Saturday, September 15, 2012

Braced for Impact, Part II

Okay, I'm back to finish this story, and this week you get a bonus, crazy, real-life example of the learnings herein in action.

It's nice to see the positive changes in my mind and body so clearly manifesting in my life, for once. Not even I can write this off as coincidence.

But I get ahead of myself. Again.

I was about to tell you, last time, about how a bunch of things clicked into place and I suddenly saw a thread between my pre-accident self and my current self in a way I hadn't before.

I did a writerly thing, last time, and made it sound like it all happened in a moment-- a lightning flash of insight. That's bending the truth a bit. I guess there were a few moments like that, but in real life it actually happened in stages during the conversation with Dr. Oz.

I'm only telling you this because it's easier to explain it all if I give you the conversation instead.

So. At some point that evening, after the discovery that I was physically and figuratively braced against life (this feels so true to me, as true as the ground beneath my feet. I am braced against life), Dr. Oz said, "So let's think about this. Who were you at 19? Trauma often freezes us, emotionally, at the point when the trauma occurred, because progressing past that would mean having to integrate the trauma."

Whoa. That makes a LOT of sense to me. I think it's a huge reason I've been such a late- (or non-) bloomer in my life. I've definitely felt arrested and overwhelmed when it comes to taking on "adult" responsibilities, mindsets, maturity. In a way that feels like more than just normal resistance to aging, which I'm sure everyone feels. It doesn't feel like resistance, it feels like an inability, and it's never made sense to me because I'm an intelligent person capable of learning and development.

So what gives?

Dr. Oz: "What's happening at 19? That's when you're forming your ideas about who you're going to be, and creating your identity, and deciding on your direction. It's an extremely formative time, because it's the point at which you really begin to become an adult."

Click. One big cog fell into place.

That vital process, for me, was interrupted at a very important time. And going back and picking up where I left off would have meant having to wade through the emotional aftermath of the trauma. I experienced a tiny bit of that in a very visceral way, back then, if you remember, and was definitely aware that I was choosing not to do it again in very conscious ways, as well, I'm sure, as unconscious ones.

"So I just sort of skipped over that part, then, and tried to keep going without it. That actually feels very true," I told Dr. Oz. "I've noticed before that I had much more confidence in myself and my point of view when I was younger than I do now. One of the biggest struggles of my thirties had to do with this. After I got out of that relationship with T, I knew I had really lost myself. But no matter what I did, I never really got myself back."

In fact, when I compare the way I was before the accident to the way I am now, the biggest loss really does seem to be my self-definition. That used to be one of the strongest motivators in my life: This is who I am. This is what I believe. These are the ways that I think and work and act. These are my boundaries, the places where I stop and the world begins.

I lost a lot of that before I ever met T-- it makes sense, then, how I could have let him into my life-- I'd let certain boundaries collapse because I couldn't bring myself to maintain them for fear of triggering myself, somehow. 


I'd always been able to draw the line from my relationship with T to many of the things that happened after, but I'd never been able to understand how on earth I let him in in the first place. It's because it wasn't T that caused me to lose myself. I was already well on my way to being lost before he ever came around.

This feels true.

"This inability to define myself has probably been the biggest challenge of my adult life," I said. "I worried about it a lot before I had my daughters, because that was when I was able to see it most clearly. I knew it would become increasingly important that I stake a claim somewhere, have a consistent perspective, have a defined sense of myself so I could model it for them. But when I look for that, try to find my foundation, I just see emptiness."

This is really hard to articulate, but I'll try:

I find it almost impossible to think about this kind of stuff. Literally. If I start, like if I try to define my values or opinions to someone, from the mundane to the essential, I get anxious, uneasy, physically uncomfortable. A knot in my chest, restricting my breathing. And my brain does anything it can to distract me. It's almost a physical sensation in itself: the feeling of reaching out your foot to take a step and finding nothing but empty air. The feeling of trying to focus your eyes on a spot, only to have it fly away the second before you can see it clearly.

For as long as I can remember, I've gotten this feeling whenever I try to do anything that nails me down as a person. Making plans for the future is a huge example of this. The idea of a 5-year plan or a 10-year plan-- or even a 1-year plan-- makes my chest constrict and my palms sweat and I can't breathe. No kidding.

I'm a person who appears well-prepared for the future and fully capable of success. I've got multiple degrees and a decent resume and experience in fields that are important to me; I've got good friends and a wonderful husband and two bright, funny, gorgeous daughters; but ask me what I see myself doing in five years and I become practically catatonic. 

I can't answer. I don't know.

But it's more than not knowing, it's a visceral sense of danger in even asking the question. I can't even let my mind stray to it. I can't allow those thoughts to be present in my head. There are uncomfortable physical sensations that accompany every close call.

I know this was going on as far back as college, within the first year or two after the accident, because I used to panic sometimes that the fact that I couldn't imagine myself in the future somehow meant that I wasn't meant to live a long life. That my inability to see myself in a different time with an expanded life was prophetic.

I chalked that up to morbid post-accident fears, and I guess that's what it is, to some extent, but it hasn't gone away as I've gotten older, and in fact has gotten a lot worse as I've had fewer and fewer rationalizations for why I am still this way.

At this point, even committing to a plan a week in advance can cause panic. I'd begun to wonder if I had some sort of social phobia. It's inexplicable, frustrating, but utterly compulsive. I can't stop it, no matter how ridiculous my rational mind knows it to be.

I told Dr. Oz about this.

She said, "Well, think about it. You were in the middle of that when you experienced this terrible trauma. Somehow, your brain and your body have associated the two. You are afraid to think about the future, because your body doesn't think the future is coming. You're still waiting for the impact. You can't let yourself rely on a future because deep down, you don't believe you'll ever get there."


So here I've been, just sort of floating along, not wanting to go back and pick up the reins of my life because it would mean crossing that divide between Before and After, and confronting everything that lies between them. As a result, my sense of self hasn't been able to expand as it should have. I haven't felt free to create a future me. I've been stuck in some sort of identity limbo, and gradually losing the ability to simply stand in a place, claim it as mine, and say, "This is me, and everything I do emanates from here."


A point of view. A solid place, a place of self-knowledge and confidence, a place with boundaries from which you cast your nets or throw your stones. The fortress of the Self.

That's what I lost in the accident. That is what I lost.


This is why I never became a writer. A writer MUST have a point of view. A story-- any story-- gets told from a place. This is how you know what to say and what not to say. This is how you convey an idea or build an image or make a point: you start from somewhere, and you end up somewhere else.

I left my starting point back there, Before. I lost my soapbox, as it were. And rather than go back and fetch it, I chose to float, without a self, without a future.


I know what you're thinking. Um, hello, idiot, what do you think you're doing right now? Writing!

Well, yes. And like I discovered when I tried to relax my legs and couldn't, I am obviously capable of operating my thigh muscles because I can walk.

I am obviously able to commit to a plan and follow it through because I finished college and grad school.

I am obviously able to form intimate relationships and feel emotions because I have a husband and children who I love.

But the gap between what feels true and what is true is broad, and in many cases not passable at all, and that lack of a grip on reality is disorienting and frightening and makes me distrust myself and makes me ashamed and doesn't feel like a symptom of anything, but rather like the qualities of a crazy person, or a lazy person, or an incapable person, or a person who doesn't deserve what they have because they didn't do what they were supposed to do to get it, like I've just been faking it all this time and nobody has noticed, but they will, any second, and it will all be over.

It feels like floating, watching life pass me by and not being able to join in. Like things just happen to me, and I have no say in what or how or when because I can't declare my own will. It feels like I'm  tethered by the ankle to a foundation that has crumbled beneath my feet and I have nowhere left to stand. It feels like the only smart thing to do is brace myself against whatever is coming: the impact. The ending. The fall.

That's what it feels like. That's what my lizard brain thinks is happening. That's what my body has believed these twenty years, and it's been flinching away from every movement, clenched against expected pain.

But that's not what it is. My ability to walk is proof of that. My family is proof of that. My career is proof of that.

This blog is proof of that.


I missed out on defining myself, back when that was my only job. So guess what? I get to do it now. As I become aware of what is true rather than what merely feels true, that foundation beneath me magically starts to rebuild itself, and I find, more and more as I do this work, that I actually do have a place to stand.

So from there, I get to decide what's important to me, what has survived those years of floating in the void and still feels essential to my being, what motivates me, what I want for myself, what brings me joy. 

I get to design Kate 2.0. Who will she be?

A wife.

A mother.

A creator.

A teacher.

A writer.

And from here, at the beginning of a whole new life, I can look back over the years and see that girl who didn't know she could lose her vision of the future, who didn't know that she could lose herself as surely as if she'd died even though she'd lived, who didn't know that she could come so close to death and yet survive, for real, survive, and I can remember what she wanted when she thought about who she was and who she would become.

A wife.

A mother.

A creator.

A teacher.

A writer.

This is real, this life, this work, these dreams, this self. It's always been real. I am closer now to knowing that down to my bones than I've ever been. And I can see myself, in small ways and in larger ones, rebuilding that foundation, trusting my point of view, staking my claim.

Kate 2.0. Coming soon to a life near you.

Want to know how I know I'm becoming more comfortable with the idea of coming from somewhere, drawing a line in the sand and saying, this is me, this is what I believe?

I wrote an essay. It started off as a Facebook post, and got such a strong response from friends that I posted it in my local online newspaper the night before last, and it's sort of going viral. It's on a small scale right now, but it seems to be gaining momentum steadily. It's blown up on Facebook and it's been shared, as of this writing, just shy of 1000 times in about 36 hours from the news site.

Small potatoes, relatively speaking. For me, for someone for who stating a point of view this clearly and coherently seemed, only a few months ago, even a few weeks ago, a physical impossibility, this feels like... redemption.

It's not just an opinion, either, it's a statement of values. Of emotionally-charged beliefs. Of things I've struggled with for so long and would never have been able to articulate without this work and this blog and the interaction and support I've had from my husband and Dr. Oz and all of you.

Also, in this essay, the list of things I want for my daughters looks awfully familiar. Self-belief. Confidence. Determination. Success. Conquering fear. Persistence. Goals. All things I struggle with, myself. 

In that way, this essay is, for me, a plan. Articulated. Put out there in the world without bracing, impact be damned.

The response to this essay has been incredibly positive, not to mention surprising, overwhelming, terrifying, exciting, surreal. I'll keep you posted on where it goes and what happens next. In the meantime, I'll leave you with the evidence that I do, in fact, have some ground to stand on, and I've planted my feet firmly and said out loud:

This is me. This is what I believe.

Please Don't Help My Kids
Dear Other Parents At The Park:
Please do not lift my daughters to the top of the ladder, especially after you've just heard me tell them I wasn't going to do it for them and encourage them to try it themselves.
I am not sitting here, 15 whole feet away from my kids, because I am too lazy to get up. I am sitting here because I didn't bring them to the park so they could learn how to manipulate others into doing the hard work for them. I brought them here so they could learn to do it themselves.
They're not here to be at the top of the ladder; they are here to learn to climb. If they can't do it on their own, they will survive the disappointment. What's more, they will have a goal and the incentive to work to achieve it.
In the meantime, they can use the stairs. I want them to tire of their own limitations and decide to push past them and put in the effort to make that happen without any help from me.
It is not my job — and it is certainly not yours — to prevent my children from feeling frustration, fear, or discomfort. If I do, I have robbed them of the opportunity to learn that those things are not the end of the world, and can be overcome or used to their advantage.
If they get stuck, it is not my job to save them immediately. If I do, I have robbed them of the opportunity to learn to calm themselves, assess their situation, and try to problem solve their own way out of it.
It is not my job to keep them from falling. If I do, I have robbed them of the opportunity to learn that falling is possible but worth the risk, and that they can, in fact, get up again.
I don't want my daughters to learn that they can't overcome obstacles without help. I don't want them to learn that they can reach great heights without effort. I don't want them to learn that they are entitled to the reward without having to push through whatever it is that's holding them back and *earn* it.
Because — and this might come as a surprise to you — none of those things are true. And if I let them think for one moment that they are, I have failed them as a mother.
I want my girls to know the exhilaration of overcoming fear and doubt and achieving a hard-won success. 
I want them to believe in their own abilities and be confident and determined in their actions. 
I want them to accept their limitations until they can figure out a way past them on their own significant power.
I want them to feel capable of making their own decisions, developing their own skills, taking their own risks, and coping with their own feelings.
I want them to climb that ladder without any help, however well-intentioned, from you.
Because they can. I know it. And if I give them a little space, they will soon know it, too.
So I'll thank you to stand back and let me do my job, here, which consists mostly of resisting the very same impulses you are indulging, and biting my tongue when I want to yell, "BE CAREFUL," and choosing, deliberately, painfully, repeatedly, to stand back instead of rush forward.
Because, as they grow up, the ladders will only get taller, and scarier, and much more difficult to climb. And I don't know about you, but I'd rather help them learn the skills they'll need to navigate them now, while a misstep means a bumped head or scraped knee that can be healed with a kiss, while the most difficult of hills can be conquered by chanting, "I think I can, I think I can", and while those 15 whole feet between us still feels, to them, like I'm much too far away.

The essay above can be found here:


  1. I'm so awed by your courage and grace. Again. I'm going back to my unfinished novel now, inspired to create my own map for how to finish, to find the where I am and where I'm going. Thanks friend!

  2. KateTheGirlWhoLived22 September, 2012 12:24

    Thanks, Julie! I love that idea-- go back to that novel! If I remember correctly, the story is about a woman who finds herself starting over and redefining herself in new and unexpected circumstances, no?

    There are no coincidences. Serendipity. Serendipity, I tell you!

  3. Elizabeth Graham12 February, 2013 10:36

    I found your blog from the patch essay, and when I read it I was blown away by your sense of focus, purpose and "definition," to use a somewhat weird word that seems appropriate in this situation.  Like, "Wow.  This lady really has a firm sense of right and wrong, a clear idea of what she wants."

    Maybe that's the key: think of your daughters.  What do you want for them?  How do you want people to treat them?  The answers are probably true for you.

    Again, I really really resonate with this post.  And again, though I don't have PTSR, your struggles remind me so much of my own.  My story is not so much one of a single, impactful incident (although it does seem clear that you've complicated that preconception a bit), as one of repeated disruptions in my life and growth that occurred due to choices my parents made for me.  Trauma?  I'm not sure... I haven't researched it enough to know... but definitely counterproductive to giving one a sense that they are in control of their future and self-definition.

    In particular, I am totally one of those people who cannot say what I'll be doing in 5 years from now.  There were times when I could, but that certainty fell away over the years after it seemed that things were always coming in to thwart my plans.

    The thing that strikes me about this, though, is that though many people are well able to say what they'd like to be doing in 5 years, the chance that they're actually doing that thing in 5 years isn't always that high.  I think of some of the most goal-oriented and focused friends I have, and while they are super clear on what they want, they do change and compromise along the way.

    It seems to me that people like you and me have been more strongly affected than others by the fact that *we know if we say what we want it still might not happen.*  It seems like a failure, or like we're lying if we claim to define the future... because history has shown us we can't.  The important thing is, there's a difference between what you might *want* and what actually *happens,* but it's still okay to go forward wanting things.

    Ok-- sorry to have blurted out so much in one comment, but your post really made me think.  Also, I apologize if I'm making any assumptions about what you might be thinking-- I guess I'm just trying to draw connections that may be helpful. :)