Home Safe Home

I gave myself a haircut this weekend. 

I have long curly hair, so it was forgiving. There was a piece I couldn’t get right in the back, and I let my 9 year old (assisted by my husband) cut it. It created a gap. I don’t care.

I’m relieved to improve a head of hair that was looking pitiful. 

I’m relieved I didn’t have to drive anywhere. I don’t like being reminded of the accident when I drive. I’m scared in traffic.

I’m relieved I didn’t have to go to a public place. I didn’t have to sit in a waiting room, surrounded by other ladies out for manicures or highlights. I just can’t.

I’m relieved I didn’t have to make small talk with a stylist. I didn’t have to maneuver around sensitive questions, pretend that I had a great Christmas, or listen to someone jabber about how nice it is that “all” the kids are back in school. I didn’t have to choose between being fake and lying, or telling the truth and dealing with pity, or the “I can relate my (insert distant relative here) died last year” attempts at conversation. No one tried to tell me that my nice new haircut would surely make me feel better. 

Grief and PTSD have changed how I experience the world. What used to be easy or even enjoyable is now complicated, and drains me of all energy. 

I might learn how to do all sorts of things, just to stay in the safety of my own house.

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… 

When Normal Feels Like A Warning

There is a feel-good car commercial airing lately. A soothing narrator talks while a family drives down the road. Kids laugh, a mother rests her hand on her expectant baby bump, a father looks in the rear view mirror and smiles at his son. A few more clips of different families in their cars as the years pass, some gentle music, and at the end they all arrive home, content and safe.

Every time it comes on, I tense. The first few times I saw it, I was so anxious I left the room. I was confused by this. There is nothing frightening, no foreshadowing, but I just know it’s going to be one of those commercials that shocks you by having a crash happen out of nowhere. I don’t want to see the family staggering, hurt, dying. It came on multiple times before I could remember it ended well. Even knowing this, I feel nervous when I see it.

It took weeks to figure it out. Because of the way our accident happened, happiness and normalcy feel like a set-up for something terrible. There were no indicators that our lives were about to change, no skidding car sounds or squealing brakes. I didn’t see her speeding towards us. Casual, pleasant family conversation, and suddenly we were living in a horrible new world. 

Now, the fact that there is no warning, feels like a warning. 

Hundreds of every day moments. I cannot feel safe. 

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. 

I am the Hulk

It’s 6 in the morning and the onslaught has been coming for hours. 

I woke up early with my heart racing. My dreams were crowded with arrogant people, smug in their selfishness, callous to the danger their recklessness created for everyone around them. Just like the careless drivers that anger me on the road. 

I tried to go back to sleep, but I was mad and couldn’t get rid of the restlessness. 

It started two days ago when I watched a woman drive through the school parking lot at dismissal time, talking on her phone. The parking lot was filled with children and parents getting out for the afternoon. I was furious. She could run into my kids! What chance do they have against a van when they are on foot? The imaginary anguished screams of parents filled my ears as I envisioned her not noticing a child stepping off the sidewalk into her path. 

I was shaking, and my heart pounded fiercely. I wanted to tell her to get off her phone. The words in my head were loud and vicious, intermixed with curses and things like, “My son died! What more does it take for people like you to pay attention? You’re going to kill someone!” We both stood in line in the school lobby, and she continued her phone conversation behind me. I glared at her, wondering if I would really voice my accusations if I caught her eye. The lobby was packed with students, parents, and school staff. It was not the place for an angry confrontation. Still, I hated her carelessness. I needed to stop her. I was ready to fight her.

I stared at the floor, aware that even my initial statement to her would be yelling and aggressive. I fought back tears. I was confused and momentarily couldn’t remember my kids names to sign them out. My hand trembled and I struggled to hold the pen. I got my kids and left. She was still on her phone. 

I hate to think what I would have done if she had hung up and looked at me. 

I’ve been agitated ever since, and can’t stop thinking about her. In my imagination she’s out there somewhere, dangerous and rash. I’ve had arguments with her in my head, ending with her cowering and me winning. I can’t shake the irritation. 

Michael comes into the living room in his pajamas. No one else is awake. We sit on the couch and he, the ultimate morning person, already has a million things to say. I relax some. He tells me stories. His imagination is filled with battles and fighting too, but he’s 7. He fights against the bad guys with lightsabers and special powers. He loves Iron Man and the Flash, and tells me all about their superhero magic. I try to ground myself in his innocence. I touch his hair and protect myself from the little elbows and knees that jab me unaware. He doesn’t stay in one spot for long. Soon he’s up and his footsteps run down the hall.

It only takes seconds to pick up where I left off. My mind is back on injustice and anger. It’s Saturday, which means my kids and neighbor kids will be in and out of the house all day. And I’m on edge, my imagination working up for a fight. I feel impatient. I hope to make it through the day without yelling at my kids for something little. 

My home is normally my safe place. I might be anxious or have nightmares, but not the intense triggers I experience in traffic or in public. I feel defeated that today it has followed me here.  

hulk-667988_640I am the Hulk.

PTSD turns me into a green monster. 

The Hulk wants to do good, but rage is blinding and hard to control.

Unfortunately, he is dangerous to everything around him. Good or bad. Friend or foe.

God help me.

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Being vulnerable about grief is easy compared to this stuff.  I read enough to know that although my experience in grief is my own, it’s normal and similar to what many other grieving moms feel.  But it’s hard to normalize PTSD.  People address combat PTSD, but there is very little that is honest about the irrational rage and fear in civilian PTSD. What does it look like to be a mom with PTSD, picking up kids from school everyday? No one seems to know. 

I am hesitant to write about my PTSD. It’s becoming accepted, or at least recognized, that Christians can struggle with depression and anxiety. However it remains an unspoken narrative in the church that christian women don’t get angry, and they certainly aren’t aggressive. I am ashamed and uncertain how to handle my experiences. I am ashamed enough that I have to write an explanation at the bottom of a blog post, hoping I come across as sympathetic instead of crazy.

In this intensified state, PTSD is as isolating as grief.