August 16, 2016
I was standing by the sink when I heard her crying.
My entire body hardened. Another crisis. Always another crisis. I could never ignore it, no matter how spent I was or what I was in the middle of, because if I did then she would spiral down fast and we would both pay a higher price. I ran outside.
“Mama, mama, he won’t STOP!”
Melanie was wailing, her mouth shaped into a horrible ‘O’, her body flailing, repeating herself over and over. “Mama he won’t stop! He won’t STOP! I TOLD HIM TO STOP AND HE WON’T STOP!” Any sense of joy or satisfaction in my day dissolved immediately. Her needs were all on me and no one else would or could fix it. I got down on my knees in the grass and looked into the eyes of my eight-year old daughter – my darling, my blood. I tried to breathe slowly but failed as I felt my body flood with adrenaline. My heart raced and I pressed my palm against my chest to keep it from beating so hard that my skin would burst open. I knew by now that it didn’t matter what the issue was; she and I were both having a PTSD hormonal response, but for different reasons. Hers was caused by innocent questions that came from Jamie, her six-year old playmate, while mine was caused by… well, her. I pulled from within to present a face of calm.
“Shhhhh. What is it, sweetheart? Calm down. I’m here.”
“Mama, I keep telling him to stop but he won’t! He asked me how Dada died and I said I don’t want to talk about it. I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT!”
She was frantic, unable to listen or look at me. I could barely understand her as she continued through hysterical sobs.
“So then Mama he said ’Did he die from a heart attack?’ and I said ‘NO, stop talking about it!’ and then he said ’Did someone shoot him?’ and I said “STOP TALKING ABOUT IT.’”
“Shhhh darling. Come here. Shhhh… just breathe. I will help work it out. It’s ok. You don’t have to talk about how your dad died.”
She leaned against me and cried as I stroked her hair and made the same shushing sounds I made when she cried in my arms as an infant. After she had calmed down, I left her to play in the back yard so that I could talk to Jamie, who was now in the house. I got down on my knees again and found myself face-to-face with one very confused child – an innocent six-year old who had simply been trying to make sense of a topic (death) that no six-year old should have to make sense of.
“Jamie, can we talk for a minute?” I smiled. “You haven’t done anything wrong. You aren’t in trouble.”
His jaw and fists clenched. I so badly wanted him to relax.
“Melanie said you had some questions about her dad dying.” I smiled again, hating that poor Jamie had been put in such a situation. I had learned by then that a child his age is not capable of understanding death. They see the departed person as simply ”on a trip”.
Jamie looked down and did not respond. He needed the moment to be over. I decided to simply do my best to leave the door open and then let it go.
“Jamie, it’s okay. Death is really confusing. Don’t feel bad. I mean it. It’s okay to not understand. Melanie has a hard time with the questions sometimes, but you can always ask me or your dad.”
Jamie said nothing and turned away. Another part of my insides blackened and shriveled. Everything would always be on me.
We sat down to dinner and chatted. It was mostly pleasant
Except, Melanie was angry. She wouldn’t talk to Jamie. She sat with her arms crossed in front of her chest. I was reminded that I will never escape.
“Sweetheart, it’s not his fault,” I whispered gently.
She stiffened and her mouth tightened. “Mama, it IS his fault. He wouldn’t listen. He wouldn’t stop talking about it! I told him!” She almost became hysterical again.
“Melanie, when you were six it was hard for you to understand as well. It’s very confusing for a child that young. Death isn’t talked about much in our society. He just wanted to understand.”
Jamie wasn’t the only one who was innocent – Melanie was innocent too. At age eight Melanie isn’t developmentally capable of looking at John’s death from the outside. The problem wasn’t Melanie, Jamie, or me. And, that’s why my body became heavy as lead and much older than my 41 years. It’s not anyone’s fault, but still. I carry the burdens. So I sat there, eating sushi, pasting on a smile. My spirit floated up and looked at my body below, weighted down with sandbags and anchors on the outside, dark, withered, empty on the inside.
Later that night, Melanie went upstairs to put on her PJs and brush her teeth. I followed to tuck her in.
“Mama, Mama,” she cried, pulling me into her bed and burying her face in my neck.
I held her and stroked her hair. “Shhh, sweetheart. Time for bed.”
“Mama, I miss Dada SOOO much.”
“I know sweetheart. Me too. I understand.”
“I’m going to have nightmares about Dada tonight. I know I will, Mama!”
After about 30 minutes I had her calmed down enough to leave her to fall asleep. She would rather spend every night in my bed, and in fact she often does, but I encourage her to spend at least some time in her own room, more for her sake than mine.
I went downstairs, finished cleaning the kitchen, sent my other daughter, her 11-year old sister, Isabella, to bed, read for a while, and went to bed myself at 11:30.
At 3 am, I woke to my own crash.
I never understood PTSD before my husband John died over two years ago in an avalanche on Mount Rainier while ascending Liberty Ridge. I thought PTSD meant you had something painful happen that left you stressed and traumatized, too overwhelmed to function normally in society. But I had no idea about the changes in brain chemistry.
Imagine this: Frank, a soldier in Vietnam, spends months in the jungle. He learns that the rustling of a leaf means that the enemy is laying in the bush, ready to pounce. Eventually, his brain short-circuits its analysis center and, when it hears a leaf rustling, it immediately floods with adrenaline and goes into fight-or-flight. Frank returns to his home country and finds himself, years later, in the park with his son. Someone walks by with their dog and rustles a leaf. Frank begins to sweat and jumps up in distress. On some level he recognizes that nothing is wrong, but his amygdala has taken over and the hormonal flood puts him into a state of fear and stress.
Frank is imagined, but my friend Eric is not. Eric survived a rocket attack in the Iraq war. When the rocket hit, there was no time for analysis – his brain shot adrenaline and he immediately began to pull his buddies to safety. Both were on fire, pierced with multiple pieces of shrapnel each the size of a fist. One died there, one later. Now, back home, open fire of any sort can put him into combat mode. A simple flame under a coffee pot or candle on a birthday cake at a friend’s house can cause him to instantaneously shoot adrenaline and leap up with hypervigilance, ready for the next attack. It’s beyond his control.
PTSD fundamentally changes your brain structure. In a normal individual, information first flows into the frontal cortex. The frontal cortex and the hippocampus chat and decide what to do with the stimulus. Perhaps the hippocampus records something as a memory. Perhaps it signals the amygdala to go into fight or flight.
When someone has PTSD, the frontal cortex often short-circuits the hippocampus and allows the amygdala to take over. Minor stimulus results in fight or flight. A rustling leaf or a lit birthday candle triggers an instant true state of alarm and fear. Frank and Eric have no choice. In fact, studies of soldiers with PTSD have shown that their frontal cortex and hippocampus have both shrunk while the amygdala has enlarged.
These changes in the brain are significant. They aren’t something that a person can just ‘get over.’
I developed a PTSD response upon waking up within the first two days after John’s death. I would wake up only to remember HE IS DEAD. My body would flood with adrenaline. Even now, two years later, upon waking my amygdala believes that I am in state of danger and acts accordingly.
So there I was, at 3 am, awake. I felt fine at first. Thirty seconds later my adrenaline flooded, my heart began to race, my breathing quickened, and I began to sweat. I filled with horror and despondence. “Nothing will ever be ok again,” my inner voice said. “You aren’t strong enough to do this alone.” It continued. “Please earth, swallow me up now. I cannot go on another day.” My rational brain was clear: I was having a PTSD response. But my rational voice is often beat into submission by the two bullies on the block who have fashioned long-term physical and chemical changes in my brain: Adrenaline and Cortisol.
As I lay there in the darkness, I used my tricks to try to bring myself out of the episode. I encouraged a smile to my face. I repeated to myself “My children love me. I love them. My home is safe and secure. My friends are amazing.” I told myself to breathe slowly – in for a count of two, out for a count of four — as my yoga teacher had taught me.
But it didn’t work. I put my hand to my chest and gently massaged the area that began to tighten. I felt the horrific chemicals flowing from my brain. My heart rate continued to speed up. I began to cry.
This happens almost every night.
I’m not even sure I’m crying for John so much anymore even though part of me will cry for him for an eternity. Now, most of the tears come from knowing that my dream of a happy and whole family is dead and I am left alone with all of the burdens.
I curled into a ball and continued to cry for twenty minutes.
Once I realized that I would not be able to go back to sleep, I got up but left all the house lights off. I never know quite what to do with this middle of the night time. Sometimes I write when I am truly desperate, but only when I have given up on any sleep at all, because once I open my laptop there will be no chance of another one or two hours of slumber. I can’t call anyone at 2 or 3 am. I can’t get in the car and go anywhere since my kids are in bed and I cannot leave them. I’m not going to exercise at 3 am. I can read, or watch a movie, which I sometimes do. Often, I water the lawn, because … well, it needs to be watered.
So I went outside, turned on the hose, and tended to the yard by moonlight– the tomato plants, the oregano-sage-thyme herb pot, the patchy grass. Even if my life is dead, at least the lawn won’t be. Then, I sat on the back porch and sobbed into my hands. It was 4:30 am. I needed someone to hold me. Every night I ache for someone to simply hold me and stroke my hair. I need someone to do for me what I do for Melanie – hold me, make soft shushing sounds, tell me that everything will be okay. I need someone to do this without his or her own stress. Someone who is not so overwhelmed by the darkness that he or she needs it to stop. Someone who can maintain calm and strength and allow me to move through.
Unfortunately, that person does not exist and I have zero interest in forcing the wrong person into that role. Less than zero interest.
I do, however, have my Melanie who, at almost four years younger than her sister Isabella, still craves my touch, still offers hers.
For over a year after John died, Melanie would often come into my room screaming and crying in the middle of the night. I only got two to four hours of sleep a night back then, and if she interrupted me during my one good stretch, it might be only one or two hours. It was hard to cope. She doesn’t do that now. It’s true that she still prefers to sleep in my bed, but she can handle being alone. If I put her in her bed, she will mostly stay there.
Now, it is I who cannot handle the aloneness. I try every day to not need her so much, but in my desperation I have begun to carry her into my bed in the middle of the night.
So, at 4:30, when I was still at the bottom of my well and desperate for human warmth, I did what I have done almost every night for the last six months. I padded upstairs in the darkness to her room, opened her door, felt around for the frame of the bunk bed, found her body, and leaned in to gently find her forehead with my kiss. She rolled into my arms, the familiarity of it reaching her even in her slumbered state.
I softly said, “Shh… it’s me. It’s Mama.”
Her eyes still closed, she kissed me repeatedly on my neck and shoulder. “Mama, mama… I love you so much.”
In fact, when I scoop her up every night, she immediately pours out gratitude even though she isn’t fully alert. The compliments and love are in such abundance – “Mama, you are the best mom in the world.” “Mama, you are such a good mom.” “Mama, once I realized it was you and that you were picking me up, I was so happy.”
With one arm under her back, the other arm under her knees, and her head against my chest, I carried her out of her room. It’s not easy. Melanie weighs 55 pounds. In the middle of the night she is a boneless floppy weight that has to be held like precious cargo. All the lights are off and I must not bang her head against a wall or trip down the stairs. So I walk delicately down the hallway, feel around for the stairs with my toes, carefully descend while praying we don’t both take a tumble, carry her along the first-floor hallway, through the kitchen and into the master bath, put her on the toilet so she can pee, and then pick her back up and carry her to my bed.
Once Melanie was in my bed, there were more sleepy words. “Mama, cuds and snugs?” “Mama, I love you.” I slid in next to her and exhaled into a place of relief. I was on my back with the right side of my body pressed against her warmth. She flopped onto her left side, nestled into my shoulder, and slung her right arm across my chest before immediately dozing off. I placed my left hand on top of her arm on my chest and held it there. My breathing slowed down. I absorbed the love and light flowing from her body into my heart center and was able to doze off again.
For a while, I was embarrassed that I have become so dependent on my daughter. I am that mom in ‘Terms of Endearment’ who crawls into bed with her kid after her husband died. I am that mom whose kids have become her whole life. I am that mother that will someday struggle when her kids move on with their lives and don’t want to hang out with their old ma so much.
I dozed from about 5 to 6 am and then slipped out of bed quietly, leaving her in my room so that I could write on my laptop in the living room. By 8 am she stirred and called for me. I always look forward to this part, the part where I am dosed with more love. I walked back into the room and crawled into bed with her. She pressed her body against me, kissed me on the cheek, nestled in, and said, “Mama, I love you.”
“Do you remember me scooping you up, darling?”
“No, I don’t remember at all!” She said, smiling. By morning she never remembers, and I knew it didn’t matter. She always woke up so much happier in my bed than hers.
I often wonder how all of this is perceived from the outside. It is true that I am doing much better. I am stronger. I have had many successes in the last year and am feeling proud of my parenting. I am able to laugh more. I still cry a lot, but now I am functional through the tears and I am getting things done.
But the night time horrors continue and my PTSD is real. My brain chemistry has changed.
What is the solace in all of this distress? Melanie. Melanie is my solace. She tends to me. She tells me she loves me, holds me, gives me what I need so that I can make it through until the night horrors slink away. Miraculously, Isabella is my solace too, but in different ways and that’s a different story.
September 10, 2016
Almost a month later, I sit here again in the darkness at 2:30 am, only now at our new home in Barcelona. I had been planning this move for months, desperate to do anything to hit the reset button on our lives and my sleep. Yesterday Isabella said “This is the best thing you have done since Dada died. This move to Spain – it’s the best thing you have done, Mom.”
I am moving forward. I am getting things done. I am rediscovering the fierce intensity that I used to be known for. I would and will do anything for my girls, and damn it – I will never ever give up on making a beautiful future for them.
But I still cannot sleep. I still stumble through each day so exhausted that I have images of knocking my teeth out as I fall on my face out in public. I still have trouble staying awake while driving. In fact, one of the reasons I chose to move to a European city was so that I could stop driving for an entire year.
I am succeeding, but still struggling. And that is how it will be for a long time.
Recently someone asked me “What will you do with your time while you are in Barcelona?” I said, “I’m going to write. I’m going to give my two girls a ton of love.” And –
“I’m going to learn to sleep again.”