February 2, 2016
Today I’m writing from the base of Mount Shasta, in California, in the world’s most comfortable chair, looking out over a trout pond ringed by patches of snow and sturdy pines. This is the second-to-last stop on our almost six week journey. The setting is idyllic, silent, and the perfect place for me to poke and prod at life’s latest revelation.
I am recovering from trauma. I am not sure why it has only now occurred to me that this is what I am doing but the realization smacked me in the cranium as we pulled out of Petaluma, California this morning.
Something has been bothering me these six weeks, some feeling that refused to name itself, hovering at my elbow like an old acquaintance whose name you should know but, embarrassingly, you can’t remember. The feeling was most prevalent when I spoke to friends and family who had not heard the sad story of my unfortunate spring and summer. I want them to know the story of the loss of my father and sister for the same reasons you would want your dear friends and family to know if you had married, given birth, launched a new business or experienced any other massive, life changing event.
The problem is this: I want them to know the story but I don’t want to tell it. I don’t want to tell it because of “the look”. Reflected in my listeners’ eyes I see all the horror and sadness that I have lived through, clawed my way back from, and still work every day to ignore so that I can move forward. I don’t want to tell the story because I fought to get the point where I could tell it without feeling it and now what will they think when I speak those words dry-eyed and emotionless?
But it was not only those storytelling moments that felt off, wrong, uncomfortable. Looking back at all the times when the nameless feeling nudged my elbow, a pattern appears. The pattern is the aftermath of trauma.
How can I describe this state? The aftermath? The recovery?
Imagine a room inside your mind, a control room. Mine resembles the bridge of the Enterprise—no surprise, I am sure. Whatever your particular control room looks like, it is largely automated. A happy event occurs, a switch flips, you smile, you laugh, warmth rises in your stomach. A sad event occurs, another switch flips, your stomach tightens, your mouth twitches, perhaps you cry. No matter how big or small, your control room tells your body how to react to the millions of stimuli you encounter every day. And, like any system, there are glitches in your control room, which is why you also have a crew.
Your control room crew keeps an eye on the buttons and switches and blinking lights. They are ready to step in if you start to laugh at a funeral. They might not be able to stop you from laughing (funny things happen at funerals now and then), but they can troubleshoot, modulate your volume, force you to excuse yourself if necessary.
Trauma is when armed attackers burst into your control room and start shooting. Your brave crew do all they can to protect the precious system, even sacrificing their lives. Sometimes a few crew members manage to survive, kill off the enemy, and get you back online with barely a hiccup. Other times, the trauma forces are too well-armed and powerful and the entire control crew is slaughtered. Sometimes the forces of trauma damage the control systems. In the worst cases, they damage the systems beyond all repair.
That is trauma. The aftermath of trauma is what happens inside your control room in the weeks and months after the attack.
For me, the control room crew was lost but the system suffered only minor damage. Since the attack, repairs have been made but the crew that oversees the automated system has yet to be replaced. Because of this, glitches pop up without anyone to correct them. A happy event occurs, sometimes the right switch flips, sometimes the wrong switch flips, and sometimes no switch flips. Instead of laughter and warmth I feel nothing, or I feel anxious, scared, sad, confused, angry. A warning light flashes. Emergency! Panic! But there is no one in the control room. All I can do is wait for the glitch to pass.
This is the aftermath of trauma: glitches in the system.
For the past six weeks I have swung between feeling almost myself again and feeling as if I am an alien inhabiting a human body. I have played tennis, I have attended parties, I have worked on the latest incarnation of the Warpworld manuscript, I have gone bird watching, I have lunched with old friends, I have read books to small children, I have picked oranges, I have completed a freelance contract, I have watched movies, I have had sex with my husband, I have soaked in hot tubs, I have worn myself out at spin classes, I have written blog posts, I have read and read and read, I have had meaningful conversations and silly belly laughs, I have drastically curtailed my consumption of alcohol, I have driven a Tesla, I have walked dogs, I have laid in the sun, I have been woken up by an earthquake. I have done all these things with renewed vigor and hope. But I have also suffered through any number of glitches—suddenly crying behind my sunglasses as I was otherwise happily reading a book in the sun; waking up at 2am filled with dread and anxiety for no reason, panic so intense it takes my breath away; eating a deliciously ripe orange, fresh off the tree and being washed over with homesickness even though I know home is cold and grey and wet and citrus-less.
Looking back, it all makes sense. In the moment, it was deeply unsettling.
Of course I am recovering from trauma. Who wouldn’t be after watching the two remaining members of their family die in a span of less than seventy days? Not to mention packing up and moving away from the city that has been home base for the better part of six years. All the determination and self-generated RAWR! in the world cannot change the facts. I guess this means I am in the Denial phase of the stages of grief?
Over the past six weeks, so many ideas for Coconut Chronicle posts came to me. Travel always has that effect, igniting the creative core of my brain. And yet, for some reason, most of those ideas never made it to the page. Only today, when I finally understood that I was recovering from trauma did my lack of follow-through make sense. This is the space where I come to share what matters to me. As much I’ve fought it, as much as I’ve struggled to move forward, I am still here, in my grief, all these months later. Yes, I’ve moved but not out of grief, only into the next stage of it.
What matters to me most right now is honesty. I am fighting all my instincts to run. I am determined to stop, look around, and report what it is like to exist in all these stages, no matter how repetitive or depressing the truth may be. And what I have to report at this moment is that I feel stuck. I don’t want to tell the story because I have been telling the same story over and over and over. I worry that this is the story that will forever define me. The story doesn’t change and I am stuck here in each iteration of grief, re-telling it from a new point of view. I cannot backspace or delete and write a new ending. There’s no one in the control room; I can’t stop the glitches.
For all the fun I had on this latest journey—and I did have fun, believe me—I am eager to return home. Something about the blandness of routine is appealing right now. I confess that the usual burst of inspiration that my road trips trigger did not come. I rarely even picked up the camera. Nothing moved me to chronicle my adventure because it did not feel like an adventure. It felt like fakery—pretend this is just another normal winter road trip and it will be so. But it was not so.
I have sent out an S.O.S, a desperate plea for a new control room crew. Until they answer my call, here I am, telling the story I don’t want to tell and wondering how long it will be before everyone stops listening. Wondering when I will stop pretending to be me and just…be.