Alexithymia (The Day My Sisters Died – Part 2)

Trigger Warning: I know several people are reading who have also been through a similar experience to mine. In light of this, please know that some of this post may be disturbing to you. Please monitor yourself if you wish to keep reading and don’t read more than will unnecessarily disturb you. I am going to try to write this in a clear way, on a line between giving details without being overly graphic. However I know that each person’s triggers are different, so I just ask that you are very gentle with yourself as you read.

Click here to read part 1.

sisters
(L to R: Rachel, Stephanie (my twin), me, Grace. September, 2007 – 3 months before)

Alexithymia, the name of my sister Rachel’s favorite Anberlin song, has a strange meaning. According to Merriam-Webster, it is “the inability to express one’s feelings.” Psychologically, it can mean “deficiency or complete inability in assessing and describing one’s own emotional state.”

How can one describe their emotional state during a trauma? It’s impossible. Even after, looking back, I have no words that can fully express what I felt. I can only shape my words to form somewhat of a container for the feelings that occurred.

This is the hardest part to write for me because of so many things. As I write, in my head I hear so much noise. That is what is most present for me as I remember December 9. The noise was unbearable. Noise is still my biggest trigger. I hear it all in my head when I write and it’s excruciatingly painful.

I think maybe the silence I’ve had, though, is even more painful.

——

“It’s alarming how loud the silence screams
No warn, no warn, no warning…”
Anberlin

There was no warning. There was silence, and then there was chaos.

My mom was in the driver’s seat, my dad in the passenger. My twin was behind my mom, and behind her was my youngest sister Grace. Behind my dad, the seat was down and the door was open as we waited for my sister Rachel to get in. Behind that open seat, was me.

After the sound like a balloon popping, there was another pop, and another. And then the window next to my twin sister shattered.

My dad yelled, “Get down! Somebody is shooting at us!” My little sister screamed. My twin sister, just behind my mom, moved to get down. As I slid down in my seat in the very back of the van, everything suddenly became very still and slow. My thoughts came in slow motion. My dad yelled for someone to call 911, so I automatically grabbed the phone that was in my purse and dialed.

Though my mind was slow, my words weren’t. As soon as the dispatcher answered, I was spitting words at her in absolute panic. I don’t remember exactly what I said but it was something like, “Someone’s shooting at us, someone’s shooting at my family!” I felt like I was suspended in time. Thoughts floated through my head almost slowly enough so that I could see words appearing.

I’m going to need counseling after this.

I forgive this guy, he doesn’t know what he’s doing.

This is the same person who shot up YWAM last night.

We’re going to be home by tonight, we have to… God said we’re going to go around the world, that we’re going to get this money,  so we have to survive.

Short, staccato noises kept coming without fail. They echoed, bouncing off the buildings, loud as all hell. Two dots appeared in the windshield as my parents cowered in the front seat, trying to stay out of sight. Glass was shattering everywhere.

I could feel the hate this person was directing at us; not really at us though, at some inner demon that tortured him. I felt as if, though I couldn’t see him, I was looking into the eyes of pure evil.

“I’ve been hit,” said my sister Rachel, outside the car. The screaming escalated. “Oh my god!” my dad yelled, jumping out of the car without thought to get to my sister. He was shot and fell on his stomach about 10 feet from the car (if I recollect correctly and that’s a big if).

My little sister had rushed past me at the same time, somehow miraculously escaping the gunman’s notice. I remember her as a blur, going past me. I clutched the phone in my hand.

My sister’s been shot!” I screamed at the dispatcher.

My dad was yelling “oh my god, oh my god.”

Screaming and loud popping alternately traded off, echoing, echoing, echoing.

I was babbling to the dispatcher. My mind wanted to fly into the stratosphere, and I was hysterical. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,” I said. But she had asked me where I was, so I pulled myself into the moment and described clear directions to our location.

The sounds started moving away, blessedly away. A silence that was not silent drifted down on us. Screaming was still coming from all directions, but everything felt chillingly, disturbingly still.

In the silence I heard my dad saying to Rachel, “I’m sorry I couldn’t get to you honey, I’m so sorry.”

It was then I saw my twin sister, Stephanie, in front of me. She wasn’t moving. She was face down on the carpet in front of the seat.

“Both of my sisters have been shot!” I screamed at the dispatcher.

Suddenly my mom was in front of me, sitting with my twin, cradling her head.

“Can you find an exit wound?” the dispatcher asked. “You need to stop the bleeding.”

There wasn’t any blood, though, except on her face. She’d hit her nose when she fell to the floor. That image is seared into my brain – my twin’s face, as if she were asleep, peaceful. But blood ran down from her nose. I wished to God she was just sleeping.

There was a small hole in the back of her yellow coat but that was all we could find. The dispatcher kept telling me, “You need to find an exit wound.”

My mom was saying, “I can’t find an exit wound, I can’t find an exit wound.” She was crying, hysterical as I was. We looked and looked, not finding anything. My mom carefully turned my sister over. Still nothing. My twin’s brown hair flopped around her face, limp.

I got frustrated. “Here,” I shoved my scarf at her. “Put this on the wound!” I yelled at her. There was no wound to put it on but I had to do something for God’s sake. I felt helpless, standing by on the phone with hands full.

“I think she’s gone, I think she’s gone,” my mom said, half weeping. I blocked it away. I couldn’t deal with that yet. She asked me to get her keys and anointing oil from the front seat, so I got out and leaned in the passenger door to get it from her purse. I cut my left palm on the glass that lay on the passenger seat from the shattered windshield.

The dispatcher told me “Emergency crews are on the way. You need to look for them, let me know when they arrive.” I saw a white truck from the fire department driving towards us and as I went to wave him down, I passed Rachel laying on the pavement.

I can’t describe to you anything worse than what her face looked like at that moment. I felt like all the breath had been ripped out of my body. She was mumbling something as I walked by. She wore a shirt that had a sunset on it; I didn’t remember this until 4 years later. It’s oddly ironic to me now. Her face was gray and blue as twilight, horrific death was there. Everything inside of me was sinking like an iron ball in the ocean. There are not enough metaphors in the world to describe to you the depth of agony and despair that I felt.

My arms waved slowly at the rescue truck. “Over here! Over here!” I called. My voice sounded reedy and thin, even to me… hopeless, because hope was draining out of my body. “Emergency crews are here now,” I told the dispatcher. “Okay,” she said, and we disconnected. The man pulled his truck over with a screech and ran toward us. He ran past me, not realizing how intimately I was connected to the situation, focused on getting to the van where my sisters were.

At that moment other people showed up and someone grabbed me. “The shooter is coming back!” he yelled, and my sister Grace and I were dragged to a nearby black pickup truck, where we cowered in the front seat. Two boys sat in the back seat, staring at us. One said something to me, I don’t remember what. “Those are my sisters,” I babbled at him. I had lost myself by this point. I dialed my boyfriend’s number on the cell phone still in my hand. Voicemail. Unintelligible words spilled out onto the blank message. I disconnected the call. “Breathe,” I told myself, out loud. “Just breathe.” I tried. I rocked back and forth, trying to calm myself. My teeth were chattering. My little sister Grace sat across from me, dazed and in a similar condition to mine.

I dialed again, this time my boyfriend’s dad’s number. His mom answered. Words rushed out of my mouth. “My sisters have been shot!” I screamed into the phone. “Oh my god. Are you okay? What hospital are they taking them to?” I had no idea. There was an ambulance there now but I was disconnected from them, hiding in this truck. “I don’t know. I’ll call you when I know.” She agreed. I disconnected the call.

We realized the shooter wasn’t coming back and got out of the truck. I started wandering back towards the van, feeling detached, out of my body. An ambulance was there, and EMTs were everywhere. With my dad. With Rachel. They loaded her up into the ambulance. The siren blasted loud and eerie through the parking lot.

A police officer grabbed me and said, “Go into the Tent.” (This was the nearest building to our location, a tent-like structure used by the church for smaller events) My then-best friend had called me to see if I was okay. I told her what was going on. The police officer, frustrated, grabbed me by the collar and dragged me toward the building, intent on getting me out of harm’s way. My mom was next to me again, crying hysterically. My sister Grace was a shadow beside me.

My call with my best friend was interrupted when my boyfriend called. I told her goodbye and spoke to my boyfriend. We were in the lobby, near a collection of standing tables. Someone threw a pile of coats underneath and I crawled up on the coats and curled into a fetal position. I didn’t want to move. My mom was saying, “I think she’s gone, I think she’s gone…” and crying. “Ugh,” I thought. “SHUT UP.”

On the phone with my boyfriend, I was pleading, pleading, pleading. “Please come now. I need you,” I said.

“I don’t know if anyone is going down yet,” he said. I could feel his hesitation. A part of me thought, “What? This isn’t supposed to be how it works. He’s supposed to say I love you. I’ll be there right away.” But he didn’t. He kept stalling. I kept begging. “Please J—-, I need you. Please come now.”

Finally the words came through the phone. “Okay. I’m coming. R– is going to drive me down to meet my dad.”

Somehow, we moved into the tiny auditorium in the building. People still thought the shooter would return and police tried to shuffle everyone into the auditorium to be safe. (I don’t know how they thought this was safe) My mom, my sister Grace and I all sat down at a table. I was on the phone. My mom, a coat draped around her shoulders, was talking to a woman who had appeared. Grace was crying and talking to another woman who had come to the table and knelt down next to her. I crouched, bent in half, on the phone with my boyfriend. My mom was explaining to the woman what had happened. “I think she’s dead, I think she’s dead,” my mom babbled. I turned away and plugged my ears so I couldn’t hear those awful words.

“My mom keeps saying my sister is dead and I can’t deal with that right now,” I told my boyfriend. “You need a Bible,” he said to me. “Get someone to give you a Bible.” I lifted my head and asked for a Bible. Someone brought me one, and I turned to Psalm 91, the only thing I could think of to read. I read it out loud, twice, because I couldn’t concentrate on it if I read it silently. After I finished the last verse, I suddenly began singing.

Jesus loves me, this I know…

I was terrified and hysterical. It was the only truth I could think of to hold onto.

Just after I’d stopped singing, I got another phone call, from the man who’d led my DTS team the year before. I answered and he asked if I was okay, if my family was ok. I could barely force out the words, “No, it’s us.”

“Oh my god. I’m coming right now,” he said.

Right around then, someone found us and realized who we were. The pastor came up. Another friend I’d known since the summer, J—, saw me at just the moment when the pastor pulled everyone in to pray. He came up to me and wrapped me in a big hug, and I didn’t want to move. I’ll never forget his face; the sadness, the pain. The pastor prayed. And when he finished, finally someone went to find out which hospital my sisters had gone to. My boyfriend still waited on the phone.

Someone told us that the shooter had committed suicide. I felt an extreme relief. All I had wanted was for someone to STOP HIM. My body relaxed just a little in overwhelming gratitude.

A policeman came over and I explained that a friend was coming to find me and they NEEDED to let him through. A few minutes later, G– appeared. “G– is here, hang on a minute,” I told my boyfriend, and G– wrapped me up in a huge hug and didn’t let go. I was wishing he wouldn’t, all I wanted to do was be held at that moment, because I was shattered into pieces inside.

I told my boyfriend I was going to get off the phone now because G– had arrived. So I disconnected. We sat for a few minutes waiting while they got a van to take us to the hospital. They told us where Rachel had been taken, but not where my twin, Stephanie, was. No one seemed to know, or they were keeping it to themselves. Finally, we all piled into a church van. G– came along in the van, and I was grateful, I needed someone there. I sat in the back next to my mom as we drove.

We were at the light at the Fillmore and I-25 exit, just before arriving at the hospital. I was looking at the sky, and it was in that golden hour just before sunset. And I saw Stephanie – my beloved twin sister – and she was with God. She was smiling.

I knew she was gone.

——

To continue reading, go to Part 3. 

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dancing with the unknown

Sometimes I curl up in the dark night, wrap myself up with my own arms, and whisper lonesome-ly… “What do you want, baby girl?”

I stare into the darkness and wish it could stare back. In the way that the roots stare at the dirt, willing the nutrients to budge from those grains up into their tendrilled stalks. Looking for sustenance.

Uncertainty loves me like it loves wild things. Like it loves the open plains of Kansas, unzipping them from east to west with space, everywhere. Too much space until the glut of space drives one to the edge. It’s this teetering edge that holds me tight, the uncertain forces of maps and lines and attachments from all directions.

Here’s the thing: all this flowy writing smacks of the indirect way to say: I’m scared. I am terrified because I don’t know what to do. And I don’t know what I want. I think I should have known long ago. This is only the rest of my life. Deciding on where to go to graduate school feels to me like deciding if you want to marry the boy. Especially in my field. Where you go to school is many times where you settle, because licensure in counseling is notoriously difficult to transfer from state to state.

So, I made a decision almost 5 years ago that was a mistake… and it was marrying the wrong boy. Does that help with this situation? No.

What makes this harder is that there are several pathways to becoming a therapist. You can go to school for licensed mental health counseling. Or social work. Or a masters in Clinical Psychology. Or a doctorate in Clinical Psychology. Or a doctorate in Counseling Psychology. Or a degree in Marriage and Family therapy. And there are few differences between each of these choices. The most blurry are the differences between licensed mental health counseling and social work. Which one do I choose? Do I want more research base (clinical psych)? Do I want the flexibility of a doctorate? Or the extended flexibility of a social work degree (and higher wage)? Do I just want to be a plain regular counselor with training in trauma work?

WHAT DO I WANT?

This is what I lay in bed and ask myself at night.

I have applied to 5 schools. And I still don’t know if I applied to the ‘right’ places or am going in the right direction. I feel like I’m driving in the dark without any headlights on… which, on a country road at night, is gorgeous and exhilarating yet suffocating.

I’m almost nauseatingly uncertain and I know the spiritual answers but it doesn’t take it away. I visited school no. 2 yesterday and I think it made things worse… so now I’m right in the crosshairs of an existential crisis.

But I graduate in 2 days. I take my last undergraduate final tomorrow. So for now… it’s time to just be here and live these 2 days up.

I have a strange sickness today.

It’s called “I’m sick of my ego so I’m crashing it into a large cement wall.”

I could write you an elegantly edited, scripted, neat little post but again, I’m crashing my ego into the wall right now. So this will not be elegant or pretty. It might be spiritual. But you can call my shit on that one too if you want. I may very well be wrong.

Yesterday I had a great conversation with a dear friend about boundaries. I always need that reminder. Pay attention to my internal compass and don’t just get blown wherever the wind takes me. It’s difficult, and I always have to remind myself about it. So anyway my friend said something that really hit me square between the eyes. “People do everything because they want to be everything.” I guess it was a Mark Nepo quote. Ouch. Of all my boundary problems, that is the one I have done the least work on.

See, things easily and quickly interest me. It’s the “ooh, shiny!” syndrome. I am getting a degree in psychology and plan to get a masters in Counseling or Social Work. I play guitar and sing. I sometimes like to paint. Ask me if I’m interested in dance and I’ll say yes. Look through my art boxes and you’ll find framed photography. Am I interested in cars? Sure am. I would love to know the underside of an engine backwards and forwards. Snowboarding? Definitely. You’ll find a 2008 NeverSummer in my closet. Hiking? An enthusiast. Do I climb 14ers? Yes of course, and I should have a goal to climb more. Do I like rock climbing? Yeah sure! The rush is awesome. Travel, you ask? Talk about “ooh, shiny.” My next idea of a place to go changes about every month or so. My newest obsession is doing a trip with the Adventurists, who specialize in crazy trips. Just my thing. Do I like sports? Eh no but I really should pick a football team to root for…

See my problem? My interests are broad.  But SOME OF THEM are only broad because I want everyone to like me. I want to be everything. Yes. It’s true. I’ve even told people that I want to climb Everest. (Really? If that’s not ego-driven… I don’t know what is)

Lately I have been feeling the pull to stop it. Stop being everything and just be what I want to be. The truth is, out of that long list of interests, there are only really two big things that attract my attention and intention. My degree. And Travel.

It pains me though to even think about letting go of some of those interests. I have a lovely voice! I really do like playing guitar. People have told me that I should go on The Voice or American Idol. But you know what. I. just. can’t. do. everything. And I love my music, I do. But my favorite memory of it is not singing up in front of a bunch of people. It was in the back of a decked-out hippie van with a small group of friends, where I could sing a lullaby over them like a gift.

I like rock climbing. Do I love it? No. What if I let it go? Well… then what if… I lose something that could have been awesome? Come on Laurie get over it. When it comes to hiking, hiking is a nice hobby that I can hang on to without really losing myself in it. Maybe when I have more money I can splurge on more gear. Maybe I’ll get into backpacking at a later time, again, when I have more money.

Snowboarding – it’s great. It’s lovely to ride through the trees and hear the swish of a board underneath. Everything is so quiet. But honestly, snowboarding is so damn expensive. “But you’re in skiing Mecca!” I can hear you all exclaim. All the out-of-staters, anyway. A ticket to Breckenridge? $90. For a day. A season pass to a good group of mountains will run you at the VERY least, $200, if not somewhere close to $600. It’s outrageous.

I think one of the biggest problems I’m having with having such a broad range of interests is, I don’t have the money to put into all of them. I really can’t be everything. I have to choose which things are the most important to me and go with that. So far in my life, I’ve prioritized travel. I’ve gone out of the country every year since 2006. It’s a big deal to me.

I feel like my little sister Rachel. When she was two years old, she looked up at my mom and said, “BUT MOOOOOOOOM… I CAN’T DO ALL SEEZ SINGS!!!”

I just can’t. My ego is so disappointed and in a sickening fashion, does NOT WANT TO GIVE THEM UP. Hence, the crashing it into the wall thing. Which yes, is a little extreme. I do feel compassion, yes I do. My little ego is so frail and so scared. But I really can’t do everything and I have to make some priorities and decide who I want to be. Especially when it comes to monetary things. Do I want to take a trip next year? Because if I do, I need to save some money for it. And that will mean that some of my other interests will fall by the wayside. The big question is, can I actually handle saying to someone, “No, I’m sorry I can’t go snowboarding with you. I’m trying to save my money.”

I don’t know. That sounds so painful. Icccckkk. Ego, honey doll, I promise you… everyone does not have to like you for you to be okay. I’ve got you and that’s all you need to know.

Object Lessons

 I can tend to compulsively manage my life. I do this in three areas especially: finances, recovery, and school. If you’ve been reading this blog for a couple months, you know about the financial stress I put myself under. Each thing has its place, and each place has its thing. As I told my therapist in our session last week, my life is like a row of little boxes, spaced perfectly evenly. If I happen to knock one of them even 1/16 of an inch from its position, I have massive anxiety. In fact, this what what our entire session was about last week. The session got far more intense than even I expected, and more personal than I’m going to detail here.

Unsurprisingly, this week has been my object lesson.

It began Monday night, which was of course the night before I started my semester. Some recovery things came up where I wasn’t DOING MY RECOVERY PERFECTLY. Oh, and this did come up in the middle of the night, also.

For this situation, I texted a recovery friend the next morning, emailed my sponsor, and then had dinner with another recovery friend after a meeting that evening.  The consensus was clear – have compassion on yourself. All three of these individuals said that, and they hadn’t even talked to each other beforehand! Imagine.

The next day, I found out I had a massive problem with one of my classes that I am required to have to graduate; I was waitlisted, and all the caps were raised so it was absolutely impossible for me to get into a class. The associate dean of my department, who I just happen to be TAing for this semester, told me to go talk to some people about a portfolio I could submit in place of taking the class. She also very graciously gave me permission to use her name when I went and talked to them. I came away from the conversation with the student worker with an inconclusive answer, so I turned around and emailed the portfolio director, CC’ing the associate dean. Then I had to wait. Meanwhile I’d already decided to stop trying to get into the class and just enroll in something else, which caused me a lot of anxiety. But I made the decision based on the suggestion of the associate dean, choosing to trust someone higher up than myself. And I didn’t hear back from the director before I had to give up my internet connection (which I don’t have at home).

In the end, last night, when I could have been at my most anxious, I decided to do something new. I decided to trust powers bigger than myself. In this situation, that included the associate dean of my department, and my HP. I journaled my thoughts out. Then I turned the lights off and did compassion (metta) meditation until I fell asleep less than 5 minutes later.

Normally, when I am anxious about something, it keeps me up for hours and I have to take melatonin to sleep. It’s amazing what happens for me when I decide to let it go and trust that I am not the only one in charge of my life.

Needless to say, when I checked my email yesterday morning, my school issues were all worked out, and my schedule is now better than before. I am able to take a much funner class than my prerequisite class, actually. A class called Wellness, Resilience, and Emotional Intelligence. Irony, anyone? 🙂

What do you do when your anxiety takes over? How do you calm yourself down?

Honor and Dignity

Some people may not see this relation to loving and losing, but I hope it will become clear.

My career goal is to become a trauma and disaster counselor. I am deeply passionate about world cultures. I am deeply passionate about change. I am also really deeply passionate about stability and not changing systems that already work. For instance, changing culture.

I’ve been reading today on multiculturalism and psychotherapy. An assigned homework piece for my class was to read an article on this topic. While reading this article in the library, my instinct was to crunch my pencil lead against the page in anger. Outrage over what my people have done to minorities. And a deep longing to be different.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been really addressing my own racism. It hurts to even say that. It hurts to admit that I’m racist. But I recognize it in myself. And I see what the root is. Fear. I remember a moment in Paris when I felt so afraid because I was surrounded not by white Europeans, but by African immigrants. I was terrified and I wanted to hide forever. In that moment I think I did hate them. Of that I am truly ashamed.

Also, living in the South has brought to light the shocking and horrible atrocities here. Driving to Virginia last week, I passed several cotton fields. In passing them I was weighed down by grief. I almost felt I could see the ghosts of the slaves among the cotton stalks. It was so strong to me how inhumane and undignified and shameful it was to enslave a human being.

What shames me most is that I have to admit the same proclivities in myself. It is so easy to become delusional, to embody myself as the great white hope to the rest of the world. Just as easy as it was for slave owners to justify slavery, beatings, and raping of black people. They told themselves that these souls weren’t people. They deluded themselves into believing that their actions were not harming anything. What sickens me is that I see the tendency in myself. If I let my fear hold me back and torture me into the delusion that people who look differently from me must have certain personality traits and are boxed into one role, then I have perpetuated racism. I have enslaved human dignity just as surely as my ancestors before me. Thus I decide again, even more strongly, that it is imperative that I address my own fear and racism. Especially because of my desire to work internationally.

To work internationally, I have to be able to confront these fears when I have them. Otherwise I can become an instrument through which much harm can be done. One of my deepest, truest values is nonharm. In order to live that out, I am confronting my fears. And that is why I stand here now to say that I am racist.

But I want to change.

I am fighting against my own culturally ingrained mindset in order to change. I humbly ask that you will forgive me for my trespasses against human dignity.

How does this have to do with loving someone and losing them?

I think that each of us feel, after having loved someone deeply, then losing them to death, that the world is so much more precious. For instance I know that I feel that time is precious and life matters. What I do with it matters. I also hold in my heart the values that my sisters (the ones I have loved and lost) first began with. My twin is one of my greatest role models. I will never forget traveling with her to China and the ease with which she communicated with the Chinese. She had no fear, and seemingly no sense of a cultural prejudice. I envy her as I approach my own fear, but she also spurs me on and is my role model. I want to be like that. She asked questions fearlessly. I want to learn to ask questions fearlessly. She displayed deep interest and was rewarded with sincere relationship.

In an Eastern sort of way, I feel that to address racism in myself shows honor to my twin sister who has died. I honor my sister’s memory by attempting to perpetuate the goodness that she held within her.

Thank you, Stephanie, for showing me courage. May I carry that courage within myself too as I face the world not as a “rescuer” but as a friend.