Friday, February 7, 2014

Be a Friend; Be a Super Hero

This Visa commercial reminded me today that I have always been a writer. You see, my very first "book" was about Amelia Earhart. I wrote it in third grade. And I have been writing ever since: stories, poems, plays, essays.

So when I was involved in a fatal accident and developed PTSD, I wrote very clearly -- or so I thought -- and begged my family and friends to be patient with me as I navigated the aftermath of the accident. I still have the the message I sent out to all my friends via Facebook, saved as note. It read, in part: "I will need, now more than ever, the love and support of my friends and family. I am a strong girl, but I don't really know how well I am going to be able to get through this. Again, I appreciate everyone's concern, but please, if you pray for me, pray for this man's family before you pray for me. And then pray for his family again after you pray for me. My love and thanks to all of you, my dear friends."

And then two months later, I wrote this: "This is an open note of sorts to my friends and loved ones. It's been two months since the accident. Everyone keeps telling me that I need to "get over this" and move on. Well, I can't right now, and I need everyone to understand that. What happened isn't just something to "get over" like it's not a big deal. What happened was life changing. I am having a really hard time dealing with all of this. Nothing is helping -- not the medication, not going back to work, not therapy. Nothing is working and I don't know what else to do. I don't know how to just "get better." There isn't a switch that I can just flip and suddenly I'm the mother, daughter, girl friend, co-worker, friend I was before the accident. It doesn't work that way and I NEED everyone to understand that. I also need everyone to stop telling me that I'm ready to start driving again. I KNOW that me not driving is inconveniencing everyone, and I feel bad about that, but the last thing I need right now is more guilt and pressure.

So please, if everyone could just believe that I am doing the absolute best that I can, I would appreciate it. I'm sorry if my best right now isn't matching up to some standard that you guys have in your head about how I ought to be coping with this. I know you all are used to me being the strong one who can get through anything. Well, I've had enough. I can't take anymore right now. It's hard enough doing the simple things like getting out of bed and going to work; the last thing I need are well-meaning people telling me to "get back in the saddle again."

I know you guys are worried about me, and I appreciate it. Hell, I'm worried about me too. But this is my battle, my journey, and I need to do it in the way that makes me feel most comfortable and safe. And if that doesn't align with your expectations, I'm sorry. But I'm doing the best that I can. If that's not good enough for you all, I really don't know what else to tell you

And I wrote another letter on the one year anniversary. And another letter in April 2010 after a particularly harrowing incident caused a tremendous amount of trouble and general unpleasantness within my circle of friends. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. I wrote so much that I even ended up writing a front-page article for my college paper, which was nominated for an award and which you can find here if you want to read it.

Every word I wrote was BEGGING my friends and family for understanding that recovering was the absolutely hardest, most difficult, painful thing I had ever done. And none of the tens of thousands of words, not even the most painful ones that I struggled with, the ones that reduced me to tears, the ones that made me nauseous and made the nightmares worse, none of those words mattered.

They didn't get it. They were just words.

I still write (obviously) but what I've realized is that much like with my PTSD itself, my friends and family needed time. Over the holidays I received a message from a dear friend, someone that I've known for nearly a decade. He'd heard a radio program that was dealing with people's personalities changing after accidents. So he wrote to me:

It got me thinking about you. I will admit up front, I'm very awkward at dealing with unpleasant circumstances. I think there are some people who are naturally comforting and can handle situations with grace. I am not one of those people. I feel like anything I say is just not the right thing -- either it's too cliché or comes out wrong. So, I usually stay quiet.
Anyway, back to the point. I know you went through something terrible, and I don't think I've ever truly understood how it affected you. And then I heard the people on the radio talking, and I started to think about you and tried to understand better what you've been through.
And I think I succeeded. Please note that I use the relative term "better." I don't think there's any way I could entirely understand, but I feel (all this time later) I have more insight into your perspective. This has made me regret not thinking about this earlier. I feel that, as a friend, I could have done more or been more supportive (not that I was ever NON-supportive, but you know what I mean).
That being said, I cannot change the past. However, I can modify my future actions. I hope to continue staying in touch with you...Just like my own relationship with my PTSD is constantly evolving, the way that my friends and family learn to navigate it evolves as well. I've also learned to be more proactive and more open about what I need and how I need it.

But the biggest thing I learned and the thing I absolutely could NOT see when I was in the deepest part of my own personal Hell was that while this was absolutely MY trauma, it didn't just affect me. It affected everyone around me. And as Lisabeth Saunders Medlock writes, "Having someone close to you experience trauma or tragedy should be an opportunity for you to learn and grow." But that growth takes time. If I didn't know how to navigate what was happening to me, inside of me, how could I fairly expect others to? Except I wasn't operating in a world of fair at that point. Some days I still don't. I was operating in a vacuum of rage and pain and I didn't give a shit about fair. I just wanted people -- my friends and family -- to please dear God make the pain stop, why weren't they making it go away? Do something, do anything just make it stop hurting. But they didn't know how.

Now they are learning along with me -- and I appreciate it. It's not perfect. Sometimes they forget, because at the end of the day this is MY trauma, not theirs and so the world spins madly on, despite the fact that I often feel like it's ground to a halt. So they may not remember that sirens make me jump or that I literally see the world differently than they do. But I DO have friends that at least remember some things, like my friend who remembers to grab my hand before we cross the busy streets of Manhattan because he knows they petrify me now or my other friend who took me to the movies and then pulled me close when a preview showed a car wreck and squeezed my hand til it was done.

So here's the thing you can learn if you have someone in your life who's going through some sort of unimaginable trauma, be it chronic/terminal illness, loss of a loved one, trauma or some other generally terrible, horrible thing. You don't need a cape to be a super hero. Just set aside that vague feeling of uncomfortableness. I get it, it's there, just acknowledge that grief is messy and move forward. Let that be your gift. You don't have to know what to do beyond that. Just be present. Be there for your friend. It's not really that hard to continue to be a friend. It doesn't actually require YOU to be a different person. It just requires you to be steadfast -- and compassionate. It doesn't ask you to be understanding, because chances are you won't understand. I only know ONE person who actually "understands" how I feel, and it sucks, cause she's a really great girl and I wish to hell she DIDN'T understand, cause I wish she'd never gone through what I went through.

Just be there. The rest will unfold. It won't be seamless. You'll mess up. Say dumb stuff. Hell, my own grandmother still tries to toss me the car keys sometimes. But the screw-ups won't matter. The little gaffes aren't what's going to further traumatize your already delicate, injured, fragile friend. What's going to crush them, what might even kill them, is feeling misunderstood and abandoned -- like some freak that that's been shunned. Don't do that to your friend. Don't compound the tragedy.

Having someone in your life who's dealing with trauma can challenge you. Don't walk away from that challenge. Don't say it's "too hard" or "too draining" or "too whatever." That "whatever" can help you grow. It can make you a better person, let alone what it can do for the person who's experienced the trauma.


  1. Erin, For all that our traumatic events are different (my first was at 3, my mother died) there is a huge amount of what you say that resonated with me and my experience of growing up with undiagnosed PTSD.

    I was 45 when I got diagnosed, nearly 15 years ago now. People still don't "get" that although I maybe otherwise "normal," as I've had 50+ years to work on dealing with my traumas, this is STILL one of the central cores of my life.

    Not too long ago, I had someone tell me to "Give it to God." My terciary trauma was having an abusive alcoholic as a "mother." She convinced me/told me like moms tell their kids "truths" in those years when you believe what the adults tell you, that "God can't love you, or you wouldn't be in pain." So, "Give it to God." doesn't work for me on two levels, one because of that and secondly because it is again the easy, uninvolved response that says, "Here is an easy fix. Do this and it will be better."

    If folks believe in God,good for them. It doesn't work for me, I wish it did! Like you, I wrote something about PTSD and folks easy answers which infuriate me.

    I'm not "faking" and have no choice, all of those platitudes are just insulting. Do people really think that after 50 years I haven't tried whatever, I mean really??? True compassion and being willing to listen is a much better response, absolutely. Something I wish more people would understand.

    1. You might want to read this. I tangentially relates to your frustration to the overly simple "Give it to God" response. God can provide comfort to some, but to others, God's role in trauma and grief is an unending source of frustration. "Everything happens for a reason" is far too much of a cliche to be helpful. The most useful thing you can do is speak authentically to someone in crisis, even if that means you stumble over your words. It's the heartfeltness that matters, not the poise.