Through a Tunnel
Did you know that men are more likely than women to experience “tunnel vision” while driving? I first heard this in my high school psychology class when Mrs. Waller explained it. Tunnel vision, of course, is when you zone out, when your line of vision narrows to what’s just in front of you while missing everything that’s happening to the side of you. It’s easy to see how dangerous this could be while driving but that’s not why it struck a nerve deep inside of me. It struck a nerve because, at the time, it served as some sort of ‘proof’ that I really was “different” from everyone else, that I was not a normal “girl.” See, while I didn’t have a name for it, I experienced tunnel vision a lot… just not necessarily while driving. I called it “zoning out”.
By the time I learned about tunnel vision, I’d mentioned to my mom several times how I didn’t think I was normal because I didn’t seem to experience the full range of emotion like most people did. When something super happened—I was happy… but not really. If something traumatic happened, I was sad….but not really, it was more of a feeling of holding my breath while waiting for the trauma to be over than outright sadness. I cried when I was supposed to, I laughed all the time but I didn’t really feel those emotions very strongly. In other words, it appeared to me that other people felt emotions stronger, or deeper, than I did. In retrospect, I think I was suffering from a sort of post traumatic stress issue than anything but every so often, it still happens to me. Something catastrophic happens and I just… I don’t know how to explain it, it’s just like I go away. I immediately start thinking about what steps I need to take to fix it. I make a little chart in my head, and then I just doggedly go about getting those things checked off of my list. When the list is clear, and there’s nothing more to do, I briefly feel relief that’s followed by the fear that has always accompanied peace for me. Fear that the peace won’t last, fear that I have to safeguard it with my entire being…. so much fear that it’s hard for me to actually relax and enjoy the peace.
It’s as if my mind narrows until all I can think about is the task at hand. I don’t so much feel the emotional weight of any of it. The house needs gutting, needs cleaning, needs redone? That’s what my task is, that’s what I’m focused on. It keeps my mind so full that I can’t focus on emotion. Tears come from somewhere deep within me. They fall as I put toys in garbage bags. But I don’t stop finishing the task, I don’t allow myself to think about what I’ve lost, or about the burnt dreams of a quiet life. I’m too scared of that, scared that the tears might turn into soul destroying sobs that would never stop if I did, scared of feeling a knife against my heart again. A car wreck? My job is to comfort and support. I don’t allow myself to think about the “what ifs”. Heart surgery? Well, if there’s a hole in the heart, common sense dictates it be mended: I focused on finding what I thought was the best surgeon in the state and then step-by-step recovery. No, or very few, Facebook updates about anything remotely sad because I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me and because I don’t want to feel the sadness. I used to tell myself that no matter what happened, I truly was okay because at least I wasn’t a Holocaust victim. I used to tell myself that I had no right to complain because I’d all but sanctioned the worst trauma in my life. I used to tell myself that people would leave, and I’d be all alone, but that was okay because at least I had my books and, later, my girls. When my daughter had surgery on her skull as an infant, I entered the Tunnel Vision Zone phase, only thinking about what I needed to do: comfort her and never leave her side so that I was there in the event she woke up. A reader emails me with desperation unwritten in every line, asking for reassurance that life goes on after trauma: I don’t allow myself to think about my own past for longer than it takes to comfort that reader and assure her that not only am I also a survivor, but I’m happy and healthy too: one day, so will they be.
What I’m trying to say is that I don’t allow myself to grieve. I know I’m supposed to but I’ve always been afraid of what I’d do if I was really, really sad. Would I hurt myself? Possibly. Would I just not get out of bed and allow the seconds, minutes, days, years to pass me by? I’m afraid of that. Would I cry and not stop, confess to someone that I really need a good, solid, strong hug that convinces me someone is there to help me back up, if I stumble? I’m afraid of that because what if the only answer I hear is “no” ? See, as good as I am at keeping the human race at a distance, the truth is I’ve longed for lasting and honest and real connections for … well, as long as I’ve been alive, practically. John and Stasi Eldridge’s book, “Captivating”, said that all women, no matter how strong they are, long (sometimes secretly so), to be rescued, to be cared for, to be adored…. in essence, to be the fairy tale princess. Even the strongest woman alive, it claimed, wants someone with a strength she can’t hope to match to assure her she’s safe and that it’s okay to be … to be vulnerable and to cry and to need. I joke that all I have to have to accomplish something, anything, is someone telling me I can’t. I hate being patronized, I loathe being seen as a weak victim and that means being strong. I love being an advocate, but that means being strong because the only good advocates are those who are healed, right?
Grieving means feeling the loss. It means showing how weak and frightened I am. So, instead of grieving, I pick something I know I can, like clean, and I do it until I’m too exhausted to think, too wiped out to feel anything anymore. But the ash clings to me, the memories shadow me for years, haunting my nights, refusing to fade into oblivion. I know what I should do to make the shadows go away, the clean the soot, confront head-on not just the tasks of recovery but also the loss and pain, the hurt. Confront it, then bury it. But goodbyes terrify me so, instead, I work steadily, with a calmness that belies the chaos in my heart, towards the illusive goal of healing, of recovery. I deliberately channel my tunnel vision ability and focus. I take care of others and forget myself, all while pretending it’s part of being “strong”, of moving on.
The truth, though, is that I can’t sleep at night. The idea of having a night-light, something bright to scare away monsters, frankly appeals to me more than it does my girls. Even on the hottest night in July, I cannot be on a bed without being completely covered with a heavy blanket. I write letters and blogs and books because I want the people I love to —know— I love them, and because I have a deeply buried fear of being forgotten. In my peripheral vision, I see memories of pain and loss, of heartache and destruction that hold me captive, that dog my every move, that refuse to go away.
Then someone does something kind for me: they write me an e-mail, they offer to help with the tasks at hand, they come see me and suddenly, the dam of tears burst and my heart rips open. Simple, small acts of kindness force me to acknowledge the feel of pain alongside the comfort of friendship. And then, when morning comes, I wake, realizing that my heart doesn’t feel so anxious, my fists aren’t clenched so tight and, despite the whispered lies, I am not alone.