Today I helped my somewhat coherent daughter take her first “shower” in ten days; it was the first time I have seen firsthand – the residual extent of her wounds from being kidnapped and tortured in Arizona…it was horrendous for me; but it was like heaven for her to feel clean.
I shampooed and conditioned her now shorn off hair; I found a deep and permanent divot left in the back of her skull from a hammer blow: a half-dollar sized strawberry colored sphere smack dead in the center of the back of her head. My throat tightened up so badly I began to wonder if I might start to hyperventilate.
All over her shoulders, arms, belly, chest and back are huge burn scars as long as the sword that was used to leave them; her arm has been pinned in three places, she’s been given a tracheotomy as a result of 1) Being forced to drink caustic chemicals; and 2) Having a belt cinched tightly round her neck for almost two days.
At one point, I looked down at the floor and asked what the mess what all about; don’t they have a janitor who comes and sweeps the floors? She said yes there is a janitor, and he never cuts corners on her room – she raised her feet both up in the air across from me and I saw the bottoms of her feet for the first time…I had not been made aware of what they had done to the bottoms of both her feet…my heart just hurt so bad. Her feet were burned the worst of all…they burned the bottoms of her feet into mush. What I was seeing on the floor was simply from her feet shedding skin layers endlessly. I just didn’t even know what to say to that…I didn’t say anything; just rubbed lotion on them for her.
She was laughing, smiling; still somehow trying to glow from underneath the mess on the surface…today was a very emotional day…but she’s coming around we hope.
“In human nature, there is a provision, alike marvelous and merciful, that the sufferer should never know the intensity of what he endures by its present torture, but chiefly by the pang that rankles after it.”
Admittedly, I had to look up the word ‘rankle’…
(of a wound or injury) continue to be painful; to fester.
Origin:Middle English: from Old French: draoncle = ‘festering sore,’
from an alteration of medieval Latin: dracunculus;
all diminutive of draco = ‘serpent.’
It long ago passed the point of my becoming dreadful of my injury coming up in conversations that were meant to be short-lived and/or casual. It’s a helluva ice-breaker though, I’ll tell you. The reactions are always one of three things:
1) “Oh my dear God! How did you survive that?” 2) “Oh, c’mon…be serious…” 3) Complete silence and the dropped jaw.
In any case, it is unfailingly awkward to try and summarize my experience; and anyone included in the conversation is typically either overcome by nausea, or stumped to illegible stutters. A lot of what makes up these common responses, in my opinion, is the fact that I have been surgically reconstructed so well – an element that certainly catches the proverbial inquisitive type totally off-guard during a social interrogation regarding my past. I say this because back before the surgeries were done – people never seemed too surprised to learn that I had sustained severe maxiofacial/mandible/jugular injuries via fishing knife at the hands of my ex-husband – I guess it was rather apparent there for a while…go figure.
In all truth, some days it’s difficult for me to get my head around, as crazy as that seems. I guess the point of this extremely random post of my thoughts would be how true the above quote by Hawthorne is to life, and to the survival of torturous traumas; I NEVER would have made it through the recovery if my ability to register all of it hadn’t been filtering out what my psyche could handle at any given time…
Boo used to say that all of the time about my scarring (post-injury), while she was on my lap, admiring me the way kids do to their’ folk.
So…something occurred to me this morning, as I was drying off after my shower: I still find new scars on my body often.
By “new”, I mean scars that I had not seen before; not scars that are actually freshly appeared.
In the hospital (almost a solid year’s time), I NEVER once gave my body/face a second glance at any time, as the times that it happened by accident left me horrified beyond belief. Boo was very observant – always; so when I came home from the hospital, she immediately began to point out staple-lines and track stitches across my skin with her tiny fingers regularly; she was only four then, so I just kinda went with it and never actually paid much attention to it.
After Boo was gone, during a period of time when I hit a very low point again, I began to notice many scars and marks all over my body that I hadn’t before seen. By then, I had already began regularly inspecting my face and neck in front of the mirror; my purpose for this had not been to look for scars, but to re-familiarize myself with my own face and appearance. The face took front burner for quite some time in my mind, as I was extremely self-conscious and unstable when it came to facing the world. In turn, looking back in hindsight, I totally forgot that there was the rest of my body, too. And, in reality, despite the horrific injuries to my neck and face that swallowed up most of the immediate medical necessity back then – my body most certainly bore the brunt of my overall injuries sustained for the duration of my captivity/marriage.
It just wasn’t so immediate to focus on during the “reconstruction” period, I guess…for any of us involved. I was even of the opinion that as long as I could put clothes on every day and did not have to get naked for anyone, my body and I could agree:
I leave it alone, it leaves me alone. Simple.
This worked well forever, too…until I was faced with too much alone time on my hands after Boo was gone; and it was nearly as if I was slowly undressing somebody else’s body for the first time.
I started to dread bathing, as I would have to accept it all over again; the PTSD really got bad at that point in regard to flashbacks and resurfaced memories – looking at my own skin created this. I lived in a paradox place where my newborn, obsessive/compulsive need to be clean was constantly at odds with my disgust with my own body. I cried a lot. I cursed at the Gods daily. I thought about digging a hole in the backyard and just climbing into it. Eventually, I met a guy who was cool and I relaxed about my body with time – with his help no doubt. He was a total pothead skater and really didn’t ever seem to even notice the shit that I was certain would make him scream and run away. He was super mellow and laid back – simple, really. That helped.
It really doesn’t affect me at all like it used to – finding scars and marks that I don’t recall ever seeing before. I have already come through the stage in which these things trigger physically responsive reactions from me, that no longer happens; as I have recalled what must be an accounting for the better majority of my scars and battle wounds by now. Also, I try not to allow my thoughts to hijack my mind on the topic of HOW I got them…that helps tremendously. I know they are there, I know they represent pain and torture. I know how I got each one. I do not need to think any further beyond these basic elements any more, for the most part – and I don’t – but I can if I choose to, without freaking the fuck out. Which, to me – says something…
As a survivor, I can say that the word “recovery” gets thrown around an awful lot in the medical community, be it in regard to surgery, mental instability and/or impairment, a plethora of varying ailments and illnesses, and of course – alcohol and illegal drug addiction; we hear the word used to describe our economic status from time to time; we hear “recovery” used as a term to describe what occurs during police raids and hostage situations – in the context of anything from tangible assets, to living, breathing human beings. We hear the word used mostly in a productive element, as opposed to a dark or terrifyingly surreal one; the sound of the word “recovery” evokes a sense of upward motion or a confirmation of something’s very existence.
For me, hearing the word so often created a void of meaning, in the human context, at least. I’ve met too many “recovered” individuals that give me nightmares to believe in the idea of “recovery” being a universal one; I’m very keen to the fact that my recovery might not look a god damned thing like the next guy’s form of it – I know from personal and painful experience also, that the next guy’s version of being “fully recovered” might only slightly resemble one of my own first stages of the notion of fully recovering.
DOES THE TYPE OF RECOVERY MAKE A DIFFERENCE? Well, duh….
Granted, the basic concept of “recovery” can be stitched loosely and tie together many types of circumstances and people who would otherwise have NOTHING as a common thread; however, the struggles and challenges of recovery that define a person who is recovering from a tonsillectomy for example, as opposed to a person in the grips of a recovery surrounding something along the lines of say: a traumatic injury, a behavioral or mood disorder, or a recent round of Chemo-therapy, forge a line in the dirt between two separate parts of reality. There are vast differences in the goals and time-frames that represent the recovery process of a post-op maintenance knee surgery patient, in stark contrast to the goals and time-frames in question for someone that’s also in medical/psychological recovery, and continues to suffer from the additional challenges presented by ongoing manifestations of anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder – resultant of violently traumatic physical injury. For example, let’s compare:
someone who is lying comfortably within the drug-induced haze of a post-op ward after a routinely performed surgical knee or back or shoulder repair procedure – one that had been scheduled by a specialist months ahead of time, having had plenty of associated information exchanged between healthcare providers and patient as a means of mentally preparing the patient as much as possible prior to surgery and, in turn, “recovery”. This patient will be detailed a strict rehabilitation schedule upon leaving the hospital, typically complete with a slew of exercise class and various physical rehabilitators that will ensure the complete and accurate recovery process. TO…
someone who is in the drug-induced haze of a trauma ward or I.C.U. – post-op for an unknown length of time, enveloped by physical shock and acutely aware of the ease at which another individual is capable of harming her at will; unable to process the trauma that she has just endured and survived through somehow – unable to trust the safety that continues to be promised to her by the strange people she must depend upon to keep her alive from one long, pain filled day to the next. This patient does not know her surgeons, she does not know what they are performing the up close and very personal surgeries on her for, and this patient is confused, afraid and forlorn. There is no outline set forth for “recovery” upon the release of this patient from the hospital; she will be on her own to forge through the turbulence that awaits any victim of violent trauma.
The people along the way during the process will make an important difference in the overall outcome for each recovering patient, as well. Those with heart and humanity are the silent saints that have been scattered throughout the healthcare industry to somehow balance out the presence of those that represent the polar opposite of such kindness and compassion – and there are more than enough of that type.
For me, my experiences with “recovery” from the Ripper and my traumatic injury would have undoubtedly been defined much differently, had I not been pitied by the specific people who pitied me and in turn, offered me the gift of their attention. When I look back on the long and harrowing process of “recovery” from a near-fatal marriage that ended violently in a gore-fest that could have easily been ripped out of a low-budget horror film, and I recognize the alternate routes that it could have taken – based solely on the influences of outside stimuli that I was constantly exposed to during such a crucial time in my own physical, spiritual and psychological battle of “recovery”.
I am still far from fully “recovered” from my own experience fifteen years ago; it’s been a perpetually domino affected chain of events that have followed the day that I was finally released from the Hot House (the local ICU burn unit) – the day that I was technically deemed as being “recovered” and well enough to go “home”. Little did the prescribing doctors and specialists realize, I had no home anymore – and so the road to TRUE recovery likely began sometime around then, when I was faced with an overwhelmingly unwelcome reality that left me more or less speechless for months on end. Those days are the days that I consider to have been the bulkiest loads carried through my own recovery process so far – the days when I wasn’t sure what I was doing or why, just waking up and shuffling my feet for ten hours before falling back to sleep fitfully.
I had the blessing of motherhood back then; and somehow, I also had the ability, desire and presence of mind to appreciate such a gift – my only thing in the world that made sense and gave me purpose. Being a mom motivated me to carry on for something, it enabled me to escape my own world of confusion and the unknown; it healed me better than any of the days in the ICU ever could have healed me. I feel 110% certain that had I not had Boo and her existence to dive completely into like I did at the time of my “recovery”,
I wouldn’t have made it through the darkness and pain – I wouldn’t have even tried, I wouldn’t have wanted to.
Recovery has come and gone in varying fashion and multifaceted manifestations since the earliest days of my Cut-Throat Survivor’s birth; there are times when I feel so far from “recovered” that I laugh out loud at the prospect of considering myself a “survivor”; other days, I feel like I could mow down an entire task force with my saliva if I spit in that direction; it’s a relative to the current state of my own being, I suppose. I spent a lot of years in trying to fit into some type of “recovery” category or phase, to fall in line with some pre-defined step in a book of instructions on how to recover; I traveled into high and quiet places in attempt to clear my own mind and focus myself better; I’ve gone to prayer groups and spoken at huge seminars on domestic violence and chaired board meetings to outline legislative plans of action against child sexual assault. These things have each played a small part in my overall picture of “recovery”; but not one thing anywhere can ever be the solution in itself – for anyone.
RECOVERYis a path, a road to something better, whatever that might be for a given individual. RECOVERYis a haven for the souls lost to the torment of emotional shock; RECOVERY is a step in any direction when you haven’t been able to walk for a while; RECOVERYis the solution to the things that keep us lying awake at night, unable to rest our minds. RECOVERYis yours, and it is mine – and it will NOT look the same on my plate as it does on yours.
And…that is okay…we can still digest the contents of it together.
My family has struggled mightily with the suicide of our clan’s ‘youngest brother’, my one and only little brother: JJ (1981-1999).
After learning of our brother’s tragic suicide and the horrid details surrounding his final hours alive, we, as a family – were forced to accept several realities that were likely the most unwelcome any of us had seen previously. Our departed sibling not only killed himself; he also killed a female police officer in the process.This was something that made the entire situation of his suicide, the aftermath, the social stigmas, the judgment of others, etc. – much, much more complicated.
My brother had been off of his medication for some time, and had been playing the cat and mouse with me as well; I had not been successful in locating him for several weeks (a task that was typically hard enough by itself, as I was still a hostage to The Ripper). His ex-girlfriend (who has become part of our family since that time) had just told him that she was pregnant with his child, despite their recent breakup; he was likely spinning out of control for many reasons, but this put him over the edge.
JJ never thought much of himself, in contrast to what he actually was…to me, at least.
Me and JJ, back in the day
I can imagine that finding out he was not only going to become a father, but a father to a child he would undoubtedly anticipate being kept separate from, for whatever reasons (that’s just how he was); I can imagine how big of self-fulfilled Failure this made him perceive himself as having become rather quickly, as a result of these thoughts. He didn’t pick up his gun and just shoot himself, and that was it…
He found his way to his very best friend Jeremy’s house (Jeremy is the next best thing to a little brother for me – we all grew up together), and honks the horn out front. When Jeremy goes outside, he sees JJ in an unfamiliar truck and asks him wtf is going on; he says that JJ was in disarray emotionally, and he obviously needed some support. He gets in the truck, likely against his better judgment, and agrees to ride with JJ to “SouthWest for a while”. During the drive, the police take chase and JJ leads a high speed pursuit through the massive clusterfuck of the city’s expressways – picking up more and more units along the way, of course.
Inside the stolen truck, Jeremy is trying to calmly talk to him and get him to pull over so that they don’t get in any more trouble than they’ve already found – to no avail. JJ is beside himself; not making sense and very agitated; Jeremy feels afraid of him for the first time on all of their years together as friends. They wind down into the loading dock behind a Wal-Mart, where Jeremy assumes JJ will finally park the car and get out. Somehow, a police cruiser had slipped in behind them in the dock, against the roll up door, unseen by either of them. JJ is still talking gibberish and making no sense – completely embodying a maniac. They become surrounded by a barricade of police cars and trucks one by one as they arrive to the loading dock.
I’m very unclear of the details, and always have been; but right around this moment, my brother threw the truck in reverse and floored it – smashing backwards with the force of a jet plane – instantly crushing the police officer between her vehicle and the solid concrete wall to his rear-right hand side. Jeremy says that he realized at time what was happening, and began to holler at JJ to “Stop the truck! Stop the truck! Stop the truck!”, to which my brother’s immediate response was to abide by.
*Jeremy’s Version of the events that followed:
JJ turned around in his seat, after putting the truck in PARK, and realized in the most raw and surreal sense what had just occurred, though he was still “incoherent”, in comparison with his true nature. The reality set him off to a point beyond retrieval; and he withdrew a .357 handgun from inside of a small cooler in the back seat. At this point, Jeremy is very afraid for his life, somehow – which tells me beyond the shadow of any doubt: the severity of JJ’s temperament and agitation, as they grew up like brothers together. Jeremy says something like,
“Dude, what the fuck are you gonna do? Shoot the rest of ‘em, now?”
He remembers the look on JJs face then: betrayal – like, ‘How could you say that to me?’. Before there was even time for another word between them, and amongst the background of megaphone voices, sirens and a helicopter overhead, JJ put the gun upward to his chin, and fired. TWICE. The coroner later described how a person often has all kinds of reflexive mechanisms that fire after a brain trauma like a fatal gunshot wound; they explained this as having been a reflex in his finger to pull the trigger again, merely reflexively, in death. But in the cab of the truck, in the moment, Jeremy was riddled right alongside of my brother’s body by the barrage of gunfire that immediately followed in response to the discharge of a firearm inside of the vehicle that just run over an officer.
In Jeremy’s mind, in the moment, he was shot by the second bullet that JJ fired at himself. He survived his tragic injuries: 8 gunshot wounds, 2 that should have been fatal. He swam for a long time in the states between awareness and hopelessness, in a hospital bed, for nearly a year. The most painful aspect of the entire thing for him was his perception of who had put him there, and how. It was over two years before I actually saw him face to face afterward, as my own traumatic injury happened within a few months of my brother’s suicide (and Jeremy’s traumatic injury). When I did see him, he was awkward and stand-offish, which I thought I understood already, being empathic.
Finally, he asked me “Why?”
He wanted to know why JJ had shot them, both of them, in the truck that day…
I was dumbfounded, needless to say…my heart ripped from my chest cavity all over again, sensing the horrible struggles that Jeremy had been swallowing in regard to believing he had been shot nearly to death by his very best friend on Earth; I found no words to offer him through my stunned affect.
“JJ would never have shot you…” I managed to whisper through my disbelief. “Nobody has bothered to tell you that, Jeremy?”
He collapsed with relief, as if he had been hoping my response would be exactly what I had said, and cried – he said, “Nobody needed to bother to tell me…”
It’s only now, since Jeremy’s passing recently, years and years after this conversation…that I think I finally understand what he meant by that, in its intended context. Days when I am yelling at my JJ’s twin sons (Jeremy and Joshua), as they run amok everywhere and back…the “Hellions”, reborn and growing old together once more. JJ and Jeremy REALLY were closer than brothers.
Not a pity party here tonight…just “blogging” in my “blog” like a good lil’ blogger…
I am surviving; yeah…I am waking up in the morning every day like a Survivor, however – with a permanently embedded bitterness pasted to the roof of my Survivor Mouth; rolling my eyes before even rolling out of my bed completely; aimless; hateful and resentful; wishing for a car to strike me dead in the road with every crossing I make. I can’t say that I’m suicidal; I don’t lie around thinking about ways in which to end my horrid, miserable mockery of a “life”, nor do I idealize the notion of offing myself – as inviting as that idea may be oftentimes when it passes fleetingly through my overstimulated mind at random. Yes, I said “at random”, and I did not misuse the word; thoughts of death or dying or being dead flow freely around my every moment of life, oddly enough. Even after surviving a very near-fatal injury and recovering for so many years afterward, even after spending so long of a time wondering if I could eventually be someone who appears “normal” again on the outside – and then finally achieving that “normalcy” in appearance; even after almost having the very life ripped out of my grasp forever before I was ready to die (I was only 21)…still, I remain infatuated with the alternative of life and living somehow.
I can say this: that I never would have fought to recover like I did – had I known what the future held. That thought bothers me often, and is something that I bring up regularly in therapy with my shrink because it weighs heavily on my heart to be aware of this fact. I talk long shit about my Cut-Throat instinct, and how it defines who I am; but sometimes I wonder if I don’t secretly despise the Survivor in me for pulling through to the other side, for fighting so hard for so long when it was so trying in every way, for believing so fucking much in Modern Medicine, “miracles” and The Underdog Theory…do I actually resent myself for getting through ….TO THE HELL ON THE OTHER SIDE OF HELL. I think so. No matter what anyone else says about shit and the way shit went down, I continue to look at my recovery from severe and traumatic injury as the period in my life that I screwed Boo over the worst. This was when Boo was abandoned in her mind; it was during this time that Boo needed me more than ever – a time when I was within arm’s reach to her but denied her access, as far as she was concerned; I was selfish and wrong to have expected a toddler to comprehend my own instability – that’s not a kid’s job. Sometimes I wonder if Boo would have been better off had she been taken into the foster system way back then, when she was still young enough to be suggestible to ideas such as mental health and coping skills, etc. …I can’t help but to blame myself for what Boo has become, it’s natural I know that.
I also know it’s not always reasonable for me to blame myself for how things have gone with her; not all of them, at least. The guilt and the self-disgust over this period of my history eats me alive though, with every unfolding crease in the pages. Cause and effect is a basic concept; and one that has always been near and dear to my world in an instantly gratifying way; as I have always been keen on the irony of this particular notion. I have been struck by the leathery, aged hand of Karma into the state that you know today: my entire life being a comic strip tableau of karmic instances occurring consecutively in a long string of “Hate to say I told you so’s”. Anyway, more recently I am becoming aware that I am middle-aged, rebelliously single, mentally unstable, and vertically challenged woman (who looks like a little boy because her hair won’t grow into some of the many varying grafts in her scalp) with a total lack of motivation or purpose or direction. This will hopefully be a temporary self-inventory; God Damn I hope it is temporary because I’m getting tired of resenting myself for being alive so often.
It was after a seven month “reconstruction” in the hospital; 10 for tissue repair and 17 combined reconstructive facial, jaw and neck surgeries, countless skin grafts and the hideous experience of burn bag treatments – that towards the end of the grueling, painful and quite humbling experience of becoming a surviving “cut-throat”, that I began to suffer from paranoia and severe anxiety.
During all those blurry and fog-filled months after my ex-husband cut my throat, I was soothed by the drug-enveloped safeties of the good ol’ I.V. drip morphine machine, as well as a constant stream of nurses inquiring about my level of comfort; they all pitied me I’m sure- from the beginning, they would tear up at my side, as I looked in a mirror; or they would rub my hair during the bag treatments in the burn unit; one of them even started calling me her surrogate daughter after the first few weeks I was there. They were good to me during a time when nothing in the universe made sense; and I was essentially on a different planet during that time due to my psychological state in addition to the constant pain drugs my physical recovery required.
It wasn’t until my physical recovery from the traumas relating to my marriage were nearly “complete”, that I was able to begin to deal with the psychological effects of the life – and near death – I had survived, was continuing – to survive through.
The paranoia was the first experience that I had ever personally had with severePTSD; and its first appearances, in combination with the waning effects of a year of non-stop narcotics – eventually began to play tricks on my fearful mind – in a subtle way at first. I would hear voices on the back stairs of my apartment (that weren’t real) and have other full-blown audible hallucinationsduring my first 6 months home from the hospital.
Before long, I was certainthat my ex-husband (who had evaded capture and was on the run from police for cutting my throat) and his posse were following me. It didn’t make sense of course, as he was hardly the type of creature to be capable of stealth maneuvers, nor was the idea of his stalking me in his best interests after an attempt on my life. In retrospect, it’s quite obvious to me: that if he had taken to the idea of finding me and coming after me again, he surely wouldn’t have been lurking around in the shadows when he did; he’d have finished the job he had failed at before, without a second thought. He was never very standoffish about anything, especially something he was passionate about. Despite the “inner-boxing match” that raged in my psyche over this fact, at the time, I always found a way to convince myself that I wasn’t safe, and neither was anyone who was around me.
It’s peculiar, even in hindsight: the way that my mind worked as the result of being a battered woman; for even the short period of time (in comparison to 30+ years) that I was a full-blown victim of Domestic Terrorism, I was paralyzed with fear and hopelessness.
I had come to grips with what I had accepted as being my fate as the victim. My very livelihood had seemingly been rendered broken and out of luck, I remember feeling those things and perceiving them as reality in my former life. Because of those raw and fresh memories, there hasn’t been a single day since the first day that I cleared my head of the Morphine haze and hospital sounds and went home, that I have allowed to pass me by without being truly awestruck by the reality that I am walking around, breathing, reading, writing and simply being alive and able to do what I want.
As much I as I regret everything about those years of my life in that mental paralysis, without having my throat violently cut by my abusive and psychopathic ex-husband, I’d still be so clueless about so many of the human elements in the world that define who we are at the end of each day; I’d still be in the dark about so many essential and divisive things, and I would have missed the bonds I’ve built with so many people who’ve were pushed into my life as a direct result of my “victimization”.
The EMTs who rode in the ambulance with me, two total strangers to me – men who I’d never seen before in my life, one who was on a ride-along as part of his final week before retirement from the field – somehow becoming a magical, human-esque bandage and acting as tourniquet around my neck and face to cut off the flow of blood pressure before I finally blacked out completely; I remember the older man (who has become like a surrogate Dad in the years since that tragic morning) barking orders at me to “stay awake!” and “Breathe!”. When I came to in the hospital 2 weeks later, that same older EMT was at my bedside in a chair with a fishing and wildlife magazine, reading about the things he was going to do now that he had retired. Jack became one of my staunchest allies, he cried tears of joy when I got to leave the hospital, he has become a stationary fixture in my life since that time. He has introduced me to many (if not most) of the elements that define my current life;Jack is the reason that I was lucky enough to learn the lessons involved with volunteerism in my community and the importance of it (which in turn, has worked out to be the sole purpose that I have been able to hold on to any of my sanity throughout the aftermath of my violent injury).
I’d have nevergotten that gift had I not been victimized during Jack’s last ambulance shift: bleeding my very life out.
These are just some things I think about sometimes when I start to feel sorry for myself or whatever…