Saturday, June 17, 2017
My first recollection of loneliness was when I was six and my family moved to Saint Andrews, Scotland for a year. The accents didn’t confuse me so much as the turn of phrase. People were constantly saying and asking things with words I understood, but put together in a way I did not. And at the tender age of six, even Scotland was a culture shock.
I have many memories from that year, though not in an ordered timeline. I recall pushing a boy on the playground, and was surprised at how soft and weak he was.
I don’t recall my classmates shunning me. But I do remember spending countless hours on the playground by myself. I had a vivid imagination, by which I mean that I believed in magic. I would scour the playground yard, paved and surrounded by a stone wall, looking for treasure. I would see a crack in the stone and follow the line, past where it ended, tracing with my finger until I came upon something else of interest: another crack perhaps, or a stone that was jutting out more than the others. And from there I would follow this new “lead” or pattern, on and on, until I found treasure: a coin on the ground, or a flower poking up out of the pavement, or a piece of candy perhaps. I had lively discussions in my head as I went on my solo adventure.
Who knows what the Scots thought of this American girl talking to herself and tracing lines in the stone wall.
When we returned to the U.S., I settled back into my social routines – at first with friends I’d known before Scotland, then with new friends when we moved, and then when we moved yet again.
My next encounter with deep loneliness was when we moved from the east coast to a small town in Oregon. It was, again, a culture shock. I had gotten the message from my family that our international travels and time in major cities made me special. I was one of those kids who was simultaneously shy and boastful. I was also for whatever reason a staunch atheist.
I believe it was my very first day at school that I threatened to fight anyone, anytime. But things didn’t turn bad until I revealed that I was an atheist. A kid was insisting that Santa Clause was real, and the class bully was mocking him. I “defended” him, saying that believing in Santa Clause was no different from believing in God. The class was shocked into a collective silence – until Lenny, the bully, incredulously asked me to confirm that I didn’t believe in God. I did so proudly, with a hint of superiority.
They didn’t understand me, and I didn’t understand them. And with this revelation the class distanced itself from me, at one point agreeing to give me “the silent treatment.” (I learned this from a classmate who decided to tell me. Even at the age of 11 I understood that her momentary friendliness wasn’t to be interpreted as friendship.) And Lenny turned his mean-spirited mockery on me.
Once again, recess spent on my own. On the swing set, or at the far end of the playground where I could avoid my classmates.
At home I found solace among our animals. We had cats that bred and reproduced unchecked; I was the one to feed them, pet them, and at times be the nursemaid to a female cat birthing a new litter. We also had chickens which I named, pet and held, and a rooster that I learned the hard way never to turn my back on. I recall gerbils and hamsters as well. These were my friends.
The good part about moving every year or two was that I had the chance to start again, when things weren’t going well at a school. The bad part was having to leave behind friends and things that were going well. Worse was never learning to work through difficulties with friends, and never having the experience of building trust over time. I could neither navigate the difficulties, nor trust friends to be there for me. Childhood friendships don’t survive moving away.
Years later after leaving my first husband, my son’s dad, I spent three years as a single parent and a very young adult. Yet again in a new town and with a toddler at home, making friends was challenging. I felt stifled and lonely and bored, while simultaneously overwhelmed and exhausted by the responsibilities of adulthood and parenthood.
Many years later when my last partner and I were together, again loneliness crept in. I found it hard to maintain my friendships within our relationship: she never felt comfortable with my friends, and she preferred me to be at home. She wasn’t demanding, but I was overly conditioned to keep the peace. Most of my friendships faltered. She would retreat to the bedroom by 7 p.m. every night and read or watch tv. Night after night I would sit in the living room alone, my teenage son with friends or keeping his own company. Loneliness does not always come from being alone, and this was the case for me during those years.
It was my dissatisfaction with that time in my life that propelled me to move north as soon as my son finished high school, and pursue a career as a park ranger. I then spent seven years moving from park to park, looking for the right park to call home: living in park housing means your coworkers are also your neighbors, and a tense work environment makes it impossible to feel “at home.” Because I never found that park that felt like home, I never put down roots. I did try. I went to social functions, hosted a few of my own, and dated. But knowing that I hadn’t yet found my place prevented me from fully letting down my guard, or letting people get too close. Yet another bad habit established after a childhood of moving on and leaving friends behind.
When I left rangering, the moving didn’t abate. But with the addition of my PTSD struggles, I stopped trying to make friends. I stopped dating. I stopped going to social functions. Efforts were few and far between because I’d grown tired of the effort, which had seemed so very fruitless. Rare efforts to socialize usually resulted in canceling last-minute due to anxiety.
There have been times over the past decade when the loneliness has come on swiftly, doubling me over with pain. I struggle to catch my breath, not knowing how to ease the searing pain deep inside. But most of the time it is a dull ache, and felt more as a growing boredom with my life.
Pursuing my interests and human interactions happens more and more online. I have learned to make connections with real people; I have continued to grow and learn, to challenge myself, to live according to my values. These are not meaningless efforts, and I value both my expanded awareness and the people I have met or deepened connections with this way.
And yet, they are not there to be a part of my life, and me a part of theirs. They are not there to meet for coffee and share about the week’s events. We do not go see movies together, then have a lively discussion about the failures and successes of the movie. We do not peruse the county fairs, flea markets, or festivals, talking about experiences we’ve had and adventures we’ve been on.
Before my paternal grandmother died, having survived her husband and chosen to remain single she said, “there are worse things than being lonely.” Without a doubt she is right. Still, humans are designed to be social; we aren’t designed to live lonely lives. What damage does this do to our hearts and souls over time? When the loneliness becomes so much a part of us that – even when it hurts – we feel unable to reach out to others for companionship?
Those of us who would be more social but for our emotional fragilities share the dilemma of wanting meaningful friendships, knowing they take time and effort, and having such a small ability to exert any effort at all. In my case, it is the accumulation of struggle combined with my comfort with being alone; my familiarity with loneliness. It is exponentially challenging given the emotional fragility that comes with having PTSD.
Healing takes time. It is only in this past year that I have found a job that I can stick with, that has the flexibility and the accommodations I need in order to make a living without coming up hard against my PTSD limitations. It is only in this past year that I have lived in a place that feels not only safe, but safe for me to linger outside unaccosted.
These changes are foundational: and without them, no wonder I had no motivation to venture out. I’ve started a container garden. I sit outside under an umbrella when it rains, feeling the cleansing breeze on my face. I have a covered area with my bicycle on a flywheel, which perhaps I’ll start using – Ha! I’m doing yoga at home every other evening because it eases the pain my otherwise sedentary body feels after a day at the computer.
I continue to learn to tune into my body and its messages. Having spent so much of my childhood and early adulthood in my head, I never learned to have a relationship with my body. Consequently I never learned to trust the messages of my body, for example if a person or situation felt unsafe or just not good for me.
Now I can feel when something is triggering me; I can feel when my anxiety is starting; I can feel in my gut when something isn’t right. And now, most of the time, I pay attention and do something about it. Besides not tolerating bad situations, I’ve learned to keep my body from escalating into full panic or overwhelm. It involves turning off the chatter in my head and really focusing on what is going on in my body. Did my throat just constrict? Do I feel a pressure on my chest? Are my legs feeling agitated? Can I slow down and deepen my breathing?
And I tune into my senses. What are the sounds I’m hearing? How many can I identify? What do I smell? I engage my sense of touch by rubbing my hands on my clothing, or a nearby object, paying close attention to the texture. I press my feet into the floor and feel the connection between whatever is supporting me, and the muscles through my legs and hips.
All of this is foundational. Without any confidence that an outing would not completely trigger and overwhelm me, no wonder I did not risk trying new things.
The next step is to step out – back into the world. Or maybe I should say, that is the next landing, with many steps to take between here and there. Going to a café and being friendly with the staff. Lingering at the library among people. Walking in parks with the requisite, if brief, exchanges of pleasantries with strangers.
I am so very anxious to be at the next landing. To have face-to-face friendships, to have close friends, to feel part of a community, to have an intimate partner. I am so very bored with my life. I am so ready. And still, anxiety must be coaxed with gentleness. My old approach at life, lived full speed, is not an option anymore. White knuckling through challenges is no longer possible. Pushing myself too fast will mean even more retreat. I must be gentle and patient with myself. I must build the foundation, making it as solid as possible. Take small steps. Forgive myself for not being the person I wish I was, for not living the life I wish I lived. I must believe that people will find me interesting, valuable, and lovable nonetheless. Learn to accept who I am now.
Loneliness. Can I unlearn it? Perhaps now that my heart and body force me to respect them, perhaps now that I’m learning to honor myself I can also, ultimately, learn healthy vulnerability.
Without these changes, I am guaranteed to find loneliness in every friendship.
Friday, May 12, 2017
Content Warning: details of gruesome car crash fatality; death; grief; trauma; first responder
I’ve never written to you before, but I’ve thought of you often. We never spoke; I didn’t meet you until moments after you had died. So I guess that means you never knew me. And I never knew you in any traditional sense, but you have been inextricably bound to my life ever since your death.
It’s been ten years.
It’s odd, the things I recall with crystal clarity, while other things have persistently alluded recollection.
I remember your arm dangling out the car window – looking so casual. Your wedding band. The tone of your skin. I remember thinking that your car – an old Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla I believe – looked too small for you; or you too large for it. But maybe that was because the car had been crushed, and there was no longer enough room for your body inside it.
I am almost positive that the top of your car had been peeled off, but I have never been able to retain that imagine in my mind. But that is what makes sense. Otherwise why would I have been able to see you, looking down in from above, when a blanket hastily laid over the car was pulled back?
It was a hairpin curve in a long series of tight corners, narrow lanes – one going each direction – and no shoulders, spindly guardrails between pavement and steep cliffs leading down to houses or the water. They say you were drunk, even though it was in the middle of the afternoon on a Friday. It would have required only a moment’s distraction to miss the signs, not turn, not slow down, and you would not have had the opportunity to correct.
Your car crossed the other lane and hit the guardrail, then ricocheted off it coming up onto two wheels. But a large RV was in that lane, their lane, with nowhere to go and no time to stop. Your car crashed into the RV and kept on going, back across your lane and finally smashing into the cliffside. As your car, on two wheels, scraped by the RV the top of your car was peeled back like a can of sardines. That’s what I remember; from the scene, and from the fire department photos afterwards. But I remember the information only; my memory refuses to release the image of it.
I think it’s because that image was when I knew you were dead, and there was no point in giving CPR. Looking down where there should have been a roof; looking down at the top of your head, where there should have been your head. Whatever I saw in that moment, within minutes I could not bring it to mind; and never since have I been able to.
The woman from the RV (it was her husband who had been driving) was distraught that your body was left there for so long – hours – while the scene was first investigated, then the RV moved to the same lane as your car, so that traffic could finally go single file, one direction at a time. At that point it was time for me to go as well. It was just coincidence that I was the first officer on scene, and with state patrol there I had neither expertise to lend, nor authorization to stay.
I understand your car had to be dismantled, in order to remove your body.
Was it just the following day when a state trooper stopped by the park where I worked and started chatting about the accident, running off his mouth even though he hadn’t been there? He informed me and the other park ranger that you were a deadbeat. I cut him off saying sharply, “I was at the scene.”
He abruptly stopped talking. I didn’t want to chat about your death. I didn’t want to talk about the one thing I couldn’t think about, if I wanted to continue to function. I was terrified that if my thoughts lingered on any of it I would completely collapse, unable to work, unable to take care of myself, swept away in an endless flood of horror and despair. And I certainly didn’t want to hear the opinions of someone who had no connection to it or to you.
Deadbeat. What did that mean, anyway? Who was this officer, who didn’t know you, to so summarily dismiss the significance of your death, so succinctly sum up your life as one not worth crying over? Did it make it easier to bear the senselessness of your death, thinking you were a deadbeat?
What a pronouncement. No one is irredeemable. If you were a deadbeat, your death ended any chance that you might have turned things around. While you lived, you had unlimited potential. You may have had great things yet to do in your life. But your death ended any such possibility.
In the hours and days after your death, things had trouble sticking in my brain. My boss would give me a task to do, and I would immediately forget. He would check in with me about said task, and it would be as if I’d heard about it for the first time. I had no sense of how much time passed when I was at the scene; how much time before I was not the only one there “in charge;” how much time before the EMTs arrived; how much time before the state trooper. I would ask for details to help fill in the blanks, only to have them slip away instantly. As much as I tried to create a timeline of your accident, my brain would not allow it.
Somehow I was able to be friendly and helpful with park visitors. But I could barely remember how to tie my boots.
In the weeks and months following, I struggled with human interactions beyond those done perfunctorily for work. It wasn’t just that typical conversations seemed mundane or even pointless in the aftermath of such tragedy, although that was true. I seemed to have lost the ability to carry on a conversation, or even follow along. After a few early, awkward attempts with well-meaning friends, I stopped talking with all but four people – friends and family members. These four all had experiences with tragedy and trauma, and phone calls with them became my lifelines.
There was also a psychologist whose assistance was invaluable, although an unforgivable breach in agency protocol delayed my debriefing for four anguished days. Not long after I started working with a therapist regularly as well.
All the other well-wishing friends and family in my life seemed to expect things from me that I could not provide. They would offer care-giving, or time in their company “without expectations,” but they didn’t realize that everything was an expectation, because everything was monumentally difficult. Returning their messages. Answering questions. Helping them understand. Trying to express my feelings. Trying to bridge this gulf that arose in a heartbeat between me and “normalcy,” between me and most of the people I knew.
And most of the well-wishers did and said things that made it worse. At work I had to contend with coworkers who had their own traumas triggered, and would unthinkingly start detailing some of the horrors they’d witnessed. Friends and family would offer platitudes, or simple remedies for feeling better, or “moving on.” Sometimes my inability to interact was seen as being standoffish or hostile. And perhaps worst, many failed to understand why I was so deeply impacted. They would express confusion, and misunderstand me. Surely I had only offered to help at the accident, as they would have done in a similar situation. Surely I understood this was part of the job. Surely others had encountered far worse, and learned to carry on. I would try to explain, but how can you explain that you’ve been traumatized, when you don’t have that word for it yet? When you don’t understand yourself that you’ve been traumatized? How can you explain that it isn’t a contest about who encountered the worst event; it’s about the entirety of the circumstances and the person that determines if they will be traumatized.
And it took years before I realized that in the moment I first found out that you had died, my entire spiritual foundation collapsed. This was more than I could handle. This was not ok. There was nothing looking out for me; this was far more responsibility than I wanted. Everything I had believed was true spiritually, was disproved in an instant.
I didn’t even have the words to understand what was happening to me, to be able to explain to others.
I wanted to put some silk roses by the place where you died. It wasn’t just a dangerous corner to drive, it was dangerous to walk. I asked my boss if he thought troopers would help me get to the spot safely; he thought not. It was a gesture I was unwilling to forgo.
Since you crashed into the hillside where there was no shoulder, the only pull-outs were on the far side of the highway. After purchasing a bouquet of silk roses, it was time. I drove extra slowly as I approached the pull-out I’d determined to be the safest one, turned on my hazards, and after scanning carefully, drove across the highway and into it.
I parked and stood by the car. I couldn’t see the spot from here because the road curved around the outcropping. I looked carefully, and jogged across the highway. My heart started to beat more quickly, in part because of the significance of what I was doing, and in part because it was dangerous to be walking on such a narrow part of highway. I hugged the rock and came around the corner to the place where your life came to an end.
The skid marks and paint markings still decorated the highway. There was a bit of broken orange plastic swept onto the sparse shoulder. I stopped and looked out across the highway to the guardrail, and beyond. Not for the first (or last) time, I wondered what had been going on in your life on that day. There had been mention of either a girlfriend or estranged wife. Had you had a fight? Is that why you’d been drinking? Were you angry? Despairing?
How did she feel when she heard that you’d died? Was she relieved? Heartbroken? Or a tangled mess of love, complicated emotions, and shared history?
What thoughts went through your head as you realized you were coming around the corner far too fast? Did you realize you’d misjudged? Did you have a surge of adrenaline? Did you think you were going to go over the guardrail? Did you realize that you were going to crash?
A week or so had passed, and there were no flowers, no balloons, no indication on this spot that anyone grieved your passing. Of course they might not choose to put up a memorial on the side of the highway, like so many others. But still I was sad for you. Was anyone missing you? Where did they bring their flowers?
I gathered the flowers, knelt down, and secured them to a grill coming up out of the concrete. They were really pretty. I got the silk ones, rather than fresh, because I wanted them to stay there for a while.
“I’m sorry,” I said out loud. “I’m sorry that your life ended too soon. I’m sorry we never had a chance to meet. I want you to know that your life mattered to me, and I will grieve for you.
“In a way, our lives are connected now. Because I will always remember you, and your death will always be a part of my life and my story. And because a piece of my heart died on this highway, along with you, on that day.”
I stood up and brushed dust off my pants. I looked up at the sky, out at the trees. Then quickly and cautiously I walked back around the outcropping, and across the highway to my car. I sat there for a few minutes to allow my breathing to slow down to normal, and drove home.
I never saw other flowers there on the side of the highway. But the ones I left for you were there for as many years as I routinely traveled that highway. Even when they repaved; repainted the lines with thicker and brighter yellow; installed bumps to the entire middle line; and added flashing lights to the warning signs along that stretch of road and that corner in particular – even then, the flowers remained.
Yours was the first death I responded to as a ranger, but only the first of several that summer – and many of them on that highway. In all there were five places along the highway that marked the deaths of people whose stories intertwined with mine. For a long time, I couldn’t drive by any of them without noticing. Depending on where I was starting and where my final destination, I could count off all five. Each one compounded the despair and disorientation I already felt. But your story is the one that inexorably changed my story. And the ending of your story is the one that I know so well.
Except for those parts that my memory has steadfastly kept hidden away.
Ten years later, and you are still a part of my life.
Saturday, January 21, 2017
I know that there are two Americas (or rather, two United States of Americas – because “America” refers to far more than the U.S.). The one that white people live in, and the one that people of color live in. And while I am always learning more about the latter, my default view (and only experience) is the former. Trying to understand the reality sometimes makes me see double.
I know that electing Obama 8 years ago was a proud, historic moment for this country. We crossed a racial barrier. The symbolism of a Black man (a biracial man) reaching the highest position in the land was something that could inspire every child in the country, and provide a role model particularly for non-white children. That is real. That is significant.
I also know, because of statistics and because of what my friends share, that the lived daily experiences of people of color has not improved in the past 8 years. Racism is very much alive in the U.S.A. It lives in the hearts of Americans, and it lives and breathes within the very fiber of the government and the systems of economics, education, and justice.
So was the election of our first Black president a racial victory, or not? I suppose yes and no. It was a victory, but it did not change everything; it most certainly did not end racism. Sadly, it did nothing to even diminish personal, systemic and institutional racism.
Fast forward to today. Within white U.S.A. there are two vastly different perspectives. The white Americans who voted in President Cheetoh and want the rest of us to “get over it and come together in unity,” and those of us who despaired to discover that for our neighbors and coworkers, Mr. Thinskin’s vicious racism, xenophobia, and misogyny was not a deal-breaker.
Comparing the two elections feels like a parallel universe. How can this be the same country that elected a Black (biracial) president eight years ago, to now vote in a fascist? What happened? When and how did we become such a racist, hateful nation?
And then I hear from my friends of color, who tell me that nothing has changed. This is still the same country that it has been for them all along. There is something about McRacistPants that makes white people, specifically, alarmed. Perhaps because it is not just people of color that he has attacked: he has insulted a white reporter and white women. He talks about rolling back protections and benefits that will impact white people.
I certainly noticed that vocalized outrage (from the media, the GOP and celebrities) dramatically escalated when it became white people who were targeted.
Still and all, I think of this horrendous man who represents the worst of the U.S. (ego, greed, bigotry, lack of self-restraint or self-reflection, inability to take responsibility, to name a few) taking the helm, and I feel sick to my stomach, and sick at heart. What rot lies in our hearts that we allowed this to happen, chose this?
And then I’m brought back to the other reality. Many Black people are saying that The Orange Menace does not represent anything new to them. They are still fighting for equal rights. They are still fighting for their lives. They have struggled and fought under oppression for hundreds of years and have survived; they will survive Agent Orange. And they notice that white people who are only getting upset now have clearly not prioritized the ongoing oppression of and violence against people of color.
I can only exist in one reality; white people live in white America, whether they want to or not. We benefit from the privileges of a society build by and for us, whether we work to dismantle white supremacy and racism or not.
But still, I feel like my vision keeps going in and out, from a perspective based on my white existence, to one trying to integrate the reality of the other America (and honestly, the “other America” is the real America – because it shows the entire picture).
Was yesterday’s inauguration the beginning of the end (white America)?
Or was it simply another chapter in the long history of white supremacy (real America)?
Can both be true? Because I feel both things.
Monday, January 9, 2017
Ten years ago I had just started a 3 ½ month long police academy for park rangers. One of my fellow cadets recently reminded me. It’s hard to wrap my head around. Ten years! In many ways, it seems a lifetime ago. But then I think about being in the best shape of my life as if it was just a couple years ago. 54 full, consecutive pushups – that was probably my biggest fitness achievement, considering I started from 1.
And it was in May, returning to my park after graduating academy, that I responded to a collision between a car and RV with a fatality that changed me and the course of my life. So I’m approaching the ten year anniversary of that first event that caused my PTSD. (http://www.therangerchronicles.com/2013/06/the-healing-begins.html)
For the past ten years I’ve been struggling, fighting, floundering, and healing. I only now feel like I’m able to start over. I think it is the rare individual who doesn’t have to start over again at some point in their life. As smart, determined, regimented, or disciplined as we may be, sometimes life smacks us to the ground so many times that it takes a good long while before we’re able to get back up again.
And now, at last, I’m standing up again. I have no savings and I have no house. But I do have this trailer which I love enough to stay in as long as it takes. And finally, finally I have a job that I love. I’m making ends meet, and just beginning to work enough to resume saving. It is daunting when I think about my age and limited number of years before retirement age, and how far I have to go before achieving any kind of financial security. But the worrying leads to feeling anxious and overwhelmed, which only makes me stay in bed with the covers pulled over my head. So I try to remind myself that I can only go at this new pace; pushing myself is a thing of my past, like it or not.
My well-conditioned body has fallen into neglect and disrepair. Even my lifelong habit of healthy eating fell away a year or so ago. My PTSD led to muscle cramps and joint pain that ended my running. And anxiety has led to a more and more reclusive life. While ten years ago I knew the confidence and rush of relying on my body to carry me through any challenge, now I fear to try anything that might lead to sore muscles, a sprain, or exhaustion that would simply make life harder.
But suddenly (perhaps it was the doctor’s weigh-in that made my jaw drop) I figured out how to start back on the path of fitness. Youtube brings the perfect workout into my living room, and allows me to stop when my body tells me that I’ve pushed it enough. I exercise immediately after work, before sitting down or eating dinner.
Once the medium occurred to me, the style was also obvious: kickboxing. When I was a park ranger, I struggled to learn our defensive tactics. So after academy I started working with a personal trainer and taking twice weekly martial arts classes. Over time the impact of kicks, punches and other strikes became extremely therapeutic. In fact I considered my martial arts to be my lifeline during times of greatest stress when I was a ranger.
Unfortunately, contacting full-force with a bag takes a toll on joints. I find a serious kickboxing class to be a good alternative. Your body still goes through the familiar motions of kicking, punching, using elbows and knees, all without the impact. And all the while the balance required is excellent for strengthening your core.
At times being on the starting line reminds me of how far I have to go – and that makes me nervous. But then I think about how good it feels to have a job that I enjoy, and I realize that I have every reason to believe that my finances are going to improve. And I think about how good the kickboxing feels, and I realize that every day I punch and kick the air is just going to build momentum – the way exercise does.
If there’s been an enduring life motto for me, it’s been “live life at my own pace.” It’s as true today as it was ten years ago. But it sure feels good to get up off the floor and start walking again!