Dreams

Bright lights and white walls… The doctors come and tell us that Samuel is brain dead… They want to stop life support… I ask for one more day… I know he will wake up tomorrow if they just give him one more day… I beg, but they shake their heads… They walk out the door and down the hall to stop Samuel’s ventilator… 

The sound of crying in the house… Jeremy searches room to room… He finds Jana and Michael, but the crying continues… He realizes it is Samuel… He runs through the house, but can’t find him… The crying continues. ..

We are splashing in the lake… Samuel steps into water over his head and disappears… I dive for him, stretching out my hands to find him, but only touch water… It is too muddy to see… I know he is there, just out of reach… I keep searching, my fingers sifting the empty water… 

Reading The Evil Hours

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I’ve been reading a book called “The Evil Hours” by David Morris. It’s an insightful look at his experience with PTSD after being a journalist embedded with Marines in Iraq. I am reading it with a pencil in hand because I keep underlining large sections of it. I’ve never been to war, and I don’t suggest that my experience comes close to the repeated trauma endured by our deployed soldiers. The damage, however, is surprisingly relatable.

One of the stressors of being in Iraq was the concern of IED’s. Every time they went on the road, they drove in fear of these unseen, undetectable, deadly threats. Often they went out and were fine, but other times men never returned, or came back injured. One day Morris and his Humvee patrol struck an IED. 

My instinct is to minimize my experience, because a car accident can’t possibly be as horrific as hitting an IED. But as I read, I realized there were similarities. Both situations happened without warning. Neither of us was targeted, we were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Morris and I felt detached watching the events unfold. The back half of our van was gone, as if it had been blown off. And in my situation, it was my own children pinned, crying, bleeding, and dying.

So, PTSD. As I drive, I’m hyper vigilant. In my mind the threat of another accident is as real as the threat of running over an IED in Baghdad. Every driver can be inattentive, and many are aggressive. Which will turn into an enemy? Which one is going to slam into us? Only my enemies aren’t actual enemies. They are my neighbors, parents of my children’s classmates, or someone trying to make a last minute turn into Starbucks. Any of them can be dangerous, playing with their phones or messing with a lid on their drinks. That’s all it takes. 

I startle at loud noises. I tense up when I hear cars coming down our street. I look suspiciously at cars turning around in the cul-de-sac. I watch for distracted drivers as if I were looking for signs of IEDs in the sand. That person on their phone, are they paying attention to the road? If they come near me will I die? My heart races and I cannot calm myself down.

Morris also talks about the feeling of disconnect that is common in PTSD sufferers. He described his shock at returning from Iraq to find that people understood very little about the war, and most were not interested in his experiences there. They could not relate, did not want to relate. While he was immersed with life and death, the Americans at home moved on obliviously with their sports games, entertainment, family and jobs. He felt cut off. He discussed how people with PTSD feel separated from the world around them, conspicuous and different. Their minds are trapped in another time. Many feel they’ve been branded with a scarlet letter. 

I’ve been keenly aware of my own scarlet letter. I am marked as the mother whose child died. I often feel I have nothing in common with the people around me who continue on with their lives, unable to understand what has changed in mine. It’s as if time froze at the accident. It looks like I’m present, safe in today, but Samuel’s death replays inside my soul, sometimes vividly. Interwoven into my day is the awareness of how easily death can come, and this burden sets me apart. 

I had studied PTSD before my own experience with it. I knew about hyperarousal, nightmares, dissociation, and avoidance. But I did not understand about loneliness. I’ve spent much of the past year angry at others because of my loneliness (even as many have reached out to me), and ashamed at the distance I feel between myself and those around me. It’s been a relief to realize that feeling alone and disconnected is a classic part of PTSD, regardless of the level of support someone has. Understanding has helped me accept, and by accepting I have been less angry. And, ironically, accepting the disconnect has helped me connect better with others.

“We are born in debt, owing the world a death. This is the shadow that darkens every cradle. Trauma is what happens when you catch a surprise glimpse of that darkness, the coming annihilation not only of the body and the mind but also, seemingly, of the world…Trauma is the glimpse of truth that tells us a lie: the lie that love is impossible, that peace is an illusion.” -The Evil Hours, David Morris

On an semi-unrelated note, my driving problems have greatly improved over the past two months. While driving remains stressful, I can do it if needed, and it no longer sinks me into hours of fog and darkness. I spend too much time watching the rear-view mirror, but I’ve stopped exploding and raging at every car that gets close. My bruised hands have healed. I haven’t cursed at another driver for weeks. I have no idea what caused the change, but I’m happy for it. 

Sneezes

Jeremy sneezes out the car window when we’re driving. He insists that this is normal, but I’ve never seen anyone else do it. His sneezes come without warning, and in the car they seem ridiculously loud and amusing. Maybe they amplify in the confined space, I don’t know. We’ll be driving along, and suddenly he thrusts his head out the window with an aggressive sneeze that would knock over a backyard full of small children. Every time I dissolve into a fit of giggles.  

One time, after such a sneeze, Samuel sincerely asked from the back seat, “Daddy, why are you mad at the trees?”  

We all laughed. A content family, enjoying each other. I remember wishing the moment would last forever. 

Samuel was pleased with himself for adding to the occasion. In typical little-boy fashion he repeated his joke at every opportunity. Daddy would sneeze, I giggle uncontrollably, and Samuel proudly states that daddy is mad at the trees. Our family joke.

Now when Jeremy sneezes in the car, I smile, but there isn’t any laughter. We share a glance, then stare vacantly out the windows, trying again to absorb the loss of the little voice that is supposed to deliver the punch line.

Sunday morning we headed to church. Jeremy sneezed. I startled like it was a gunshot and almost jumped out of my skin. Jeremy felt terrible, but it wasn’t his fault. I tried to calm down my panic the rest of the way to church.

Apparently my trauma in the car is not limited to reacting to other drivers on the road.  

Those satisfied moments I wanted to last forever seem so long ago.  

Shaken

It’s common to struggle with anxiety after a child dies. Melanie DeSimone does a great job of talking about it in Why Anxiety Is A Part Of Child Loss. It makes sense if you think about it. The unimaginable, the “it won’t happen to me” happens to you. Many, many pieces of life have to be reevaluated with this new awareness. The world feels unpredictable, maybe even cruel. The result is anxiety.

I am fighting a monumental battle against fears right now. I am fighting, I am not winning. I have the normal (don’t misunderstand that to mean easy) child-loss anxiety, plus worsening PTSD. They feed off each other and intensify. I’m trying to hang on for the next few weeks until I can get help (it’s been impossible to find a PTSD-experienced therapist who has any current openings).  

My fears are focused on two things. The first is a fear about the general safety of my children. Terrible thoughts come to me with the tiniest trigger. The second is much stronger, and that is a fear of accidents while driving. I am hyper focused in the car, aware of dangers that don’t even exist, and not able to turn it off. I practice breathing, grounding myself, trying to distract myself with music or my children. These things help, but the problem has gotten out-of-control. I’m actually doing a decent job of not dwelling on these fears throughout the day. This is not a lingering storm of anxiety. It’s lightning flashes. The thoughts flash through my mind like lightning bolts, leaving me stressed, shaken, or worse. 

Every time a truck approaches me on a two lane road, I wonder if it’s the truck that’s going to kill us. 

I think the same thing when I make a turn and notice whatever vehicle is now behind me. Is that the car that is going to kill the rest of my children?

Last month I left Jana at the pool with a friend. As I drove away, I couldn’t stop imagining her body being found in the pool, floating face down. I reminded myself that she is a good swimmer, and the lifeguards are excellent, but the thought left me shaken and teary until she came home. We haven’t gone back to the pool all summer.

When the kids run across the street to the neighbors house, I cringe and listen with my shoulders tight for screeching breaks. I can’t relax until a minute has passed and they’ve had time to get safely across the cul-de-sac.

Michael and I drove by a pond on the side of the road. For the next few minutes an unbidden movie played in my mind, and I didn’t even realize I was doing it. Our car had crashed into the pond and sunk. I helped Michael out of his seat belt, shaking as I tried to calm him down (which was an exact replay of what happened in our actual accident). Water leaked into the car and we made plans to smash through the sunroof. I told him to take a deep breath, assured him it wasn’t that deep and we were going to make it out, and protected him with my body as I broke the roof. I felt the shattering glass cut my back, the water and slimy tangle of roots pour over us… 

I noticed what I was doing, tried to shake it off and pay attention to the road. Deep breaths. Feel my fingers on the steering wheel, the seat at my back. I was not going to panic because of invented trauma in my head.

These thoughts intrude all day long. This is in addition to a full PTSD outburst if another car is irresponsible, distracted, or anywhere close behind me. Last week I turned around (while at a stop sign) and yelled (silently…I gestured and mouthed words) at the driver behind me, texting on her phone. I didn’t wait to see if she responded. The only reason I didn’t descend into complete meltdown was because the kids were in the car with me.

Instead, I turned around and kept driving, the tears coming. “Mommy, what happened?” It scares them every time I lose control. I cried harder. I noticed the song on the radio, 

“When did I forget that you’ve always been the king of the world? I try to take life back right out of the hands of the king of the world.”

For the last two weeks, I end up in a rage or in tears at least once every time I drive, so I’m driving as little as possible now. I’m not sure if this is wisdom, or if I’m giving in to the PTSD and making things worse. I feel ashamed either way. We finished Jana’s commitments last week, and are staying home the rest of the summer. We are going to eat everything in the pantry so I don’t have to go to the grocery store. The kids might get bored, but at least I won’t have to apologize to them for losing my temper and yelling at other cars.

The thought of not driving anywhere this week brings tears of relief.  

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.