Just a Dream
If I can stop on heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain:
If I can ease on life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
~ Emily Dickson, Book 1 — Life
Friday morning I planned to swim, but just before the alarm sounded at 4:40 am I was lost in a dream. I was holding a lovely little dog, a puppy, who had a heart defect, and nothing could be done for her. I was holding her to death, like I’ve done with another dog many years ago. But then, cruelly, the dream swiveled, and it was my child, my son who died, not a dog. The alarm sounded before I could undo the dream – if that was possible.
I could not face consciousness, so I went back to sleep for an hour. When I awoke again, I was stricken. Whatever I dreamed between wakings was irrelevant. I could not get out of bed. I could not move at all, I laid in silence listening to both of my living children laughing, getting breakfast, enjoying their last day of spring break. I listened to my whole family, below stairs, living and vibrant in the kitchen, but I could not shake the dream.
When I wrote my book nine years ago, I wrote that I never dream about my son. It was true then, and it’s been true throughout. This may very well be the first time I’ve dreamed of my son and remembered it, though I’m sure we have countless dreams that evaporate before consciousness rises.
I was ruined on Friday. I had to go to work because there were two things I needed to do – well, three things, one I will do tomorrow because it the scheme of things it could wait, but the other two could not. I was about 15 minutes into my 35 minute commute before I was sobbing. I cried all the way to work. I cried in the parking lot, and though I thought I had myself together, I ended up in the ladies’ room crying again right after I checked my email.
I don’t cry much. Someday, when I’m stronger, I will finish writing the book about why I don’t cry and why I can’t throw up, but it’s all related to trauma and dissociation with strong roots that run deeper than my motherhood. Still, in the years since my book was published, I’ve retreated from everything I was doing at that time. I walked back my volunteering from full throttle to none at all, to selective, tentative efforts, to none at all.
I don’t really talk or write about congenital heart disease anymore. If I had my way, I might never write about it again because on that topic, I’ve said almost everything I have to say. What I’ve not discussed so fully is the trauma and specifically the Post Traumatic Stress I live with every day of my life. I’m still discovering my triggers. Discovering a trigger is kind of like discovering an emotional landmine only by stepping on it.
Once I stopped denying my trauma and began to try to heal from it, it was like being reborn into the world. My own womb of denial and dissociation protected me. If you’ve read my work or met me in person, you may have been taken aback by how casually I can tell you about the horrors I have seen – that’s because until more recently I saw them like you’d see a movie – like they weren’t really happening to me and to the people I love. I was in a protective bubble my brain made to keep it from breaking completely.
For years people would ask me, “How are you getting through this so well?” or “How did you manage all of that without losing your mind?” For those years I would respond with something like, “I didn’t have a choice,” but now I know I kept it together because I was drenched in adrenaline-superglue. I kept it together because I was surviving, and I’m a particularly strong survivor. I’ll own that, I’m probably one of the best survivors I’ve ever met. Yay me! What I’m not as good at is living. Great at surviving, less great at living in the safety and comfort of the post traumatic world. I’m getting there though. I’m getting better at it.
So I drove to work with a slide show of the greatest hits to my soul. My child, 20 months old, reaching to me through a fog of drugs after open heart surgery, mouthing his silent “Mommy,” wanting me to pick him up minutes after his chest was closed. My child airlifted at 7 days old and the empty aching I felt. During this slide show of maternal terrors, I stopped at a red light in front of the clinic where he was first diagnosed, and I laughed through my tears at how fucked up the world can be. Because irony is the comic relief of trauma.
It’s Sunday, and I’m doing better. There’s a tear in my eye from that last paragraph, but I’m going to be OK. I’m not writing this for me anyway. I’m writing this for you – the couple of hundred moms like me who have read what I write, who have been amazed by my strength (spoiler – it was just brain chemicals), and who have looked at me as a fierce advocate/leader (I was, but maybe for the wrong reasons, I don’t know and I supposed that doesn’t matter now). For you, I write this because it’s the truth.
It can only end when you let it go, and to let it go, you’re going to need help.
That’s all I’ve got, because I’m still learning. But I’m giving it to you because we all need it, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. Irony, again, delivered this article into my LinkedIn feed on Saturday. Read it with tissues and know, you’re not alone.