Sunday, September 8, 2013

Being Alone is Just a Story We Tell Ourselves

Dear Reader: The truth is never an absolute; it is subjective and it changes over time. So I do not claim that any of what I write is the truth. It is only my perception and recollection of events as they happened many years ago. In some situations I have changed names and details to protect the privacy of people involved, but I do my best to maintain the underlying substance of events and their impact on me.

NOTE: this post contains some uncomfortable memories of the car accident with fatality. I do not go into graphic details, but for some it could bring up disturbing images.)

I went into my last therapy session with determination. Certain aspects of that car accident, the ground zero for my PTSD, have been festering for six years. One thing in particular has persistently bothered me: missing memories.

I remember the event in snapshots. Certain images come to mind as clearly as when I first saw them. I can bring to mind the deceased’s arm dangling casually out the car window, skin darkened by sun or ethnicity, a simple gold wedding band on his hand. I can remember the RV driver marching up to me red in the face yelling that the fire engine had just driven over the skid marks that proved the other driver was at fault. I remember when the state trooper was documenting the accident, the RV driver’s wife tearfully expressed frustration and bafflement that the man who died was still there in his car, as if forgotten.

Pieces of it I was able to fill in later: attending a debriefing held by the local fire department I saw overhead photos taken from a helicopter and on-the-ground photos of the Jaws of Life dismantling the car around the deceased. I was able to find out that I spent two hours there on that little piece of highway, until the trooper had documented what he needed to, medical responders had come and gone, vehicles and debris were moved onto one lane so that traffic could be sent through one direction at a time, and there was nothing left for me to do.

Some information just won’t stay in my mind. I believe the roof of the car had been peeled off; it’s the only way I can explain the snapshot images I have of trying to see the extent of injuries to the deceased man, and I’m pretty certain I saw photos showing this, but for some reason the image just won’t stick. Certain things I was never able to determine. How long was I there before other emergency responders, those actually called to the scene, finally arrived? I tried to find out by contacting state dispatch and looking through reports from the fire department. The initial citizen call reporting the accident had misdirected the response to the wrong county, causing confusion and delays. My best guess is half an hour. It may have been more; I don’t think it was less. And why I couldn’t glean that information from those reports I cannot say. And the overall memories of those two hours aren’t in any particular order, after that initial inspection of the deceased.

(I have learned recently that during trauma, the left side of the brain which is linear and catalogues systematically, takes a Time Out; it is the right side of the brain that is left to record and recall, and it does so with images, perceptions, and feelings.)

A serene portion of the highway
But there’s one missing memory that has been very troubling: I cannot remember what I saw in that moment that I determined the deceased was very definitely deceased. The first moments of drama had already unfolded as I came upon a silent scene: RV a bit askew in the northbound lane; small car head-first in the rocky cliff face and jutting out across the southbound lane; traffic at a standstill from both directions. This was one of the sharpest curves on this narrow and winding stretch of highway, the cliff outcropping rising straight up created a blind curve, guard rails hugged the edge of the northbound lane before the roadway dropped away steeply, first to narrow bits of property, then to the Hood Canal.

A woman caught in the fray, a former volunteer fire fighter, approached me as I came upon the accident and started to fill me in. Words, sentence fragments, bounced around in my head as I tried to make them fit together. Man is dead; children; blanket; vomit; driver missing. I couldn’t make sense of any of it. But I had one mission that I knew rose above all others – to get to the injured driver and start CPR. This woman was the second person to tell me he was deceased and again, I wondered how she could be certain. I’d been to trainings where I’d heard of people injured seriously enough that even medical responders took them for dead; just to find they weren’t. I knew that if I had any uncertainty at all, I would have to try to resuscitate; and I couldn’t imagine a situation where I would be certain of death. The thought of giving CPR was terrifying; I’d been trained but never saw CPR done in the field. I’d never responded to a car accident beyond a fender bender. I felt far too green to be the person who might determine whether this man lived or died.

We approached the car. It was small, like a mid-80’s Honda Civic. She pulled back an edge of the blanket that had been draped over the top of the car as much out of respect for the deceased as for the surrounding captive audience. I approached from the driver’s side. I couldn’t see anything informative so I started to move around the car, step by step, taking a look, each time wondering when I would either see why everyone claimed he was deceased, or realize I needed to start CPR. Either way, with every step and every snapshot, I was terrified that I would imprint images on my brain that I would never be able to forget. The last snapshot I have I was looking down at the top of his head from behind and slightly to the passenger side. I didn’t understand what I was seeing; it didn’t fit my understanding of the human body, things were not where they should be. Confused but still not convinced, another step, and another snapshot – which I can’t remember.

I do remember knowing that there was no remnant of life in his body. I remember exchanging a somber look with the woman who gently let down the blanket. I remember walking away from his car.

For all these years I’ve been afraid of that memory. Afraid that it must have been truly horrible to convince me thoroughly that there was no need to try CPR, to explain why my memory of it is gone, afraid that at any moment this ticking time bomb might explode, releasing this horrible memory to traumatize me all over again. This was the persistent fear I brought into therapy.

My therapist, who works specifically with first responders and with sufferers of PTSD, said it is extremely unlikely that my subconscious will release a traumatic memory all at once like that. More likely it will be recalled in pieces, as I am ready, or perhaps never at all. She reassured me that there is nothing wrong with my brain protecting me by removing that memory from me. And it could be there is never a time, never a need, to release it.

I sat with that. So my subconscious was not a ticking time bomb after all. That memory wasn’t lurking in the recesses, ready to drop into view when I least expected it. I didn’t have to carry around the burden of this forgotten memory anymore. I realized that while carrying the burden of this missing memory, I have been fearful of engaging in life, in being vulnerable, in letting people in; I have been afraid that at any point the bomb could go off and I could lose everything – all over again.

As my therapist was encouraging me to set down this burden I’d been carrying, the threat of the ticking time bomb, other thoughts intruded. I told her I had so much self-doubt and judgment about my participation at the accident scene. I couldn’t come up with anything I should have done that I didn’t. In fact there was very little to be done. It had taken very little time to check off the items I’d learned in academy: see to injuries, protect the identity of those involved (cover the deceased and vehicle license plates), protect the accident scene (no worries, we were all frozen in place), set flares (a volunteer set them to the north of the accident, my park aide set them to the south). I knew that state patrol would bring experience and authority to investigating the accident, so I only sought rough overviews from the family in the RV and witnesses. And there we all were without anything to do, those involved in the accident and those motorists trapped there on a very thin slice of highway without enough room to even turn a vehicle around and head back the way they’d come.

I had felt so utterly alone. In therapy I recalled the feeling of being there in a uniform, feeling the weight of that responsibility, knowing that meant that my personal feelings and experiences had to be put aside, knowing that I had to try to convey some authority, some image of help and reassurance. I still can’t pinpoint anything I did wrong, anything I should have done but didn’t. It was rather my unwilling participation in this event. With every ounce of my being, I wanted to be anywhere but there. If there has been one philosophy of life I’ve consistently believed in, it is the importance of Being Present in the Moment. Well this was a moment where the last thing I wanted was to Be. I felt like a poser, and a coward for wishing myself away.

With my therapist’s guidance, and still placing myself back at the accident, I extended out the wish, “May all who suffer know peace.” I acknowledged my own suffering both in the moment, and carried with me ever since. I acknowledged the suffering of the family in the RV who would live with knowing their vehicle ended someone’s life (a fact that is not changed by knowing they could not have prevented it). I extended my wish out to the dozens (and growing every minute) of travelers trapped in their cars at this grizzly scene, nothing to do, nowhere to go. People around either side of the bend in the road and out of sight of the accident felt comfortable getting out of their cars and stretching, talking with each other. But those of us focused around the center of destruction could not pretend normalcy. Other than quiet murmuring from the RV family, the occasional helicopter, and much later the welcome sound of sirens, all was silent.

A snapshot imprinted indelibly in my brain is of a man sitting behind the wheel of his vehicle close to the collision. At one point I walked by his car and looked his way. Our eyes met and held for a moment; for an eternity. I had a strange thought about usually being the friendly, welcoming ranger and how inappropriate that would be now. His look was extremely grim. I’ve told myself stories about what he was thinking, about what everyone in their cars was thinking: “Glad I don’t have her job today,” or, “she looks like a deer caught in the headlights,” and mostly, “Poser.” I had been sure their thoughts were judgmental.

But now as I extended this wish for peace over suffering, our eyes reconnected and finally I understood. In that grim look he was telling me, “We are all in this moment together, and it is horrible. We are all the same right here, right now. Beyond the roles we play, there is no difference because we are all trapped here in a moment that is beyond comprehension.”

I had felt so utterly alone; but that was just the story I’d told myself. Suddenly I thought of all those travelers there and realized we were experiencing this together.

In suffering, in having the human experience, there are no differences. We are in this together. And we are never alone.

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  1. You brought tears to my eyes. I am so glad you felt the balm of this man's gaze, even if it was all these years later. It is always amazing to me how bringing compassion to a situation - whether present or past - can so thoroughly transform it. As usual, I am grateful for the gift these blog posts are. Thank you. -Katrina

    1. Katrina, thank you for recognizing how transformative his compassion was to me. I told my therapist that because of my need at the time to "be the uniform," I rejected his compassion. She disagreed, saying that I hadn't rejected it; rather my subconscious had tucked it away for a time when I could fully accept it. It's taken six years, but that realization has been powerful and healing.

  2. I had to take a deep breath after reading this one. Really intense stuff. I really had no idea what types of experiences a park ranger goes through. My eyes are opened!

    1. Thank you for reading, and giving me your thoughts Cara. It's true, most people believe that park rangers have a really laid back job. It has made it difficult explaining to people why these experiences had such a lasting impact. Telling my story is my best way of explaining, and gaining understanding.