Maybe It’s Afib

Late night thoughts in COVID lockdown

Sometimes my dreams are regular dreams, rhythmic and steady. Sometimes in the night, my hand cups my left breast and I startle awake at the galloping pace that rattles my fingertips, and whatever I’ve been dreaming vanishes. It’s happened so much that I don’t even get up. I simply slow my breathing. I count to six as I inhale and I count to six or eight on exhale. Gradually, I feel my heart rate slow. My breast becomes a metronome again until its flutter is less and less palpable. I hope I don’t die tonight.

The news media has been full of death counts since March. It’s so inescapable that I signed a document stating to not hospitalize me for ARDS of COVID-19, although they were not treating the coagulation complications of COVID at that time, and now they are. So maybe I would choose differently today. I almost always choose life. So many people lament dying alone in these days that it’s a familiar litany, a global sorrow that COVID patients in most cases die in isolation from those who love them. I’ve written of this myself, because of how most people feel. But I must admit I wouldn’t mind dying alone. I think if I had my faculties, being alone might help me pay attention to the business of dying. Still, I hope I don’t die tonight.

It occurs to me that by the time my book is released, more relatives may have died. I didn’t think of this at all until Aunt Evelyn died in March, and now I learn that Uncle Oscar is in hospice. They are the last remaining close attachments to my parents. They always knew my dad was a tyrant and, without really knowing how it was for us, they wanted to believe it wasn’t so heinous. It would not have been a great revelation to learn what’s in my book, but it might have been painful for them. It is a clear grace to be spared that distress.

We go through our Advance Directives and I see that we are now asked to specify what “quality of life” means to us. I think of Jean-Dominique Bauby and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” Just find one meaningful thing, I think, even if you’re locked-in. So many of the living today struggle to find meaning in lockdown, a lesser imprisonment, yet we flit from project to project, recipe to recipe, Zoom to Zoom. Quality of life must be more than freedom from breathing machines, the ability to recognize family and friends, to think well enough to make everyday decisions, to live without severe pain. We contemplate our death and we cling to life.

I hope I don’t die tonight.

Enchanted

It’s a small thing, but I do it. I share my delight in watching a travelogue that slightly embarrasses me, that I spend any time rapt by the English canal countryside from a narrowboat, narrated by a wholly unfamiliar middle aged traveler with a life perspective simplified down to the bare necessities of maneuvering the locks, mapping his canal progress, planning his supplies, the canal itself, the sound of the engine chugging steadily as a heartbeat; the livestock, the factories, the ancient bridges, the history, the weather, the stars overhead. Thoreau on the inland waterways of Great Britain and Wales. 

“It’s a stupid thing,” I say. “I don’t believe I’m so addicted to this narrowboat show, who would have thought it would bring me such joy?” I watch the face of my friend, his smile, his raised eyebrows. What’s a narrowboat? I tell him it’s a very long, very narrow boat dating back to the Industrial Revolution, designed for water transport of goods. I can’t explain why vicariously joining a YouTube celebrity I’d never be friends with on his recreational narrowboat satisfies a hole in my soul. I’m tongue-tied and stumped. 

“Time is but the stream I go fishing in,” Thoreau writes in Walden. “I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.” Narrowboats today are not slaves of time. Narrowboat travel at four miles per hour feels nearly timeless, an unending moment, attentive. When I imagine myself on the narrowboat, I can choose, like Thoreau, to participate in the flow of time however I wish. In Walking he writes, “Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present.” 

I am mindful that its attraction, and my delight, remain enigmatic. 

Survival

If there is one thing I know for sure about trauma and survival is that if we put two brains together and put them under a scan, the traumatized brain would be lit up and on fire right now. 
Survival skills are kicking in. You can sure tell who has been through some stuff by the way they are reacting or not reacting to this trauma. We never know what others are dealing with. We all handle stress and trauma differently. What ever your feeling it’s ok. For many it’s grief. The loss of something familiar. For trauma survivors you may find yourself tapping into your early childhood survival skills. Food deprivation, need to self sooth. Observing this and being gentle with yourself is key. How ever you see the world right now, know that you are loved. You are not alone and if your brain is on fire due to this trauma response be kind to yourself. There is a whole tribe of people who get you.

(found among anonymous pandemic postings)

Kol Nidre as Connection

Kol Nidre at the Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles is unique from the very beginning. Inmates from different sections of the same security level are not allowed to mix, even for religious services, except when they are. So it’s unknown if they’ll need separate back-to-back services in this classroom until the last minute. 

The general floor has a large chapel, but this floor has only a classroom for Kol Nidre. We volunteers move chairs and tables until we have a semi-circle of chairs. The volunteer Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Avivah Erlick, will improvise the rest of the absent supplies, and leave us yearning for more of her stunning voice. The first young man to enter tells us how much he longs for services, how long it’s been. Since we’re waiting for others, we ask him what he wants Jewishly in MCJ, and he tells us he wants a Jewish calendar—can he get a calendar?—services, shabbat services at least once a month, he wants to celebrate holidays, and he’d love a study group. Talmud seems impossible, but it is discussed—maybe pages can be xeroxed one at a time. 

He wants to be Jewish where he lives. Men’s Central Jail.

Unsaid: There is no funding. And who are going to be the Jewish volunteers? The Greater Los Angeles Jewish community does not support any Jewish chaplaincy or other Jewish prisoner services in LA county since Federation cut it loose. 

https://jewishjournal.com/news/los_angeles/232200/chaplaincy-program-jewish-inmates-faces-uncertain-future/

Other inmates arrive. A newcomer has bought a siddur for the young man who must leave, one prisoner buying a siddur for another. We are on the LGBTQ floor with our very diverse incarcerated Jews. They beam to see us, that Rabbi Avivah has other volunteers with her, and that we want to be here. It is striking that when we pray refuah shlema for healing, a prisoner in a coma is named for Mi Sheberach. 

It’s appropriate to say that most congregations and Jewish communities emphasize personal meaning, reflection, and forgiveness during yom kippur. We’re accustomed to this and we teach young children about “I’m sorry,” and kindness, at this holiday.

But here! Kol Nidre itself has new substance here. “We hold it lawful to pray with transgressors.” We all pray these words together. Our emphasis is on how we all together have fallen short, not kept our promises to ourselves, maybe not even to others, and here we are—all together in this. We look around the room, we hear the sounds from the jail corridor, (we are not allowed to close the classroom door,) and we see only human beings, trying to live. Like us. 

We are all transgressors. In a prison tonight. Feeling our connection.

Rabbi Avivah’s shofar TEKIAH GEDOLAH echoes through the classroom and out into the corridors, sweet and loud. Throughout the jail. We are awed by incarcerated Jews joyfully singing Oseh Shalom, boisterously, happily, gratefully, before we say good-bye.

On Memory

After Appelfeld, ז״ל

The [trauma] “was etched inside my body, but not in my memory.

“In my writing I wasn’t imagining but drawing out, from the depths of my being, the feelings and impressions I had absorbed because of my lack of awareness.”

(THE STORY OF A LIFE, Aharon Appelfeld, Schocken Books, 2004)

Children’s memories are fundamentally different than those of adults…

THE APOLOGY, a review

THE APOLOGY

Eve Ensler

Of course it’s triggering, but just know this and read however you need to, maybe in small bites, maybe between walks at the ocean, or talks with your therapist, but consider the nature of what it means to formulate an apology from the abuser who never would do that in real life. My father refused. Maybe yours also refused…wouldn’t even have the conversation. 

Considering what it would mean; knowing my father refused, I peeked in Eve Ensler’s book, The Apology. Then I peeked again. And again. There are differences, to be sure, in her story, her father’s story, and mine, and yet some of her words have also been written by me, said by me; and I can’t be the only other one out here. 

I still need to re-read what I may have skimmed. Soaking up her father’s persona was more painful and more extended than I could tolerate on first reading. Ensler goes deeply into her father’s psychological makeup, where I simply unearthed the facts of my father’s childhood, not so much his deep emptiness. His chronic depression and his alcoholism were just genetic traits as far as I was concerned, as far as I was willing to look. Naturally, there was more to it. 

The large glaring truth of never having known unconditional love, of being so woefully ignorant of how to accept his little girl’s open, total trust—this was Dad. He betrayed that trust earlier than Eve’s father, when I was three, more when I was four, until the age of seven. I was his ‘special girl.’ He was always clear about the ‘special.’

The gift for me in Ensler’s work is to finally know I was not to blame for being ‘special.’ After nearly twenty years of therapy and the integration of highly protective dissociative alters that were formed in response to that childhood trauma, this is the first time I clearly see I was not to blame—that it was beyond my father’s capability to cope with the pure innocence of my child’s freely offered unconditional adoration and total trust. 

When my dad died, I said that I knew what my father had taken from me—trust in others and belief in myself. My developing self had been destroyed when I split into separate parts to survive. I was still wary of my fragments, only beginning to realize they were the best of me, that I had lived my whole life with no knowledge of the purest, truest parts of myself. My father took that from me. I was a different person because of him. I might not have run away from home at sixteen, my life trajectory might have been more promising—he had broken me and I was only then putting the pieces of my brittle self back together. I might have known I was bright, not stupid; capable, not inept; strong, not weak; lovable, not hopelessly cold and cut-off from warmth. The word “birthright” entered my mind, and I let it die there. Our friends made shiva calls to my home, and I let them think I was crying for my father’s death. Only I knew differently and I couldn’t say my shame out loud. There was a whole life I didn’t have because of my father, a whole person I didn’t become because of his secret touching, a life stolen away. 

In contrast, the end of Ensler’s The Apology is genius. His litany of confessions reads like the chest thumping Al Chets we confess on Yom Kippur, standing in stark distinction to my own accusations of my father:

  • What kind of destruction have I wrought? I have lied and lied to myself and to you. 
  • I cursed your future of love. At five I took your body. You didn’t give it to me.
  • I contaminated your sweetness. 
  • I ripped the protective golden gates from your garden. 
  • I betrayed your trust. 
  • I rearranged your sexual chemistry and the basis of your desire. 
  • Wrongness and excitement were forever fused together. 
  • I made my stain. I left my stinking mark. 
  • By invading and overwhelming your body I killed your yearning so early. 
  • You did not give me permission. There was no consent. 
  • You did not seduce me with your crinoline petticoats. You were simply being an adorable child…
  • I robbed you of agency over your body. 
  • You didn’t make any decisions. You didn’t say yes. You had no sovereignty. 
  • I exploited and abused you. 
  • I took your body. It was no longer yours. I rendered you passive…
  • I forced you out of your body, and because you were dislocated and numb, you were unable to protect yourself. 
  • I compromised your safety and ability to defend yourself…
  • I exploited your adoration…
  • I made intimacy claustrophobic…
  • I stole your innocence…

Her entire last page, his paragraphs of sorrow, drop me to the ground. 

Would it be so.

Thank you, Eve.

(THE APOLOGY        EVE ENSLER            Bloomsbury Publishing, Inc. 2019)

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness, a review

TRAUMA-SENSITIVE MINDFULNESS:

Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing                                               DAVID A. TRELEAVEN

Thank you for writing this, David.

So few people speak of this—almost no one—how mindfulness meditation can go awry for some of us and what to do when a previously stable, nourishing practice requires regulation.

PTSD with dissociative aspects plunged me into a ten week kundalini wormhole during mindfulness meditation in 2002, and I can attest to the thoroughness and care of David Treleaven’s new book, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness.

“Mindfulness is a process of enhanced self-regulation.” Brilliant.

What’s amazing about Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness is how recognizable all its referenced books, studies, and citations are, (that I had to find for myself,) and how much comes up for me as I remember finding and reading them, and the conferences I attended to meet the authors and researchers—and where I was in my journey then. Having Pat Ogden explain the “window of tolerance” in person with all her remarks and the Q&A is ingrained.

It is gratifying as well to find the interventions that my therapist and I used laid out in this book, for others to use, organized.

I appreciate the design of Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness. I especially like the configuration of the Modifications. Another of the book’s strengths is its emphasis on diverse cultures and backgrounds and larger systems of oppression. 

This is not a science book and I don’t object to David’s simplification of the neuroscience. I think the book’s References and Endnotes provide clarity. I would only add a few comments specific to the book:

  1. I found reference to Allan Schore’s work notably absent in David’s book, where Allan’s Affect Regulation books were essential for my understanding of implicit vs. explicit memory, and gave me hope that early impaired attachment could be repaired.
  2. I took exception to the flashback-halting protocol, although I may mean “flashback” in an exclusively experiential way, which would make a difference, i.e., my Parts never remembered, they only experienced. They invariably became annoyed when interrupted by the kind of questions in the protocol, and then everything would stop.
  3. It seems that R. C. Schwartz’s Parts in the IFS model are in fact identical to my Parts in the DID model, not that it matters. It seems to me in retrospect that my therapist was doing family systems therapy at the end when my Parts all talked to him, before integration.

Eighteen years on, my mindfulness practice continues strong.

(TRAUMA-SENSITIVE MINDFULNESS: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing,                 DAVID A. TRELEAVEN. W.W. Norton & Company, 2018)

Canada Geese, for my sister

Annie Jackson 1950—2017

Then I notice the Canada Geese are marching directly toward me…

Mary Oliver says in “Wild Geese”:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things
.

4th Floor Window

Zazen is a fluid thing where distinctions never match my actual experience. The cat climbs onto my lap, circles into the curve of my ankle and settles. I sink into whatever this is. This unhappy unknowing.

Metta for everyone, to be well, please, to be peaceful and at ease, to be free…There is no time; or an eternity. My experience cannot be got at—the fundamental emptiness of all dharma. I sit. Each passing moment barely exists.

A thump. My cat leaps. My fourth-floor window is filled with a snagged balloon—a happy face! —staring back into my room with deep humor. Perfect, a perfect metaphor of the free-floating anchor point for our illusions. I realize anything is possible because it cannot be pinned down.

I can be happy knowing this wisdom.

Hope

The two bald toddlers are cancer patients. There are pizza boxes spread all around the end of the hospital bed, surrounded by IV pumps, on the hematology-oncology ward of Children’s Hospital. The main patient is two years old; they are both in flowered dresses, and joyfully eating pizza from paper plates. They have wide, happy smiles on their faces. Even slightly jaundiced, they are the brightest lights in the room. The girl in the middle of the bed is the primary patient. The other girl is a patient-friend from another bed. They are living life fully in the midst of uncertainty.

In the 2013 photograph, hope is perched on this toddler’s face at the arrival of the unexpected pizza party. I saw an embodiment of hope itself in her face, and I told myself that would be true even if she hadn’t lived, since I didn’t know how the story ended.

I looked on her blog recently and learned her cancer relapsed three years later—now. She had just started kindergarten. She has just finished her first round of combined immunotherapy and chemotherapy. I say to myself, what was it that I experienced with that happy pizza photograph? Was it real? Where is hope, MY hope? It felt like it was quashed…

My nihilism is a membrane away.

That is exactly why I’m so inspired every time I witness patients and families choosing to live life, moment by moment—celebrating birthdays, music, stories, food, and each other when others around them are focused primarily on how many days remain, not on the day at hand. The hope of the present joyful moment is not easy in the face of overwhelming odds. It inspires me every time because I can’t do it on my own.

When I read her family’s blog, I realize they can’t either. They have back-up, they have other people.

That’s the point, I think, that we have people to pick up the slack when we falter; we hold each other. And we have unexpected parties to remind us we’re living when we’re dying.