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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Broken

Walking nurtures an open mind… The sky is like an upturned plate—a big platter of openness filled with thoughts.” –Liz Caile, A Life at Treeline

 

Deep SurvivalIn Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales writes that people who are lost in the wilderness and survive often have in common that they prayed. Those who are found but only in the nick of time and only by good luck have in common that that they failed to recognize or refused to admit that they were lost.

Whether or not one believes in God or a god, exactly, it seems to me that the act of praying is, fundamentally, admitting that you’re lost. That you’re a small person in a big landscape and you don’t know what the hell you’re doing there. You don’t have to be a literal believer to recognize that.

According to Gonzales, the mere fact of acknowledging this existential reality can be the difference between life and death.

In one of her more recent posts, the eloquent blogger Andi O’Conor wrote about the woo-woo factor in her life, and how her intuition had guided her to pack her birth certificate and a couple of other key possessions before she took off on a vacation. While she was gone, her house was destroyed in a wildfire.

When you live in a place like Boulder, CO, you become familiar with stories like this, and you don’t feel that self-conscious talking about “the woo-woo.” In fact, it’s only when publishing, say, blog posts for a broader audience, that you would even refer to it by something as facetious as “the woo-woo.”

But as Andi was pushing her post live, I’d been struggling myself with a post on my own relationship to the mysterious, and have only now got around to writing it. Because it’s painful for me. I used to live fairly well immersed in the woo-woo. But for several years now, I’ve felt like my connection to it has been broken. Like I, too, have had to refer to it facetiously, because what I used to see as patterns and significance now seemed possibly random.

This winter I’ve been laid up with a broken ankle and I’ve had a lot of time to think. Also, no ability to walk. But really, over the past few years, I haven’t had a lot of time for walking and reflection in general, due to a lot of factors. And I realized for me, walking really is praying. As a child I wandered around in the woods, exploring Indian trails and roads established by American colonists. After college I found myself in Eldora, CO, hiking mining roads and Arapaho pathways, and something settled in me, a recognition. We know these ways, my body said to my soul. I’m a small person in a large landscape. As long I know how to be lost, I’ll know how to find my way.

Once, when I was housesitting for the singer-songwriters Cosy Sheridan and TR Ritchie, I hiked up on the Moab Rim Trail. It was later in the afternoon and I misjudged how quickly night would fall in the desert. It was stupid of me. I didn’t have a warm enough jacket, a headlamp, or matches. I was the last person out. Because it was a slickrock trail, it was hard to tell where the path went. As the twilight bled into night, I got lost. I picked my way across a couple of ravines to peer over the cliff to the Colorado River. There was a shelf below me and I thought that might be the trail. But if I climbed down to it, I wasn’t sure I’d get back up, if I was wrong. It was getting cold, and darker by the minute. I knew that if I tried to get back to where I’d been earlier, I might fall into one of the ravines I’d passed. I called out, but there was no one to hear.

I prayed. I am not exact about God. Assuming the term “woo-woo” is a little too loose, let’s call God the numinous, for now. I decided to try to reach a promontory outlined against the stars. Just as I attained it, a car was backing out of the trailhead parking lot below me. Its headlights illuminated my own car. I could then estimate the angle of the trail and tell that it was above me. I was able to climb to the trail and carefully make my way down.

Had I not reached the outcrop exactly when I did, the car would not have have backing out just then, and I would not have had the orientation I needed. Was it my prayer? I don’t know. I asked for help.

I was a small person in a large landscape who found a way.

I want to end this post right here. But I can’t. Because for the past few years I haven’t been able to feel this connection, to feel that there was anyone or anything paying attention, that if I prayed, or was lost, it would matter. Everything felt drained of significance. Even if I had an intuition or felt guided, it just seemed like it would add up to nothing in the end. So what if I packed a birth certificate? My house would burn down with many things I valued more inside. Last week I was talking to a trauma specialist about how it felt to watch the Highline—this special trail where I would jog and hike several times each week before the broken ankle—about how it felt to watch it burn during the Fourmile Fire. I said it felt like a psychic attack.

Perhaps, though, it occurs to me as I write, feeling attacked by nature is still a way to sense a connection. And I know fires are part of the landscape. I know they’re natural. But there will come a time when I will get lost and there will be no way out.

ButalaIn her stunning memoir, Perfection of the Morning, the otherwise stolid Sharon Butala writes of mystical experiences that occur while walking around on her ranch in Saskatchewan. In To Kill an Eagle, members of the Lakota tribe describe sacred visions as rising out of the land.

That’s what usually happens for me, with my writing. Creativity comes from being outside. From moving in landscape. This ability to easily tap into the sacred, the mysterious, is what I’ve been missing. I don’t know exactly what broke my connection to the woo-woo, but I hope some walking around brings it back.

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.)

Lucky/Unlucky

I can’t complain, but sometimes I still do…”  –Joe Walsh

 

When I was a kid, I had picture book called Fortunately. As I recall, the character had, fortunately, been invited to a birthday party. Unfortunately, it was on the other side of the country. Fortunately, he had a plane. Unfortunately, it blew up. Fortunately, there was a parachute. Unfortunately, something was wrong with it. Fortunately, there was a haystack on the ground below. Unfortunately, there was a pitchfork sticking out of the haystack. Fortunately, he missed the pitchfork. Unfortunately, he missed the haystack. Fortunately, he landed in the ocean. Unfortunately, there were sharks. Fortunately, he could swim…

In the end, fortunately, the kid wound up safely at the party.

When he was 25, my husband of the time was driving home through Boulder Canyon and was struck head-on by a drunk driver. Fortunately, he was not killed. Unfortunately, he was badly injured. Unfortunately, he was driving my Fiat Spyder and was more badly hurt than he might have been had he been driving our Jeep Wagoneer. Fortunately, the other guy was driving a TR-6, and so my husband was not decapitated. Fortunately, my husband was not driving our Jeep Wagoneer, or he would have had to live with having decapitated the other guy. Unfortunately, he was not wearing his seatbelt, and so his windpipe was nearly crushed when it struck the top of his windshield. Fortunately, he was not wearing his seatbelt, and so he avoided having his legs crushed beyond repair when the engine came into the driver’s compartment. Fortunately, everyone had insurance. Unfortunately, my ex-husband is still in pain and facing surgeries to this day, at 50, from that accident.

It could have been so much worse. Was he lucky that he didn’t die, lucky that there was insurance? Or unlucky that the whole thing occurred in the first place? Lots of people go through life never having to deal with stuff like this.

Recently my house did not burn down in the Fourmile Canyon fire. You bet I thank my lucky stars. But all around me are houses that are for sale, owned by people who really need to sell. I just took mine off the market because it hasn’t sold and wouldn’t be likely to do so over the winter, especially after this fire. After being out of work since last December, my partner had to take a job far away. I’m not sure what’s next for us, all the more so in a real estate market like this.

“You’re lucky your house was safe,” someone said.

I can’t argue with that. I’m glad I don’t have to go through the hassle of replacing everything, especially the more I read about what others are dealing with. But the equity in my house, which I not long ago would have estimated at a decent chunk, isn’t safe. I worked hard for that money, and it was mostly sweat equity, not just market appreciation equity. I didn’t over-leverage my house, by the way. And because I came to the professional world late, after a divorce, it’s pretty much all I had for my retirement. The bank will get its money, when and if it ever sells, but I’m likely to lose mine. There’s no insurance to cover that.

Others I know ARE being foreclosed on. And there’s no insurance to cover that, either.

Who’s lucky in #boulderfire? One thing I’ve learned in my life, though even for me it’s hard to put in practice: try not to go around saying “at least” to others. Well, at least you didn’t die in your car accident (maybe the person had a head injury that changed her life forever). At least you were only evacuated from the fire (maybe someone was evacuated in the middle of chemotherapy treatments and the stress sent him into pneumonia). At least you’re safe (how do you know how the other person defines safe? Maybe she was abused as a child and this is the last straw for her brain wiring).

Recently I hiked with a friend to the top of the Highline in Lefthand Canyon, where I ran into someone who lost his home in the fire. Like many, he’d been away over Labor Day weekend and had been unable to rescue any of his possessions. But, he said, he was “over it now.”

“Really?” I said. “I hear it’s an up and down process for a lot of people.”

“Well, it helps to have had some life experiences to put it in perspective.”

“Where are you from?” I guessed he was East European; he had a Slavic accent, but he had introduced himself as “Pavel,” with the stress on the second syllable, so I knew he wasn’t Russian.

“Czech,” he said. “I spent some time in a refugee camp. When you’ve lost a whole country, and you know you can never go back, a house, well…”

“Still. At some point, you’d think maybe you’ve paid your dues,” I said.

“Well, yeah,” he said.

He pointed out how amazing it was that no one had died in this fire, given its violence and the speed at which it had moved. There were so many close calls. Even most of the pets were saved. “Lucky,” he said.

Yes. Lucky.

And I walked back down the mountain to my unburned, unsold house. What do I know? Perhaps all the right things still will happen for me. Maybe it all is lucky. Just the same, Joe Walsh looped around in my head.

 

fireCR83(1) (iPhone photo by Russell Greene, age 10—top of the Highline/CR 83)