I’ve spent most of the past two years waking up in a hospice room.
Not literally, but in my mind.
In reality, I’ve woken up on floors, couches, in my van, a camper, my truck bed, the dirt and countless other places. Such is the life of a dirtbag river guide and half-cooked ski bum.
But, in each of those actual physical places where I’ve risen from sleep, I’ve started my day mentally and emotionally in the same room where my father succumbed to a brain tumor in May of 2021. Physically, I was somewhere else. But my senses were stuck two years in the past, refusing to budge from a seat beside him and the sickening stench that accompanies a squandered life as it begins to expire.
I’d walk the dog, but instead of hearing the crunch of gravel and sand beneath my feet, there were the beeps and buzzing of medical machines and monitors. Coworkers would stumble into our locker room or community kitchen, and as the coffee began to drip, make small talk. I’d usually meet them with a grunt or half-hearted acknowledgement. Not because I had intended to be rude or to ignore them, but because my ears were overwhelmed by the whir of the handheld vacuum the nurses had used every hour, and the wet, squelching sound of the mucus being sucked from his lungs.
My girlfriend would put together a breakfast for us before I had to start preparing for my day on the river, but it was always hard to eat, as most breakfasts had been for a long time. Not because it wasn’t appetizing, or because I didn’t find the smell of butter, eggs and chili flakes enticing, but because I couldn’t shake the stink of his shit-filled diapers from my nose.
It often took me more time than my coworkers to get my gear in order prior to a trip on the river, not because I didn’t know what I needed, but because I couldn’t trust my grip on anything. I’d feel a paddle or cam strap between my fingers, but there were rough hospital linens in my hand too.
Those sounds and smells, the sight of his skin as it turned a greyish-yellow and began to hang off his limbs, the feeling of his cold hands in my palm– these sensations took me out of every place and moment, for thirty minutes to sometimes more than an hour, no matter where I was, for a little over two years.
Mental health professionals call this complex post-traumatic stress disorder. I fell victim to it and have suffered the consequences because I refused to take the necessary steps to alleviate the symptoms. In my mind, his death and the litany of traumas his existence had imposed on my family and myself were a part of who I was, woven into our DNA and destiny– a curse I had no choice but to bear.
C-PTSD is the medical diagnosis, but adopting that view and qualifying it as a curse can be more aptly categorized as willful victimhood.
When my senses lit up each morning, I didn’t stop and use any actual coping methods to bring myself back to reality. Instead, I’d go about the start of my day as if those sensations weren’t gripping me, and thought I just had to talk to myself internally until it passed. But I just used the dialogue to stall the assault until the flashbacks ran out of gas. The next morning, they’d always return with a full tank.
I didn’t hide my experiences. I often discussed it at length with my people, thinking that I was doing the healthy and responsible thing in talking about my struggles openly, like so many mental health awareness ads encourage us to do.
But that’s all I did: talk. There was no action behind the words, and though words are my thing, words without action mean dick.
I wasn’t verbally processing it. My subconscious mind was hoping that the people I discussed it with would have solutions or somehow take it all off my shoulders. It was an impossible ask, as they hadn’t gone through any of it and couldn’t understand the experience, because it was mine.
When I wasn’t talking, I’d sometimes white knuckle it, unknowingly pulling the blade of a knife deeper into the flesh of my chest in the process. And when I couldn’t push through the sting or ignore it, I’d try to soften it with booze or other chemicals.
Left unchecked, the body and mind crave what’s familiar. Without realizing, I accepted pain and misery as my default, and developed an addiction to it. In the moments when that addiction became too much to bear, I drowned it in whiskey, which only helped in placing my father’s boot more firmly on my neck.
I had nightmares too.
There was one that warped the reality of one of his last nights in that hospice room; the night when I asked my mom and brother to leave me alone with him. I had intended to make amends. He laid in that bed and avoided my eyes as I took responsibility for the role I had played in our battles, and forgave him for his. As his son apologized and tried to send him to the next realm with some peace, he couldn’t muster the strength to do the same in return.
Instead, all he could say was “don’t worry about it”. And that was the last time we spoke.
In the nightmare version though, as I’m about to exit the room, he sits up in his bed, erect and at attention. His pupils swallow the whites of his eyes entirely and he calls to me with a voice that cracks like a teen’s. I turn and his right hand is reaching for me, fingers twisted in a grotesque position, like the twigs at the end of a dead tree branch in winter. He says something– it’s long winded and I can tell by the way he’s moving with each sound that escapes from his mouth that he’s pleading. He’s begging– something I don’t ever recall seeing him do in life.
But the words are gibberish and I can’t understand any of it. He goes on and on as I beg him to slow down so I can understand, but it’s like another language. I try to move towards him, to get closer and decipher what the fuck he’s trying to say, but my feet melt and then root themselves to the floor. His goatee liquifies and runs off his face, his eyes go from black to white, the curtains close on the window, the room goes dark and I wake up.
Sometimes sweating. Sometimes screaming. And sometimes, when I’d drank enough to not wake up at all, I’ve been told I just mumbled in my sleep.
“I’m sorry Dad”
There are other lived experiences that surfaced in repetitive nightmares as well. The woman I watched die on the pavement in front of me. I see her knee burst beneath the weight of a landscaping trailer, see the blood spill from her eyes and ears, feel her fractured skull and listen to her ribs crack and break under the force of chest compressions.
The day I refused to help Dad off the toilet, so that I could verbally unleash nearly three decades worth of scorn and force him to face the damage he’d wrought in his life.
Many other memories have found life when I’m asleep at night, but I’d rather not waste words and time describing them, because thankfully, as of late, I’ve been mostly free of their grasp. And it’s been roughly two weeks since I last woke up and felt like I was in his hospice room during my waking hours.
There wasn’t a pill, an ayahuasca trip, a hero dose of mushrooms, electroshock therapy, or a lobotomy (though I haven’t ruled any of that out for myself in the future). I simply made a choice, or rather, a series of choices, that more aligned my life with a course that allowed for healing.
It took a lot for me to realize that I had that option. I had to watch my world detonate in front of me. I had to go through an injury that forced me off the river. In losing my ability to paddle, I lost what I thought had been a coping mechanism, but had merely been a temporary distraction.
I had to have my person wake me up with a brutal, but merciful, injection–a dose of consequence– and had to have some friends rip my metaphorical testicles off, then do an old school Irish river dance on ‘em– because it was the only way to get me to finally listen and see that the ways in which I was trying to deal with trauma weren’t sustainable.
I think all of us receive nudges that are meant to instigate a course correction. But when enough nudges go ignored, the universe loses patience. In those instances, powers beyond our comprehension grab a fistful of hair and forcefully shove our faces into a bucket of self-awareness. The stench is unbearable in the immediate and causes the nostrils to burn, just as the taste is terrible and turns the tongue bitter.
It’s an unwelcome shock to the system that feels venomous and carries a sting when administered, but also, a necessary medication if we are to exist as intended.
It’s called honesty.
The problem wasn’t that I was experiencing the flashbacks, nightmares and other manifestations of trauma. It was that I had adopted the idea that I could simply tough it out and wear the battle as a badge of honor. But I wasn’t battling at all. I was stalling.
I hadn’t been capable of receiving messages from mentors, friends, family and my partner, because I had allowed trauma to become the soundtrack of my life, and turned the volume up to 11.
I spent my days anticipating and expecting the next storm, because I had become so accustomed to standing in one every morning and night. Stuck on a story, I externalized a fight that needed to take place within.
My father had raised me to always be ready for a scrap and to never grant another man the ability to instill fear in me. I have walked through life with those lessons seared into my brain and adhering to the demands he placed on my conduct in the face of conflict– spitting in the face of men twice my size, never allowing anyone to take my lunch money, and developing an alarming tolerance for physical pain.
However, while I’m grateful to have all of that, it has, at times, been a detriment to my development as a human. My father skipped a critical lesson and left a large hole in me– he never provided instruction or guidance on fighting wars within. I know now that he was incapable of teaching me the necessary methods, because he had avoided them himself, and thereby wasted a life that could have been dramatically different, had he allowed his heart to take the reins from a brilliant but broken mind.
As the work specifically pertains to the nightmares, the flashbacks and the visualizations, the path to relief was relatively straightforward. I simply had to stop running from it, or acting as if I could clench my teeth through an episode and then get on with my day.
Instead, I’ve made the conscious decision to meet the evil in me face to face, and on my own. I’ve pulled a chair up, cultivated silence and dove into all the different films my mind plays. I’ve written them out, by hand, in excruciating detail. I haven’t asked anyone (other than my therapist) to make sense of what I see or what sets my senses off.
I put it on paper, then I read it all back, again and again, until I can get to the end without a pause, a tear, or that anxious sensation that feels like a rat gnawing at the back of my sternum.
In the clarity that comes after these exercises, I feel peace, and do some of my best thinking and writing.
I think about the myriad ways in which individuals delude themselves, and thereby cheat themselves of the right life; the way we take blurred sight and clumsily try to make shapes out of the blobs in front of us, trying to force them into something that resembles sense, and rebrand it as reality.
How in a refusal to accept and step into temporary pain, we prolong our agony, and then claim starvation, even though the universe has laid out a buffet in front of us.
When you wear trauma like a warm coat in winter, the soul is diluted, and when bitterness becomes the standard, wings become waterlogged, eliminating the potential for flight.
For so long I felt like a freak, and weak, because these visuals had taken center stage. But I’ve let go of that judgment, and accepted my identity as human. And in embracing that humanness, there has been an acceptance of the cards I’ve been dealt. The solution had never been to carry all of it, but rather, to walk through it, slowly and deliberately, seeing all the ugly sights along the way.
I don’t fault myself or feel bad for asking for help from my people. But I wasn’t just asking. I was depending on it and taking no action myself. My inability to step into the right fight earlier had been rooted in a fear of having to do it alone.
Though I feel as if I’ve traveled hundreds of miles this month, there are still bumps I must roll over.
A new nightmare emerged a few nights ago.
I’m brought to my knees in a grey room and hold my hands in front of my face, but they turn to vapor. Then things appear, things I have and things I’ve lost– they float, as if in orbit around me.
His silver wristwatch and the green bottle of Ralph Lauren cologne.
My grandfather’s hammer and toolbelt.
A well-manicured, but bloody hand.
Blue eyes and a four-part birthmark.
The chain with black stone and gold pendant.
A sauna suit and wrestling shoes.
Paddles, a chalk bag and flaming helmet.
Meatballs, bottles of Rolling Rock, cans of Budweiser, a tuna sandwich on white toast with extra pickles on the side, and thousands of crinkled notebook pages.
I grasp at all these things as they come but there’s no grip to gain. Everything passes through and I get more frantic, as I start to leave the ground too, and it’s not just my hands that have gone translucent, but my whole body.
I can’t feel any of it or recognize the floor beneath me.
Then suddenly I’m brought back to solidity, in the bathroom with the peach floor tile, and someone grabs a fistful of my hair, though this time it’s not the universe. They smash my chin on the porcelain sink.
I’m slammed into the sink again, and then I’m in the shower, screaming obscenities beneath a torrent of scalding hot water. The flow slows, a mass suddenly forms in the shower curtain, and bone connects with my nose. I’m on the floor, face next to the drain, as the spray picks up speed again, and I watch my blood swirl with water, then run down the pipes.
A rapidfire slideshow picks up– decades of noise, pressed and solidified then wielded like hammer and knives. Things real and imagined. A baseball bat to my hand, stars and fireworks in my field of vision, razor wire taken to my bare feet, hot iron pressed to my neck and a mouthful of broken glass. In a dark basement, multiple hands grab my shirt collar and drag me into an even darker closet, while my fingers burn as I claw at the carpet.
When I woke, I didn’t just set about the day’s to-do list with my jaw clenched and blood running hot. I didn’t call anyone looking for verbal affirmations or anesthetics. I deferred to the practice that had accelerated my healing so much in the past month. Breathwork and a reclamation of the physical space I was inhabiting in that moment– recognizing and taking stock of the bumper stickers plastered to the interior of my van and the dog’s ragged breath. And then it was pen to paper.
I wrote it all out. Twice. Every detail, every sense that had been activated. I read it back again and again, breathed more deeply each time, until my organs stopped curdling, my hands were still and my throat had opened back up. I put the page down, watched the clouds move, wiggled my fingers through the dirt, smelled the dog and then, had a day.
In the months prior to embracing this practice, I couldn’t see anyone or anything clearly, other than what I was experiencing. Now, thankfully, there’s sight again.
I’m grateful for friends like MadMo and Splashley, who kicked me in the teeth until I had nothing left to grin with but gums. They did it because, in the years before I had allowed my weight to suck me into the mud, I had been the guy who would do it for them, and all my people. I also now recognize and respect the bravery of someone who had made the decision to stand beside me for a period of time, even though I hadn’t yet made the conscious decision and commitment to heal. They saw who I’d be once I did, and now, I see that man too.
Choice is the ultimate determinant of reality. I made the choice to do it alone– to meet my evil on solid ground, and take the fight to the right place, which had never been in the physical realm. And I’ve forgiven my father for leaving me with a toolbox that was half-full. He gave me what he could, which was an animalistic desire to fight. I just had to learn the where and the when, and to accept that sometimes, the best attack is surrender.
When he shows up in my dreams now, I see him in one of his favorite places, where the water runs over rocks, and cascades from one pool into another.
Each day that passes brings with it more ease, more comfort in my body, and a more intimate knowledge of who I’m supposed to be.
Lately, I’ve been gorging myself on trust and licking every drop of belief from the bone.
But the other night, I had sushi for dinner. Ordered the shrimp shumai too. And because I spent so much time in the past month doing the necessary work on my own, I wasn’t eating alone.