I dreamt that Robb was alive.
In my dream, he had been alive all of these last eight years, but everyone who knew had kept it a secret from me. He had been in some kind of hospital somewhere, and he had now been released. And I was his wife.
People who matter to me were saying, “You’re his wife. You’re the one who moved on. If you want the life you’ve created for yourself, you’ll need to divorce him.”
I didn’t want to divorce him. But I wanted the life I have. I deeply, unspeakably, love the life I have.
It was like in the movie Castaway, when Tom Hanks comes back after four years to realize that his family held a funeral, his wife has remarried, and she has a daughter with her new husband. There’s no room for him in his old life.
In my dream, the last eight years played out in a cinematic series of photos. And then each view zoomed out a little to show that Robb had been in every image, in every moment, just cropped out. He had been there all along.
It was a nightmare. Maybe it seems like it shouldn’t be. But it was.
I woke up shaking and sweating. I reached over to Peter and touched the side of his sleeping face. I needed something real to ground me in reality.
This dream used to happen all the time, anytime I tried something new.
I bought a new couch. I had the dream.
I bought a new car. I had the dream.
I wrote my first book. I had the dream.
I went on a first date. I had the dream.
I know what triggered it this time: The Pen and The Page. It has launched, it’s become beautifully successful and tremendously effective, there is great promise for its future, and there is no Robb in it.
My subconscious has to wrestle with the permission I’ve given myself to live the life I have.
I don’t know why I felt like crying when Peter suggested we put up the Christmas trees. I don’t know why I feel like there are monsters hiding in those boxes, and they’ve been doing pushups in the darkness, building their strength and waiting for me to open the lid again.
I mean, I do know why. It’s the lingering effects of trauma. It’s The Ohio State Marching Band in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It’s all the hype all over my newsfeed about Ohio State beating Michigan. It’s my emotional memories reminding me to guard myself because people I love tend to die at Christmas. It’s no longer a bleeding wound; it’s a tender scar. But it’s not logical. So I can’t explain it.
It’s like what Elizabeth Gilbert has written about fear. We can’t expect that it won’t show up when we’re on the road to do something brave. We can allow her to come along on the road trip, and we can give her a spot in the backseat. We don’t need to be surprised when she’s here again. But we must certainly never let her drive the car.
And so, it’s that time of year.
Trees and lights and cheer.
Anxiety and remembering and fragility.
My husband is kind to me. He doesn’t even mind when I have to touch his face while he’s sleeping, just to make sure he’s still here.
Just in case you love somebody who’s revisiting all the things, and just in case Christmas makes you sad, here are a few love notes for the journey:
Emotional Memory is different from Logical Memory. There are things you choose to remember because it’s a logical connection. Like when you see someone wearing a blue shirt, and it reminds you of your roommate’s blue shirt that you borrowed for that one date … and you intentionally follow a rabbit trail to that memory. That’s a logical memory. But emotional memory is different. You might see the blue shirt, have no logical memory of the blue shirt, and somehow you just feel sad. It may be perhaps because a paramedic’s uniform was that color of blue, and it’s a peripheral memory that only registers as sadness. Emotional memory is hard to trace; it’s involuntary and it only produces… well, emotion.
Emotional Memory is the Result of Senses. The scent of a candle. A song on the radio. Christmas lights on the drive home. They trigger emotions.
All of this is not Surprising. December is filled with scents, smells, sounds, and songs. And so of course this is happening. I cannot will it away. These are deep neurological paths that I’m trying to fight, and that is no small thing.
All of this is also Unpredictable. Sure, it would make sense for me to slip into a spiral closer to December 22, December 23… but it’s not even December? Where did that come from, three weeks early? Triggers are unpredictable, and they are in charge.
I didn’t ask for these Triggers. I’d prefer to not have them at all, thanks.
Trauma isn’t Longing. These episodes that send me spinning are about Trauma. That is all. These episodes are not about indulging in a memory, and they are not about my longing for a different life or an earlier husband. I don’t wish for anything to be different about this beautiful life of mine; this cannot be overstated.
Trauma isn’t logical. So you can’t explain a traumatized person out of it. In case you’re thinking, “But you had thirty good Christmases before that one bad one… can’t you just think about a different one?” Well, all I can say is, no. I can’t. It doesn’t work that way.
Some things can’t be fixed; they can only be carried. As Peter said, “I don’t have to fix it. I only have to be available to my wife.”
My Emotions Don’t Have to Rule the Day. Peter said, “Honey, I love you and I am in this with you. But with all due respect to your story and what you’ve been through, Christmas isn’t sad for me. And I won’t give up my happiness this season.” It’s possible to read that and hear insensitivity; but the truth is, this is a very healthy response that is every opposite of codependent. Plus, there’s so much comfort in knowing I can feel how I feel without ruining Christmas. Peter is holding on to his joy, and I love him so much for the consistency he brings and the light that he shines in this shadow.
I asked Peter what he would say to a fellow person in the support role. He said, “I would tell them to remember this isn’t about them. It’s an opportunity to not be selfish. This season gives me a chance to love somebody more than I love myself. So, if you’re married to somebody who’s struggling, then get over what you wish this looked like, and support this person who wishes it looked differently, too.”
In case you love somebody who has triggers of PTSD, in case you’re in love with somebody whose emotionally undone for reasons that are deeper than logic and longer than a season:
Please buckle up, stay close, and love us anyway.
~ ~ ~
“When you recognize that you will thrive not in spite of your losses and sorrows, but because of them, that you would not have chosen the things that happened in your life, but you are grateful for them, that you will hold the empty bowls eternally in your hands, but you also have the capacity to fill them? The word for that is healing.”
~ Cheryl Strayed, Brave Enough