we use. I wonder which awkwardness I’d rather face, to wear sunglasses in the store so I can hide my eyes, or cry in the shampoo aisle.

But mostly, it’s about God. Where is he, why has he left us? And I’m ashamed, because I would have told you last year that suffering is part of this sinful world, and it’s only pampered American Christians who think that God protects us from ever suffering (and of course, I was not pampered). But now that I’m in the middle of it, I doubt. And rage. And hate what I’ve become. A empty-armed mother who cries when I drop just two kids off at school every morning. Hyper-sensitive to every questionable driver on the road, sometimes screaming and cursing at them in my car. Angry at the people who have sacrificed and cared for us the most. How small of me, how selfish. I don’t know who I am anymore. I don’t know if the accident has exposed ugliness in my heart or helped create it, but it’s there.

And where, where is God? If God is there…no…if God cares, then He will be there again some day, right? Maybe? How long do I have to wait? I need Him now. Why would he disappear when we need him most? I’m told, kindly, by several people I respect, that in the end I have to choose to trust God in this. If answers don’t come, I still have a choice. Acceptance. Surrender. Trust. And I think they mean I have to trust God about the accident and Samuel. But I know in my heart it’s bigger than that. If I trust, it’s everything. If God was right and just and loving to take Samuel, then he is right and just and loving no matter what he does the next time. He can take Michael and Jana, he can take Jeremy. He can wound us, take anything we have. He can teach us any lesson. And I’m fearful, I see ways every day that God could take the rest of my family. What if that’s his plan, will I submit to that? What if he hides his face forever? Can I surrender everything, absolutely everything? This is dying all over again. I’m frightened and I can’t let go of what I have left.

I try to remember Samuel’s face smiling and warm, instead of his face motionless in the casket. I try to remember his name as he would write it proudly and crooked on his paper, instead of carved perfectly onto a stone. I try to remember the firetrucks he loved to draw with red crayon instead of the ones that responded to his dying. But the unyielding face in the casket and the unyielding name in the stone are most often with me. I sit in the wet grass in front of his grave and trace my finger over his name and weep at the coldness and hardness of it. Samuel, the name that means he belongs to God. Yanxiou, the name that shows he belongs to China. L., the name that proves he belongs to us. Oh my little boy, I miss you so much. I’m so sorry this happened, that we couldn’t protect you. How do I move on without you?

Scars

Jana and her friend were talking about a classmate that did something mean to her.

Her friend offered an interpretation, “Maybe he’s mean because he thinks you’re ugly from the accident, but I don’t think you are.” 

It was meant kindly.  I died inside. 

I couldn’t tell if Jana caught what was said or not.  She’s good at hiding things (a skill she unfortunately gets from me).

Do I mention it to her, bring it up and tell her about it if she didn’t hear it?  Risk letting it go unaddressed if she did notice?

Her friends were understandably shocked when they first saw her after the accident.  Her face was swollen, her eye closed, fresh surgery scars on her cheek and eyelid, and one massive yellow and purple bruise covering her face and neck.  She was unsteady on her feet and was exhausted by everything.  But she’s healed so much.  She hasn’t regained full movement in one eye, but most people can’t tell.  I only see it because the ophthalmologist showed me.  The bruising and swelling are gone.  The only obvious physical evidence left of the accident is a round pink scar on her cheek.  Surely her friends are used to her scar by now.

Jana isn’t bothered much by her scar, but mostly because she forgets, not because she’s actually OK with it.  She gets annoyed if I draw attention to it.  I hope she comes to peace with it, or maybe it will fade away.  I imagine when she’s a teenager, she won’t be happy with a constant reminder on her face of the accident and her brother’s death. 

Broken Feet

Samuel hated for anyone to touch his feet.

When we first got him, he wouldn’t take off his shoes. He wore them for days, even to bed, before he let us take them off. The rest of us wear socks at most in the house, but Samuel put shoes on first thing in the morning. Run barefoot on the back porch or in the grass? Never. Boots were even better than shoes. He loved weight on his feet.

Cutting his toenails was torture, no exaggeration. We tried different approaches, but it always ended the same way. Samuel screaming and fighting, Jeremy and I both holding him down while I rushed to trim off the overgrown nails. They would get so long. I know they were painful, but he didn’t care. Anything was better than having someone near his feet.  And the ordeal of trimming them was bad enough that I put it off as long as possible.

Right before his second birthday he had surgery to repair his cleft palate, and was in the hospital for 3 days. They put an IV in his foot. He hated it, but he was too little to move it to his arm or hand. I had to keep his feet covered with a blanket at all times because he grew hysterical if he saw it. It was a relief when it finally came out.

Feet are a minor thing when compared to a fatal brain injury. But the doctors were pretty sure that both of Samuel’s feet were broken in the accident. They didn’t do x-rays. I guess when you’re dying of head trauma they don’t care what happened to your feet. I didn’t see any bruising, but both of them swelled in the few days he was in a coma. (If it was a coma, no one used that word…too many things we don’t know.) They kept his body temperature low in the hospital. It was an attempt to help his brain swelling go down. But it also meant that he wasn’t covered with a blanket, and he didn’t have socks on. His cold, swollen feet were there for everyone to see. He would have hated that. I know it’s a little thing, but it is heavy on my heart. Why did he have to break his feet?

Jana’s Injuries

Jana had facial reconstructive surgery on the third day. The surgeons put a metal plate in her cheek, gave her a synthetic orbital socket (hers was crushed beyond repair), and moved lots of little bone fragments back into place so they could heal. The doctors, both fathers of young children, promised to care for her as if she was their own. Still, it was a terrifying morning. The loss of one child was imminent. What if Jana didn’t wake up too? I prayed desperately and numbed my mind to it until I was by her side again, my fingers tracing gentle swirls on her hand, assuring her (and me) that she was going to be all right. 

After surgery the swelling and bruises crossed to the other side of her face, leaving her unrecognizable. Now both eyes were swollen tightly shut. Her face was so distorted she couldn’t cry properly. Her lips were distended, she could hardly open them. She wined with a high-pitched breathy noise. She couldn’t eat. I sat by her side, unable to ease her suffering. I’ve never felt so helpless.

Jana was in pain and understandably mad about her situation. She pulled away from us when we tried to touch her. She wanted to watch a movie, but couldn’t open her eyes. She would listen to an audio story restlessly, then the next dose of morphine would come and she would fall asleep. Every hour a nurse would come, pry her eyes open, and shine a light in them. This all lasted two or three days. Endless days.  

In the middle of this, we had to tell Jana and Michael their little brother had died. 

Losing someone you love is crushing. Watching the pain in your children’s eyes as they try to understand how they will never see their little brother again burns off parts of your soul that will never be restored.

I can’t do this. 

Nobody asked me though, and nobody gave me a choice.

Jana found comfort in one thing, the piles of notes and cards that filled her room. She had about a hundred and fifty of them…cards from school, from the kids at church, and a basket of notes from a community prayer service that was held for Samuel. In the quiet hours of night when she couldn’t sleep, I read them to her. Notes from higher grade teachers made her feel important, and she especially liked one from a kid who said he wrote on behalf of the middle school. When I finished, she would ask me to read them again. We passed hours this way in the dark, me reading by the light of the medical monitors next to her bed. Sometimes I thought she had fallen asleep, but if I paused, she whispered for me to continue. It was the only time she wasn’t agitated. She would sit still, her head resting back on the pillow, soaking in the words of love and prayer and encouragement. 

A week after the accident, Jana was discharged. Her injured eye was still swollen shut, but she could awkwardly manage soft foods. She couldn’t walk because of her traumatic brain injury. She struggled to support her own weight, was dizzy, and could not put her feet one in front of the other. She didn’t have control over her legs. Because of her concussion she would get a headache if she read more than a single line of writing. She was constantly nauseous. She was still on heavy pain meds. We had referrals for physical therapy and speech therapy. They predicted she would make an excellent recovery, perhaps even a complete recovery, but there was no way to tell how long it would take. She might regain her functioning in weeks, or months.

I could hardly believe she was alive. 

We left the hospital, the first time I had stepped outside in over a week. Our new reality was staggering. We were a family of four, loading Jana’s walker in the back of the car. It was all wrong.