Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Man Who Saw

All right, one of the down sides of following someone's therapy blog is that you have to deal with their bullshit when it comes to staying consistent with the writing. I hope you'll forgive me the occasional gap.

That migraine from last time lasted several more days-- I think it finally went away on day 12-- so last week, when it was time to sit down to write, I... went to the movies instead. 

(Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, in case you're wondering. Good flick. Quiet. Atmospheric. Interesting casting. Positively soaked in 70s aesthetics, even down to the camera techniques. And Benedict Cumberbatch, even if only for moments here and there. So. A good day, and migraine-free!)

But I'm back and ready to tell you another story.

I've been thinking that a lot of this blog so far has been about telling you some pretty scary, ugly stuff. These aren't the only stories. There are others that stand out for their radiant, transcendent awesomeness, and if so much of what has happened to me in the past 20 years has been caused or affected by the accident, those moments have too and deserve their place in the pantheon. Time to even up the balance sheet a bit.

Dr. Oz calls them "I WANT TO LIVE!" moments. Moments where the real me broke through the reptilian brain-freeze and reached out and affirmed itself: Alive. Here. I survived! 

My favorite part about that idea is that the PTSR (Post Traumatic Stress Response) gets no credit for whatever cool thing happened as a result. I get to see the moments of beauty and life and love and transformation as products of action by the real me. She's in there. And she will not (all the time, anyway) be silent.

One of the first I WANT TO LIVE moments (hereby known from this point forward as IWTLM...rolls off the tongue, no?) that I can remember was caused, paradoxically, by a vampire.

His name was Ian Becker. I wrote stories about him.

But let me start at the beginning. After the accident, I took my sizable insurance settlement, bought myself a car and a killer stereo, and then financed an expensive, rigorous, and absolutely life-transformingly wonderful private college education. 

One heck of an IWTLM, that.

I entered as an almost-junior creative writing major, and for the first year and a half, I wrote poems. I did this for two reasons. One was that I'd fallen into the poetry set first and loved the professor, and I wanted to milk everything I could out of his mentorship. Blah blah blah.

The second was that the fiction professor had a reputation for being crazy, pompous, cantankerous, and I was terrified of him.

His name was Bruce. I finally entered his short-fiction workshop in the fall of my senior year, intimidated into watchful silence. His first entrance was like all his others: noisy, reckless, late, carrying bundles of books and papers and leaving a cloud of disaster in his wake. He had sallow skin and thin, wild, pale hair; sloppy clothes; huge, rough, calloused hands. He didn't look at you when he talked, but scanned the room through narrowed eyes as if reading notes on the walls, rubbing his hair into disarray, his voice clear and booming.

He talked a lot. 

The first day, he asked us to write a bio and tell him about ourselves, our goals, our ideas for writing. I wrote about my car accident 2 1/2 years earlier, and how it had impacted my life.

The second day, he asked us to write about a recurring dream we'd had. I wrote about a nightmare I'd had as a kid, where I'd be engaged in a normal activity, and then suddenly notice the same strange images--a patchwork quilt, a syringe filled with clear liquid, an older woman with red hair bursting into a sudden scream-- which always meant the same thing: I'd suddenly fly off into a void, weightless, anchorless, lost. I'd jolt awake, spinning in space, terrified.

The third day, we handed in our first stories for the workshop.

I wrote about Ian. I'd been hanging out with my friend Chris, who had a vampire character of his own that he'd been writing about: a cold, ruthless killer who stood out in harsh contrast to my more romantic, Anne Rice-steeped vision of soft, sensual vampires who wrestled with the moral implications of their nature. We argued often about the virtues of each type, and eventually agreed to disagree about which was the most awesome (oh god, don't you miss college?).

Ian was born during one of those conversations. My first story to Bruce, in fact, was about that moment of inception, and how the character emerged. The story wasn't about Ian, it was about me as a writer, responding to a challenge from a friend and creating a character from thin air to match wits with his.

At the end of the story, I have my writer character go home and go to sleep, only to be awoken in the early hours of dawn by none other than Ian himself, real and in the (undead, why-are-you-not-fictional) flesh. He's just stopped by to say thanks. And that he's looking forward to seeing her again very soon.

My writer/alter ego is now living in a world where the character she's created is alive and on the loose. How much does she control him? How much danger is she in? Is she writing his story, or is she just his scribe?

(And before I go any further, screw you, Stephanie Meyer. You took something awesome and made it lame. And mine was better. And first. Curse my luck! I could be rolling around in your piles of cash right now if only I'd been more on the ball! And I wouldn't have left out the sex scenes! (srsly, wtf) (not that I read them) (okay, okay, I read them) (I was out of my mind. PTSR, you know))

Anyway, that's what I handed in to Bruce that second week of class. He had us all schedule appointments to meet with him privately, so he could become better acquainted with us before we got too far into the term.

My appointment was in the evening, I remember, after most people had left the building. I stepped into Bruce's office and was shocked by the chaos: every surface in the room was stacked with books and papers. The shelves were overflowing. There were waist-high piles of books on the floor, with a narrow path carved out between them leading to Bruce's desk and a deep leather chair placed beside it for guests. It was ridiculous. It was claustrophobic. It was an episode of "Hoarders Goes To College." I will never forget that room.

I sat in the chair. Bruce moved some piles around. And then he picked up a folder containing my writing, flipped through it, and turned to me, his eyes bright and intense, and said, "I am so excited to talk to you. I was floored by what you've given me so far. There is so much synchronicity between your writing and your life, and I bet you don't even know it. Am I right?"

I don't know what I said. I don't remember exactly what he said, either, except for a few key phrases that have stuck with me these 20 years and will, I'm sure, for the rest of my days. 

He said: "This is the most exciting student work I've seen in years. Decades. Maybe ever."

He said: "Your subconscious is working so strongly in your fiction. Your accident didn't just happen to you. It's still happening. Don't you see? You came so close to death, and now you're writing about a vampire! You're working it out on the page!"

He said: "It's all right here. You're not afraid of dying. You're afraid of a living death."

Ahem. Yes. In 1993, years before Peter Levine ever published his research, my creative writing professor diagnosed my PTSR after reading 20 pages of my writing.

The meeting went on for some time in that vein. Bruce was nothing like his reputation had led me to believe. He was encouraging, insightful, incredibly sensitive to my innermost thoughts. He was like a conductor, drawing together the discordant pieces of my life and turning them into a cohesive song. 

It was one of the most transformative moments of my life. It still brings tears to my eyes to think about it.

In fact, tears are important to this story. When I left Bruce's office that night, I went out to my car and sat in the dark and cried-- really, truly cried-- for the first time since the accident. I shook and sobbed and experienced blessed, cathartic, emotional release for the first time in three years. Somehow, I'd been seen, I'd been known, in a way I didn't even see or know myself, and it was all tied into my art and my purpose and my vision for my future.

And it was terrifying. Electrifying. Glorious.

Bruce said something else to me that night which, in my youthful self-centeredness, didn't resonate as much as I wish it had, although I don't know if anything would have come of it then or in the years following.

Remembering it now, within the context of the work I'm doing, it makes me weak in the knees. 

He said: "I haven't seen this kind of synchronicity since I was writing my novel. I interviewed a lot of people back then that had this same kind of magical thread running through their lives."

I didn't know then what I know now: Bruce's novel is science fiction, but it is set within a very real, modern context. He wrote about CIA experiments on a secret force of psychic soldiers during the Vietnam war.

For his research, he interviewed hundreds of Vietnam vets, most of them with what we had not yet come to understand as PTSD.

He saw in me what he saw in them: the spark of life in the aftermath of the ravages of trauma. Somehow, that crazy, pompous, cantankerous man saw in me something I didn't know was there; something I am only now learning to identify: that inner real me, crying out for recognition:

I am here! I survived! I WANT TO LIVE!

My story with Bruce will continue next week. Oh yes, dear readers, there's more!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Triggers, Redux

Last week's post, go figure, triggered a migraine that has been lurking around the edges of my vision ever since. Today is day seven. It hasn't sunk its claws into me yet, but it's there, rumbling the occasional growl from the shadows. And I can't refill my migraine prescription until Monday. So today's post might be a bit shorter as I figure out just how much poking of this tiger I can get away with.

This happens often. Most weeks since I started writing the blog, the process of writing a post will trigger all kinds of things: migraine, numbness and tingling in my legs and arms, dark moods, anxiety, emotional disengagement, exhaustion.

It's a thankless job. :/

Actually, that is not true. Not true at all. All cost-benefit analyses turn out in favor of writing: I've been hearing from so many of you and getting so much support and encouragement! I am forging new friendships! I am feeling more productive! The work is working!  

And so I continue, happily, to write.

The truth is, those symptoms--at least one of which has ruled my life for the last 15 years-- have become more fascinating than annoying to me over the last few months. The migraines, while more frequent, are far less intense. The numbness and tingling is sort of cool and energizing. The moods, while irritating, are pretty new for me after two decades of cultivated blandness. 

What it comes down to is this: these bad feelings are signs of life. I've been offline for a long, long time, especially where bad feelings are concerned, so allowing myself to feel them instead of fight them is an adventure of sorts.

I haven't ventured into a very negative emotional state yet-- let's not get ahead of ourselves, here, for crying out loud-- but the physical stuff, I can handle. I can handle it just fine.

It occurs to me that what's different about the experience of the physical symptoms triggered by this work isn't that I'm feeling discomfort-- discomfort and I are old, old friends and have spent a lot of time together over the years-- but that I am recognizing the cause, seeing progress, and I no longer feel like a victim of pain, biology, or circumstance.

I am driving this bus now. I've still got the same unruly passengers on board-- those damn migraines are holding on for dear life-- but I am in the driver's seat. I get to say where we go from here. Pain, fear, anger... they will be part of the journey, and they'll all have their turn, but the journey is now happening on my terms, not theirs.

That's something. That's more than something.

That's everything.

Saturday, January 7, 2012


I've been thinking a lot about why this is all coming up now, after all this time.  If everything I've learned is true, and I believe it is, I've had PTSD for 20 years. So why is it only now that the symptoms have become unbearable?

There were several years, back at the beginning, where I knew something had happened to me and I was changing from the person I'd been to someone with a lower emotional range, more fear, less spontaneity, more physical discomfort. I knew it. But even at the time, it just seemed like something to tolerate, not something to tear my life apart trying to fix.

Since then, as memories have faded and the incident was put into cold storage, I haven't spent much time dwelling on it. I've gone months without thinking of it, years without mentioning it. I don't see my scars anymore.

I don't feel sorry for myself. I never have. 

So why now?

I think I know. I think the final trigger was the birth of my daughters.

The pregnancy and birth itself were a bit fraught with peril. As anyone who's been there knows, pregnancy under the best of circumstances is a surreal, sort of overwhelming experience. Your body is doing crazy things, your hormones are going nuts, everything suddenly seems amplified and you're scrutinizing every bite of food, every sensation, every move you make. Everything else comes second to the odd new relationship you have with your body and its new tenant. 

Or tenants, in my case.

On top of that, pregnancy is such an utterly unique experience that it's impossible to believe it has ever happened to anyone else-- you feel like you're the only person in the world who has ever gone through it. In that way, it's a strangely lonely and isolating thing, especially if your family lives far away, as mine does. 

So my boundaries were already being pushed with all of this when I learned that there was not just one, but TWO babies in there (identical twin pregnancies are quite rare, at 3 per 1000 live births worldwide), and that I was now considered a high-risk pregnancy and had a longer list of things to worry about during gestation. After the initial shock (and oh god, was it ever a shock! I completely lost my shit, which is, duh, very unlike me. First chink in the armor, this.), I managed it well. We got all the tests we needed for peace of mind, and after a very tense six weeks of doing that, everything looked good, so we just held on for the ride.

And then I got gestational diabetes, which, I was assured, was "rare, but more common in twin pregnancies." Another (rare?) blow, but still manageable. I got competitive with myself about my blood sugar numbers and keeping them under control was like a game. And I was winning.

And then I got preeclampsia at 32 weeks, which is a lot more rare and a lot more scary. I wound up in the hospital for the last three weeks of my pregnancy, trying to keep the babies in for as long as possible without my organs shutting down or my blood pressure causing a stroke. 

Through it all, I was pretty serene. I recognize it now as typical of my PTSD behavior that I disengage during emotionally-charged times, and this was certainly one of those. Paired with the relaxin and the other hormones that kick in at the end of pregnancy, I was calm, relaxed, steadfastly refusing to dwell on the danger of the situation. I felt like I was floating above it all, forgetting most of the time that there was something to worry about.

Chink in the armor, part two: the day I was wheeled down to the hospital basement for chest x-rays because I was coughing too much, the only day in the entire 3-week stay that my husband went into the office to work... 

(and more on THIS miraculous man later. He often suggests, jokingly, that all my blog posts should be about how awesome he is. Let me state for the record: they are. Even when I don't mention him, they are. He's the reason I'm able to do this work. Dr. Oz once asked me when it was that I first felt safe again after the accident. I thought back to the weeks and months after it happened, then expanded the search to years, and couldn't pinpoint a moment. She suggested that it wasn't until 13 years later, when I met the man I married. And you know what? She was right.)

... but anyway, where was I? Oh yes, chink in the armor: somehow, I started crying on that trip to the basement, and couldn't stop. I bawled my head off. I freaked out. It was all the more strange in that I wasn't having an emotional experience at all, which could be more easily chalked up to pregnancy hormones (hellooooo, PTSD!). I was just... crying. Heavily. Uncontrollably. Inexplicably. And all the while, even then, I was watching myself from afar, completely detached, as if it were happening to someone else.

In the end, three weeks in and two weeks later than the doctors expected, my blood pressure skyrocketed and we had to pull the babies in an emergency c-section. They were relatively robust at that point and I'd been assured there was little to worry about, and then there was morphine and who knows how typical my experience was or wasn't after that. 

I will say this about my detachment that day, whether drug- or PTSD-induced: during the 20 or so minutes between the commencement of the surgery and the first wailing cry of my daughter, I actually forgot what I was there to do.

I was lying there on the table, numb from the arms down, and I'd asked my husband to distract me from the noises of the people rooting around in my abdomen and he and I were chatting with the anesthesiologist about the hazards of street parking in San Francisco, and all of a sudden, there was a tiny little kitten-mewl of a sound and I was jerked abruptly back into the reality of the moment. Holy shit, wait a minute, what was that?! What just happened?! Is this real?!


So there I was with two tiny little babies, one a shade above 5 pounds and one a shade under, who I was told were fine but who were attached to all kinds of tubes and wires and inside of an incubator with little space helmets on. I should have been freaking out. I wasn't. The next few days are a blur.

The girls stayed in the NICU for another 3 weeks, as their respiratory and digestive systems kicked in and proved themselves able to operate without help. They improved daily, and although there were a few hiccups along the way, they never had breathing issues or anything life-threatening, and I remember those weeks fondly for all the help we got from the NICU nurses. 

And to be honest, if any of that calm was attributable to my emotional disengagement, I'm grateful for it.

Ten days or so after the birth, I was still bleeding heavily and had begun having uncharacteristically wild mood swings--always a sure-fire clue something is up, with me-- and it turned out that I had yet another, (this time "extremely") rare complication: a piece of the placenta had been left behind and was still generating blood and pregnancy hormones, and would need to be removed in an emergency D&C before it went septic ("Ever had an abortion? It's the same procedure," the super-awesome ER doctor with the most sensitive bedside manner ever told my hormonal, terrified, hysterically-sobbing, new-mommy self with a smile. A smile! No kidding. That happened.).

A few horrible hours later, I'd had the procedure (thankfully, quite anticlimactic), and things finally began to even out again. Eventually, we got the girls home, and my mom and sisters were taking turns visiting, and we were beginning to settle in as new parents and figure things out. 

And then I woke up late one night with intense pain high in my abdomen. 

Like, seriously intense pain. Some of the worst pain I've ever had. It was too high to be a kidney stone (THE worst pain I've ever had), too high to be related to my uterus, and unlike anything I'd ever felt. I writhed around for a while, and then it stopped abruptly after an hour or so.

Exhausted new mom that I was, I just went back to bed.

But it happened again a few days later, and then again, and by then it had become scary, so we went to the ER and I was told it was gas.

A month and a few episodes later, it turned out that my gallbladder had failed-- wait for it: a  "rare (how I'd grown to dread that word!) complication of pregnancy"-- and it would need to be removed.

This was discovered during a 48-hour hospital stay away from my 2-month old nursing twins, who I was terrified would reject my attempts to breastfeed them again after getting bottles all that time, and who I was convinced would forget who I was (in my defense: new mom).

(In the end, they seemed unphased by the whole thing, and though we did have our ups and downs with nursing, I didn't completely wean them until they were 19 months old and had started offending my dignity by offering their stuffed animals turns at the breast. Crisis waaaay averted, there.) 

So. During all of this, there were two moments that stand out as clues to how and why my PTSD was triggered. 

When I was beginning to breastfeed, I learned that there were two kinds of milk secreted by the mother's body: "foremilk" and "hindmilk." Foremilk is the light, watery stuff that comes out first, while hindmilk is the creamier, much more nutrient-rich stuff that comes after the baby has been nursing for a few minutes, and requires a bit of work to get to. 

Since I was nursing two tiny little things without the strength or stamina to get to the hindmilk and I had to use a pump to get it out for them, I remarked to my husband that it seemed like an evolutionary flaw, since the little ones needed the hindmilk more. I thought it should come first, to help them out. 

As I said it, I suddenly remembered how evolution works: survival of the fittest. And after all we'd been through, that certainly wasn't us. Without relatively recent medical technology, we would have been in a great deal of trouble in those final three weeks of the pregnancy and in the weeks afterward when my little preemies were struggling to eat unassisted. All three of us could have died, and would have under different circumstances.

That thought planted a seed of unease that stayed with me for a few months, even though preeclampsia and 34-week preemies are nowhere near as dangerous now as they once were and at no point had we been in distress. Still. It was unnerving.

Not long afterward, a friend sent me an article about how twin mothers live longer than other women, on average. Cool, I thought. And then I read it. 

It was based on data from the 19th century to avoid skewed stats because of medical intervention or fertility treatments. And it didn't say that women who had twins lived longer, exactly. It said that women who had survived twin births lived longer, suggesting, rather unsurprisingly, that these women were already naturally hardier.

Again, that wasn't me.

Even though it was a moot point-- we live in the 21st century, we have access to excellent medical care, I'd had a complication-rife but true-danger-free experience-- somehow, the fact that we'd probably survived because of these things and not because of our natural ability to do so freaked me out.

It wasn't so much a fear of the what as a fear of the what if, which, and I'm sure I'm not alone in this, is MUCH harder to overcome as a mother than it was before I had children.

In fact, as I'm typing this, I'm realizing exactly what was unleashed when I became a parent: the fear of the unknown happening to your babies and not being able to protect them from it, paired with the soul-deep knowledge from my own experience that the unknown can actually happen to us, even if we do everything right.

I've done many, many things to avoid facing my fears since my accident, including structuring my life and my very consciousness in a way that requires a diagram to explain to you (watch for this in an upcoming post!), but having children allowed the fearful portion of my brain to do a little end-run around the barricades and have at me in a way it hasn't been allowed to do in many, many years.

This near-brush with death, however exaggerated or imagined (so much easier to do now that so much more is at stake!), triggered my subconscious mind because it has been on the lookout for exactly such a thing, expecting it every day, all this time.

And so, in addition to the intense, mostly irrational fears I had for my children and their safety--and still have more often than I'd like, truth be told (they could fall out of my arms and off a tall building! They could get hit by a car right in front of me! They could get swept out to sea! They could choke to death while I'm in the bathroom! They could blind themselves falling onto a knife! They could fall down a well! They could be eaten by Rottweilers!)-- my reptilian brain started taking advantage of the renewed connection and sending me little jabs, too:

The claustrophobia attacks. The ones that got me back into therapy. The things that got this whole ball rolling in the first place.