The gut punch of grief; what it’s like to be triggered.

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The old soccer crew. I’m #20 and you can see my mom hiding in the back sporting her shades, probably wearing a tracksuit.

Let me set the scene: I am waiting to get on the field to compete in a soccer tournament. I stand in a solemn circle, surrounded by the girls I grew up playing with. Their faces are all the same, except we’ve all aged some since we last played together. Laugh lines mark our faces, and a few of us, myself included, are showing grey hairs.

I feel a misplaced anxiety, and I am sure everyone is picking up on it. My bad juju is palpable.

Our longtime coach calls me out: “Chelsea, what’s going on over there? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“I’m hungry, and I have to go to the bathroom,” I announce. A few of my teammates avert their eyes. “What?! Do you all want me to go into hypoglycemic shock?!” I say dramatically, knowing that that’s not really a thing. My starting position has clearly gone to my head.

“Fine. You have 15 minutes,” Coach says, obviously annoyed with my antics.

I wander hurriedly and find myself walking into Grand Central Station. I enter the main concourse and marvel at how much is happening around me. I start to panic — I am really feeling the time crunch of getting back to my team. How many minutes has it been? Surely at least 12! I run towards Grand Central Market and when I enter its doors, I strangely find myself in a high school gymnasium. There across the basketball court is none other than my mother, coaching a game of teenaged boys.

She’s standing there like a beacon in her typical hunter green Coventry High School tracksuit and athletic t-shirt, calling out plays. She sees me across the gym and waves distractedly in her familiar I’m-busy-but-glad-you’re-here way. I am so incredibly relieved to see her. My anxiety falls away completely. I need her. I need her right now, I think. I break out into a full gallop towards her and she hurries towards me, too, looking confused.

As I reach her, I fling my arms around her, enveloping her much shorter frame. I am desperately sobbing and convulsing with gratitude that she’s here; that I’m feeling her body in my arms.

“Are you ok, hun?!” she asks, obviously concerned.

Hearing her voice sends a shockwave through my system and my conscious comes crashing in, reminding me; it’s not real, it’s a dream. She is dead.

—————

I wake up and come back to reality. There is no one to comfort me here.

I am not ok.

I am shaking and very real tears are streaming down my cheeks and onto my pillow. This is no way to start my day, much less a day I had high hopes for. My puppy looks curiously at me through his crate. He is ready for his morning walk, but in this moment, I am paralyzed with devastation.

I exhaustedly run through a list of today’s “musts” in my head: I must walk the dog, fix a healthy breakfast, hit my deadlines. Everything else is negotiable.

I bargain with myself: Chelsea, if you get out of bed and make it through this list of things, you don’t have to do anything else today. You can be off the hook. Emails can go unanswered; to-do lists and blog posts put on hold. 

So it is, to be triggered.

The smallest thing — a memory, a dream, a smell, a song — can derail me and send me spiraling. Just last week, I went into a tailspin over the 11th anniversary of my rape. I thought I would be fine (some years, I am) but this year, my body decided otherwise. I spent the week emotionally eating (immediately followed by self-loathing for emotionally eating) and putting off anything I could possibly push back. I’m totally regressing, I vented grumpily, I thought I was over this. I thought I had more self-control.  

It doesn’t help that the one thing in the world that could instantly make me feel better is a hug from my mom and her steady assurance that I’ll be ok — even when I really, truly believe otherwise. She had a way of grounding me and easing my anxieties (like the time I was having a panic attack over my law school student loans, and she said, “relax, people take out loans this size all the time. Only they’re called mortgages. You invested in yourself instead!” and I instantly had a sense of perspective and calmed the hell down). She was my safety blanket. The world can feel like a cold, unforgiving place without her.

This is my life with depression/PTSD in a nutshell. Yesterday, I thought I was doing ok. But that was then and this is now. Today, my reality is different. Today, I must navigate this ever-lingering darkness whether I want to or not. I cannot cast this pain out of my life, though at times I’d like to. My mother’s ghost haunts me, touching everything I do.

Sometimes I feel like myself again for a spell, and I’m convinced I can take on the world. But it doesn’t take long before I’m swept back into my grieving state; hopeless and frantic — torn between waiting for the storm to pass and wanting to cease the day regardless of the state of my anxious mind. I have no idea how long this will go on for; maybe forever. I take great comfort in knowing that the “good spells” are becoming more prominent, and the bad are fewer and further in between.

I have no idea how to feel better. Right now, I’m just riding the wave and trying not to push myself too hard. Truth be told, if I was kinder to myself and paid more attention to my self-care needs, I probably wouldn’t be so easy to knock out in the first place. Besides, I spent the last year trying to control everything around me with an iron grip, and I was miserable. I cannot control my grief and it doesn’t have to control me. I must remind myself that the bad feelings will come and they will pass. I can only recognize them, let myself feel them, and move on from them when I’m ready to. Today will be tough. Tomorrow will hopefully be better. My to-do list will likely suffer yet another week in limbo. It will be ok, so long as I keep moving forward and checking off my “musts.”

Such is life, and perhaps this will always be my “normal,” finding balance between giving in to the darkness and pulling myself back towards the light.

Perhaps I will always teeter at the edge of the void, and it’s by sheer will and tenacity that I don’t fall in.

Perhaps I’m not doing nearly as badly as I think.

Perhaps my mother always WAS right, after all: I. Will. Be. Ok.

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The Long, Lonely Road of Grief.

For many years, I had recurring nightmares about losing my mother to a horrific accident or illness. She would be somewhere far away, hurt or dying; needing me. I would run to her tirelessly, breathlessly; circumventing impossible obstacles, scaling walls — my veins pumping with fear, adrenaline and regret. But no matter how hard I tried to reach her in time to save her, it was always too late.

Waking up was a ritual of vast relief and thankfulness for another day. What luck, to be presented a brand new chance to be a better daughter! Through my appreciative tears, I would call her, just to say “I love you.” I couldn’t fathom not being able to pick up the phone to hear her voice.

The day of my mother’s stroke was like a surreal, slow motion reenactment of one of my nightmares. It was all there: the harrowing phone call, the 4 hours of Merritt Parkway traffic, with no information other than “it’s bad.” The desperation, the bargaining, the fear lumped up in my throat; the knowing that this time, it would not be okay. There would be no relief to wake up to. Only pain.

Anyone who has ever loved someone understands the horror of this nightmare; few have a playbook for what happens when it comes to life. Despite years of grazing the overwhelming emotions that would undoubtedly leap out of me if I should ever lose her, I was still floored by how hard her death hit. No contingency plan could have ever prepared me, and my heart’s lack of cooperation with the “plan” left me frustrated and dumbfounded. Much like falling in love, coping with death leaves us with little control over how our hearts proceed.

The despair was endless. The lack of understanding from mostly everyone around me was staggering. The days droned on hopelessly and everything felt wrong.

So it was, living in the valley of death.

I looked on at those walking amongst the living, exasperated, wondering if I would ever join them again; wondering if promotions, moves, petit social slights, new workouts, or politics would ever matter to me again. I wondered if I would ever again feel anything but longing and despair.

I checked Facebook obsessively, hoping that everyone else moving through life as though nothing was different would somehow normalize me. But I only felt isolation.

I stood still as the world passed me by. The worst part was that I didn’t even want to join them.

Few checked in on me after the funeral, and I slid into a cocoon of depression and resentment. I couldn’t tell if they expected me to be ok, or if they just didn’t know what to say; couldn’t deal with how horrible it must be… couldn’t fathom being in my situation.

“She’s always with you,” they said. (“No, she’s gone. And she’s not coming back,” I thought. “I don’t even see her in my dreams anymore.”)

“You will hear her voice with time,” they said. (“Hearing someone’s voice is a choice,” I thought, “and my skepticism makes it too difficult for me to listen.”)

“Just be thankful for the time you had,” they said. (“I can be thankful for the time I had while being completely, totally and utterly devastated that she is gone,” I thought.)

I hated their empty words, yet I seethed and said nothing. They just wanted to help, after all. And to be fair, our culture does not seem to understand that pain and grief are natural; not necessarily “problems” to be cast away, fixed or covered up. I have never been comfortable putting my emotions on the back burner — they are not something I could wish away, even if I tried. And besides; in this case, I rightly deserved every bit of my pain, and then some.

My darling Bonnie shared this quote with me, and it helped me tremendously in that dark time: “If she does want to talk, avoid saying things to diminish or explain away her pain, like, ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ or ‘Time heals all wounds,’ or ‘God gives us only what we can handle.’ These are things people say when they don’t know what else to say, and even if they’re true, they’re better left unsaid because they can be discovered only in retrospect. When her pain is fresh and new, let her have it. Don’t try to take it away. Forgive yourself for not having that power. Grief and pain are like joy and peace; they are not things we should try to snatch from each other. They’re sacred. They are part of each person’s journey. All we can do is offer relief from this fear: I am all alone. That’s the one fear you can alleviate.” – Glennon Dale Melton, a passage from Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life.

It articulated beautifully what I was going through, and reminded me that I was not alone, even when it really, really felt that way. To even have people in my life that cared enough about me to try to snatch away my pain (however misguided they may be) was a blessing.

Besides, the external pressure to move on was nothing compared to the immense pressure I put on myself. How long will it take to feel normal? I wondered listlessly. I agonized over being set back in my life, and promised myself I would feel better after each passing event. I hoped beyond hope that life would take on meaning again; that I could stop sending my zombie representative to parties, dinners, and important occasions. She would show her face and nod politely, but inner me couldn’t help but notice how much she let pass her by.

In my haze, the months all blended together. A full year slipped past me in a vague blur of unspeakable sadness. I was a shell of my former self, and deeply concerned that I was doing it all wrong, despite others telling me how great I seemed, and that I inspired them.

I marched on.

Over time, and through the counseling of friends and loved ones (and a great book, Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss that my dear friend Kristina sent me), I learned that it was ok to grieve and to take my time. I learned that grief knows no timeline or stages. Grief is fluid — there are fine days, and terrible days, and endless days, and a few days interspersed that remind you to live like hell.

It was not all in vain. I grew in ways I still don’t comprehend, and little by little, it does seem to get easier. I can’t say that I feel completely whole again — that would be disingenuous. I still have days where I break down into tears seemingly out of nowhere; days when I don’t want to get out of bed in a world that doesn’t include my mother. Her death left a Grand Canyon-sized hole in my heart, and a scar on me for life. Nothing will change that.  But the ever-present despair seems to have receded a bit, leaving me just enough energy to reintegrate with the living again.

I am hollow no more, but I continue to navigate this long, twisted, and often lonely road of grief. I may never see its end, but I’ve learned to accept and appreciate my journey. I suppose, for now, that’s all I can really hope for.