On Making It to Thirty

I think I one day just realized that despite what I’d expected, what I’d planned for, and what I’d even done, I was going to make it to thirty. Probably much older than that, even. I was going to live, and I was going to keep on doing so for the foreseeable future.

I’ve had a number of traumatic experiences in my life. I’ve looked at the place where my skin used to be on one side of my face, erased by cold pavement and hot friction after being dragged by a coworker’s mom’s minivan. I’ve tended my torn skin, a melange of oranges, reds, cautionary yellows, inspected empty hair follicles on my hand, purple, waiting to bud but not yet given the instruction. I’ve seen crisscross stitches like Frankenstein effects sprouting from both arms, black, blue, covered compulsively by gray hoodie. I’ve been wiped clean by the January cold of the Chicago River, spitting out cold, breathing out cold, barely alive. I’ve felt the animal fear-then-acceptance of near-death, sat in quiet waiting for it, then watched as it passed me by. I have, in my past, suffered.

So what do you do with trauma when it’s accidental, after it hasn’t been for so long? When it wasn’t something inflicted on you or something you inflicted on yourself? When it just was? The clouds shifted through the sky, the water refracted sunlight, and This Thing Happened? With each traumatic injury, I find myself getting into old mental tracks, inhabiting constructs I thought I’d ditched, letting the all-encompassing black come back and into my heart, until it’s the not-living of PTSD, the racing heart rate while sitting on the couch, the no-sleep nights, bleary-eyed and floor creaking into the kitchen, staring out the window, checking the microwave clock and being stuck between sleep that isn’t sleep and wake that isn’t wake. To be traumatized is to not be a part of your life, or any life really. It is to not be living, even while you’re taking in air. It is to be stuck in your own shadow and to not know if you’ll ever again be who you once were. At least that’s what it’s been like for me.

But this latest traumatic experience. It wasn’t as bad as the others, relatively speaking. My foot went under the lawn mower while cutting the grass. An accidental slip, then contact with the blade, then the realization, checking the wound, hopping upstairs and into the house, waking my partner, and having her dial 911 as I slowed the bleeding with a towel, already streaking and dripping it onto our nice wood floor. It was the evenness of my voice, no panic, just matter-of-fact requests, questions and answers when the paramedics came and applied a tourniquet. A simple, easy trauma.

With trauma, though, the drip brings the deluge. It was the bleeding toe, yes, but it was also the open arms, the icy cold, the engine roar as face contacted pavement and kept going. It was all of these experiences that have nearly killed me, together, all at once. It was pain in the chest at the memories, tingling in the left arm, and remembering that panic can mimic a heart attack, that just because it’s “in your head” doesn’t mean it’s only just. It’s more complicated than that.

As I sit and recuperate, thankful that it wasn’t worse, grateful that all my toes are still attached, I breathe out these variegated traumas. I watch them turn to something manageable, like dipping willow fronds in late summer breeze, chittering, ever-present, but ignorable too. Something to be left alone or heeded as the situation calls for.

There is nothing else to say. You survive, and you keep surviving, and then one day you are living. You can inhabit your body again. So I chart the timeline that’s gotten me here. I think of alternate realities where I didn’t make it through each of those traumas, branching pathways to new realities that continued on without me. A branch ending at five years old, another at sixteen. Still another at twenty-five. All of the ways I could’ve gone, but I didn’t. The unreality of surviving. The dissociation. And yet still being here after all of that. Too stubborn to leave this world just yet.

I’ve made it to thirty, and I can finally, honestly, proudly say that I’m happy to be here. I’m glad I made it.

Dust Off Your Soul

I guess the hunger never really leaves once it first hits, no matter how many achievements pile up, no matter how often, no matter how much older you get, etc. At least that’s my experience of it. You tell yourself not to get caught up in the endgame but to instead enjoy the journey, but the goalposts are always more interesting than the field. And so I vacillate, sometimes, between accepting and rejecting this tendency, sometimes scolding myself for killing the zen and not appreciating what I’ve got, what I’ve achieved, and other times acknowledging that this ceaseless drive, this endless hunger, is precisely what propelled me out of financial, spiritual, and emotional poverty. This push to improve, this refusal to accept my lot in life is exactly why I’ve gotten to where I am. That progress shouldn’t be a casualty on the road to happiness.

And that’s all good and fine.

Some nights, when the thinking becomes too much and mental defrag is impossible inside the house, I go, and I get out, and I get on my motorcycle, and I simply appreciate what it feels like to be propelled forward through the world, to shift and to vibrate and to feel and to see and to hear. The gears shift both inside and out these nights, maybe stuttering and awkward at first, but getting there, approaching normalcy, a smoothness, a vibrant coming together of potential and purpose, action and agitation. I feel myself recognizing the seasons of my life, now, as I near the end of my twenties, feeling the familiar old mental cycles repeat and experiencing new ones all the same, coming into my skin, and my body, and my heart, and my mind. I think these things without voicing their words as I ride, lights above and around me like staccato beats to a tune I know but haven’t heard in a while, so it takes a bit for my mouth-mush lip-syncing to segue into actual lyrics, vocal melodies, song. Sometimes you have to dust off your soul, and that’s okay.

You can get used to anything, including violence and struggle. For instance, my brain is in a constant state of hyper arousal as a result of persistent, ongoing, traumatic experiences. After years of that, it’s easier for your body to just flip the fight-or-flight switch on and leave it that way permanently. This has its perks, though, don’t get me wrong. For instance, when shit eventually does hit the fan, you’ve got it handled right away. The problem is having to remind yourself that here, standing in line at the grocery store, or there, sitting in a cafe, you don’t have to feel like you’re in a life-or-death situation. It might sound stupid if you’ve never experienced it, but it’s a thing.

So there is the one thing and the other, the wonder and the thunder, seamlessly transitioning between zen and meltdown, sometimes within minutes of each other, sometimes in the same moment. You get frustrated with your neurochemistry but then remember what it’s given you, what you’ve been able to accomplish with a little brain plasticity and a lot of perseverance. Because yes, it’s a thing. But that doesn’t mean it has to be the only thing.

 

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All I Need

Pretending there are any ideas other than this one, any places beyond where we find ourselves, now, trading traumas and swapping family war stories in the dark, under the artificial moon streaming in through the window, flies buzzing around it as it buzzes back at them, glowing orange, now red, now white hot, and we are all of us children stumbling around and searching for reason in all this fallow grace, this sickly daze that we’ve created for ourselves, this human sadness, a self-created void that’s as warm as a security blanket and just as well-worn, eating up the land, and I tell you about when I was small, so small I couldn’t talk but could watch, could see these things as they happened in my home, these horrible moments that shaped me into the person I am now, heal(ing)(ed) from these wounds, recounting them to put them in a glass box where they can be regarded like a plague contained, quarantined from its host once and for all, and I watch the way the light dances on your face as you lay down color on paper, something on in the background, but fuzzy around the edges, like a dream, and I’m similarly drifting in and out of sleep, with that nonsense thought process that comes along with it, saying things I can’t remember later but which I’ve needed to say, not to anyone but just in general, needed to speak these stories out loud so they couldn’t hold me hostage any longer, that’s what trauma is, a hostage-taker, laying claim to your body, your mind, your soul, your sanity, until it’s not anymore, until one day when you realize that you can function again, have functioned for some time now, and just realizing this is terrifying, because you don’t want to jinx it, don’t want to lose all the progress you’ve made, don’t ever ever ever want to be broken in that way ever again, and your breath hitches in your chest, vision narrows, it gets harder to breathe, and you have to go to the bathroom to catch your breath, and dry your eyes, and remind yourself, again, as many times as it takes, that you are okay, that you have been okay, and you will continue to be okay, and maybe this isn’t an exhaustive catalogue of post-trauma feelings, maybe it can’t cover it all, but it covers mine, even as I stand years removed from the trauma, years removed even from the most dangerous of episodes after the fact, as I enjoy peace in my time as they’d call it, writing and working and living and enjoying, I can see that this little parasite might always be there, might always squeal its insistence, but it’s a hollow cry, a desperation that goes unheeded, and I walk on into the night with nothing more than the stars and the moon to light the way, here in these hills, and that is, now, more than enough.

That is all I need.