When I lost my job in mid-March, I was already one seriously struggling chica.
I was still reeling from the effects of the chemical leak that happened this January in my hometown, Charleston, WV. The situation left 300,000 people without access to clean water and multiplied trauma by the same.
This became particularly trying for me in light of my past experiences with domestic violence and PTSD, a chapter I’d promised to close.
Feelings of powerlessness, vulnerability, lack of safety and stress were all around me. Defense mechanisms were turned to 11, and everyone was in survival mode.
My mind took me back.
Back to rooms I didn’t want to be trapped in again, hallways and doorways that offered no exit. I was reliving my history, removed from it just long enough to be objective, and still feeling so close to all those terrible feelings that I began to experience an empathic reverberation that cut all the way down to a lonely spigot that flowed mercilessly each day down my throat, through my chest and into my stomach.
I didn’t feel ready for this Water Crisis, not that “ready” is a possible state of mind for what the NSF (National Science Foundation) described as one of the largest human-made environmental disasters in this century.
But I really didn’t feel ready. Not after leaving behind my self-created adulthood fantasy land working in the contemporary arts industry in a major metropolitan area and moving back to my small, conservative hometown.
Not after not saying goodbye so I could rush my move home to attend the funeral of a best friend who passed from a rapid-growth brain tumor that we whispered might have been hastened by a life-long exposure to chemical vapors (Nick, I thought I would make it home for you, I was two weeks too late.)
Not after the following months of feeling awkward and out of place and wondering if I would ever know true solace in this place that was supposed to be my real home.
Much writing was to be done during this Water Crisis. Writing that revealed truths that I didn’t know could be found within me. Writing that ripped this trauma out of its roots and exposed it for the gnarled monstrosity that it really was, laid it on its back and kicked it to the stars.
But writing wasn’t enough to restore faith.
And there was more to come, like there always is, but this time it carried a weight that stamped down hard.
It was two months after the Water Crisis and less than a year after I returned to a place that felt like a foreign land with funny accents and strange norms, when I lost my job, and with it, my wind.
My career was always the one thing I held sacred, not just my ability to sustain myself, but my ability—in the face of all the crap I had seen in my days—to thrive in this one part of life.
It was irrefutable proof that I could handle it all. Without parents to lean back on, or a stable relationship to keep me steady, or a reliable heart to keep me strong, in a big, big place that felt so far, far away from where I grew up, I built a successful career in a competitive and glamorous industry.
It was my rock, and then, in the span of 15 minutes, my confidence in it was completely gone.
I began a process of examining who I had become, punctuated by applying for food stamps and Medicaid and unemployment benefits. I had to prepare a resume, revise my portfolio site, and apply for jobs.
And, finally, do what was required to leave my 50’s Modern apartment-in-the-sky with a view of the city, the river and the mountains to move back in with my mother.
I was two weeks or so into this process when my phone rang early one morning.
It was Meadowbrook Acres, my grandmother’s nursing home. She’s not well, said nurse Kim, we think this is the end.
Still groggy, I tried to understand what was happening, the slowed breathing, the attempts to wake her for her pain pill without success.
Kim asked me to come straight away.
I remained as methodical as possible. I dressed and made a piece of toast. I packed my book. I picked up my grandmother’s will and funeral plans and put them in the back seat of my car.
I got in the car, drove, and stopped for gas at the foot of the hill. My credit card was rejected because I couldn’t afford to make my monthly payment.
I left the gas station, not knowing if I would make it to the nursing home and back.
15 minutes later I was in her room. The nurses (so kind) had brought a cart for me loaded with soda, candy and snacks because I was young and alone and sitting watch while a matriarch tried to pass.
I imagined how, of all of the pitiful things they had seen, this scene rated high enough to merit a cart carefully arranged with their finest vending machine-style delights and baby soda cans.
It seemed absurd to read or stare at my phone or do any of the pastimes I would consider under normal circumstances. I sat and watched.
There were a few hours of sitting by her bedside before I was confident enough to hold her. She had stopped eating regularly years before and by now weighed 90 pounds. The weight was gone from every part of her, even her earlobes, and she was breathing only a few times each minute.
I took her good hand, the one that hadn’t been ravaged by her stroke, and she latched on. She took my hand and moved it under her cheek. She took it out again, kissed it, moved it back under her cheek. She opened her eyes and looked straight into mine, pleading.
I tried to hold my face still, but I started to cry, and she started to cry, her eyes wide with fear or pain or desperation or confusion. She couldn’t form sentences to tell me which. She could barely hear, and I couldn’t explain to her what was happening.
There was nothing to do but silently pour every piece of love I had, every thought of acceptance and empathy, every memory I could conjure, every laugh, every meal, every walk, into a woman who had no idea who I was and couldn’t understand what was happening to her.
I did this for many hours. I prayed to the family who had passed to please come and tell her that she’s safe and take her to the other side. I didn’t know if they could hear, but I knew she wouldn’t go easily.
I traveled with those funeral plans in my car for days. Back and forth to the nursing home to sit with her, to hold her hand, and to come home and rest and try to find work.
I had been reduced to only the most essential parts of myself. I no longer had the willpower to continue my daily rumination strategy, trying to remember what had happened in my past that could be affecting me now and trying to think of what I wanted for my future.
I could only see what needed to happen each day, and as the days passed, I came to understand that no matter what I wanted for myself, I was at the mercy of forces greater than me that I would never fully comprehend and never be able to control.
Unlike other times when this realization knocked on my door, I decided not to let it frighten me. I looked at it in the face, and I didn’t budge.
I accepted it.
Then I considered my past and my future. Every terrible boyfriend, every mistake, every cancelled plan, everyone who had ever done me wrong, all of my expectations for what my life should be to be perfect and desirable and up to imaginary standards that I had set for myself, and I let them go.
I stopped giving those things space in my mind.
I realized that, with everything that was happening, I had no control over which parts of myself the people in my life saw. My flaws were on a billboard display, and in return, what I was experiencing was not disdain or judgment or criticism for my shortcomings. My friends and family didn’t shun me, I felt overwhelming love and support and acceptance.
I began to feel connected.
Connected to every person who had lost their livelihood, who had held their grandmother or mother or father or best friend and prayed for their loved ones to take them to the other side, to every person who had moved back in with their parent after their life was wrecked, to everyone who had been cut so deeply they were only planning for the next hour or day or week.
To every man or woman who had ever been frightened for their lives because of the behavior of someone that they trusted to keep them safe.
I was at my most vulnerable place, and that is when I became the strongest version of myself I had ever been.
I no longer felt the anxiety that had come from the pressure of all the things I had been and all the things I had expected myself to become. I only felt the need to be me, who I was, in that moment, and in every coming moment.
My grandmother passed.
I cried like I knew I needed to, with no reservations and no struggle to get to or stay in that place.
My simple expectation is this; to continue to make space to be me in each moment, in the most authentic ways possible, without the frivolous standards for what I should or shouldn’t be or become.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Brenna Fischer / Editor: Renée Picard