Thursday, June 20, 2013

Trusting My Gut

Dear Reader: I write to better understand my experiences of life; I share with the hope that my words will touch something inside you, and together we will remember that we all walk through life with love and loss, joy and sorrow, hope and despair, faith and uncertainty.

NOTE: I will never write about upsetting details without a warning.

Today my mom was called by someone whose scam apparently is trying to access the bank accounts of folks on social security. It’s beyond comprehension that there are people out there who not only feel ok about stealing from others, but who specifically target those least able to weather financial loss. He managed to convince my mom to give out some information (enough that they’ve opened a new bank account just to be sure) before she listened to her gut and hung up.

One of my mom’s initial thoughts was that next time she hopes she will trust her gut sooner. I absolutely agree that we should all listen to our gut far more than we do. I believe our gut is a fairly reliable judge of the information it gathers for us all the time.

But it is more complicated than simply deciding to listen to our gut. Personally, I was trained very well from very early on to ignore my gut. I was consistently taught that authority figures, men, social customs and norms, and even peer expectations were more valuable than my own feelings. I can remember the anguish I felt in my gut as battles were waged between what my gut knew, and what was expected. I can remember that anguish so clearly because it is a battle that continues to be waged every day.

Learning to trust my gut has started with learning to hear it. My impulses to please others, do what is expected, not make waves, and be inoffensive, are so strong that they supplant my gut feelings before I’ve even noticed that I have any feelings of my own. The older I get, the more practice I’ve had at peeling back the layers of conditioning that subvert my own feelings.  And without a doubt I’ve gotten better at noticing how I really feel. But noticing how I feel, hearing my gut, takes time.

If someone makes a suggestion that I feel compelled to agree to, that is my signal. If I’m paying attention I let them know I’ll need to think about it first. Depending on the emotional weight of the suggestion, it can take hours or even days of deliberate focus to discover how I really feel about it.

I am grateful that I learned a valuable skill as a young adult. I worked at a movie theater, and was shocked to find that a coworker had been scammed out of $60. A man asked for change for a $20, then repeatedly changed his mind about what denominations he wanted the change in. As the man was leaving, sensing that something was wrong Debbie asked for $20 back and then another $20. He would have walked away with $100! My coworker was a sharp and savvy young woman, but he was a pro. Part of his strategy was that he tried to rush my coworker. He created a sense of urgency, which triggered a nervous response in her. I can imagine him acting a bit impatient, perhaps condescending, and Debbie second-guessing her sense that something was wrong in order to not appear to be stupid or risk inconveniencing and/or irritating him.

That experience imprinted on me; it made a lasting impression that Debbie had been taken in, and alerted me to my own vulnerability. Ever since, if someone generates a sense of urgency or impatience, I typically respond by slowing down. Whether or not they are trying to scam me, my best option is to take extra time to be sure of myself. This has been an enormously useful tool; however it relies on having a plan in place rather than relying on my brain to work through the intricacies of a manipulation in the moment.

In recent years I’ve started easing off on my pursuit of perfection in favor of taking stock of who I am, my potential and my weaknesses. I’ve learned to accept that I have a lot of layers to dig through to get to my truth, and that I can’t do that under pressure. So I’m finding strategies that do work. I already have the one mentioned above that happens automatically when someone tries to rush me. On a daily basis I have remind myself to request time to think about others’ requests. I don’t make promises nearly as quickly or as often as I used to. And in those instances where I make a promise before uncovering how I really feel, I’ve learned to quickly back out of that promise.

For many years I believed that the only choices were either be gullible or be cynical. As a young person I was absolutely gullible, and I hated myself for it. At the same time I resented that this hard world took advantage of those who didn’t learn to become cynical; I resented that the only way to not be gullible was to become cynical. But I no longer believe that the choice is only between gullible and cynical. Those are the two extremes. Learning to hear our gut, trust it, and act on it, that’s a way to be neither gullible nor cynical. And for all of those who have succeeded in this, I envy you. But I see another middle ground; finding personal strategies that work even in the moment when we aren’t sure what our gut is feeling.

I prefer to not be gullible. I also prefer to not be a cynic. And while it would be awesome to always trust my gut and operate from a place of self-assurance, that isn’t my reality. I suppose you could say that I’ve learned to accept the ultimate message from my gut: I’m ok the way I am, and it’s ok if I don’t always do it perfectly.

Dear Reader, please consider posting your comments and questions below. I would love to hear from you! Please let your friends know about my blog. And thank you for visiting!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Losing My Religion

Dear Reader: I write to better understand my experiences of life; I share with the hope that my words will touch something inside you, and together we will remember that we all walk through life with love and loss, joy and sorrow, hope and despair, faith and uncertainty. 

NOTE: I will never write about upsetting details without a warning.

My spiritual beliefs had changed over the years, but overall I had a sense of being connected to others, the natural world, and The Universe. I had a sense that as long as I walked in step with my Life, something was watching out for me. I believed that Life would never give me more than I could handle.

But I was wrong.

It was my sixth day back at work after graduating from the parks law enforcement academy. Sixth day wearing my badge, duty belt, firearm. Sixth day putting on not only the uniform, but also the immense responsibilities that went along with it. Not that I had any real inkling of what that meant. Mostly I felt very proud.

A seasonal park aide and I had driven to a day use park a few miles away from the campground to do some mowing and weed eating, and to clean the restrooms. We were on our way back when traffic came to an abrupt stop. This was on a long, narrow winding stretch of Highway 101 along the Hood Canal. I turned on the law enforcement radio and heard something about a traffic accident. I couldn’t tell, but thought maybe that was why we were stopped. I realized the only responsible thing to do was get out and offer our help. As we were getting out of the truck, a solitary car came from the opposite direction and stopped when they saw the blue light bar on top of my truck. The driver told me there was an accident ahead. “There’s a fatality,” she said. I remember thinking, “but how does she know? How can you really know someone’s dead? You have to try to resuscitate. You can’t just guess someone’s dead. How can she be sure?” And I thought, “shit, really? This does not sound good.”

I asked her what responders were on scene already and she said, “no one.”

“No one?” I echoed. The words came out like a bark, shrill and sharp. In that instant, my world started to unravel. How was it possible, with the countless lives being lived out in this Universe, that all the stories had converged in this moment such that I was the first responder to arrive at a vehicle accident with a fatality? It couldn’t be. It wasn’t right. It was beyond comprehension. Six days as a law enforcement ranger. I hadn’t even used my law enforcement radio to call into dispatch yet. I hadn’t responded to a car accident yet. I had never performed CPR. Heck, I’d never seen anyone else perform CPR. I had never seen a dead person (with exception of my grandpa in his casket, who truthfully didn’t look dead at all).

This was so beyond what I was ready for, this was outrageous and horrible and completely terrifying. I did not want this responsibility.

In that moment I knew that my understanding of a benevolent force in the world, of a right-ness to the events of my life, of Life never giving me more than I could handle, were absolutely completely wrong. My perception of reality, my understanding of the rules of Life, my sense of control, shattered in an instant. I was completely alone in the world, and there was no safety net.

With my mind screaming in fear, frenzied with questions, rational thought choked off with the paralyzing fear that I was Alone in the world, the only thing I had was my sense of responsibility. I walked towards the accident.

Dear Reader, please consider posting your comments and questions below. I would love to hear from you! Please let your friends know about my blog. And thank you for visiting!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Healing Begins...

I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

I don’t often share that I have PTSD. Probably because of the reactions I usually get: confusion, disbelief, bafflement, skepticism. Questions like, “you had to deal with noisy campers or something?” or, “people having heart attacks, something like that?” In fact I think peoples’ insistent and very incorrect picture of the bucolic and tranquil life of the friendly park ranger has contributed to the isolation I have felt in struggling with the emotional aftermath of the traumatic events I encountered. If I were to tell people that I was a law enforcement officer and leave out the part about being a park ranger, people might at least expect that I had encountered horrific traumas.

If you too have difficulty imagining how it could possibly be difficult entertaining folks about nature all day long, while getting to live in a park, a little education first:

Criminals camp too. In fact wanted criminals gravitate towards campgrounds. It is one place they can stay without revealing who they are. No background check. No contract. And those criminals can bring with them criminal activity: theft, assault and battery, driving drunk, driving recklessly, being disorderly.

Particularly for the park ranger who is also a law enforcement officer, that means their job description includes dealing with these offenses and offenders including writing tickets, evicting, arresting, and knowing that someday they may need to use lethal force (certainly the most burdensome responsibility I have ever carried – and no, I never had to shoot anyone).

And there is another aspect of rangering that folks may not consider: emergency medical response. Regardless of a ranger’s training (I only had basic first aid), they are likely to be the first responders to emergencies such as not only heart attacks, but wildlife bites, stepping barefoot on razor sharp shells, falling into fires, diabetic episodes, psychological breakdowns, suicides, drownings, missing children, and car accidents.

Going into it I knew that over the course of a very long career I may well encounter something horrific like an untimely death, though I dared to hope that I wouldn’t. I certainly could not have predicted five deaths all in one summer, not to mention innumerable other medical emergencies, close calls, and encounters with wanted felons. But that was my experience.

Now, several years after all that began, my healing journey is finally getting traction.

I am firmly NOT a believer of the “meant to be” philosophy. Not anymore. In fact I think PTSD is the result of Life giving a person more than she can handle.

In order to start healing, I had to accept how profoundly these experiences had changed me. I too had to accept that I had become a different person, accept who I had become. Someone whose courage, will, and resilience had abandoned her. Someone who became anxious and overwhelmed by even the mundane stresses of life. Someone who had become so hyper vigilant that she anticipated danger and tragedy everywhere.  I had to accept that my understanding of Life was completely inadequate.

There is so much to that story, those several years, the events that were cumulatively “too much.” And the events after that summer that continued to trigger me and keep me off-balance, in a constant state of adrenaline rush. And the events after leaving rangering, where I started to become vaguely aware of my uncharacteristic lack of ability to weather life’s storms, and how as time went on I seemed less and less able to cope, until I felt like a mere shadow of who I’d been. I was angry, desperate and confused… until that moment when I knew in my gut that my experience had a name: post-traumatic stress.

Perhaps at some point I’ll share the stories from those years. But this story, this blog, is about right now. Now, as I’m first able to see the path to recovery and taking those first minuscule steps. This is about healing. And it is about uncovering the deeper truths of Life, and finding a way back to myself.

Dear Reader, please consider posting your comments and questions below. I would love to hear from you! Please let your friends know about my blog. And thank you for visiting!