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The Hammer and the Feather

The lifeline that snatched me from the desperate despair of traumatic stress

You don't have to beat yourself - but if you do - use a feather.

“If you are going to beat yourself up, put down the sledgehammer and pick up a feather first.” ~ Dr. Walter Brooks

It started out as only one mistake, one shortcoming, but it was a big one. I had always believed that if given the opportunity, I would rise to the occasion and be heroic, become a hero. Through the years, I had always identified with the underdog, who against all odds rose to the challenge and became heroic, became legendary. Think Cinderella Man, James Braddock, or Invincible, Vince Papale, or The Natural, Roy Hobbs. The only reason I wasn’t a hero was I never had to be, I never had the opportunity.

It is most cynical that the “opportunity” would come because of a word formed from h-e-r-o.  H-e-r-o was on the scene of my “opportunity” –  but it wasn’t me. It was heroin. Heroin was the sinister antagonist who provided the adversity that if conquered would elevate me to “h-e-r-o.” The problem is I didn’t conquer it. In fact, I sheepishly surrendered to it.

On a bright, sunny, late-winter morning near Atlanta, my “moment” came when I found my son’s blue, breathless, body without a beating heart on his bathroom floor. I called 9-1-1 and slapped his chalky, blue-shaded face while I screamed at him to wake up. Tears streamed down my face, snot ran from my nose, and drool fell from my lips as panic and depression overwhelmed me to near paralysis. The 9-1-1 operator was screaming too – at me. 

She was screaming at me to start CPR or my son was going to die. I couldn’t do it. I could not bring myself to perform CPR. Hell, I couldn’t stop having my own emotional meltdown. He was dead anyway. 

Some hero.

An eternity passed in my mind over the course of the next 2 or 3 minutes. The EMTs arrived and dragged my son’s corpse from me. They cut every piece of clothing from his body, started CPR, injected him with some unknown substance (Narcan), put an oxygen mask on him and started an IV. A second eternity passed in just another 2 or 3 minutes when they told me he was alive! They were taking him to the hospital to check for brain damage and to watch over him while the substances they used to save him wore off.

My moment came. I crumpled into a puddle of tears, snot, and drool. I wasn’t hero material after all. In fact, I was quite the opposite. I was a coward.

I was obviously relieved that he survived. Yet, I was disgusted that it wasn’t me who saved him. This was the one mistake, the one shortcoming that started it all.

I had built a life, a family, a career from a relatively meager beginning. I came to believe that I did everything right and that I had made few major mistakes in my life. In the days, weeks, and months that followed my “moment”, I became a totally flawed human being. I was smothered with an avalanche of memories of seemingly every mistake I had ever made. Even small mistakes like dropping balls in high school football games took residence alongside of major errors such as overindulging at parties and insulting loved ones while angry.

Before long, even my successes started to seem like failures. I shouldn’t have gotten an MBA; I should have stayed in New York; I should have stayed in Nuclear Power and left the Internet for others. The negative conversations in my mind seemed endless; the toxic tides of traumatic stress disorder were rising with no sign of recession.

I was a fake!

I was completely flawed and now the truth was exposed for everyone to see. Eventually, it became impossible for me to have even an innocent conversation with a lifelong friend without feeling like a fraud. It felt like everyone I spoke to could peer into the depths of my innermost self; they could see the most intimate, personal, and private parts of who I was, and I had no power to keep them out. I was on a constant “personality polygraph” – my confidence was gone. I was ashamed and humiliated not just by what I failed to do in saving my son, but by the truth of who I really was.

A coward! A fraud! A Fake!

As if the pain of this reality wasn’t enough, I started beating myself up inside. I became judge and jury for every error, for every defect of character, and I started punishing myself mentally. My untethered, untamed, mind generated thought after thought of failure and consciously judged every one of them. Then I punished myself with the powerful emotions of self-blame, regret, guilt, fear, anger, resentment, and shame. I convinced myself that I was guilty and the guilty must be punished.

The pain became unbearable and it seemed to be always increasing. Often, I couldn’t breathe. I found myself sentenced to solitary confinement. I willingly withdrew into “the hole.” I was in the isolated prison cell created and guarded by my crashing mind. In that place, lonely and afraid, I began to lose track of what was true – what really happened and when? Although I was on a full gambit of medications for PTSD, anxiety, and depression, I found that drinking eased the pain. Soon I learned that drinking not only eased the pain but that it could turn my brain off. That’s what I wanted – I wanted to stop thinking. So, I drank.

It all started out as a single mistake…it became so much more.

Dr. Brooks was one of my son’s doctors. He had heard that I was having a tough time and that I was drinking more than I should. He called me into his office for a chat; I thought it was about my son. It was about me.

He asked me if I was drinking and why. I shared much of my pain with him. It was then that someone finally reached into my alternate reality and pulled me out of the murky water.

“I couldn’t save him; he needed me and I failed,” I whined.

“Would he be alive if you weren’t there?” he asked.

“No, but I wasn’t the one….”

“You were the one; without you, he is dead, right?”

“Well, I guess when you put it that way, yeah but…”

“No yeah buts, you saved your son’s life plain and simple…it is ok to want to beat yourself up; and if you want to beat yourself up you need to stop using a sledgehammer and start using a feather. Put the hammer down; leave it in my office.”

These words stuck with me. It was a little more than 2.5 years ago that he called me in. He helped put the brakes on what was an accelerating downward spiral.

This was my turning point.

My life did not instantly start getting better; but it did stop getting worse. I would continue drinking for a good while longer. But the lifeline he threw me in the form of words he put into my head that day stopped the fall and provided a foothold from where I could get my bearings. It was from this foothold that I was able to start thinking just a little bit differently. And that different thinking continued to grow and carry me to a different and better perspective.

I had engaged in many hours of therapy and had tried numerous remedies for the way I was feeling. But it was this impromptu meeting called by my son’s doctor that lead to my brain re-booting. The chaos created by my brain in the aftermath of my son’s overdose was finally stopped by a few, simple, compassionate words by a man who cared for my welfare.

I didn’t know how bad I was – and if he didn’t reach in and show me – I would never know, and I would still be suffering – or dead.

Everything I was doing started to improve ever so slightly – every day was built upon the day before. It took a very long time, and I am not out of the woods yet – but now I am well on the road to recovery. All it took was a lifeline.

Dr. Walter Brooks threw me that lifeline.

The human experience necessarily includes suffering. Sometimes extreme levels of suffering. Quite often, good, hard-working people find themselves in a situation where they do not know what to do; they don’t know where, or to whom, to turn. Even though it may appear that they are wasting their lives, it is more likely that they are suffering in a way that even they cannot describe. We all know people like this, and too often we write them off as lost causes.  Maybe they are not flawed?

What if they are not?

Sometimes it only takes a compassionate lifeline tossed into the dark waters of suffering to restore the outlook of a person from the depths of hell to the hope of redemption. Anyone of us can toss a lifeline to a person who is drowning. When you feel that someone needs help – you are probably right. When you wish that “somebody would help that poor person,” that somebody is you. Don’t be shy; be brave, be courageous! 

Throw that lifeline and become the HERO that person needs you to be.

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