November 16, 2009

Post Traumatic Stress, A Curious Animal and Petroglyphs

Post-traumatic stress is a curious animal, like a bobcat lurking in the shadows, snarling, pawing the air. It circles, keeping you in its sights. Sometimes you can stick your fingers in your ears and go la-la-la-la-la and it goes away, but eventually the yellow eyes of the past don’t slink into the shadows anymore. The pointed tips of the ears instead lay straight back, and the beast crouches and crawls across the stones of time toward you. You hyperventilate on the fear but you know if you run, it’ll leap out of the past and take you down.

Last spring and finding myself mired in a dark place of emotional and creative paralysis, I remarked to my youngest son, “I wonder if I have some kind of PTSD.”

Blake is twenty-nine. He has blue eyes. When he is happy, they lighten to a bright, translucent color that reminds me of an Arizona swimming pool. When thoughtful, they turn a deep navy, and you can almost see his prodigious mind pulling data from every nook and cranny as he thinks and the color deepens. The day I blurted out my rather off-the-wall and oh-so-casual comment—oh, BTW, maybe I have post-traumatic stress—he slid his eyes toward me. They were a deep navy blue. “Perhaps in more ways than one,” he said. Ah…a circle of bobcats. And so I came to the Arizona desert to see what they would do.

They actually ganged up on me.

So much so that a few days ago I checked out two books on post-traumatic stress disorder from the Glendale public library.

Have you ever been in a natural catastrophe? the authors ask.


Were you ever sexually assaulted?

Check, check, and check.

As a child, were you physically maltreated with excessive beatings or spankings?


As a child, did you ever witness beatings?


Have you ever been kidnapped, abducted, raped, burglarized, robbed, or mugged?

Check to all of the above—if we can count my ten-year marriage and the seventeen years of single parenting that followed.

Were you ever injured in an accident?


Have you ever been involved in a situation in which you felt that you would be harmed or killed?

Do I have to answer this?

A single “yes” is enough to tuck me snugly into the DSM-IV’s category of PTSD. No wonder I’m overwhelmed. There are other questions, of course, and my continued “yeses” should perhaps alarm me, but for the first time in my life I am actually beginning to feel quite normal—normal, that is, for someone suffering several layers of post-traumatic stress. The circling chaos, closing in on me in this desert where so much pain lives, actually holds a pattern, so say the books. A kind of dot-to-dot, if you will, a carbon footprint of the traumatized that I, and anyone else traumatized, can find comfort in for all its tragic commonality. The books go on to say that by learning to recognize these patterns I, and everyone else, can gain mastery. A bit like learning how to parse a night sky, I think, into Orion’s Belt, the Big Dipper… the North Star, that glimmering beacon of hope that’s always led the oppressed out of slavery to the past into a future unfettered.

My first observation upon recognizing that I actually do suffer multiple traumas is that not all my trauma carries the same import. For instance, my crippling anxiety over tornadoes is only triggered by certain weather conditions. Most of the time, I don’t even think about tornados. I only fall into hapless panic when the barometric pressure plummets a certain way and the smell of ozone stings my nose and constricts my throat. This simple discovery that I can sort and prioritize is a good thing. Because here in the desert it’s blatantly obvious that my sexual molestation of forty years ago, inflicted at the hands of my Christian doctor—feels like the lead bobcat of my original metaphor. Gain mastery of this crouching beast and I might find a way to contain them all.

So I came up with a plan to tackle at least this one cat. On the 40th anniversary of my initial sexual assault, November 11, I’d make a list of everything Dr. Mattson ever did to me, burn it, then get my high school BFF to take me up South Mountain, sacred to the Indians, where I could leave the ashes of my past in symbolic gesture and sit alone—and just “let” all those panic-instilling memories “intrude.” Sit and wait and just see what happens. Just see if the bobcat, ears back and crawling across the stones of time, pounces and takes me down.

I did need my BFF, though, to execute. In the old days Wayne had been the one to take me to the doctor. I’d get through by disappearing into my head, knowing that he’d eventually, if I could just hang on, get me away from it all. The idea of sitting alone in the desert with all those memories was so scary I couldn’t imagine doing it without him. What if I started to keen? To howl? What if I couldn’t find my way back? What if all those memories took up residence and never left, leaving me forever crazy? Yes, I needed Wayne.

He agreed.

This was the plan.

This is what happened.

On the morning of the 11th I was crying before I ever got to his house thirty minutes away.

“How are you this day?” he asked when I pulled up. He was standing in the driveway.

“I’m okay. Except do you have any cream? My eyes hurt.”

He studied my face. “Do you need eye drops? Or skin stuff?”

I pointed to my sore skin under my eyes. I knew I looked about ten years old than I did the day before. He disappeared, came back, handed me a bottle. “This is supposed to be good. Do you need to pee?” he added.

It was as though he had to do all my thinking for me, which was okay. I was so strung out with past and present running side by side in my head—like the old-fashioned hot wheels tracks, double lanes, Yesterday and Today—that I was feeling a bit schizophrenic and definitely unfocused. Willingly I threw organization of my bodily functions into his good care. “Yes,” I said. He pointed to the bathroom.

When I emerged—more grounded for having weighed myself and certainly annoyed, where had those two pounds come from?—he said, “Ready?”

I nodded. We climbed into his car, a Saturn I don’t mind telling you I’ve fallen in love with. Part of my trauma down here in the desert is the on-going saga of my car troubles and I have, from time to time, had to borrow Wayne’s. Climbing into his bells-and-whistles vehicle was like climbing into the lap of a familiar and over-indulgent lover. “We’re going to make a stop first,” he said, “a surprise.” I buckled in. A surprise?

While we wandered through the lovely streets of Ahwahtukee in South Phoenix, he gave me a history of South Mountain rising up beside us and the Indians who go back as far as the Hohokam, an ancient civilization that built multi-story apartments and ran miles of irrigation ditches that far surpassed anything Europe was doing at the time and which the city of Phoenix, to some extent, has appropriated. By the time we reached a small parking lot of the world’s largest park, and were ascending by foot a short trail his friend had put in, Wayne was talking of Marcos de Niza and look, here’s his name etched on the stone, with the date of 1539. I was amazed. Wayne’s summation of the various interpretations of history, the various debates regarding the name’s authenticity, where he himself weighed in on the argument, fueled my delight. “There’s more,” he said, and I trotted excitedly along after him down and around the trail to a rock face that took my breath. Petroglyphs of unknown antiquity.

“There is no Rosetta Stone for this,” he said. “We have no idea what the symbols mean.”

Squared-off spirals, “lizard” men, boxes in boxes, concentric circles, squiggles, all scraped into the desert “varnish” of the stone. What did they mean, these symbols? Perhaps they were simply names; perhaps warnings; maybe marks of possession. Or maybe they told a story. A sad story? I wondered. I didn’t want a sad story. Yet if sadness stood here, wasn’t the narrative testament to survival? Or perhaps these markings were here to celebrate a victory, some kind of triumph, to document achievement. Gradually I became aware of Wayne telling me about the descendents of these now silent authors, people who live on the Gila River Reserve and who still make forages into the many hidden parts of South Mountain where white men can’t go. They go, Wayne said, to practice their ancient rites, to seek the ancient gods. They take their own relics, and leave them. I thought of Chief Seattle’s grave in the Pacific Northwest and the many relics found there on any given day. “Just like you’re doing today,” Wayne told me. “Come on. Now that you’ve seen this and I’ve finished my lecture, we can go find a place for your ashes.”

We went to two more spots before he was happy. It was Veterans’ Day; the trails were busy. I needed privacy. We ended up where it was easy to duck off the main trail and scrabble up into the crevices of South Mountain just as the Hohokam must have done thousands of years ago. I had no idea where we were on the map, but kept after Wayne as he climbed up higher into a hot seam that, when I turned around, opened onto the desert and Phoenix sprawl. Forty years ago it had been nothing but cotton fields, farms. “Is this good?” he asked, tottering atop a boulder. He pointed out numerous small caves and tiny hollows in the rubble of stone where I might leave my relic.

“It’s good,” I said, my palm sweaty from the plastic bag I carried.

He disappeared, I was on my own. I found a hollow, hardly reachable, and I scraped my skin leaning over to dump the ash from my bag into the basin of this small enclave. Not much substance, I thought, considering the ash…and the damage it represented. For some reason, I suddenly felt protective, confusing the ash with the girl who’d been so wronged, the girl who’d been me. I understood my momentary confusion; violation of any kind is so easily internalized. But the ash was not me; the ash was Dr. Mattson—and his dark deeds. I leaned over and blew. The ash swirled deeper into the stone. I blew again, driving it up against the pocket wall. Let the Hohokam spirits take it, let God have this. Leave it in this sacred place that reaches back in time and still survives.

I clambered away, up the seam to a new place, and sat down into a place of three stones, a chair of sorts, the heat of the earth a cushion beneath me.

Can I name my thoughts? Describe my feelings?

Wayne came to check on me. Quietly he went away again.

My tears, for the first time, were not anything I fought to keep at bay. Let the bobcat take me down. But sitting in the desert, alone, staring down the beast that circled, yellow eyes on me, I kept thinking of the petroglyphs. Here was something seductively new, and my curiosity called me away from Dr. Mattson. Perhaps, I thought to myself, these ancient symbols were a mixed bag: good and bad, triumph and defeat, momentous and mundane, and why not? Is this not life? And were they any different, I wondered, than what had been scraped into the patina of my own psyche? And how, I wondered with a terrific jolt, could one excise the tragic without marring the rest?

I stood up in agitation. I started to climb over the stones. Had I really been hoping to cut from my mind this piece of my past? Cut it out as a surgeon cuts cancer, throwing out body parts and leaving behind devastating mutilation? How could I expect to do this without destroying everything attached to it? For despite all its hellish aspects, my first year in Arizona was the best of my life. A Charles Dickens’ “best of times, worst of times” sort of thing. Did I really want to rid myself of it all? In almost a state of panic I started back down the seam, but where was Wayne? I couldn’t find him. My heart started to pound. Where was he?

I descended farther, out to the open. Where is he?

He was sitting atop a high stone, hat on, about fifty yards off, guarding the entrance to my place. Down below bikers were wheeling along the trail. I began picking my way over. He spotted me and started toward me, directed me this way, that, until only a sheet of stone stood between us. “Are you all right?” he asked when I stepped over.

I was not. Trembling, I took hold of his shirt and pulled myself into his arms, nose in his chest. “No,” I whispered, so agitated I couldn’t think.

He tucked me in. “But was it worth it?” he asked.

I think it took all of twenty seconds to figure it out. The bobcat had not pounced.

It’s been a couple of days since tethering that bobcat to the sacred seam of rock in Phoenix, Arizona’s, South Mountain; a few days to get my eyes off the yellow eyes of the past and to see instead a wall of symbols that are scraped into the patina of my psyche. Unlike Wayne’s petroglyphs, I do, though, know what they mean. For here is the harsh and disfiguring damage from Dr. Mattson, a cruel and deeply offensive marking that can, I think, make even rock weep. It claims its space, alongside other trauma I’ve endured and have yet to sort through. But there are other symbols as well, etched with love not only by Wayne whose wisdom and kindness is a kind of North Star in my life but Gwen, too, and Jeff, Rita, Tom, Jonathon, Rachel, Rod, Uncle Bob and Donna, Rachel, Jody, Nancy, Carol, Linda, Cherry, Marie, Jamie, Peter, Dr. Ney, the little church we all attended, McClintock High where I graduated, Legend City, Big Surf, Jonathon’s white ’59 Chevy pick up truck, drive-in movies, scorpion hunting…

Sandblast Dr. Mattson out of my life? No wonder I was agitated. To do so would forever damage the surrounding etchings that better define me.

I followed my high school BFF down to the trail, leaving behind at least one bobcat tethered to ash and hidden in a place where God dwells. There were others, I knew, but I’d find a way to drive a stake and tether them too.

“What?” said Wayne.

I’d stopped. The desert was sooo beautiful.

November 09, 2009

Oases in the Desert

My desert sojourn is proving not to be the one of arid stones and poisonous cacti that I’d envisioned and remembered but has instead come to revolve around the unexpected and very vibrant plant life that defines Arizona—life that for whatever reason I’d not appreciated when I lived here lo these forty years ago. A lesson that is taking too long to learn.

First there is the oasis of Glendale’s Public Library just 1.5 miles from the house I am renting. Botanical gardens, sculpture, peacocks, chickens, cooing doves—these greet me each day, the highlight of my hours. My soul often feeds in silence, and so I drive solo into the parking lot two minutes from my house and find myself a shady place beneath a giant date palm and wander all by myself through the slightly pink and wandering flagstone walkways that mosey people into the library. I pause to teach myself another form of cactus, Golden Barrel for instance, or to memorize the name of a tree so different from the Pacific Northwest. I stoop to smell a new flower, and pass chickens busy in the Lantana, a low green shrubbery that explodes yellow or orange flowers. Sometimes a rooster struts along beside me. Sometimes a trio of peacocks might lift their heads from the grassy lawn, or a male might lift and fan his tail, and preen in the sunlight. Sometimes, when inside and busy checking my e-mail or doing my job searches or looking for yet another Steinbeck book to reinforce the writing I am ostensibly here to do, I can hear them, the peacocks and the roosters. I bow my head over whatever it is I am doing and just “am.” A moment. A sound. A place. A peace that travels inward, burrows in, and seems to restore what I lost here when I was just seventeen—and could not find again in the misery that my life became because of it.

But I don’t have to be alone to gain the tranquility. My friend Wayne last week took me out to the botanical gardens in Scottsdale where I kept him busy identifying everything. A veteran mountain climber, desert hiker, with a lifetime of knowledge stored in his head like the gallons of water store inside Arizona’s giant saguaro, he is my walking encyclopedia. Plants, stones, birds. He knows everything. “What’s this?” I ask. “What’s that? So how does the Senora Desert differ from the Great Basin? Hey, what’s this little guy?” I’ve spotted a plain little brown bird hopping about on the ground, camouflaged by the dappled shade of a Giraffe Tree. “We call them LBBs,” he says and laughs when I look up puzzled. “Little brown birds,” he explains, smiling. “LBBs are any bird we can’t identify,” he tells me. Now I laugh. We, too, have LBBs in the Northwest.

It’s November 2, this day we are at the botanical gardens, and a sign tells me it’s a Mexican/Catholic holiday when the dead come back—Día de los Muertos.

“Did I tell you the story of my father and the Rufus Hummingbird?” I ask Wayne. He nods. “Let’s look for hummingbirds,” I either think to myself or actually say. “Perhaps my father will come back to me again and say hi.”

We find them in the butterfly and hummingbird garden—and though the hummingbirds are not like the ones back home, they are beautiful and busy. Lime green, wings a blur, bright color that flits with sudden energy and a buzz from one bush to the next while butterflies seem to bounce in the air around them. Wayne and I find some shade and sit. He is two seats away from me and one more time I find myself falling into a space of calm. A moment. A sound. A place. A peace that travels inward, burrows in, and seems to restore what the events of this desert stole. I watch the hummingbird; it is not my father’s messenger today. It is a bird of exquisite beauty finding nourishment in this oasis. I hear Wayne speak. “Do you feel the tranquility?” he asks in the delicious quiet.

I look at him, surprised at myself. I do.

His sister, three years younger than us, two days go took me out to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum an hour’s drive south of Phoenix. I immediately fell in love with the majestic, mysterious place, a patch of desert forest and flower in the shade of Magma Ridge, a craggy rock face that climbs straight up out of the desert, a timeless guardian to a dry creek bed that cuts through the rock at its toes. For me, though, the magic was in the eucalyptus—native to Australia but transplanted in other hot regions of the world.

Carol, knowing my affinity for these stately, white-trunked trees, simply took me into the gardens, past the water fountain, through the turnstile, beyond the gift shop, and into an oasis the Olympic gods could not have imagined. As we came onto a diverging trail, she turned me and simply said, “Look.” I was facing a forest of eucalyptus. “Oh, Carol,” I breathed in wonder. For here is another world. One step and anything can happen.

“Let’s save this to the last,” I tell her, so we take the main path then, up and around a man-made lake, a stony path that continues on up and around, passing under the Picket Post House that Boyce Thompson, one of the richest men in America by the time World War I broke out, built into the stony outcroppings; and then down, down, down, along a cliff overhang to the dry creek bed below. Wayne’s many LBBs skitter and hop, and fly into trees, the names of which leave my head faster than I can collect them from the signposts, and then, suddenly, a rock house.

We approach from one end and peer through two widows, two rooms, both opening into a third. We skirt and approach from the other side—and I find this stone house of more than a hundred years still sitting in the shade of trees, the names of which my mind has so quickly lost. Eternal against momentary, endurance against fleeting.

Once upon a time, the sign tells me, a family of five lived here in these tiny rooms. I can’t imagine. Cut off from the world, squatted along the creek now dry as bone. They’d made their living as truck farmers, watering their lettuce and kale no doubt from the creek. A place where strangers enter now, a place where the state of Arizona now grows herbs using sprinklers.

Carol and I left the little house and garden with reluctance. We came back up to the main gardens and exited through the eucalyptus forest; these trees cleaner and whiter than those I remember from California where, for eight troubled months in 1962, I’d lived as a nine- and ten-year-old. My sisters and I used to play under the taller, scragglier eucalyptus, and we'd walked beneath their high shading limbs with blind Uncle Earl, singing,

“Kuckabaro sits in the old gum tree,
counting all the gum drops he can see,
Stop, Kuckabaro, stop!
Leave one there for me!”
I wander now through similar gum trees, and I find that Kuckabaro still sings and still counts. I start to sing and Carol laughs. Names have been posted on each of the many varieties in this forest of eucalyptus gum. Red Gum. River Red Gum. Dark Gum. I pick up the fallen leaves and breathe in the stinging sweet smell, a smell I can, I think, get drunk on. A sting, yes, but intoxicatingly sweet. What would it be like, I wonder, to make love in such a grove? Engulfed by contradiction, yet entirely satisfied?

Let me take you back to Wayne and the botanical gardens and November 2. He and I, friends of yore, had only gone in a short ways when I bent over and felt the smooth leather of an agave cactus…then gingerly the tip of a single sharp quill that framed each frond. I pressed my finger into the stabbing pain, hissed, and yanked my hand back. I looked up at Wayne. Why is the desert so hostile?

I didn’t know Wayne when first stung by this desert, and he faded from my life as my unhappiness deepened. But when his grown up self squatted down beside me to point out the budding of a fragile blossom of the prickly pear cactus, the contradiction of hostility and beauty was hard to miss—in much the same way as the contradiction is hard to ignore in the eucalyptus’s stinging sweetness. When he stood, I wanted to take his hand, to acknowledge in some way the stirring metamorphous that was taking place. For this desert to which I’ve returned not only greets me with all its hostility but surprises me, too, with all the beauty I’d forgotten lived here. I find that I need not "forget" the brutality, but that I can integrate my history of both pain and pleasure in the same way the eucalyptus fills a breeze with stinging sweetness and the cacti can endure, content with blossom and thorn.

Even more encouraging is this: that with my friends and family who still live here and who still love me I have stumbled upon the shell of a stone house that once was me. I am at long last remembering who I was and can still be.

PS. Two books on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that I checked out of the library after posting this blog tell me that "lessons taking too long to learn" is not an accurate assessment; that the traumetized mind can only "learn" when ready, when the enviornment is supportive. These books also tell me that people sexually assaulted often view their lives as altered, and go through life as two people--the one before, a personality that fades from memory, and the one that is now and not a real, authentic self. This is perhaps what the stone house symbolizes for me. Clearly it was a return to pre-Dr. Mattson, pre-marriage.