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.

********************

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. 

 

Jerks on the Road

Some of my worst moments come when I’m driving.  My tears flow freely in the car.  And on the road is where I’ve been confronted with some blatant ugliness in others.  It’s where my anger is more volatile, harder to control.  I’m not fearful every time I drive, but I suspect some of this is trauma-related.

This morning we were sitting in standing traffic.  Not moving at all.  I decided to take a back road, and had to cross over a lane of traffic to make the turn I wanted.  There was space, and as I started to merge over I made eye contact with the driver that I was cutting in front of–he was sitting at a complete stop.  I was indicating to him that I was going to cross all the way over and be out of his way.  When he noticed what I was doing he threw up his hands in exasperation and I saw his mouth shout what my ears couldn’t hear… “What the hell?!!”  I was wronging him by needing to cross in front of him.

I pulled in front of him anyway.  And then on to the next lane, and made my turn.  Shaking.  Tears pouring down my face.  Hurt, angry.  Why are people so unkind?  I don’t understand.

I watched a pickup truck speed up behind another car, tailing with only 5ish feet between them.  Going 65mph.  I watched a driver having an argument on her phone as she drove behind me.  I wanted to scream at them all that my child is dead, that these things might seem harmless, but it’s not worth the risk.  To plead with them to be courteous and pay attention.

Most of the time I can control my temper when the kids are in the car.  When I’m by myself, it’s harder to stay calm.  Someone drives too close, or comes behind me too fast, and I’m left shaking and crying from either fear or fury.  I’ve shouted and cursed at cars that race past me.  I’ve screamed so hard that my throat hurts for the rest of the day.  I wish there was something practical to hit in the car, because I want to pound on something, and the steering wheel isn’t quite solid enough for that.  I weep, the flood of tears blinding my eyes.  It’s not safe, but it happens often.

So many times in the last 7 months I’ve stepped back and watched myself, and wondered what in the world has happened to me.  All of this is out of character.  I’m like the explosive neighbor you wish would move out of the next-door apartment. I’m lost and I don’t like the fragile and unstable excuse of a person that’s replaced me.

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?

Brave

My friends have become brave, and my world has become lighter.

This past week or so we haven’t felt so alone.  Multiple people have reached out to us, reaching over that frightening empty space that surrounds us.  And they thought they were just talking to me or bringing me lunch, but really they were healing my heart.  The anger that I’ve fought against for the last two months has started to melt away.  I was helpless against that anger, but my courageous friends have fought it for me. 

One friend brought over lunch.  I warned her that I wasn’t very good company, but she came over anyway.  We ate chicken salad sandwiches and talked for two hours.  She also came by on Sunday and picked up our kids and took them to church for us.  I’ve felt guilty that we hadn’t been taking the kids to church, so that was a true gift. 

Another friend sat with me for hours over coffee at Panera.  She didn’t judge me and sometimes even made me laugh, which is no easy accomplishment. 

A sweet lady from our Bible study offered to come over and show me how to paint with acrylics.  I’ve been working with watercolors, but had thought about trying something new.  She showed me how she illustrates verses and prayers in her Bible, beautiful work. 

Several people have emailed to tell us they are praying for us. 

There is still indescribable sorrow in our family, sorrow that threatens to tear us apart.  But some of the darkness has gone away. 

Dying in Plain Sight

The aftermath of Samuel’s death is harder than I thought.  Losing Samuel has been all the pain you would imagine…crushing sadness, emptiness in every corner of the house, missing him all the time.  But I’ve been caught off guard by how an ugly change has curled it’s fingers into every other area of our family.  We haven’t just lost Samuel, we’ve lost the rest of our lives as well. 

I feel as if I have died too, only I’m still here, occupying space, and people still expect things of me.  I have a hard time engaging Jeremy and the kids.  I just don’t have the mental energy to listen to them, to play, to laugh.  I am tired, so tired.  I catch myself sitting at the table and staring, while everyone else eats and talks.  The world feels so heavy it’s literally hard to smile.  And my mothering tasks suffer too.  We’ve had days where we’ve eaten cereal for all three meals.  When the kids can’t find clean clothes I tell them to pick something off the floor.  I don’t want them to be in therapy someday talking about when their little brother died and their mom disappeared into an unending pit of sadness.

I have two kinds of days.  Some are plain sad days, just sadness.  I miss Samuel and I cry half the day.  On these days I have some grace to extend to others.  I recognize that people don’t engage us because they don’t know what to do.   Or I know that people care, but understand their need to not to get overwhelmed by our sadness.  They need to move on with their lives, that’s good.  This is our fate, not anyone else’s. 

The other days are more dark.  I’m angry, hopeless, confused, guilty, but mostly angry.  And on those days it’s hard to see that we are anything but alone.  People cared when the accident happened, of course.  There was some sort of morbid allure, people were appalled, thankful that it wasn’t them, grieved for us.  But then the funeral was over and everyone quickly moved on to get away from the impossibleness of it.  And we were left alone.  And I’m furious.  I don’t know where God is, I don’t know why he did this, I’m mad that I’m supposed to trust him and turn to him for comfort when he’s the one who is breaking us.  That doesn’t make sense. 

But I’m also ashamed of my anger, because it’s unfair to ask anyone to feel this with us.  It’s so deep and overwhelming. 

I’m trapped here. Surprised that at the end of each day, I’m still somehow breathing. 

Untouchable, alone. 

The Anger Phase

I can’t depend on people or expect anything from them.  I have to do this on my own.

My life is a gaping pit that can’t possibly be filled or soothed right now.  I can’t put that burden on other people, it’s too much.  They can’t do it, they have their own lives, and my needs are immense.

And besides, they aren’t even trying. 

The accident was riveting, I get that.  We were flooded, overwhelmed with support and interest.  And it disappeared after the funeral, as if everyone was annoyed that we didn’t serve a buffet for all of their efforts.  So, silence.  Nothing.  Did they care?  Probably a lot of them did, and they certainly were horrified and shocked.  They can’t imagine.  They are thankful that it isn’t them, naturally.  But frightened that it happened so close to them. 

I see people startle when they see me, and then hastily busy themselves with something so they can pretend they didn’t notice me.  Honestly, that’s one of my preferred responses.  It stings, yes, but maybe we are both relieved to avoid speaking with each other.  The worst are the people who see me and pour out their anxiety and guilt on me.  “I’m so sorry I haven’t called…I don’t know what to say…lets get coffee…we’re busy this week with gymnastics and travel soccer, but I’ll call you next week.”  And we both walk away knowing they will never call.  It was their anxiety talking.  It becomes my job to soothe them, assure them that it’s OK, no one else knows what to say either.  I hold them up.  It’s exhausting, and feels like crap when they make promises that they don’t keep. 

And then others are genuine, but they choose the wrong time.  They wait until they see me somewhere.  I show my face in public because I have to, not because I’m looking for conversation.  I don’t want to cry in the school lobby when I’m trying to pick up the kids, and if I’m buying groceries then I’m doing my best to make it back to my car before I lose it.  If you haven’t spoken a word to me in 2 months, don’t attempt a deep conversation in the grocery store.  It’s not the place. 

So I hide, put off obligations as long as I can, and rush through any task that takes me out of the privacy of my home.  And I weep when I get back, because of the pain of dealing with so many misguided people. 

But at home, there is silence.  I can go two weeks without an email or phone call.  After so much attention, no one seems to care.  And I’m angry, angry that everyone is failing me so badly when I need it the most.  Angry if I get on Facebook and see the trivial things that they use to fill their day, instead of taking 30 seconds to send me an email.  Angry that people who said they would be there for us are nowhere to be found.  Angry that people say things like, “We want to support you but we never see you.”  Showing my face in public might make everyone else feel better, but it is in no way helping us.   

I don’t want to be angry, so I need to lower my expectations.  If I expect nothing of others, I won’t be disappointed.  I can do this on my own.  I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain.  I am a rock, I am an island.  But how to do this with strength instead of despair? 

No Win Situation

I don’t blame people for staying away.  I’m impossible.  If someone talks with me, asks me how I’m doing, I’m angry.  What an awful question, how do they think I’m doing?  But if they don’t say anything, I’m angry too.  Don’t they know how overwhelming this is, and that I need support? 

I’ve made it impossible for anyone to win.

And so I’m angry at myself too, for setting up this ridiculous situation.