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Thursday, January 21, 2021

Is That Hope I Feel? (Grief Made Me Dissociative But I Think That's Lifting Now)

I feel like we are all waking slowly from a bad dream this week-- though I also still have the creeped-out feeling that a monster's hand is going to shoot up out of the ground any second, as it doesn’t quite feel like the credits are done rolling yet. Anyone else feeling this way?

I am realizing, from this waking-from-a-nightmare feeling, that I have been in a somewhat dissociative state for the past four years, in part because of Trump’s win but also because my son died four years ago, just six weeks before the 2016 election. The day after the vote, people – no, actually, just women, who suddenly realized how totally devalued they (still) were--were crying in the streets about Trump being our next president, but I was having a very muted reaction to everything except my own grief.

I wasn’t crying about Trump because I still couldn’t have any feelings about anything except my own horrible loss. Still, it made perfect sense to me that others were now crying. I had wondered how the world could be going on as usual when my son had ripped himself out of the known universe. So when most people I knew went into deep grief over Trump being our president, I felt affirmed, as if suddenly everyone had realized with me what a wretched world we lived in.

Before I go on with the point of this post, which is about the protection the dissociative state provided me, I need to tell everyone reading this who is still in early-stage or prolonged-desperate-stage grief: there really is hope; you will not always feel as terrible as you do now. Nothing stays as it is, not the incredible moments nor our most awful ones, even if we feel permanently stuck. You may never feel like you did before your loss, may never be who you were in the land of before, but you will feel better than you do now if you just hang in there. You may even find you like your new self better, as that self will likely be less brash and arrogant having been put through the excruciating humbling we get when a child dies and we are shown we have no control over anything. In time you will stop trying to go back in time and change the past and that alone will give you more peace. Some of you might feel this increased sense of peace faster than four years, some of you might take longer, but that's how long it's taken me, and if I got here, I believe everyone can get here. If you are in the darkest place ever, I promise you it will change one day, just hang on like Rose after she fell off the Titanic and had to stay afloat on that door; I swear  you will eventually feel differently than you do now. (Though if someone is in that water with you, you might want to take turns staying on the door...Just saying, Jack didn't have to die!)

Which brings me back to how I just now feel that I am coming out of a benumbed spell that has been holding me and all my fellow citizens hostage and that has been keeping me slightly disassociative all these years. 

Yesterday my wife and many of my friends cried watching the brilliant inauguration poet  Amanda Garman (pictured here but please watch the video of her reading poem if you haven't). They cried when Kamala Harris smiled, squared her shoulders and lifted her chin at Sonia Sotomayor, something she advises young women to do if they find they are the first of their kind to have achieved a thing. They cried at seeing the little boy who’d been inspired to overcome his stutter by Biden’s example read us a speech during last night’s concert. They cried at JLo's Spanish shout-out and at Lady Gaga's emotional performance. And they cried seeing the list of the first 10 things Biden did with his executive orders. Through all of this, I was totally dry-eyed. I didn’t even feel choked up, not once, no matter how moving each moment was.

I used to be quite a softy, but since my son’s death, the only thing I have cried over is my loss or my increased fear of anything happening to my daughter. Today, though, I feel I might be waking up. (Is this morning in America?) I suddenly feel like it might be safe to come fully back into my body.

When I was in very early-stage grief, I felt like my skin had been torn off and I was being asked to go back to work with my entire body an open, weeping wound. I cried every time I saw anyone. But it didn’t seem like I had any choice, financially, about whether I could stay home any longer, so there I was, back in my office, crying through much of each day. When I had to make my first business trip after my son's death, I scheduled it for the morning after the election, thinking everyone would be in a good mood, celebrating Hillary’s win. I was a fund-raiser for Hampshire College, so my meetings were to ask parents and alums to support the college, and everyone I met with that day seemed in shock. One set of parents I met kept shaking their heads while we were talking, as if each moment they stayed awake that day their disbelief only intensified that this was our new reality. I knew exactly how they felt. Or rather I felt now they had some idea how I felt, as I, too, couldn't believe life without my son was my new reality.

I don’t know when I started to care more about the outside world. I suppose Trump getting into office drove me to care sooner than I might have otherwise. He seemed to be destroying things (civility, civil rights, our alliances, our air and water, immigrants lives) faster than I could keep up and after a year or so I felt like not participating in protests against his behavior was condoning it, so I just acted as if I cared and called senators or wrote letters or did other small things. Eventually, I did those things with more genuine feeling. But even as my ability to feel real outrage over what was happening to our Democracy and Black lives and, say, the Olympic gymnasts’ doctor having molested hundreds of girls, my tear ducts stayed stopped up. I wasn’t consciously choosing not to feel things, but I understand now I just could not fully embody the emotions that came with caring. 

What about children in cages? Surely that made me feel something. It's true, I could not believe how horrifically we were treating our fellow human beings. I was shocked that we were tearing small children from their families and putting them in concrete cells with Mylar blankets, feeding them gruel thinned with water from a hose, providing no one to care for them, and yet calling it a camp. I was pretty sure this was the worst federal thing that had been done in my name since I was born—but I still couldn’t really feel anything about it except anger, which isn't the same as feeling how traumatized and sad those children and parents must be. I did not have the reserves to draw on; it would take a few years for those to build back up.

For at least the first year after my son died, I thought vague things like, “Oh, if I didn’t want to die from the pain of being in the world while my son is dead I might be able to care about [fill in the atrocity]. But I can’t. Too bad.” My mind was preoccupied pretty much every minute with how I could go back in time and fix or change whatever had led to my son's overdose death. Though I slowly accepted that there was no going back, I continued to obsess about what I could have done that would have resulted in a different outcome. 

And, as mentioned, Trump’s behavior was so egregious that there were days I didn’t see how I could not at least have a Facebook argument with someone, try to save a cousin or a friend from whatever was happening to exponentially multiply hate among a significant minority of the population. I argued until I saw that no mind could be swayed. At all. No matter how many women came forward to say Trump had raped or assaulted them, including a woman with a credible witness who alleged Trump had raped and threatened to kill her and her family when she was just 13 years old, no matter how many disgusting things he said or did, it seemed no one ever stopped supporting him. Even my feelings about how thoroughly discounted his victims' experiences were did not really seep in. I had a protective bubble around myself. I could feel anger, but the emotions I ought to have felt for the actual victims of his behavior just weren’t accessible to me.

Which brings us to today. I am so heartened by Joe Biden’s immediate actions: just restoring our alliances in the Paris Climate Accord and with the World Health Organization and ending the Muslim ban and halting deportations and signing the Equality Act and ending the immigration policy that requires all Central and South Americans to stay in Mexico while they apply for asylum would have been enough to give me real hope. But he’s done at least twice as many things and hasn’t been in office 24 hours yet as I write this. 

Being able to feel genuine hope for my country makes me aware of how cut off I've been from having authentic feelings for anyone outside of  my immediate family and close friends these past four years, First grief and then the fear we've all been steeping in shut me down. I needed time to heal from the trauma of losing my son anyway--plus if ever there were a great four years to dissociate from the horrors of what was happening to my fellow humans, these were they. But I am hopeful I might just be ready to return to the world of feelings now that the odds have increased they can be happy, hopeful ones.

#grief recovery #disssociation 

1 comment:

  1. Lanette,
    Such a brave and articulate reflection on your process from dissociation to hope. Sometime let’s talk about the dissociative grief response to trauma. Sure rings a bell with me.


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