No, wait. Not exactly that but sometimes it sure feels like it. The fires in northern California have been devastating, surreal and overwhelming to say the least. It is hard to count my blessings right now given that I surely have many. After all, my life was minimally impacted in relative terms. I lost no loved ones, my housing remained intact, although I did evacuate when the advisory was issued by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s office. The smoke-saturated air hyper-laced with toxins, felt like it carried minimal oxygen. Imagine suffocation with foulness. It was hard to breathe and especially hard once it became so dense it hurt to take it in.
The closeness of the fire and the resultant fright was another story. Now I have been in other high stress and traumatic events in my life though of a very different ilke. I used to think I had developed a thick skin for all things traumatic because of them. After all, I had ‘experience.’ But you know, the older I have gotten the less true that feels for me. Sometimes there comes a point when it becomes too much to bear, emotional and psychological exhaustion takes over – at least at times – and the overwhelm is well, overwhelming.
Photo courtesy Robin Gates
I’ve watched the people who have had houses burned to the ground in this event. I’ve heard the woman outside the drugstore near my apartment say to another, “I’m so sorry to hear about losing your mother,” and I’ve heard the many stories about people getting out of their homes with nothing more than the shirts on their backs. I have been spared all these things.But here’s the rub: what used to be a fortitude I thought I had has worn so thin as to seem non existent. The “grit and swagger” I sheathed myself in has waned leaving me gritless and swaggerless. Can it be that a person can only endure so much in one lifetime? That what has gotten me this far has been used up?
I seem to be in need of the guardian angel, Clarence, from “it’s A Wonderful Life,” to help me right the ship as it were because I’m struggling to ‘right it’ myself. I picture George Bailey, desperate and alone, shouldering a lifetime of burden and I think, it’s only a story. And while mine is different, it’s still MY story and the only one I can possibly have. MY story, delusional, self-inflicted frayed-at-the-ends or not, is still the only experience I know in this lifetime. And while I can relate to one degree or another to others suffering, having compassion to one degree or another for them given my past, at the end of the day it is the content-filled context of my own, soldiering amid the fire and brimstone that has carried me thus far since my birth.
Grieving In Slow Motion
A bit dramatic you think? May Be! And yet, what person has never reached a ‘dark night of the soul’? Mine is not the only one created in this latest catastrophe in wine country. More have been spawned no doubt in Houston’s floods, south Florida’s Irma wreckage, and surely in Puerto Rico’s Haiti-esque aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Those incredibly poor and desperate people. Forgotten and ignored. Yes, yes, I know I’m not alone. Yes, yes, I will end with where I’ve begun this self-pity party, which is to say, I’ve still got a roof over my head, reasonable health, and oddly, some semblance of fierce spiritual life. And yet, and yet……
I have a 94-year old friend who has lost a husband and both sons to suicide. Sometimes I feel I have no right to ever complain about my own stuff, let alone be “tired” of my own karmic consequences. After all, I was weaned on the premise “stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about,” which is to stopper up any grief whatsoever about one’s own ‘lesser-than” traumatic life. My 94-year old friend has never cried after her sons’ suicides and I can see why, in a way, although I could cry enough for the two of us! The rub is once you really let loose, how hard it is to carry on, at least for a time. I remember after returning from Iran and my (ex) husband’s political prisoner incarceration there, how repressed, suppressed, then angry I felt not allowing myself to cry. WHY? Guilt, stupidity, alienation from others partially but mostly, mostly it was the fear that if I began to cry, I’d never stop; I could never reclaim myself.
Trauma and grief is a funny thing, with a life all it’s own. Ditto PTSD, which I seem to suffer from even if a “light case.” Just ask a veteran who has one full blown. It swamps you, and you feel like you’re drowning. Or suffocating! Sometimes you have to pretend for the sake of yourself and others that you are doing better than you actually are, even if it’s a lie. To admit your fragility is risky, as risky as the fire itself! You’d be swallowed up, ‘consumed’ by the sorrow.
Photo courtesy Robin Gates
Living with Scar Tissue
So, what’s next for my gritless and swaggerless self? I have no idea. That’s part of the whole point. Having recently moved to Sonoma a mere four months ago, and after taking baby steps to develop a new life, I don’t know where and how to “go from here”, from this emotional space I seem to be residing in. And I can guarantee you, while I’m awash in my own rudderless experience, there are many others who are feeling similarly though with different circumstances, different life contexts, many with a far greater magnitude.
For it is the emotional and psychological toll that is exacted from traumatic experiences that are quite simply “lost in translation” to others who’ve never experienced such things. Just ask a holocaust survivor, a tsunami survivor, a kidnap survivor, a human traffic survivor, the list is actually more extensive than one realizes. Yet, each category contains a thread of commonality between those in different categories of traumatic events. Ironically, the same thread is what seems to separate the traumatised from the non-traumatised.
It needn’t be that way, or so it seems. But for the life of me, I can’t imagine how the chasm separating us can ever truly be bridged…unless maybe through acknowledgement that there is one. My physical survival is not in doubt. That is even more true of my spiritual survival. But there comes a time when one has to face the hard contextual facts of one’s lifetime here on the planet. That there are limits, that while hope can and does spring eternal, that hope can and must be redefined and recontextualized in one’s individual experiential blessings and dare I say curses. To pretend otherwise is a naivete too far, one which I cannot afford at this time, if ever.