Shock — Part Four
The first encounter with a therapist is a mix between an awkward first date and a job interview. I met Dr. R one month after Toxic Shock clad in Banana Republic from head to toe and donning a classic, corporate, pencil skirt. I was a compelling portrait of composure.
After a quick introduction we discussed the basics. I almost died. I didn’t die. Now I was having trouble with living.
Next Dr. R started asking innocuous, yet somehow deeply disarming questions.
“So how does Kasey feel about Kasey, right now?”
“What kind of a bullshit question is that?” I thought.
I inarticulately responded aloud, “Well, ummmm, hmmmm, I mean — good?”
Dr. R sat in silence wearing a smile, creating space for me to offer a better answer.
“I mean, my life isn’t perfect. But it’s fine,” was all I could muster.
Next question: “How does Kasey feel about her job?”
Again with the third person! “Sure. It’s good too. It’s a good job and a good company. I get a good paycheck,” I retorted.
I wish I could report that my answers grew more insightful as the appointment continued. They didn’t. Dr. R checked in about different parts of my life ranging from family and friends to hobbies and habits. Every question Dr. R asked was completely simple. Every answer I gave was utterly dull.
I was telling Dr. R the things I wanted to be true. But they weren’t. I knew it. So did Dr. R.
I didn’t appreciate someone poking holes in my armor. Like most people I was convinced I didn’t need therapy. More accurately, I was scared of therapy. I didn’t want to admit that I wasn’t okay. I didn’t want to accept that I couldn’t solve my problems on my own.
Consequently, I didn’t return to Dr. R for three months — when my world started to fall apart.
Shockingly, therapy turned out to be a gift in many ways. With each appointment I grew more comfortable with Dr. R. I slowly let my guard down. I started to trusted that he wasn’t there to judge me. He was simply there to help me wade into my truth without drowning.
Navigating the world as a 20-something is challenging enough without post-traumatic stress. Many of the issues we worked through had very little to do with having a near-death experience. Rather, they centered around two recent moves, feeling uncertain about my job and desperately wanting to contribute to a bigger picture. In short, I was suffering from Having-No-Freakin’-Clue-What-You-Are-Doing-With-Your-Life Syndrome.
Toxic Shock aggravated and amplified those issues by stealing my capacity to compartmentalize. Consequently, I couldn’t distinguish everyday nuisances from traumatic stress. So my default was to blame all of my problems on TSS.
For instance, spilling coffee all over my blouse on the bus to work, while on my period, was just bad luck. But in my head, my brain formed what it believed to be rational links between the incident and TSS. Before I knew it, not only was I blaming my problem on TSS, but I was reliving those four days in the ICU. That’s when I got into real trouble, because trying to stop recalling those memories was like trying to stop staring at a train wreck. I just couldn’t do it.
Once I acknowledged that TSS had become my catch-all in self-diagnosing my problems, we used a variety of techniques to help me safely re-visit and process my stint in the ER and ICU. I practiced re-playing the scene as a “fly on the wall” instead of the person in the bed actually being poked and prodded. The more I practiced, the more I was able to remember and “unpack” my experience without having to re-live it.
Therapy didn’t solve all of my problems. To this day I struggle to pretend that exchanging our precious time on this planet for money and power is a wise trade. But I know that‘s the way the world works. Not everyone has faced their own mortality. Not everyone knows that time is an assumption, not a given. On good days, which are most days, I do my best to play along with the game. On bad days, which still happen, I find the game unfair and infuriating.
But thanks to therapy, I can play pretend and have those feelings without collapsing into a fetal position. For that, I am forever grateful for Dr. R.
Dr. R recommended that I supplement our sessions with journaling. At first I thought this was a dumb idea. I was never big on writing my experiences, emotions and thoughts on paper. Growing up, I had this notion that “keeping” a journal required writing long, articulate entries each night before bedtime (which is probably why there are ten diaries in my mom and dad’s garage with, at most, five pages filled each).
But it just so happened that I had a lot more to say than I thought I did. I filled two journals in the first six months. Not all of my entries were particularly profound. But they were consistently helpful.
Whenever I needed to escape my own head or sort my emotions, nothing did the trick like pen and paper. Something about seeing my feelings in ink made them seem less scary. Journaling became a way for me to transcribe the broken record in my head so I could begin to forget without losing the capacity to remember.
Therapy and journaling did wonders for my mind. But I still felt like a foreigner in my own body. Every time I got a headache or a runny nose, I was convinced that I needed to go to the ER.
This is one of the unpleasant side effects of trauma. Trauma happens when the mind perceives a threat and the body is unequipped or unable — often despite its best effort — to fend off that threat. Unconsciously and unfairly, that event can rupture the trust between the mind and body.
Effectively, that’s what had happened to me.
I had heard that pilates and yoga were good for people coping with trauma. However, I was reluctant to give them a try. I had only done pilates once and yoga never. I audited a pilates class in college and it was horrible. I had no idea what the teacher was telling me to do. I was awkward. Everyone around me was svelt and graceful. I never went back. As for yoga, I thought it was hippy, outlandish and sacreligious.
But beggars can’t be choosers. I was definitely desperate. Ergo, I took the plunge.
I found a pilates instructor who taught private sessions out of her home just a few blocks from my house. Over the course of six months we did 20 sessions together. After I stopped caring about whether I looked awkward, I really got into it. I actually had quite a bit of fun. My body started to feel strong again. It was hands down one of the best investments I’ve ever made in my health.
Emboldened by my success with pilates, I stepped into my first yoga class. It was a heated, intermediate, vinyasa class at Corepower Yoga in Southeast Portland. I was laughable. I had no clue what I was doing. The poses didn’t make sense to me in English, not to mention the other language they were using (which is Sanskrit btw).
But my body felt incredible! And I was calm. All that breathing was like alchemy for my soul. So even though I was literally SO BAD at yoga, I went back. Again and again and again.
Somewhere around class number 15, something remarkable happened.
During the Sun B warm-up the teacher had us hold Warrior II for a minute. She told us to close our eyes and observe what our breath was doing and where our mind was drifting to. Then, she encouraged us to actively focus on breathing deeper and notice how our experience changed.
Next thing I knew warm tears wandered down my cheeks and a wave of gratitude swept over me. For the first time since having an oxygen mask strapped to my face, I felt a conscious struggle to breathe. But this time when my mind said “breathe deeper” my diaphragm contracted, my lungs expanded powerfully and oxygen rushed inside.
In that moment my mind and body started the long journey back toward trust. That was the day that yoga became more than just my workout.
Five years have passed since Toxic Shock. I still go to therapy. I still journal. I still practice yoga.
The past five years have revealed great sorrows and great joys; closure and new adventures. I have been humbled by the generosity and compassion demonstrated by my family, friends, and perfect strangers; impressed by the courage, strength, and moxy I have exhibited; and forever changed by the intimate knowledge of how precious and ephemeral life is.
There’s a part of me that wishes TSS had never happened. There’s also a part of me that’s grateful it did. Surviving something awful is awful. It can also be a gift. In the wise words of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the mother of the five stages of grief,
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
Suffering and tragedy are a part of the human package. Much to my dismay, I’m going to have to re-visit this experience some day whether it’s me or someone I love lying in the hospital bed. But until that day comes, and indeed when that day comes, I will live these lessons the loudest:
- Eat well and exercise
- Go to therapy
- Trust in God (in her many forms)
- Love big
For in the end, life’s not fair and neither is death. We can’t have one without the other. But if we fill our lives with love, laughter and living, death kind of becomes irrelevant.