Burning Down the Room

I just came back from visiting my son, now 21. As I think about my next steps in the world—I’ve moved into my third rental space in less than two years—it seems like a good time to post this draft of a blog post I found in my files recently. I’m not sure why it never got pushed live when I wrote it over a year ago.

 

Burning Down the Room

 

Burn it all down. Room by room. Tree by tree.

I was in a trauma counseling session, trying a technique my doctor had recommended called brainspotting. It’s based on EMDR, and doesn’t seem significantly different to me. In any case, I’d been having a lot of panic attacks and my doctor thought this would help.

I had headphones on, playing music that randomly went from ear to ear, so that both sides of my brain could process the episode I was grappling with. My eyes were open and focused on a single point in the room, I think to give my mind a point of “rescue.”

I’d been cooped up all winter with a broken ankle, so it hadn’t mattered so much that whenever I had to go anywhere I had to put my head down between my knees for several minutes, maybe an hour. But now that I needed to catch up on a bunch of tasks as well as move forward in my life, this type of handicap was unacceptable.

We started by focusing on a wildfire that affected my neighborhood the previous fall. I didn’t think the fire itself was the problem. It was a metaphor for many other disasters in my life, many lovingly built structures that had been destroyed. I was having a hard time finding shelter. Believing in shelter.

The trauma specialist told me to burn the whole house down. And the entire surrounding forest. And then see what happened. In my mind’s eye, obviously, not for “real.” But when you mentally enact these scenarios with these headphones on, you’re in a slightly hypnotized state, and the affect is high. It does feel real.

house8However, it wasn’t as hard as I’d expected to burn down most of my little house. The kitchen I’d designed so carefully. The walls I’d stayed up all hours mudding and painting. The floors I’d refinished. My wonderful soaker tub. Those beautiful windows and skylights. The gleaming golden ceiling. The “spirit in the sky” turquoise paint in the hallway. Bye to the Persian rugs chosen for these spaces. I had to close my eyes, but all the bookshelves my brother built and all their contents went to house3ash without the world collapsing into a black hole.

It was harder to see the old lilacs and the monster Ponderosas go. Some of those trees are among the oldest in the canyon.

I stopped when I came to Julian’s room. I mentally stood in the doorway for twenty minutes or more, keeping the flames at my back.

What’s happening? the trauma specialist asks.

I’m trying to burn my son’s room, I say.

Oh, she says. We’d both been expecting other, older events to come up, stuff from my own childhood, as the walls of my house fell.

It wasn’t what this room was, but all the things it wasn’t. It was never sunnyhouse7 and welcoming, like the south-facing corner room Julian had in our pre-divorce home, with its warm, pine-paneled walls. I was never able to get the furniture arranged so the room in this “new” house felt right. Partly because while we lived there Julian was at an age where whatever I said wasn’t going to be received.

There were things I found in this room, over the years, things I didn’t want to find. In some cases the use was all too clear. I never figured out what some of those other things were for.

This room was empty a lot of the time. When you’re divorced, you only get to be a parent half time. If there’s a hint of conflict—and when isn’t there?—with a teenager, there’s always the other parent, promising no curfew.

Standing, in my mind, in Julian’s doorway as the flames try without success to eradicate all of that—the rap and the Sponge Bob posters with their mixed messages, the other signs I found, almost too late, of his psychic pain, I realize it’s not that I don’t want to let it go. It’s that I don’t want to let go of the hope that I can roll back time and fix it. THEN.

But how’s Julian NOW? the trauma specialist asks, gently.

I want to say he’s fine, but then I realize that’s just a statement of faith, or even hubris, like some guy from Arkansas who knows nothing of foreign policy who pontificates on Iran. Julian’s in college, and I see him once or twice per year. I had the money in savings to pay for tuition, but not much extra for travel. All I have to go on is what he tells me over the phone, and what he posts on Facebook, which isn’t much.

What’s your relationship like?

Pretty good for long distance, I say. But we don’t talk or text every day like some parents do. He tells me what he’s thinking about as a consequence of his physics seminars. I listen to his music uploads on Soundcloud. He shares his thoughts on relationships.

THEN WHAT ARE YOU WORRIED ABOUT? she asks. Do you realize how many parents don’t have this?

I don’t know, I say. I wasn’t the kind of mother I thought I’d be. I never made this room into what I imagined. In fact, I was sort of thinking this house was just the first post-divorce house, and then I’d give him a *real* home.

So it’s okay if this house burns?

In a way. If I had a better house to go to. But that never happened. And now it doesn’t matter, because he’s gone anyway. It just all seems…irrelevant… now. I didn’t finish the nest, really, and now what’s the point?

I kept trying. I kept thinking tomorrow would be another day. But it feels like we’re out of tomorrows.

So now it’s time to go build your nest, she says. What would that look like?

Good question. I never for one minute thought I’d have a tough time answering that. I’ve always been an independent person, with a strong sense of who *I* am. But maybe because I also had a strong sense of WAIT, GET BACK HERE, KID, I’M NOT DONE WITH YOU, I wasn’t quite as ready for this next step as I expected. 

I move out of the doorway and let the roof come down on the last room standing.

But I don’t feel right about it.

 

Hat tip to Andi O’Conor’s blog, Burning Down the House.

<<Please note that post draws on an exercise, a guided meditation of sorts, that took place in a therapy session. The purpose of the session was to process fear and uncover underlying issues (I’m simplifying). As those who have been following this blog know, there was a fire, but it did not reach my house. I am not literally planning to burn down my house, nor have I ever burned any structure, intentionally or otherwise.>>

 

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Massive

At the end of last year I posted about some “night terrors” after I met an older man contemplating his impending death. A high-school classmate responded by telling me of his heart attack a few years back. His comments are included at the end of the blog post; he says he felt an overwhelming sorrow at the thought that he might not be able to say goodbye to those he loved and express his gratitude for what they had done for him.

I spent some time thinking about this. Around 12 years ago, my father died. Although many people admired him for his athleticism and charisma, he was your basic deadbeat dad. A violent, manipulative drunk, abusive in every way.

I don’t hold all of it against him. He suffered from at least some combination of these, all untreated: alcoholism, narcissistic personality disorder, ADHD and/or manic depression, post-traumatic stress disorder from World War II, and multiple concussions. God bless the shrink today who would have to deal with that differential diagnosis.

His brain was sclerotic from the alcohol and maybe from bipolar’s kindling effect, and his thinking had grown rigid over the years. Nevertheless, he had the phenomenal memory that ran in his family and that was as legendary in the local bars as his physical strength. He could recite historical names and dates, or your telephone number. At 73, he was still building docks and boathouses, singlehandedly hoisting pressure-treated beams, and competing in triathlons despite his vices.

He was also hilarious, thanks to the kind of reverse empathy the sociopathic and utterly despairing can deploy.

He and I shared an abiding interest in history and a passion for Crazy Horse, psychopathic dictators, European-theater World-War II machinations, and the Revolutionary War. I owe my retention capabilities, my critical thinking skills, and my doggedness to him. If I was never successful at connecting with him, I can hardly regret where the quest has taken me.dad

We didn’t talk often, because I didn’t often have several hours in which to converse about history and politics over the phone. But one day around 12 years ago I had LASIK surgery. I was sent home and told not to open my eyes for a day or so except to go to the bathroom.

Okay, I thought. Why don’t I catch up on my phone calls?

I called up my father and talked to him for around three hours. History. Politics. But also some personal stuff. He’d been working on his issues, or so he said.

He said, “I think I’m finally able to love.” He said that he recognized that for his entire life, he’d been incapable of loving others.

He didn’t come right out and name narcissistic personality disorder, but isn’t that what not being able to love anyone is? One of the defining aspects of the disorder is that someone who has it almost never can have the insight that they have it. For all I know it was his latest con, or self-con. But I think he really hoped.

Five days later, his heart failed.

Coincidentally, this death occurred at a place that was at the center of our childhood summers. He just happened to be working there. And my brother happened be nearby and heard that someone needed help. He rushed to the scene, not knowing that it was our father.

To be sure, heart disease and strokes run in my father’s family, and given the way he abused his body, it’s probably amazing that he made it to age 73. Still, the metaphors are pretty darn glaring.

Despite the overwhelming nature of the heart attack, my father fought it hard. His coworker saw his paroxysms and ran for help, leaving him lying on one end of a very long dock. When he returned with a police officer, my father had reached the other end, climbed up a ramp, and was in the parking lot, where he was having more convulsions.

Maybe this is just what the body does when it dies, and there was nothing conscious about his struggle. Some people said, At least it was quick. But would you want it to be quick? Would you want to be overtaken by death, without a chance to say goodbye, clear things up, offer your thanks?

I think that’s part of my “night terrors” thing. I had a pulmonary embolism in 2004. For about a year afterwards I’d wake in the night grappling with the immediacy of death. Statistically it’s likely that another clot is how I’ll go. And I would think: please, no. I want to know in advance, a little. Not to linger, not to suffer. But to have a chance to make my peace, express my gratitude, say what needs to be said.

In Who Dies?, Stephen Levine suggests that we all, at the very least, try to become comfortable enough with the idea of death to ensure that our last words/thoughts are not OH SHIT.

For all the warnings and signs I’ve had, I’m not sure I’m there.

Are you?

 

Massive

 

I.

You could say he died of a full heart.

It burst with the overturned blue

of the lake beneath the tree-limned

sky. His last meal: hot dog, onions,

Pepsi, thou shalt eat ice cream and chips

in memory of Me. He munched

in the new truck above the harbor

of our childhood, those years of blue-lipped

lessons in heaving, leaf-murked water.

Somewhere there is a steamer sunk

too deep for anyone to find.

 

The waves tugged the ice-mangled dock.

He was about to fix everything,

he had the wet suit on, the muscles

in his back good and strong.

At seventy-three, the muscles

still so impossibly strong.

Ironman, Olympian, no one

rises up in a massive attack

of the heart. Though he tried.

He staggered and he crawled.

 

Is it fullness, or emptiness,

if a father says, five days before his death,

finally he is ready to love?

 

II.

You could say his heart was full

of never having been ready to love.

 

III.

You could say it was cholesterol,

alcohol.

 

IV.

There are so many ways to love a father.

Seven years old: ski black diamonds, never

letting him out of your sight; eleven:

sneak gulps of his manhattan; thirty-seven:

come upon the scene too late, the giant

purpling before your eyes.

Leave one rose floating near

the far, deep end of the tilted pier,

artery-colored in the lungless lake.

Lonely, beautiful, begging for rescue

from the tourists ever coming to this place,

this harbor of learning to swim.

 

Originally published in Vermont Literary Review Summer/Fall 2008.

PTSD—What It’s Like

Ever had stage fright? Levine

I don’t mean the good kind. Where you have some butterflies in your stomach and a bit of a metallic taste in your mouth. Maybe that’s slightly unpleasant but it can also help you focus a little better and in the end it seems to come out all right. The audience applauds, your boss loves the PowerPoint, you rock the guitar riff and even forget yourself in it.

I mean the bad kind, where you throw up.

Have you ever hyperventilated to where your fingers and toes curl up and lose circulation?

If you’ve never had this level of anxiety, take the flutter in your stomach, multiply it by a factor of at least 10, add a pulse around 160, shortness of breath, numbness in your hands and feet (even if you’re not hyperventilating, or aren’t aware that you are), and a feeling of “floodedness,” where the cortisol seems to rise out of your gut, up through your chest, and into your throat and head until you feel like you’re going to pop out of your skin like an overcooked hotdog. Jump out of that skin at every loud, or even medium, noise. Have nightmares every night, if you can sleep at all.

Put your head down between your knees and breathe. Maybe for several hours.

Be grateful you work from home. Hide all this. Become even more stressed out by the effort of hiding it. And for God’s sake, don’t write a blog post about it.

What causes these episodes? That’s the thing. Nothing.

Well, not nothing. Stuff in the past.

“In circumstances where others sense more than a mild threat or even a challenge to be faced, the traumatized person experiences threat, dread and mental/physical listlessness, a kind of paralysis of body and will.”  —Gabor Mate, MD

This isn’t always like me. There have been plenty of times when I had a fight response to challenge. Sometimes, I’ve thrived under stress—graduating double summa cum laude while working 32 hours per week, creating a career out of thin air after my divorce—but other times I’ve collapsed under what’s looked like a lesser load.

For a long time I thought it was over. Medication I was taking for another condition had so well controlled the PTSD symptoms, I practically forgot I had it. Then along came #boulderfire. And several other stressors that simultaneously attacked my baseline sense of my core survival capabilities—home, job, relationship. Whether you want to look at psychoanalytically in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs or new-age-ically in terms of the root chakra (I have lived near Boulder for 29 years), I felt pretty undermined. Even if my house didn’t burn.

When I was little, my alcoholic father, a WWII vet and likely PTSD sufferer himself, would burn through the house, tossing children headfirst into walls.* Yeah, thank you for bringing that up, wildfire.

I’ve been calming down a little, but I’m pretty sure it’s only because I haven’t had as much deadline pressure in the last month or so. My experience is that in the absence of external stress, the symptoms do subside with time. But it can be a vicious cycle: you take better care of yourself and as a result you feel better, so you take on more responsibility—most of us want to be productive—and then you have less time to take care of yourself, and wham, there you are again…

I planned this blog post wanting to talk about the difference between post-traumatic stress, which anyone can have after anything bad, and post-traumatic stress disorder. But apparently there may be more hope for all of us than I thought. There’s some new thinking, as well as some more insight coming out of Peter Levine’s ongoing work, suggesting that PTSD may be more injury than disorder, and more amenable to healing than previously believed. It’s still controversial, but as I said, there’s hope.

In the meantime, this seems to be what I’m in the middle of, so I thought I’d stick my neck out and tell you what it’s like.

 

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*(Re my father’s rage: this type of potential response to combat trauma is discussed with insight here.)