I’ve been plagued by a bout of survivor’s guilt today. Not just survivor’s guilt, but even thriver’s guilt (pretty sure there’s a doctoral thesis on this topic if anyone wants to dig into it).
I told the story about my meaning making in a previous post. For a long time after the collapse, I didn’t tell a soul about that story. I felt so guilty for thinking there was a purpose in my survival— that I was somehow meant to live.
13 people died.
Each of them had reasons to live too. They had hopes and dreams. Plans for the future. Things left undone. Words left unsaid.
I felt guilty about thinking about being happy that I was alive— so for a long time, I just didn’t feel anything. Angry came out sideways and there were lots of ugly tears— but they were a facade of a much deeper pain. A pain that I’ve only just begun to experience. A pain that up until this point, I couldn’t handle.
Healing for me wasn’t when I stopped crying. It was when I started.
Last year, on the 5th anniversary, I stood on the Stone Arch Bridge and sobbed. In the middle of the day, surrounded by strangers, sobbing. It was the first time I let myself mourn those 13 strangers, who had begun to feel like family.
This year, I’m still mourning— in the midst of my dreams coming true. And that makes me feel guilty all over again. And not just for being alive, but for thriving.
My solution for the survivor’s guilt was to live 13x harder. Perhaps the solution to the thriver’s guilt is to help make thriving a possibility for others.
So this week I will try to remember to…
For the past month, my piece “Healing Embrace”, has been on display at the Center for Changing Lives on 24th and Park in Minneapolis. This is the first time my work has been on display to the general public.
I started this piece on the 5th Anniversary of the collapse— which I blogged about here. Finishing it was just another circle, fully formed.
Today was about coming full circle.
Today, I had the opportunity to say thank you to the organization that stood by me and supported me after the bridge collapse.
Today, I shared the story of my recovery and looked ahead to the world of possibility before me.
Today was about coming full circle.
Today, began like any other and ended in collapse. Again.
Today was about coming full circle.
But not like this.
Maybe full circle wasn’t right. They were the words I used— earlier.
Maybe today was suppose to be a spiral, not a circle.
It wasn’t suppose to end at the beginning.
That was yesterday’s question. At first, I didn’t really know how to answer it. I think my difficulty came from the fact that the person I am today feels very congruent with the person I was before.
Before the bridge, I was a dreamer— still am.
Before the bridge, I laughed a lot— still do.
Before the bridge, I was angered by injustice— still am.
Before the bridge, I cared deeply about people— still do.
So what’s changed? How am I different?
Everything changed. And then I had to adapt— and in the process I lost myself— and after lots of searching, found myself again.
Over the past year there have been moments when I knew, with certainty, that I was back. One was this fall when I attended a retreat for work at a camp in northern Minnesota. I had been to that same camp for a different work retreat a few years ago. While I was there, I kept reliving the time I had spent there prior— comparing who I was then to now and recognizing how far I had come.
The first time I was a void, a shell, a ghost— barely engaging the world around me. At the time, I was afraid of people’s words, their conversations, their questions— so I isolated, not knowing how I would respond to a real life display of insensitivity like my friend Garrett, experienced (read below his hospital picture).
Encountering a “real life” jerk was a terrifying proposition. I could barely manage my anger and disgust when seeing the horrible, insensitive words in the comment sections of the newspaper. My worst experience was sitting in the gallery of the House of Representatives and hearing one of our MN legislators equate experiencing the bridge collapse to driving over a pot hole— no joke, it really happened, on the floor of the House.
I admire Garrett for confronting his real life jerk. I wish I’d had the guts to face those jerks, but instead I isolated. I hid from strangers, I hid from friends, I hid from myself.
When I was hidden, I wasn’t me. I was just surviving— hoping to get through each day without encountering more pain. So afraid of the spirals and the entire days lost to tears and fetal positions, that I hid from everything, including some of the things that renewed my spirit.
Today, I can say that the me before the bridge, and the me now, are connected— woven with the same thread that, though frayed in some places, was never broken. The new me is wiser, and deeper, and stronger (in some ways), but the essence of who I am hasn’t changed— it just got lost for a while.
In the end, I remained me— and that is my life’s accomplishment.
That was the question posed to me today. I was told MNDOT plans to destroy it— now that they are legally allowed— and wanted to give us a chance to claim a piece before it was gone for good.
I don’t need a piece— because I already have one— but I was troubled by the thought that the remnants of the bridge would just be gone. Back in Aug. 2007, many of my fellow survivors and I expressed dismay at the hasty removal of the ruins. Our heads understood the immediacy of need for the community, with a major transportation artery obliterated, but our hearts felt like the whole thing was being swept under a rug— an ugly stain on our state’s history that people would rather forget.
So to hear that MNDOT is just going to destroy it, struck a nerve. Again, my head understands that the space being used to store tons of twisted metal could be put to better use, but my heart— as healed as it may be— wants someone to be burdened with the weight of it. So many hearts are burdened by this event, and will always be to some degree. I want the State to feel that burden— even if its just in the form of a shortage of storage space.
So I don’t need a piece, but I do need to make peace— and I’ve asked for the time to do so. I imagine being alone, sitting in the middle of those disfigured beams, and all I can feel is rage and contempt bubble up inside me. I feel like I want to yell and scream, right now, as I sit here and type. My throat is closing up and aches with the need to release all this pain and anguish I thought I had left behind.
It’s funny how you think you are ok— until all of a sudden, out of the blue— you’re not.
Tonight, a pattern reemerged. My husband came home and I got crabby right away. That use to happen a lot. I seemed ok when I was alone and then when he would come home I would be mad at him for no apparent reason. I wanted him to come home, but then when he got there I just wanted to be alone again.
After sitting in the crab for a bit tonight, I mentioned the email I had gotten early and suddenly felt so sad. I realized that the crab had really been sadness that I had stuffed. It was just too much to feel when I was alone.
As I look back on all those years of crabbiness, I realize that he was my safety— the one I trusted with all of it. He was the one that felt the brunt of my rage, my sadness, my pain, my helplessness, my insecurity, my emptiness. I showed the best that I could muster to the world, and stuffed all the gunk until the person I love more than anything walked through the door.
I wanted him to go away again because then I could keep all the gunk stuffed and pretend that I was fine. That’s the loneliest existence in the world: to yearn for the one I love until he is in front of me, then wish he would leave so I would stop feeling the hurt and stop hurting him.
It pains me that it happened again tonight, after I’ve felt so good for so long. A simple email, that’s all it took to send me into a tailspin.
I am grateful for the insight I’ve gotten tonight and am hopeful that I will have the opportunity to express my rage (whether at the top of my lungs or silently) at the twisted carnage of metal that failed me and broke me.
Luckily, just like Humpty, I got put back together again.
Over the past 6 months or so, I have been diligently working to take my “pie in the sky” idea—this idea I could never shake—that I would someday open a youth center. Before the bridge fell, the dream was ambiguous and vague, like a ghost that lingered—a friend that only I could see. The odds were overwhelming back then and definitely not working in my favor—I was just some small-town kid dreaming in the big city.
The odds still seem overwhelming but I know in my heart that courageous heARTS is what I am meant to do. I have a story now—one that people want to hear— and I have to use it to make the world a little better, even if it’s just one little corner of it. I can’t tell you how I survived but I know that this is why.
So last night, after months of visioning, planning, and talking with smart people, I decided to publish the courageous heARTS Facebook page. In the moments before clicking the button, I felt a wave of self-doubt. What if nobody “gets” it but me? What if no one supports it? What if it (more like I) becomes a complete and utter failure?
Then I realized that the entire concept of courageous heARTS is to build courage. I recognized that if I am going to ask young people to stretch themselves and take risks to build their courage, then I better start building some of my own. So I clicked ‘post’ and did a mini version of this guy to expel all my nervous energy.
Looking forward to many more announcements ahead, so make sure you like/follow courageous heARTS. I don’t know how a year can get any better than 2012— but the future looks bright! Going into 2013 is a little ominous, but I’ve had enough bad luck for one lifetime right?
Wishing you all a happy and healthy New Year!P.S. If you are on Twitter, you can also follow courageous heARTS @buildingCOURAGE.
This post is my vision board— the pictures above are from my visit to A Reason To Survive (ARTS) in San Diego. In September, I wrote a letter to the founder of ARTS, letting him know about my ambitions of creating a similar organization. He responded immediately to my query because, serendipitously, his own ambitions have shifted to advocating for and supporting the development of other organizations with a similar mission.
I learned much during my trip and walked away with a huge dose of inspiration and perhaps a bit of trepidation as I take baby steps toward my own vision. I’ve written a solid business plan and people that have seen it are enthusiastic about courageous heARTS. I have identified a neighborhood—which just happens to be my own— where there is a nice blend of need and ability to support that need. I’m continuing to work on securing a fiscal sponsor, which hopefully will happen in the next month or two. Once that happens, I can start raising funds that will go toward supplies and programming costs and eventually (hopefully) a pay check. :-) I’ve purchased a domain and have started working on a website (www.courageous-heARTS.org). I’ve reserved the name with the Secretary of State and have secured a Facebook page and Twitter account. I’m talking to as many people as I can, learning from them and engaging them in the vision.
I feel like I’m on a roller coaster, ascending slowly toward the peak, anxiously awaiting the moment of that first drop and the momentum that will take me on a wild and unforgettable ride.
Exciting and terrifying— at this point I’m not sure which emotion is winning.
All I know is that fear won’t win, because not much good can come from fear.
Instead of making a mega long list of the things I am grateful for this year, I decided to make a wordle. These are just a smidgen of the of the many things that fill my heart with gratitude.
Have a very Happy Thanksgiving!
Trauma is an interesting thing. For a long time the word trauma was primarily used to describe physical injury. It’s not until more recently that trauma has been used to describe the physiological response our bodies go through when under threat, which if not dealt with properly can cause a wound of the heart.
Today, I was at the first of a four day training called Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience. It’s one thing to experience trauma and PTSD first-hand, but it’s another to be educated about the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual effect these heart wounds can have on others and on communities.
Just like physical trauma, heart wounds can range from a scratch to deep, gaping gash. If we take care of the scratches— clean the area, apply ointment and a bandage— our body is able to heal. We can do this on our own without the need to seek medical treatment. What if we don’t clean it though? A small scratch can turn into a serious infection if it isn’t given the proper environment to heal. The same is true for heart wounds.
From our earliest years— when we fall down and scrapes seem to have a permanent place on our knees— we learn how to care for our physical wounds. But how often are we taught to care for our heart wounds? And how many spaces truly give us the environment needed to find healing?
That’s my mission. To provide a space where youth can heal their heart wounds. Whether they are scratches or deep gashes, I want to provide a safe, healing space to clean, treat and bandage those wounds.
The first value of my future organization is: Healing doesn’t require a diagnosis. It recognizes that heart wounds- no matter the size- need to be cared for so they can heal. With emotional trauma, just like physical, there is a time when the wound is too big and a professional is needed to ensure the proper healing can happen. Ultimately, I hope that my organization can have a few mental health professionals on hand, but until then, trauma-informed care will be infused into every aspect of programming to ensure that any healing scabs can’t be picked away by the unintended consequences of words and actions.
A few times now, I have mentioned the idea that the bridge collapse was a gift. I realize this is not the normal response to a painful experience in one’s life- at least not initially. I know lots of people, however who have experienced tremendous loss and pain and been able to find meaning. The meaning-making is a critical aspect of the healing process.
So I’ve been pondering this word gift… wondering if people will think I’m off my rocker… honing my understanding of what the gift actually was… and this is what I’ve come up with:
The ground falling out from underneath the wheels of 50+ cars… WAS NOT A GIFT!
The 200+ lives that were directly impacted, the physical and emotional pain that has plagued our lives… WAS NOT A GIFT!
The political battles and the angry, anonymous commenters on the web… WERE NOT GIFTS!
The 13 lives lost and the grief and heartbreak felt from those losses… WAS NOT A GIFT!
The true gift in all of this came from an unsuspecting source: this guy.
While I sat, waiting for help to arrive. Wondering what had happened-wiggling my toes to make sure I still could-questioning how I got out of my car, why I was still alive?
That guy gave me the answer.
I’ve described the “bridge island” as a bubble of silence. There was chaos above us- helicopters, sirens, smoke, people, cameras- but all I remember about that island was stunned silence. I remember it that way, because of the gut wrenching moment when the silence was broken by that guy’s angry scream, “SOMEBODY’S GOING TO PAY!”
That was his gift- for two reasons.
1. I told myself in that moment, that I wouldn’t become that guy. I wouldn’t allow anger to take hold of my being. That was my only encounter with him, and it was a distant one at that, but his anger was palpable. Based on that one exchange of energy, I was heartbroken, but not surprised to learn that his anger was what led to him being there that day.
2. His words gave me the answer to why I was still alive. I had always been a dreamer, but I wasn’t thinking about those dreams until I heard his words. In that moment, my life had a renewed sense of meaning. I was still sopping wet from the sludgy Mississippi, but I knew why this happened to me and why I was still alive to talk about it.
Somebody might indeed have to pay, because in our society that’s how “apologies” are made. Settlements usually go a little something like this: “We won’t claim any responsibility for what happened, but here’s some money.” I’ll tell you right now, that I would take an “I’m sorry” over money any day. There was no satisfaction in making someone pay, because not a single entity accepted responsibility for what happened and if no one is responsible then who’s going to prevent it from happening again?
So before I had even left that concrete island, that future payment had already been bookmarked as a catalyst for making my dream come true. Without his gift, I might be in a very different place. Had I not made that connection- found that meaning- I might still be in the dark. Holding on to that dream, my purpose, was like a hand leading me out of the darkness that I often fell into over the past 5 years.
I still cringe when I hear those words in my memory, but I am grateful for the gift. Using the “apology” I received to help youth in my community heal from the collapses in their lives, will make it a gift that keeps on giving.
swede-singer said: Hey, you don't know me but I voted for you. Your story is incredible. I have someone that I know who had husband that was lost in the bridge collapse. God Bless you, your family, your future. The best of luck to you =)
Thank you soo much for your vote! And for reaching out! I’m reminded of the ripples of the collapse everyday and the lives that were lost. They are my inspiration for making this life mean something. If I can use this experience to help even one person, I’ll consider my second chance life complete.
So a few things happened today that made me really excited for the future. The first, is that my husband nominated me for this “Women Who Shine” award through Yahoo. Really awesome opportunity to get some exposure, and the best part is the woman with the most votes on Oct. 29th wins $10,000! The process is a little sticky because people who were nominated a few weeks ago have had a head start on getting votes. The leader so far has 1300+. I don’t know 1300 people, but I know that it can be beat with a little help from my friends. If you haven’t already, would you vote and then ask your friends to? Here’s a mini version of the giant URL: http://tinyurl.com/9h69jfa
Second good thing is that I’m getting closer to securing a fiscal sponsor so I can begin fundraising and connecting with stakeholders.
Third good thing is a bit too abstract to share at this point but it’s putting a whole new layer of possibility onto this dream of mine. I’m smiling from ear to ear— I think even my organs are smiling.
A while ago, there was an Apple commercial that said this:
I’ve had people look at me like I’m crazy before and for a long time I let that determine how I shared myself with the world. Healthy boundaries are important, but now that I have the courage to share my dream, things are happening. People don’t look at me like I’m crazy any more— but I am just crazy enough to believe I can change (one small part of) the world.
I’ve been trying on this new word… identity really. Artist.
I’ve used art to heal and to find myself. Up until recently, my art was just for me— and was created for the process of it, not the outcome. So when someone uses the A-word to describe me, I feel like a poser.
The only way I can describe this feeling is to compare it to fashion, and specifically the high waist trend. When people use the word artist to describe me, I feel like they see this:
And what I really am is this:
So, in the end, I’ll continue to try on this identity and hope it starts to fit. I just don’t want to be that awkward person, thinking they are high fashion when in reality they are just wearing mom jeans.
The most meaningful and healing piece that I have painted was produced about 3 years ago. It is my Trauma Monster. I signed up for a 6-week painting series and right as it began, my world crumbled a second time and I truly hit rock bottom.
I felt like a monster—
Ugly. Scary. Angry. Afraid. Unknowable. Alone.
—so I painted one.
Green and horny, with one eye and razor sharp teeth. I made it as dark as I could muster. (Remember, I’m the girl who thinks the *best* thing that ever happened to her was falling off a bridge and nearly drowning… dark isn’t really my gig.)
The night he first came out, I truly believed that I was a monster. An unlovable misfit who could scare people away with her anger and keep people away with a facade of difference (who can relate to this life experience?). I had managed to scare away the one person I never thought would leave, so monster was the natural conclusion.
When I came back to my monster the following week, he didn’t “fit” any more. I knew that what I had become, was not me— that my monster tendencies were not the essence of my spirit. So I broke a rule of the class and began to cover him up. Just a little at first— flesh replacing scales, pieces of a puzzle that I slowly recovered from the ground where I had crumbled. Each week, more green turned to flesh as I fought back the identity I had almost accepted.
My heart came back another week. No cracks, but instead a solid, protective shield— my heart was my defiant response, the guarantee that I never was and never could be the monster I thought I had become.
My owl (which I wrote about a couple weeks ago) emerged, watching wisely from afar— perched in a tree filled with life.
As the weeks progressed, the hybrid of myself cried lots of tears. Tears, upon tears, so much so that the tears began to pool at the bottom of the page and from that source of water emerged roses. Wild, lively, beautiful roses. As the roses began to grow, I too came back to life. I recognized that the hours of tears, hours and hours and hours, were the nourishment I had needed to grow.
My monster helped me rediscover who I had been, recognize who I had become, and realize the space between the two was not so much a chasm as a cranny.
The final image that was added to my painting was a butterfly, emerging from a cocoon and flying up to meet my outstretched arms. A true representation of how I felt, having emerged from the isolation of despair, ready to open my arms (and my heart) to the world again.
By the end of that 6-week series, I felt better than I had since 8.1.07 and my person even came back (and now I get to call him my husband). It wasn’t until this painting was finished that I knew I had truly come back. There was still work to do and the monster didn’t disappear completely, but I was armed with a renewed sense of self that was ready to take on the battle.
The Star Tribune created a video of a few survivors for the 5th Anniversary of the collapse this past August and I talked about my monster and my recovery.