Unresolved

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As I mentioned a few days ago, I have an irrational fear of dying. It’s not the being dead part that scares me; it’s the fear of the sickness and pain and suffering that’s associated with death that gets me. I talked about how the book I’m currently reading, The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, Sixth Edition by Edmund J. Bourne PhD, has a section that covers the fear of death, and how I was looking forward to getting to that section to hopefully find some guidance in how to get over my fear.

Today is the day that I got to that section, and it is … lacking.

It explains that some of the most common types of thanatophobia (the official term for a fear of death) are a fear of nonexistence; a fear of the unknown; a fear of negative afterlife based on religious beliefs, such as hell or purgatory; my situation, the fear of the negative aspects of the process of dying; fear of the death of a loved one; fear of what will happen to loved ones after you die; and an outright fear of dead things.

The book goes into some detail about the fear of nonexistence. It talks briefly about the fears of death that center around religious beliefs. It has a couple of paragraphs on how some people respond favorably to literature on near-death experiences. It mentions a couple of therapeutic options for people whose fear of death began with a traumatic experience of watching a loved one die.

And this is what it says about dealing with the pain and suffering of the process of dying.

“The fear of pain and suffering associated with death may arise from a traumatic experience of witnessing a loved one go through a protracted process of dying. Often the death of a loved one may lead to an increased fear of one’s own death as well as a fear of sights and objects associated with death.”

That’s it. That’s all the book offers.

First off, I’ve had this fear for as long as I can remember. My mom’s dad passed before I was born. My dad’s dad passed very suddenly in a town three hours away. We lost dad’s mom after a protracted illness, but because of my age I wasn’t allowed in to see her throughout most of it, and Mom and Dad didn’t go into much detail about what she was going through. My first memory of a protracted illness in a loved one was my mom’s mom, who died when I was 25 after a years-long deterioration into dementia. A stroke finally took her in November 1994 after spending over a year living at a nursing facility that I never visited. My first hands-on experience with death was with my father, a year later. He suffered a heart attack and then a second one took him a week after that. I had that week with him in the hospital and woke up the morning of his death knowing that it would very well be his last day on earth. But my fear of death dates back long before my father and my grandmother. It wasn’t anything to do with a loved one dying.

Secondly, There’s absolutely no real help here at all. Just two sentences speculating about the origin of the fear, and another sentence later in the section that says that hypnotherapy or eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing could be helpful in instances where the fear of death originates with the death of a loved one.

I’ve been eagerly anticipating what turned out to be nothing useful.

I’m a little frustrated about this. I was really hoping to find something that would address the dreams that I have about dying, the ones where I wake up in a cold sweat. I was looking forward to getting some tips on how to combat the immediate sense of panic that I feel anytime the thought of my death crosses my mind. And instead I’ve got nothing concrete that I can use to alleviate that fear.

Well, no matter. It’s something that I can bring up with my therapist and we can work on it together.

Getting Down to Brass Tacks

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As longtime readers of this blog may know, every day I try to read a section in a non-fiction, usually self-help book. Right now I’m reading The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, Sixth Edition by Edmund J. Bourne, PhD. It’s a bit of a slog, and it’s an incomplete read, because there are several exercises that take weeks to complete, not to mention some chapters and sections that aren’t relevant to my particular situation. Nevertheless, I’m reading the whole thing cover to cover, and then going back and doing the exercises recommended for me.

I’m currently on Chapter 11, called Ten Common Specific Phobias. It’s pretty much as advertised, a listing of ten phobias and some potential methods of overcoming each one. Most of these don’t pertain to me. The most common phobia, performance anxiety (public speaking and the like), is something that I only marginally deal with, others listed don’t bother me at all. The tenth one, however, is my single greatest fear. I’ve awoken in a cold sweat dreaming about it, and I can feel the panic rising in me even now just thinking about it, because it’s something that I WILL eventually have to face.

I have a tremendous fear of dying.

I’m not scared of being dead. That part doesn’t bother me. I’m not worried about my soul in the afterlife, and an endless, dreamless sleep if there’s nothing is just that. What bothers me, however, is the process of dying, the panicked gasping for breath that doesn’t come, the potential for a long, drawn out illness, the chance that it’s going to hurt very badly. That’s the part that I’m terrified of.

Fortunately, there appear to be some concrete things that the book suggests to help ease that fear. I only today discovered the section existed, and skipped ahead briefly to scan it. There appears to be more reading that I’m going to have to do after I finish my work with this book, but I’m okay with that. I just hope that it helps. I really wish I didn’t fear this so much, but the older I’m getting and the poorer my health becomes, the more I’m forced to face the fact that I likely don’t have as many years ahead of me as I do behind me. (Hopefully I’m wrong about that, and if I’m not, I hope I miss it by just a few years.) It’s a crippling feeling to know that I’m helpless to prevent it from happening.

I’ll have more on this in a few days when I get to the actual section itself.

We Are Orlando

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I’ve tried to avoid being political or deal with what would be controversial topics on my wall and in my blog. I’ve tried to put the focus on me and my own struggles. But this is my struggle today, and so here it is.

I’ve tried unsuccessfully for the last 36 hours or so to put into words my feelings about the massacre in Orlando yesterday morning. I felt shock at first, and then almost immediately anger. It was my earliest belief that this was a hate crime, that no one would randomly choose to open fire in a gay nightclub – this was a statement. The first I heard about this was when the news alert woke me on my phone in the middle of the night, and there were only 20 confirmed dead at that point. By the time I had woken up the next morning, the death toll was at 50, and I was horrified at the senseless loss of innocent lives. Twenty is bad enough, but a mass shooting with 50 fatalities is unprecedented in this country.

Snippets of information came out about the shooter. He was Muslim – this was likely a terrorist attack. The shooter had called 911 beforehand pledging his allegiance to Daesh – this was definitely a terrorist attack. The family of the shooter almost immediately apologized about their son’s actions and mentioned that their son had become enraged when he had seen two men kissing in public. He wasn’t a practicing Muslim, they said. He was born in New York. He had been investigated twice by the FBI and was still allowed to purchase a semi-automatic rifle. His father was sympathetic toward the Taliban and had once run for the presidency of Afghanistan. We also started to learn about the victims. The shooting occurred during Pulse’s Latin night, and the vast majority of the victims’ names that have been released to the public appear to be Hispanic in origin.

One of the unfortunate side effects of this tragedy is that instead of bringing us closer together as a nation, it’s splitting us apart. The information that we’ve been given is a veritable soup of marginalization: Gay Hispanics shot by a Muslim proclaiming terrorist allegiances. This is a hateful crime and we have to point our hate somewhere.

Some are pointing fingers at Muslims in general. This is just further proof that we need to ban every single one of them from our country, they say. But the fact remains that this isn’t a zealous and devout Muslim – this attack occurred during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a period of time in which murder is especially disavowed among practicing Muslims.

Some are pointing fingers at the LGBT community. One tweet stated that the shooter was a hero and the cops should be sued for killing a hero doing social justice. There are many others that similarly cheer the shooter for his actions. The LGBT community, however, was doing something that has been fleetingly rare in their history – gathering in what they thought was a safe place, having a good time.Was that their crime? Or was it the fact that they exist at all? Recent Supreme Court rulings have favored the LGBT community, with the capstone being marriage equality. But this incident shows that the fight for true equality is nowhere near over.

Some are pointing fingers at gun owners. It’s because guns are easy to get that these shootings occur. We need to tightly control Americans’ access to firearms. Yet every firearm owner that I know, and I know many of them, are trained with the weapons they own and are 100% responsible with them.

To be honest, unless the shooter left behind a manifesto of his actions somewhere, we may never know with absolute certainty why this tragedy occurred. It would be easy to speculate, and speculation is ripe with preconceived notions, but for now, we can’t be sure. Did he act on his own rage at coming face-to-face with a same-sex couple? Was this a radicalized lone wolf making his mark for his terrorist organization? We just can’t tell. We all have our suspicions, though, and I have my own.

But I think one of my friends on Facebook said it best. “We are all Americans. An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.” The fact remains that this is the worst mass shooting in American history, and there are many stories to tell.

There are the survivors, those that were there and lived to tell the tale, who will never be the same again.

There are the families of the deceased, whose lives will be forever diminished because of their loss. There is also the potential that one or more of these families will be learning of their loved one’s sexual orientation for the first time in the aftermath of the killings.

There are the investigators, who in the commission of their jobs have to listen to the unending ringtones of the victims’ cellphones from loved ones trying to check in. At the other end of every ring is a family or a friend that will eventually need to come to grips with that cellphone never being answered again.

And there are the helpers.

Fred Rogers, the host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'” And the helpers in Orlando are many. The lines to donate blood were several hours long. A GoFundMe page was established to raise money for the survivors. In just over a day, it’s raised over $2.1 million. Counselors and social workers are going to Orlando from all across the nation to help the community begin the healing process.

Earlier today I posted to Facebook, “I cannot vocalize the mix of emotions that I experienced yesterday as I learned about the news from Orlando and then read subsequent news and opinion about the tragedy. All I can say is that yesterday was incredibly difficult to stay plugged into social media and today, my heart still hurts for Orlando.” I still stand by that. I have many emotions that I’m still trying to process, and I haven’t gone into much detail about them here. What I have tried to do instead is put some perspective on the situation that’s still unfolding as I write these words.

Until we know for certain, I prefer to think of this as a single man, acting alone, that for whatever reason thought that killing 50 people in a nightclub was an appropriate action. Everything beyond that, at this point in time, is speculation that we’ll hopefully clear up with fact someday, so that we know why. And I believe that when we know for certain why this tragedy occurred, we can all begin the healing process.

On Bowie and Rickman; or, Callahan’s Law

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My social media feeds have exploded with remembrances of David Bowie and Alan Rickman.

The parallels between them are notable: both beloved for their extensive bodies of work, both British, both dead at age 69 from cancer within days of one another.

The public was shocked by the news of David Bowie’s passing – no one I know even knew he was sick – and was still adjusting to a world without the Thin White Duke when news about Alan Rickman’s death came and opened that wound anew.

Social media is notorious for its signal-to-noise ratio. Meaningless and sometimes erroneous memes are distributed in a desperate attempt to chase one’s 15 minutes of fame. Clickbait is the new journalism. Don’t read the comments for anything, lest the madness be infectious.

But every once in a while, the Internet becomes an online version of Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon.

For those not familiar with this work, Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon is a compilation of short stories that revolve around Mike Callahan, his bar, and its regulars. Written in the late 70s and early 80s by Spider Robinson, it tells magnificent science fiction tales full of empathy and acceptance. No one could really tell you where Callahan’s was, but if you needed to find the place, you would. Puns flew like darts (and both are relevant to the story, in their own way), but the overarcing principle of Callahan’s is the Law of Conservation of Pain and Joy, or more simply put, Callahan’s Law.

Callahan’s Law states that “shared pain is lessened shared joy, increased – thus do we refute entropy.” Alternately, it’s worded to say that “Just as there are Laws of Conservation of Matter and Energy, so there are in fact Laws of Conservation of Pain and Joy. Neither can ever be created or destroyed. But one can be converted into the other.”

Callahan’s is a wonderful, thought-provoking, hilarious read that I would recommend to you – that is, if you can stomach puns. The novel and its sequels are thick with them.

But I would propose that in times like these, whenever we mourn collectively, the Internet becomes our Callahan’s, with the Law firmly in effect.

As I stated earlier, my Facebook feed is almost completely comprised of remembrances of both Bowie and Rickman. There are a lot of my friends, myself included, that have been moved to tears by the two sudden losses. Their deaths are affecting many people that I know and millions that I don’t, and so we’re pausing the usual drivel of social media to make it a forum of substance.

In our stories about how each man touched our lives in their own special way, we are sharing our pain with the legions of followers many of us have on social media. And sharing that pain helps to lessen its impact on us. We’re remembering happy times where Bowie’s music was particularly meaningful or Rickman’s performances made us smile and even laugh. One story details something that triggers another story, and so on, and so the Internet collectively has become the world’s wake for these beloved men. In our sorrow, we remember what it was about them that made us happy, and we’re reminded of those times.

Shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased.

One more thing about the bar. Drinks carry two prices at Callahan’s. You can either drop a dollar in the cigar box on the bar and pull out two quarters’ change, and drink your drink as you normally would, or you can leave the whole dollar in the box to make a toast. To make a toast at Callahan’s, you need only step up to the line in front of the fireplace, and the whole crowd will quiet down to hear what you have to say. You make your toast, you down your drink, and then you throw the glass into the fireplace as hard as you can. It’s okay, the fireplace is hyperbolically designed to prevent shards from flying back out into the crowd. And often, that one glass is followed in short order from glasses flying into the fireplace from everywhere in the bar. Mike has to make a point of sweeping out the broken glass every night. He doesn’t mind, though, he gets a bulk discount on the glasses.

So, having left my dollar in the cigar box on the counter, I will walk to the line, raise my glass, and simply state in a clear, ringing voice: To Bowie! To Rickman!

And the sound of shattering glass from within this virtual Callahan’s shall be deafening.

Saying Goodbye to a Friend

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Regular readers of this blog might have noticed that I haven’t written in almost two weeks. That’s been by design. Here’s what happened.

I finished my last post and realized that I needed a few days to process everything that had happened in therapy, so I took the rest of the week off. Then on Sunday, I made the conscious decision that I was going to take a week of from any obligations of any kind, save for meds and vitals. I thought it would be therapeutic to have nothing to do. I was wrong.

By Thursday I was going nuts with boredom. I would literally sit and stare off at the walls in an attempt to NOT do anything. I was expending more energy trying to accomplish nothing than I would have been trying to stick to my checklist. I promised myself that I would get back on track on Monday, and then I got the message.

A friend of mine passed away last week, and her husband asked me to be a pallbearer. There are some things that you just don’t say no to, and that’s one of them, so my wife and I started making plans for her to be out of work for the funeral on Monday (the funeral was three hours away).

Her death was unexpected. She spent the last two weeks of her life in the hospital battling a sudden illness that no one could have foreseen.

Normally we’re in bed around 1:00 or 1:30 am, but in order for us to make the service, we had to leave the house by 7:00 am, which meant waking at 6:00 am to get things packed and out the door. I was restless that night, and still awake at 2:30 am; my wife didn’t get much more sleep than I did.

Monday morning rolled around and off we went. As is typical, my wife did all the driving, and I only caught a few minutes of sleep on the road. The service started at 11:00 am and was lovely, and then we drove the hour to the cemetery for the gravesite service. We were back on the road by 2:30 pm.

When we got home, we put away our dress clothes, unpacked what we had packed for the trip, and laid down for a nap. That was at 5:30 pm Monday afternoon.

At 8:00 pm we woke up and ate a bowl of chili, then laid back down.

At 11:00 pm, I woke and took my evening medications and vitals, then laid back down.

At 9:00 am the next morning, I awoke again, long enough for meds, vitals, breakfast, and coffee, then laid back down.

At 11:30 am, my wife came to wake me up to see her off for work (she’s working four ten-hour shifts this week to make up for being out on Monday), then I laid back down again.

I finally rolled out of bed for good around 2:45 pm. I was out for about 19 of the previous 21 hours. This put rather a crimp in my plans to get back on track on Tuesday, and so today, Wednesday, is the first chance that I’ve had to try and get back to the usual and customary. It’s more likely that it’ll be tomorrow or Friday before I can really stick to it, but I’m making the effort today.

I’m going to miss my friend. She had a sharp wit and was a fierce protector of her son, as well as being a talented artisan. I didn’t see her a lot for the last ten years of our friendship, and now I never will again.

NaBloPoMo Day 18: Another Death in the Family

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Back in June I told you about A Death in the Family, where I found out my aunt had died almost two months after the fact.

Last night I learned that her husband, my mother’s brother, passed away on August 1.

As you can tell, we really aren’t that close to that side of the family. I hadn’t personally spoken to him since my father’s memorial service twenty years ago.

As it was when my aunt passed, my feelings are more “oh” than “oh dear,” and it feels like I’m hearing about someone else’s family.

Neither of them ever seemed to approve of me. I always got the impression that I was a disappointment to them, long before I came of an age where I could really disappoint them. I feel a sense of loss, but it’s not sharp; it’s more of the ache of “what might have been.”

Maybe they were embarrassed about how far they’d fallen. Back in the 1970s and 1980s my uncle owned a chain of one-hour photo stores in the Atlanta area, and did a very brisk business. Then cameras became digital and photos were printed at home and my uncle didn’t keep up with the technology and lost his shirt. They were very prideful – well, my aunt was – of their elegant home in their affluent neighborhood, and it must have killed them to have to go to her brother and essentially beg for a place to stay, especially that late in life. I can’t really know what they went through – for 20 years, I never heard a word.

I had always missed not having a better relationship with them.

And now I miss them because now I never will.

NaBloPoMo Day 14: An Overflowing Well of Emotion

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My father died twenty years ago today.

I’ve spent the last week preparing for today. It’s been our tradition that Mom and I call each other every year on this day, at around 3:30 pm Eastern, the time that my father died. I called Mom, but she was in the middle of a physical therapy session, and so the call ended a little earlier than the appointed time. When that time passed, however, my lovely wife reached for my hand and held it as I cried.

This year is harder than it’s been in the past several years. I think it being an even two decades weighs heavily on me.

But I’ve also spent the last several years thinking my dad was not a very good dad, oblivious to my own role in that relationship. This year it’s different. This year, I have a lot to apologize for.

So, just as I forgave myself two days ago, it’s time to write my dad a letter.

~ ~ ~

Dear Dad,

It’s been twenty years since you’ve been gone, and I miss you very much.

I spent the first fifteen or so years in a state of hero worship about you. I built you up on this amazingly high pedestal and there you stayed while I built it higher and higher.

And then it came crashing down around me when I put two and two together, and realized that you became a much stricter disciplinarian after my rape. You fell off that pedestal very hard, and for a time I really didn’t like you very much. I never stopped being proud of you for your professional accomplishments, but I became aware of how much more important your work seemed compared to me, I remembered the suddenly much shorter hair-trigger fuse that would lead to corporal punishment, and I blamed you for a lot of it.

You never beat me, however. I’ve always known and been clear on that point. The punishments you gave weren’t worse than they were before my rape, they were just more frequent. And I never could figure out why that was the case.

This week, it dawned on me that the reason you were the way you were was partially because you were processing your own anger, and partially because I was processing my own emotions and feelings about what happened to me that summer and fall, and I was acting out a lot more than I was beforehand.

And so I owe you an apology. Not just for blaming you when it wasn’t entirely your fault, but for all the times that I fell short of your expectations. They were high, because you knew I was capable. Because of my illnesses, I struggled to meet my potential, and still do, and always will, and I’m sorry for that. What I can tell you is that I do the best that I can, even though that changes from day to day.

At the same time, there were a lot of shortcomings you had as a father. You were absorbed in your own work and leisure activities, and while you admittedly tried to get me interested in them, I just didn’t have an interest in working on cars and with wood. (I’ve changed on those two accounts, and I wish that I’d learned from you when I could.) Our interests just didn’t see eye to eye, and while I made the attempt to join you in yours, you never made much effort to join me in mine.

I understand that your own father was out of the picture during WWII, though, even though he wasn’t drafted. Two years away in the Pacific theater with the Seabees was still two years away, and right at a time when you needed a father figure the most. I don’t blame you – I don’t blame him, either – it was just how you learned to be a father.

And so for all those shortcomings, those times when I needed you and you weren’t there, those times when I wanted you to engage and you didn’t, I forgive you.

You and I weren’t the perfect father and son team by any stretch of the imagination. I was thankful for what I got from you, though, and am still thankful to this day; I know that you were proud of me for being me, no matter what. I know that you’d still be proud of me today, despite not having a life of comfort and a successful career.

But I still forgive you.

And I love you.

And I miss you.

Steven

P.S. This is not blanket forgiveness. That time that you fed me pork brains and tried to convince me it was sausage, that time you spent two years playing a practical joke on me about what belly hair meant, those two things I don’t forgive you for. I know it wasn’t your intention, but those two incidents did a number on me – especially the one with the pork brains – that it took me years to recover from. I forgive you for not being the best father. I don’t forgive you for going out of your way to be an asshole to me on occasion. No matter how funny both stories are in hindsight.