There is an exhilaration in survival, in the sheer victory of beating seeming insurmountable odds. Combined with a wonderment of seeing and experiencing it all with fresh eyes and renewed mind, one experiences a sort of a cockiness; a middle finger to the world, the high of staking your claim on life like planting a flag atop K2. With it comes an appreciation of what is truly important; at first a short glimpse which leads to an extraordinary understanding of how finite life really is.
It is a long fall from that height to the realization you are separate. Different. You no longer fit where it once seemed a given. Before. On the outside you look the same, but what you know can’t be unknown. The continuity of your life interrupted, a timeline with empty space as it stopped and restarted. Conceptually grasped by others, they cannot appreciate your experience on a visceral level.
I am a big fan of the author Laurence Gonzales. The night before the shooting I had been re-reading his book Deep Survival; Who Lives, Who Dies and Why. There are many stories of death and unlikely survival but one in particular resonated with me. Debbie Kiley survived a sailboat accident in a small zodiac while her crew, one by one, died. Some went insane from drinking salt water before walking off the dinghy into shark infested waters. After the shooting I had a quiet obsession to meet her, believing her to be a rare someone I could connect with, who would get what I was going through post survival.
I fanned through others. Cancer survivors, accident survivors, medical survivors, even other gun violence survivors but I regularly discount (though not minimize) them as having experiences that are too dissimilar from my own to be able to relate to my internal struggle.
Recently a comment I made on a Facebook post elicited a private message from a woman who had been shot multiple times through a door while trying to barricade herself, her four year old son and her father from her estranged husband. Someone else who, seriously wounded, also defied the odds and lived to tell her story.
We scheduled a call and I was thrilled at the prospect of chatting with her. She, too, was equally excited and after telling her story immediately shared her sense of not fitting in. She’d recently returned from a domestic violence survivor retreat and echoed her sense of feeling different as none had been part of an overt attempted murder. She’s also outspoken about gun violence and has interacted with gun violence survivors, but again, none on whom the violence was perpetrated by an intimate partner. She didn’t fit in there either.
That ‘me, too’ need to identify is very curious to me. There isn’t a mental file for the feeling of being shot by your beloved partner and few survive it to offer validation of it.
In the sea of well-meaning advice givers who suggest doing my work in therapy and then leaving it behind, as if that were even possible, who implore me to stop associating with those in whose shoes I have walked, I am regularly reminded what Gonzales asserts…there is no going home again. They don’t get I can’t go back to that place of blissful ignorance because that place no longer exists. Truly I seem to feel whole only with others who share my experiences in intimate violence.
I straddle two worlds, two lives. I am changed by the shooting and my life has undeniably diverged from the path I envisioned when I decided to exit my marriage. I am the same happy, resilient, substantive person at my core. Yet I will always feel some level of that odd sense of separation and in it a low level churning of internal conflict. I am in neither place fully.
This uncomfortable place is mine. I long for routine and familiarity to stay grounded, to indulge myself in a laziness of not having to work so hard to stay present. Yet I fear falling into a mindlessness, an abyss of minutiae, the mundane, and shuffling through; a loss of appreciation and gratitude for this amazing gift, this bonus round to truly experience life, to make it all count, to do things differently, to make a difference, to really live instead of just be alive.
In his book Surviving Survival Gonzales notes “our ongoing survival requires relentless attention”. It is not in the chaos, the fight, while bathed in adrenaline; it is after the euphoria of victory, in the quietness, in the resumption of everyday life, in the loneliness, that surviving survival threatens.
I discovered today Debbie Kiley lost her fight with surviving survival. In my searching for her over the last few years I held it was uniquely her who could offer me some perspective, who held the magic golden nugget on how to do this. I knew she had struggled after the accident and yet she went on. I never met her but maintained she held the key, fueling my desire to connect with her.
On learning she shot herself I have paused to reconsider that it was possibly me who could have been her lifeline. I can’t say my own options haven’t been considered at various times since the shooting but I am fortunate to have discovered a purpose, to believe in a power greater than my trauma and a plan greater than my own. The choice is no longer mine to make. Maybe I had little more to share with Debbie than my optimism and hope. Still it was probably all she needed. Perhaps it is all any of us need.
So it is, in connection with a new survivor, that the lines of our individual stories blurred and we exchanged something that will continue to provide strength to each of us.
*Surviving Survival, The Art and Science of Resilience by Laurence Gonzales
(C) 2012 W.W. Norton & Company