Saturday, November 26, 2011

The View From Here

Here is the part where I tell you that the story so far has just been setting the scene, and now I'm about to turn around and start walking again and take you with me, still on the road out of here but nowhere near any recognizable landmarks. Nowhere near home.

They say it's possible to resolve PTSD with the therapy I'm doing. It feels like it might be. It also feels like whatever resolution that may come won't be coming for a very long time. It took me 20 years to get here. It will take more than a couple of months to get out.

This journey of mine often reminds me of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC. Have you been there? I saw it once about 10 years ago, and was completely unprepared for the impact it had on me: it was a deeply visceral experience long before I felt any personal connection to the metaphor it holds.

The wall starts low at each end of a long, sloping walkway, rising up beside it like a curb. It is made of black, reflective stone. You can see yourself reflected in it. I think this is part of the point.

The top of the wall remains level, while the walkway angles downward, bringing you inexorably lower, the black slab rising higher, higher, to your waist, your shoulder, above your head, beyond your reach on tiptoe. The walkway pulls you into the blackness, leading you downward, not letting up.

Printed on the wall, of course, are the names of the fallen. They are listed chronologically by year, so you can see quite literally how the violence progressed from relatively few casualties at the beginning of the conflict to thousands of lives lost in the thick of it. And it just keeps coming. The wall gets taller, begins to dwarf you as you move. And you keep walking, down, down, into the black, and that list of names keeps getting longer, and by the time you get to 1968 you're drowning in it, drowning in death and loss and helpless to stop it.

And then you reach the lowest point of the walkway, with the top of the black wall 10 feet above and the names piled on top of each other out of sight, and you notice that you've turned a corner, the ground has tilted upward and you're headed back to the light, and that's where everything shifts to a new kind of horror. 

Because even though you know, from your safe perspective, that the tide had turned on the war and the deescalation had begun, the names don't stop coming. And you still have to walk past them, all those lost lives, those sons and fathers and brothers and lovers, those men who died and kept on dying even though the course of the war had changed.

You have to keep walking and watch their deaths mark the time. They trickle off slowly,  sickeningly symmetrical to the way they began, but by this time it's really sunk in that each name was a life, a world, a family destroyed. Each name is one too many. Each name is more unbearable than the last, until finally, finally, the top of the wall is once again at your neck, your elbow, your knee, and then, at last, level with the walkway.

I was shocked at how strongly I responded to the Memorial. It remains one of the most vivid, commanding works of art I've ever seen, and I've seen some art in my time. It's also a profoundly moving depiction of the tragedy and horror of war. If you find yourself in DC and need a shortlist of sites to visit, the Vietnam Memorial belongs on that list to the exclusion of many other things that might seem more important. 

They're not.

Anyway. If it doesn't do too much dishonor to the Memorial to say it, I feel like I'm on that walkway in my own head. I have the sense of standing at the lowest point, the point where downward movement has finally, almost imperceptibly ended and the upward slope has not yet begun; the place where you are most aware not only of how far you've come but also of how very far you have yet to go and how much more you'll have to endure along the way.

Recovery of this kind doesn't always feel like a blessing. It feels a lot more like you've just been robbed of the ability to ignore your own suffering. And being newly aware of it doesn't make it recede. You still have to get up and walk yourself out of the hole, only now you can see, in stark relief, the losses that continue to mount as you go.

I told my husband the other day that it's like being handed a flashlight to light my way and finding out I've been sitting in a closet all this time. At this point, the only difference is that now I can see the walls.

"Being able to see the walls is the biggest change there is," he said. "That means that for the first time ever, you know where you are."

He's a wise man, my husband. And he's right. No matter what else, I know where I am now. It's not where I want to be. And for the first time, I'm confident that what I am doing will, eventually, get me where I want to go.

I just have to keep reminding myself of that simple fact as I begin to put one foot in front of the other, here at the bottom of things, and take my first uncertain steps up the slope, heading out of the darkness and back to the light. 


  1. Yes. Yes.

     I think for me, in my own dark journey into some really awful stuff that happened, I was in the closet, had the flashlight, and I was surprised at how often ran into the walls on the way to the door. BUT! I got there, and it it opened, and even though it will always be a part of me, it is no longer ME. Just a part, a profoundly painful part, but merely a part. One of my favorite descriptions of trauma is something that you cannot cast a shadow on. It sounds like, with the flashlight, and the sense of the walls, you are beginning to cast a shadow on this trauma.

  2. "Recovery of this kind doesn't always feel like a blessing. It feels a lot more like you've just been robbed of the ability to ignore your own suffering. And being newly aware of it doesn't make it recede. You still have to get up and walk yourself out of the hole, only now you can see, in stark relief, the losses that continue to mount as you go."
    I probably have said this in response to earlier blog entries, but this, your writing, is very powerful.  

    My step-father is a Vietnam vet.  When you ask him about troubles he's had, he shrugs and says, "Everybody's got their own sack of rocks."  My Mom has a tendency to be really. difficult. to. live. with, but nothing she does makes him bat an eyebrow.  He's lived through a war.  Nothing fazes him. 

    Trauma is terrible.  Pain is terrible.  Horror is terrible.  Loss is terrible.

    And yet.  There can be freedom, and liberation, in having survived this stuff. 

    One of my favorite things about being me is that I already know what the worst part of my life will be.  Twenty years ago, I fended off an attempted stranger rape (two strangers, one me) by standing on a hill and brandishing a large rock while screaming curses.  About five years, I got beat up by a stranger on a train, where the assault included getting kicked in the head.  I can honestly say that neither of these things fazed me in any conclusive way, which leads me to believe my childhood has prepared me for anything.  Maybe I would reconsider that opinion if I were stuck on life support in a vegetative state.  But in the meantime, nothing is scary.  And that means it's possible to take risks.  

    As Michael Faraday says, "But still try, for who knows what is possible."

  3. I've been reading every post as they've come out. Kate, you're an amazing writer! You're not just telling your story, but telling it in such a compelling way that only someone with talent could.

    Your experience so profoundly changed who you are on an emotional level, I wonder what you would have been like if the accident never happened? What parts of your personality would have stayed the same regardless? Would you have been recognizable as the same person? At the end of this process (or somewhere further down the path, if there is no end), will some of that Kate-who-would-have-been show herself?

    I wish you the best on your journey, Kate, and I hope your writings help others who've been through trauma.

  4. KateTheGirlWhoLived28 November, 2011 14:19

    Sarah, ever since you first told me about that description of trauma, I have been mulling over it, trying to get my head around exactly what it means. What does it mean to cast a shadow on something? How does this metaphor capture something essential about trauma?

    And it has finally hit me just this second: you don't cast a shadow on something because you are bigger or stronger or more worthy, somehow. 

    You cast a shadow because between the two of you, you're the one closer to the light.
    Thanks for this image. I will be keeping it close.

  5. KateTheGirlWhoLived28 November, 2011 14:53

    MG, thank you for this. I am floored, once again, by your courage. 

    "Freedom and liberation in having survived this stuff." Yes. I didn't know I could have that. I didn't know I deserved it. One thing I do know, though, is that if you want it, you have to choose it.

    It's just as easy-- easier, even-- to give in to the attackers, whoever, wherever, whenever they come, and remain a victim forever. You could have done that. You didn't.

    You chose instead to stand on that hill and pick up that rock and scream your Goliath into retreat-- that time, and all those other times you had to do it, too. You cast a big fucking shadow, my friend (see Sarah's comment and my reply above).

    I am choosing this now, for myself. I didn't know I hadn't done it already. I am not accustomed to the power, and it's an uneasy fit at the moment, but I am hoping that with some work I will be able to wield it like a pro.

    I long to put this thing in its place so that I, too, can feel that nothing is scary. That it's possible to take risks. And the data  supports your theory: the few risks I've taken so far have been more than worth the fear I felt in taking them. 

    Especially the one that brought me a new, dear friend.

  6. KateTheGirlWhoLived28 November, 2011 14:54

    Thank you, Lois. I so appreciate you taking the time to comment. I hope you'll be back!

  7. KateTheGirlWhoLived28 November, 2011 15:01

    Thank you, Bonita. I have been wondering that very same thing. I do feel a bit like I'm recreating myself, here, which isn't what I expected to be doing at 40. In spite of how it may seem, it's a pretty exciting process.

    And who will I be at the end of this process? Well, if I get to pick, I'm hoping for "thin nymphomaniac with no migraines who has tons of energy and contentedly writes for a living."

    Fingers crossed. No whammies.

  8. Yes! I think also, when I think of being able to 'cast a shadow' on something, you are not 'it', you are separate. When you 'are' your trauma, you can't cast a shadow on it because you are enmeshed (sorry for the 80's talk show word, but it was more appropriate than intertwined, which denotes separate strains wound around each other.) However, I love your incorporation of the light as the reason you can cast a shadow. You aren't in the dark, there is light, it is not an amorphous mystery any longer.

  9. I'm thinking you might need a few more processes in the works to get all that :)