Sooner or later, every train engineer will have someone step in front of his or her train as a way to permanently solve a temporary problem. That must be a heartbreaking experience. You want to stop, but you know you can’t. I suspect that all you can really do is close your eyes, swallow really hard, and get ready to fill out a boatload of paperwork.
No doubt this sometimes happens to bus drivers as well. And I’m sure ferry captains have their fair share of jumpers, just as we bridgetenders do. I can’t even imagine what first responders deal with on a daily basis. It’s a part of these jobs that no one wants to talk about. Helpless Stress.
It’s that feeling of being completely out of control. It’s that desire to save someone, and not being able to do so. It messes with your head. It’s the kind of vicarious trauma that people don’t quite understand until they’ve experienced it themselves.
The most frustrating thing about it is you know you’ve been through something big, but you’re not physically hurt. Nothing shows. Your wounds are on the inside, where no one can see them. So your friends and loved ones often expect you to “snap out of it.”
If you have experienced helpless stress, I urge you to take it seriously. Talk to a professional; someone with experience in crisis or grief counseling. Don’t try to simply power through. What happened is not your fault, but if you choose to not cope with it, that can compound the problem.
You’re not alone. Help is out there. Please seek it out.
There was a time, not so very long ago, when I could have told you the exact amount of cash I had in my wallet, down to the penny. I’d wake up in a cold sweat, wondering how I’d pay my bills, or what on earth I’d do if I became seriously ill with no health insurance. For most of my life, I was about one flat tire away from utter homelessness. It was exhausting.
I learned to add rice to a can of soup to make it a meal. I was the coupon queen. I wore clothes until my meager sewing skills couldn’t keep them together anymore, and then I’d replace them at the thrift store. My shoes would all but disintegrate on my feet.
For entertainment, I’d play with my dogs, or take a walk, or watch PBS. I checked out mounds of library books. I knew when all the museums and galleries were free.
I’m not saying that all the joy in life is brought about by money, but life sure has improved now that the financial pressure has eased considerably.
I still keep a tiny bit of cash on hand for emergencies, but I couldn’t tell you how much. Mostly, I sleep through the night, and while I still avoid extravagant, unnecessary bills, I don’t worry about my ability to pay the ones I do incur. My health insurance is probably better than what most people have here in America. (Which isn’t saying much.) And recently I replaced all four of my tires at once without batting an eye. (Okay, maybe I swallowed hard for a second, but there was absolutely no eye batting.)
I still don’t eat at five-star restaurants, but I actually buy organic fruits and vegetables without considering them a splurge. And if I really want something in particular to eat, I figure out a way to get it. I can’t remember the last time I even opened a can of soup. I still use coupons, but I’m not ruled by them. I still shop at thrift stores mostly, but every once in a while I’ll get myself something really nice to wear. And my shoes are in good shape.
I have a lot more fun than I used to. I can afford to get out there and engage with the world. I eat out. I see the odd movie. I pay admission fees without perspiring, and occasionally donate a little extra to museums. I still love library books, though.
Sometimes I’ll look around and wonder how I got to this place. It was a long, hard struggle. It doesn’t seem real to me. I doubt it ever will. I keep expecting to wake up to another can of soup. And I doubt I’ll ever be able to retire. Because of that, I’ll always appreciate how I live now. I’ll never take anything for granted. I’ll always feel as though I’ve taken off a pair of shoes that were two sizes too small. For now, it really feels good to wiggle my toes!
Life. It’s so fragile, so precarious. Enjoy it as much as you can, while you can.
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Have you ever tried to find a last-minute dog sitter for a holiday weekend? Especially when you have a dog with a history of chewing on people? It’s no picnic, believe me. I asked 8 different sitters, and had no luck whatsoever. Come on. I just want a romantic weekend with my new boyfriend! Waaaaaah!
In times of great stress, that very boyfriend likes to remind me that the situation in question is a very First World problem to have. (See, that’s why I respect him so much. He’s pretty darned deep. And he’s great at calming me down.)
He has a point. Perspective is a wonderful thing. Relatively speaking I have very little to worry about. There have been no drive-by shootings in my neighborhood. I know I will eat today. It’s a safe bet that I won’t freeze to death. No armies will invade my city. I will very likely live my entire life without hearing an air raid siren. I’m safe. I’m secure. I’m healthy. I have options.
It’s those people who lack perspective who tend to succumb to road rage. They’re the mass shooters, the wife beaters, the conspiracy theorists, the Fox news viewers of the world. They are the ones who whip up mass hysteria about situations that don’t even exist.
I just need to remind myself that this is no time to panic. I’ll be fine. My dog will be fine. My romantic weekend will be fine. And if this is the worst thing that’s happening in my life, then I’m one fortunate blogger, indeed.
There is so much going on right now. I am trying to keep several plates spinning at the same time. Miraculously, I seem to be pulling it off for a longer stretch than usual. But the adrenaline surge can only last so long. Eventually I’m bound to lose focus and something will come crashing down. (Curse you, gravity!)
I’m trying to plan for that by writing lists. I even have lists of lists. And it feels great when something gets crossed off. But for every cross-off there seems to be two add-ons. This is not sustainable.
It almost feels like all this prolonged success is adding to my stress, because I’m getting cocky. I’m adding plates. And that just makes it harder to maintain, you know?
I miss making out on the couch with someone while not really watching a movie. (Those were the days, my friends, as the song says. No sense in even thinking about it, really.)
I miss trying in vain to get a suntan. I miss listening to the Top 40 on the radio on a summer afternoon. I miss just doing nothing with someone. You know?
Dolce far niente, as the Italians say. How sweet to do nothing. Beyond sweet. Utter bliss.
I’ve always wanted to go to Italy.
But I better not start daydreaming about that. Some of the plates might fall.
Back in 2006, the term “Sandwich Generation” was officially added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It’s used to describe those people who are “sandwiched” between caring for their children and for their aging parents. As life expectancies rise, more and more of us find ourselves in that situation. The term actually started floating around as early as 1981.
For reasons both intentional and unintentional, I have managed to keep myself sandwich-less. I chose not to have children, and unfortunately my mother died when she was 64, and I was 26. I never met my father. As much as I might grouse about the stress in my life, I really did get off easy.
I loved my mother, but she’d have turned 91 today, and it’s almost a guarantee that she’d be in very poor health had she lived. She was already showing signs of severe osteoporosis at the time of her death. She was also a lifelong smoker, and continued that habit even after being diagnosed with emphysema. Her hearing was already terrible. Does dementia run in our family? Who knows. None of us lives long enough to get to that point, it seems.
She would have also outlived her oldest daughter, with whom she had been living. I can’t imagine that she would have handled that well. (I once gave her a bit of bad news while she had a head cold, and it sent her to the hospital for three days.)
Who knows where she would have lived after my sister’s death. With my other sister? With me? In a nursing home? Impossible to say. None of those scenarios would have been ideal for her.
Every year when my mother’s birthday rolls around, I speculate about how different my life would be if she were still in it. I miss her. But the woman I miss and the 91 year old who would be here now are two very different people, no doubt.
Recently, I crossed the line to a place where I’ve lived more time without her than I did with her. That was a strange feeling. (If you still have your mom, stop what you’re doing, right now, and give her a hug. I mean it. Do it right now.)
If I had had children, they’d probably be in their late teens or twenties by now. I can’t imagine dealing with the typical rebelliousness, and anxiety over college costs, on top of worrying about a very elderly, and most likely very unhappy, mother. The mind boggles.
For those of you who are the meat in the sandwich generation, my hat is off to you.
This will come as no big surprise, but a very large part of me likes to avoid conflict, stress, and confrontation. Decades ago, I decided that the most effective way to not deal with the slings and arrows of life was to sleep. I absolutely love to sleep. My spirit animal is probably one of those fainting goats.
I wish there were some sort of internal switch that I could flick on and off so I could just check out when I’m overwhelmed. Kind of a Sleeping Beauty effect without having to rely on some evil witch to knock me out or some handsome fool to kiss me awake again. But then I’d probably sleep my life away. Heaven knows that I wouldn’t deem housework or errands to be adequate incentive to rise.
Even when I’m alert and functioning, in times of high anxiety I feel as if there’s a part of me that is sleeping. She wants to be left alone. She doesn’t have the slightest desire to engage. She curls up. She dreams. I’m amazed I wasn’t a thumb-sucker as a child.
Here lately I’ve been feeling the urge to wake that part of me up. I want her to come to the party. I want her to live life. She’s not happy about this. She doesn’t like change. But it’s time to grow up and face the world, and experience it.
I sense there are many adjustments I’m going to have to make in order to become fully conscious. I doubt it’s going to be easy. I’m definitely a work in progress. Wish me luck.
I just got back from a fantastic trip to Southeastern Utah, in which I shared my sister and brother-in-law’s motor home, and we did quite a bit of outdoor dining. It reminded me of something that has been reinforced again and again and again during my travels: food always tastes better when it’s eaten outside. Why is that?
(This is by no means a scientific essay. If you’re looking for something that’s peer reviewed, you may want to look elsewhere. But as usual, I do have my opinions.)
I suspect that one’s attitude greatly enhances one’s taste buds. Generally, when I’m eating outdoors, I’m surrounded by people that I love, and the scenery is usually spectacular. (You don’t often hear of people picnicking in the town dump, do you?)
Also, when vacationing or just having a picnic lunch in the park across the street, there’s an opportunity to set stress aside. That has to enhance one’s appetite. I know that when I’ve been forced to eat in highly-charged situations, I’ve often felt sick to my stomach. So it stands to reason that the opposite would be true in times of relaxation.
And then there’s the effort factor. If you’re eating outside, chances are that you’ve gotten a little more exercise in than usual. In other words, you’ve “worked up an appetite.” (Well done, you!)
And cooking over a campfire or a grill tends to take a little more planning. It’s not like you’re popping a TV dinner into a microwave. So by dint of the extra preparation, you have really earned this meal. Even with the simplest of foods, that feeling of satisfaction is a good psychological sauce, indeed.
I’ve also noticed that food seems to taste better even in outdoor cafés. While traveling in Croatia, for example, more often than not we supped at tables located in quaint little alleyways filled with potted plants. I think I gained 10 pounds on that trip. And I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
One of my favorite sayings is that a fish doesn’t realize it’s in water until it jumps out of it. I can totally relate to that. I just jumped out of something myself. Epic revelation!
I just got some really, really, really good news, which unfortunately I can’t share with you, dear readers. Just think about the best news you’ve ever heard in your life, and it’s on that level. The news is so good, in fact, that I’m feeling a little nauseous from sheer relief.
And therein lies the situation I just jumped from. Yes, I knew I had been under an incredible amount of stress. Yes, I knew it was making me miserable. But having the problem whisked out from under me like a tablecloth yanked out from under my mother’s best china, with nary a break, is, well, life-changing. There’s adrenaline involved, for sure. I don’t think I realized just how much the situation was impacting me on the most fundamental of levels.
I. Am. Free!!!!!!!!!
That’s an odd feeling. Because up to this moment I didn’t realize I hadn’t been free. I didn’t truly get how shackled I was to my stress and anxiety.
I feel like jumping in puddles! I feel like kissing someone! I feel like a new person. What a gift!
It’s moments like this that make life truly worthwhile. I hope that you get to have a similar experience at least once in your life. And when you do, I hope you recognize it for what it is: a leap out of your personal pond. Revel in it!
You know shit is getting real when your doctor actually prescribes that you don’t watch the news for a week. Between North Korea and Puerto Rico, my blood pressure is higher than it ought to be. So let the news blackout begin.
For those of you in the helping professions in particular, vicarious trauma is a problem that should be taken very seriously. Counselors, health professionals, firemen, police officers, social workers, soldiers, even journalists get exposed to other people’s trauma on a daily basis, and unless they have hearts of stone, these experiences, albeit secondhand, impact them as well. More and more, as all of us have greater access to disasters on a global scale, I’m beginning to believe that every single one of us is exposed to vicarious trauma.
Do you ever feel like you just can’t listen to one more news item without losing your mind? Are you convinced that one more presidential tweet just might send you over the edge? Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, forest fires… the overwhelming number of Youtube videos showing animal abuse and neglect… it is just too much to take in.
Think of trauma like a pebble thrown into a pond. The ripples that flow outward from that pebble effect all of us. It feels like we can never do enough. It’s exhausting. It makes you feel guilty, or afraid, or angry, or cynical. Sometimes it makes you feel numb, or helpless, or hopeless.
All of these are natural responses to vicarious trauma, but they’re not particularly helpful. It’s important that you learn to practice compassion for yourself as well as for other people. Give yourself a break. Be kind to you. Be sure to give yourself opportunities to engage in things outside your work, or outside the news. Set the burden down every now and then. Center yourself with family and friends. Get local. Allow yourself to have limits.
Most of all, talk to people. You are not alone. We are all getting a bit burned out. We need each other to weather the storms.
So I decided to go camping in British Columbia during the Perseids meteor showers. I love astronomical events of all kinds, but the Persaids is one of my favorites. And it was supposed to be particularly spectacular this time around.
I had been planning this trip for nearly a year. I had no idea that half the province would be on fire. Fortunately, the worst of it was far from our campsites, but the smoke… that was everywhere. I could tell we were driving through some spectacular views… but it was like I was looking at them through a shower curtain covered with lime deposits. Oh well. My imagination is nothing if not fertile.
Needless to say, though, this was cause for concern in terms of meteor viewing. Would we even be able to see the stars? I was having a hard time hiding my dismay from my camping buddy. He seemed unconcerned. When I asked him about it, he said, “You don’t have to experience everything, you know.”
Wow. I love it when a new perspective leaves me speechless. I sat there for a long time, thinking about that. I wish someone had said this to me years ago. Because it occurs to me that I spend quite a bit of energy trying to soak up experiences like a sponge. When I travel, especially, I try to do everything there is to do, because I might not pass this way again. Maybe if I push through this bit of exhaustion I can squeeze in one more thing. Maybe if I keep looking up, I’ll see those meteors. Must. Look. Up. This hypervigilance means that I have very few regrets, but it also means I experience more than my fair share of stress.
Martin has a point. What happens if I miss the meteor showers? Will I die? No. Still, I did spend quite a lot of time staring skyward that night and the two nights to follow. Turns out I could see the stars after all. And I think, but am not sure, that I saw some shooting stars out of the corner of my eye. I wasn’t sure enough to wake Martin up, though. So he slept on, peacefully, while I monitored the heavens for some spectacular sign.