by Deborah Greene
After a traumatic experience, the human system of self-preservation seems to go onto permanent alert, as if the danger might return at any moment. (Judith Lewis Herman,
These last few weeks find me in a constant state of fight or flight. And this deep sense of urgency inside of me grows stronger as another day passes and the one year anniversary of my father’s suicide inches ever closer.
I feel as if my mind is playing a cruel game, telling me my father is going to do something terrible, flooding my senses with that foreboding knowledge. Now I can recognize the signs, the flashing lights, and the danger signs. I know now that my father is in trouble and at risk of making an irreversible and tragic decision. The day is coming closer and my brain is telling me to act, to try and save him, to stop him. I want to change the ending. I want to fix it. I want that more than anything.
But I cannot save him. It’s too late. I’m too late.
And so my body and mind try to prepare for what is coming. For what’s already come, but feels as if it’s going to happen all over again. I’m reliving it all inside; that call, that horrifying moment when my life was forever altered. Fight or flight my mind says, my muscles tighten, and my guard is up.
What is happening to me?
That is the question I ask my therapist in tears this morning. And she reminds me that the trauma that had receded to the background of my mind has come roaring back to the forefront. What I am feeling is the traumatic imprint that we talk about so often. It is like muscle memory, she tells me. Your body and mind are being carried back to that place, but they are bringing with them all of the knowledge and understanding you’ve gained in the aftermath. It’s muddled, it’s confusing. You’re bracing for the blow, while at the same time trying to stop your father’s suicide. That is how she explains it to me. And it makes sense, but really it doesn’t; because he’s gone. My father is gone and he is not coming back.
I don’t like the way this feels. Just two days shy of the one year anniversary my body is in knots. Physically I feel as if I am in the immediate aftermath of his suicide. And I have to keep reminding myself that I’m not, that this will pass, that I’ve endured the tsunamis before and I’ve found my way to calmer waters as well. I talk to myself a lot. And I cry and I have nightmares, that is when I am blessed to find sleep.
So, what can I do?
My therapist tells me first, to repeat to myself over and over again, that I am safe. It feels like it is happening again, but it’s not. The first anniversary will come and I will not have to relive that nightmare. I’m safe. I’ve survived it. I’m still surviving it. But my father will not die all over again, at least not in the physical world.
She tells me to answer that sense of urgency with the acknowledgement that I did all I could do for my father. I loved him with a full heart, I listened, I supported him and had he shared with me his whole truth, I would have met him with more of the same. I would have held his hand, and accompanied him on the journey to find the right help. I did not leave him. I didn’t let go. I had his back. But that does not mean he would have held on. I answered his cries for help, each and every time.
And I must remind myself that I am not alone. On that day, even surrounded by those beautiful strangers, standing in Whole Foods, I was alone when the worst news of my life came to me. So now, my therapist tells me, I must remind myself who is surrounding me. Who is holding me up? It is my family, my friends and my community that I see when I close my eyes. I’m not alone in this. I don’t ever have to feel alone in it again, not for a single solitary minute.
Muscle memory it turns out, is not just about physical injuries or rehabilitation. It is a part of trauma. Triggers come and the traumatic responses permeate every cell, every fiber of our being. This time we want to be ready, we want to anticipate what’s coming and keep ourselves safe. It won’t always be so palpable my wise therapist tells me, but there will always be moments of it. This one year anniversary is, simply put, a doozy. My body is in fight or flight mode. The first anniversary will come and then it will go. The tsunami will recede. My body will relax, my mind will ease. I will breathe in and breathe out.
But for the next few days I simply have to acknowledge what is happening. I’m not losing my mind. I’m not the first survivor to endure this. It helps me to know that. But I don’t like feeling this way. It hurts, physically and emotionally. Trauma is a powerful beast; and living with the imprint it has tattooed on every part of me is the hardest damn thing I’ve ever had to learn to do.
Deborah Greene lives in Superior, CO with her husband & three daughters. She lost her father Lowell Jay Herman on April 20, 2015. You can follow her journey at reflectingoutloud.net