Reflections on a stressful day

I know more about anxiety than the average person, more about neurology, more about the neurology of anxiety, of triggers, of fight and flight and freeze.

 

My anxiety is a gift that lets me understand, in my very body, how a child feels when their emotions are too big.  I know the instinct to flee, the running to hide under a table, to get out now, how your body moves quick, and if someone catches you, you flail.  I know the feeling of raging fury and a sobbing meltdown, the way your body shakes, how your whole being vibrates with torrents of feeling.  I know how a body becomes still.  I know about staring at the ceiling when your insides are liquid and the whole world pours in through your not-there-skin.  Or you are ice and nothing comes in or goes out, you’re paralyzed in the present, and no one can reach you, there’s nothing before or after, just the hugeness of now.

 

My haywire nervous system means I know, I have easy access the place in me that mirrors the place in others who feel scared or mad or so, so quiet.  I know the science.  I can explain how the prefrontal cortex disengages in moments of fear or immense feeling.  I know how fight and flight are survival mechanisms, how they evolved to help humans overcome existential threats.

 

But sometimes it’s maddening to know the science.  Like being split, body and brain.  My internal scholar observes that I’m being triggered, while my body floods and my heart pounds and my eyes squeeze shut to block the sensation of panic.  My brain observes that my heart is flying.  I’ve learned to notice the signs of my own distress, to know their cause, but my body proceeds anyway. Days like today, my nervous system kicks into danger-mode.  Too many of my preschoolers needed help regulating their feelings and their bodies, there was too much chaos in my classroom, too many adults, too much sound and movement.  I had to hold one of my students in their car seat and force their arms through seatbelt straps at the end of the day while they fought to stay free because they didn’t want to go home.  I felt that child’s distress acutely, and I had to put them in their car seat anyway, and there wasn’t time to stay and bring them back to felt safety.

 

That last experience pushed me over my emotion-regulation threshold today.  It’s taken my heart two and a half hours to slow down.  I am glad for my sensitivity, glad for the ability to feel with others, glad I can be a container for others’ distress.  But shit, it is hard some days.

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Memories of Saba

My dad’s dad, my Saba, died on Friday.  I wrote the following from the Seattle airport, en route to Vancouver, BC, where my cousins sat compiling thoughts and memories to memorialize Saba in a speech.

1: As a little girl (probably 8 or 9), I remember being at Saba and Safta’s with the Romanos. This was usual–to spend the summer days before and after Camp Hatikvah in our swimsuits, a thousand sandals lined up by the front door, cousins running up and down flights of stairs, eating popsicles, running to the pool and taking turns in the shower afterwards, all our towels hanging from the racks in the downstairs bathroom, all our toiletries scattered on the counter. On a particular morning, Maya, Talia and I were dressed in swimsuits and ready for breakfast, and Safta asked if we’d maybe like to have pancakes, or waffles–something with syrup. Saba and Safta had recently acquired a luxurious new white carpet, which they’d put under the kitchen table, and Saba, horrified, asked, “what if they get syrup on the new carpet??” Safta glared daggers at him and said, “then we’ll clean it, Irving!” It was a sort of perfect and sweet moment that encapsulated Saba’s need for things to be ordered and kept just the way he wanted, and Safta’s total exasperation and simultaneous practicality.

2: The summer before last, I came up to Vancouver and stayed with Saba and Safta for a few days. I spent an hour and a half or maybe two with Saba at the dining room table, going through pictures and listening to stories about Saskatoon, and the people he knew, and the experiences he had growing up. Saba has always talked a lot about his extended family and the Jewish community, but I think that afternoon in the dining room was the first time I really listened, with presence and openness, to what he had to say. It’s a sweet memory for me. I came away from our conversation with a more 3-dimensional sense of what life looked and felt like for Saba growing up. And I understood, in a way that I hadn’t before, how separate the Jews were from everyone else, and how important it was to be part of a Jewish community that could hold you and support you. That conversation helped me look at Saba in a new way, to understand that his practice of tracking the many members of his family and community, of knowing and recounting every wedding, and b’nei mitzvah, and funeral, was his way of continuing to show up, to keep the web of his Jewish community vital, because that web had been such a vital part of his life. Certainly, Saba valued his family and deeply supported his community, both financially, and by showing up, literally, for the many life cycle events and simchas of all the people he loved.

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nothing

Social media is a strange landscape, and my desire to share and my ability to open myself ebbs and flows. In anger or other moments of strong feeling, I fling myself into the arena. In moments of dissociation, in the quiet and suffocating spaces of depression and fear and anxiety, to reach out is almost impossible. There are no words for un-being. Our language describes what is. How do I explain the sort of non-space I live in when feeling becomes a survival threat?

This year, my brain divorced itself from conscious feeling sometime between the night of the 10th and morning on the 11th. I got up and thought, “Talia dies today, so what.”

It’s not so-what, although at the moment only my intellect (and not my heart) is available to tell you so. I’m reminded of a case study I read for class this week: a 16-year-old girl who was beaten and abused by her stepfather throughout her childhood, who told the details of her maltreatment without affect, and then laughed. We protect ourselves from what we believe will kill us. If the feeling is too painful, we turn off. That’s how we live through trauma.

I’m not sure what compels me to write this evening. I finished reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, that’s certainly a part of it (maybe even all). It’s a good book. A fantastic book, I would say. I continue to be soothed (and stirred) by reading about my own feelings, my own experiences (or similar ones) told in the context of other people’s lives.

Without understanding my own reasoning, I want to share the words I wrote to our dear family friends two years ago (well, just over two years ago), before Talia died all the way:

2/17/14:
“I thought of calling you yesterday, when I was preoccupied with questions about Talia’s soul: where is it? Can it remain intact at this time? Do we need to release her body immediately so that her soul can be at peace? Does the entirety of a person live in the brain? If so (to the last question), Talia is woefully incomplete. That is a tragedy I don’t like to contemplate–that she could be reduced to the ragged patchwork of her brain. It is nicer to think of the soul as an immutable thing, but I still can’t fathom where she is right now.

I am angry, I am empty, I am full, I don’t have words. Most of the time I don’t have complete or lasting feelings–I’m protecting myself from the abyss that must inevitably swamp me, biding my time and communing with Talia’s body, which is so unchanged that I cannot hold reality as I look on her. I don’t know if she hears me. I don’t know if she feels me. But it is good to smell her and hold her.

I want to unplug her, wash her curls, dress her in something dignified and bring her home. I am scared for my parents. I am worried for Abi and Tsion. I am glad to be held specifically in someone’s thoughts.”

Here we are, the day after her final death, and I am still suspended in nothingness. People have been sending their condolences, which is lovely and thoughtful and sweet. But I’m so far away the well-wishes don’t penetrate, it’s like they’re meant for someone else. I’m fine, I don’t need them, I’m nothing, I’m nothing, I’m nothing…

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Feb 20, 2016

If you don’t dissociate your sister dies so you checked way out on the 11th and aren’t coming back till it’s safe

Feelings don’t exist, but then neither does anything else. Must be why I keep thinking “I am nothing”

Walked along the river path because usually the water soothes me, but it was dirt brown and the trees looked fake

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When does the end begin?

When does the end begin? Is it January 15, 2014, when you decided on surgery? Later in the month, when you scheduled surgery? The day you left for surgery? The day of the operation itself?  When you stopped breathing? Sometime during the code?

The end has become a story itself. The end is long. It stretches away before and beyond the code. We do not know when, exactly, you ceased to be yourself. Five minutes into the code? Twenty? Was it a slow process of un-becoming? Did your brain slip away piece-meal? Did you see a white light, travel towards death in peace? Or was your brain too damaged for that? And what of the second death, the body death? We lost you then, too, but did you lose us? Where were you, all that time? Gone already?

I’ve been living the end all month, and today I realized that tomorrow, February 9, is the day I last saw you as yourself. Tomorrow is when you left for surgery. Brains are funny. Mine says if I can prevent tomorrow, I don’t have to lose you. Of course, I already have. But my brain can’t understand. I have special brain-walls that protect me from knowing you’re dead, except in moments. There are more moments in February.

On February 9, when you left for surgery, I was worried about hugging you, because I was getting over a cold. If I got you sick, they wouldn’t operate. I hesitated at good-bye and reminded you about the cold. “Oh, fuck that!” you said, and reached to hug me.  A quick good-bye. I don’t remember you leaving, but I can see the light in the living room and the angle of your head as you spoke. The stiffness of your neck brace and the swing of your pony-tail.

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When I heard the news about Paris

When I heard the news about Paris, a hollow formed in my gut. My insides started twisting around the opening, alternately rejecting and trying to cushion me against the knowledge of horrific loss.

It’s the appropriate response, I think, to acts of violence and terror. But I started to think, when is the last time I felt this ripping? I thought, how much have I been paying attention to acts terror in other parts of the world? In the last week, have I opened the links about terrorism in Beirut, have I reposted articles about the violent threats being issued to black university students here in the United States? What holds me back from entering that holy state of grief? Have I numbed out? Have I begun to associate people of color with loss of life, has their continued and continual slaughter become a normal fact of life?

Part of it is that I’ve stopped seeking out the news. But news of France is seeking me out. It’s all over my newsfeed. It’s being packaged and marketed by every major news site. Facebook is offering to superimpose the French flag over my profile picture. Youtube has the French flag as a backdrop to its logo. Google has placed a black ribbon under its search bar. What I’m saying is that our social systems filter and spin the news we consume. It is appropriate that our hearts should stop, that we should draw together and grieve when human lives are lost. And yet we have stopped taking note, or never noticed in the first place, as black and brown people are murdered in horrific acts of terror, nearly every day.

I am hesitating as I type. People are traumatized and grieving about what happened in France. It is not the opportune time to push a political agenda. Their grief is justified, and actually, I share it. But then, I imagine what it feels like to watch the world respond to Paris when you live in Gaza. I imagine how it feels when your people are regularly profiled and murdered by the police in the United States, and you have to fight for publicity, or you have to fight the kind of publicity that blames the victims.

I’m not changing my profile picture, although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that you shouldn’t. What I would say is that we should pay attention to which flags Facebook offers to superimpose on our pictures, and we should ask why. As we consume the news about France, as we take comfort in the aching community that has risen up around this tragedy, we should remember the many people who are grieving acts of unpublicized violence, people whose lives are less noticeable to us, and again, we should ask why. Andrea Gibson has a wonderful poem called “A Letter to White Queers, A Letter to Myself.” In the poem she says, “I am writing to tell you I have been spending a lot of time thinking, who are my people? What determines whose death will storm my chest, will flood my eyes, will make me want to burn down a fucking city and pray, with every ounce of my winded grace, that more than the smoke will rise?”

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First term of graduate school

In which I wake up in the 7’s every morning and feel oppressively tired by 8 in the evening.

In which there are a minimum of 3 word documents and 3-7 articles open on my computer screen at any given time.

In which I use a planner for the first time in my life.  And I make (and obsessively consult) a weekly to-do list.  And a wall calendar of due dates.

In which I begin scheduling social time in my planner.

In which I regularly cry while reading for class.  Because the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Because people in my field understand the soul-crushing ramifications of poverty.  Because it’s miraculous and just soul-brimming when children with special needs get their needs met.  Because here are all these people who understand, who love the difficult kids.  And I’m a sap.

In which a memoir about traumatic brain injury triggers me so intensely I think I’ve contracted the stomach flu.

In which I begin to learn about Autism.

In which I discover I can take spiders out of my house in cups. Much more than being in grad school, this convinces me I am growing up.

In which I buy and care for a plant, and it does not die.

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