I spend a lot of time thinking about writing, sometimes feeling really vulnerable and uncomfortable about my words being out there. Lately I’ve been ready to write, with a whole post in organized and laid out in my mind, and then had second thoughts because literally anyone can read it and I’ve often aired out the most intimate difficulties of my own life, online, since 2004. Often I’ll be talking with someone and think, “did they read what I wrote? Is that why we’re having this conversation now?’ It can be…unsettling and causes me discomfort. But ultimately I write because it helps me feel at home in my life, in my skin, it sorts out my thoughts and feelings, and because one day maybe I’ll be like my own mother, and I won’t remember. At that time I can look back at these years of writing, all the years of documentation on instagram and flickr and future platforms that don’t exist yet and say “that was my life. These are the things I did.”
It’s no secret that I’ve felt lost, adrift in the current state of political affairs. So for multiple reasons I started taking Community Emergency Response Team classes with the hope that maybe in some small way I can give back to my community. Maybe I don’t like the way the world is headed, but perhaps I can help my own world in what ever little way I can. Concurrently I’ve been going through the belongings of my sister and her husband. Relics of 20 plus years of marriage, the birth of their son, the meaningful memories of their own lives and childhoods. It has been. It has been painful. Emotional. Gut wrenching. I held my brother in law’s baby photos in my hands and it hurt. It hurt because I have limited space. It hurt because I can not carry their memories around in my heart and my home and continue to carry around my own memories and my own belongings in my home. It feels wretched to know that these photos, these memories, that the person who created them is gone now. That his parents are gone now. That my sister is gone now. A third party could come in and mercilessly toss it out, these memories of another. They hold no emotional attachment, no ties. For me it is harder. You start thinking about things like purpose, and value and what is the mark left on the world.
For so long I felt like a ship, with holes poked in on it from all sides. From all the times loved ones told me I didn’t feel what I felt. Sometimes all it takes is acknowledgement. There’s not much acknowledgement in dysfunction. Every time my sister or my father or my mother told me that what I thought wasn’t what I thought it created another hole. And now that two thirds of them are gone I am left to plug those holes, so I don’t sink.
There are a lot of hours of training when you begin taking entry Community Emergency Response Training classes. The first and foremost fact being, you regard the safety of yourself above all else. So you don’t become an additional victim needing rescuing, an additional burden. You are issued personal protection equipment and you are expected to use it. You train in light search and rescue, you practice fire suppression by fire department sanctioned small fires, you sit through disaster psychology. They tell you, if it’s bigger than this size that we want you to put out today, then it’s too big for you. You rescue mannequins from precarious situations. You learn that the sole purpose of CERT is to regard the greatest good for the greatest amount of people. And sometimes that means the individual is left behind. Triage in disaster training ended up being the most difficult subject for me. Because you organize and categorize people into three groups. Immediate, Delayed and Minor treatment. And a black tarp. Sometimes you might have to say “help is on the way” although you are aware that the individual has something that is going to land them on the black tarp. You absolve yourself of humanity to help the greatest amount of humanity.
There is a lot of stigma, being the child of a mentally ill parent. Or parents. Sometimes I wished I could say something more concrete like “I was the child of drug addled parents” because maybe people would be less likely to judge me for the predicaments of my parents. When I look back on my childhood, sometimes I’m angry that my parents poured their dysfunction right into me at the age when a parent is supposed to teach a child to mother itself. I look back at the trauma, and there was trauma and I wonder why no one ever addressed it with me. Why there was no Monday morning quarterbacking of the sometimes terrible things that happened.
While I was sitting through the disaster psychology segment of CERT training and the teacher was talking about triggering I realized some dark things in my own past that were triggered as a result of my own training. And a few things that were triggering me in my disposal of my sister’s life affects.
I think the stigma of mental illness is really terrifically unfair. If you’ve ever been around someone who is suffering deeply from it it is very unsettling, which is likely part of the stigma. I remember when my father would go off of his medication and that terrible flow of energy issuing from him, which felt like a cold breeze in the middle of a hot summer day, brushing past you and making every hair on my body stand up. Who was he talking to? What was he laughing about? Now that I’m older, although admittedly with no evidence to back it up, I have to think that cold energy was somehow him connecting to his subconscious. That same collective unconscious we all tap into at times. It creates art. Writing. Music. It is the source of many things. Kandinsky and many of the other artists of that period wrote thoughtful pieces on that connection. But that energy also has the power to destroy. Reputations. Dreams. Status Quo. Retirement.
At the very end of my CERT training we did a disaster drill. Throughout the training somehow, I found myself reassuring people who felt insecure about what we had to do. During fire suppression my partner looked at me dead in the eye and said “I’m scared. I can’t do this.” I looked at her, told her to put her hand on my shoulder while I held the fire extinguisher and prepared to walk toward the fire and said “I’m scared too.” We all feel that same fear. Somehow you learn to hold it. In class was this very intelligent young, precocious teenager. Maybe about 16. But damn if he didn’t know almost every fact during every question and answer period during our training. We ended up being partnered up during the disaster drill training exercise. The local high school drama club were our “victims.” They painted elaborate stage make up on their bodies. Taped up their arms as if they had been amputee victims. What I wasn’t prepared for was that they would cry out during our exercise. All the times they would yell “help me,” “I can’t find my brother” or just “Please help” as we had to walk by to complete whatever task we had set out to do. It was deeply unsettling and I was very affected by it, but I said nothing. I just continued with the drill. The young, precocious teenager looked at me, with pain in his eyes and said “I didn’t know the yelling and the sounds would upset me so much.” I told him, “tune it out.” “Tune it out.”
It is hard to describe what it felt like walking by people yelling out for help and not helping them in the moment. When the adrenaline rush wore off of me that evening, I ended up in the fetal position, sobbing. Even though it wasn’t real. Even though it was just a drill. The chaos of the situation deeply affected me.
There were times, obviously that I had to metaphorically walk beside my sister and my father and my mother when their subconscious was yelling “help me” so loudly that it made all the hair on my body stand at attention. But, the first rule of safety is save yourself. I couldn’t save my sister, or my father. Just like I can’t save my mother, or frankly, anyone else. I have to maintain my own self and sense of safety, and love my children. Anything else is voluntary.
Once, I found myself in need of assistance from the police, which they offered. I found myself glued in place, looking into the eyes of one of the officers and it touched me that his eyes had no life in them. I couldn’t understand it. He had compartmentalized so much that he couldn’t reach out to me for reassurance, although he definitely aided me in the way that I needed help. Life is like that. I thought about him and his dead eyes many times. I wondered what had happened to him. I still wonder.
I broke out in hives when I was triggered by sifting through my sister’s personal effects, and I was triggered by sitting through a disaster psychology class. I look down at the hives covering my body like a roadmap and I tell myself this is how I know my subconscious is connected to my nervous system. I tell myself, you don’t have to be hyperaware. There is no disaster right now. I can look back at these times when my sister poked holes in me. I can look back at the times when she poked holes in me and the other part of this triangle is my father. And there he was poking holes too. With my mother. I can look at the holes, which strangely resemble my hives and whisper “you don’t have to be a sinking ship.” Because the truth of my life is, I can rescue myself. Because the trauma I’ve been through has made me very strong, not very weak. And my writing will set me free.