Thursday, June 30, 2011

Healing, Part 3 - Finding Daphne

This is one post I have looked forward to writing. For all the angst and pain and work I put myself through this past year, this is what has made it all worthwhile. Sometimes the universe gives us amazing things.

After the assault Daphne was in the hospital for quite a while. Her parents, from who she was estranged because they could not accept her queerness, had come up to oversee her health care. They refused to let me see her, and then moved her back to NYC when she needed further surgeries. They also packed up our entire apartment leaving me with nothing. Later, a neighbor returned to me three Billie Holiday albums Daphne had lent her. For the all these years they were all I had to remember her. Those and a head full of horrifying, panic filled flashback memories.

Then, this past September, as part of my annual ritual of atonement, I wrote to her parents. I asked for forgiveness, I extended my heart and hand to them, and I asked for some information to help me in my own healing. And her mother responded. No love, no forgiveness. But she told me where Daphne was buried. And that was started me on an incredible path of healing.

Going to the cemetery had to be the single most difficult thing I have ever done. I thought I had prepared myself to see that headstone, but nothing really could prepare me for that cold hard reality. But in what could only be described as weeping and wailing, it was the first time I really allowed myself to grieve. Being there cracked something wide open in me and years and years of pain came pouring out.

Mean while, in therapy, I was working on simple basics of being able to say her name without the horrifying flashbacks taking over. My therapist had me concentrate on one good memory. We would talk about everything I could remember about it, the sights, the smells, all the details. And then I had to try to hold onto the good memory, as she brought up the things that triggered flashbacks. We practiced this over and over, every session. I still practice it daily. And eventually, I could recall more and more good memories, and hold them for longer and longer without the intrusive terror. It was very exciting for me. More and more I found myself smiling when thinking of Daph rather than curling into a painful ball. And that made me smile even more.

Then in February, I received a letter from Daphne’s mother asking if I would meet with her. We met in NYC for lunch but never even ordered. In a few short minutes, she had pushed every button I have and I was incredibly rude in response. She walked out. BUT she did give me a journal Daphne had kept from the time she was hospitalized until the night before her suicide.

The journal has been a very difficult read for me. Filled with Daphne’s pain and isolation. Her anger and her despair. And yet, for some reason unknown to me, I hold that notebook and feel relief. Maybe because for so many years I didn’t know what had happened to her. Maybe because she ended the journal with a private joke that made me laugh. And she knew it would. Maybe because being able to hold something that she held, I in some way, get to hold her again. I don’t really know. What I do know is that in finally allowing myself to grieve I was beginning to feel much lighter.

I once again wrote to Daphne’s mother, this time to apologize for my rude behavior, but also with the ulterior motive to get more of my questions answered. We met again in May and found a way to talk to each other. I do not like this woman. She has made it very obvious that she does not like me. Yet we have this bizarre need of each other to fill in the gaps that have kept us from properly healing. I can work with that.

There was a time when I resisted doing the exposure therapy because I didn’t want to “desensitize” myself to the horror. I thought it would disrespect everything that Daphne had gone through. I was wrong. It has allowed me to respect the trauma, but to keep it where it belongs - in the past.

There was a time when I thought that doing the exposure therapy would be disrespectful to Martha - chasing the ghost of an old lover. I was wrong. Having finally taught my subconscious mind the difference between the past and the present, my relationship with Martha has become more whole and present.

This past year has been a year of grieving for me. Something I should have done a long time ago, but couldn’t. And now I think I’m almost through it. Today I can think about Daphne and remember happy, joyous times. I can go visit her at the cemetery. I can read her last words. I can listen to Billie and Nina and Etta and sweetly remember her singing their songs. I now have three photographs of her I can look at and smile. I have her journal where I can read her last thoughts. And I can look up at the stars and hear her laugh.

Sometimes the universe gives us amazing things.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A New York State of Mind

Full of Grace

1. Watching my baby girl, who had learning disabilities and confidence issues throughout elementary school, stand and deliver the class address in front of 4,000 people at her high school graduation.

2. That she kept this a surprise, which kept me from worrying for her weeks ahead of time.

3. That the woman sitting behind me had brought extra tissues. And shared them with now incredibly choked up, proud parent, me.

4. Having so many of her friends ask for pictures with us, their ‘other moms’

5. That she gave me this.

Being a mom has been the single most, amazing, rewarding experience of my life.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

I Do ?

Last night the New York State legislature finally passed a bill allowing same sex marriage.   Martha and I watched it live on TV. 

Not 5 minutes after the vote my mother called congratulating us and wondering when the wedding will be.

And then my sister called too.

Seven emails/texts already from friends asking the same thing.  And I'm sure we will get the same congrats and inquiries as we move from Peachie's graduation today, a family wedding tomorrow and work on Monday.   Friends and family will be very excited for us, as we are very excited for the gay community.

But I am not sure why everyone assumes we would marry.  Okay, twenty two years together might indicate some kind of traditional permanence.  And we did make a verbal commitment to each other years ago.  And we both wear commitment rings to honor that.  And we do share two children and our names are jointly on two houses and a few bank accounts.  And we are both free to legally marry.

I did spend a lot of time lobbying for the legislation - my local democratic senator who has been on board since the beginning; the republican senator where our lake house is and this week he did change his vote from a no to a yes (yay!); and the senator from where I used to live, who I know really well - his uncle gave me my first job, and he used to be my boss when he sat on the City Council, and I occasionally watched his kids - so I harassed him constantly, sent him pictures of our family and explained how important it was for my children to have legal protections, etc.  I even threatened to tell his wife that he was still sneaking cigarettes.  But he still voted no. (boo!)

Still, working for marriage equality is not the same thing as wanting to be married.  And sharing your life with someone for twenty two years is not the same thing as needing some formal recognition of that relationship.   

Last night the bill was passed.  Where we live the constant political maneuvering  has been blaring everywhere, all week.  It was hard to miss it.  Yet Martha and I had not said one word to each other about it.  Not even a teeny tiny question whether either of us would be interested.  But then when we went to bed, the final vote recorded,  she spooned up behind me and gently whispered the question “will marry me?”

Really? You want to be legally married?


We both realize that at this point it would not be to our advantage.  Our daughters are getting some nice college financial aid because everything is based on Martha’s salary alone.  So for the next few years, marriage would not make much financial sense.  Not very romantic, I know, but a practicality with two kids in private schools.

After that?  Who knows.  It's a hard, confusing and conflicted question for me.  Maybe.  And it is wonderful that the choice is now ours to make.  I didn’t give her an answer.  But I do know my mother has been waiting a long time for Martha to make an honest woman of me.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Healing, Part 2 - Therapy

After the assault I walked around for a couple of years totally unaware of life. I affectionately refer to this time as my black hole years. I thought I would be ‘cured’ when I was finally able to move to a new location. But that didn’t help. I was still suffering from debilitating flashbacks and extreme anxiety. I don’t remember when I met my current therapist, but it was shortly after I made the move. And I remember that she came to see me and very gently said that she specialized in trauma and that she might be able to help me.

That started the first wave of therapy. At that point, all I knew is that I had lost myself and was no longer “normal”. And that made sense to me. I didn’t think that a person could experience that much violence or witness their loved one so heinously tortured without it having some kind of psychological impact. I understood that. What I needed was to find a way to live with it better.

My therapist taught me skills to help me identify my triggers before they tripped me and to cope with the anxiety. Things such as muscle relaxation and deep breathing and concentration on some small object and mental repetition exercises. She also helped me conquer some of the avoidance problems I was having (at that point I was afraid to go out anywhere) and much of the sexual dysfunction. These sessions addressed a significant part of my problem and I stopped therapy thinking that I now had the skills to live a normal life again.

And I did have long periods of time where anxiety and other symptoms were low level background noise. There were always the surprises and things that would trip me up. Nightmares and flashbacks would return and exhaustion and anxiety would send me diving under my covers for days. I would occasionally return to short term therapy to help me get through it.  But generally, I thought I had things under control.

Until I met a person who just pushed every anxiety button. Even after I explained why her words troubled me, she just kept at it. Every symptom came back with a vengeance. And I realized that 1.) I was not as well as I pretended to be, and 2.) I never wanted anyone to have that kind of power over me again. And so back to therapy I went.

This time my therapist talked to me in terms of battling PTSD.  I never realized I had that. I had only heard of that term in relationship to combat veterans. And it all started to make sense in a way it never had before. So I agreed to a very intense program of immersion therapy, which I have talked a lot about here. Going over and over the details of that day. By exposing myself to those horrors, I was finding the words to express my pain, sense of loss, chaos, disorientation, and humiliation. Unfortunately, I was once again plagued by nightmares and physical flashbacks. And trying to write about it (yes, these posts are my therapy homework.) As hard and grueling as it was, it still wasn’t getting to the very core of what my subconscious was protecting me from. So my therapist suggested hypnotherapy. The thought of it terrified me and it took months to convince me to try it. And then quite a few test runs to ease into it.

I will write another post about that experience, but I finally looked the devil in the eye, and although I temporarily crumbled, I did get back up. And that was my victory. I have now stopped the intense therapy although I still have some “mop up” work to do. And I went to a group therapy session which I thought I would hate, but I am going to continue for a little while.  Mostly because I have this overwhelming sense that I have something very important to learn from a young disabled veteran there.

I have learned that recovering from PTSD happens slowly, in increments, and often with setbacks. For me, it has taken decades and many different strategies. I keep thinking that I wish I had tried the exposure and hypnotherapy long ago, but I realize that I probably wasn’t ready for it then and it would not have been successful. Every step builds on something else until the day you realize that, in fact, you are no longer in deep pain.

I have learned a lot about PTSD. Some people say you can be cured. Others say that it can only be managed. I tend to lean towards the latter view. At least for me. Living with PTSD is a challenge and something I know I can't do alone. I have surrounded myself with a great therapist, family, and friends who I trust and who love me. I have many people I can reach out to when the triggers are too challenging or a situation too overwhelming. Many whom I have met by writing this blog. Yes, you! And I have learned I'm not as strong as I want to be, butI can be much stronger than I ever imagined, as long as I continue to reach out.

I have read about people who say they are completely PTSD symptom free. I am not sure I believe that is possible for me. I may never defeat PTSD butI will live with it. And I am healing. I know that. And I am very hopeful.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Full of Grace

  • Having my fashionista daughter quickly find me a really cute sun dress to wear for an outdoor wedding this weekend, thereby saving me from wandering aimlessly around the mall for hours. And even better, I needed it smaller than my usual size!

  • Central air conditioning that still lets us snuggle under a duvet when it’s a 90 degree morning.

  • Participating in a Mudmania obstacle course with my daughters. This was a fund raiser for a local family who have been deeply impacted by Huntington’s disease. There was some serious mud. I can’t recall laughing so hard. Ever.

And no, that is not me

not me either

  • My sister getting us Broadway tickets to see The Book of Mormon. I am so looking forward to that.

  • French fries with mayonnaise. Yum. ( I may need that bigger dress by Sunday)

Monday, June 20, 2011

Healing, Part 1 - Do Not Let Them Win

I have now reached the end of my therapy. Well, at least the intensive stuff. I have learned a lot about PTSD and myself. And I have healed more then I thought would ever be possible. This is the story of that journey.

In the beginning . . .

I grew up the youngest child in a lower middle class family. I had a carefree childhood, spending my free time with friends at the beach or NYC. My family went to church every Sunday and took road trip vacations all over the country. My father was the epitome of the Protestant work ethic, never missing a day of work. My mother spent her time caring for us and anybody else who was in need. There was not a day that I did not know how much my parents loved me. They gave me a very strong foundation in the importance of faith, work, love, family, and helping others.

I went away to college and discovered and experimented with the other side of my bisexuality. After graduation I was offered an entry level job, an aide to an aide really, but it was in my chosen field so I picked up and moved to an unknown city where I knew no one. I met my two closest friends working in the same department, our first jobs out college, alone and away from our homes. We became each other’s family and took care of each other. We still do.

I lived in public housing where I met a woman, Jean, who became my mentor and friend. I became very involved with tenant's rights and advocacy for the poor. She taught me about the dignity of all human beings, how to work through the political system effectively and the importance of building and maintaining bridges between people. Every time a professional or personal relationship stumbled she would simply say to me “go make it right girl.” The importance of reconciling relationships has kept me working on those connections ever since.

Then I started graduate work the local university where I met Daphne. A beautiful, uber smart woman who literally had me at “hello.” I had loved before. But this was LOVE. To the bone, soulmate, fireworks kind of love. Daphne and I lived together for almost three years. We both had our individual work and passions that kept us busy, but when we were together it was . . . well, something very, very special. Dirt poor but deliciously happy, our lives were just beginning to unfold.

This point in time is frozen like a shapshot for me. I had everything. Supportive family. Satisfying job. Rewarding volunteer work. Great friends. A phenomenal lover. It was the most joy filled time of my life.

And then 3 or 4 hours one sunny afternoon changed it all. In one brutal attack I lost Daphne. I lost myself. I lost everything.

I spent the next few years in a black hole, retreating from a world I was now terrified of.  But I didn’t really lose everything, although it took me years and years to realize it.  I never lost the love and support of my church, family and friends.  They were just always there. It was this foundation of love that got me through that first year.

And the memory of Daphne, who in her worst moment of anguish during that assault, looked at me and said “do not let them win.”

Do not let them win.

I was never completely certain what she meant, although not a day went by when I didn’t think about it. It took a couple of years but at some point I realized that in order to honor the love we had, and continue with the things that were important to her and to us, I needed to get myself healthy.

And not let them win.

So began my journey to be able to live and love again.  And to find those things I lost.  Remarkably, this past year I also found Daphne.  And most recently, I have begun to find myself. It has been a amazing journey. I am smiling . . .

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Prayer For My Daughter

by Tina Fey

First, Lord: No tattoos. May neither Chinese symbol for truth nor Winnie-the-Pooh holding the FSU logo stain her tender haunches.

When the Crystal Meth is offered, may she remember the parents who cut her grapes in half and stick with Beer.

Guide her, protect her

When crossing the street, stepping onto boats, swimming in the ocean, swimming in pools, walking near pools, standing on the subway platform, crossing 86th Street, stepping off of boats, using mall restrooms, getting on and off escalators, driving on country roads while arguing, leaning on large windows, walking in parking lots, riding Ferris wheels, roller-coasters, log flumes, or anything called “Hell Drop,” “Tower of Torture,” or “The Death Spiral Rock ‘N Zero G Roll featuring Aerosmith,” and standing on any kind of balcony ever, anywhere, at any age.

Lead her away from Acting but not all the way to Finance. Something where she can make her own hours but still feel intellectually fulfilled and get outside sometimes.  And not have to wear high heels.

What would that be, Lord? Architecture? Midwifery? Golf course design? I’m asking You, because if I knew, I’d be doing it, Youdammit.

May she play the Drums to the fiery rhythm of her Own Heart with the sinewy strength of her Own Arms, so she need Not Lie With Drummers.

Grant her a Rough Patch from twelve to seventeen. Let her draw horses and be interested in Barbies for much too long, For childhood is short – a Tiger Flower blooming Magenta for one day – And adulthood is long and dry-humping in cars will wait.

O Lord, break the Internet forever, That she may be spared the misspelled invective of her peers  And the online marketing campaign for Rape Hostel V: Girls Just Wanna Get Stabbed.

And when she one day turns on me and calls me a Bitch in front of Hollister, Give me the strength, Lord, to yank her directly into a cab in front of her friends, For I will not have that Shit. I will not have it.

And should she choose to be a Mother one day, be my eyes, Lord, that I may see her, lying on a blanket on the floor at 4:50 A.M., all-at-once exhausted, bored, and in love with the little creature whose poop is leaking up its back.

”My mother did this for me once,” she will realize as she cleans feces off her baby’s neck. “My mother did this for me.” And the delayed gratitude will wash over her as it does each generation and she will make a Mental Note to call me. And she will forget. But I’ll know, because I peeped it with Your God eyes.

For my daughter on her 18th birthday.  I couldn't have said it any better.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Last Lunch

It seems that when you have children everything is marked by firsts. Their first smile, their first word, their first steps, first day of school, first sleep over, first date, first time driving, first prom, etc. All their milestones are marked and photographed and celebrated. As they should be.

Then they grow up and things are marked by lasts. Last school concert, last basketball game, last prom, last day of high school. My family has now hit them all. Our baby is graduating.

Yesterday I made her last school lunch.

For 14 years I got up every school day to make and pack lunches for my daughters. And to be honest, I would often bitch about this. Not out loud. Never to them. Just a silent “I can’t wait for this to be done.” Frankly, it’s hard to always come up with something they like, and to mix it up so they are not bored with the same food every week. For 14 years.

But for some reason this last lunch hit me harder than the other lasts. Maybe because this was always my opportunity to be creative and insert something a little special into their day. Maybe because little things mean a lot - one likes her sandwiched cut in triangles, the other in rectangles. One likes mayo, the other mustard. One likes red apples, the other only green. And I would often find something a little special to tuck into the lunch box - a thing of Pez, a little poem, Goldfish bread, candy hearts, exotic fruit, etc.

And then when they got to lunch, I would get a text message - “thanks mom, I love you too.”

Yesterday I made her last school lunch.

I am going to miss it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Full of Grace

A therapist who cared enough to accompany me into my private hell, held on to me whenever I started to sink, and pulled me safely out to the other side.

For friends who did not let go, even when it got ugly. And for one friend who did let go, I am grateful for the time we had.

Sleep. Finally.

Remembering to breathe

Catching a small glimpse of me.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Breathe In

This weekend is going to be one hell of a ride. Tonight a couple of Beanie’s friends are coming in for the weekend. Saturday is Peachie’s senior prom. This will create much activity and chaos in my household. Last year she was voted best dressed at her junior prom so she has set the bar very high for herself. Hair. Makeup. It will all be high art. I plan to work out in my garden and stay out of her way until its time for pictures.

After the prom 22 of her friends, plus Beanie’s friends, will be coming to our lake house for the after prom party. Our very small, one bathroom, cabin. This will be wall to wall teenagers. Up all night. I am praying that I, and the septic system, survive this experience.

On Sunday I am doing what I hope will be my final hypnotherapy. This will be the one where I face my last remaining demon. The thing that I have never been able to talk about. The thing that I believe my mind has been protecting me from for all these many years. The thing that I always sense in my peripheral vision but cannot name.

Just a few months ago I would have said that I was afraid that facing it would kill me. But my therapist has worked very hard to prepare me for this. We have done trial hypnoses, dress rehearsals so to speak, getting me comfortable with the idea of it. More confident. Getting closer and closer to that last behemoth. So today I am afraid that what I am facing will be very scary. Probably very painful. But I am ready to try because I know this is it. The final wall I need to push through.

That is my weekend.

Breathe out.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Full of Grace

1. A huge ego stroke - 17 out of 17 very positive evaluations from the students in the class I helped teach at the local university.

2. A man with the walker and oxygen tank stopped to wish me a good afternoon just when my afternoon was not so good

3. I have use of all my arms and legs.

4. Long newsy emails from friends.

5. Peachie’s senior prom, the after prom party at our lake house, her 18th birthday, her high school graduation, invitations to eight graduation parties, Pride, a three day orientation at Peachie’s college, a wedding, and a day in NYC with my niece. All in June. Strangely, I am actually looking forward to it all. Well okay . . . most of it.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Group Therapy

Fulfilling a promise I made to my therapist, I attended my very first Group therapy session. I have avoided this for months because, well, I really don’t like to do anything in groups. And I have enough difficulty talking about my trauma with my closest of the close, much less a group of strangers.

But a promise is a promise.

And so this morning I sat in a room with a woman who had been in the One World Trade Center when it fell; a (too) young veteran of Afghanistan missing his right leg and hand; a young woman who has lived through years of sexual abuse; and a middle aged gentleman who did not reveal his issues.

People tend to rate and rank difficult and traumatic experiences, as if A is always worse than B, which is always easier than C. The death of a child is worse than death of a parent. Or parents who have lost an adult child suffer more than those who have lost babies. As if human suffering is some kind of competition.

I have never been one to compare folk’s pain. Maybe because I tend to think of everyone as being deeply wounded. I don’t think anyone ever escapes without some scars. Perhaps when one experiences pain it makes it easier to see the wounds in others.

Today I sat while a woman beat herself up that even after 10 years she cannot negotiate a flight of stairs. And a young man without a leg and hand talked about how he was glad to have some physical evidence of his pain because no one believed the emotional scars. And a teenaged girl talked about being sexually molested since she was three years old. Three!

And I realized that nothing will get me out of my own bullshit faster than listening to someone else’s pain.

Maybe I’ll go back.

Have compassion for everyone you meet
even if they don't want it. What seems conceit,
bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign
of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
down there where the spirit meets the bone.

- Miller Williams

Friday, June 3, 2011

Brave vs. Strong

Over the course of my PTSD journey there have been many well-meaning people who have called me brave. I’m never entirely sure what they are referring to, but each time I say, no, no, no, I am not brave. Sometimes people will argue this point with me. One friend got really upset with me over it. Once someone told me that people need to see me as brave as a reflection of their own needs.

Brave is a difficult word for me. Brave - Possessing or displaying courage; valiant. To undergo or face courageously. To challenge; dare. The word brave is a trigger word for me because I know that there was one time in my life when I should have been brave. And I wasn’t. I had one brief opportunity to step up, to change the course of events, to show some courage. And I didn’t. I froze. I failed. And I live with the memory and the horrendous results of that failure every day of my life. I know what brave is and what it is not. I am not brave.

However, I am getting more comfortable with the word ‘strong’. When I wrote a post about returning to the scene, my friend e commented that I had a core of iron. I wrote that on my hand and stared at it the whole ride there. Core of Iron. Of course, I knew I didn’t have a core of iron but what I did have was a whole army of people who cared about me, who gave me the strength to do what I needed to do. From my therapist who makes me believe I can do this, to Martha who makes me laugh to ease the anxiety, to one of my dearest friends driving to that city “just in case” I needed her, to every blog reader who emails me or leaves encouraging comments.

It seems to me that brave is something you have to be alone. And when left alone, I am so far from brave. In fact, when left alone, I can easily become a trembling wuss. But strong . . . strong is something that is fed and supported by people who love you. Like a storm that gathers and builds strength from moisture in the air. And so I am saying, yes. Yes I am strong. I am strong because of every one of you who have stayed with me through this journey and prayed for me, and sent me positive energy, and had virtual tea with me, and supplied me with endless chocolate, and never ever let go even when I was going through a lot of self doubt and mood swings and failures and selfishness.

You will never know how much your words and prayers and hugs and energy have meant to me. You have given me the strength to get up and face each challenge. Every day.

So please, do not call me brave. It is way too emotional for me. But you can call me strong. And I will thank you for it because you are my core of iron.