How to See in the Dark

Asking For It with Sibyl

Sibyl, In the past few months, my family has suffered two major tragedies, and a few minor ones.  Now every time my husband leaves the house and doesn't answer his cell phone I think he's dead.  Most of me knows this is irrational, but until he gets home or contacts me, I'm a bit of a mess.  I can't afford the $170/hr to see a shrink, but sometimes I don't know how I'll move through the world without feeling at any moment someone I love could die or be hurt.  How can I move past this?



Dearest Irrational,

I have good news and bad news.  Since I know it would calm your anxiety to get it out of the way, let's start with the bad news.

You are not going to get past this.  It is going to become part of who you are.  These traumas, whatever they are, are changing and shaping you.  Who you become in the face of them is up to you.

We'll get to that.  Before you can worry about who you're going to be, you have to survive these first traumatized months.  First of all, explain to your husband that for right now, you need him to answer the phone every time you call.  He doesn't have to talk, he can answer with a text that just says "I'm here".  But for right now, that is what you need -- to know that he is alive.

It is perfectly okay to be Irrational right now, when life makes so little sense.  It’s okay to be a mess.  It’s okay to put your hands on his face every time he returns to you, and say, “I thought I lost you.  You’re back.  We’re home.”

If he really objects to this imposition, put a time limit on it, "I just need this for the next 2-4 weeks.  Then we can reassess."  Trauma is a huge relationship litmus test, so if he can be there for you in this, you will only get closer.

Now for some good news: you don’t have to go it alone.   Of course you can't afford $170/hour for a therapist.  Who can?  That fee is absurd.  I don't know where you live, but I bet there's a clinic or a graduate school nearby that has therapy interns that could see you for as little as $25/session.  If you live in California, and any of your recent tragedies are from violent crimes, you can get therapy through a program called Victims of Crime.

So, with a little bit of research about clinics, schools, and resources in your area, you can see a therapist that you can afford to help you through this time.  You'll have to go through this dark period of your life no matter what, but you shouldn't have to go through it without a guide.  Therapists are trained to walk alongside folks who have experienced tragedies while holding the lantern to help them see the way.

So, with your supports in place, you'll be able to dive in to the crux of the matter.  These recent tragedies have pulled the veil off of your life and you are seeing humans for what we really are: ephemeral.  Our lives, no matter how bright and beautiful, will one day pass away.  It is a horrible panic attack-inducing truth.  But it is also what makes our lives have a sense of urgency, what propels us to ever do anything of consequence, what gives us something worth fighting for.

When my beloved father died, I spent a grief-stricken winter laying face up on my bed, immobile, staring at the one lonely snowflake I had hung from my ceiling, reciting my favorite poems and feeling the chill of a world in which my anchor had been pulled up.  I was adrift.  And terrified.

So, when it came time to register for classes at my university, I signed up for an intense course in Death and Dying, in which we read 12 books about death; theological, philosophical, and personal texts.  The professor's father was dying as he taught the class.  He and I spent several afternoons in his office, laughing at the absurdity of death and sitting in silence at the horror of it.  It was insane to immerse myself so fully in my grief, but I had a therapist I trusted and my fiancee by my side, so I dove in.  I needed to make sense of the world before I could commit myself fully to living in it.

Perhaps you are not about to take such an undeniably intellectual pursuit.  However, do something to make sense of your world, or you will find yourself trying to control it in odd ways.  Pulling out bits of your hair and lining them up in straight rows, restricting certain foods to cheat death's knocking, calling your loved ones obsessively -- I've been there, I know this behavior.  But how you face these tragedies will direct a good portion of your life.  Don't judge yourself for however you experience grief, but strive to get the better of it.  Just the fact that you wrote in to this column shows you are ready to face these fears.

Finally, do something that makes you feel really alive.  Take up boxing, write a poem every day, hike the hills behind your house, sing at a monthly open mic night.  Whatever it is, choose something that brings you close to the core of life, but does not throw you over.  Grind your feet into the earth, finding your shoring beneath you.

Remind yourself why you want to remain a citizen of this world.  Give yourself visceral experiences of the beauty of this life, despite the pain we inevitably incur.  Love so fiercely that death has no lasting sting, just a dull ache that reminds you that what you’ve lost lives on in you, propelling you to further bravery in loving.