The Greatest Fear: a journal entry in real time

There will probably be some typos, cliches, run-on sentences, and disjointed thoughts here. You’ve been warned.

My husband is asleep in the next room after being home all day, sick. He will not love this post. I have to write it, because I have to get it out of me, and he will not love it, but he will still love me. You cannot know how long it took us to understand that.

This is not about that journey.

I am writing this while he is asleep, not because I wanted to be sneaky or because he cannot know. He follows me on Twitter, for pity’s sake, where all of my posts are broadcast. He will know.

I am writing this while he is asleep because I cannot sleep. Typically, that is true because I have insomnia (thanks, Crohn’s and all my other issues!) and because I have always been more of a night person than a morning person. Tonight, it is true because I have experienced the adrenaline rush of all adrenaline rushes and the only way to come down off that is to crash, and I haven’t crashed, yet. If the good Lord is willing, I will crash very soon.

I have not crashed, yet, because tonight, about 20 minutes before 7 PM, my husband got a call that his daughter did crash. She was not injured, thank God, but my heart stopped anyway.

I need you to understand something before I go any further. I exaggerate. I admit it. I also admit that I love to exaggerate. I’m a storyteller, people. It’s what we do.

So when I say, “my heart stopped,” some might consider that hyperbole – an expression, a figure of speech. Most people use that phrase or a similar one as such.

It is one phrase I do not use lightly. I have enough health issues that I have felt my heart “skip a beat,” as some are wont to say. I have a mild arrhythmia, so it happens more often than I care to admit. I also have a plethora of immune system issues, the least of which presents itself as severe allergies with a side of asthma.

If you’ve ever had an asthma attack, you know what my Christmas Day turned into when I had one (and of course I didn’t have my inhaler). Not only does the feeling of not getting enough oxygen make me want to panic, it also has the side benefit of making me hyper-aware of my body and what’s happening within it. When the attack started, I could feel the weight on my chest as my lungs filled with mucous and my airways tightened. My nose and ribs expanded, painfully, because I was desperate for air, even though it was all around me. I calmly told my husband that as long as my face was just tingly and not totally numb we were good to go, then I asked him to go a little faster down the interstate. I didn’t tell him why. It was because my face was tingly, true – the pins and needles feeling you get after a limb falls asleep and you start moving it to get blood flowing – but I knew I was in trouble because I had completely lost my vision. He figured that out by the time we got home and I couldn’t get out of the car and onto the porch by myself. I couldn’t see and I couldn’t walk. He mostly carried me inside to my inhaler, and down the hall to our room after. (It was heroic.)

For those who have ever wondered what it might feel like to drown, ask someone who has had an asthma attack. Fluid (mucous) fills your lungs (yes, you can feel it), you breathe but you can’t get air, then you get tingly (usually your extremities or your face), you get tunnel vision that quickly worsens, and eventually, right after you can’t see anything but you’re still conscious, you go completely numb. Then, your body forgets how to operate and you can’t walk. It’s at that point that the true danger is apparent, but the problem is that you’ve already gone through the other stages, so you just don’t care anymore. The wheezing stops, so everyone else assumes the danger has passed. It’s called “silent chest.” That’s bad.

I’ll spare you the details. We got home, got to the meds I needed, I didn’t go to the hospital (no point), and I’m fine. The end.

Where was I?

Right – heart stopped.

Fast forward a couple of days, and things were going well. Work hasn’t been too busy, and other than an internet outage that shut us down for an hour or two, nothing major to report.

And then we got a call.

My step-daughter had been in a wreck. Her mom and step-dad live farther out into the county than we do, so her mom called my husband to tell him and we left immediately. I didn’t hear the conversation, but I saw his face and heard, “What happened, where is she?” and I grabbed the keys and my shoes. My heart stopped.

When I was younger, my step-dad and his family would loan the teens in the family vehicles if we asked. They didn’t hold back, but they always held the keys just out of reach and said, “Be careful. The car/truck/convertible is insured and replaceable, but you can’t be replaced.” I knew they meant it, because one of the boys wrecked an Escalade and it wasn’t a big deal after everyone knew he wasn’t hurt. Don’t get me wrong; no one was thrilled that it was totaled, and I’m pretty sure he worked for a while to pay at least a token penalty, but no one made a big deal out of it and all was well. I now know what it must have been like to say that and mean it.

Tonight, the 15 minutes between getting that call and getting to the scene was scarier than all of the following, which I have also experienced: being stalked, being threatened, getting a phone call about my brother (a police officer), getting a phone call about one of my step-brothers (both Marines), getting calls about parents/grandparents, almost drowning (there was one actual time in water that I remember, two others I apparently don’t remember – my childhood was… well), asphyxiating, being put to sleep for major surgery, repelling down the side of a 7-story building, cliff diving, enduring a fever of 107 for over 8 hours (3rd grade was rough), PTSD, paranoia, and basically anything else I can think of right now.

There are no words.

I know her mother felt the same thing, if not more acutely. (Fact: it is incredibly difficult for me to imagine that, because I am incapable of imagining a bigger hurt or fear than what I experienced tonight. I may never fall asleep again, and at this rate I’ll be wrapping up this post and alphabetizing all of our dishes and canned goods throughout the night if I can’t get some sleep. I am not a big enough egomaniac, though, to think my feelings are any deeper or purer than another human being’s, let alone her mother’s. I love this kid like she is mine and there is nothing on this earth that will change that, but I am not the only part of this equation. That is another journal entry or ten (thousand) for another day.)

I can say I also saw the differences in parents, tonight. The dads (it’s just easier to say that) were focused on logistics, next steps, process, etc. Her mom and I showed up at different times and went straight to the hugs, the letting her cry while we held her, the assurance that not a single one of us gives a flying flip in space about the car, the stuff in it, or where the money will come from to get another one. The only real thing that matters is that she’s okay. (And yes, she is okay. I may never be the same, but by the time we left her mom had talked her into food, a hot bath, and some ibuprofen, so she’s good, y’all.)

There is no greater fear than that of a parent for their child. There is no greater relief than that of holding your child safe in your arms.

I don’t care if you’re a biological parent, adoptive, step, surrogate, whatever. And I don’t care if your kid is 2 years old or 20. It doesn’t vary. At one point, I was dumb enough to think it might – that I would worry less the older they got.

I was an idiot.

Ask anyone who has lived through a heart attack what it feels like and the answers will vary. Ask anyone who has had a near-death experience what it was like in their mind before, during, and after and you’ll hear harrowing tales of darkness and redemption.

I have felt my heart stop, skip a beat, and start again. I have watched the light fade as I ran out of oxygen and I have come out the other side. I keep telling God there must be a reason he keeps saving me and he’s welcome to show that to me any day, now. It cannot possibly be only to nag my husband and his son to scrape and rinse their plates before they leave them in the sink. And yet…

I can tell you without hesitation that if – in that moment – I would have had the choice to put myself bodily between my step-daughter’s vehicle and the other one, I wouldn’t have asked questions, I wouldn’t have put in a stipulation that I would do it only if the collision were going to be fatal, I wouldn’t think, I wouldn’t wait, I wouldn’t blink or even twitch an eye before I chose to step in and keep her from going through this. I would lay down in front of a moving train. No take-backs.

There is a saying that having a child is like watching your heart walk around outside your body. Maybe for some that’s true.

I’ll tell you this.

That child is not mine – not really. Her mother is alive and well and very present, and forced to loan her to me for this lifetime. That cannot be easy. They enjoy a pretty good relationship for a mom and her teenager. I came into the scene when she was six years old, long after their history had been established.

And that girl, with her knack for high drama, her mama’s nerves, her daddy’s dimples and sense of humor, with her snark and her brains and everything else, is more than my heart walking around outside my body. She and her brother are worth far more than just my heart.

I have desperately wanted my own child for over a decade, but after tonight I am re-evaluating whether I can do all of this again. Her brother is only 13, so we have just now entered into the valley of darkness with him. I’m 35, but after tonight and what small indication I have about how the next 5 years will go, I’m pretty sure that by the time he’s 18 I’ll be 90.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some alphabetizing to do, followed by a collection of 1273 classic works of fiction I just found on my hard drive that I was supposed to move to my Kindle. If that doesn’t put me to sleep, I might even learn a new language.

Has anyone seen my inhaler?

We Don’t Do That Here

I’ve been exploring and talking a lot about my feelings over the past couple of weeks. I hate doing that. I’m not good at it; it’s incredibly inconvenient because if I talk about them I have to reflect on them and if I reflect on them I have to admit I’m not perfect and that I really do have the feelings even though I don’t do the feelings. Who has time for that? I’m not a starving, mediocre poet writing lines about the trash on the sidewalk. I’ve got bills to pay.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally fine talking with other people about their feelings. I’m quite good at that, actually, and make my living helping other people explore their reactions and why they have them and then overcome them so we can get stuff done. Because after the feelings have been felt, there is still stuff that has to get done in order for the progress to continue. And I am all about progress while I still do care about the feelings of others.

Unless the progress is mine, apparently. That’s what I’ve learned while feeling my feelings over the past few weeks.

I have made very little progress toward my own goals in life. I’ve rah-rahed and fist-bumped my way through team-building exercises and I like to hope I’ve inspired other people to reach their potential, or at least think they can. But if life progress were measured in speed and miles I’d be a flea in a rusted go-cart a couple of inches from the starting line.

“There’s nothing wrong with feeling things,” I’ve been told, usually by people who have their lives together and don’t worry about all of the many possible scenarios that have literally and will likely never happen to them in this life, which is one of the things I catch myself doing. (I legit waste a lot of free time having imaginary arguments in my head that never come to fruition – line by line, action by reaction. I’m told this is one of the trademarks of a true INTP. Of course it is, because I wouldn’t have a useful trademark like making friends easily or being naturally athletic. No. Instead, I’m one of the lucky ones who has a high probability of being recommended for new anti-anxiety drugs and clinical trials to help alleviate ADHD symptoms.) And that’s great for them if they like to get worked up over their emotions and really engage with that mess. I hear there are also some people who love kale smoothies in the morning. I’m happy for them.

I would rather be stripped to the skin, drizzled in honey, and tied face-down to the top of a fire-ant hill (is that a thing? do fire ants have hills?) than talk about or even acknowledge ‘the feels.’ I feel the same about kale breakfast smoothies, to be fair.

Unfortunately, through an ongoing series of events (and we’re talking years here) and because of some of the books I’ve been reading lately to add some ‘tools to the tool-belt’ for work, I’ve been reflecting on my feels and dreams and hopes and wants and expectations and hang-ups and fears and co-dependencies and I’ve realized I’ve got diddly squat compared to what I have the potential to have, and worse, compared to what I expect(ed) to have at this stage of life. I’ve been forced to look in the mirror, stop having imaginary arguments for a minute or two, and tell myself, sternly, what I always hated hearing from grown-ups when I was a child: I am so disappointed in you.  I thought you were better than this.

I don’t know if you’ve ever sternly talked to yourself in a mirror before, and if you have I hope you had the sense not to do so as soon as you rolled out of bed and before you’ve combed your hair, brushed your teeth, or wiped the previous night’s mascara out from under your bloodshot eyes and the flaking-off drool from your chin. Regardless, it ain’t cute.  It’s downright ugly if you do talk to yourself in the mirror first thing in the morning like I did, but at any time it ain’t cute – not if you do it right.

The crux of the issue is that I’m disappointed in myself for being less than what I know I can be because I’ve spent all of my time ignoring my own feelings, needs, goals, and dreams in order to take care of other people’s feelings and apparent needs. Were they real needs for those people? Possibly, but I didn’t have to be the one to provide for them or fix them. The fact that I felt compelled to do so was a disservice to them and to myself. I tied my self-worth to the validation I felt when others needed me, or at least appeared to need me, instead of to what I know is true about me. I believed I could only be worthy of love or friendship or success if I could prove how useful I was. I watched dream after dream after dream of mine fall by the wayside, fiery meteors of death and devastation crashing to the earth around me. I let go of little pieces of myself along the way, minute by minute, dust particle by dust particle, until I lost myself. I lost friends, time I would’ve loved to spend with them and with my family, the balance I felt when I focused on things I loved like art, writing (see? I’m slowly getting some of my own back), the outdoors, and anything I could possibly get my hands on to read. I lost money, and gave up my goals to travel, and at one point my dumb@$$ gave up the chance at a MacArthur Fellowship.  (Yeah. I’m an idiot. I got that.) I gave up everything I loved about me, everything I loved before I decided I needed to be needed.

All of it. Gone.

I tried to replace it with taking care of people and working my tail off and fitting into a mold that I thought my family expected me to fit into. I tried to tell myself that it was worth it and that maybe this was what I was meant for – to be last in order to gain my ultimate reward. Isn’t that in the Bible, too? “The last shall be first and the first shall be last” (Matthew 20:16)? (FYI, it turns out that verse isn’t about being a martyr like I thought. It’s about a landowner being smart with his resources regardless of what others do for him or how much they think they need from him or deserve. Let that sink in a bit.) And while during some of that time I learned some new things about myself, about how strong I am and can be, and about what I can tolerate and withstand before I’m ready to start slamming faces with a baseball bat, I’ve finally realized something deeply, exhaustingly disturbing.

I was wrong.

And I know I said that the crux of the issue is that I’m disappointed in myself but truly the crux of the crux of the issue is that I was wrong, and I really, completely, totally, wholly hate being wrong. (<— And that is the true crux of the issue. I’m petty that way. I know my truth.) It makes me feel stupid, worthless, and embarrassed. And you know what? I don’t like to feel my feelings, at least not those feelings. Those feelings suck like a stoner siphoning helium from a birthday balloon behind the local Chuck-E-Cheese.

Now, the heart of the crux of the ocean of issues is the fact that I have to make a decision to do something about it. And that means I have to confront my feelings and then talk about them with the people I’ve given so much up for, and we don’t do that here. We don’t fight, we don’t disagree, we don’t stay mad at each other, and we don’t talk about how unappreciated I feel because of everything I’ve given and done and everything I haven’t gotten in return.

We don’t do ROI (that’s Return On Investment for you non-business people) discussions and we sure as heck don’t rock this boat we’ve been patching with peanut butter and holding together with frayed bungee chords while we’ve been navigating the stormy seas of the hurricane we’ve been in for a decade. We talk about how we’ll pay the bills and feed the kids and how in another decade we’ll go on an imaginary trip overseas so we can do more things I really couldn’t give a flying flip about but that I support because it’s what I thought I was supposed to do.

And again, let me be clear: I did this. This was me. There is no blame to be laid but at the door of my dilapidated shack of self-efficacy, washed-up dreams like fragments of seashells and plastic can-rings left by the tide as it washes back out to deeper, bluer, livelier places. I’d love to be able to end this by saying I have a brighter outlook (I do, I think, but I’m hesitant to hope) or with a witty turn of humorous phrase. But I can’t, because this is serious stuff I’m addressing.

And we don’t do that here.