Let’s Just Say He’s Innocent

I had a nightmare last night that I was held down and sexually assaulted, and when I tried to speak out, I was mocked, threatened, lied about, and publicly humiliated. And a huge group of white men smiled approvingly while it happened.

“Can’t you just investigate?” I asked. “I’ll let the facts speak for themselves, if only you’ll take the time to look. I have nothing to hide. Do you?”

So they pretended to look, but they were in a hurry. They had other priorities. My pain, my trauma didn’t matter. They didn’t care.

I felt like I was brutalized all over again.

If only I had been taken seriously, if only a full investigation had been done. Even if my attacker was deemed innocent, I would have felt heard. But that’s not what happened. These men didn’t care about me in the face of their agenda.

Let’s just say Kavanaugh is pure as the driven snow. (We’ll never know, now.) Why not take the time for a full investigation, then? What harm would it do? In fact, it would do a great deal of good.

Because, today, I’m every woman who has ever been assaulted. I just want to be listened to, with respect. I want the world to acknowledge that what happened to me matters. Couldn’t Kavanaugh’s inevitable confirmation have waited a bit longer for a thorough investigation so that sexual assault victims the world over could feel acknowledged? What harm would that have done?

Before any justice is appointed, we all should be justly taken into consideration. That’s it. That’s all.

And that’s what didn’t happen. Instead, every aye vote felt like a stab to the vagina. Rest assured that we will all bleed our way to the voting booth.

Shame on all of you who were so busy praying that you’d get a judge that would vote your way that you were willing to step on millions of women to do so. Shame. You have shined a light on the darkness of your soul, and none of us will ever be the same.

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The Anatomy of a Traumatic Experience

It was an unremarkable day. In retrospect, that was one of the strangest things about it. I was walking across the bridge to get to work, as I’ve done thousands of times. The sun was out. I had no plans, really. Think “status quo.”

And then I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned, just in time to see the guy hit the water. He had jumped off the next bridge over. There was this big splash, and that’s when time stopped for me. I think I will always carry with me a static image of him hitting the water, the splash and the waves it caused frozen in place. Because at that instant I knew he was dead. I knew it just as sure as I’m alive.

Needless to say, I stopped dead in my tracks. I stared at the body with my mouth hanging open. My mind started to bargain. “You didn’t really just see that.” “It’s not a body. Someone must have dropped something big and heavy off the bridge.” “This is not happening.” “No. This can’t be happening.”

Then I saw two boats race out from the rowing club. They tried to drag the body out of the water, but they couldn’t. Then the Harbor Patrol came screaming around the bend in the lake, and they were able to pull him out.

Somewhere along in there I had walked woodenly to the drawbridge tower where I work. (The sequence of events is forever hazy in my mind.) I climbed the stairs. “Did you see that?” I said to my coworker.

“See what?” She had been looking the other way. Time had been moving at a normal pace for her. And then I changed that, probably. She went down and talked to the officers on the scene, and then she left, after urging me to call our supervisor.

I talked to the supervisor for a long time. This is not the first time a bridgetender has witnessed a suicide, and it won’t be the last. She offered to let me have the day off, but I didn’t feel up to the commute. I was already there, and I could be traumatized at work just as easily at I could at home. She also strongly encouraged me to contact our Employee Assistance Program and get some counseling, because this was a big deal.

How right she was. I had never seen anyone die before. I’ve seen dozens of people consider jumping, but then get talked out of it. That’s upsetting enough. I’ve seen a few dead bodies, after the fact. But I’ve never seen anyone die before. It changes you.

I spent the rest of the shift feeling stunned and sad and sick to my stomach. I didn’t accomplish much. I kind of stared off into the middle distance a lot of the time. I thought about the jumper, and was heartbroken that he had felt so much pain and despair that he made that irreversible choice. I was heartbroken for the people who love him. I was upset for all the other witnesses, including the ones at the waterfront restaurant who were expecting to have a lovely salmon lunch, as I have on more than one occasion, and instead got an awful memory.

The weird thing was that I could see that life was going on all around me. Boats were happily floating over the spot, unaware that someone had just died there. People were jogging. Cars hummed their way across the bridge.

The waterway had always been kind of a sacred place for me. Now it had been violated. By the jumper? By the boaters? I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure that one out.

I talked to several people during the course of the shift. My crew chief stopped by. He offered, again, to let me have the day off. He reminded me about the Employee Assistance Program. He told me a few stories about things he’s experienced, and how it made him feel. It was really nice of him to stop by. I kind of felt detached, though.

I also called my sister, who was predictably horrified and sympathetic, and a few friends, who were sorry and tried to be comforting. I even spoke to my therapist. But I felt… it’s hard to explain. I felt like I was in a different reality. A different place, where I couldn’t quite reach them, and they couldn’t quite reach me. I could hear what they were saying, but it was like I was at a high altitude, and my ears had yet to pop. At a remove. Alone.

At the end of the shift I expected to go home and have a really good cry, but the tears never came. As of this writing, they still haven’t come. But I can feel them on the inside.

When I got home, I hugged my dog, and then fell into a deep sleep. I was really afraid I’d have a nightmare and wake up screaming with only my dog to comfort me, but that didn’t happen. I don’t even think I tossed or turned. I barely even wrinkled the sheets. It was like I had been in a coma.

When I woke up, “it” was my first thought. But oddly enough, I felt calm. I felt rested. I was in a good mood. Could I have gotten past this so easily? It felt like I had been given a “get out of jail free” card. What a relief. Tra la la.

Okay, yeah, maybe I’ve gotten past this. Woo! What an adult I am! This is awesome! Just in case, though, I did look into sending a condolence note to the next of kin. I spoke to the Harbor Patrol Chaplain. Naturally, he couldn’t give me a name, but he might be able to forward the note on for me. I thought that would be a nice little bit of closure.

I also spoke to the Employee Assistance Program, and set up some counseling sessions, even though I was feeling great. Way to go for practicing self-care, Barb! I felt really mature and well balanced.

In fact, I spoke to a couple of professionals who thought I was probably over the worst of it. But my therapist told me, cautiously, that I’d probably experience ups and downs for quite some time. There’s a reason she makes the big bucks.

Again, that night, I slept well. I was rested the next day, but a little subdued. Nothing major. Just kind of bleh.

And then that afternoon I started to shake uncontrollably. I wasn’t cold. I was just suddenly overwhelmed. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I had several semi-urgent things on my to-do list, but it was painfully obvious that I was in no shape to deal. I just… I shut down.

I kind of checked in with myself, and what I got was: I’m afraid. I feel out of control. Everything feels so fragile, like a soap bubble. I’m so exhausted that the air feels like the consistency of chocolate pudding. Everything takes more effort than normal. I just want to be left alone.

Which is kind of good because after that first day, most people stopped following up with me. They were over it. It was an awkward conversation. Life goes on. But I still felt, and still feel to this day, that I need someone to hold me while I cry, and that someone can’t seem to be found.

Yes, there’s therapy in my future, and yes, I’ll learn to cope with my new reality. I know this because it’s not the first traumatic thing that’s ever happened to me. I hope it’s the last, but I kind of doubt it. I am also well aware that things are cyclical. I’ll have good days and bad days.

Perhaps it’s the awareness of the cycles of life that have always prevented me from making the horrible choice that the jumper did. No matter how bad things get, even when the loneliness is so bad it’s physically painful, I know that eventually the pendulum shifts in the other direction.

That, and I could never put someone through what that jumper has put the witnesses, the first responders, and his loved ones through. Never. Not ever.

Having said that, though, I hope he has found the peace that seems to have eluded him in life.

I5_ShipCanal_Web

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Vicarious Trauma

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.

hang in

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Facing Forward

I’m on the brink of amazing change, and it all stemmed from a giraffe. You just never know when a figurative cue ball will send your eight ball careening off in an entirely different direction. That’s what makes life so exciting.

I have been watching April the Giraffe’s live feed on Youtube since February. I watched her pregnant belly as the baby kicked. I watched any number of contractions. She kept me company at least 8 hours a day. She became a big part of my life. So when I woke up on April 15th to discover that the birth was in progress, I got really, really excited.

Unfortunately, I still had to go to work. I broke all land speed records getting there, believe you me! And then I immediately logged back on again. Fortunately, the front hooves and the head where the only things that had made it into the world up to that point, so I got to watch the rest of the birth, live.

I’m not ashamed to say I cried some ugly, joyful tears when her calf finally made his entrance, and even more when he stood up an hour later. Life, man. Life! You know? What a miracle it is.

And just like that, I realized I hadn’t been living, not really, for quite some time. It occurred to me that life is like a flowing river, and we float downstream with it. As we go, we see things come toward us and we experience them and then they recede into the past.

But that’s only if you’re facing forward. Many things can cause you to face backwards. Trauma. Grief. Fear. Depression. They all cause you to focus on the past. And if you’re like me, you get stuck there, and try to recreate the past in your present. You want to get back to where you were before everything went so wrong.

The problem with that is you’re still floating down the river. Life goes on. But now you’re not seeing it. Because you’re facing backwards, by the time current events flash past your peripheral vision, they’re already a thing of the past. That’s no way to live.

Time to face forward again. Live in the present. Plan for the future. And don’t do so as half a person, presenting yourself to the world as a broken shadow of your former self.

For example, if you’re grieving, don’t avoid music or experiences that you shared with the person you lost. Why are you narrowing your horizons like that? Would the person you lost want you to only be half of yourself? No. You’re still alive, and to have healthy relationships moving forward, you need to be able to give the next person ALL of you. Yes, grief changes you, and that’s okay. But it shouldn’t limit you, and you shouldn’t feel guilty for continuing down the stream.

So I’m making a conscious effort to face forward again. I’m house hunting, and I’m exercising, and I’m eating right. I’m trying really hard to live in the now. Because life is happening right now, and it’s a precious and limited commodity. I plan to make the most of it, rather than putting it on hold.

And I got all that from a giraffe. Imagine that.

As my friend Carole likes to say, “Onward and upward, into the future!”

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There’s an Adult in Here Somewhere

Do you ever find yourself overreacting about something, and even you aren’t sure why you’re doing it? If you’re at all like me, it’s not unusual to be triggered by trauma you’ve experienced in the past. Smells, sounds, even behavior that is remotely similar can cause your brain to shout, “Danger, Will Robinson!”

A very common coping mechanism in these instances is that the part of you that experienced that trauma and somehow managed to survive will now elbow his or her way to the forefront and “handle” it. So if it happened when you were 12, for example, years later you will find yourself acting like a 12 year old. It’s gotten you this far, right? But it’s not always the most rational, effective way to function in the grown up world.

It may take practice, but there are things you can do about this. First, start identifying your triggers. What’s going on around you when you overreact? What is it reminding you of?

Once you’ve gotten a handle on what your process is, you can become more adept at being “present” while it’s happening. Then, when that little voice inside you says, “Whoa. I’m really overreacting,” you can actually heed that voice, take a breath and have an inner dialogue with yourself.

This is going to kind of sound silly, but it really works. Talk to yourself as if you were an adult trying to reassure a child. Here’s a conversation I had with my inner 12 year old recently. “Hey. I know what’s happening is scary. Thank you for wanting to take care of it for me. But I’m the adult here, and I should be the one taking care of you. So it’s okay for you to take a break and let me handle this.”

I’m not suggesting you have multiple personalities. But I do believe we all have an inner child who deserves to be acknowledged now and then. Give it a try. You’d be amazed at how liberating it is. Your secret is safe with me.

Danger

PTRRD

After having lived in Florida for 40 years, I have much to be traumatized about, believe you me. Hurricanes, scorpions, rising sea levels, gun-toting vigilantes, insane politicians, free-ranging pet boa constrictors, rampant conservatism… you name it, Florida’s got it. But as is often the case, it took leaving my toxic environment to discover just how seriously it had affected me.

Even though I’ve been in the Seattle area for a year and a half now, and know that I could leave my door wide open 24 hours a day and nary a harmful bug would enter, I still have residual anxiety from my Southern roots. There, you have a constant battle with disease-laden, gravity-defying, hyper-multiplying, two inch long, DISGUSTING cockroaches. They crawl over your bed while you sleep. They get in your hair. You can’t leave any food out, even for a minute. It really freaks me out when they run across the dashboard while I’m driving down the interstate. I’ve even had them scurry into the shower with me when I’m all naked and vulnerable. Shudder. I have no doubt that there are at least a thousand cockroaches for every human in that state. It almost feels as though these creepy creatures have invaded my brain.

Although my rational mind knows that the odds are very good that I’m not going to see one of these things crawling across my pizza ever again, I still am terrorized by them at least once a week. One of my dogs tracks in a dead brown leaf and I see it out of the corner of my eye and nearly jump out of my skin. The brown hair that I slid to the side to unblock the tub drain but forgot to dispose of makes me shriek like a little girl.

You’d think I’d have this all figured out by now, but it seems to be a gut reaction that is ingrained in my very soul. I’m calling this syndrome “Posttraumatic Roach Reaction Disorder”, or PTRRD. It’s debilitating and pervasive. I need medication.

So, imagine my horror when I discovered that these bugs are so novel here that they have their very own display, complete with a domestic straw broom to scuttle over, at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. I watched the locals gaze at them and say, “Ewwww… gross.” and I wanted to scream, “You people have no idea what a dangerous game you’re playing!!!” If even two of those things get out, this city will be up to its ears in roach droppings by sundown.

I can’t even drive past that zoo now without feeling something creeping across that place on my back that I can’t reach. Forgive them. They know not what they do.

I think I need a hug.

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The American Cockroach Display at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington. Shudder.

The Attack of the Killer Lionfish Bug

When I think of the moment in my life when I’ve been the most terrified, I am transported back in my mind to the time when I was 8 years old and playing in a field next to our house in Connecticut. It was a beautiful summer’s day, and I was enjoying the sunshine. Then I felt something touch the back of my leg.

When I looked down, there was this… thing. I can still see it clearly. It was the strangest bug I’ve ever seen in my life. It was about 6 inches across when you included all its long, spiny protrusions. It looked very delicate and beautiful and menacing at the same time. It was all the more scary because I had no idea what it was or what it might do. It kind of looked like a skinny colorful airborne lionfish.

I didn’t know if it was poisonous, so I froze. Then I burst into tears and screamed for my mother at the top of my lungs. Repeatedly. But she couldn’t hear me. It felt like I was stuck there for hours. My heart was pounding. I’m sure it was probably only a few minutes before it gracefully floated away. It really did look like it was floating through the air. I didn’t see any wings.

When I ran screeching into the house and described it to my mother, she didn’t take me seriously despite, or perhaps because of, my hysteria. She’d never heard of such a thing. (To this day I hate it when I’m not taken seriously.)

Two years passed, and even I was beginning to think that maybe I had imagined that creature. Then one day I was sitting on the back porch of the house we had recently moved to, and another one floated up. It landed on a decorative shell we had sitting there, and seemed to be trying to climb inside. I ran into the house to get my mother, but she wasn’t taking me seriously yet again, and by the time I got her to come out on the porch (while I stood in the doorway ready to bolt inside) the thing had moved on.

To this day I have no idea what I saw. I think I’d feel better if I knew, but when you Google “bug that looks like a lionfish” all you get, predictably, are pictures of lionfish.

From an adult perspective I know that my terror stemmed from the unknown, and the fact that I was unsure if I was safe, and realized that no one was going to come to my rescue. My continuing trauma was not being taken seriously and having to question my own sanity. No kid should have to experience that.

I sure wish I knew what that bug was.

[Image credit: wikipedia.org]
Lionfish. [Image credit: wikipedia.org]