Jack got a three-lead pacemaker implanted two weeks ago. During surgery, I sat in a waiting room a chair away from a hospital volunteer. She was a beautiful woman in her late 60’s, a New York transplant, and a great listener. I talked and talked as if I was on Concerta. Nerves, I guess.
I don’t know why, but I desperately wanted to ask her if her life had turned out the way she dreamed it would once upon a time. Before I could ask, the surgeon came in to see me and the volunteer left.
I never had the urge to ask anyone that question. I suppose it’s because in the past few months I’ve had a lot of moments, during trauma release exercises, when I’ve felt bad that my life turned out the way it did. It seemed such a waste. So much numbness, despair and pain. So little happiness.
I remember wanting to be a writer after reading Charlotte’s Web. I wrote a lot of stories, but wasn’t obsessed with writing. I wanted adventures out in the world! I played outside a lot with my cousins who lived in the same apartment building. I loved to run and ride my bike and go to the library and school and the penny-candy store and church. I was in love with life. Everything was exciting or wonderful or a thrilling mystery. I was filled with love and thought life would always be as wonderful as it was then.
From nine to thirteen, during the trauma years, I was frequently sick with strep throat and spent a lot of that time watching old black and white movies in bed. How wonderful to play a part, to be another person, how freeing. And to be applauded and admired for it? That was for me! I dreamed of going to New York someday and becoming an actress.
In high school, I had symptoms of PTSD. In the early 70’s, I certainly didn’t know that’s what they were. The biggies were hyperarousal, insomnia, exaggerated startle reflex, nightmares, intrusive thoughts and hyper-vigilance. When I was 16, numbness, depersonalization, and the sense of a foreshortened future set in.
I remember sitting in my boyfriend’s basement “rec-room” with my friends. We were drinking and listening to music. One by one, each was saying what they planned to be in life and where they saw themselves at thirty. When it got to me, I said from habit I’d be an actress, but the truth was I didn’t sense any future at all. It was like an invisible wall, infinitely thick and immutable, stood one inch from my face all the time, a barrier forever in place between me and any possible future. Of course, I acted as though I had a future, but I didn’t feel I had one and so didn’t much plan for one. It was kind of like I was dead in a way. I didn’t know what to make of the feeling. I assumed it would go away.
This last year, (I’m sixty now), I’ve felt bad sometimes because my life seemed a waste due to decades of untreated PTSD, particularly numbness punctuated with episodes of rage and despair. I had no interest in hanging out with other people when I felt numb, angry or depressed, so it was a life lived mostly alone, avoiding all triggers.
My life might be interpreted as “successful” on paper. I looked good. I was socially adept. I did well in my career, once I got one going (mid-30’s). I accomplished certain things artistically that some might consider noteworthy. I even became an actress (in my twenties), but my unpredictable symptoms of numbness, depersonalization and derealization undermined my ability to act and thus any sustained success and enjoyment it might have given me. I gave it up.
In a way, my dreams did come true insofar as I became a writer, albeit a business writer, and an actress, however briefly.
Long ago I imagined those dreams would bring me happiness. They didn’t. Neither did any accolades I received or money or beautiful living arrangements. Nothing broke through the numbness, the dissociation. Not for long anyway.
How can you feel happy when you can’t feel? When you can’t feel, how can you love?
I wish I could’ve somehow transcended PTSD, but that was impossible. It’s nature’s response to unreleased trauma energy.
Jack’s heart was attacked by a virus. Congestive heart failure was his body’s response. He certainly can’t transcend it, although he can take steps to get well.
He feels bad sometimes because he feels he isn’t good company anymore. He can’t help it that he has congestive heart failure. He can’t help that he’s exhausted most of the time. It’s not his fault. I feel compassion for him.
Having PTSD wasn’t my fault either. It’s worthy of the same compassion.
The best thing I can do for the little girl I once was is to do everything I can to create a life of well-being now. Feeling whatever is inside is essential. In fact, the only adult happiness I’ve known began when my meds stopped working at forty-nine. (See my book PTSD: Frozen in Time .) Sometimes it is painful to feel and release sadness and anger, but the payoff is joy and happiness. In the end, that’s all my little-girl selves wanted.
I’ve wasted enough of my life looking back with regret, imagining how it all could’ve turned out so differently, so much better, if only this person hadn’t done that, if only I hadn’t done this. No matter how many times I check in with the past, it’s always the same.
I personally feel I agreed before I came into this incarnation to grapple with these issues this time around. I don’t think I knew the details, just the issues. However it came to be, I’m putting in a stop-order on regrets for the dream life of happiness I didn’t have.
Enough is enough. Time for compassion, tears and joy.