What Doesn’t Kill Us Leaves Us Scarred

Nine years ago on this date, I awoke in the middle of the night knowing something was very wrong with me, by daybreak I could barely move. My husband was on a business trip and we’d just moved to our apartment building three months prior. I knew and had no one. My only thought was the walking of my dog. I called down to the front desk, gasping in a whisper; “is there anyone who can walk my dog?” I think I heard laughter. I got myself and my dog downstairs and held on to walls and wrought iron fences as we slowly made our way down the block. I had to rest every few steps.

My brother agreed to do that evening’s walk and my husband was home by the next morning. Later that next day, I sat in a doctor’s office silently crying and panting as she told my husband she refused to treat me as I belonged in the hospital. My husband, defying his lifelong need to be liked by strangers, explained that I would never agree to that. He was still recovering from the devastating hospital borne infection (C.Diff) and was still injecting himself with blood thinner from the post-surgical blood clot the hospital staff missed. I had been his caretaker and advocate and the experience left me even more distrusting of hospitals, if such a thing were possible. The doctor very reluctantly stuck an agreement with us: we were to call her every four hours for forty-eight hours with a temperature update.

It took me six months to fully recover from that pneumonia. A dear friend who had not been well for awhile succumbed to the illness as I emerged from the fever. Her funeral was my first time leaving the house. A month later my 12-year old bichon, overcome with a discomfort he couldn’t communicate, hid under a table and died a week later. 2010 was by far the worst year I had ever experienced. The pneumonia changed my body and mindset. My friend was far too young to die. And our dog was the best thing that had ever happened to us. It wasn’t my first time at the tragedy rodeo, but this particular trifecta was so dramatic and happened so rapidly. If anyone had told me; “oh honey, it’s gonna get so much worse.” I would’ve checked myself into a facility until it all passed.

The fact is that those advertising disclaimers are true: past performance is no indication of future outcomes. An awful childhood, doesn’t protect from crap things happening in adulthood. Misery is not metered out. There is no suffering or trauma quota. And there’s no healthy way to get more resilient or less human. The best one can hope for is to become laser focused on the light in one’s life. If I can focus on what I do have, while periodically admiring the scenery of my past life, I’m okay. Every night I have thoughts of gratitude, the first thing on the list is always the same: I am grateful that my dog is healthy and I am strong.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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With Apologies To Gloria Gaynor

Newly widowed I experienced terror and trauma in waves as frequent and powerful as a category 3 hurricane. For almost a year, I would avoid walking under scaffolding or air conditioners, so afraid of the unexpected. Over the months and years my terror and trauma changed flavors and frequency but has never wavered in its intensity.

I went through a period consumed by thoughts of illness or accident that I would be forced to suffer alone. I changed dentists to avoid dealing with my lifelong Achilles heel taunted by memories of my husband by my side. I changed gynecologists to avoid being splayed in the same stirrups I was the moment my husband died. For the first year or two, I heard all financial and legal professionals as disembodied Oz voices amidst white noise. I couldn’t make any but the most cursory and urgent decisions.

It’s been over five years now. I’ve lived in my most recent home longer without him than I did with him. The terror feels more like fear, and I’m resigned to it. I am alone. Terrible things will happen. I’ll manage. But the trauma…? That never ebbs. Yes, I can once again watch movies and T.V. shows I had to avoid for those first couple of years. I can hear music we or he loved and not become physically ill. Finally, he now appears to me in dreams that have nothing to do with him being dead. I cherish those dreams. But that trauma that was right there on the surface? Doubling over in pain when hearing an ambulance siren? Not being able to breathe when passing the place he died? That trauma has seeped into my being. It is part of me now. It has changed my entire worldview and guides my survival. And I am surviving. I may not be living a recognizably productive life, but I’m still here. I am more porous, fragile, quiet, fearful, grateful, peaceful and solo, than ever before. My life is almost childlike in its simplicity.

For most of my adult life I maintained that it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. I’ve learned that isn’t entirely true. I can spend the day in shorts, T-shirt and Keds (my childhood uniform) and eat ice cream for lunch, but to say I was happy would be a disservice to real happiness. I am at times peaceful. I am afraid at least once a day. Deeply and profoundly afraid. I am sad often. And my husband is always with me. Always. This is both comforting and shattering. Nobody does “the best they can” and I’m no different. I’m doing the best I choose to do. I may do better some day, I may do worse. I have never bought into that ridiculous chestnut: what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. What a load of crap. What doesn’t kill us can leave us on life support.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trigger Alert

During the first days, weeks and months of loss everything and anything can be a trigger. Each Friday, for many weeks, I would look at the clock and think; “this is when he was supposed to come home but didn’t.” For a year, sirens made me jump and gasp even though I never saw or heard any that responded to my husband’s death. These, and many others I had, are pretty predictable triggers. The magnitude of what they evoke are as varied as they are. I have had (so far) two triggers that have sent me packing my bags. Twice, I have left my home for a week until I regained my psychic footing.

The predictability, or should I say, unpredictability of triggers is what makes it challenging. We all like to know what’s coming and when. Three weeks after my husband died, a neighbor I did not know well became a widow. Her husband had been bedridden for years. I felt compelled to take the elevator up and pay my respects. I could not bring myself to go into her catered reception, but stood in the doorway with her and expressed my sincere condolences. We hugged and as I walked back to the elevator I heard her as she stammered to the crowd; “her husband was killed just three weeks ago.” I fell against the elevator door and struggled to breathe. It was hearing how stunned she was that I had come that was the trigger, not her loss. Eighteen months later I got a message from a new and very dear friend; her son had been killed. She needed me and that was a gift. I’m sure there were moments that didn’t feel great for me, but all I recall is that my heart broke for her. It was a privilege to put my experience to some use as I held her hand and body at the funeral and for the next year, and I felt strong doing it. Triggers are unpredictable.

After months, if not years, of being tortured by my mattress I gave up the frugality fight and purchased a new one this week. The night before it was delivered I woke at 2:00 A.M., achey and thinking; “Thank G-d this will be the last night on this mattress.” The next thought (that kept me awake for hours) was; “OMG this is the last night on this mattress!!” Over the years, the mattress has seen what most mattresses see. But what kept me awake was a memory slideshow of; my rabbi sitting on my bed as I hung onto him sobbing, my friends crawling in and on me, how long it took me before I’d let anyone sit on my husband’s side. The images included happier times as well; friends sharing my bed and our confidences, and taking my neighbor baby and my neighbor kitty into that bed. Had I thought beyond the expense and practicality of the endeavor, I probably could’ve predicted the 10 hours of crying. But perhaps not.

These moments, triggered by unpredictable events, sights and sounds feel more and more productive. Yes, I had mattress induced cinematic crying on and off for 10 hours, but I wasn’t sad. I felt as if I had food poisoning (versus the flu): I knew I just had to get it out and I’d be fine. It’s important to hit the pause button from time to time. I spent the past 24-hours thinking about what I’d lost, what I’d gained, how far I’ve come and how I’ve suffered. There is no way to avoid triggers. They can appear in the form of a scent, a warm breeze, an accent, a laugh, a food, a date on the calendar, or just about anything. I don’t stay on the lookout for them, or tense up when they appear, but have learned to give into them. They teach me something and are not to be feared. Sometimes crying on the treadmill is what survival looks like.