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.

 

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Rebuilding What Was Lost

I read about the oldest man in the world the other day. Yisrael Kristal is 113. He was born in Poland and at 13 was looking forward to his bar mitzvah when WWI broke out and his celebration was postponed indefinitely. In WWII, he survived Auschwitz, weighing only 82 pounds at his liberation. He moved to Israel and rebuilt his life, raising a family and opening a business. He finally got to celebrate his bar mitzvah last week.

I liked his comments upon receiving an award from the Guinness World Record.

“I don’t know the secret for long life. I believe that everything is determined from above and we shall never know the reasons why. There have been smarter, stronger and better looking men then me who are no longer alive. All that is left for us to do is to keep on working as hard as we can and rebuild what is lost.”

I liked that concept of rebuilding what is lost after trauma.

First, I’d have to identify what’s lost, though.

When I went to a shaman a few years ago and the parts of my soul that took flight at moments of intense trauma returned, I was instructed to sit down and ask each one why they left, what would make them happy, and what would make them stay. Then I was to do whatever it was that would make them happy and make them stay.

They would only stay if they were safe and if I would do the things that brought them a sense of well-being. The sixteen-year old wanted to drive again and blast tunes. I finally bought a car six weeks ago and today I was on the road blasting Aretha Franklin. The little one wanted coloring books and dolls and Jack has bought me these things. The twenty-two year old wanted to feel joy again, to go places, to meet people and have adventures. I’m working on that.

(There were more parts of my soul lost than these. I wrote about it in my book PTSD: Frozen in Time.)

For me, PTSD was mostly decades of non-feeling, broken up with moments of rage and despair. There was no joy, no sense of well-being or safety.

I stopped on the road from Phoenix to Tucson on Tuesday and had an ice cold orange drink. It was so startlingly tasty, I felt shot up with joy! As Patricia Grace said to me: It’s the simple things. (Check out her fabulous memoir Shattered.)

And it is the simple things. The hummingbirds and butterflies outside my window. A clear blue sky. A shooting star. The moon. The smell of rain in the air. Jimmy Durante singing, “Make Someone Happy”. The sunlight that comes into my bedroom each morning. A birthday card with a scratch-off Lotto ticket. Framing the pictures of the planties I had to give away when I left Chicago and hanging them in our new home. A restful nap. Reading a good book. A delicious chocolate cupcake. Music. Making Jack laugh. Taking care of Jack.

What makes you feel safe? What brings you well-being and joy?

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