Sunday, February 26, 2012

I Couldn't Have Written This Better, Myself

When a writer says to you, "I couldn't have written this better, myself," listen up.

Things are about to get crazy.

So here's the scene: three weeks ago, it's a Friday, and I am wrangling toddlers and puttering around, mentally preparing for my Saturday blogging session-- the second half of the Bruce story that you saw in the last post.

The phone rings, and it's my sister Liz, and she says she has Something To Tell Me.

That was how she said it, with capital letters and everything.

"Okay," I say, automatically scrolling through the things this particular girl might feel the need to Announce She Needs To Tell Me in this way: I'm getting married! I got a new acting gig! I joined the circus! 

Wait a minute. 

"Good, I hope?" She seems in good spirits, but it's probably best to clarify and make sure I haven't prematurely narrowed the field.

"Yes," she says. "At least, I hope it is. I think it's wonderful. I hope you end up thinking so, too."


"It's about your blog," she says, jerking my over-active imagination to quick and bewildered halt and veering down a very unexpected path.

"Ooookaaaay," I say. I have no idea where this is going.

"So you know I have to read your blog with a box of tissues handy, and last week's post about Bruce was no exception," she says. "And after I read it, I started thinking that any teacher would love to hear about it if they had affected a student that way.

"So... I picked up the phone, and I called your college. And they connected me with someone named Ralph. You remember Ralph?"

It's around this time that I realize I'm going to need to sit down.

"I remember Ralph," I tell her, my voice catching. I clear my throat. "Yes, of course I remember Ralph. He was my mentor. He was the director of my department."

"Well, I spoke to Ralph, and he was very gracious, and he totally remembered you and was glad to hear that you were doing so well, and he told me that the Bruce you were talking about would have to be-"

"Bruce McAllister," I say. My pulse is pounding in my ears.

"Right, Bruce McAllister," says Liz. "So I googled him, and it turns out that he is still in Southern California, and he's a professional writing coach. He has a website!"

Yes, I think, but don't say. Yes, I know. I cover my eyes and lean on one elbow. The tears start. Oh god.

I've googled Bruce, of course I've googled him. I was thrilled and relieved to see his picture, see him well and thriving, see that he is still working with writers-- of course he is. Of course he is. A teacher like that can do nothing else but teach, no matter what his circumstances.

"Soooo," says Liz, and I should be screaming right now, I think, or running from the room, stop this, stop this STOP THIS! ...but instead I'm gripping the phone and listening and my sister tells me, "I emailed him. And I told him your story. And I sent him a link to your blog."

My palms are sweating, my hands are shaking, my body is tight, trembling, ultra-sensitive to light and sound. I actually reach out and close the blinds behind the couch. I feel the stretch of every muscle required for this action, a shock of pinched nerve in my elbow, a click of tendon in my wrist. My stomach is clenching, a tendril of nausea deep in my throat.

This is an inappropriate response, some lucid part of my brain says calmly. This is completely ridiculous. This is not bad news. This is best-case scenario. This is the movie version of your anxious little life, happening right now in real time. What the fuck are you freaking out about?

My lucid brain swears at me a lot.

Liz continues: "So, less than 12 hours later, I got an amazing response, and I'm going to read it to you right now."

Dear Liz:

What a wonderful email to receive.   One of those real gifts that come along only once in a while, believe me.  Not only do I remember your sister, but I remember her story and that office conversation we had vividly.  It's been important to me, too, over the years, though of course for my own set of reasons.  

Thank you for the link; I'll be checking it regularly, believe me.  Kate does write wonderfully, and with the story she has to tell I'm not at all surprised she has so many followers.  I do hope a book comes from it.  Please tell her hi for me; and, if you think she might be interested, please pass along to her this link to an interview with yours truly that just posted:  

The part on the medical crisis I was going through at that time and how I healed by writing is why I'm sharing it; the rest is just writer-talk, and she doesn't have to slog through.   Moral:  We all write--if we write--to heal in one way or another, as all writers know.


At this point, I'm blubbering like an idiot and halfway to a panic attack. Bruce remembers me. He remembers that meeting. Somehow, that fact validates my own memory of the remarkable power of that conversation. I never told him what happened after I left his office, and yet he remembered it anyway. I can't quite get my head around it.

"I hope it's okay that I did this," Liz says, now crying herself. "I just think it's so amazing, what you're doing. I'm so proud of you and I want everyone I know to read it, and I thought Bruce would want to know the impact he had on you."

In spite of all the reeling and the sweating and the impending vomit, I am able to tell Liz what honestly feels like the truth: "It's fine," I say. "It's good. It's better than good, it's amazing. This is the right direction. I would have gotten here eventually-- at least, I hope I would have-- but now I'm here and I can't put it off anymore and it's... fine."

In the intervening weeks, I've been waiting for the other boot to drop, and it hasn't. Intellectually, I expected to feel violated by the whole thing. Why get involved in something so intensely personal without checking with me? My boundaries around this sort of thing are notoriously narrow, blog or not. 

But emotionally, that second wave never came, and instead of feeling uncomfortable, I have felt increasingly liberated by Liz's gesture, and by Bruce's generous response.

More importantly, in case you missed it: I have FELT. 

The first few days after that phone call, I got to watch my PTSR in full display. For the first time, though, part of me stayed alert and objective, and I was able to observe myself in a full-blown triggered reaction from start to finish. 

It started with the physical symptoms-- shaking, nausea, panic-- during the phone call. And then the fight-or-flight response kicked in, first Flight, then Freeze: Run! Get away! Hang up the phone! Stop this conversation NOW NOW NOW!

After the call was over, I paced around the house for a while, alternately feeling sick and elated, waiting for the anger and dread to kick in. Since I knew what was happening, I tried, as an exercise, to simply sit with those uncomfortable feelings for a while and try to process them and accept them and integrate them and move on. This is something Dr. Oz has been telling me to do for months, and I hadn't been able to identify an opportunity until now.

So I did that for a while. I feel physically sick. Why is that? Where do I feel it in my body? What else is my body telling me? What is uncomfortable about this, anyway? Why does this feel like such a crisis? Isn't it positive? 

Why do positive events have such a negative effect on my body and mind?

All of a sudden, something I've understood abstractly for months became viscerally clear. Remember this diagram?

Image recreated from Crash Course: A Self-Healing Guide To Auto Accident Trauma & Recovery by Diane Poole Heller, Ph. D.

Those two horizontal lines represent normal boundaries of experience-- typical limits for highs and lows, before things become overwhelming. The red line is the normal, healthy charge and release of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. And the black, jagged line is that charge and release under the influence of ongoing PTSR.

One of the things that PTSR sufferers tend to do (consciously or otherwise) to keep their emotional balance from careening out of control like this is reduce the triggers. For example, people avoid the site of their trauma-- a childhood home, a spot on the sidewalk, a certain curve in the highway. Or they have difficulty on the anniversary of a traumatic event. Some car accident victims don't drive, or limit their driving. That sort of thing.

Makes sense, right? But what that does, especially if left unexamined and untreated, is begin to narrow those boundaries of experience, both emotionally and literally.

After a while, you're functioning with boundaries that look more like this:

Here, normal functions (the red line) start to feel stressful, and anything outside of that can put you into crisis territory. But that's the trade-off: in order to limit triggers, you have to limit your experience. Before long, your emotional capacity becomes modified as a result.

And when you've been at it for as long as I have, it starts to get really fun. Because the more you limit your experience, the less it takes to trigger you, and that causes you to limit your exposure even more.

In that case, you get something that looks like this:

You'll notice that in this diagram, even normal emotional charge and discharge lie outside of the boundaries. This is a person who lives in a constant state of overwhelm, whose emotional capacity is so narrow that things seemingly inconsequential to others can be incapacitating.

A few months ago, I had loaded the kids into the car and was on my way to the gym when I remembered I needed to call the property management office for our rental and request a plumber for a leaky faucet. I went into a complete panic and had to pull over, where I freaked out for a full five minutes about what to do next. 

I was already on the way to the gym. Should I turn around and go home? Then I'd have to deal with the girls' disappointment at not getting to go to the gym's playground. Could I wait until tomorrow to call the office? But I'd already put it off for weeks and the leaky faucet was beginning to keep me awake at night. I went back and forth and back and forth, paralyzed and anxious and unable to see the solution.

And then that small, lucid voice inside spoke up: I was talking about a trip to the gym and a 2-minute phone call. These things were not mutually exclusive--could even be done concurrently-- and, more importantly, neither was stress-worthy. This was not a situation that should send me spinning out of control.

Until last summer, things like this happened to me all the time and I didn't have the perspective to squelch the panic reaction. Something as simple as this could either keep me from leaving my house or prevent me from getting a needed repair in my bathroom, because I couldn't hold both in my consciousness at once.

It is an exhausting way to live.

As my awareness of my PTSR grows, I am noticing things like this all the time and really beginning to wonder how much of my life I've simply missed, buried as I've been under a pile of futile anxieties and false distractions. The weekend after Liz's phone call, as I observed my reptilian brain's reaction to this boundary-pushing experience, I got to see a particularly disturbing-- and frustratingly familiar-- defense mechanism at work:

After a few hours, I began to forget the phone call ever happened.

That sounds crazy, I think. But it's true. It's as if some sort of inner Pac-Man were swallowing up the events of my day, and they were disappearing before my eyes. I saw it coming and I fought it off for a few hours, but eventually, I must have tired of the fight and given up. I don't remember.

It felt like a fog bank, slowly seeping in and covering my memories, making them hazy, then  indistinct, and then obscuring them completely. By the third day, the conversation and the surrounding hours were gone. Three or four days later, I remembered with an uncomfortable start that something had, indeed, happened, that my sister had called me, that we'd spoken about Bruce, but the details were difficult to recall. It was like trying to remember a dream a week after you've woken from it.
You doubt your sanity, in moments like this.

I remembered that she had forwarded me her email and Bruce's reply, because I'd seen it come in while we were still on the phone. I had to search through my inbox to find it-- I hadn't even opened it. Out of sight, out of mind. I read them both, and some details came back. 

I wrote them down to fix the event in my mind. I don't so much remember the conversation now as I remember remembering. 

End to end, this was a new and novel experience for me. I've been functioning like this for years without noticing; losing moments, experiences, days to this fog bank that creeps in when emotions run high to settle things and keep them under control, very effectively preventing me from fully inhabiting my own life and the richness of a healthy emotional range.

All the real feelings-- sadness, joy, grief, excitement, terror, jubilation-- get swallowed up in the fog. Insulated. Shrouded. Obscured. Deadened. Rendered silent and powerless, and hidden from view.

I have seen, now, how this monster works, how tenacious it is, how difficult it is to resist even when I am aware of its tactics and watching it approach head-on. I wasn't able to stop it, but I fought it off for longer than I ever have, and more importantly, I was conscious of it for the first time, whether I won or not.

And that, my friends, is goddamn something. 

So I offer my sincere thanks to my boundary-pushing sister, Liz, without whose generosity of spirit I might still be waiting for the Next Big Step in my work with this therapy, and in my life as a writer. It seems more than just coincidence, as time goes on, that the two are linked.

Liz, thanks for reminding me that the web of support out there is beyond my narrow scope. You've restored an invaluable connection for me in Bruce, and you've reconfirmed that I am heading in the right direction on this strange journey. Thanks for knowing it was time to take a leap.

In the fight against the fog, I'm glad you're on my side. 

In case you're wondering, I have written to Bruce and thanked him for... well, everything. I hope to hear back from him soon, and that he won't mind me sharing these developments here. 

I hope, also, that you will check out his books, Dream Baby, Humanity Prime,and The Girl Who Loved Animals: And Other Stories .

You can also find his short stories in many anthologies and years' best collections, including  The Best American Short Stories 2007 and The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fourth Annual Collection. And you can check out his website here and his Wikipedia page with a partial listing of his short fiction publications here.


  1. My heart leapt for you when Bruce said that he hoped a book would come from your story.  It would be amazing if the two of you could work together again.  You have material; he sounds like the kind of guy who knows how to help people figure out what the next step for their material might be.  You might want to publish a book; he *has* published books.  You remember him as a teacher; he remembers you as a student.  It's a potentially fruitful situation.

    Something you said here really grabs me:

    "For example, people avoid the site of their trauma-- a childhood home, a spot on the sidewalk, a certain curve in the highway. Or they have difficulty on the anniversary of a traumatic event. Some car accident victims don't drive, or limit their driving. That sort of thing.  Makes sense, right? But what that does, especially if left unexamined and untreated, is begin to narrow those boundaries of experience, both emotionally and literally."

    Um.  I just realized I do that.  I moved away from the state that contains the home where I grew up, and I was delighted when they sold the damn thing, if a little disappointed they didn't burn it down.  It'll be a year in April since I last spoke to my Dad, and hopefully, that arrangement will be permanent.  I think I am lucky in that only a few specific things trigger me -- a few evil places, a few evil people.  Having to have panic attacks like the one you describe having on the way to the gym sounds exhausting.  

    Here's to you as you continue to make strides towards getting your life back.  Who knows what the future will hold for you?  I don't know, but I have a strong feeling it will be better than the past.  

  2. KateTheGirlWhoLived03 March, 2012 16:48

    I thought of you when I was writing that and wondered if you did it too. I think it's sort of entry-level trauma survival, this sort of thing. It makes so much sense to cut these triggers out of our lives-- especially when they're more than triggers, they're perpetrators. 
    I'm so glad you're free of them.So much of PTSR seems to be about good intentions or instincts gone awry. You do these things-- avoid danger, stay vigilant, shut down distractions-- as a means of survival. I WANT TO LIVE! They begin as a refusal to succumb to the forces acting against you. And then, somehow, they become those forces, acting against you in their own way.Whatever. Done with that. No more being acted upon. Time to act, and act with purpose. I like your model: no fear, because you already know what the worst part of your life was, and you survived it. Trying to bring a bit of that into every step I take along this road. xoxo

  3. Mirith Griffin08 March, 2012 20:46

    YES.  No more being acted upon.  Let's get our ninja suits on and kick some butt.  

    And yeah, I think I'm virtually trigger-free, but then I get some bad comments on a story and I flip out like a Riff Raff impersonator at the end of Rocky Horror.  ("They *never* liked me!")  It's a work in progress.  

    I feel like I'm learning a lot from your journey.  You're doing a lot to demystify the workings of trauma.  I think other people would benefit from hearing this stuff too.