Surviving Survival–In Which I Talk about PTSD

Dear Lily June,

If it were in my ability to do so, I might shield you from this world in some kind of steel bubble until you had made it through any variety of disaster, catastrophe, trauma, or loss that might truly shake you to your foundation. I’d say if you can make it through the first odd seventy-years of your life, from then on it might be smooth sailing.

In all likelihood, you will indeed live through something you never thought yourself capable of surviving. Some will say, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Some opt instead for “All this, too, shall pass.” The truth is, some moments send cracks splintering through you, and they do not leave your memory no matter what you do. Some moments will stalk you like a second shadow; they destabilize your center and wholeheartedly change you. These changes are not always for the worse. A bone needs, sometimes, to be rebroken before it can heal without becoming warped. So it is with the soul.

***

With any luck, you’ll scarcely be able to imagine what it’s like to live through an attack on your country. (America has, historically, though, been a bit of a bully, so it may take, in addition to luck, a lot of redemption and apologies.) I was sixteen years old when the September 11th attacks occurred in the United States, and I can only remember the event in bits and pieces.

I remember that I’d gone to a poetry program that day–what was called an apprenticeship–at the University of Pittsburgh. My mother had driven me into the city, and in one of the higher floors of the tallest building in Oakland, the Cathedral of Learning, we were asked to write a poem beginning, “Poetry is a __________.” In the exercise, you were meant to create an extended metaphor ars poetica where you described the object in the blank, but each description could also extend back to poetry itself. It was in the midst of my furious scribbling that an alarm went off in the building.

CathedralofLearninglookingup
This was the exquisitely beautiful, and terrifyingly tall, place I first got to study poetry.

I was hurriedly escorted, along with a number of teenage poet freaks from across the city, out of the cathedral, and we were told, fairly brusquely, that class was dismissed. I still didn’t grasp what was going on until my mother arrived to pick me up early and said, “America is under attack. There are terrorists flying into buildings in New York City.”

I had no mental map by which to orient myself to this kind of situation. I was a punk teenage kid, and I think I started to scour the sky with my eyes, looking for bombs to rain down on us. When nothing fell, I almost breathed a sigh of relief. My mother drove me back to my high school, and when she dropped me off, the security guard was incredulous: “You’re taking her back to school?! God bless you, ma’am,” he said to my mother.

She pulled away, and from there, each class was funereal. Each teacher was silently glued to the classroom’s TV screens, and when the bell went off, each student shuffled to the next classroom where the next silent teacher stood in front of the next TV, always set to the same breaking news. The coverage replayed the same video footage over and over of people jumping from the towers of the World Trade Center, of the skyscrapers erupting into blasts of fire and of shattering glass, of firefighters and police rushing into rubble and dust to pull free what survivors they could.

North_face_south_tower_after_plane_strike_9-11
This image played over and over on every television set–and in my dreams–for weeks.

I was staying at my dad’s that week, and when I got home, we just sat silently in front of the tube as I had in school, watching the footage from different angles–professional, amateur–as newscasters could barely read their teleprompters without shuddering. Tears fell unabashedly down our cheeks. We were crying for the bodies of so many strangers lost. We were weeping for our country, with all of its beauty and all of its faults.

I didn’t remember what I’d written that day until it was returned at the next apprenticeship, held weeks later while the country was still in a state of mourning, and the sky was still empty, devoid of any planes taking flight and leaving their carefree trails like white scars through the blue. My teacher handed my sheet back to me with a strange look in her eyes. If you don’t believe me, Lily, I wouldn’t blame you, as I stood in shock and disbelief at what I saw when she handed me the paper, too. Inspired, I guess, by the cathedral the class took place in, I had written, “Poetry is a tower.”

***

In the state bordering mine, before I knew either of them, your father’s brother would sign up a few years later to serve in the military. We would still be embroiled in the fiasco known as The War on Terror, a nebulous skirmish where we sent soldiers in response to anger and fear. There were claims that we were on a mission of retaliation for 9/11; there were lies that other countries were harboring “weapons of mass destruction.” Your Uncle Bryce was just a boy with a broken heart, a ship without a rudder or any sense of direction. He signed up and was shipped off, hoping the structure of the military would be his salvation.

 ***

I wouldn’t meet your father until years later, and it was a decade before we’d embrace our own personal destruction, the Tuscaloosa tornado of April 27, 2011. I know I’ve already written about the tornado for you (here and here, specifically), but because it so changed the course of my life (brought me to Muncie and better, to you), I can’t help feeling like it serves my life in the same way a door is supported by its hinges. Everything turned around those times.

For one thing, when I escaped the bathtub to step into the world outside, everything was ruined. You don’t know how much you chart your life by your landscape, by the familiar edges of buildings and branches of trees, until everything lies in rubble at your feet. It was the very next morning I took to walking the streets, and I walked without any loss of energy for miles. I looked at the parking lots of the places where your dad and I used to eat: everywhere twisted metal and bricks. I looked at the houses that made up our neighborhood: everywhere the contents of homes had been strewn into heaps.

And I wasn’t alone. It seemed as if the whole city was stumbling through its life, disbelieving its own heartbeat. I was wracked with survivor’s guilt before I even knew to call it such a thing. Sixty some people were killed; why hadn’t one of those people been me, I thought without thinking. And a city shambled along, dragging its heels over sidewalks that were broken up into sand, covering its mouths for the debris that still hovered like a cloud dropped to land.

F5_tornado_Elie_Manitoba_2007

I can only imagine that was a glimpse into what it must have been like to inhale the dust of ground zero after those heinous attacks ten years earlier. Only, with a tornado, there is no one to blame.

***

And across the world, in Afghanistan, somewhere in all this time, your Uncle Bryce was seeing things a man should never have to see. As I mourned buildings and strangers, he was collecting memories of bodies. There was so much violence, Lily. War is an ugly stone that sits upon a man’s heart, threatening to sink it if he can’t find a way to keep it afloat.

They call tornadoes the finger of God, and it was like that finger had tapped my shoulder. What still crushes Bryce to this day are memories like a fist had come down on his skull like a hammer. He saw explosions and deaths and buildings crumble as if they’d been flicked by a being more powerful than scared boys nursing heartbreaks and looking for their lives to go other ways. Some days, he struggles to accept why he was allowed to survive.

War_on_Terror_montage1I don’t know what it’s like to carry what your Uncle carries in him. He’s tried to hold down jobs in factories since returning, but the machinery churning and chugging and banging skips the record in his brain back to a song he can’t bear hearing. He’s gotten into fights. He’s gone drinking.

In our apartment years ago, after the tornado, there was a crack in our ceiling. Something in that natural disaster had crumbled the foundation in my brain, and I was certain that crack, which had likely always been there, was proof that our whole roof would come caving in. I couldn’t stand to look at it, and I grabbed a bouquet of plastic flowers to jam in there. For months, we had a homemade chandelier of crazy, made from plastic tulips and plastic daisies.

What haunted Bryce were more like bouquets of bullets and death outside of caskets. We are united, in some ways, by our inability to take these moments and get past them. But we are both parents now, so though the memories weigh us down, we have to outlast them.

We get by, as we do, in part because we share a common bond, and it’s not devastation. It’s the love of your father, Ryan. I can’t tell you how many times he held me after the tornado, trying to bring my mind back to the present. He’s got simple ways of loving sometimes that have a way of saving.

I’ll never forget the year his brother was still in Iraq and would thus miss his birthday in the States. Your father was so sad and scared for his brother, and he wanted to do something, but we were too poor at that time to even purchase a cake. And so your dad went to our fridge and pulled out a grape. And though his brother was thousands of miles away, we sang Happy Birthday as loud as we could while your dad lit a candle in the measly fruit. That spark for Bryce, whom at that point I hadn’t even met, lit up your father’s eyes in the dark. And there was love there burning bright enough to save us all from ourselves, from our pain and our post-traumatic stress and our hypervigilance and our nightmarish dreams.

Picture Credits:

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13 thoughts on “Surviving Survival–In Which I Talk about PTSD

  1. corriewright2013 says:

    I always love your writing. So captivating. It’s like reading a story and waiting for the next part. Keep it up. By the way, I was born in Alabama and I see that you mentioned Tuscaloosa. I was born about 45 miles south of there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. dearlilyjune says:

      Thanks for your kind words! I’d say “Roll Tide” to you, but you never know who’s not a big fan of UA. (I’ve had enough Auburn fans chastise me that “Roll Tide” is not the Aloha of the entire state.) Though the tornado terrified me, there was much I fell in love with in the South.

      Like

  2. Lucinda Tart says:

    PTSD, thank you for describing the depth of beauty one can find while trapped in this nightmare of involuntary reacting. Courage to live with these ongoing flashes of yesterday’s realities, today, is a daily mantra. Blessings.

    Liked by 1 person

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