Some names are changed to initials since they were kids at the time.
The week after the memorial was the hard one with the numbness wearing off to reveal churning emotions. Writing was the only way I could really relieve the pressure somewhat. Still, it was all overwhelming, and frustration began to set in. With everyone gone but us five, it was lonely, especially since I had to return to work.
I directed my energy toward getting Casey, my wife, into counseling as soon as possible. Together, we had gone to one session at the church and then used EAS to get her into psychotherapy. With a mix-up in the numbers, she was able to get in first, while I would just suck it up as long as necessary. She had a lot of pain at the time which had me worried about how she would handle it, increasing my stress. I could not help but feel forgotten with my head in a mess.
Then the flashbacks really got started, strong enough that my stomach churned and I felt sick. At this time, paranoia came to the forefront with the fear of being arrested at any moment. I could imagine multiple cruisers pulling into the yard, shooting the dog, and taking me away. Fortunately, my sister talked me down after that spell. To avoid that again, I looked into ways to gain back some control over our lives.
Though we moved out of the house, our dogs did not for the most part, except for Harley, so I went over to take care of them and strength-train. I noticed a disturbing smell where the accident happened; unsure if it was in my head or not, I washed everything in the area. Whatever it was, it was gone after that.
Some peace came afterward, along with the neighborhood where the martial arts academy I study aiding in that. Casey and I spent a quiet few hours after class walking through the area and relaxing at an upscale pizza place. It reminded us of Atlanta, where we had gone on vacation the previous two years with plans to return the next month.
Still, I had to admit, I needed professional help. With feelings of withdrawing and isolating myself from everyone, the walls were closing in. I was terrified no one would understand me. I needed something to focus on to pull me out of my head a bit. It came from a surprising direction: kids.
We were at a family friend’s house, and the kids were begging me to play with them outside. I had my nose in a blog post I was reading, but I considered something: which is a better memory? A post I can come back to or making a kid’s day and enjoying myself?
Later, I was teaching G the sign language alphabet when D burst into the door, yelling, “Fire!” Unhesitant, I beat him to the door to see what I could do to help. He had pulled a prank on us. His older brother was burning a hedgerow, and it was well under control. I have heard the term “some run away from the fire, others run towards it.” I always figured myself for a run-away type. It was not the case now, if ever. That was new to me.
Day-to-day life showed me how life had changed. I was trying to purge the emotions, but the roots were deep. When asked how I was, my answer caused the other person to withdraw for some reason. When I finally got to my therapy appointment, the therapist suggested I save that for her; she was not close to it all, so it did not carry the same weight. I told her of the near-constant tremor in my hands since that day, which turned out to be non-epileptic seizures brought on by the trauma. I wanted to be alone and was scared to be alone at the time.
I was afraid to say anything, really; my mind wasn’t exactly the happiest place on Earth. I was scared that whatever I said would push everyone away. I remembered everything from that day, even his voice calling my name to get my attention. That was not so bad; it was the flashbacks and his last sounds that really fucked me up.
I could not cry. Everyone was saying I needed to, but it just was not happening, and I was worried my love would be questioned. I felt like a bug under a magnifying glass waiting to be burned. At work, panic attacks hit like waves, starting small and growing with the fear of being arrested. Then, when I thought the fear had subsided, a big panic attack hit that took an hour to subside. I just sat at my station rocking back and forth and holding myself quietly. Losing control terrified me during this nightmare of a week.
During it, I had a growing sense of fatalism that worried my best friend. I would post my journal entries in a private group on Facebook to keep him updated, along with his advice. What we had gone through was just an upsetting afternoon for him, so his opinion holds a lot of weight with me.
Bobby is someone I look up to, wanting to take on what I judged his better qualities. I was looking at the wrong ones if I had wanted his best qualities. He always says “family first,” almost like a battle cry. That was what I should have been focusing on. I looked at myself, absolutely hating what I saw.
I had let my ego get in the way before with the attitude that I was right, and that was that. What is the cost of being “right”? For me, it was steep; it was the cost of getting to know a little boy better. The fact that I never would now ate at me more than the grief did. The question returned, which was a better memory? Something on the internet or the curiosity of a child, staring at a news feed or time with your wife?
I took a hard look at how my days were spent. After waking up, I sat with my coffee while poking around on the internet or writing, then rousing myself to train so I could be a “badass.” When my wife woke up, I spent time with her while getting ready for work, and after work, it was almost straight to bed. I suspect that is most people’s weekdays, other than training. Only church or Jeet Kune Do really get me out of the house on weekends. I just stayed inside for the most part while my wife was next door making memories with our godson after we brought him home from church with us.
It was all about me, numero uno. I had read Unchained by Thorin, and the thoughtful questions showed I was heading the wrong way. I started to turn it around, but old habits die hard. Still had a massive ego with my focus on, and I quote from my mission statement, “being a warrior supreme.” Ooh, I was a “badass motherfucker.” Ego, plain and simple. Others saw it in me while I was blind to it.
Misplaced priorities were an understatement. Bobby’s qualities I desired to take on were the wrong ones. “Family first” had meaning now. I realized it stopped being “me first” the moment I said, “I do.” The family was also much bigger than I had thought. Perhaps it was skewed by my perception of the broken one I grew up in, or was that a rationalization?
What is fact is that for all the effort we put into starting our own family, I never realized that the closest I had to a son was next door. I never appreciated that until it was too late. Family first.
When I had first written this, I was struck by the fact that I was under the impression I was a good person. Really, I was an asshole surrounded by people with the patience of saints. It left me regretting more than I grieved.
I own that mistake, and not learning from it is to dishonor my godson’s memory to me. In this way, he will help me be a better person. That wake-up call did not help the mess in my head or the shakes, and the flashbacks escalated while bringing the first of the bad dreams. I had almost no control over the insanity I saw our life being, and I wanted it back.
Then we got a call from the state police wanting to question us, causing the paranoia to explode once again. We had consulted with a defense attorney, who gave us the advice to decline all questions.
Internally, my life was hell, something I did not reveal, and when I did, I was like an open wound. Any perceived criticism was like pouring alcohol on it. Feeling like a kicked puppy does not really inspire you to open up a second time.
My wife said if it would make me feel better, I could yell at her. With that in my mind, I was not about to return the favor. Really, does leaving someone in tears make you feel better? Especially if you just want to take it out on someone to feel better, which was suggested to me. No thanks, I will pass.
I am naturally not that expressive of a person, even if I am comfortable with you. I was also told I put off a “don’t talk to me” vibe. People did not see the overwhelming feelings under the surface, so to deal with them, I tried to rationalize them, explaining them away instead of just experiencing them.
If you are the quiet type, it pays to realize no one understands what is happening until you tell them. For those listening to someone who is hurting—not just in a grieving situation but hurting overall—now is not the time for your opinion. If asked for, that’s one thing; mostly, though, they really want someone to listen without being judgmental.
Four weeks after the accident, I was close to being a nervous wreck with pressure from the sheriff’s department increasing. The gun in the accident had turned out stolen, something I did not know about when I bought it. I had a receipt, but the same attorney mentioned before told me to hang on to it and not turn it in.
Our entire family was panicking; if I was not anxious, it was a panic attack, no real middle ground. Fearfully, I made a plan: call this person and that person, this would happen and then that. I made it into a mantra I would chant when I panicked. That was not much help to me, though, so instead, I texted everyone during my significant panic attacks. Most of them told me to have faith.
Well, that could not hurt.
Therefore, I tried it, and the shakes quieted down, allowing my head to clear. Determined and angry, I reached out to those I am closest to. Their constant chatter helped keep me distracted enough for a while. Soon, though, the urge to cry came back, which did not bother me. The fact I could not cry did bother me immensely, the tears feeling like they stopped just short of appearing.
Feeling like a useless failure, there was a surprising area I was useful that drew me from my shell. During this time, we made a point not to be at home a lot with the cloud of bad memories overhead, so we visited another family friend for dinner.
Then we heard another of their friends was on the way, and he was drunk. When he arrived, I watched him, weaving in place, to make sure he did not bother my family. Eventually, he was talked into going back home, with me being recruited to help wrangle him back home. I laughingly called it drunk wrangling, which felt good to do.
Before long, though, the insecurity returned, as I am want to do; every time I am in a situation that could go sideways, I run it by Bobby afterward. Did I handle it right? Here was my state of mind, what I was watching, my plans, etc. I did. That helped some. At least I could handle that.
The following day at church, a song’s lyrics reminded me of a dream I had where someone I do not get along with aided me. The two lines that stuck out were:
“I come wounded to be healed.”
“I come desperate to be rescued.”
Bobby is a good hand at interpreting dreams, saying I may be willing to take help from someone I did not want help from. I had been, as clichéd as it is, been turning a lot over to a higher power and faith. For me, it was God. However, I was not quite ready to give it all. I felt I was getting back some control.
That turned out to be a joke, my plan hinged on a lawyer a friend recommended; the problem was his retainer cost more than the entirety of our assets. At this point, I felt like Atlas from Greek Mythology, carrying the world on my shoulders, cold and terrified. My wife kept me sane while my spirit almost broke. It felt like I had hit bottom, then I had a hunch that worked out. So I fed that great feeling it had brought because the next day I had a trip to make.
The thing was, my concealed carry pistol turned out to be stolen, I learned. Fortunately, I had a receipt and a description. I could not remember the guy’s last name since he worked with me, and I asked the boss if he remembered. Took a little digging until it came to us: he’d been fired years before, so now I could make a certified copy of the receipt, along with giving them his name. The next day was going to be a busy one filled with appointments, the sheriff’s department, and work.
At the doctor, everything was getting to me. I was a bundle of nerves and was stressed out enough that it led to a small anxiety attack. A bigger one followed that upset my wife; she had never seen me lose it. Terrified that I was going to be arrested any moment, I wanted to get the detective the receipt, and not until I was on the way could I work on calming myself.
My godson’s nana drove me up there since I was paranoid I would be arrested and disappear. Logic and paranoia do not really go together, seeming ridiculous to anyone watching. However, it’s reality to the one experiencing it. After I gave them the information, it wasn’t long before I was looking at a pair of mug shots.
It took less than an hour to do, but several hours to come off the adrenaline dump, with me afterwards sighing like a pressure cooker relief valve.
When the next day arrived, only my trembling hands remained; the paranoia was thankfully absent. It felt like a lot of weight had left my shoulders, bringing to mind a quote of Thorin’s: “Face your fears or forever remain chained by them.” I was starting to look forward a little again, which left me feeling guilty and sad.
It had been a month to the day—a thought that remained at the forefront of my mind. With the anxiety mostly gone, the other emotions were both returning, or they were always there, and I could not “hear” them over the panic alarm.
I worked hard at trying to control what I could, requiring some weighty introspection. I learned that I have a tendency to look at a situation, then attempt to predict where it is going, and I would react to that instead of what was actually happening. Overthinking left me overwhelmed and paralyzed, which usually ended in a gross overreaction to a perceived hurt.
A month earlier, I probably would have snapped in anger; however, that was then, not now. I did not take issue with that. My problem was with the discovery I made about myself. I thought back to the times I had overreacted in the past, saddened when I realized I had done it enough that it conditioned that reaction in the one I loved and cherished most. This was unacceptable and going to change immediately.
This particular trait of overthinking gave me a lot of grief when amplified by the post-traumatic stress. What worked for me was to find the cause of my stress and face it. Using an analogy from Marc MacYoung was to picture the actuality of a situation as it appeared through a security camera.
I applied it to that to see where I had been assigning meaning and emotion to situations that were only happening in my head. The habit I had was taking what I thought would happen, writing out a script, and letting it play out in my head. Do not look at what you think is happening—actually focus on what you can see and understand, or you might not be able to appreciate what is staring you in the face.
The end of the month brought ease in the anxiety. In its place, the other emotions filled that particular hole. I had been afraid that I could not feel anything; the fact was, I felt plenty and just did not realize it.
I had done a drill from one of Rory Miller’s books on finding out if the person you want to be matches who you really are. Before, the answer was no. Now, at this point, I was heading the right way with it. I was also hopeful the therapist could fix me; I had given her access to my journal so she could see the inner workings.
A theory she had was that my anxiety had always been present since childhood; these events had just amplified it. It was worth looking into, given the fact that every certified letter that came in during the week had my anxiety bubbling back to the surface. I received one, as well as my wife, both stating that we would be put on a list for child endangerment with the option to appeal.
In my paranoia, I thought it would be criminal charges before I even opened the letter. Perception versus reality, the bane of my mind. Determined to appeal, we left for a friend’s house to relax, where I mostly roughhoused with the kids. I enjoy it.
Kids are innocently naïve to the world, for the most part. The adults around them are the examples they follow as they grow up.
While driving to church the next day—a favorite pastime with our godson—I saw the speed bump ahead of me. After I hit it, I reminisced about when he rode with us, shouting gleefully “Big Bump!” The tears that sprang to my eyes were the first tears I had shed in a long time.
I went to my dad’s for advice, talking about a subject we rarely touch: emotions. The stoic expression I have most of the time is from him, after all. In this respect, I am most assuredly my father’s son. I went to Dad because he had walked in after someone shot themselves, so he had a frame of reference to work with.
Few know it, but my grandfather committed suicide when my parents were dating before I was born. Dad saw it after my mom called him in a panic, and he came over. Not something you forget easily. His advice was, when the hurt comes, you stop and let it run its course, then keep your mind occupied.
Days later, I had to face an unusually intense fear: returning to the sheriff’s department to retrieve my property. Anything dealing with law enforcement and courts sent my anxiety skyrocketing. I went alone, working hard to stay calm with diaphragmatic breathing and remembering the small “wins” previously to help me cope. It was bad enough that I doubt it would be hard for me to get a prescription for anti-anxiety medication. Still, the anxiety was an ever-present specter.
Along with that, I was still trying to break the dam of tears everyone thought I was holding back, so to try to get those out, I looked at every picture I had of my godson. Still, no tears. Yet I felt like I had just finished sobbing. It was relieving, except for being left with a guilty feeling. I learned that pictures trigger flashbacks around this time too, notably a Christmas one at eye level. I moved it, but it was returned to its place later. Our heads were a mess, and I was hoping the Atlanta trip would help us clear them.
One of the things I can take from this month is learning to forgive myself. Compared to the person I was before that July day to a little more than a month later, I had changed quite a bit. I considered the Hell inside my head as part of me just paying my dues, the lessons as a way to guide me forward.
Unless they are a sociopath, I do not think anyone walks away from that the same. I had to learn not to punish myself; it is the past for a reason, a scar to mark the season to remind myself how far I have come. I could intellectually acknowledge that at the time, but during this month, I was not there yet. You may be.
During this time, I wrestled with the concept of faith, something I never liked since it felt like leaving everything to chance. Naturally proactive, I try to work things in a way that, whatever the circumstance, I have an answer for it. It worked against me. When someone who plans everything gets paranoid, they get overwhelmed with trying to address all the scenarios.
I would text everyone involved in a panic to implement plans or just for assurance. One night at work, it got so bad that I just shut down, sitting at my workstation with my knees up to my chest, arms holding them in place just rocking. No one there to comfort me on that scary night but myself.
The one word that kept popping up from many who answered my panicked texts was faith. My wife’s favorite saying was “have faith,” or our pastor telling me “to give it to God, He’s bigger than all this.”
I consider myself a logical person who has a hard time grasping spiritual or supernatural concepts well. I wanted the details, not broad statements; I needed to know how it was going to work. At the time, I came up with a definition of faith that did work for me.
“Faith believes that you are good enough, and if not, a higher power is with you.”
To me, that meant you do all that is humanly possible, based on what is actually happening (not the panicked reality in my head), and leaving the rest up to chance, fate, karma, God, etc. Insert your individual belief there. The whole thing with leaving what I could not control up to God was as Plan B as I could get. I wanted someone competent to watch my back. It is a benefit of working in a team or group—you do not have to do it alone. That had become faith to me, in the end. If you have done all that you could, then let the chips fall. You just have to go from there.