My Triple Crown of Sadness

I’ve been known to make jokes about things that make me sad or that are incredibly painful for me. This is why it should come as no surprise that I refer to this week as, “My Triple Crown of Sadness”. Because, let’s be honest, as far as weeks go, this one is pretty jammed packed with emotions. As with the story of my house fire, I find myself asking if I really want to share such personal thoughts with the World Wide Web. Again, I am reminded of two things:

1. Each time I tell my story, I find that I heal just a little bit.

2. I know that I am not alone when I refer to my “Three Crowns” and I hope that by reading my story, someone else will heal just a little bit too.

My First Crown was awarded to me on September 10th, 26 years ago when I suddenly, and unexpectedly, lost my father. While losing my father has shaped my life in more ways that I can even name, it is also a loss that is undeniably intertwined with the stories of my family and, for that reason; I will not elaborate any further.

My Second Crown was awarded to me when I, with the American Red Cross Disaster Action Team, responded to the attacks of September 11th. I started out in a service center where I would talk with each client as they came in, assess their needs, and help them in whatever way possible. Cut and dry, right? At least that’s what I thought going into it. What I wasn’t prepared for was the fact that, more than anything else, people needed to tell their story to someone. They needed to tell every single horrific detail. They needed to say the words and feel the shape of the words in their mouths so that they could let a piece of their story go. They needed someone to listen who wouldn’t come back with their own story of watching the towers fall. It didn’t matter that I was a 19 year old kid, or that my only real training was in how to properly fill out a form. It didn’t matter that I excused myself from the table, more than once, while they were telling their story, to go to the bathroom and throw up. It didn’t matter that I failed at my efforts to not cry as they sobbed openly before me.

No amount of training could have prepared me for what to say to a crying mother whose husband was killed in the towers and whose son was still missing, two months later. Or how to comfort the man who came in with one leg when he had two legs on September 10th. Or how to hold a child in my lap as they watched their parents struggle to shield them from their overwhelming emotions, the same way that they struggled to shield them from the falling debris. No amount of training….

All I could do was fill out forms and listen, so that’s exactly what I did, for 12 hours a day. I listened. I listened as they told me their stories in English. I listened as they told me their stories in Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese and Italian. And then I listened again as their stories were translated into English. It was strange how listening to their stories in their native languages was somehow more emotional for me than when I heard a story in English. It was almost as if I heard a second story when I listened to a language that I could not understand. While they were speaking, I was listening to the inflections in their voice and the way their voice would catch in their throat when they mentioned the name of a loved one, and I knew that person was no longer with us. I would watch the rise and fall of their chest, or the way their chest wouldn’t move at all when they got to a particularly hard part of the story and were finding it difficult to even breathe. I would feel the shaking of the table or the chair as they fidgeted constantly, as if they were afraid to stay still because, if they stayed still for even a moment, the rest of the world would come crashing down. I would taste the saltiness of my own tears as I would suddenly realize that I had been crying without even realizing it. These were the stories that always seemed to last the longest. It was after each one of these stories that I would tell myself that it was okay to admit that I couldn’t handle this; it was okay to say that I wanted to go home. And then I would lead another client to my table and start all over again.

I managed to do this job for two weeks. This seems like no time at all in my current world but, in that world, each day was a lifetime. Throughout the course of each day we would get updates telling us the new cross roads that made up our territory of people we could provide aide to. As each day progressed, the line of our territory seemed to move further and further north and more and more clients would come in. One day I lead a gentleman who was only a few years older than me to my table. He looked completely crestfallen as he told me that he didn’t know if I could help him but he also didn’t know where else to go or what to do. I looked at his address and told him that he was one street north of the territory but that we could start filling out a form just in case things changed. An hour and a half later I took his file to a supervisor and asked if we could give him some assistance.

She gave me a dirty look and said, “Don’t you pay attention in the meetings?! We are only giving assistance to people who live SOUTH of that street?!”

I said, calmly and politely, “I understand that but the line keeps moving further north every hour and I can’t see turning someone away, who was embarrassed to ask for help in the first place, when you know there is a 90% chance that we will be able to help him in an hour. I’m just asking you to keep his file out.”

At this point she threw a stack of files on her desk and said, “I don’t need some bitchy little know-it-all kid trying to tell me how to do MY job!”

To which I replied, “Well, I don’t need some old fascist pig trying to be the lone spokesperson for the American Red Cross!”

I then stormed out of the room and sent my client home before I ran into the bathroom and had a total meltdown. When the manager came and found me I was sure that he was going to put me on the first plane home. Instead he said, “First off, I just want to say that I have worked seven disasters with that woman and she has treated people the same way at every single one. You are the first, and only, person who has every stood up to her and put her in her place, so for that I would like to thank you. However, we try not to walk around calling people “fascist pigs”. While you have been doing a great job, usually an outburst like that means that you’re getting burnt out, so how about we move you to a different department?”

I agreed that it was probably best for me to do something else as well. As he walked out the door he said, “Oh, and you might want to call your last client back. We just got the call that they moved the line north and we can assist him now. Keep up the good work and try not to tell her that you told her so.”

I finished the rest of my time in NYC working in the Duplication of Benefits department, where I would check each file to see that we gave each client as much assistance as possible without duplicating the assistance at multiple service centers.

My basic MO while I was in New York City was to avoid the pain at all costs. I kept telling myself that I was there to do a job and that I would have plenty of time to decompress when I got home. I think most of the people I was there with felt the same way. We would finish our day at work and then go straight to the bar and start drinking, sometimes without ever even eating dinner. We would drink until we could barely even make it to the subway; the whole time talking about anything other than what we experienced that day. We would get back to our hotel rooms, pass out, and then wake up and do it all again the next day.

When I eventually did make it home I realized that the rest of the world wanted to move on. They had been so inundated with 24 hour coverage of the attacks that, the last thing they wanted was to listen to my story. To be fair to them though, I don’t know that I would have been able to tell my story even if they were able to listen. To them I looked okay, so they just wanted things to get back to normal, and that’s what I wanted too. So I went back to my old job and went about my day to day life as if everything inside me hadn’t changed. I moved into my own apartment, mistakenly telling myself that I needed my own space. In truth, I wanted solitude, someplace to hide, someplace to escape to. I would go out to dinner with my friends but then catch myself as I completely zoned out of their conversations for unknown lengths of time. I would spend time with my family but feel like I was constantly on auto-pilot and simply going through the motions. I would find myself crying in the shower over nothing and everything all at once. I would make myself dinner and then stare at the food for an hour before simply throwing it away and going to bed. But going to bed was the worst part of all. I would struggle to go to sleep, only to wake up crying hysterically an hour or so later. I would find myself, a bold and brazen girl, screaming if I heard a sound in the middle of the night. It got to the point that I was actually afraid to go to sleep. So I got two additional jobs and would spend as much time occupied as possible. When I was home I would paint an old coffee table that I had. There was no design to it; I would simply paint it over and over and over again because I found the brush strokes to be very soothing. I felt like it was symbolic in that I could paint over it again and again and I was the only one who knew what was underneath each layer, or even how many layers there were.

After months of getting little to no sleep, I decided that it might help if I drank before bed. It did and it didn’t. I was able to sleep through most of the night but then I felt entirely miserable through the next day, until I would come home and do it all again. This lifestyle, if you can call it that, lasted for about a year, at which point it became apparent to my friends and family that I was not okay. With their love and support I was finally able to get the professional help that I needed. At my first doctor’s appointment I told him everything that was going on. He looked at me and said, very matter-of-factly, “Erin, you’re not crazy. You’re suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).”

We argued back and forth as I told him that that couldn’t be the case. I wasn’t in the buildings; I wasn’t even in NYC when it happened. I wasn’t a fire fighter or police officer or someone who had even lost someone in the attacks. He explained to me that none of those things mattered. There were people who suffered from PTSD simply from watching all of the news coverage. If they were experiencing it, why couldn’t I believe that my significant role in the disaster relief efforts would cause me to suffer from it as well? As he read me the signs and symptoms of PTSD I realized that I fit or experienced almost every single one. I can’t even explain to you the relief that washed over me that day.

I won’t say that my road back was easy because it was anything but. However, it was actually much faster than I ever thought it could be. Within a matter of months I felt like I was, more often than not, “back to my old self”. And it was real, I wasn’t pretending for anyone else. I still remember the first morning I woke up after having slept through the entire night. I was so relaxed and refreshed and I simply lay in my bed and cried because I didn’t realize, until that moment, how incredibly emotionally and physically exhausted I really was.

By the end of that year I felt like I had regained control of my life. I moved back in with my parents and admitted to myself that the stability and support that they offered was exactly what I needed. Each year, as the anniversary of the attacks approaches, I still find myself becoming increasingly anxious. I will avoid any news coverage from the actual day as I’m sure, like most people, I will always remember those images without having to actually see them again. And I will usually find myself crying for all that was lost that day, but that’s okay. I know that how I feel now is simply a normal part of the healing process and it is okay to feel this way.

This is the first time, in eleven years, that I have ever shared this much detail about this part of my life with anyone other than my doctor. And I choose to do it on the Internet. Ha. Go big or go home, I guess. I wasn’t planning on sharing this much when I first started writing tonight. In fact, I don’t even know when I made that turn. What I do know is that everything in my heart is telling me that it is time. There are so many people walking by us in our daily lives who are suffering silently with PTSD. There are people who I served with in New York City who I know are still dealing with the symptoms today. There are people who experienced their own personal tragedies, tragedies that had nothing to do with September 11th, who have PTSD that is going untreated. And I’m sure it is going untreated for some of the same reasons that mine did for a year. I was so ashamed of how weak I felt. I kept telling myself that I should have been better than that. I had no business going to NYC in the first place if I couldn’t handle what I was going to be confronted with there. These were the last lies that I told to myself, and I hope that they are the last lies that you will tell to yourself as well.

You are not alone!

You are not weak!

You are not a failure!

You have experienced something outside of your control and it is normal to feel helpless but, YOU ARE NOT ALONE!

Today when I think of that day eleven years ago and cry, I know that some of those tears will be for myself, and the year of my life that I gave up because I didn’t know how to ask for help. Don’t give up another day of your life. Write an email, send a letter, scream it out of your bedroom window, but tell someone that you’re hurting. September 11th changed my life. But the day that I finally asked for help? Well, that changed my life too, for the better!

(I know that there was mention of a Third Crown but, after this epic post tonight, I don’t think I have the energy to delve into that one as well.  Perhaps I will save that for another night.  Perhaps I will save that for another year.  Who’s to say, really?)

Three Step Process to Healing a Broken Heart, Starting Your Life Over, and Walking in Faith

Even as I type this I am asking myself, why would I share the most intimate and painful moment of my life with a world full of strangers on the Internet?  Even as I ask this I hear my reply, because it is Message Monday and this is your message to share.  So, that being said, I open myself to you in the hopes that you will find something in my story that rings true for you and that you can possibly use to heal your broken heart, start your life over, and walk in faith.

It has been three years now but at the end of every July I still find myself anxious with the memories that were created years before.  It was a typical day at work, which means that we were incredibly slow and were cutting hours.  I was notorious for going home early but, on this day, I decided to work my full shift; funny how we can replay one choice in our heads over and over and over again.  I often wonder what the outcome would have been if I had decided to go home early.  Around 4pm I received a phone call from my apartment complex informing me that my apartment had been struck by lightning and was burning down.  I remember falling to my knees and crying, “But my cat’s in there, Peter Pan’s in there.”  I couldn’t believe that this was actually happening to me.  I had no idea what I was supposed to do or how I could fix this.

My boss got me into her car and drove me home.  As soon as we reached the city limits we could see the massive plume of smoke guiding us to our destination.  I knew what that smoke meant.  I had been a Disaster Relief Volunteer for the American Red Cross for five years.  I had responded to enough house fires to know the difference between enough smoke to show that there was damage and enough smoke to show that all was lost.  So I knew, before we got there, that all was lost.

When we reached the fire, my worst thoughts were confirmed.  The lightning had struck the unit right next to mine and had burned through our roof and all the way across our building.  As the flames burned across, they dropped burning drywall down which made the fire burn from the top and the bottom at the same time.  Mine and my neighbors unit were completely destroyed, as were some of the other units on the second floor.  I stood there and watched the life that I had created for myself (I had moved to South Carolina only two years before) float away on the ashes.  I felt, not angry, not sad, but completely and utterly empty.  The wind blew and I was assaulted with a mixture of clean earth that had been freshly rained on and the smoldering remains of my home before me.  In that mixture I felt my heart stir, and the words to a song were lifted up:

I was sure by now

God You would have reached down

And wiped our tears away

Stepped in and saved the day

But once again, I say “Amen”,

and it’s still raining
As the thunder rolls

I barely hear Your whisper through the rain

“I’m with you”

And as Your mercy falls

I raise my hands and praise the God who gives And takes away

[Chorus:]

And I’ll praise You in this storm

And I will lift my hands

For You are who You are

No matter where I am

And every tear I’ve cried

You hold in Your hand

You never left my side

And though my heart is torn

I will praise You in this storm

Never before in my life had I received such a clear and loving message from God.  I knew, without a doubt, that I was not alone.  Even as I cried myself to sleep each night, I would still hear that song and I would know that He had not abandoned me.  Even when I had to put my darling Peter Pan to sleep, due to the burns he sustained, and my heart was darkened with anger, I still heard that song. I believe with all of my heart that this fire was meant to be a part of my story.  I also believe that God put me in South Carolina so that, when I lived this part of my story, I would be surrounded by His people who knew how to touch me with their prayers, their love and their grace.  To this day I still feel indebted to the people who showed me what faith really means. 

Step One to Healing a Broken Heart, Starting Your Life Over, and Walking in Faith:  Believe, with all that you are, that you are never alone.  He is with you and He will guide your way, if you let Him.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0i5MzJ9nLjo&feature=related

(If I were better at computers I could embed this video.  Alas, I am not. So click the link to check out Casting Crown’s “I Will Praise You In This Storm”.)

The day after the fire I returned “home” to see what, if anything, was left.  The maintenance crew was going through the apartments to assess the damage but they said that I was not allowed up, due to the potential danger.  I stood there with tears streaming down my face as I begged one guy to please let me up; and if he couldn’t, to please just bring me anything down that was still there.  He looked at me with such sadness in his eyes but he agreed to go back up after the rest of his entourage had left.  When he came back down he was carrying what was left of  my grandfather’s Army footlocker and one tiny piece of paper.  As he placed the footlocker at my feet he held the piece of paper out to me and said, “I don’t know how, but this was still on the refrigerator. Everything else is gone.”  As I reached my hand out to him, he took it and squeezed it in his own.  He looked down at the paper again and I could see the tears well up in his eyes.  He handed the paper to me, smiled a sad smile, told me that he would pray for me, and then he walked away.  When I realized what was in my hand I understood his reaction. I also understood that it was yet another message, hand-picked, just for me.  I held a poem that my friend J. had sent to me quite a while back.  It was something that I put up on my fridge so that I could see it every day until I figured out what it meant to me.  Until that day, I had not decided on it’s meaning in my life.  On that day, I no longer had any doubt as to what it meant for me.

In the days and weeks and months that followed, I would marvel at how that one tiny piece of paper survived.  The microwave had melted into the counter, the pantry door had burned in it’s jamb, the mail on the counter had disintegrated.  Yet this one, tiny bit of paper had somehow survived the flames that destroyed everything around it.  Unbelievable!  Unbelievable only if you do not believe that God will speak directly to you if you are willing to listen.  I was willing to listen.

Step Two to Healing a Broken Heart, Starting Your Life Over, and Walking in Faith: Have faith that the answers which you seek are out there, if you are willing to seek them with an open mind and an open heart.  Give yourself the freedom to simply let go.  “Let all go dear, so comes love.”  I did.  I let it all go and I was rewarded with a love like I have never known.  I will never be able to explain what it felt like to have my heart feel like it was going to shatter under such sadness but that it was also on the verge of bursting with the outpouring of love that my family, friends, co-workers and community had shown to me.  In the aftermath of the fire I truly understood what it meant to have “my cup runneth over”.

(The white square is where the magnet was that was holding it to the fridge.)

I made the eventual decision to leave South Carolina and take a job transfer to Cleveland to start my life over.  We were opening a new location and I knew that that would be the perfect time to blend into the crowd, as everyone there would be new, and I wouldn’t have to share much back story.  Just over two months after the fire I joined my co-workers and brothers in faith for our last lunch together.  When we were ready to leave I hugged them with everything that I had as I tried to fight back the tears.  They had, without a doubt, changed me and I knew that I would hold them in my heart forever.  I had almost reached the state line to cross into North Carolina when I received a text message from C.  The text was simply a radio station.  I quickly turned to the station and heard these lyrics:

And today you know that’s good enough for me

Breathin’ in and out’s a blessing can’t you see

Today’s the first day of the rest of my life

And I’m alive and well, I’m alive and well

I had to pull off to the side of the road because I was crying so hard.  This was it!  This was exactly what I needed to hear as I drove away to begin my new life! I finished the ten hour drive to Cleveland, with tears every now and again, and set about starting over.  About two months had passed when I found myself humming that song.  I had never actually heard the entire song but I was sure that I would like it.  So I went up to the store and treated myself to the new Kenny Chesney c.d.  When I got home, I cuddled up on my bed while clutching my pillow, and pushed play on the c.d. player.  And that is when I finally heard the beginning to the song:

It’d be easy to add up all the pain

And all the dreams you sat and watched go up in flames

Dwell on the wreckage as it smolders in the rain

But not me, I’m alive

I immediately was reduced to a fit of giggles mixed with tears.  How ridiculously, insanely appropriate.  Once I calmed myself down enough I dialed C.’s number.  As soon as I heard his warm southern drawl I said, “You rotten son of a bitch, you!  You are such an asshole!”  He immediately burst out laughing and said, “I was wonderin’ when you was gonna hear the rest of the song!”  Even as I listen to the song now, I still can’t shake the feeling that it was written just for me. I love the fact that I heard what I needed to when I was leaving South Carolina, but then I heard the rest of it when I was ready to.  You can’t force moments like these in life, they are simply part of life’s amazing wonder.

Step Three to Healing a Broken Heart, Starting Your Life Over, and Walking in Faith:  If nothing else in life, allow yourself to laugh!  Sometimes laughter is the only thing that can break though a shell to let the real healing begin.  C. helped me to put things in perspective.  Yes, for all intents and purposes, I had lost everything; but I was still alive and well, and that’s good enough for me.  Some days, the simple fact that you are still alive is going to be the best thing that you have going for you, allow that to be good enough.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WLgLfD3wElQ

(Yep, couldn’t do it here either.  Click to see Kenny Chesney and Dave Matthews perform their song, “I’m Alive”.)

In closing, life is rarely going to work out exactly as you had planned.  There are roadblocks and hurdles and obstacles for you to overcome.  Believe that you are never alone.  Give yourself the freedom to “let go” and create space in your life for love to enter.  Laugh as often as possible and appreciate that being “alive and well” and “breathing in and out” is a blessing that is denied to many but that has been shared with you.