As the sun fell on another day in the beautiful, but ravaged city of Sarajevo I sat inside a makeshift trauma center scrolling through a mental list of what I had been witness to; two murdered babies laying in a dank basement turned morgue, an elderly woman ripped open, her face torn nearly off from mortar shrapnel, and a constant stream of wounded in various states so severe it was difficult to know if they were fighting to live or begging to die.
What I had absolutely no comprehension of then was how what I had seen this day would haunt me all the other days to follow. The things that I’ve seen are frozen in time – burned into my conscious, burned into subconscious, and on a continuous replay loop. For me, not just the things that I saw then or would come to see later in my career, but the things that I’ve heard, felt, smelled and at times tasted. All that I witnessed in Sarajevo and in places like Sarajevo – places as bad or worse in their own horrific ways have always come for me in daily flashbacks or nighttime terrors.
I know for me, the ghosts of that which I witnessed in that trauma clinic began lurking in the shadows of my dreams as quickly as that night. Overtime flashbacks and nightmares of past war horrors became as expected as the sun setting or the moon rising.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay, you’re okay.” I could hear a gentle voice, but it sounded faint, and yet it felt near. I was caught somewhere between conscious and unconscious – two very different places and yet the same place all at once. It sounded as if someone I was not expecting was calling to me from a distance or was it? Was someone really there or was Nature up to her old tricks, blowing ever so softly through the tall dry grass I was struggling to run through. Nature has a way of making a person lose confidence in their ability to distinguish between words and wind and I was desperately unsure.
“Wake up, wake up, everything is okay now.” I felt a gentle touch at first, but it was becoming firmer and firmer – I could feel someone touching my shoulder, then it began to rock me back and forth with gentleness and care. What was this? Where was I? I’m scared. I’m running from one mountain tree-line to another mountain tree-line. I’m running from soldiers who are chasing me with guns. I know the other tree-line is safety, but what stands between death and life is a wide field of long dry grass. I know I can cross the field quick and low, but nightmares are ugly in their deception. The long dry grass feels as if it is growing higher and higher, thicker and thicker, heavier and heavier. The more I fight to push through it the more I feel entangled and when I should be getting closer to safety I only seem to be getting farther. I’m trying to take long, high steps to overcome being entangled, but it is exhausting. I try to push the long dry grass down with my hands, but it makes little difference. I am fighting to get to the other side, but the other side never seems to meet me. I feel the terrible sensation of panic coming and I want out…
“You’re dreaming, it’s okay,” It is a voice, I know it is. Someone is here with me and they are safe. The gentle rocking continues to sway me back and forth. My eyes flicker open and closed and I can see the slight details of someone’s face – a bearded man with soft eyes behind rimmed glasses. It was one of the doctors in the trauma center. The feeling of panic that is on the verge of enveloping me begins to slow, then settle, then recede. For a moment more I continue to struggle somewhere between asleep and awake. I’m struck with a memory. It is the memory of another time, before Sarajevo, when the gentle words and soft touch of someone else saved me from a moment of fear and panic. What was it about two different people, worlds apart in time, and location bonded together by their calming voice and their gentle touch? What is that? Ahh, yes, there the answer is; It is their compassionate, empathetic, human nature and it transcends everything else.
The touch of a caring and compassionate human being is as unique in its own way as a mother’s soft loving touch and her gentle, life-giving words, are in their own unique way. Compassion is one of those overused words that few really understand its meaning, and even fewer understand what it means to have it and exhibit it. Oftentimes people confuse empathy with compassion and while having either one or the other is a good trait to poses, one is greater to me than the other because one of these inspires action to help. When they are paired together in a single human being, this is a true gift and blessing to the world and those are the people I’m speaking of now at this moment.
It seems super ironic that I’m about to attempt to help educate you on how compassion and empathy are different when I know in the coming paragraphs I’m going to share just how uneducated I was growing up, but what the fuck, it is what it is.
Compassion – Sorrow for the sufferings or trouble of another or others, accompanied by an urge to help.
Empathy – The ability to identify with or understand another’s situation or feelings.
The gentle words and touch of someone who is compassionate AND empathetic are powerful because they can identify and act. Their acting is simply the willingness to step into your shit with you. Your pain and suffering and anger with a heart to help. Doctors and nurses around the world are a segment of people who willingly put themselves in the midst of places and situations most of us want to run from. Personally, in my own experiences before, during, and after Sarajevo those moments most frequently occurred in situations where I had no control over the outcome of what was happening to myself, or a loved one, and it was a doctor or nurse who willingly stepped into the dark helplessness I was drowning in to provide comfort, wisdom, or simply reminder that I was not for one moment alone or on my own.
Back in 1987 I suffered a serious spinal neck injury during a high school football game. The injury happened on a kickoff return somewhere in the first half and while my “bell” had been rung, I had apparently got myself off the field. As it turned out, I had apparently gone on to play the rest of the game. The trouble was, I had no memory of anything beyond us receiving the kickoff, sprinting down the middle of the field and then it goes black – I don’t remember shit after that. As it turned out, in the locker room after the game, I began asking a teammate questions I should have obviously known. For example, Who won the game? How’d the game end? Did I play? Where are we? Was Bon Jovi still a band? Normal shit like that. The teammate knew something was wrong with me and the next clear memory I have is being in the back of an ambulance all alone – there was a paramedic back with me, but it was rather dark and I don’t recall that he and I ever spoke. The paramedics took me to the ER of a local hospital in a town I had never been in, a couple hours from home.
Laying on a backboard, imobal, with a neck brace strapped around my neck, and my arms strapped to my side, a team of ER doctors and nurses worked to get me prepped to be rushed to have an MRI and after that a CT scan. There I was 16-years old, in the ER of some strange town on a Friday night, no one from the team was there, my parents had been called and they were driving the two hours or so to get me and I’m unable to answer even the most basic questions every teenager should know. Questions such as, what is your home address – no idea. What is your telephone number – no idea. When is your birthday – “January”…day and year – no idea. Is Bon Jovi still a band – God, please let Bon Jovi still be a band. All this is scary as shit for me, but to make it even worse there is a small child a curtain sheet away from me who has run through a plate glass window and by the sound of his screams he isn’t doing so hot.
It was then that a very caring and compassionate doctor touched my shoulder as she leaned over top of me, no doubt she could see the anxiety building up in me, “hey, you are okay and you are going to be okay. We’re going to take really good care of you.” Her touch, and her words, gave me a sense of calm. From there I was able to catch my breath, the sense of anxiety and panic that felt as though it was going to overtake me at any moment began to fade and I felt safe abd confident that no matter how alone I was in terms of people I actually know by name or face, someone in the midst of all of this was looking out for me.
Fast forward 25 years later, long after Sarajevo. It was the start of the Summer 2012 and my wife Angela was pregnant with our fourth son, Samuel. She had been suffering with what to her was abnormal stomach pain, but to various doctors she had seen for it, it was dismissed as something pregnancy related, but not of concern. In fact, one doctor suggested an ant-acid would probably do the trick. Well it didn’t, and after several weeks with the pain getting worse a doctor ordered some scans.
We swung over to the scan place and whatever they saw required us to head over to the ER down the street. They would send the scans there to be reviewed and verified. To be honest, while we were concerned, we weren’t overly concerned…until she was suddenly being prepped for surgery and her and our baby were going under the knife. The ER surgeon who gave us the news said she had something called intussusception. As it turns out this is usually found in children and is considered rare for adults, but here my wife was, 18 weeks into her fourth pregnancy. What was supposed to be a surgery of a couple hours goes on five, six, seven hours and the longer it goes the more and more worried I become. I’m expecting the worst. When the surgeon appears in the waiting room it’s the middle of the night, my phone is dead, all my fingernails are gone,and my ass hurts from having sat for so long. He sits in the seat next to me, I’m trying to get a read on what he is going to tell me, but I can’t. He turns in his chair to face me and shares that my wife and son are in the recovery room and both are doing great. I let out a big sigh of relief, but his face doesn’t resemble what I imagine a doctor’s face should after giving the good news of all clear after coming out of a successful surgery, especially a surgery that requires working around an unborn baby. Even if he’s exhausted there is no trace of anything good other than his choice of vocabulary used to describe mom and baby’s current status. Shit! There is a “but” coming. I know it’s coming so I just say it first, “but……?” He picks up where I left off, “but, I found a large tumor in your wife’s colon,” he says. I lose my breath. My heart feels like it just stopped. In nanoseconds my mind explodes with terrible thoughts, fears, and confusion;
How could this happen? How long does she have? What do I need to do to help save her? We have three little boys at home, they can’t lose their momma. I know what it’s like to suddenly lose your mom when you’re a little boy – I don’t want them to face what I faced. I have to stop this. How do I care for her? What does she need? Does she even know yet? Who is going to tell her? Maybe it’s not cancer? Shut-up of course it’s cancer. All the people you’ve seen deed and dying – Why should she be spared? Why should I be spared? Nobody deserves this. How did this happen? Who do I tell or not tell?
The list of questions racing through my mind is endless and on going. The doctor goes on to tell me that it is a large tumor and that he did everything he could to get all of it out. He tells me that they’ll need testing to determine if it’s cancer or not and if so the tests will help them in “staging” it – which means how advanced the cancer is. Totally shocked, I feel like I’m going to throw up. My face falls into my hands and the surgeon lays a hand on my back and tells me to focus on the ‘right now’ and that right now my wife and son are doing well and that whatever outcome the tests prove to be, just stay in the right now. I felt a lot of things in that moment, but what I didn’t feel was alone. I felt there was someone next to me who actually could understand what I was thinking and experiencing. The wisdom he gave me in that moment, while near impossible for me to live out, has stayed with me to this day – “Stay in the Right Now,” and so I did and so I do the best I could and the best I can.
In the coming days the phone in my wife’s recovery room would ring. I would pick it up and learn the outcome of her biopsy. I would turn to her and repeat what I had just been told to me, “Baby…
I have story after story about compassionate doctors both in the midst of war and in the midst of my own life outside of war zones. The bearded doctor who has gently woken me from what was an obvious terror of a dream was no different – All the doctors we had met there were deeply compassionate people. They sure as shit weren’t there for the awesome paycheck, a sweet parking spot, and a free membership at some fancy tennis club. No, they were there because they knew they could help save lives.
~ ~ ~
I’m still trying to get my bearings – I feel trapped between two worlds; the unconscious and the conscious. I can’t decide if I’m in a nightmare somewhere in my mind or if I’m in a nightmare somewhere in my reality. With one last shove I force myself to open my eyes. I sat up in the chair as if the school principal just walked into his office to find me…again.
“You’ve seen a lot today haven’t you?” It was night and there was no electrical power, but candles set around the room created enough light that I could make out his face doctor in his white coat, he was leaned forward, elbows on his knees in his chair across from me – a well smoked cigarette burning to its end rests gently between his fingers.
“No, I’m okay. I was just dreaming about…” I stopped myself, I felt afraid that somehow speaking the dream out loud would bring it into existence. The dream continued running in my mind as I was attempting to make sense of it – I was in a war trying to find a way out. Just when I thought I had escaped, there was something, a person, an obstacle, a deep pit, a high wall, a long fall or longer climb trapping me. I would break free from something evil or overcome an obstacle only to be cornered or confronted by another and then another and then another. The dream was a continuous emotional swing from the terror of being hunted or trapped to the ecstasy of slipping away from my pursuers or overcoming another barrier blocking my escape only to be found again, hunted again. I would find guns and feel a sense of relief and hope only to learn that the guns in this unexplainable world do not fire. These intense emotions of fear and relief, swinging back and forth, then back, then forth, then back again and then forth again. I felt more emotionally drained now than I did before I had crashed out in the chair.
“Is this your first nightmare?” the doctor asks me.
“No, I’ve had plenty of nightmares,” I answered defensively, feeling as though he was accusing me of somehow being less of a ‘man’ because he caught me having a nightmare.
“I mean is this the first nightmare that included the things you’ve seen in Sarajevo?” He doesn’t realize this is the first day of my first war. How could he, given how incredibly professional I look with my Grunge culture hair, my cool, hip, purple swish Nike boots, and the Mickey Mouse trucker hat adorning my head. No to mention my incredibly professional VCR bag turned camera case with the broken strap clip dangly from the side. Honestly, I just assumed everyone must know I’m a total nube at this.
“Yeah,” I answer sheepishly. For reasons I don’t understand I feel a sense of shame in my honesty with him.
At 21, who hasn’t had nightmares of some kind. Shit I would race to my mom’s room as a little boy when I had them and while I don’t know what they were all about I know I wake in the middle of a blackened night and race for her safety and rescue. I had them as a teen as well, and while I can’t recount the details, I remember having them. Strangely enough, as I type this chapter out I am remembering how my nightmares evolved at this point in my life. At some point, around the age of 15 or 16 I would awake from nightmares not in a state of fear, but of deep sadness. The subject of my nightmares back then turned from running and escaping to loss and longing. They turned to sadness. Into my late teens and breaking out into my 20’s I’m sure I had nightmares like most everyone else – feeling as though you were running in sand or punching underwater – typical stuff we probably all have. However, the dream I was coming out of in Sarajevo was different. The setting of the nightmare was different, The threats and victims were different. The details were different. It was set in and amongst blown up buildings, the ‘monsters’ were men in military style dress, the people I would come into contact with were mangled and deformed through violence, legs and arms missing, the fear of landmines and booby traps and bombs exploding over here and over there. Everywhere there were guns – not just any kind of guns, but the types of guns you would expect to see in war.
“Do you have nightmares?” I ask the doctor.
“Yes. It didn’t take long after the war started for them to begin to visit me,” he responded.
Looking back on our conversation so many years later, I think it’s safe to say that neither the doctor nor I understood how the contents of our days inside places of such horror and tragedy would follow-us. If the doctor survived the war then I imagine we hold in common that our past experience finds us through the dreams in our present. The things that I’ve witnessed, experienced – things that I’ve done, or worse – the things I didn’t do or should have done – have not ceased to haunt me.
Not a day goes by that I don’t find myself someplace in my past. Oftentimes I don’t even know how I got there. One minute I’m in a business meeting or playing with my kids or talking to my wife and the next minute I am lost in the replaying of some long ago moment or detail or situation and in many ways it is my ‘normal.” However, it’s not normal to people who don’t know or understand what this is like. To them it’s “disinterested” or “distracted” or “not present” or “unloving.” People will falsely think you don’t care about your job, or their needs, or them. No, there is nothing normal about it at all. I can’t be out in public and not be hyper vigilant – what are the potential threats, who are the potential threats, where are the potential threats, based on my physical location at any given moment what actions will I take. Do I carry a firearm to my children’s school auction? To the restaurant? On vacation? Following my career in photojournalism, I became a pastor of a church and I installed a heavy magnet under my office desk that held my handgun – I know there are lots of people who will find that disturbing and I’d be one of them, but after so many years and experiences of bad things happening at any moment, it became the filter by which I saw the world. The truth is, while I’m less hyper vigilant than I used to be, the vigilance isn’t to protect or save me, shit, I can get out of crazy shit all by myself. No, it was to protect and save those I love because they are the ones who don’t know or aren’t aware and the fact is I could not live with myself if something happened to my family or friends or when I was a pastor, the church staff and congregation I lead. In the end it is very difficult for me to ‘just relax and have a good time’ because I’m always at the ready to flee, fight, or fire. And this leads me to my problem…
When I get all lost in thought about some past shitty experience my body’s response to what is happening in my mind is to start responding as if I was actually in the middle of shit I’m thinking about. My heart begins to race, I start to sweat, my mouth becomes dry, my muscles tighten and I feel as if I’m a tightly compressed spring ready to explode into something or someone. In fact I just had an incident like this the other day. There were some words exchanged between me and another person (male) and as we walked past each other the person accidentally bumped into me…and the spring sprung. Without a thought I snateched them by their jacket with both hands, damn near took them off their feet. The person was obviously shocked and frightened – I immediately tried to calm the situation so it wouldn’t escalate further, but it was too late. The point is that when I get elevated (fucking pissed) or triggered (hurt, but I show it through anger)my entire being gets sidewaze.
There is an incredible book I read a couple years back called; “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” by Bessel van der Kolk M.D.. Now, typical me, someone I really trust and respect recommends this book to me and makes me promise to get it and read it. So in that moment I buy the book because at that exact moment I’m convinced I’m a man of my word, of course I’ll follow-through with my promise.
When the book arrives I don’t feel like reading it, because I’m in an emotional downswing and when I’m in one of those I’ll look for any reason to get out of something even if I know it to be good for me. This book is a perfect example so let me explain…When it arrives the sheer size of the book surprises me. “Holy shit, look at how fucking thick it is thing is – if an earthquake hits we’ll just all get under this here fucking book,” I say to myself already on the hunt for reasons to not have to open the book and deal with my shit. Then I noticed the author’s name, “Bessel van der Kolk? Who the fuck is this old, arrogant, German (I have no idea if the author is actual German mind you) psychologist asshole?” I ask myself because I’ve probably been a dick for several days and no one is around to talk to. The author’s name is all I need to start creating this image and story-line in my mind;
“I bet you the author is a million years old and his entire life and career are quickly coming to an end and he can’t stand it. The dude probably stands in the mirror before bed telling himself how great he is. I bet he can’t even fathom why God would let him, a person of such magnificent brilliance, die and this book is some last gasp in his death spiral to garner even more attention from his peers, even more notoriety from his former clients, and to finally prove once and for all to his divorced wife and estranged children that his complete emotional absence as a husband and a father were his terrible sacrifice for humanity. That they will finally see how important he really was when they pass by the book shelves of now bankrupt bookstores. I bet he is not even getting residuals off this trash novel because the only way he could get it published was to convince some unknown medical journal publisher to print a book of his scribbles and doodles of owls because he thinks they’re his fucking spirit animal on long yellow notepads he’s saved from all the over-priced therapy sessions he’s run. You know, the ones where his clients wrongly believed he was so caring and attentive because ‘hey, the man takes copious notes every session.’ Ultimately, this book boils down to an obvious cry for help in his own trainwreck of a life and although he’s forgone any profits for his book as part of the shit contract he agreed to with the no-name book publisher, it doesn’t matter to him because it will all be worth it once it’s published and everyone sees as clearly as he does how fucking amazing he’s always been. He wrongly thinks to silence his doubters and even earn him some apologies, which he will accept graciously so as to appear above it all in hopes of finally being brought into the fraternity of great physiological minds of this generation. But it won’t and his illusion of grandeur will come crashing down all around him.
Man, fuck this narcissistic self-importance ven der wanker. I ain’t reading thiou know what?! The person who recommended this to me, who are they really anyway. Do I really trust them…This is the crazy bullshit I used to do to convince myself not to step into something personally. That’s all this is, it’s me afraid and rather than addressing my personal fears and doing the hard work to actually learn, change and grow I find ways to determine that I can handle it. I mean just look at my track record (please, not too closely). I clearly have my shit together a lot more than when I was 12.”
Rather than reading what would turn out to be an absolute page-turner and one the most important books I’ve ever read, I’m a total jackass and I shove it in a nightstand drawer for so long when I rediscover it I’m not even sure where it even came from. As life would have it I’m having a huge emotional breakdown…again! So I started reading it.
No joke, I will say it again…It’s fucking incredible and I could NOT put the book down. The two elements that are so brilliantly weaved together is his ability to teach and explain how the brain works when dealing with trauma. The number of patients he uses as examples have suffered various trauma from war zones to car accidents to abuse – there is something for anyone and everyone to identify with and the author’s ability to put it altogether in layman terms keeps you engaged – essentially you don’t need a fucking degree (high shool or otherwise) to make sense of it. As you move through the book you begin to gain an UNDERSTANDING of medical insights he shares with his readers about trauma, the mind, and how our bodies respond and react to it.
So going to shoot real straight with you here; I don’t care how dumb or unread you falsley think you are, If I can read this book, you sure as hell can and you should. If you read one single book on PTSD or Trauma it should be this book because it’s a game changer and you won’t be able to put it down once you pick it up. Furthermore (I never use that word – kinda cool), unless you have never been taught to read, which would mean someone or someones deserve a real ass kicking for not ensuring you had that critical skill or you have no eyeballs or are blind then you should read this book, shit at least try.
I tell you what, if you or someone in your life is dealing with severe trauma/PTSD and you or they don’t have the financial means to purchase this book let me know and I will buy it and have it shipped to you – no bullshit. Now, that said – I can only buy a couple of books because I have 5 kids and had I known how expensive kids were before I had all of them, then I would have still had five kids because they’re really fucking amazing and beautiful, but holy shit are they expensive. So, if you message me and I’ve already purchased books for other people and have to say ‘no’ please understand and don’t slash my tires about it.
Now, for people reading this and saying to themselves, “Oh, look how amazing Thomas is with a blog, and such an insanely cool story. Clearly he could read a PTSD book like this, but me? I can’t because blah, blah, blah.” First, in the most loving tone of voice I own, shut the fuck up! You got this shit, order the fucking book and read one page a day until you finish the book.
Shit, you wanna hear some shit about how fucking “smart” I am not?
By the time I got to high school I was girl-insane! No, ‘girl-crazy’ would not properly describe it for me – I was straight up girl-fucking INSANE. If I was at high school I was talking to a girl, wanting to talk to a girl, thinking about talking to a girl and that shit didn’t suddenly turn off when class started – nope, that was fucking game time. Let the passing of notes begin and it was on and girls liked passing notes there was a shit ton of notes happening in every class everyday. Middle of my Sophomore year of high school – that’s my second year of American high school. Let’s say I’ve been writing notes in class and out of class to girls for a year and a half of my four-year high school career – everyday in every class – not exaggerating at all, I’ll prove it in the next story I tell you. Are we all on the same page – I have been writing girls notes on paper for a very long time. One day, I’m over at buddy Doug Reilly’s house and he sees a note of mine that fell on the floor so he picks it up and begins to read it. He looks at me and just starts laughing hysterically – like pissing your pants laughing.
“What the fuck is so funny Doug?” I’m confused, because I know what the note is about and it’s just dumb shit, nothing in there other then stupid teenage shit.
Doug finally gets control of himself, barley and postures himself as if he’s reading a letter hand written by Abraham fucking Lincoln. He clears his throat all fucking dramatic like and then begins to read;
“Dear Sweaty…” That’s all the motherfucker reads and I don’t get it. I have no clue why he would start the note that way because that’s not what I wrote.
“Dude that’s not what it says. It says “Dear Sweety,” I correct him.
“Uh, not the way you spelled it genius. Sweety is not spelled S.W.E.A.T.Y – that is how you spell sweaty – so your note reads, Dear Sweaty,” he is doubled over again laughing again.
“Please tell me that was just a mistake on this note?” He says gasping for air.
“Duh bro, of course. I knew that. I was just in a hurry and I started that note right after P.E. today so I was just thinking about being so sweaty,” clearly I was lying my ass off trying to save face, but the truth was I thought that’s how you spelt that shit and I had been leading with that for the better part of an year and half…what a dumbass…and that leads me to this;
When I graduated high school my cumulative GPA was 1.8…yes, I said “cumulative GPA” which is explained this way; The cumulative/overall GPA average gives a more comprehensive picture of a high school career versus a single semester or year GPA. This is my total gpa for all four years of high school. How I even graduated is a mystery to both me and my family. Infact, the day of graduation, my dad pulled me aside before getting the family into the car to head to the ceremony to ask me if I’m absolutely sure I’m going to graduate? Am I absolutely sure they’re going to call my name and hand me a diploma. My dad had every reason to be worried. At the beginning of my last semester my parents and I were called to a meeting at the school with the Vice Principal, Mike Campus (super cool dude – he was a fantastic man). Mike sat us all down and reviewed my grades for 3.5 years which were horrendous of course. The conversation also included my total number of absences over 3.5 year(approved, but mostly not approved). The number of “tardies” I had accumulated over my high school career which clearly displayed my incredible God-given ability to show up to class late. The number of detentions I had acquired would have made a serious contender for Northern California High School State Champion in Detention had it be a scholastic category. And of course, the suspension I received my junior year when my “spring sprung” and I told a teacher who had come out of class to see what all the yelling was about to go back to their class and “fuck themselves.” My parents of course knew I was no valedictorian, but totally clueless to the depth and breadth of just how poor a student I was. Mr. Campus made it clear that it would be next to impossible for me to graduate with my class in June of 1989 and that I should be transferred to Mewah Mountain High School or as the cool kids called “Mewah” (sounds just like it’s spelled ME-WAH). Now you have to understand that to a kid who just wanted to be loved and accepted (me) this was shunning and banishment – no, worse this was death.
Now no one really knew much about Mewah, but the rumors, lies and misconceptions of this dreaded institution were many. What types of lies and misconceptions, well it was thought that only derelicts and dropouts were sent there. Only kids that smoked cigarettes, did sex, drugs and listened to Ozzy went there. No one ever announced that they were going there, just one day “little Bobby rocker’ was fucking gone and when you asked a classmate about good old Bobby they would look at you with big eyes, “Oh my god, didn’t you hear? He’s at Mewah now,” and your heart would sink imagining what it must have been like for Bobby when the black van pulled up to his house in the middle of the night and a crew of dudes with masks and muscles snatched his ass out of bed to haul him off to Mewah. I bet his mom was sobbing as he tried to break from the grasp of the ‘Mewah Snatch Team,’ all the while screaming for his mom and dad not not to let this happen. I could imagine his mom’s outstretched hand reaching for her precious little boy, but the dad, his arms wrapped tight around his wife would gently pull her backwards so she could not reach him because the dad knows if their son is going to have any chance at a normal life it only come if Mewah can exercise the satanic devil worshiping rock and roll music from his young soul. Seriously though, you wrongly believed that the only place you were going to see your former classmates who landed at Mewah was on Wanted posters in your local post office or on the back of milk cartons with a picture of them right below gigantic font type stating “Missing.” It felt like Mewah was the place you went right before “Juvi” (Juvenile Hall aka prison for kids). You figured you might run into one talking through a clown at your local fast food drive through or behind the counter of some dirty old liquor store. Mewah was bad, real bad when what you thirsted for was the love and acceptance of others and Mike Campus was scaring the SHIT out of me in this meeting.
As I recall, my parents asked some questions and may have even tried to find an alternative solution for me other than going to Mewah, but I don’t remember much other than I was freaking out inside and absolutely had to find a way to not go there and graduate with my class. “Mr. Campus you said it would be “next to impossible” for me to stay at Tam and graduate with my class, what would I have to do to stay and graduate?” I was clearly pleading and begging based on the tone at which I asked this question. “Well Mr. Hurst (Mike would call you formal shit like this) you have at least three Freshman classes you got F’s in that are requirements for graduating (History, English, and Spanish…of course fucking Spanish), so you would have to retake at least the second semester of those and raise that grade to at least a C- or better. You would have to pass all of your current Senior classes with a C- or better and given your poor attendance record you would not be able to be absent a single day this semester nor could you have a single tardie in any of your classes. Lastly, Mr. Hurst it should go without saying that if you land on detention or suspension again you would miss class or classes and that would terminate your time here at Tam,” he said. Hell yes, I thought. “Well, I’m already in Mrs. Meyers Spanish 1 class (Freshmen class), if I could take Freshman History during 1st period and do “outside study” for English after 6th period, got a C- or better in all my classes and didn’t miss another day of school, and was not tardie to one single class the the entire semester and didn’t get another detention or suspended again, could I graduate with my class?” I was begging. Mr. Campus leaned back in his seat looking over the notes he scribbled down as I was talking. There was a long pause – I couldn’t believe Mike was seriously considering it. I had become so focused on Mr. Campus and what I was anticipating coming out of his mouth next, I had completely forgotten my parents were even in the room. “Mr. Hurst if you could do (he repeated everything I had just said back to me word for word) you could graduate with your class, but if you get lower than a C- or one single tardie we will have no other choice to send you to Mewah,” Mr. Campus said. Now, I have not a single doubt that of the four people in that room, the only person who believed this could be pulled off was the one person not legally allowed to buy beer.
Long story short, I did that shit. Now, it wasn’t like I suddenly started using my brain for good rather than evil and crushed it with a 3.0 GPA that semester. Nope, not even close, but I did get a C- in just about everything and it literally had to have a signed letter from each of my teachers on the very last day of school, hours before the graduation ceremony, confirming to the Mr. Campus that I would be receiving at least a C- in each teacher’s class before he would approve me to attend and walk for graduation that evening. So when my dad pulled me aside to make sure I was really going to walk for graduation he had damn good reason to.
So I don’t care what you think about your ability to read, or write or do anything, unless you are 100% unable to read you can read the book “The Body Keeps the Score…” Shit, if you’re reading this chapter of my one day memoir you sure as shit can read this book – no excuses.
Now why was reading this book so important for me? For starters it helped shine light on what was metally and physically happening to me – why do I feel so fucking insane sometimes. Second, it helped me understand that there are a lot of people in the world like me and that I’m not alone and nor am I a freak. What I’m dealing with is actually common to the point you can almost expect someone to go through some varying form of all this if you’ve suffered trauma in your life. For example, at night it’s not uncommon for me to wake up soaking wet – I’m talking head to toe drenched. My first thought when it happens is, “did I pee the bed?” I ask myself this becasue it seems like the only way I and everything my body is touching could be this fucking wet. It is as if someone turned the hose on me, everything is soaked and soaked as in, you could wring water out of the sheets they’re so wet. And not just the sheets, the mattress, the blankets, the comforter the fucking pillow cases – all of it is drenched. But it’s not water from a hose nor is it pee (thank God that only happens under bushes in Belgrade) – It’s fucking sweat from the night terrors I’m having. How in the world could someone whose movement is relatively minimal while asleep generate this level of sweat? Now I don’t have a PHD in sweating or anything for that matter, but something pretty crazy is happening in my brain to kick out signals to my body that it needs to release this amount of sweat to keep my body regulated. It’s not like my dreams are always taking place in the fucking Sahara desert.
Can you imagine how many towels you need to own to deal with just such a problem. Essentially you have to have four clean towels every single night for an entire week…for just one person? Not to mention the other FIVE people who need a clean towel day in and day out in our family. That’s either a lot of fucking towels and a second home to store them all or its a shit ton of laundry for my wife and I (my wife…who am I kidding). To try and get anything close to resembling rest I have to put one towel down on top of the fitted sheet (didn’t think I knew what that was, did you?)and then put a larger beach towel on top of me to try and protect the bed sheet and comforter and then I have two more towels on the nightstand next to me so in the middle of the night, when I wake up soaking wet, I can swap the wet towels out and drop the dry ones in.
More than the impact on our towel budget and utility bill, this jacks up my life and the life of those around me. First off, my wife will roll long beach towels up to keep between us because there is so much sweat if there is not something to block and absorb it the shit spreads to her side of the bed. Do you know how NOT awesome that is? Do you know what else is NOT awesome? When your wife has to dawn swimming goggles and a snorkel before climbing into bed with you. Do you know what else is NOT awesome? Trying to get sexy with your lady in a wet-spot stained bed. Do you know what else is NOT awesome? Listening to your children refuse to snuggle you on a Saturday morning because who wants to snuggle anyone under cold, wet, salty bed sheets. I could go on, but you get it. This shit sucks.
In the end, I’ve got towel problems, I get less intimacy with my wife problems, less snuggle time with my kids who I adore problems, I’m exhausted problems, and I get anxious when it’s time to go to bed which only compounds the problem problems, and last, but not least, I get to listen to a SHIT-TON of husband/dad jokes about me needing to wear a diaper to bed problems.
“Do you have them a lot?” I ask timidly as I’m fearing the answer I think he’s about to deliver.
“It always feels like a lot when you go from not having something to then having something. So yes, it feels like a lot,” he says.
Yep, that was the answer I was afraid to hear.
At this point in my life the nightmares, and what can happen when they come, has simply become the accepted norm. It still sucks, but I’ve had to come to some level of acceptance. This doesn’t mean I don’t or haven’t tried to find ways to lessen their frequency or their intensity. For example, I have learned how to force myself awake when the nightmares get too intense and I can’t handle it any longer. There will come a moment in the dream where I consciously tell myself to “wake-up” and I do. It doesn’t spare me from the terror, sadness, regret, helplessness I am feeling up to the point I hit eject, but at least I don’t let it get any more intense for a longer period of time.
And here is one nuance I think is really crazy (you know if I’m saying it’s crazy then it’s probably actually crazy). About once, maybe twice a year (if I’m lucky) I’ll be in one of these exact same nightmares, experiencing all the same bullshit I’ve shared, but one single thing changes and it sets the whole nightmare, my body’s reaction to it, and the entire experience flat on its ass – and it’s this; I will pick up a gun as I always do and the always broken assault rifle or machine guns isn’t broken…instead, the motherfucker WORKS and I kill every motherfucker in there. It’s like I have a Hollywood Movie gun that NEVER runs out of bullets. The feeling of satisfaction and power and control is indescribable. The best way for me to describe it to anyone who has never experienced something like this is to use words like elation, amazing, wonderful, powerful, unbound, freedom. But it’s so much more than that, shit what is the best word to describe this to you? Euphoric, it’s fucking EUPHORIC! Why? No fucking clue…
However, when I wake up the one or two times a year this happens, I am in a fantastic mood for the whole damn day. It’s insane. For years I’ve been trying to decipher the mystery of why the gun works and why it doesn’t, but I can’t figure it out. Maybe it’s something I eat, drink, say do, think, believe – I have no idea, but it feels almost better then sex and could be tied with sex in terms of all encoumpusing excitment and satisifaciton! It really is that amazing and no, I don’t have an orgasm when it happens…that would be super weird.
“Do you think it will go away?” I ask, again fearful of his answer.
“I don’t know yet, they haven’t so far,” he answers honestly.
Sadly, the doctor and I now know that the dreams don’t ever go away.
. . .
Note To Readers
Would You Share Your Story? As I mentioned earlier in this chapter, I have story after story about compassionate people both in and out of conflict zones. Those people, however brief I may have known or interacted with them, touched my life in a meaningful way, but I’m not the only one. No doubt you have stories of beautiful people who have stepped into your hurt, pain, or hardship and I would love for you to share something about them, how they helped you or what it meant to you. I know I would personally find it encouraging, and I bet others would also. I know that when I share a story about someone it’s my way of honoring them. If you’re willing to leave something long or short in the Comments section of this post and let myself and others find encouragement in your share, I think that would be awesome.
Everything I’ve written in the above paragraph starting on page 165 ending on page 166 about the highly respected author Bessel van der Kolk M.D., his career, his work, his book: The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, or his personal life, to include his wife and/or his children, or his automobiles are absolutely NOT TRUE (I have no idea if he is even married or has kid/kids. For all I know then man is Irish). In fact, nothing of what I said in the above stated paragraphs on the above stated pages is real or true or based on fact or reality and no one should conclude or believe that what I’ve said is true because I just made all that shit up…Promise.
As well, the statements made in the above stated paragraphs on the above stated pages, are used only as an example to the reader of my insane thinking and ridiculous brain (this is where I claim “insanity” if they do try and sue me).
To the best of my knowledge, I have never met, nor spoken with Bessel van der Kolk M.D. or anyone personally connected to him. Nor have I ever, to the best of my knowledge, met or spoken with or read anything by anyone who knows Bessel van der Kolk M.D. personally or professionally. I know absolutely nothing about Bessel van der Kolk M.D. other than what I learned about him while reading his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.
I sincerely believe that The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk M.D. is an amazing book and is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I highly recommend everyone on planet earth buy at full price, read it, and then find someone who needs to read it, but can’t afford to buy it, and give it to them as a personal gift.