PTSD and the Rain

It’s a cold, windy, rainy night here in Arizona. I go out onto the covered patio often because I love to hear the sound of the rain. I love the smell in the air. I love to feel the cool mist and feel the breeze on my skin and see the glistening light on the trees.

I don’t know what the architects were thinking when they designed the Chicago high-rise we used to live in. It was as if they forgot the windows and at the last minute added tiny two-inch openings at the bottoms of each, which allowed very little air through. I couldn’t hear the rain at all and if I went downstairs on the deck to watch it, I’d have to run half a block to the cabanas for shelter.

I’m so grateful to be out here and have Jack recuperating in what is normally gorgeous weather. I shudder at the thought of us back in downtown Chicago, boxed in by high-rises, unable to take leisurely walks over the wintry, rushing, crowded sidewalks, and navigating icy cement every time we’d go to see a doctor.

But I LOVED it for many years. It’s a great place when you’re young.

Jack, by the way, gets better and better. We go outside for walks every day. He’s off the rolling-cart and today walked without a cane. I know his echocardiogram will show improvement next month. He had a vivid dream with two angel mechanics restoring the left side of his heart!

As for me, surprise: I still have PTSD! But I feel I’ve healed so much with all I’ve done to release the trauma energy (described at length in my book: PTSD: Frozen in Time.)

My symptoms are much better. I sleep every night, for one. That’s huge.

But I still unconsciously bury feelings. The good thing is I’m aware of it now versus decades of being completely oblivious to what went on inside me.

When Jack asks me how I am in the morning and I say, “I don’t know. I can’t feel anything”, that always means I’m blocking something. Lately, it’s been frustration and anger. Understandable with the stress of the last few months when I didn’t know if Jack would live or die. With me as the sole caretaker, I felt a lot of pressure.

The fastest fix for me is doing Trauma Releasing Exercises, which literally always brings up tears. It’s vital I do this daily because if I go a few days without letting out what’s inside, I can go from calm to rage in an instant over something trivial. I catch it fast and apologize immediately, but then comes the remorse. It’s like I lose my mind for a few seconds. I hate when I do that.

Working out helps, too, but lately taking care of Jack, plus shopping and outside errands, my days are pretty full. I’d love to get back to work-outs again. And meditation.

I’ve been reading an interesting book called Stumbling Down the Shamanic Path by Michele Burdet. It’s a well-written, sometimes fascinating, memoir of, well, stumbling into shamanism. She starts out with meditation and had such fabulous results, it’s re-inspired me to get back into it. She also writes a lot about traveling internationally, dowsing and climbing mountains. I’m at the point where she (at the age of 70-something!) was climbing the Alps, (which she had been doing for years,) slipped and began sliding to the edge of a cliff and certain death when a companion grabbed the strap of her backpack and saved her. Once pulled to safety, she felt a “towering rage”, but in ten minutes, was back climbing the mountain feeling fine. Shortly thereafter, she’s in America visiting a friend on the East Coast when she wakes up feeling utterly depressed. This is so uncharacteristic of her. She’s a dynamo, always on the go, in great physical shape, filled with enthusiasm, passion and fire.

My first thought was she didn’t release the trauma energy when she nearly died. She felt the towering rage and the flood of stress hormones afterwards, but they were almost immediately buried.

In recent years, she’d discovered Sedona, Arizona and met a shaman there who performed soul retrieval on her. I suspect a bit of her soul slipped out on the Alps. Maybe the shaman will help her or maybe what was pressed down (depressed) in her comes out. We’ll see what happens.

I began reading an interesting book about PTSD a couple weeks ago. It was called The Evil Hours by David J. Morris. I didn’t get very far, just read the Kindle sample, but he mentioned how PTSD people talk about the before and after of trauma, how the quality and experience of life is never the same again.

How true that was for me.

When I remember my earliest years, it’s as if I looked at the world with something of the eyes I had in heaven, before I came into this life. Everything was beautiful to me, the sublime and the prosaic—unforgettably gorgeous. I was in love with life, thrilled to see a grasshopper, a seedling struggling out of the earth in spring, to run down the block, jump fences, eat a Popsicle. I loved the trees and bushes and flowers, the rain and snow, the clouds and sun. I loved the ice cold water out of the city fountain across the street, the side of our building where my cousin and I were digging a hole to China. I loved the library and music and paper and pens and our apartment and the church and every building on our street. Sunsets stopped me in my tracks. I felt God in the stars at night. I loved books and school, my family, my aunts and uncles and cousins. So many times, I’d lay on my bed with my arms behind my head and think I was the luckiest girl in the world. I was so happy. The world was beautiful. I was in love with life.

And then, of course, it all changed with trauma and I never again saw the world as I once did.

Though we moved to a beautiful home with a backyard full of cottonwood trees and rose bushes and all kinds of extraordinary foliage, I didn’t feel safe enough to relax and absorb it. I didn’t stop to look at the night sky. There was no space and time for reverie or dreaming. I was focused only on survival and all that entailed. When it was all over, it was as if I didn’t have the means of experiencing life anymore. I was so far removed. That little girl I once was had gone so far inside of me, she was a infinitesimal speck.

But when I was forty-nine and the meds stopped working, I began to feel again. And though it was often terribly painful and I cried almost every day for years, I also began to feel joy, and safe enough to relax and see and experience life a little like I did long ago.

Think I’ll go back outside and see what the rain is doing.

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

Be Like the Hummingbird

img_0076

Be Like the Hummingbird. Find a source of nectar and places to rest.

Meet one of the two hummingbirds who come throughout the day to feed in our little patio.

There’s a male and a female. After they drink their nectar, they have such royal posture as they sit on the Bird of Paradise outside our patio wall—as if surveying their kingdom–that I think of them as a prince and princess.

I read somewhere that because of their incredible metabolism, they have to rest 85% of the time.

I can identify, especially lately. Jack is hospitalized now for the fourth time—after getting a blood clot removed from his leg. He’s in rehab at the moment.

I am EXHAUSTED.

But—for the first time in my life—I have been asking for help. His daughter has been out to AZ twice, my sister-in-law came last week, my brother is coming next week, my cousins the week after. I put a request on our apartment complex site for a cleaning lady and people who would hang out in our den for a couple hours while I go for a run or to the store (paid sitting) when Jack is back and got a lot of responses.

I am trying to conserve energy. It’s so easy for people with PTSD to burn out. I’ve burned out twice in my life—at 22 after taking care of my mom before she died of cancer and at 49 due to years of workaholism. I bounced back pretty quickly at 22. Not so much at 49. Now I’m 60.

I do not want to risk it again.

I will conserve energy as much as I can like the hummingbird.

What is my nectar?

Driving to and from the hospital, I blast tunes—everything from Louis Armstrong to Santana to Tony Bennett to The Doors.

I’ve been eating pretty good. I drink my anti-inflammatory drink every day.

The last few days, I’ve been able to take a run by the mountains. Today an eagle soared above me and a hawk landed close by underneath a tree. Butterflies everywhere.

I’ve been reading some great books. (Just finished the fantastic Trials of this Earth by Mary Hamilton. Memoir: Part Dickens, Part Laura Ingalls Wilder, Part Mark Twain and all true.)

I cry whenever I can. That’s huge for me.

I do Trauma Release Exercises most every day.

But I am beat.

Interestingly, before all this happened, Jack had a dream. He saw himself changing vehicles while they were both moving. He said it was an awful dream–terrifying and painful. And sure enough, his body has changed and it’s been scary and painful.

What a mystery life is.

 

 

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?

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?

img_0114

 

Moving to AZ, PTSD and a Can of Fanta Orange

As of Tuesday, we’ll have been in Arizona two months…and what a two months it’s been!

OMG!! We’re still so exhausted.

We arrived in Phoenix near midnight on August 11th. We’d hired a driver to pick us up at the airport and take us into the Tucson area. (Long story as to why we flew to Phoenix instead of Tucson.)

While Jack and the driver waited for our luggage, I stepped outside for a few minutes. I clutched a big white 3-hole binder notebook tightly to my chest. It held every single password to every single account we had: banks, charge cards, ATM’s, online sites. It also contained three years of taxes, birth certificates, our new lease, directions to our temporary house and so on. I remember sitting down a moment in the glorious Arizona night and taking a deep breath. We made it! We finally made it!

It was kind of warm so I put my purse and notebook down on the ground and took off my jacket. After a few minutes, I went back inside the terminal.

You know what’s coming, right?

As we approached Tucson an hour and a half later, I looked around the car and said to Jack, “Honey, did you see me put the white notebook in the trunk?”

AHHHHHHHHHH!!!!

Oh the sinking feeling in my stomach!

Need I say, I was up until dawn changing passwords.

The good news: the next day, some lovely honest soul handed the notebook into the Phoenix airport and they Fed Ex’d it to our new place. God bless you honest soul, wherever you are!!

For the next two weeks, while waiting for our furniture to arrive, we stayed in a gorgeous home in the mountains in Saddlebrooke. I saw four shooting stars the first night. It was very dark in the evening in that area so when I’d go outside to look at the sky, I’d see billions of stars. I’d been dreaming of that for months.

In the daytime, the mountains reminded me of The Sound of Music, one of my favorite movies, so you just know I was singing “The Lonely Goatherd”, “The Sound of Music”, and “Climb Every Mountain” all the time.

img_1654

I also met this cactus.

img_0154

Can you see his face? He didn’t have the happiest expression, but he felt so kind. I talked to him a lot.

img_0154-2

Sometimes I felt like I was in heaven.

Speaking of heaven, there was a soul nearby taking a break from there. He kept slamming the door of the second bedroom of our temporary house. As soon as we acknowledged him, he stopped doing it. He was actually quite debonair, smelling of a delicious after-shave. When I went into a deep meditative state, I could see he was tall, middle-aged, with dark hair and glasses. I didn’t get any telepathic message, but my impression was he was related to the owner and just checking us out. He left after the first few nights.

I have to tell you, this move was pretty stressful what with Jack being 88 and me having PTSD.

The altitude hit him hard and he felt dizzy for a couple weeks. He had and continues to have balance issues that understandably undermine his wellbeing. I had trouble breathing for a week, then got sick as a dog with a horrible cold.

With the exception of twice last September, I hadn’t driven in 35 years (Jack doesn’t drive anymore), so between trying to get my sea-legs again and not knowing where we were and our iPhone GPS voice sometimes working, sometimes not—finding our way around was extremely stressful.

I bought a car for the first time. That was an experience.

img_0121

I unpacked fifty boxes at our new place and hung about 40 paintings/pictures/posters.

I stocked our new kitchen.

AT&T didn’t work at all out here, so I had to switch to Verizon and buy new phones. (They didn’t do iPhone 5s.)

I had to find all new doctors for Jack. And a barber. Why do they all want to give him a buzz cut? For years now, I keep asking for the Cary Grant look, circa 1966, and they nod their heads and then make him look like he’s in boot camp.

Someone left the patio door in our new apartment open before we moved in, so we had lots of leaping, many-legged bugs as well as moths to clear out in the weeks that followed. Quite gross.

Jack’s computer died so that was a bummer. I finally reset it to factory settings, but still can’t figure out how to enable his video mode so he can do his flight simulator. One thing at a time, though, right?

None of this would have been such a big deal if it weren’t for that fact that I was EXHAUSTED and Jack was dizzy and/or lightheaded and/or off-balance most of the time and I surreptitiously watched him like a hawk practically every minute of the day, unless he was sleeping.

Need I say, I was in a near-constant state of hypervigilance. Startle effect returned. My tummy began to twist and shout. My eye began twitching. And then I started waking up with a disconcerting physical symptom of stress I thought I’d left behind two years ago. Portions of my arms buzzed with energy as if a zillion, trillion, kazillion cells had condensed in small areas and begun expanding and contracting at top speed.

I don’t like waking up with those buzzing arms, but I’m grateful my body gives me messages. This particular message means: BURN OUT APPROACHING!! Slow down, rest, do Trauma Release Exercises (TRE).

Thank God for TRE. It’s still my number one go-to when I find myself in a state of overwhelm. As I wrote in my book, PTSD: Frozen in Time, Trauma Release Exercises relax the psoas muscle—the first muscle activated when fight or flight hits. When I relax the psoas, I’m able to cry and release the cortisol build-up (stress chemicals). Then my fatigue lifts, my stress symptoms abate, I get perspective back and I feel pretty good again.

***

Mid-September, we visited my 99-year-old uncle Roy outside Phoenix. He used to live in his dream home on a golf course until last winter when his physical needs required 24/7 medical care. Even though his facility is very nice, it was still tough to see him there and I know it’s very tough for him to be there.

Driving home, I felt very sad. After an hour and a half on the highway, I pulled over to a rest stop. It was clean, quiet and empty. Just restrooms and vending machines. We decided to get something to drink and sit a few minutes before getting back on the road.

Although I’ve been drinking Coca Cola since high school, for some reason, I decided to get a Fanta Orange. I hadn’t had one of them since I was nine.

The sun was shining and it was hot, but we were comfortable sitting at a table in the shade.

Everything was strangely still and quiet. Wonderfully still and quiet.

I took a swig of the Fanta.

It was ice-cold and delicious.

I took another drink.

And then, out of nowhere, I felt joy.