I halfheartedly pulled myself out of bed early this morning to hike/run the Manitou Incline with a good friend. The Incline has become a famous local challenge – something you have to try once, and you can wear as a badge of honor, if you conquer it. Athletes love to compare times, since it’s a great test of your fitness and mental determination. That being said, I run mainly for fun these days, so I was less than enthusiastic with the prospect of heading up to the Incline at dawn today for the 2,000+ vertical feet ascent in less than one mile.
While I was waiting for my friend to pick me up to drive to Manitou, I found an email sitting in my inbox from KidsAndCars.org with a link to the most recent hot car death of 2015 in Florida. As I read through the article, I experienced my normal emotional response to such triggers: flashbacks, rush of adrenaline, tears rising. But, this trigger was unique, as it brought on an overwhelming sense of empathy and pain in my chest for the child and parents, thinking of what they may experience over the coming months and years.
As I made my way up the Incline, I was stunned by the beauty of my surroundings. It was just me, the wilderness, my burning quadriceps and racing heart. I discovered that my previously untested “slight” fear of heights was actually more of a “substantial” fear of heights. Portions of the Incline are so steep that you have to bend forward to touch the next step in order to stabilize. At that point, I felt my heart start pounding, and I realized I could not look up, nor down, but only at the next step directly in front of me.
Trauma and loss are life-changing. I believe this is the reason I started writing again. Of course, writing has always been my passion and “who I am,” so in a way it has been a return to myself. But, it is also a way for me to deal with the pain in my chest that I felt earlier this morning. I cannot change last summer, the world, life and death; I cannot erase the pain of losing friends or life as we knew it altogether; I cannot escape the horrible memories from experiencing criminal and DCF investigations; I cannot make my life more normal again, nor can I keep others from experiencing loss and trauma. However, I can share this message: Life is beautiful. There is hope. You can survive.
From the earliest days onward, our trauma response changed from the acute symptoms of shock (and catatonia for Kyle) to generalized symptoms, such as increased startle reflexes, insomnia, inability to concentrate, and bouts of crying or agitation. If our brains became overloaded with stress, then they would simply shut down. At times we could not respond to simple questions from others: Mom, what store are we going to next? Gradually, our nervous systems began to heal, though they may never be the same as before July 7, 2014. We weaned off anti-anxiety and sleeping medications (down to just melatonin). There are still nightmares and times when our skin crawls, adrenaline rushes, or we jump from loud noises, bumps in the road or people touching us unexpectedly…but it has lessened in intensity and frequency over time.
I realized today that I have done (and continue to do) the work necessary to deal with Ben’s death and related events, so most of our days are actually full of laughter, smiles, and lots of hugs. But, there are still triggers. I warn new friends that they are walking around land mines because no one (including myself) can know what a trigger will be. Riding or sitting in a hot car, seeing flashing police car or ambulance lights, hearing babies crying, or visiting hospitals. Super Bowl commercials with fathers and children. A random story about a child who suffered a heart attack. This morning, reading the article about the hyperthermia death in Florida. My visit to Connecticut for Ben’s birthday. The trauma reaction now consists mainly of flashbacks and a rush of emotions. So, I just take a moment, bring my mind back to the present and get through it.
Today the Incline was my mountain of recovery to conquer. At the beginning, survival starts very simply. You cannot look backward and you cannot look forward, you have to look at the next step in front of you, lift your legs and sometimes nearly crawl. You get out of bed and take a shower. You let people in, don’t push them away. Hold onto what’s good and real. You go to therapy, stay healthy and breathe. Take medication if you need it. Step by step.
We have thankfully avoided, by sheer will and a lovely, little pill, anything more than normal (under the circumstances) bouts of depression on rough days, but I’ve experienced my share of depression in the past. And, though it never reached this point for us, many individuals who have experienced a vehicle-related hyperthermia accident (or any other type of loss or trauma) do become severely, dangerously depressed and hopeless. I think this was the root of the pain in my chest this morning. We’ve made it closer to the top of our mountain, so we can see beauty in the world again. But, it hurts to remember what it was like to be on that first step, looking up.
For anyone facing loss, grief, or trauma – just know that you can survive, love, and live again.
One step at a time.