The other day I threw a strawberry at someone I loved. She had joked that there was a worm on it just as I was about to take a bite. Normally, I would have just laughed, but instead I threw it at her in a panicked outburst.
I started to cry.
I dropped my chin, covered my eyes, and sobbed.
"I'm so sorry!" She said over and over, putting her arm around my shoulder to console me. I could not be comforted. I just cried and gasped and mumbled through my snot that I knew she was only kidding but I wasn't able to control myself right now. A few minutes and several apologies later, I finally got a hold of myself while my dog licked the smushed strawberry off the floor.
I realized right then that stress can turn you into a whole 'nother person.
It had turned me into a strawberry chucker.
Why was I chucking my favorite fruit? Because a close friend had recently committed suicide. The stress of losing him has changed me in amazing ways. And by amazing, I don't mean good; I mean in ways I never expected. Besides being easily startled and a total cry-baby, I had started to act like my dog. She is a rescued whippet mix who is scared of silly things like plastic bags that float in the wind (Thank God she's never seen American Beauty!), fire hydrants, traffic cones, and bunnies. If she farts too loud, she runs away from her butt like it is out to get her. She also has severe separation anxiety. From age 10 months (when I adopted her) until about three years old, she'd eat the corners of my couches, dining room chairs, and kitchen cabinets when I would leave. She finally got over that. Now she just chews her stuffed animals until their fluffy white inner guts and plastic squeaker spill out. Just like her, I am now scared of strange things and have separation anxiety. Street noise, like car horns and truck rumbles make me jump. Don't even think about coming up behind me and tapping me on the shoulder these days, unless you want to be treated to a swift kick in the crotch. And quick stops in the car make me splay out like a cat about to go into a bathtub. And then there's the separation anxiety. I am not chewing on my couches (yet!) but when someone leaves I think, "Will I see them again?" "Are they going to die?" "Are they suicidal?" No, I am not thinking that when the UPS guy walks away from my doorstep, but I think about it when family members, friends, and co-workers leave.
I also cry over little things. Last week, I saw a dead squirrel in the road and you would have thought the two of us shared acorns and tree hollows over the years, the way I cried all the way to work.
And all this is normal according to my therapist.
I am suffering the effects of a tragic, traumatizing, sudden loss, she said.
My body is still reeling.
My mind is still recovering.
My emotions are all over the map. And some days I can't find the map.
This is what happens when you wake up to a phone call that one of your closest friends killed himself. My mind is there to protect my body after all. It had to go into overdrive to keep further damage from occurring. It had to raise my awareness, put me on guard, get my defenses up. Well, congratulations, mind. You're doing a heck of a job protecting me. You made me throw a strawberry at someone I love. Made me want to punch them in the face as a matter of fact. Luckily, you snapped me back to reality just in time to keep me from going to jail. Now if you could just keep me from going crazy, I would appreciate it.
While it sure feels crazy, chucking strawberries and crying over squirrels does not make me ready for the straight jacket according to my therapist. She said I should look up Post Traumatic Stress Disorder I will probably recognize a lot of my symptoms. "You don't have to go to war to suffer PTSD," she said. So like anyone doing major research, I Googled my symptoms and a lot of them matched exactly what I was experiencing. Thankfully, I don't need medication. I just need time and rest and that is exactly what she prescribed. Take two chill pills and see me in the morning.
I have hundreds of sick hours because I take very little sick time off from work. Partly because I am very healthy (Thank God) and also because I was raised by parents who would send me to school even if a my leg was hanging on by one bloody thread. "You're fine sweety. Just a minor flesh wound. Grab a band aid and get to school." So, I get my butt to work even when I am not feeling well. So when my therapist prescribed time off, I balked, but she insisted. She said two things that helped convince me:
"What would you do if you had the flu? Take time off, right? Well, you have a very serious case of the flu. You are sick with loss." Secondly, she reminded me that we don't deal with loss well in American culture. "In other cultures people take time off to mourn a loss. They sit Shiva. They have relatives around them for weeks while they sit at home remembering, contemplating, grieving. Other cultures have people take care of them for a year, or they wear black for a year. What do we do in America? We tell people to get over it and move on."
She said this is not healthy and we are suffering because of it.
I was suffering because of it.
So for the first time, I actually took sick leave from work to heal from something that I could not take antibiotics for; something that didn't require a bandage, a thermometer, crutches, or a gallon of orange juice. I had taken a day here, a half day there since losing my friend, but had taken no significant time off. I was just pushing through, taking it "one day at a time." Instead, I needed to take 7 days at a time and stop pushing. I needed to collapse. To rest. To heal. To hibernate. Hit the reset button.
Thankfully, I was able to do that.
I stopped pushing through.
Last week, I went back to work and for the first time, I didn't feel like I was sleep walking. I could smile without feeling like a phony. I could get work done. My friend who passed away was mentioned in a work related newsletter that came across my desk, and it didn't rock my world like it would have a week ago. It made me pause, it made me sigh with sadness, but it didn't make me break down. I know that I will cry again, probably even bawl and snot all over myself at some point, but I'm going to be OK. My dog has tasted her last strawberry.
-Hope A. Horner
Contact author on gmail at hopeh1122