Did Your Life Turn Out the Way You Dreamed it Would?

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.

 

His Heart Broke Open

Jack has had one health issue after another since we got out here to Arizona last August. The most recent hospitalization was four weeks ago when he got a blood clot in his leg. They performed surgery and he eventually went to rehab.

He was in tremendous pain at first (there were complications to his recovery) and sometimes he was in despair, but as time went by he got a little better, so much so that one day he was able to walk (on a rolling walker) to the small lunchroom where the other rehab patients had their meal.

A lovely nurse named Theresa took him that first day. They stood at the entrance of the room. She said with her beautiful Irish accent, “Where would you like to sit, Jack?”

Jack looked around the room and saw a great big bear of a man sitting alone at a table. He was in his late sixties, early seventies with white hair. He had his head down and he wasn’t eating.

Jack said, “I’d like to sit with him.”

Theresa took him over to the table and Jack sat down. He said, “Hi, my name is Jack.”

The big man didn’t look up. He mumbled low, “I’m Ray, but I don’t talk much.”

Jack said, “That’s no problem.”

Theresa started asking Jack questions about his life, what he’d done for a living and so on. Jack began talking and, after a little while, started telling funny stories. Pretty soon, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ray’s head shaking. He looked over and Ray, though he still had his head down, was laughing.

And that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Ray grew up on an Indian Reservation in Arizona and became a physician’s assistant. He’d had brain surgery and was having trouble learning to walk again. The reason he was so down was because the only person he ever loved (besides his grandmother who brought him up) was his wife and she was in another hospital with a blood disorder. He didn’t know when he’d be able to see her again, or even if they’d ever be able to live together again.

After lunch, when Jack returned to his room, he told me this story and how Ray put his big mitt of a hand on his shoulder before he left and said how much Jack helped him that day.

When Jack told me this, he cried.

I cried, too, not just from the story but because Jack never cries.

Every day at lunch, Jack and Ray talked about their lives and connected. Ray told Jack stories from his youth–how his grandmother taught him to revere the spirit in everything: the trees, the earth, a stone, a bird, how, once upon a time, his hair was black and so long it fell to his waist.

Sometimes Ray wasn’t there and Jack would sit with another patient, Margaret, and he’d make her laugh, too. She told him that he was helping her with his positive attitude and funny stories.

When Jack told me that, he cried again.

Jack has cried every single day since that first day with Ray—for any number of reasons: when touched by a person or a story or a kindness.

He said he’s never felt so much love for others, whether strangers, friends or family, as he does now.

It’s the most amazing thing. He never cried before. Never talked about loving people. He was always so macho, so tough: a Chicago firefighter and Teamster from the South Side of Chicago.

And he still is macho and tough—but now, it’s as if his heart has broken open in the most magical, wonderful way.

I love that he cries and encourage him to continue letting it out whenever the tears well up. Not only does it cleanse the soul and release cortisol, but maybe, just maybe, it might help heal his Congestive Heart Failure—if by any chance one reason he has it is because he kept a lifetime of tears locked inside his heart.

I can’t believe such a wonderful thing came from such a long stretch of darkness and suffering.

Now that’s a real Christmas gift!!

img_0169

PTSD and Burnout, or What a Shiny Button Told Me

We were out here in AZ only a few weeks when I caught a bad cold. First in ten years. It wasn’t surprising though. I was exhausted after moving cross-country, buying a car, driving for the first time in thirty-five years, learning the roads of my new neighborhood, finding grocery stores, pharmacies, barbers, dry cleaners, doctors for Jack, etc.

Then our furniture arrived and all which that entailed: putting up forty pictures, stocking the fridge and cabinets, setting up the closets, etc.

I tend towards constant hypervigilance, but thanks to Trauma Release Exercises (TRE) and other PTSD energy release methods I wrote about in my book PTSD: Frozen in Time, I’ve been able to sleep pretty regularly—and that’s key for my mental health.

I always have one eye on Jack. He’s almost thirty years older than me and had aortic valve replacement surgery in December. He also has only half of one kidney working. So I’m always surreptitiously checking on his wellbeing, if not overtly.

In early October, he had uncharacteristic GI tract distress. A few nights later, he had trouble breathing. Since we’d just gone to the cardiologist and Jack had no symptoms at that time and his blood pressure was consistently normal (we check it daily), we had no reason to believe it was a cardiac issue.

Fast forward to today. Over the last three weeks, I’ve taken him to ER twice and called 911 once. He was hospitalized twice and finally diagnosed with Congestive Heart Failure and bronchitis. With meds and exercise, he has a fifty-fifty chance to turn this around. (They suspect a bacterial infection weakened his heart, lungs, etc.)

It’s just me here in AZ – no family, except a cousin and 99-year old uncle outside Phoenix – so it’s vital I don’t burn out.

I’ve made sure to do TRE nearly every day because it relaxes my core enough to cry. Crying doesn’t just cleanse my soul, it also releases the stress hormone cortisol. Afterwards, I feel lighter, feelings of overwhelm and fatigue dissipate, and my energy returns.

I’ve burned out twice before. The first time was when I was twenty-two and taking care of my mother who had cancer. Physically, I bounced back pretty fast after she passed away. I had youth and good health going for me.

I burned out again when I was forty-nine, [PTSD plus a workaholic lifestyle for decades and then no sleep for a year – hello hallucinations! — which I also detail in my book (it’s the chapter at the end called “Startle”.)] That took me years to recover from. (I’m sixty now.)

Funny thing—the irrational idea I unconsciously held that simply by having all this experience and knowledge, I can avoid burnout again. Ha!

A few days ago, Jack was home again and taking a nap. It was the late afternoon of a gorgeous, sunny Arizona day. The house was clean, the dishwasher humming, the washing machine on the dry cycle, the carpets vacuumed, the wood floors swept, the fridge packed with all sorts of good, healthy foods. The leaves of the trees outside my window danced along the walls.

I sat on my bed feeling pretty peaceful. I said a rosary as I looked out on the mountains. I turned my eyes away a moment, moved my hand, and jumped halfway off the bed. You’d think the Wicked Witch of the West just popped up from the floor when it was just the reflection of my moving hand caught by the shiny chrome button on the side of my white cargo pants.

My stomach caved. I hadn’t realized I was in such a state of fight or flight. For me, when I’m in that place of startle, I know I’m not doing that well.

So what am I going to do to keep myself as healthy as I can?

Based on my history, rest is essential. It’s broken up in the night right now because Jack has unpredictable trouble breathing and walking, so when he gets up (and he gets up a lot on a diuretic), I get up. All I can do is grab naps during the day when I can.

I’ll continue to do TRE and cry out the stress.

I’m tired, so I haven’t felt like exercising—but for me that’s vital, too. Not crazy two-hour workouts, but optimally half an hour a day or every other day.

I’ve gone back to listening to binaural beats. I learned about them a few years ago. It’s music with a beat built in that changes the pulse of your brain to a more relaxed state. Your brain irresistibly matches the beat. (I downloaded an album off ITunes literally called “Binaural Beats”.) That helps me calm down when I’m too wired to rest.

We’ve been watching favorite or classic movies that give us a happy feeling (endorphins!) like Casablanca, The African Queen, The Secret of Roan Inish and The Sound of Music or diverting action films like The Equalizer or the Bourne movies.

I make super healthy meals for us and an anti-inflammatory drink made up of the juice of one lemon, three tbs. apple cider vinegar and eight ounces of water sweetened with two tsp. of maple syrup. (The lemon and apple cider vinegar are acidic in the glass, but metabolized by the body as alkaline.) I can feel the difference in my energy when I drink that.

When I do errands, I put CD’s on the car stereo and blast the music. Eric Clapton, Santana, Aretha…. Man, does that give me a soul-saving charge.

I bought a hummingbird feeder today. We have a little patio that faces the mountains. At least once a day, a hummingbird darts in, looks around for food and finding none, darts back out again. I’d love for the hummingbirds to stay just a little while.

I want to do as much life affirming and enjoyable stuff as I can.

I also feel good when I take a moment before sleep and think about what I loved about the day.

Today I loved the beautiful mountains behind our place, the gorgeous blue sky and perfect weather, my morning Coke, finally returning to writing again while Jack took a nap, talking to the kind lady who works at Panera as I waited for the onion soup to-go (which Jack loves), blasting “Layla” on the way to the grocery store, meeting a friendly neighbor this evening who asked about Jack, and seeing Jack’s dear face every time I walked into the living room (that’s his base right now).

Life is such a challenge sometimes, but I think that’s the point. How can I evolve? How can I become a better person?