Many years before I met my husband Don, there was an extremely traumatic event in my life. It happened back in 1996, and it was the kind of thing that changes a person forever. The kind of thing that can end up defining you, if you let it. The kind of thing that steals your soul for awhile and grabs at your eyeballs and pulls them out and onto the floor and then stomps on them with tiny little needles until they bleed. It’s the kind of horror that I can’t properly put into words here and now in this blog piece, because it’s so much bigger than that, and because if I start talking about the specifics, I will go back to that dark hole that I hate going back to, and I might end up staying there for much too long. Now, 20 years later, I don’t think about this traumatic event too much. It doesn’t control me, and it doesn’t run through my mind all the time or torture me regularly anymore. But, it is always there. It will always be there. It is NOT who I am – it is something that happened to me – and that makes it a piece of me forever. Even though I don’t want it there. Even though the very thought of it makes me shiver and get chills of nausea. Even though, even though ……….
I cannot get rid of it. It is there.
The two worst moments of my life both happened while I was asleep. In the middle of the night – very early in the morning – and while I was home, supposedly safe in my comfy bed, and sleeping. The first of these moments was this traumatic event in 1996, and the second, of course, was the death of my beautiful husband, who was collapsing from a massive heart-attack at work, as I slept unknowingly in our bed. Because of these two events, I have severe issues surrounding sleep. Intense insomnia, waking up over and over, unrelenting guilt for sleeping at all (its that feeling of “bad things happen when I sleep”), not being able to relax my body into sleep mode, re-living the trauma that I had all those years ago, and then re-living the moments that I never witnessed, in the minutes and hours before my husband’s heart stopped beating. Unbelievably horrible nightmares. On and on and on ….
All of these things have lessened over the years, but they never go away. When I hear a noise in the night, or when I wake up in a cold sweat and realize Im completely alone in that moment, or when I wake up actually in mid-panic-attack and have to try to control my breathing – everything comes rushing back, just like it was yesterday again, and I feel like a small and insignificant child, terrified in the night, and calling out to the canyon of echoes. Nobody answers. I am paralyzed by fear, and I have to remind myself to breathe.
It happened today. No particular reason. It is not the anniversary of either of these horrible events or anything like that – it just happened because sometimes, shit happens. I woke up in the early morning of the time when the actual events occured, and my body flung itself into a sitting position, and I woke up feeling as if someone was choking me. I couldn’t get any air. Logic was nowhere near my brain in this moment – the only thing present was terror.
In the early days of meeting Don, or talking with Don (because we talked online and on the phone for almost THREE YEARS before finally meeting in person), it was about 2 years after living through my trauma, and I hadn’t really told anyone the story of what had happened. I also never saw a therapist, never did anything healthy in the ways of dealing with it. My coping skills included eating fast food and hibernating in my apartment for days and hours and weeks. I would go to work, and then come home, and I would cower in a corner with my TV and my food. I didn’t know this at the time, but my thought process was something like: “If I gain enough weight to be disgusting and awful, it will somehow shield me from the pain. Nobody will ever love me again or touch me again or hurt me again. Nobody will ever want me again, and I can just live inside this protective shell forever.” Over the next year and a half or so, I gained over 100 pounds, and truly became a person that was in no way myself. I became someone I did not recognize. I became the very definition of darkness.
What happened next was something I didn’t expect. What happened next was that, right smack in the middle of my darkness and my hopelessness, a Saint or a savior in the form of a human showed up in my life. Not only did he listen to me when I was most afraid, but he saw right through my “I’m strong and I don’t need anyone” routine, and he called me on it. One night, on the phone, he called me on it. He instinctively knew something was wrong, that something was “off” with me that night, and in general. He said: “Kelley, you can trust me. I feel like something happened to you. Something awful. You don’t have to tell me, but I want you to know you CAN tell me, and I will sit here and listen for as long as you need me to.” Everything fell out of me that night, and before I realized it, I was telling my future husband my story. He listened. He got furious that such horrors could happen to a person. He cried with me. And even though he had to be up for his EMS shift in just a few short hours, he sat on the phone with me for FIVE hours. The sun came up while we were talking – both literally, and figuratively. He said to me in that phone call: “I’m going to stay here with you until you feel safe enough to hang up. I’m going to be your safe place to fall. ” My husband saved my life that night, and he continued saving my life for every single day after, for the 14 wonderful years that I knew him.
One of the hardest parts of waking up to that darkness, now, is knowing that my safe place of Don is no longer here. He can’t hold me until I stop crying. He can’t whisper in my ear that it’s going to be okay, and that I’m safe now, and that he will never let anything happen to me. He can’t say with 100% certainty: “I will never leave you, Boo. I’m always here for you.” He can’t be the one who saves me anymore, and that hurts and stings like an open wound, and it’s something I have to live with. Over the past 4.5 years without my husband, I have started to learn to save myself. I have learned that when Im afraid, trying to bring up his voice in my ear, and trying to really feel it, helps. I have learned that when I have no idea what to do next, to ask myself honestly and freely: “What would Don say to me in this moment? How would he make this better?” Doing this is not even close to the same thing as having my husband here in reality, but it’s a whole lot better than the nothingness that lives inside those echoing walls.
Recently, I’ve been talking with a new person – one that I feel a deep connection to, and one that I’m forming a beautiful friendship with, at the very least. He is a widower, and for reasons too complex to explain here, he is connected to Don in many ways, as is his late wife. So it feels as though the four of us are in this together somehow, and that this connection was meant to happen. It feels as though Don knows that he cant be here anymore for me physically, so he sent me someone wonderful, so that maybe we can heal our broken pieces together.
This morning, when I woke up in my state of panic and terror, instead of getting myself through it, and trying to be strong, and all that crap that I really didnt want to do – instead, I took a risk. I texted him, and I asked for help. I asked him, in the early hours of the morning, if he could call me. And he did. And he helped me breathe in and out again, and he helped me to feel a little safer in that moment again. And he told me he would be there for me, next time I need to hear someone’s voice in the night, providing evidence that there is more than just a lonely echo.
We are all broken. Eventually. Sometimes. To different degrees.
If we can find the missing pieces to our puzzle, the ones that will sit with us and help us to find the best of ourselves again, to want to try again and live again, to dare to feel again ….
That is worth everything. Even the nightmares.