Mindfulness: The Graduate Program
The phone rang this morning somewhere between measuring out pills for the dog and dressing Captain’s wound. “RED ALERT!” woooop! woooop! wooop! (The ringtone for my parents is the Star-Trek battle alarm) I turned off the ringer, having learned decades ago that buying myself a few moments to prepare for whatever is about to fall in my lap is well worth the delay.
Message: “They’re coming for your father with the ambulance. We’ll be at St. Alban’s. I’ll probably need an ambulance myself. Just thought you should know.”
Rather than return the call, I phoned the nurse at the retirement home to get the scoop. I asked her to relay to my parents that I’d meet them at the hospital.
I’m quite sure that the color drained out of my face and puddled on the floor. The Sunday of “rest” that I had promised myself was about to become the Sunday of fear. Breathe…
When my father is stressed, his memory becomes very poor and he can become quite mean and belligerent. That’s probably normal at 91, but it certainly brings flashbacks. And she… she loves a good crisis. What if he dies? I’d need to postpone feeling anything at all about that, and rally all the strength in the world to deal with her screaming and carrying on. I’d rather have my skin peeled off.
Breathe…. Breathe from deep in the belly. This is only thinking. I’m still safe, here at the farm. The horses need to be fed. One foot in front of the other to the barn. BE. HERE. NOW. The squeak of a stall door. The smell of hay. The white goo of the antibiotic cream for Captain’s leg. The wound is warm and rough to the touch. “Easy, Darlin’,” I whisper. “I’m right here (and I am) and I won’t hurt you.”
Back in the house, throwing on a blouse and clean jeans, the walls start closing in, and I dash to the window to inhale the summer green. I observe the pounding of my heart in my ears, the light-headedness, the clenched muscles, and consciously relax. Picking up a horse shoe from the table by the window, I feel it’s heaviness, its hardness, its coolness – these things ground me, for a moment.
Shoes? Wallet? Keys? One last sip of coffee, heavily laced with adrenaline and cortisol, and I crawl woodenly into the car. A one hour drive is a long way on twisty back roads, longer still when you’re fighting dizziness and the overwhelming urge to dissociate.
Turn up the radio! Roll down the windows! This helps.
I’m watching all of this, observing it, allowing it. “Don’t run away! Be here, in this moment, with the fear. There are countless people in your position at this very moment. This is the human condition and the great soup of life. You aren’t special.”
As I watch my body screaming out warnings, I send out waves of strength and solidarity to all who are afraid at this moment. And simultaneously, I’m just driving – driving on a country road on a Sunday morning. May all beings know happiness. May all beings be free from suffering. “We can do this.” I say aloud.
Ultimately, it was all rather uneventful. He was released. She behaved herself remarkably well. I drove them home, then I drove home, feeling like I’d been run over by a bus.
Why all the fuss? Well, this is PTSD. Despite one’s best efforts, the mind and nervous system insist that you are in an earlier place and time, and they react and respond accordingly. It’s a little like being stuck in a nightmare from which you cannot awaken (or perhaps a nightmare through which you can awaken). No amount of deep breathing helps, any more than “putting your past behind you”. It’s just what you have to work with.
I have found one tiny crack in the PTSD monster’s armor though – one tiny place for some air to get in: (whispering) I don’t believe in it. The body can spew whatever chemicals it wants to. I’m going to keep breathing. I’ll sit with the terror. I’ll hold its hand. I’ll do whatever it takes, but I do my best to stay present and observe, in compassion, what’s happening rather than buying into the story line and fanning its flames.
Sometimes, I succeed. Sometimes not. I do my best to have compassion for that too, when I can.
It’s suppertime. Time to start the evening routine of pills for the dog and horse care. There’s a summer storm rolling in. Thunder rumbles to the west. The air is thick with heat and rain. “May all beings be free from suffering…