Week 8: Feelings Under the Low Bar

It’s been a long time since I picked up the chronology. I was very busy picking up my life which exploded all over the place.  I originally wanted to write this blog contemporaneously. Actually, I wanted my child to outlive me so I didn’t have to write this frickin’ thing in the first place, but that didn’t work out, and nor did my hope to write this up-to-the-minute. So, here I am now. Better late than never.  It helps.  And this is a situation where it seems like nothing will help, so if something helps, by God, I do it.

Week 8: 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

I was sleeping better, but not great. I could fall asleep now—most nights without issue— but I began to realize I was walking up every morning at 5:30. Wide awake. This was, oddly, the time that Alice would first attempt to rouse the ranks.  She was generally unsuccessful, and sometimes would nod back out for a spell.  But now she was gone, and I was waking up, wide-eyed, at 5:30 a.m. on the dot.

This realization just about destroyed me. This got The Guilt churning for real.  This realization sent me down a serious downward spiral that I would not wish on another living soul.

I cried my eyes out, and wished to God that I could have the fucking privilege of getting up with her at 5:30 a.m., and felt intense pain and guilt for all the days I laid there praying she would go back to sleep so I could get through the day without sleep deprivation (I am NO GOOD on sleep deprivation.)  She went to sleep, all right. She went to sleep so well she never woke up. Clearly, her death was all my fault for praying she’d go back to sleep so I could have a stab at not being a tired bitch for a day.

I was a complete mess. As I write this, and recall the profound, toxic guilt that consumed me in those early days, I realize that I thought I was “over it” now—The Guilt, that is. But I can barely type this, so clearly there is a tiny bit left in me. I write this and I feel intense compassion for the lady who laid in a sobbing heap wishing she could take back her “please go back to sleep” prayers. I feel true, deep, compassion for her. Only that hysterical, sobbing, lady is me, or, at the very least, that lady still lives inside me, although her voice has been dampened over time. Dampened by the love of my friends and family.  Dampened by therapy and meditation and yoga and spiritual quests. Dampened by the healing nature of time. But that version of me is still there, I know, because she is forcing water out of my eyes and down my face while I sit here and recall that terrible day when I realized I was waking up naturally at a time I used to try to avoid.

I told my friend Tommy that I was waking up at that time, unable to go back to sleep. I shared the irony of that, and the guilt it inspired in me. He simply said, “It’s Alice telling you to get up and at ‘em because you still have a lot to offer the world.” I felt a shock go through me.

And I bawled.

I wanted to be mad at him, but I couldn’t, because I knew he was right.  And because he is too kind to be the target of any misdirected anger.  And because it helped to hear it, even it was not what I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear, “You are waking up at 5:30 a.m. because you get a second chance at waking up with Alice,” but no one could tell me that, because it wasn’t possible.

In any event, I decided to remain grateful for his support rather than descend into darkness because Tommy had the courage not to promise me something that wasn’t possible. I will forever be grateful to him for this, and for his family’s undying support over the last two years and nine months.

I do believe it was Alice waking me up at 5:30 a.m. God knows it wasn’t me, myself and I; that is truly not my jam. I do believe it was her way of communicating to me from The Great Beyond.  Eventually I decided to let it be a comfort, instead of a curse.  But I had to arrive at this decision on my own.  I had to go through the terrible feelings of loss and regret and guilt and nearly misdirected anger and self-loathing to get to the other side.

I want the aforementioned to be clear. Because I don’t want a single one of you to speed up your own process, or to suggest to a grieving friend that they “just decide to see it differently.”   They/you/I have to get there on their/your/my own timeline.  The only way through it is through it, and “it” has a lot of stinky shit on the path.

So, this was a Tuesday, and as previously mentioned, I had recently noticed that the panic attacks seemed to descend on Tuesday afternoons.  Alice was born on a beautiful Tuesday morning, and died on an otherwise gorgeous Tuesday afternoon.  My brain was not consciously thinking of this, but my body knew. My body remembered all too well, and it sent me into full-blown panic every Tuesday around the time Alice passed over to the other side.  I was also still haunted by the image of pulling her out of the crib and realizing she was dead, but I seemed to be able to shelve that image without full blown panic, and that image did not seem to arise solely on Tuesdays, so I did not think it was the impetus of the panic attacks.

In any event, the mind-body connection really is a wonder, and what happens when a trauma severs that connection is NO JOKE, lemme tell ya.

So, this Tuesday, I thought I would try to “trick” my nervous system into submission.  In my best thinking at the time, I thought I’d try to establish parasympathetic nervous system regulation, thus inhibiting sympathetic nervous system regulation. It wasn’t a bad idea, it’s just not as easy as that, as it turns out. I remembered that my friend Alyssa, who helped me so much in those early days, told me that a friend of hers that was a meditation teacher, and had offered a free session for me. So, I decided to have her come to the house on a Tuesday early in the afternoon, to see if we could stave off any potential Tuesday panic attack.

The wonderful Jeanne Townsend did indeed come that day, and I was, and am still, so incredibly grateful to her, and Alyssa, for their help and support.   I decided to lie down for the meditation. Without forethought, I laid down exactly where I had performed CPR on Alice.  My body started to panic a bit, my heart started to race, and I realized the connection. I remained committed to my experiment on myself, however, so I refused to move.  At the time, I wasn’t really sure why I picked that place, but now that I understand PTSD on a deeper level, it was a good call. I thought, “I have a meditation teacher here.  Let’s see if we can cycle me back on track without avoidance of this trigger.”

The meditation helped a lot. I still became hyper-aroused that day, but it was nowhere near panic attack levels of weeks past. Later, when I felt my heart rate increase, I got in the tub, and that helped too. I talked to a friend. I got back on track. I thought I was on track to gaining stability, and on my way to a panic attack-free life.

Grace and I started family therapy that night after I picked her up from school.  We went to the Southern California Counseling Center, which is a sliding-scale counseling center in LA. SCCC, as some of you know, would go on to become so instrumental in my healing process that I was inspired to raise money for their Trauma Training Program, but more on that later. Grace and I were assigned two gals that worked as a team, and they were fantastic. Grace liked them so much, she asked me to fix her hair like one of the ladies. Grace did great.  Grace is great. Grace was named the perfect name.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

My friend checked in on me via text again this day, and reiterated an open invite to be “an ear, at any time.” Some people say this, and you both know they can’t really do it.  But every once in a while someone says that and you just KNOW that they really mean it.  You KNOW that they will make the time for you without resentment, because they truly WANT to make the time for you. You KNOW that they are going to listen to you on the bad days, and the good days. You know that they aren’t going to pressure you into turning a bad day good. You know they aren’t going to judge you.  You know that they aren’t going to try to speed up your process.  You know that they “get it.”

I could tell this friend wanted to talk, but I was still having a very hard time speaking out loud at this point. It was just very difficult to get words out of my face without feeling completely spent. If I talked too long, or to too many people, I was completely leveled by midday. I told this friend that I appreciated the offer so much but that it was just very hard to speak some days, and that I wish I knew sign language.

I still feel like that some days.  But I felt like that most days, early on.

So, we just texted.  And it helped so, so, much.

My amazing stepsister Sarah came by that day. She lives in San Diego now, but it isn’t exactly a hop-skip-and-a-jump, so I appreciated her efforts especially. I adore my sister. I have often said that she and I would have found and befriended one another even if our parents hadn’t married. She is hilarious, and supportive. She is an ER nurse and in the National Guard, so she’s kind of a badass.   Her husband Jeff is wonderful as well. I just love them. We mainly just sat together that day, which some days is all you need.

You may recall the painting of Alice a friend commissioned for me, and that Grace had pointed out the eye color was off. I was hesitant to contact the artist about it, because she had so perfectly captured Alice—and the glint in her eye—and I did not want to offend. I can no longer recall the details of how it all went down, but the artist—the amazing Tashina Suzuki—contacted me to change the eye color, and invited Grace to come along to see her studio.

Grace loves art. Making art, taking in art. Art, art, art. Around this time, I was invested in getting her in a team sport because Grace has, shall we say, excellent leadership skills, and I was terrified that being an only child now would take her straight to bossy. I suggested a few different sports, and four-and-a-half-year-old Grace finally looked up at me and said, “Mama, I’m not a sports girl. I’m an art girl.”

OK, then. My kid knows herself, that I know.

Guess I’ll just cross my fingers that she learns to cooperate in groups somehow.

Anyway, we went off to Tashina’s place.  Tashina is not only a truly gifted artist, she is one of the kindest, sweetest persons I have ever known.  She and her girlfriend were so sweet to Grace.  She showed Grace how she painted eyes (Tashina paints eyes so real looking, you swear she painted a real soul into the portrait).  They also showed Grace all of their pets, including a couple of reptiles.  Grace was mesmerized.    We had a wonderful time there, and I am ever grateful to Tashina for the way she cared for Grace.  She felt so special to be given such attention from a “real” artist.


Before bed, Grace (who, let’s remember, was 4 ½ at this time) went into a twenty minute loop of “Are you going to die? Is Papa going to die? Is everyone we know going to die? If we are all dead do the builders come and take down our building?  If everyone dies, who will be left in the city?” It went on and on. I tried to explain that we don’t die all at once, so there will be people here for the foreseeable future, but this only seemed to spawn more questions. It was all at once heartbreaking, amusing, awe-inspiring, and exhausting.

That night, I slept.

Friday, September 27, 2013

I talked to Meleva a bit this day, and told her about Grace’s “What happens if we all die on the same day?” spiral.   Meleva has a daughter four months older than Grace, so she gets some of the developmental stuff we were going through.  When I told her about the spiral, however, she simply said “Oh, honey. Grace’s depth has depth.”

I worked this day. I was working most days at this point, but I just figure it goes without saying. It also likely goes without saying that I had no business working, or even driving a car, at this point, but you do what you have to do. I talked to another friend that day, who reminded me that it was OK to call for support, and that friends shoulders “were for wetting.”

I was still not great at reaching out, and mostly I didn’t need to do so at this point.  I still had so much support coming to me, and that was GREAT. I was still in physical shock, I know now, and when you are in shock, it’s very difficult to put thoughts into words. It is difficult to verbalize. Your executive functioning skills are challenged at best. As I said, before, I was very, very aware, that my executive functioning was diminished. I was too tired to get frustrated about it, so I did what I could. All this is a long way of saying that someone in shock CANNOT answer the question, “What do you need? What can I do?”    They need lots of things, but they can’t prioritize or verbalize what they need. They are in nervous system overwhelm. It’s one of the worst feelings I have ever felt. My darkest days on records weren’t the ones that were predominately sad, or predominately grieve-y; the days that I really struggled to keep my will to live intact, were the days where my predominant feeling was one of being overwhelmed.

Saturday, September 28, 2013 

Grace was sick on this day. My computer crashed on this day. This was extremely worrisome, as all my photos of the girls were on there.  Most were backed up, but the last two months were a bit hideous, and I couldn’t be sure I’d done anything in a technically correct way. I’m no techy in my best mind, and I was very aware that I was not in my best mind. So, I was on edge about it. But my friend Tony is an Apple Genius (for real) so he came by to look at it for me. He brought his lovely girlfriend Missie, and we ended up having a nice visit. You know, I can’t actually remember what happened with the computer. I do know that I have most of my pictures, so it clearly wasn’t completely devastated, thank God. And thank Tony.  And thank Missie.

I found a text to a friend that day where I said, “This event has created a profound change in me. Not sure what it is exactly yet. It feels huge and like I am supposed to do something to help people in its wake. Haven’t sorted out what it is yet, but the feeling is there. I just don’t know how else to describe it.” My friend assured me that events like this, that are larger than us, are humbling, and make us better people. “Not that you need improvement,” she clarified. She assured me that I was strong, and that I had what it took to become a whole person, albeit it one with a broken heart.

It helps, so much, to hear people say you’re strong.  I didn’t really believe them, mind you, but it helps to hear it.  And, I can’t lie, I never wanted to find out if I was this strong.  No one wants to find out if they are this strong.  It’s hard not to wonder if you could trade in your alleged strength for your daughter’s life.

You can’t, though, so you take the alleged strength as the most undesired consolation prize one can be offered.

That night, I went to see Vampire Weekend at the Hollywood Bowl at my friend Sarah Stanley’s invitation.  I had not been out much, so I wasn’t exactly sure how it would go.  Sarah offered to drive me home if I got a cab there. I started to have a panic attack upon leaving.  This was unusual, because, up to this point, I’d only had the attacks on Tuesdays.  It suddenly dawned on me that it might be because I was leaving my child who had a cold at home, and the last time there was child with the common cold in my home, she left in a hearse. I thought about staying home with Grace, but too many other people involved in the plan were already in action, and I didn’t want to cause anyone an inconvenience.  And in my heart, I knew she was going to be fine.  My nervous system, was, well, just nervous.

I don’t recall exactly how I pulled myself out of that panic attack, but I did. I did pace, however, which, I realize, was one of the unconscious ways I’d cycle out of a panic attack.  I was pacing the entrance to The Hollywood Bowl when Sarah walked up to me.  I apologized for my antsy behavior. “Are you kidding?” she quipped, “I am surprised you aren’t in bed under the covers with a needle hanging out of your arm.”

I laughed. It felt good to laugh.

And, I have to tell you, it made me realize that people had a very low bar of expectation for me in the wake of losing Alice.  I had never before enjoyed such a low bar.  It’s pretty damn relaxing to have such a low bar, I must say. “I wished I would have thought of lowering the bar before this,” I quipped to Sarah, “It just never occurred to me, how relaxing it could be.”

That low bar, was actually very freeing, and was, perhaps, one of the greatest gifts I was given after Alice died.  It made me feel safe. It made me feel safe to have bad days. It made me feel safe to emote in front of other people.  And all of that is 100% necessary to evolve past a titanic loss like mine. It gave me the space to go through what I had to go through, and that is exactly what got me through it. The only way through it is through it. I’ve said it 100 times, and I’ll say it 100 more. It also bonded me closer to my friends, which is crucial, because the support is crucial.

Anyway, the low bar was a great gift, and I’m ever grateful to Sarah and everyone else that kept the bar low for me. Another great perk to the low bar, is that it allowed me to feel like I was functioning “above the bar,” and this alone began to repair my completely destroyed self-confidence, which is another crucial part of healing.

We sat in a box for four, just the two of us (and eventually one random guy who was quiet and respectful). There was a lot of space around me, so I didn’t get buggy the way I can sometimes get in crowds.  I had fun, but I was still feeling very much separate from the reality of others. A dreamlike state, almost. And it was dreamy night with gorgeous weather. The crowd did not bug me, as it turned out.  I felt anonymous, in fact.

But, it was weird to sit amongst all of those people, and none of them, save Sarah, new that my sweet baby had left this Earth for no reason, and that my life was being pulled right from under my feet.  I mean, at that time, not even I knew how many more changes were awaiting me.

I went home feeling otherworldly, and checked on Grace as she slept.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Speaking of Vampire Weekend, four-year-old Grace loved the song Unbelievers at this time.  So, she was excited to see the photos I took at the show the night before.  She also loved the song, “Ohio” at this time, and would sing along.  Is it wrong to have unwittingly created a scenario that leaves your four year-old singing passionately about Kent State?  “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming……four dead in Ohio.”   I decided there were worse things she could be singing about, like Barney for instance, which would have set me straight over the edge.

I worked the next morning.  I write this and have no idea how I managed to work helping other people at this time.  People ask me sometimes.  And I’ve got nothing.  I honestly have no idea.  I just know I got up, got out, and did it.  It was not ideal, and no one should have to go right back to work after the loss of a child, but that’s not the world I lived in, so off to work I went.

I came back to a house that was not as full as it used to be.   That was hard too.  But one has to go home, so, one does what they must.   After awhile, Grace came up to me, and said, “Mama, I don’t know what it feels like to not have a sister.”  And then, with giant tears in her eyes, she said, “I miss Alice.”

It just grabbed my heart right out of my chest.

You have your own giant grief, and then you are jolted into seeing your living child’s grief—grief she cannot so easily express, because, she’s four years old. You wonder if you have missed signs of her grief in the haze of your own grief. You try to answer questions, and be there, and facilitate her grief to the best of your untrained capabilities.  And finally, you grieve for the fact that your living child has any reason to grieve, for the deceased child you never thought you’d lose, and for the life you once had, that is no longer.

Grace asked for privacy in the bath that night, which was a first. “I need privery (sic), please.” So, I let her have some “privery,” but I stood near the door. All I needed was for my only remaining child to drown in four inches of water. While standing there, I heard her playing in the bath as if Alice was there.  She was chatting her up and having a great time.  I stood there, smiling, tears running down my face, my heart simultaneously swelling and exploding.

I realized that one learns to simultaneously hold several, seemingly contradictory, emotional states in the wake of tragic loss.   Words fail to describe.

This was daily life, at this point.  Eight weeks sounds like a long time, but it is so very fresh still.  As I said before, you are not only adjusting to the loss of one of the two people you love most in this world, you are adjusting to the change in family dynamics, and your role in your home and your community, you are doing it will all eyes on you, and you are doing it all while in shock and reeling in grief, both of which are not just psychological struggles….your very biology is upended.

Monday, September 30, 2013

I spent this day finishing the “What Happened?: Part 1” piece. It was a bit tough to write.  I took breaks and paced from time to time.  I cried a bit as I wrote it, and cried really hard at one part in particular, but as I told my friend Tommy, I felt compelled to do it. I knew everyone wanted to know, but were afraid to ask. I knew that this desire to know was not based in rubbernecking voyeurism, but in a true desire to understand so that they could be supportive. And, let’s face it, no one knew what the hell happened.  I mean I didn’t know what the hell happened, so no one beyond me could have known.

Anyway, people wanted to know so they could be supportive, and I needed the support.  I still need the support, and it is becoming more and more obvious that I will always need a protective inner circle of support.  But talking at this time was exhausting, as I said.  I could not verbalize the story, or even a grocery list, without feeling like I needed to sleep for a full day after.  So, I figured, if I write this, I don’t have to speak it again with my mouth, and I save energy.  My loved ones will be able to gauge how I am, and will be better able to provide support and understanding. Writing this blog also saved/s me from having to see their reactions, and it saved/s them the stress of being worried that they shouldn’t emote in front if me.  I thought it might help them feel more comfortable in their own grief, so that they could better support me in mine.  People were still afraid to cry in front of me, you see, although it didn’t (and doesn’t) bother me one bit.  I wrote at length about how helpful, I find it, in fact.

I want/ed to write it.  It is important to do it, I felt/feel.  The only way through it is through it, and writing about it helped/s me through it.  I also felt like it helped my brain try to make sense out of this inexplicable, horrible tragedy that had befallen our house.

It helps me find meaning.  And that is probably the key to the entire healing thing, friends.

So, I wrote, and I cried. I cried, and I wrote.

In the previous couple of days, I noticed something unexpected, and gut-wrenching: I had started adapting to Alice not being here.  This sent me into what was likely my first real wave of pure grief.  I was, I know now, still in shock, so the grief was diluted and mixed up with the aftermath of the trauma of finding your child dead.  But realizing I was not lighting the candles near her picture every night, realizing that I no longer had to remind myself NOT to grab the diaper bag, realizing I no longer had to remind myself that I didn’t need to make Alice’s beloved homemade mush any longer, hit me in the heart and gut like a missile.  It was earth shattering.  It was somewhat shocking, I guess too.  I think some part of me assumed it would be years before even a semblance of acceptance started to peek through the haze of grief.

The realization that acceptance was beginning to take place was scary. The acceptance is healthy, but the realization that it was on the rise, was somewhat frightening. The acceptance also felt—and sometimes still feels—like such a betrayal of Alice. I also knew I could not betray my own mental health, however, so, I told myself that I was going to take it easy that week.  I was going to let myself grieve my baby, and grieve that I had unwittingly, incomprehensibly, somehow come to adjust to, and accept, this titanic loss.

It remains one of saddest, most incomprehensible, most life-altering weeks of my life.  Acceptance seems easy. Welcome, even.  But accepting something as horrible as the death of your child, is anything but easy.

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What I know now, that I didn’t know (or, at least, wasn’t thinking of) then…

This was my brain on shock and trauma

After a trauma, your brain functioning changes. This is pretty obvious to the one experiencing it.  Like I said, I KNEW my brain wasn’t working at its previous level of executive functioning. What is not obvious is the extent of this adjusted level of functioning. This is why it is dangerous to let someone in shock go on with normal life.  This is why you can leave the scene of an accident thinking that you are fine, only to wake up the next day and realize you can’t move your head and/or have wounds you never noticed the day before. A person in shock is not in any shape to be the judge of their own condition. But in many ways, the person in shock looks and seems “fine” so they can trick others, as well as themselves, into thinking that they are “fine.”

There are two areas of the brain, in particular, that experience reduced blood flow in the wake of a trauma. One is called Broca’s area, which is one of the main areas of the forebrain responsible for producing language, for turning thoughts into words. So, my feelings of exhaustion after speaking were not so mysterious after all.

Broca’s area is also believed to play a role in language processing. While, for me, this improved rapidly, it was evident in the first days after Alice died. I remember the funeral director slowly going over our options.  I had no idea what she was saying, and felt completely overwhelmed.  I assumed, at the time, that this was some sort of denial, and perhaps it was, in part.  But, I remember looking to Bubba, and pleading, “Can you tell me what she just said, but in bullet points? There are just so many words.”

For those first few days, Bubba became my bouncer and my translator. When I became overwhelmed, I’d tell him, “I can’t handle any more questions right now. My brain is frozen.  Please no more questions unless it is a question truly only I can answer.” Or, at times, I’d just look at him and say, “Bullet points.”  Or, I’d say, “I can’t talk anymore.  I just need to coast.” And, then, God bless his heart, he’d go convey the message to the masses, and I was left to silently wander around the house.

When there was a question only I could answer, he’d look me in the eye, speak slowly (in bullet points), and we’d get through it together. This was a HUGE help, and now I have a greater understanding of what I intuitively knew at that time:

“Damage to Broca’s area is commonly associated with telegraphic like speech made up of content vocabulary. For example, a person with Broca’s aphasia may say something like, ‘Drive, store. Mom.’ meaning to say, ‘My mom drove me to the store today’. Therefore, the content of the information is correct, but the grammar and fluidity of the sentence is missing.”  (asha.org)

I didn’t suffer actual damage to the brain, but reduced blood flow over a period of time can eventually cause damage, and in the short term, even without damage, it clearly affects function. And this was evident in my experience.  While I could speak OK (I think), I clearly had trouble processing complex language, and requested bullet points.  It all makes sense, biologically. And I am more grateful than ever to Bubba for acknowledging and honoring my limits at the time, while still helping make the excruciating decisions that faced me (and which only I could make).  This was an amazing act of friendship, and I will forever be humbled and grateful.

The Watchtower

The second brain structure that experiences reduced blood flow after trauma is the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). The MPFC is often referred to as “The Watchtower,” for its part in enabling a person to observe a situation, predict an outcome, and make a conscious, objective choice resulting from the observation and prediction. It allows for “mindfulness,” and to be able to bear witness to our inner thoughts and feelings. This part of the brain is stimulated when exercising social control in public places, understanding moral codes, and goal planning, and therefore is crucial to maintaining relationships, as well as exercising what we call “executive functioning.”

So, my strong awareness that my executive functioning skills were not up to grade level is also not a mystery. My difficulty in planning complex funeral arrangements I never thought I’d have to make, not a mystery. My difficulty engaging in large groups, not a mystery. My difficulty in engaging with even small groups or individuals for a prolonged time, not a mystery.

I was also keenly aware that I was what you called “hyper-aroused,” as evidenced by the sleep difficulties, and the panic attacks. I was somewhat less aware of the fact that the panic attacks were part of hyper vigilance. My guard was going up, full bore, around 2:30 every Tuesday, which is around the time she likely died. Even though I was thinking of other things at the times the panic attacks kicked in, my body remembered what happened a few Tuesdays ago. And it was ready to fight whatever unknown cause took my baby away from me. Except it couldn’t. You can’t fight an enemy unknown to save a victim already lost. But that maternal instinct is so ingrained, so strong, that it mobilizes your body to try anyway.

In a perverse way, as I write this, I am grateful that I had the panic attacks, though they were debilitating. I am glad to discover that the mother-child bond is so strong that your body will just shrug off all of the “she’s already dead” reasoning that the brain is throwing at it, and fight anyway. Because if the body can defy the brain, then so too may the soul.  And if the soul can defy the brain, then there is a chance my bond with my baby is not only still there, but is strengthened and still grows.  So, I feel gratitude for my troubles as I write this.  For I see now that the panic attacks were an acknowledgement of an unknowable bond, and if that is there, then perhaps there is even more to it.  Perhaps she really is just right…there….

This was my autonomic nervous system on shock and trauma

At the time, I was aware of the differences between the autonomic nervous system’s (ANS) two branches: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which regulates the fight or fight response; and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which regulates the rest and digest response. I was aware of how these changes generally felt in my own being, and that the imbalance between them was responsible for the hyperarousal and hypervigilance that I was experiencing. In a way, I’ve spent my entire life studying this, both intellectually and experientially, and I thought I had the tools to trick myself back to a place where I could effortlessly shift in and out of SNS and PNS regulation.

What I did not know then is that hyperarousal and hypervigilance eight weeks out start to get a bit concerning. While hyperarousal is to be expected after a trauma, once you get to a place where those symptoms are still prevalent more than six weeks out, for a month total, and accompanied by intrusive images (like pulling Alice out of the crib) and avoidance symptoms (Guilt is considered an avoidance symptom. Um, check.), you are at risk for post traumatic stress (PTS) becoming post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I was unaware of the diagnostic criteria at this point. I never in a million years would have thought I was a potential candidate for PTSD. I wasn’t THINKING, really, at all. I was FEELING, and acting based on my feelings. So, I sought out things to help me stabilize the ANS, but there wasn’t a lot of thought behind it.  I was acting from a gut level.

And know I know why. Because the MPFC doesn’t get enough blood flow after trauma, my ability to bear witness to my thoughts and feelings and then make a plan accordingly was diminished. You cannot really “think” your way out of hyperarousal. Or out of any of the stages of grief, for that matter. Meditation was a good start, however. Meditation strengthens the “witnessing” function of the forebrain. The accompanying breathing exercises work to down-regulate the SNS. It wasn’t a bad place to start, and may have saved me further trouble. But, it wasn’t going to be enough, as it turns out.

Grief and trauma aren’t simply mental issues. It’s biology. It’s physiology. And my physiology was tweaked after finding my beloved Alice dead.

I also know now that in this one week of the aftermath, I experienced a few of Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief.  I had guilt, which is the anger phase turned inward. I had bargaining, as evidenced by wishing I could trade my strength for my daughter’s return, and wondering if my wishes that she would sleep in past 5:30 a.m. were the cause of her death.  “If only..” and “What if?” are cardinal signs of bargaining. I also now know that the bargaining phase is kind of a rest stop on the grief path. Folks don’t generally think that their “if onlys” and “what ifs” would bring about another outcome; it is merely an unconscious way of getting a break from the hard work of grieving.

I also now know that I had a depression phase this week, as evidenced by my need to remove anything non-essential from my schedule. And I know that this was the week that acceptance began to creep in. While I was keenly aware of all the thoughts and feelings that comprised these phases, my brain was just not categorizing them. Not at all.  It couldn’t.

You can’t think your way through it

At this point in the Aftermath, I knew I was still just spitballing. I knew I was winging it.  And now I know that expecting much more than that would have been pointless. And this served me. It allowed me to heal in an authentic way and in a way where I was not comparing myself to others, or carrying large expectations of myself (because I tend to maintain high expectations of myself). For some reason, I knew I couldn’t do that here.  I knew that it would ruin me. I knew I just had to do what I had to do or I wouldn’t get through it. And the only way through it, is through it, my friends. You can’t think your way through it. You gots to feel your way through it, people.  You gots to feel your way under a very low bar.


  1. Elizabeth
    July 24, 2016

    I’m so sorry for your grief. My 19 year old brother died when I was in law school. My mental paralysis after his death was profound, and not understood. I could not read, I could not speak. I asked classmates to tell the professors to back off until I was in control again. Less than a week later I was called on in class, I had read the case, but could barely recall my name. The professor made me read the case in class and try to answer. My classmates were whispering answers, I could not hear them. I was dying and mortified. This happened in 2 classes. After the second time a friend approached the professor and explained that I was struggling because of a recent death. Her response: people die every day. Get over it. Wow.

    • admin
      July 26, 2016

      Dear God, what a damaging response. I am so incredibly sorry for the loss of your brother. I can only hope that you were surrounded by people far more supportive than your professor. xoxo

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