April 2018

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Friday Night Lights

My partner Ann and I started watching the television drama Friday Night Lights last week. I have to steel myself anytime we watch television drama, because inevitably someone will end up in the hospital, and I will struggle again with my own memories--in mind and body--of time in hospitals. 

Sure enough, in the first episode the star quarterback receives a bad hit that breaks his spine. For each of the other episodes we have seen, he and those who love him struggle to understand and come to terms with the new realities in his life. 

In my years of teaching high school, two of my students were seriously injured playing football: one's spine was broken and another died when he was taken to the emergency room with a head injury. This fictional player's struggles, and the struggles of those in his life, are all too real. 

I experience such scenes more intensely than I'd like to: my chest tightens and my breath is shallow. I smell Chlorox. (I can't explain that one.) My lips feel cold. I feel slightly nauseated, like all the blood in my body has run to my stomach. 

I had similar reactions after Izzy in Grey's Anatomy had cancer and Nate in Six Feet Under had a brain tumor. 

Clearly, I'm not reacting to the same situations as these characters: I wasn't a football player, and I wasn't dating the head cheerleader like Jason; I didn't go bald like Izzy; I wasn't an undertaker like Nate. 

Specifics in the scene, however, surprise me, and for a moment I don't breathe. When Jason's first in the emergency room and hands without faces cut his clothes away, I relive my first moments in Harborview Trauma Center after my car was t-boned and ten pairs of gloved hands explored my bones while I, on a backboard and in a neck brace (called a "collar") and therefore unable to see the people around me, heard disembodied voices say over me, "Legs?"…"Okay"…"Arms…"Okay."….And so on in an inventory of my major bones. 

All the tubes and beeps take me back to my own hospital bed after neurosurgery, when I hallucinated that puppies in the room were chewing on the tubes that helped me do something important, though I wasn't sure what.

Those times when my vulnerability was visceral revisit me. I know it's all in my mind, like the times when I'm in a car's passenger seat and fear the car that might run a light at the next intersection, but my body reacts anyway. 

In a class on Death and Dying a few years ago, a simulation on dying sent me into a tailspin that lasted a couple of weeks: in those weeks, I felt groundless, spinning like Sandra Bullock lost in outer space in Gravity

One doctor I saw for my insurance guessed that I was experiencing PTSD, though I didn't tell him about the incidences above. (I wasn't hiding it. He didn't ask.)

If I am reacting so strongly in these fairly controlled situations where I am taken care of by capable professionals in a clean, well-supplied hospital, I can't imagine what those who experience war and other violence must live with. After all, I believe I am safe now. It's just my body's memories that tell me differently. Too many others continue to live in threatening situations. 

I think often of a conversation with a classmate, who is a veteran of Iraq's wars. On the first day of class, when people introduced themselves saying things like, "Hi, I'm Mary. I'm looking forward to Social Work as my second career," he introduced his name and said, "I believe in the right to bear arms." 

He and I met before class a few weeks later because I was curious to understand a little about this person who saw gun rights as so central to his identity that he announced that identity in a room full of liberals. 

He explained to me that in Iraq, he had carried his gun everywhere. He even slept with it. Though he wasn't hurt there, he was an ambulance driver and sometimes had to retrieve the remains of those who had been shot. Once, several people near him on base were shot at such close range that the bullets stapled parts of their bodies to nearby wooden posts. He cleaned the remains of men he had known, putting parts in body bags though it wasn't clear which parts went with which bodies.

When he returned stateside, he spent three days feeling vulnerable without a gun and finally went to a gun store to buy a gun so that he could sleep at night. There was another guy from his squadron there who had come home the same day and was at the gun store for the same reason. 

Such trauma doesn't just result from war. Think of all the young black men who've been shot by police officers or other teens. Think of their families and friends. I think of my teenage students who were in a car that crashed, killing two and leaving two to survive. When I review student applications for college now, I read too many stories by young women who were raped and molested when they were elementary school children. I think of all those in prison. The list goes on.

There is so much trauma in this world. I wonder if that's a necessary outcome of our human nature, or if we might do something to change it. I suspect we couldn't eradicate trauma: after all, my brain tumors were no one's fault, and that man who t-boned me with his big white Jeep didn't intend to hit me. 

But if we could end trauma where we have control: if we could end our part in war and incarceration; if we could support all children in living in safe homes and neighborhoods; if we could end the power of racism's fear…If…

You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one. 

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