Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Sometimes One Moment is Enough

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.

As Shelli’s move was getting closer, I was becoming more and more exhausted. The planning and organizing was more labor-intensive than I’d anticipated, and I’d inadvertently overcommitted myself.

Last week Tuesday evening was busy, going over final details and packing up my car: my overnight bag (I would make the long drive after work, then stay overnight at my aunt’s), strategically placed bags of snacks for those of us doing the move, toiletries for Shelli’s new apartment, a basket of goodies for her, clothing and books for her son. The refrigerator and freezer were likewise prepared with bags ready to grab and go.

Wednesday morning I got up early so I could assemble the final items, and then have enough time at work to bring perishables to the lunchroom refrigerator.

About an hour before the end of the workday my cell phone vibrated and I saw it was Shelli calling. I’d already taken my afternoon break but I put my “break” sign back on my computer and headed to the foyer. “Hi, Shelli.”

“Hi, Kjerstin. I have some bad news.”

My brow furrowed.

“I went to pick up my key for my new apartment, and it isn’t ready. They were supposed to replace the carpet, and they haven’t.” She went on to describe an apartment that was in poor condition, things not replaced that should have been, a broken sink, a shower bar not in place. “It’s just not right. I can’t move into it like that.”

My brain started working. I thought of how hard it had been, putting all the pieces together for this to happen. How one of the men helping with the move had been called in to work last-minute, and I’d had to convince him to honor his promise to help with the move and turn down his work, knowing that meant lost income for him so promising to compensate him somewhat. How none of my usual pet sitters had been available, and I had only just found someone to watch my pets overnight. How I was fortunate to be approved for the (unpaid) day off work. My aunt and uncle putting me up for a night so I could be ready to get a jump on the move first thing in the morning. The time spent finding and booking the moving truck; the time spent last night and this morning with the necessarily last-minute preparations. I simply didn’t have it in me to rally again, to put all the pieces together for this to happen on a different day. I asked her several times if she was sure she couldn’t move into the apartment the way it was; she was sure.

She talked about asking her dad if he would lend her money to hire a moving company for when the apartment was ready. She didn’t know of course when the apartment would be ready; how could she, it had already been promised once and not been ready. I just listened; I was trying to absorb everything. After one last confirmation that she had made up her mind, I told her that I’d better call off the troops, and told her that after she made a new plan she should give me a call and if I could fit it in somehow I would come help.

I cancelled the moving truck, the men helping with the move, the pet sitter, my overnight at my aunt’s. In all half an hour of work I would need to make up.

I considered that when my workday ended, instead of a several-hour, rush-hour drive to Seattle, I could drive home and relax; that was nice. But I felt deflated. Last night I felt delight as I loaded the car up with all sorts of goodies collected from friends and family: used clothes, books and school supplies for her son; a basket of toiletries for the bathroom and one of teas, chocolate and honey for the kitchen; a home cooked dinner from my parents in freezer bags for their first night in their new apartment. Now I don’t have to make the drive up, spend the day moving, drive back, or pay for the truck and the helpers; but there isn’t any good feeling anymore – other than knowing that several of us had intended to help. And at the moment that feels rather unsatisfying.

Durango, Colorado
I had a friend on Facebook, someone I barely knew, but a woman with some like-minded leanings and some unique perspectives which I appreciated. However over time I noticed a trend. I would post something, and she would make a comment that was barely, if at all, related – and it was always dismal: a list of her health problems in response to my post about moving; poor people living in tents in response to a photo of a childhood camping trip; the forests burning in the SW in response to a sweet saying about learning to dance in the rain. There are so many things that I dislike about this, and at the top of the list is, these are My Posts.

I wrote her a gentle message letting her know that I have a very low threshold for bad news and asking if she could please use her own posts, not mine, for these kinds of comments. Her reply was vitriolic, attacking, and she said that if I unfriended her it was because I was afraid to hear the truth of the poverty that much of the country lives in, because I am obviously middle class. I unfriended her without reading the entirety of her diatribe.

But I felt thoroughly unsettled. She succeeded in making me feel guilty for living a middle class, privileged existence; it is true that I am among the privileged who can afford to shutter away the rampant suffering in this country.

I will not continue a friendship with someone who is insulting and acerbic, whether out in the world or on Facebook. Yet while I emphatically disagree with her approach (no true dialog starts by antagonizing and guilting), she is nonetheless right: I live by myself in a two-bedroom apartment; if something breaks, my landlord fixes it; I go to bed with a full stomach every night. The fact that I can hide from the day-to-day reality of extreme poverty, that I can choose when to acknowledge it, when to think about it, is in itself a luxury.

I had the opportunity in the early 1990’s, during my years of activism, to listen to spiritual guru Ram Dass speak in San Francisco. The following closely approximates something he said that night that really struck a chord with me:

“Many times social involvement is raised by manipulating individuals through fear, guilt and anger. By separating oneself into me and them, and sending the message of superiority and expertness, others are [guilted] into action. Sometimes feelings engendered by such tactics mobilize one into action…. [However] the focus of effective social action is on trust, honesty and mutual respect.... Effective social action calls for listening to what is on the heart of all involved as it is the heart from which the energy is derived to drive this kind of change.”
 How Can I Help? By Ram Dass and Richard Gorman (

Because of my PTSD if I let in too much awareness of the world’s troubles, I become overwhelmed and immobilized, which serves nothing. And it is also true that it cannot be the middle class (given the horrible state of my finances I’m not sure that I am middle class, but no matter) to single-handedly end poverty. Poverty is a systemic problem, and it needs a systemic solution. Making people feel guilty because they are not also living in desperate poverty may possibly increase involvement, but that approach will not overhaul a broken system. And how can we work towards a solution if we are antagonistic towards each other? I don’t know what the answer is. But I do know that antagonism is not the answer.

It’s been a couple months since my neighbor Ginger died. I’ve been caring for the flowers left on her doorstep. Friends stop by with fresh bouquets, or balloons on her birthday; I am the one who removes the wilted and dying blossoms and the deflated balloons, the one who replaces stagnant water with fresh. It has become a ritual for me, one that I took on willingly, yet one that weighs on me and I hope will end soon.

One day last week I got home from work and immediately noticed that Ginger’s car was gone, her front door was open, and several people were milling about her apartment: finally her family has arrived. My neighbor Annie was leaving Ginger’s apartment with a bag of dog treats, and we both changed course to meet in the middle of the parking lot. She confirmed what I already knew, that Ginger’s parents and sister had arrived to go through the remnants of her life. Of course tears came immediately, so I gave myself a moment to unload the groceries from my car before heading over to Ginger’s open door. I knocked and announced myself. Two women came to greet me, by their ages clearly Ginger’s sister and her mother. They immediately wanted to know how I knew Ginger: her neighbor from two doors down. We talked a little. They were so gratified to discover how well liked Ginger had been here in Portland, so warmed by the outpouring of support and warmth they have received. They said they would be in Portland for just a few days, and only take with them items they found most dear; what they could fit in their vehicles.

I told them that friends had come by frequently to bring fresh flowers. I asked if it had been Ginger’s birthday recently; nods. I mentioned the balloons that had decorated her door. Her sister teared up. Words stuck in my throat; I put my hands to my heart and said finally, “I truly feel for you.” Her sister suddenly brightened, asked me my shoe size, and foisted upon me two pairs of good running shoes. After thanking her I wished them well and left them to their task.

I didn’t know Ginger that well. But I know something now that I didn’t know a few years ago: it is good to cry in the face of loss and grief. It is good to cry when others are experiencing loss and grief. It is a way to honor our shared human experience, a way to honor Ginger, and a way to honor her family.

The next day as I walked to my car I looked towards Ginger’s apartment. Her family had left. I detoured to where two bouquets still lingered, relocated off to the side, one with some gorgeous yellow and pink roses from my parents’ yard. I took the two bouquets from next to her porch and put them back onto it, removing the wilted blossoms. This will be my final task, then. I will care for these bouquets until the final blossom has died.

Dear Reader, please consider posting your COMMENTS and QUESTIONS below (if the white Comment box is not available, click on “No Comments” in the darker green rectangle just below. I would love to hear from you! Please let your friends know about my blog. And thank you for visiting!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

I Want More

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.

Being deeply loved
Gives you
Loving deeply gives you

–  Lao Tzu

There is still so much to my RANGERING story to write, and I am eager to get back to it. Please be patient; the past few weeks have been very fruitful and I need to write about that while it is fresh in my mind. Don’t worry, the RANGERING story will unfold in time!

None of us succeed in life; none of us live, without the help of others. While I love the American story of rags to riches, of tenacity and belief in self bringing someone out of degradation into success, I am equally irritated by assertions that people are wholly “self-made.” No one is entirely self-made. No one believes in him or herself unless someone, somewhere, did not also believe in them. No one bridges that gap if someone does not give them a chance. And Donald Trump was never poorer than a homeless man.

“According to a well-known anecdote, one day when he was $1 billion in debt, Trump pointed out a homeless man to his daughter and said, ‘See that bum? He has a billion dollars more than me.’  (

I find his assertion offensive and ridiculous. I feel quite certain that Donald Trump has never found his dinner in a garbage dumpster, in fact probably continued to be wined and dined by good old boys who found him an affordable investment; never wore clothes worn through and infested with vermin, in fact probably never had to give up his custom made imported suits (or does he prefer American made?); never, ever had to be at the mercy of the elements, and most likely was carried through his time of debt in familiar luxury again by those who were either returning favors, or were banking on his future success. Donald Trump was wealthy even while in extraordinary debt because he was privileged and had incredible connections of people willing to invest in him: wealth that very few people ever have a chance at having.

This attitude of entitlement, this growing belief that “I deserve; I earned it; I got here on my own” increases with wealth. An interesting study came out of Berkeley and can be found here:

So you’re wondering by now where I’m going with this. Where I’m going is my recent journey, which led very unexpectedly to my discovery of what Life really is all about – at least for me. I have a friend whom I “met” through an online support group for people with PTSD. Shelli is always offering support to others, is compassionate and welcoming, even while going through a very brittle stage of her own PTSD. She and I email, text and talk on the phone. We live in somewhat nearby cities, close enough for a day trip, though we haven’t met yet.

I found out that she planned to move to a new apartment to get her son into a better school district. When it became obvious how few resources she had, no money, no truck to borrow, friends becoming scarce, I offered to help her with the move. I knew exactly what she was experiencing.

When my son was about a year old and I knew I needed to leave his dad, I too had no resources. I didn’t have any family nearby, and my self-esteem was so low that I could not imagine anyone would be willing to help me; I would not have had the courage to ask for help. (When I think back on it, I can only imagine that I would have had to take my son and the clothes on our backs and leave.)

A former coworker and friend called me out of the blue. When I told her what was going on, she offered to pick me up from work one day (I didn’t have a car). She and I drove to various apartments until I was able to find one close to work with a vacancy; I filled out an application and got preliminary approval. She drove me home and directed me to start packing boxes; meanwhile she started piling dirty laundry in the washing machine and washing dishes. A few days later a neighbor who had insisted on helping came over after work with her boyfriend. We took load after load to my new apartment in his pickup, until late into the night.

I really could not grasp why they were willing to help me. From the depths of my poor self-esteem, I was unable to understand their selfless compassion. And their help was so extraordinarily needed, such an enormous gift, I felt I’d never be able to repay it. At the same time, it seemed like no big deal to them.

I wanted Shelli to feel the way I had; I wanted someone to show up for her, the way someone(s) had for me, and make the move just happen. I ended up offering to take on the full task of organizing the move: renting a moving truck (it seemed the best option), finding people with good backs to help, and providing drinks and snacks for everyone. Above all, I wanted her to know that she was not alone.

In part I wanted to help Shelli as a way to pay back my gratitude to those who helped me in my time of need. We all need each other at some time. None of us can do this alone.

But I also wanted to help her because a few weeks earlier, Shelli had helped me to learn an important truth that I’d been blind to.

On that online PTSD support group, I had posted a link to one of my blog posts. And because this was a site for people with PTSD, I specifically mentioned along with the link that this post discussed suicide. Surprising someone with PTSD about a topic like that is not a kind thing to do. Several days after that I changed the URL for my blog – so the link I had posted no longer worked; and it didn’t even occur to me to change it.

A few days later Shelli tried to click on the link, and it gave a message that the website was no longer valid; she then went back to the PTSD website, where I had written that this blog post discussed suicide. She became frightened that in my post I had been reaching out for help, struggling with thoughts of suicide, and she had not read it and reached back to help me. She panicked that perhaps I had attempted (or committed) suicide, and that was why my blog was no longer there. On the PTSD website she posted several comments to me asking what was going on.

I was at work; I didn’t see them.

But another member of the PTSD support group did, and he also became concerned. He had been having lunch with his daughter. She saw distress on his face and he knew he had to say something to her. It became a necessary opportunity for him to discuss how people sometimes go through very hard times in life, sometimes too hard, and that he was worried about me.

A bit later Shelli texted me – I saw it immediately and replied that I was fine. Soon after we all had everything sorted out, and adrenaline levels returned to normal. Of course I felt horrible that my oversight had inadvertently caused so much distress. But something else happened, something important. It really hadn’t occurred to me that I was important to these people, people I had never met face to face. Important enough that they would worry that they had missed my call for help; panic that they had not been there when I needed. I hadn’t realized that I was important to them. (I would like to note that I have not been struggling with thoughts of suicide.)

I was like the Grinch when his heart grows three sizes, but it was more like layers of that crusty protective covering sloughing off my heart. I felt a genuine heart connection, palpable and intense, with two people I’ve never met, one a virtual stranger. How can I explain it, other than that this is what life is supposed to be about, having true connections with other humans? And it doesn’t really matter whether it only happens in that one moment, or over the course of a lifetime. Sometimes one moment is enough.

So Shelli helped me to realize that I am important, even to people I hardly know. I am not insignificant. None of us are. I am not alone, and neither is Selli .

Preparing for Shelli’s move, I requested help from family and friends – preparing meals, small donations of money, children’s clothing and books, toiletries, school supplies. And while there wasn’t a groundswell of support, every single person who did respond with help did so with that same heart connection – I felt that absolute acknowledgement pass between us of our shared humanity, vulnerability and heart connection.

It was heartfelt and genuine and beautiful and all I could think was, I want more of this!

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!

If you would like to follow my blog there are several ways you can: Follow by Email: enter your email below and you will receive each new post directly from; Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+ where I announce every new post; or Follow me on a blog tracking site such as Bloglovin.

Friday, June 6, 2014

This Tedious Path

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.

This post has more than the usual share of disclaimers. In addition to sharing some of my own unflattering traits, I share those of my parents and supervisor. I want to stress first that I do not share about my parents with an attitude of blame, but rather simple cause and effect. We are all products of our genetic makeup and the influences of those who raised us as well as the other people and events in our lives. I have a very close and loving relationship with my parents, for which I am extremely fortunate and grateful. The second thing I want to stress is that in regards to me, my parents and my supervisor, every human who walks this planet is complex. None of us can be reduced to a small description of a few traits, as defined by another person. We are multi-faceted, ever-changing, and of course how we are seen is in large part a product of the one doing the seeing. So my purpose in describing those people as I do in this post is really to further illuminate my perception of my own journey. Thank you for understanding.

What happens when a woman raised to be passive and to pacify others, and a man with a sharp intellect and a mammoth sized chip on his shoulder meet and fall in love? Me. I am what happens.

Well actually four children happen, each with extraordinarily different personalities and different life paths, of whom I am the youngest. Each of the four of us wrestles in our internal tug-of-war at a different point along the line between passive and defensive, mollifying and inciting.

I am quite convinced that every day I move continuously along this line between passive and defensive, and how obvious this is to others depends entirely on the circumstances I find myself in.

We all have those experiences in life, the recurring ones. The path we reluctantly find ourselves on time after time, even though we are quite sure we have approached the journey every possible way, responding to it with every possible action and attitude.

There was a long time when I viewed these recurring themes as spiritual in nature: lessons coming into my life to teach me something; knowing they would return until I learned the lesson. Now I view them as the simple random occurrences of life combined with my personal psychological “snags.” When Mari and I were trying to conceive, and when I miscarried, I saw pregnant women everywhere. They flaunted their rounded bellies, clear glowing skin, and contented waddling gaits. Despite my impression that my part of the world was suddenly populated with an extraordinary number of pregnant women, I know that there have always been, and always will be, pregnant women. I only noticed them because this was a psychological snag for me at the time. Because I was so preoccupied with pregnancy and because of my longing and pain, I would notice a pregnant woman clear on the other side of a crowded parking lot or across the field at my son’s soccer game.

I know it isn’t a perfect analogy, but my point is that my “lessons” aren’t being brought to me by The Universe so that I will learn; they are simply the random turnings of life that frustrate me because … they frustrate me. If at some point they stop frustrating me, it doesn’t mean those situations will stop coming into my life, but that they will no longer snag as they go by.

So this dreary path that I find myself on once again is with my current supervisor at my temp job. Not surprisingly, authority figures are a common snag for me; for many of us.

(Because it is quite likely I will be looking for other jobs in the future, and because this blog is public, I want to mention that I have had many bosses in the past with whom I’ve gotten along famously; bosses who would go to bat for me in a heartbeat, who give me outstanding references and letters of recommendations; bosses who have recognized in me the traits I bring to a job – any job: dedication, intelligence, and my best effort.)

I have mentioned that this is a path I have walked on many, many times. On this path my supervisor seems not to recognize, not to believe, that I am bringing my best effort to the job; but rather questions and even challenges that I am bringing my best effort. When I was a young adult new to the workforce, I responded with a combination of defensiveness and digging in my heels. Truthfully, shamefully, in the face of their skepticism I stopped bringing my best effort.

Somewhere along the way my response to supervisor doubt changed – partly. I decided that my efforts needed to be exemplary, beyond reproach. I did not want my supervisor or the powers-that-be to find anything to point their finger at and say, “There, see? She isn’t doing her best.” However I still became defensive; very defensive. So while my actions were exemplary, in fact I would start working twice as hard to ensure it, my attitude would deteriorate. Exchanges with supervisors took a downward turn; their criticisms would make me angry and belligerent, which in turn fed their convictions.

This struggle has been a baffling one for me. And I have tried so many different ways. I have had some successes, but I will say this – the only situations that started going bad and then turned around were those where my supervisor was willing to be completely honest and up-front, was truly willing to work things out with me on equal footing, one human to another.

But supervisors who have already decided for whatever reason that I am not bringing my best, and who are looking for evidence of that, are not interested in honest dialog; they have already made a decision about me. And what I have learned over the years, during my many tedious journeys along this path, is that no matter how I walk it; no matter how hard I strategize; if I categorize and display my achievements; if I tirelessly document unfair treatment; if I appeal to my supervisor; stand up to her; go above his head; none of that changes the outcome, and none of that makes me feel better about myself.

The other afternoon at work I got an email from my supervisor detailing her expectations of me that convinced me that indeed we are on this familiar and dreadful path. This scenario of supervisor disapproval, really any scenario involving conflict with another person, is enormously, overwhelmingly triggering for me. The rest of that afternoon, and all of that evening, two things happened. One was expected, my anxiety response: my heart rate accelerated, my thinking got cloudy, and a migraine took hold of the right side of my head. But the other was entirely unexpected, alongside the anxiety response: I started clearly and rationally thinking through my options for earning an income, and the pros and cons of each. I realized that my challenge while going down this path will be to keep a clear head about my income options and to know if and when to make a change, rather than freezing in place or acting impulsively.

The next day, with a migraine, I scheduled an emergency session with my therapist. I immediately told her what I needed this session to be about. I gave her the synopsis about work and my two priorities: 1. to be able to manage my anxiety while this plays out, and 2. to be able to continuously balance my income options so that I make the best decision about if and when to change jobs.

Having that knack as therapists do for bringing up things we’d rather they not, she mentioned this recurring theme I have with bosses and suggested that we use this as an opportunity to study it further.

I agreed to that as long as studying it comes in at #3, as it would certainly be a relief to stop being snagged by this particular issue.

We talked about the exchanges I’ve been having in recent weeks with my boss, my theories about when things changed between she and I (which of course are only theories as none of us are mind readers), and my even more shot-in-the-dark theories about what she is thinking. What I finally came up with was, “Somehow, for whatever reason, I think she’s got me all wrong.”

My therapist said, “Then that’s the solid ground you stand on. You ground yourself in the knowledge that every day you earn your pay. No matter what she throws at you, whatever she seems to think of you, wherever this leads, she’s got you all wrong. And she can’t tell you who you are. Because you know who you are.”

For the first time in 24 hours I took a deep breath and slowly let it out. “It isn’t about changing the path I’m on. It isn’t about strategizing. It isn’t about changing what she thinks of me. And it isn’t about changing the outcome. The only thing it is about is returning, over and over again, to the solid ground that I know who I am.”

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!

If you would like to follow my blog there are several ways you can: Follow by Email: enter your email below and you will receive each new post directly from; Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+ where I announce every new post; or Follow me on a blog tracking site such as Bloglovin.

Sunday, June 1, 2014


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: In this post I write in detail about the symptoms of PTSD.

This post is dedicated to all of those who walk courageously and silently through life with PTSD.

June 15 marks one year since I started my blog. The ranger chronicles started – well, when they started, back in 2004. But the decision to make a public blog was a decision I woke up with one morning, or came home from work with one evening, I can’t recall which. But within a couple hours of that decision my first blog post was online.

At first my topics were the things in my life today that I struggle with, and how everything today is filtered through the lens of my PTSD – which stems from my experiences as a park ranger. Then I decided I was ready to start telling that story, the story of becoming and being a park ranger. But it occurs to me that I have a responsibility here, and that is to advocate for those who have PTSD. And the best way for me to do that is to describe what it is to have PTSD, from my perspective.

Except for those who come back from military combat, most sufferers of PTSD are not known by others to be suffering. I recall listening to a program (I think it was on This American Life, and would be grateful to anyone who can lead me back to it!) that talked about the students of Columbine High School who were there in 1999 during the mass shooting, and who are now in the work force, many of whom suffer from PTSD. This isn’t on their resume; their employers are unlikely to have a clue that they attended Columbine or that they suffer from trauma. But for many of them it impacts their every day. I was touched by this story, thinking about the many walking wounded in this country, walking in silence and secrecy and shame.

All of us are traumatized by events in life. What distinguishes “being traumatized” from “post-traumatic stress” is whether the trauma becomes stuck, whether the body is able to process it and recover, or not. If not, in various ways the moment of that trauma is continuously relived every day after.

Whether someone processes and recovers, or becomes stuck in the trauma, is not related to how horrible the trauma was. You cannot ask, "why does this vet have PTSD while that vet does not?" Some amazing discoveries are being made in the research of PTSD today, but the answer to that question is not only very complex, to a large degree it is still a mystery.

Students who were at Columbine HS in 1999 are an extreme example, as are military vets. Less extreme but just as impacted are people who haven’t been able to process the trauma from physical, sexual or emotional abuse; a car accident or other extreme physical injury, health issue or disease; losing a loved one; and many experiences that to a child are frightening and incomprehensible.

Can PTSD be cured? My therapist tells me it can be, as do other experts whose books I’m reading and whose techniques I’ve been practicing. It isn’t so much that I whole-heartedly believe them, but I am putting enough faith in their faith to try until there is a time that either it works, or I am convinced that it cannot.

And this I know: I will never be the same person. As it is when any of us go through any major life event, we can never go back, we can never regain our innocence. “Welcome to the big girls’ club,” one friend told me after I had my miscarriage.” People whose lives have been touched by cancer never look at the world the same again. But I continue to go to therapy and try recommended strategies because I hope to rid myself of the insidious nature of PTSD, the way it hijacks my life every day, the way it routinely prevents me from doing the things that I believe would make my life fuller and more joyful.

So what is it like walking around with PTSD? Many of the symptoms are prevalent among different people. But I’ve noticed that symptoms are somewhat individual; and I often feel like I’m no different with PTSD, it’s just like all my individual neuroses and personal tender spots on crack. There have been times that my symptoms were severe for months at a time; they are far better now thanks to therapy, personal practice and medication, and the worst symptoms now tend to be sporadic rather than chronic. I know this is a long list, but I think it’s important to convey how extremely impactful and debilitating PTSD is. If someone trusts you enough to tell you they have PTSD they are telling you that they face some or most of these symptoms, some or most of the time:

  • Inability to enter into or maintain commitments of any kind. Are you kidding? People ask me to commit to anything and I look at them as if they’re insane, then run away fast. Since I started my healing path about 2 ½ years ago I made these three commitments: do my absolute best to get myself to work, go to therapy even if it means eating beans and rice, and don’t drink alcohol. In this time I have only been able to add one thing to this list: do my best to be there for the young people in my life (son, daughter-in-law-to-be, nieces and nephews. Can anyone provide a better term for these lovely people?).
  • Easily overwhelmed even by routine tasks. Things like taking a shower, preparing food for myself, or doing the dishes at times are so overwhelming I break down in tears contemplating any of them – and simply can’t do them. In the early days after starting my healing I realized that as the weekend neared if my To Do list started to grow, I would become so overwhelmed by Friday night that I would crawl into bed and not get out of it until it was time to go to work Monday morning. I realized that the To Do list had to go. Entirely. I had to talk myself through it: If I don’t clean the house, do my laundry, buy groceries, prepare food, it will still be ok. That strategy has been essential. My house? Not so awesome.
  • I’m wildly triggered by certain world events. The tragedies that are particularly disturbing are any that involve shootings, any involving attacks on law enforcement officers, anything involving children, and any accidents resulting in large loss of life. I’ve learned that if I even catch a hint of these news stories, it’s too late – and I could lose an evening, a series of evenings, or a weekend mourning and obsessing over the lost souls, unable to function.
  • Dizzy, disoriented, shaking hands, brain fog – as if I were drunk. Which of course leads to feeling very self-conscious, like everyone is going to assume I am drunk,
  • No resilience. Time off, down time, never rejuvenate me. Never, ever feel able to refill my energy or stamina. Always just on the verge of collapse.
  • Absolutely no patience. Immediately roused to indignation and anger, or tears.
  • When my anxiety is triggered my symptoms escalate immediately (blood pressure, dizziness, brain fog), and afterwards subside at a glacial pace (can take days or even weeks).
  • If I am taking a walk and see someone (even a mom with a child) walking towards me I instantly become hyper vigilant and can’t breath until they pass.
  • If someone is walking behind me I become so agitated I cannot stand it, and have to let them pass ahead of me.
  • If I am wakened in the middle of the night by a noise (even those I hear routinely), I immediately try to determine the cause: was that gunshots? Is that the sound of people fighting? And the follow-up question: do I need to respond? Before I can fall back asleep I have to reassure myself that I no longer have a job where it is my responsibility to respond to middle-of-the-night emergencies.
  • Absolute inability to maintain a balanced friendship. Friendships include give-and-take, expectations, continuity, and commitments (see above on commitments). Several years ago I counted four people as close friends of the kind I could and did talk to about anything (usually on the phone due to proximity), whom I'd known for decades. The greatest casualty of my PTSD has been the loss of these friendships. Three of these four have quit our friendship, and the fourth has suggested that we forego phone calls in favor of emails until a time when we can regain better footing in our friendship. I can understand that I do not give what is needed in an equal friendship; but that of course does not make it hurt less.
  • Inability to have any expectations placed on me. Someone wants me to return a call or email? It drives me crazy with indignation and frustration.
  • Completely incapable of enduring interpersonal “conflict,” which can include friendly discussion and debate. If there is disagreement and I have an opinion or preference, I cannot be a part of it. If I try my blood pressure sky rockets, I start hearing a roaring in my ears, and the dizziness sets in.
  • Extreme difficulty holding down a job. It was rather disastrous to my finances that my PTSD took hold right along with the downturn in our economy. I walked away from several jobs in succession at the one time in my lifetime that good jobs were hardest to come by. The only thing that kept my butt in my chair when I started temping a couple years ago was the hard, cold realization that this mundane, low-paying temp job was my last stop before living out of my pickup.
  • Significantly reduced ability for small talk or schmoozing. While many folks disdain cultivating these skills, they can be helpful in making the workplace more hospitable. I find myself often unable to do so, and I believe I come across as a bit hot and cold. By this I mean I'm less able to finesse my interactions. If I am even a little bit flustered, irritated or overwhelmed my responses come out blunt or rude. While I don’t mind that to some extent, I have noticed that coworkers have responded very negatively to this – which makes me think I don’t realize my own "strength."
  • For the most part, talking about any of my rangering experiences is not a casual conversation. During times that I am feeling especially strong I can talk about the lighter aspects of it: toilet cleaning miseries, naked campers, and wildlife sightings. But for the most part any verbal discussion of my rangering days or its repercussions triggers a trauma response.
  • Chronic migraines, sinus infections, muscle and joint pain. My MD actually thinks these could all be linked. Poor sleep due to anxiety and nightmares can certainly lead to migraines and muscle and joint pain. I don’t remember where the sinus infections fit in, but I’m working on that.
  • I have chronic nightmares. When I was a ranger they fell into one of two themes. The first was every possible iteration of bad guys jumping out from behind trees, and I was the only one who could stop them. I actually usually managed to subdue them which is pretty awesome, but still they were exhausting and stressful. The other was innumerable accidents involving loss of life and me reluctantly being the first responder. Since, the themes have diversified enormously and I won’t go into them. Many are so disturbing I can't imagine how my brain came up with them.

I know my therapist wishes I would think of it another way, but for all this time I can’t help but feel that a part of me died that day on the highway, the day the man with the gold wedding band on his finger died.

Ever since, I walk more closely to death. In fact it is in this attribute where I find the most hope for redemption. I can hope for the time when I fully integrate all that has happened, and come out the other end having made a peace with death; perhaps then I can serve others in a society that has a completely diseased relationship to death.

And as ambivalent as I am about this, I can’t help but wonder if my forced exodus from the external world into the internal will ultimately also benefit me. External pursuits are rarely as authentic as internal ones.

A friend who recently became a mom, and who lost her sister two years ago, remarked,
“The more my heart opens up with such joy to my daughter, the more I touch the tender parts which still ache for my sister.”
                       - Christy

I found her realization so poignant. As I walk more closely to death, my heart is also more open to those in my life, and for whatever reason it points most true towards those young people I have written about many times. If the trauma in an instant ripped away my years of carefully built up protections, the result is both good and bad: it is bad in that it happened too quickly and I am vulnerable and unprepared, taking refuge from a world too real and too much for me; but good because I am no longer able to hide from the truth of Love and Death, nor do I want to.

But … the gritty truth is, PTSD is a disability. Navigating the world, mundane daily tasks, can be enormous challenges – and others are not able to see or understand. Even family, even friends of twenty years, have not been able to grasp these changes in me – and I have not been able to verbalize it to them.

So it only seems a fair use of this blog to advocate for those suffering from post-trauma, and to shed light on their world so that others might better understand and support them.

It is an act of courage for us every day to get out of bed, shower, forage for food, and leave the relative comfort and predictability of home to head out and face the world.

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!