Fake it Til You Make It and Get a Dog

This week is three months since everything happened, and it’s also Valentine’s Day, and my birthday. It’s a lot. But then, I’m a lot.

I came back from winter break and threw myself into everything with gusto. I committed myself to everything that came my way. I signed up for extra classes and extra activities. I go out when I’m invited. I avoid saying no to anything if I can help it.

I can feel myself vibrating. I don’t sleep well because I go to bed after long days of running around and my mind is still spinning. I laugh too loud and too often. I talk too much and too fast and I can’t stop myself. Everything about me is elevated. The good, the bad, the ugly.

It’s almost as if I’ve convinced myself that if I don’t stop moving, if I just keep moving and talking and going and going, I don’t have to live in my own head. I don’t have to remember the things I remember.

That would be great if it were true.

Instead, I get hit in the middle of class. Breath knocked out of me. Tears welling as I feel my entire body flush. I remember his eyes. I remember when I realized there was nothing I could do. I remember hoping I was wrong, that I had somehow missed something, and then realizing an ambulance never came and that I had been right and that I never wanted to be right again.

The grief has lessened, I think. But grief is normal and standard and I have grieved before and I will again. I watched my grandfather die in college. I noted his last breaths after we took him off the respirator. I cried and mourned and healed. This is not that.

I think, to a certain extent, the part of me that has always smiled through pain has taken over. No person in their right mind wants to see someone else suffer, and the last thing I want to do is make people feel like they are putting up with me because I am sad.

Instead, I overdo it, and now my subconscious is telling me people are putting up with me because I’m too much.

It’s similar to depression in that I’m compensating, but different because I’m not really faking it. I’m happy to be with friends, almost too happy. I’m even okay when I’m alone because I have a dog now, and she makes me laugh and smile.

But I quickly become overwhelmed and when I become overwhelmed I also become overwhelming. As my voice rises in volume so does my anxiety and I feel that everything I’m saying is wrong and that no one wants to hear me speak.

This is, as we say, sub-optimal.

Still, I know it’ll keep getting better. I’ll keep getting better. I have to. I don’t have any other choice.

I tell people my dog has helped me. She’s done more than that, I think. She’s saved me.

My friends are amazing and wonderful and they got me through the grief. But I’ve had friends my whole life, and I’ve had depression for most of it. The problem with friends is it’s easy to convince myself that they’d be better off without me.

My dog, however…

I have to get out of bed in the morning because she needs to go out. I have to go for walks and get fresh air because I want her to expend some energy and practice her leash training. I have to go to bed at a reasonable hour because she tells me when it’s time.

Even as I sit here, body aching from constantly being tense, chest tightening from all that life has thrown at me, mind racing from all that is to come and that could come, my heart is lightened by the strange magic that is my dog.

This sounds insane, I think. But it’s true. Just watching her breathe as she sleeps fills me with a giddiness that relaxes me ever so slightly. I can’t ever be mad at her. I love her completely. And I want to be here, with her.

I can’t replace the people I’ve lost. I can’t rebuild my blind trust that universe is fair. But I can love, and I do, and I am so glad to know that hasn’t gone away.

So I will keep working on myself. And try to forgive myself. And hug my dog.

Grief/Trauma

As some of you know, I recently discovered my close friend in his apartment after he had passed away from natural causes. I don’t wish to write about our relationship, as he cannot consent, but a mentor of mine reminded me it often helps me to write about what I am feeling, so here I am.

The moment I found him, it was as though cold barbed wire wrapped itself around my insides, a tangled thicket coiled from my throat to the pit of my stomach, piercing my heart and my lungs and my very soul.

Every moment is pain. And the moments that are less painful, when the coils loosen briefly, when I can laugh and smile and enjoy a second, lead to a re-tightening, a constriction of guilt and remorse and grief. I feel guilty for living. I feel guilty for taking pleasure in my life. I feel guilty for being here when he isn’t.

As both an EMT and someone focused in the behavioral health aspects of public health, I am somewhat well versed in trauma, and what it does to someone. When I went to our Counseling and Psychological Services office, they gave me a handout on trauma, something that looked like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, with words that were so familiar it burned my eyes to read them. The handout reminded me to be prepared for flashbacks. For nightmares. For insomnia. I knew this, I knew what to expect, and I watch it happening. I am two people: the rational Lillie, watching my experience, knowing it is part of what I must do to deal; and the emotional Lillie, broken, scattered, tremulous and hopeless.

I know the stages of grief. I know the signs of trauma. I see them all in myself and yet I cannot stop them. I must experience them to heal but healing requires re-breaking. I have to re-set my core self before it can heal, and the re-setting is painful beyond belief.

I am lucky to have known him. I know it, and I feel it. But still I feel myself yearning for the impossible. The bargaining stage set in, and I found myself thinking, if only I could have taken his place.

I am not religious, so the part of me that seeks meaning in something so meaningless is confusing to the rest of me, but I find myself grasping for some purpose. Some reason. Some kind of place to channel this fury and horror, something other than the gaping holes being pierced into my heart with every breath I take, every extra breath I get that he didn’t.

It will take time. I know this, and accept it, just as I fail to accept my new reality. That, too, will take time.

Every flashback, I try to replace with a good memory. Every time I notice my shaking hands, I grasp something. Every time I feel inconsolably lonely, I try to reach out.

There is no sense in this. There is no fairness.

It seems difficult to be thankful in this time, but I have received such great support. Dear friends, rushing to my side as I dealt with the police, when my legs could no longer hold me. My family, piling into a car and driving the six hours through the darkest night. Those who stayed by my side, those who check in. I would not manage without them. I would be lost.

So I will try, tomorrow, to find the thankfulness in my heart. To be grateful for what I have, and to be grateful even for what I have lost—the moments I did have, the kindness I experienced.

My pain may recede, and become bearable, become part of who I am. One day. In the distant future. But my gratitude will remain.