Helping and Being Helped

By Karen Najarian

            “Shut the fuck up and go sit across the street!” That’s what I should have told his blabbering, drunk buddies who were only distracting me and making things worse: “He’s fine. He’s been a lot worse than this. We’ve got it. We’re calling 911. Look at me. I got banged up earlier today! Here, buddy, have some water. You’re fine.”

                He was not fine. As I helped him across the highway, a two-lane road in the mountains near Huntington Lake east of Fresno, I noticed the sweat beads on his forehead, his gray face, and the arm I held to guide him was cold in my hand. There were abrasions on his legs and arms but most unnerving was his right hand dangling like a hinged trap door from a deformed wrist. Bones protruded from a bloody opening in the skin. He kept trying to hold up the dangling hand with his left hand as if it might click back together. Placing my index finger on the radial pulse point at his left wrist, I found his heart rate too fast to count. I’d never seen anyone this close to death from shock except maybe the gunshot victim with a hole in his chest I once saw in the ER. His two motorcycling buddies definitely did not “have this” and calling 911 was impossible on this twisty mountain road out of cell range. The tall talkative buddy had ripped pants and a shirt with bloody abrasions showing through but, after checking them, his only impairment was probably from the beers he admitted to and the pot I smelled. And you don’t give water to a shock victim! Shock withdraws the blood to your core and to organs essential for life. The body does not sense the stomach as an essential organ. He could vomit. No, he was not fine. And he needed more help than just my friend, Val, and I could provide.

                I had just spent a lovely, long, relaxing, weekend with my long-time friend, Val. On Thursday that week, I drove to her home on the east side of Fresno. While sipping wine with Val and her husband, Barry, before dinner my phone rings. It’s my daughter’s partner: “Lisa’s been in a motorcycle accident and is in the ER. She’s ok, just banged up.” Good God. She’s only had the motorcycle a week and not with her mother’s approval. Kripes.

            I had arrived to 105 degree afternoon heat passing, in disbelief, the natives out on the golf course. The AC was a blessing and unlike here in Martinez, where it cools off as the sun sets, my hosts graciously kept it on all night.

            On Friday morning, we loaded up Val’s sweet Chesapeake dog, Maggie, our hammocks, and camping gear. Two kayaks were strapped on top of her 4Runner. On the way to her cabin above Huntington Lake, she stopped at a very small corner grocery store, way out among the dry grassy fields of the Sunnyside District, and got two beautiful Harris Ranch fillets and a package of cookies. I’d packed some fancy cheeses from Trader Joes, some rustic crackers, and a couple bottles of red. We were set.

            The drive was empty of traffic and serene through the passing golden hills and ancient dusty-green oaks dotting the parched summer landscape on either side of the rolling ribbon of asphalt. It was beautiful, that is, just until we were a few miles from her cabin. Soon, there were burnt patches and singed trees that gave way to a stark floor of white ash peppered with charred, black spires. These were the remains from last summer’s Creek Fire, at one time the largest single fire in the state not part of a larger complex. For weeks, I would daily check Inciweb to see if the boundaries of the fire had consumed their sweet little hide-away. At one point I was certain it had. My screen showed the fire boundary surrounding their street by a wide margin. Then I zoomed in closer to see a green bubble around their tract of forty seven homes. I called Val to see what she knew. A fireman lived within the bubble and they were using the few streets of the tract as a staging area for earth movers and firefighting equipment. So far, their place had been saved and, as the flames incinerated the forest around them, their cabin stood.

            Driving through it, the devastation felt final, the ground sterile, the charred spires a symbol of all the losses in my life endured since my cancer diagnosis and, quickly on its heels, Covid. Usually, after a fire, with the nutrients returned to the earth, the wildflowers bloom brightest. Perhaps this area would have to wait for a winter without drought to spring back. We’ve all been waiting way too long for life to spring back as it was before Covid and, as for me and the cancer, it will never spring back to what it was but we’ll both endure. I’d always felt comfort in this quote by John Muir: “Earth has no sorrow that Earth cannot heal.” Perhaps the forest would just take a bit more time.

            Rolling into the driveway of their little A-frame cabin, a sigh exited my chest and I felt my shoulders drop. It was surrounded in all directions by about fifty feet of lush untouched forest. It belied the devastation just beyond the bubble. We partially unloaded the car and proceeded to plop down in the deck chairs with a glass of wine and my cheese and crackers. I smiled. “You’re so lucky they saved your place.” “I buried my face in Barry’s chest and sobbed when I saw it for the first time after the fire.” Shortly, we threw together the rest of the evening meal into an ice chest and drove up to White Bark Vista Point, where a dirt road off of Kaiser Pass Road deposits you at 9,600 feet.

            From its promontory, White Bark Point overlooks the Sierra from Lake Edison in the west to Mt. Abbot twenty miles away on the eastern crest. I followed with my eyes where Val and I had hiked the Sierra High Route in 2014 for 200 miles mostly off-trail. Imagining my tiny figure out there among such immensity simultaneously elicited the strange combination of a full chest of pride followed by a deep exhale of humility. Against a darkening sky and with the sun setting behind us toward the west, the peaks glistened with that same silver sparkle that’s drawn me to them for half a century. We hung our hammocks and found a flat slab of granite the size of two dining tables to stage dinner on. Val made a salad in our plastic bowls and I sizzled the filets in a frying pan over the tiny backpacking stove. Val’s good whiskey was passed back and forth and sipped gratefully. The warmth of the golden hour, magnified by the warmth of our decades-long friendship, could probably be sensed by heat seeking infrared technology as easily as we’d later see campfires dotted on the landscape before us.

Val making salad
Maggie and Val

            Val brought these fancy camping chairs appropriately called Stargazers. We leaned back, as the chairs are made to do, and put our feet up on the “kitchen table”. As we waited for the show to begin, the haze of moisture in the sky came and went a few times to finally reveal an ink-black moonless bowl over our whole domain. Val had phoned a few weeks before. Without even saying hi, she blurted out, “Wanna go camp up on Kaiser Ridge to watch the peak of the Perseid?” Without thinking, I replied an immediate yes. Such are the offers of My Tribe.

            The Perseid meteor shower is the result of debris ejected off the Swift-Tuttle Comet as it travels its 133-year elliptical orbit around the sun. If the debris enters our atmosphere, it burns up creating a shooting star, a different kind of fire. An annual event, the peak usually occurs sometime around the second week of August. It gets its name from the Perseid Constellation, from where its meteors seem to emanate in the northeastern sky.

            With Val’s husband, we had shared THE BEST METEOR SHOWER OF OUR LIVES back in August 1991 while leaning up against a snow bank off-trail at 11,000 feet on the longest cross-country hike I’d ever undertaken without my mentor, Rolland Carlson. (Fearing I’d get lost, I’d brought pounds of maps.) We were snug in our sleeping bags, our pads insulating us from the packed, cold snow, passing a flask, and ooh-ing and aah-ing like it was the fourth of July. I intimately came to know what John Denver sang about in Rocky Mountain High: ‘I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky…” Just like this night.

            In 1991 the shower became visible early, like 8:30 in the evening. We were just cleaning up from dinner, which means we were swishing and tossing our cups and bowls leaving them “mountain clean,” when fiery bombs started streaking across the whole width of the heavens. Tonight the show was scheduled to peak around 1 am. I hoped I could stay awake.

            This time the show proved to be just as spectacular. As we kept our gaze skyward, the temperature dropped and we wrapped our sleeping bags around us. Oblivious, Maggie laid on her pad and snuggled at Val’s feet. I turned to Val. “This is the good life,” I finally looked at my watch. Midnight!!! Val had been up since 4 or 5 tending to her mom’s horses. It was way past my bedtime but we would not have missed the gods playfully tossing fireballs at each other for anything.

I didn’t catch a meteor but I did catch the Milky Way

            We crawled into our hammocks, strung as we like, using a common tree so that we’re rocked by each other’s movements all night long. We were perched at the very edge of a steep cliff to the valley below, the 13,000-foot peaks beyond. The Universe held us warm and cozy under that celestial playing field.

            Friday morning we awoke to High Sierra sunshine and high altitude stumbles. The oxygen in the air at 9,600 feet is 70% of that at sea level. Rocks on the uneven ground seemed to jump into my path and a headache threatened. While walking around the previous night, I would have to stop from dizziness after three steps if there was the slightest incline. The drug I’m on, Xeloda, does not decrease my red blood cells but they are enlarged (macrocytic) and, from my own bioassay, I can tell you that they don’t function like usual. Walking up my front steps at home can leave me short of breath. I hadn’t been this high in altitude since I’d started the drug last Oct. I knew that drinking water to increase blood volume can help altitude sickness in general and I’d been doing that since the day before, so it could have been worse.

            Instead of packing up quickly and heading back to the cabin, I said, “I’m in no hurry,” and we dallied over hot cocoa and oatmeal with fruity yogurt. Instead of setting behind our backs, our star was now a hot spotlight dead ahead coaxing our domain, spread out below, back to life. I imagined John Muir Trail hikers already five miles into their day’s hike after a big breakfast at Vermillion Valley Resort on Lake Edison, bears curling up in the shade to avoid the day’s heat, and the flowers rotating to turn their faces toward the Sun.

            After our descent to the cabin, we enjoyed a giant-sized hamburger and cold beer at the Lakeshore Resort Restaurant on Huntington Lake before unloading the kayaks and paddling on the cool, wavy water. Back in the parking lot with one kayak loaded up on the roof, a man in a truck drove slowly past us. Out his window he offered his teenage sons for assistance. Val declined but I, getting more used to accepting help, said “Sure, come on over.” They lifted the thing like a feather and Yes, Ma’amed us when we thanked them. What a great lesson on gallantry this father seized for his sons.

Huntington Lake
Val

            The day came to completion with a mountain thunderstorm enjoyed on the covered back deck sipping Chardonnay and savoring the heady perfume of wet pines from the first rain of the season. The contentment of that moment will carry me until I’m back in the mountains again.

            I have a handful of good friends that are like mini-me’s. We love the same simple natural phenomena, we talk, we listen, and we can sit, or hike, in a companionable silence. Val is one of them.

            Sunday morning brought us to the last day of our respite. We lazed over a huge breakfast of barbequed sausages, slabs of French toast with real maple syrup, big black cups of coffee, and slices of fragrant cantaloupe.

            After breakfast Val insisted we hike to a seep spring meadow surrounded by charred snags and ash at the edge of the green bubble. “I think the spring saved this from the fire,” I remarked. Even in late season there were green, thigh-high grasses and we named the flowers: Black Eyed Susans, Yampah, Yarrow, Monkey Flowers. Before leaving, we stood back silently taking in this patch of life in the middle of so such destruction. “Hope,” I said. “This means hope to me.” In the midst of my own slash and burn cancer treatment program, I needed to see this. Val probably knew that.

            We quickly packed up and moved out, waving to Val’s neighbors working on a new front deck. Unfinished with no railing, there was already a barbeque and a rocking chair gracing its platform. The plan was to drive back to Val’s house in Fresno where I would pick up my car and drive home.

            But, the Universe had other plans. Less than a quarter mile from her driveway, we arrive at the T-intersection where Val’s street meets the 2-lane highway. We stop at the stop sign and are struck by an odd scene. There are three black motorcycles parked off the road on our left. Three guys stand there, two in motorcycle garb and one in a dark blue polo shirt with an EMT logo over the left chest. Out the open driver-side window Val calls out, “Is everything all right?” With a phone pressed against his ear, the tall one called out, “We got it,” literally waving us on. The guy in the EMT shirt stood there, proud as a three year old who’d just learned to hop, and says, “And I’m an EMT!” Not immediately seeing anything wrong, I’m dumbfounded as to why they are calling 911 or why, if there is a need to call 911, the EMT is just standing there. Then I noticed the third motorcyclist alone across the road stumbling around in the highway. “That doesn’t look right.” I jump out the car door and, to Val’s multiple screams of, “Careful!” and the guys, confident calls of, “We got this,” I run across the highway. He is standing, bent over cradling his right hand with his left. When he moves his left hand away, the right hand uncontrollably dangles at the wrist like a dead fish held by its tail. He looks confused as to why it won’t stay horizontal. That’s when I see the white bone sticking out of his deformed wrist. Still cradling his limp hand, I take him by his good arm and lead him back across the highway to where the guys and motorcycles are. His arm feels strikingly cold in this eighty-five degree heat. His face is gray and beads of sweat glisten on his forehead. “I’m Karen. I know first aid. Can I help you?” A nod of the head. “What’s your name?”

            “Francisco.”

            I had no idea what happened, didn’t understand his buddies’ confidence, and what the bloody hell was this EMT doing standing there proudly doing nothing!?

            To, “It’s ok. We got it. I’m calling 911,” Val yells back, “No, you’re not! You have no reception up here.”

             “Well, I’m going to try, anyway.”

            I sit Francisco down on a mound of dirt on the side of the road. I feel as bad as I did when a fellow SAR team member had a heart attack on Mt. Diablo and I set him down in the dirt. I turned to Val, “Go back to the cabin. Call 911 on the land-line and bring a chair.”

            In the meantime, we get his helmet and jacket off to reveal a hard shell vest called a spine protector. Considering his injuries, his buddies are pretty rough pulling the helmet and jacket off, as if to prove they are right that he is fine. “Gentle. Gentle.” I admonish. I’m checking for major bleeding, getting the gist of the accident, and doing a SAMPLE patient history (Signs & Symptoms, Allergies, Medications, Past medical history, Last oral intake, and Events leading up to present injury.) That’s when I learn about the beers consumed at lunch, the details of the accident, and why the EMT, however useless, is there: There were three cars ahead of the three motorcyclists. As the first car came to the intersection, he jumped on his brakes. Maybe looking at the street sign. I don’t know. In response, the second and third cars did the same. Francisco was riding behind the third car and couldn’t brake in time. He swerved to the left and rolled his bike. The first two cars sped on and the third car with the EMT in it stopped.

            OK. Now I’m getting an idea of the situation: the mode of injury, the forces involved, getting schooled on dumb-ass twenty-four year old male beer drinking, and their names, all of which I’ve forgotten except for Francisco, who his friends call Frankie.

            Soon Val shows up with a chair, a blanket, and a First Aid Kit. We sit Frankie in the chair by the edge of the forest on the side of the road. Suddenly the EMT places a zippered First Aid Kit on the ground in front of us and continues to stand there, as if providing a First Aid Kit was the only thing he’d learned at EMT school. All the while, in my mind, I’m deferring to him since he has higher credentials than my expired Wilderness First Responder Certificate but he does NOTHING! Finally, I realize that I am the only one, besides Val, a Wilderness First Aider, that is going to help Frankie. So, I kick into gear. I open the First Aid Kits to see what’s in there. I see an orange SAM Splint, a lightweight rigid splint built from a thin, light core of aluminum alloy which is then sandwiched between two thin layers of closed-cell foam. Perfect. Nobody has sterile 4 X 4 gauze so I run to Val’s car knowing I have some in my net bag that goes everywhere with me. Wrappers start flying everywhere as I rip the supplies open and toss them without thought. My focus is on Frankie. Attempting to be helpful, the EMT drapes a triangle bandage over the whole mess. I can’t see what I’m doing and move it away. Val brought some Vet Wrap (four-inch wide chartreuse green Coban). I place a gauze roller bandage under Frankie’s curved palm on the SAM Splint, place the deformed wrist in the most normal looking position I can manage, and wrap the whole mess from fingers to elbow with the Vet Wrap. A properly wrapped triangle bandage stabilizes the whole injury. ”Ah. That’s feels better.” Next, I clean and bandage a big abrasion on his knee.

            All this time, while I’m sitting in the dirt tending to Frankie and reeling from my own revulsion over the appearance of his dead fish wrist, the severity of his shock, and my sense of responsibility for the human in my care, his drunk buddies are in our faces reassuring Frankie, but mostly themselves,  that he’s alright, “You’ve been through worse, buddy.  Hell, remember the time… And look at me. I did this this morning!” as he shows the wound through a rip in his pants. I’m focused on Frankie who is now slumped over leaning on Val. I realize that Frankie doesn’t need to hear that he’s ok. He damn well knows he is not ok.

            I’m trained to say only, “We’re doing all we can. I’m here and I won’t leave you.” When you’re hurt and need help and someone tells you that you are ok, it’s an act of emotional abandonment and can lead the patient to take the mental leap that if his caretakers think he’s ok, there’s no help coming. I wanted to shush his buddies. I wanted to say how severe Frankie’s injuries were so they understood the severity of the situation and would stop acting like it wasn’t. But I didn’t want to say it in front of Frankie to make his shock worse. I had a client in Yosemite who burst a few hemorrhoid stitches. (He neglected to tell us beforehand that he’d just had surgery.) While not life-threatening, the sight of blood in his stool turned him gray. As he recovered I said,” Yeah, you’re still a little green around the gills,” which again dropped his blood pressure and put his skin signs back into the gray zone. So I knew that the emotional component can be significant and Frankie didn’t need any more complications. “I’m here and I will not leave you,” I reassured him over and over to which the guys kept responding with, “You got this. You’re fine.”

            While waiting for definitive care, I’m learning that the guys are all twenty-four, live in podunk towns in the Central Valley below, and that Frankie, himself, is an EMT. I start thinking ahead: “Ok, we’ve got three bikes here, how are we getting them home?”

            “My dad has a truck. He’ll pick them up. I’ll drive to Huntington Lake and make a call on the resort’s wifi.”

            “Who’s going to tell Frankie’s mom about this?”

            “I will,” says the less drunk one. “Who’s going to take Frankie home from the hospital?”

            “His mom.”

            At this point, Val is standing behind Frankie with her hands on his shoulders and says, “One shoulder feels different than the other.” Oh, crap, I think.

            Years ago I reduced my husband’s dislocated shoulder while he lay in a bush off-trail on a steep slope ten miles in on the penultimate day of a backpack trip just west of the Minarets. Before satellite communicators and with no other real choice, it was only after his screams filled Dike Creek Canyon and I plied him with two Vicodin that I applied traction and successfully popped it back in. I’m still traumatized.

            I moved over to Frankie’s right side and gently pulled his upper arm out to apply traction to his shoulder joint. “Oh, that feels better.” Double crap. His relief with traction indicates it IS a dislocated shoulder. Reducing a dislocated shoulder is a medical procedure and out of a first responder’s scope of practice. I ignored that with my husband in the hopes that he wouldn’t sue me if things went wrong and he had permanent nerve damage. With Frankie and medical help hopefully on the way, I didn’t chance it. But I did stand there holding his arm in traction to reduce his pain until he was back-boarded by paramedics.

            After about an hour of waiting by the side of the road and waving on a few stopped cars conveying that we actually did have this under control, a fire truck pulls up. I knew I needed to relay to the fireman all the information I had about Frankie. “I need everyone quiet!” I yell over the guys’ continued babbling. A fireman approaches us and I tell him about the compound fracture, dislocated shoulder, and shock. “Do you think he could use some oxygen?” “YES!!!” Val and I both yell.

            In about another fifteen minutes fire trucks and ambulances started arriving from everywhere. I counted eleven. Traffic was stopped in both directions. Soon a helicopter was circling to land on the highway a hundred feet from the intersection. “Val, what on earth did you say on the phone?!”

            “I told my neighbor working on the deck about the accident and he called it in. He’s with SWAT.”

            A paramedic team strolls over to check out Frankie. I again relay all the information. Unable to see Frankie’s wrist through the Vet Wrap, I get the feeling they thought I was being dramatic and exaggerating about the compound fracture. “Did anyone take any pictures?’ Ha, I thought. Lesson learned. Looking at my splint, “Well, we don’t need to do anything here,” he approves. I reiterated about the dislocated shoulder. “Presumed dislocated shoulder,” he replied. Whatever, I think. “Just keep traction on it.”

            While the paramedic was checking out Frankie, the blue-shirt EMT was standing there talking with one of the paramedics. I thought, You are NOT going to take credit for Frankie’s care are you? No, he was explaining that he had Aspergers Syndrome and only deals with epileptics. More craziness. Why epileptics? I’m thinking. Why anybody?

Backboarding
Paramedics finally arrive

            Soon they are back-boarding Frankie and attempting to wrap the straps over his injured wrist. “NO!” I scream, “that’s a compound fracture!” I look over to my right and a highway patrolman is putting the tall blabbermouth into the back seat of his squad car: DUI and suspended license I learn later.

            “My wallet and my backpack. Where are they?”

            “I put your wallet in your backpack and handed it to the shaved-head pilot who loaded it on the copter. I put my name and contact information in the outside pocket. I’m going to stay right here with you until they load you in the copter.”

            “Thank you.”

            They slide Frankie in and with a whirl of rotor wash, the copter levitates and swooshes off over the forest tree tops. Suddenly, my face is wet with tears and I’m sobbing into Val’s arms. And then she into mine. One of the firemen ask, “Did you know him? You kept saying, ‘I’m going to stay with you.’”

            “No. I was just deeply invested in his care and I know emotional support can make a huge difference in managing an incident and the outcome. That’s what I was taught. This,” pointing to my tears, “is adrenaline crash.”

            Soon a big navy blue pick-up pulls up and a grizzled old guy, with wild gray hair wearing a T-shirt extolling the virtues of weed, steps out. He’s the dad that will transport the motorcycles back to town. The CHP now questions him as to whether he’s in possession of any. “You’re on National Forest Land, you know.”

            Officials take notes. “Do you know his last name? His address? Phone number?”

            “Only that he’s twenty-four.” And then I got offered a position on Fresno Search and Rescue.

Copyright: Karen Najarian, October 28, 2021

Connection, the Opposite of Depression

So, I promised I’d write about my out-patient experience at John Muir Behavioral Health (the out-patient program for folks at their wit’s end).

Having only been incarcerated 48 hours, I was released from my seventy-two hour hold in the looney bin at noon on Thanksgiving Day (paroled for good behavior, I guess). Pre-insanity, I had planned a nice afternoon Thanksgiving repast properly Covid distanced with our neighbors on the back deck. The turkey was already roasting. I was grateful for my freedom and the decreased despair provided by the anti-depressant prescription, which was the whole reason I went willingly. But, I still felt fragile. In the passenger seat of the car, I felt like I’d just gotten off of a backpack trip: cars and people were moving too fast, colors were too bright, noises were too loud. In forty-eight hours I’d lost my desensitization to the jarring pace of the modern world. I’d been floating on a cloud wrapped in eiderdown for forty-eight hours and I came to like it. I came to make it a baseline, a default. I came to call it home. Now in my house, I looked around: shelves full of stuff I could live without, a mess of magazines on the coffee table, Abby the Dog jumping on me. In the kitchen, veggies were chopped for stuffing, potatoes peeled for mashed potatoes, and my office – I couldn’t even open the door to that chaos. Dinner was to be at two, so I did what I’d always done – I jumped into gear, but very mindful of the serenity I was leaving behind.

As it turned out, our neighbor was having her own emergency in the ER. Having also been released at noon, she, too, jumped into gear and assembled her part of the dinner. At four o’clock the four of us plopped into our respective chairs on the back deck like ball players siding into home base and took a deep breath and a moment of thanks. “Yep, it’s a 2020 Thanksgiving,” said Brian.

On Friday I waited, expecting a call to set up my entry into the out-patient program. Too late, I noticed I missed the call. They were closed for the weekend and I found myself teary and anxious that I had to sign up on Monday when I thought I’d be starting on Monday. I found myself hungering for a program that I didn’t even know anything about. Later, I discovered that it wasn’t necessarily the program I hungered for, but the human connection I’d found at the in-patient program. The isolation of Covid made everything worse.

On Saturday we had our young friends, Banning and Regina, over for a socially distanced lunch on the back deck. At the mention of my 5150, Banning lowered his head and looked over his glasses at me. Unlike Banning’s experience as a fifteen year old, unlawfully locked up for eleven months in the largest insurance fraud case in the United States, my stay was nurturing and helpful. I missed the spare contained environment where all I could see of the outside world were the green crowns of trees through the top windows, the lower windows, frosted, emitting a soft glow. All the surfaces were smooth, no door knobs, nothing to hang yourself by, where all our needs were met and we could just focus on us.

I yearned to arrive at some steady state that I could live with or at least know what to expect. Or maybe I needed to learn to ride the waves, to accept that the waves ARE my new steady state. With nothing to do that weekend and the misery still going on with my feet and eyes, I wrote to God in my journal:

God, Godforce, Great Mystery: What am I to do? I’m lost without my feet and eyes. And I’m tired and teary.

My pen answered: This is a time for that.

Me: OK. I guess I have no choice but to accept it.

MY pen: Yes.

Me: Why? What good is this?

My pen: It just is.

Me: My ego likes reasons and answers and timelines and schedules and certainty.

My pen: This is not that place.

Me: So, I’m in this alternate plane while the rest of the world spins productively?

My Pen: Yes.

Me: I feel a rift between me and my friends that can hike and do and see. I feel separate and more than a little bit less than.

My pen: It’s OK. It’s just your ego. Your ego thinks it’s running the show. It is not.

Me: The world tells me otherwise. The world honors doing and accomplishing.

My pen: Let that go. It’s an illusion.

Me: It feels like a convincing illusion.

My pen: It is just an illusion.

Me: So how do I navigate this realm?

My pen: Write.

Me: OK. You said so. I am left with little choice, anyway. Do you mind if I share this conversation?

My pen: No. I don’t mind. More people need to know this. This is your job.

So, getting orders from The Great Somewhere, here I am.

On Tuesday I got up, showered, and got dressed, all within an hour. That was a first during Covid. I put on a top I hadn’t worn in nine months and wrapped a pretty scarf around my neck. It was cold outside so I grabbed my coral colored down jacket, as opposed to the black backpacking puffy. I had somewhere to go – somewhere to BE, at 8:30. It felt great.

At the door of the big box-shaped building next to the green lawns of a golf course, I got a new mask, gelled up, and had my temp scanned. Upstairs there were papers to fill out, cards to show, and signatures to make. Then I was off downstairs to the big meeting room where things were already in motion. The sign on the door read, “Cafeteria.” Opening the door, I quickly scanned the room. It was full of chairs all six feet apart lined up like little soldiers on parade. Later, I would count forty of them. They were all filled except for one chair, front and center. Years ago I would have wilted at the conspicuousness of interrupting a big room full of people and then have to sit in front of everyone. On this day I welcomed the human energy in the room and was excited to join them, even if at one time they all wanted to off themselves.

Written on a white board in cerulean felt pen was the schedule for the day. Basically, forty-five minutes to one-and-a-quarter-hour sessions by therapists, a chaplain, and an art therapist. In these sessions I learned about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Cognitive Distortions, Metacognition, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, neuroscience of addiction, coping vs fixing – a lot of fancy words asking you to look at your life differently. At 11:15 all forty of us would break off into smaller groups in separate rooms and meet with a therapist to talk about what was going on with each of us on a more personal level. There was also time for a fifteen minute one-on-one session with an assigned therapist.

Having had a ton of therapy, I knew a lot of these suggestions and devices to massage my brain to go in the direction I wanted it to go. But the hands raised and answers given in response to group brainstorming were validating, helpful, and made it feel like we were all soldiers in an army fighting a common battle, even though we could not be more diverse.

And even though we spent five hours a day together, it was hard to really get to know anyone. There was the gambler, the fighter, the anorexic, the wife who slashed her own arm, addicts of all sorts, and the eighteen year old with his hair in his face and a sewing machine leg. Due to Covid we were instructed to stay six feet apart. Break apart sessions in the big room, were loud and noisy with our six-foot distanced shareings. I mentioned to my therapist in a one-on-one session that I had a blog that was pretty honest and raw. She responded that “we don’t want that here. It might trigger someone.” I was astounded. How does one heal without learning new ways to respond to triggers? How can we comfort that scared child within if we’re unaware of their distress? How do we connect without showing our wounds?

Being depressed, no one was excited to talk. We introduced ourselves daily (new people came, others graduated) with an answer to a question, like what’s your favorite pizza topping, and your name. Two weeks into the program the art therapist suggested we make some kind of a sound followed with our name. She modeled it making a funny squeaking noise. Then, in unison everyone was to mimic the sound. Wrong approach. A room full of forty depressed suicidal people mostly responded with “eh” as their sound. I decided to liven it up and, when my turn came, I held up both my arms, swayed them left to right overhead, and sang over the crowd, “Aaaaaaaa Ooooo,” like Freddie Mercury at a Queen concert. Yep. I had my own stadium following along. The therapist looked at me with wide eyed wonder. I grinned like Jack Nicholson.

After a week of this, from 8:30 until 1:30, with no lunch but fifteen minute breaks between sessions where the smokers were the only ones who chatted together in the cold, windy parking lot, I was sensing that this was simply a program to gain techniques to keep you out of crisis – to keep you alive. I was not seeing a lot of progress in my fellow inmates. I mentioned to my therapist that there was no deep work being done. She said, “No, this isn’t that, and everyone is supposed to have their own private therapist, as well.” This program was all designed to manage thoughts and behavior, not the why that makes you respond to life the way you do. After a week of listening, in our small group to an obviously very smart and accomplished middle-aged woman, struggle, overwhelmed and paralyzed with the stacks of ever accumulating papers on her kitchen counter and hearing the therapist suggest for the umpteenth time that she file just five pieces a day, I’d had it. I raised my hand. “I don’t know, but I think this has nothing to do with the papers.” I was afraid I had upset the apple cart, overstepped my bounds, and maybe even violated a HIPPA statute. Sitting six feet to my left, she swiveled her bowed head, looked directly into my eyes, and said, “I think you’re right.” Hallelujah! We were making progress.

I learned that in addition to the help I found by being in the presence of others, their contributions, and the daily classes, I gained meaning, purpose, and a lightness of being by bringing my true wild and natural self to the party. I disregarded the therapists warning to not trigger anyone. I spoke of my past, my childhood, how I had conquered old destructive thoughts and behaviors. The therapist in our small group leaned forward and implored, “How did you get this way?” “I took a leap. I prepared myself to die, because that‘s how doing the new behaviors felt, and I found that I didn’t.” People started coming up to me during the breaks saying how everything I said helped them. Women would talk about their over-bearing mothers, their verbally abusive husbands. Men would talk child abuse from their abusive drug addicted or alcoholic parents. I had the same unsolicited response; “Drop kick them.” Pretty soon all I had to do was kick my foot out and they knew my answer. One gal crumpled up a letter she’d written to her ex and literally drop kicked it across the room.

On my last day, after ignoring, “You’ll have time to do that in your small group,” I addressed the whole class with a heartfelt thank you for being part of my journey and a good bye. I read a letter to my small group:

The situation that brought me here was in response to a medical condition magnified in my mind by the powerlessness, hopelessness, and despair I felt as a child.

While each of our journeys is unique and special, I think they all require immense courage. You’ve shown your courage just by being here. This work requires feeling feelings you think you might die from. I encourage each of you to gather more courage, either from an armful of stars gathered from a clear night sky or form it from the mud of the riverbank. However you do it, open that door to that dark room. Bring the light of your heart. Shine it on the remnant memories of your past. Clean it out, even if you need a pick and a shovel, or even a blow torch. Shine your light into the dark corners and find in each corner, a child of a different age who’s been cowering behind the trauma. Kneel down. Open your arms and gather them to your heart and promise that you will be their advocate… always. They will inspire your strength. They won’t believe you at first until you show them with your actions. Gradually, with their building trust, the cloak of depression you’ve felt safe in will lift and they will show you the lightness of joy and ways to find connection and fulfillment. With your heart for a compass and your soul for a pair of wings, hold their hands and follow their dancing footsteps down a new sparkling path paved with diamonds. It’s time. You were born for this.

The biggest lesson learned: We need each other. We need to be open to hearing each other’s stories and courageous enough to tell our own. More people need to know this.

© Karen Najarian 4-16-2021

PS. Yesterday’s PET Scan showed “no clear evidence of cancer.” It may still be lurking and it may very well return but for now, this is good news. I don’t know what this means as far as drug regimens which are still kicking my ass but right now I’m happy to share the good news.

The Looney Bin

By Karen Najarian, March 6, 2021

In the 1800’s, from the floor of Yosemite Valley on a windy day, John Muir witnessed a rare natural phenomenon happening to 2,435-foot Yosemite Falls:

 “while I watched the Upper Fall from the shelter of a big pine tree, it was suddenly arrested in its descent at a point about half-way down, and was neither blown upward nor driven aside, but simply held stationary in mid-air… while I counted one hundred and ninety. All this time the ordinary amount of water was coming over the cliff and accumulating in the air…, the whole standing still, resting on the invisible arm of the North Wind.” – John Muir.

A dark-haired woman in light blue scrubs led me by the arm into the mental hospital. I’d just heard the clank of the metal gate locking shut. We passed through a courtyard garden. Resigned and sad, I looked down at the part in her hair. We came to a room where I passed the Covid check-in questions, got my temperature scanned, and received a new mask. I was used to being strong. Just being in this place confirmed my fragility – like a delicate vase, possibly broken beyond repair.

Into the elevator we went up to the second floor to an office-like room where she asked me all kinds of questions like part nurse, part therapist. When asked how I thought of killing myself, I easily repeated the car-off-a-cliff scenario that I’d told my oncologist. For extra measure, I added, “Maybe I’d just go sleep in the snow and die.” I’d snow camped before with proper gear and know that without proper gear, snow camping can be incompatible with life. “My eyes are blurry and sting. I can hardly even see.” Removing my shoes to show my feet, “My feet are red and burn. I’m a photographer and hiker and I can hardly see and I can hardly walk.” While I sat there in the small office relating my life story, between sobbing and finishing one of the Big Macs my husband had dropped off along with clean underwear, another woman in scrubs came in and gently pulled my long scarf off my neck. “I’m not going to hang myself with my scarf,” I growled between bites. “Shoe laces, too, please.” Kripes, I thought. I’ve entered the cuckoo’s nest.

            My net bag full of my backpacking essentials was taken. I was told that I couldn’t keep my cancer pills, that they’d dispense them from their pharmacy.  “NO!!! You can’t get them just anywhere. They’re only available at four specialty pharmacies in the country and they’re keeping me alive!” After checking them out, they agreed to dispense them as directed.

            Escorted passed the nurse’s station and down the short hallway to my room, I noticed the large beautiful canvas photographs of redwood trees against the pale blue walls. I would learn that they were canvas to prevent broken glass from smashed pictures. And there were no door knobs, just indentations in the door to open them. “She doesn’t want to be with Chantal. She’s pretty talkative right now,” I overheard one of the staff say. “That would drive me crazy,” I replied. On retrospect, that was an interesting comment from someone committed to the looney bin. I already am, I thought. Later I learned that Chantal, a large, sweet, early twenties, black girl, was there to have her bipolar medication adjusted under supervision.

            My room was spare, clean, and calm: thin beige cotton blankets on a simple bed, a nightstand, a chair, high windows, and the same bare, pale blue walls. I put my paper bag of clean underwear and foot cream on the chair. Finally, a bag lady, I thought. I was ushered into the day room, another clean, spare, light blue space with windows I could only peer out of on my tip toes. It had the feel of a cafeteria – linoleum, small tables and chairs, and a big screen TV in one corner with about six others gathered around engrossed in a cooking show. They were masked and wearing sweats or night clothes. It was only 6:30 pm. They talked and laughed amongst themselves. No one said hi. I was last to get dinner from the portable steam table – meatloaf, mashed potatoes, some soft overcooked veggies. I took my tray to a table and attempted to pull out a chair. I had to set my tray down on the table in order to move it with all my might. Hmm, I thought. They can’t be thrown.

Having eaten the Big Mac and fries, I wasn’t really hungry. It was clear from their talk and laughter that the other inmates had been there awhile and were familiar with each other. Sitting in the middle of the room, I felt invisible. I’d been told there was a group meeting at seven in the day room. I was looking forward to meeting my new tribe and seeing what this program had to offer.

As a small child I would suddenly drop to the floor and sob in the days following my brother’s beatings by my father. My mother’s response to the beatings was to shut the windows “so the neighbors don’t hear.” My mother’s only response to my upset was a threat, “If you don’t straighten up we’re going to have to take you to a head shrinker.” I was about three years old. A head shrinker! I thought. They’re going to shrink my head?!. I stopped crying. I realized then and there that my reaction was a problem. There would be no change in the family dynamics, no comfort. This was my normal and I’d have to deal with it. Now, in the looney bin, I welcomed whatever help they had to give.

            At seven a male therapist entered the room and also got engrossed in the cooking show. “We can stop it,” someone said. “No. It looks like you’re really into it. I’ll just check in with everyone individually.” Because of the blaring TV, I couldn’t overhear the personal conversations with the therapist. I didn’t know how they could even hear each other. He came to me last, introduced himself and my trapped three-year-old said I was fine. I could see the meeting agenda on the paper flip board on an easel and waited in the blaring room for it to begin. After a while, I asked the man if we were going to have a program. He said he was just checking in with everyone. Irritated, I left and returned to lay on my bed in my room and continue sobbing.

A small trim woman in street clothes came in, introduced herself as one of the therapists, and sat on the floor, her back against the wall, her legs outstretched, and asked how I was doing. “I can’t stop crying.” I didn’t know how being warehoused in this isolated pale blue bubble was going to help me. They’d promised me a visit with a psychiatrist the following day to get my coveted antidepressant. That was all I really cared about.

            Again, I told my story. I started to hear from myself how remarkable my life had been. I was a college graduate in bacteriology. I’d worked for years as a licensed Clinical Laboratory Scientist. I was a published author. I created, ran, and guided for my backpacking company, Sierra Spirit, that REI had contracted with to run their Yosemite Program. I’d hiked the John Muir Trail, the Sierra High Route, a lot of the High Sierra from the Emigrant Wilderness in the north to the Golden Trout Wilderness in the south, Paria Canyon in the southwest, 200 miles of Spain’s Camino de Santiago, the Wind River Range in Wyoming, plus a bit in Norway. I’d overcome an eating disorder and other destructive coping mechanisms developed from growing up in a dysfunctional family. I was still married to my college sweetheart, had good relationships with my two adult children, and had a treasure trove of friends. I was beginning to sound like a rock star. The therapist was fascinated. But, here I was in The Looney Bin. I complained that I was looking forward to the group meeting that never happened. She said, “Yeah. I saw that. That wasn’t right. I’ll talk to him.” She asked if I wanted a sedative to sleep. I usually sleep well but, this being a different place and all, I thought, what the heck.

            I woke when it was still dark as seen through the high windows in my room. The shower in my room wouldn’t warm up so I gave up. I was uncertain how to operate it. No knobs to hang yourself from.. None of the other patients were up. Breakfast wasn’t until eight. Tears were again gathering in my eyes. They were changing shift at the nurses’ stationI asked for a piece of paper to write on. Might as well journal and document this experience, I thought. There was a plastic jar of pens on the counter.  They were like clear Bic pens only they were flexible. Nope, couldn’t stab anyone with one of these. I asked for a cup of tea (you had to ask for everything) and sat at a small white built-in shelf of a desk and drew a picture and sobbed.

            Breakfast at eight was from the portable steam table again – scrambled eggs, bacon, French Toast with syrup, fruit, etc. Our group meeting was at nine. I was called in and out of the group numerous times to meet with a social worker, nurse, therapist, psychiatrist practitioner, bunch of people. I told my story to anyone who would listen. I found it helped. AND I got my antidepressant.

            We had art therapy in the afternoon. People had started to talk to me by now and share their stories. While coloring with Crayons, I asked Mike, a thin, boyish thirty-one year old construction worker, “Why did you drink three, fifths of vodka a day?” His answer, “Work. I worked three jobs and then came home and drank.” I left it at that. No, I thought, that’s not why. People work long hours and don’t do that. Hell, I had at that age. I didn’t pursue it further and no one else did either. He also recounted how they had to give him a blood replacement of a couple units to dilute out the alcohol in his blood stream in order to save his life. Later I learned of his horrific childhood and I understood why.

            There were other stories, as well. It was another gal’s second time drying out after a painful divorce. She wore a long flannel night gown all day and held her hair up in a wrap. She spoke of times when she attended gala events in full make-up with her wealthy husband. One older gentleman, probably my age, showed up in the afternoon. I sat across from him during art. I asked his story. He replied that his beautiful thirty-five year old son had died in a surfing accident and he couldn’t stop drinking even when his wife gave him an ultimatum. I reached across the table and took his hand.  I asked another gal what brought her here. She just replied, “Life,” and got up and walked away.

            I told how I ended up there. Incredulous, they all queried, “So you didn’t plan to come here? And the police weren’t involved?” “No!” I explained, “I went to a doctor’s appointment and she wouldn’t let me go home.”

            During the classes/meetings therapists gave presentations on not drinking, managing stress, controlling what you can. There was no deep therapy. No healing of the primal wound of abandonment and abuse, pain and loss. Upon my intake, I told of my blog and how it is real and raw. “Well, you won’t want to bring that up here. We don’t want to trigger anyone.” No wonder people relapse, I thought. No cleaning out the carbuncle of catastrophe so that one can make positive life choices. Addressing our triggers is how we grow, I thought. If we live without challenges, we stagnate in our dysfunction. I spoke of ACA, Adult Children of Alcoholics. The therapist knew nothing of it. I later learned that this was merely a drying out place, a detox station, where folks would later move on to thirty-day in-patient treatment programs. Hopefully, they would deal with their deep issues there.

            Sometime before lunch I stopped crying. Interacting with my fellow inmates and the staff, even though all masked, was the best medicine in this near-year of Covid isolation.

            Wednesday evening I was at the pharmacy window (just like in the movies) getting my evening dose of Xeloda, the cancer drug. I felt renewed, talkative, like life was worth living again. I shared my blog site with the pharmacy tech and then the nurse’s station staff wanted to see, too. They were all pulling up my blog site on their screens. “If anything, read, I am Made From,” I instructed.

I am Made From

I am from swimming, competitive swimming
Alone but on a team. Chlorine in my veins.
From swimming because my mother couldn’t.
Breaking ice on the deck in winter for an hour before school
And for two hours after, after homework,
Because I was also an A student
Because my parents weren’t.

I am from the salt of the ocean
Where I swam free
With waves up my nose
And crunchy salty hair when it dried
And sand everywhere else.

I am from a single white sunbeam
That pierced the hard cold glass of the big front picture window in the living room
Where I lay enveloped in warm radiant love
Lying on the waxed hard wood floor
Behind the big old overstuffed chair.

I am from Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best,
Mousketeers, Moose and Squirrel, the Twilight Zone.
The Flintstones, John Wayne, the Addams Family, All in the Family.
Laugh-In.
The Ed Sullivan Show, the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan,
A Land Called Hanalei,
The smell of napalm in the morning, and “One giant leap for mankind.”

I am from sudden loud voices.
Freezing like a rabbit.
From sudden movements and belts not used for pants and
“I’m ashamed of you.”

I am from the mud of the riverbank
Where I created myself anew from what was left
And grew tall and strong like the Sierra Nevada still growing,
Held in the bony arms of my adopted parents,
Mother Maclure and Father Lyell, mountains in the Yosemite High Country
And became acquainted with my relatives up and down the 400 mile range.

I am from the tiny flame that first ignites the tinder,
The roar of the wind as it penetrates the forest only to caress me
And surprise me with its gentleness as I sway in my hammock.
I am from lightening and hail and the wildflowers they oversee.

I need to remind myself that
I am from the blood red on the sides of Golden Trout
As they swim up the crisp clear stream and
Flounder in the sharp gravel beside gentle grassy banks
Laying their eggs
And moving on through the land
As if they knew how to live their life so perfectly.

            See my pictures. See me! I’ve made a remarkable life. I felt like a child at show and tell.  Nothing was handed to me. I apprehended my life out of the aether and formed it from the mud of the riverbank, slapping it and shaping it around Spirit. It’s glowed gently and steadily in the darkness, even lighting the way for others. But lately, I’ve made a pass over the waterfall and darkness is all around. My inner glow is not enough. Now I need to be held up by others as I endure this journey, like the North Wind held Yosemite Falls in mid-air for over three minutes. I need to call friends. I need to visit. I need Covid OVER.

The next morning was Thanksgiving. I was ready to go home. Being on a seventy-two hour hold, there was some question as to whether they’d release me. Tears welled as I started feeling trapped again. I was to host a casual Thanksgiving dinner with our neighbors on the back deck that afternoon. Having called Rick on one of the unit’s phones, I knew that the turkey was already roasting.

            I was released at noon but not before one of the nurses asked me if I’d like to volunteer at an eating disorder clinic. “I would love to,” I replied. “It would bring meaning to my life.”

            The experience was a reset. My falling waters had been supported and held by all the caregivers in this place, like the North Wind held Yosemite Falls, and were gently placed back in the manageable river below.

            Next, I would attend three weeks of outpatient classes and group therapy. Next blog.

Copyright Karen Najarian, 3-6-2021

Everyone’s Gotta be Somewhere.

So I run around like a mad woman, packing, paying bills, tying up loose ends, sending off some last-minute Christmas cards, getting the three dog/house sitters coordinated, and finally hit the hay around mid-night. The alarm sounds off at 5:25 and I’m up to do an abbreviated morning routine before our neighbor drives us to the Lafayette BART station for our one hour ride to the San Francisco Airport. I stare into the mirror hoping I look better when I touch down in New Hampshire to visit with my sister, her family, and my NY transplant son.

All goes well. We’re flying a southern route with a stop in Dallas-Fort Worth and are pleased that we’re avoiding Chicago which has pretty much closed down due to a blizzard the size of my fist on the NOAA website.  The BART train rumbles in just as we reach the platform.  I’m feeling lucky today. Even at the dark hour of 6:20 am the BART car is full of newly groomed but sleepy commuters. Lugging our luggage, my husband and I find separate seats. No problem. I’ll be spending all day on the plane nudging his elbow over onto his side of the armrest.

Was I even through the Caldecott Tunnel when I got the phone call on my cell with a recording telling me my flight was cancelled? I look up to where Rick is sitting and see his body twisted back toward me, his phone to his ear, and his gaping mouth filling the aisle.

In Oakland most folks exit the train and I move up to sit next to Rick to plan our next move. I’m thinking we should just get off, turn around, and go home. Coffee and breakfast at our kitchen table sounds good about now. Rick thinks we should pursue this at SFO. So we screech and rumble on through the tunnel under the bay, which has always given me the creeps, and down the peninsula to SFO. It’s the shortest day of the year, the day the Mayan calendar stops, and there is a hot pink haze burning the sky above Mt. Hamilton to the south. No, the world isn’t ending.  It’s just another day beginning.

Arriving at the American Airlines area, I find an official looking woman in uniform and ask what we should do.  She points to a long line and gives me a card with a phone number on it and says I should call. Now, yesterday I looked at my flight information and noticed I gave my last name twice when I bought my ticket. I called to straighten it out before homeland security straightened me out. I was on hold for an hour and a half. Thank you speaker phone.

We get in line. This is a line of put-off, irate travelers. Maybe they want to concentrate us all in one spot so we don’t contaminate the airport with our angst and frustration bordering on rage. The guy in front of us is there for the second day trying to get to Paris. The guy in front of him is on our flight traveling only to Dallas-Fort Worth. The next flight is Sunday. He doesn’t want to cut two days off his trip and they won’t refund his money. He’s demanding a paid limo home. The guy behind us actually gets through on that number the uniformed lady gave me. So I leave the line to go sit in some comfy chairs and dial the number, myself.

It took awhile to get through and then I was thanked for my patience and put on hold. I was sitting next to an older gentleman who was also on his phone in a conversation peppered liberally with the words “fucking incompetents.” It turns out he was on his second day of travel to some “little town in Northern California” that he couldn’t pronounce, visiting adult children and grand kids, no doubt. I’ve driven to the Oregon border in five and a half hours. I suggested he rent a car… or walk. It would be faster.

While sitting there, I watched a little boy in line just behind my husband, maybe seven years old, put a phone to the side of his head and break down sobbing. The disappointment in the delay to meet someone wrenched his body.  Tears flooded his red, contorted face, he fell to his knees, and his mother dropped to comfort him. They sat there on the floor in line in the airport for at least 10 minutes. The line moved, they both found their feet, but his sobbing continued.

Having finally spoken to someone on the phone and booked on a new flight tomorrow, I joined my husband in line to inform him. But, mainly, I got back in line to comfort this young boy. I wanted him to hear that I was in the same position, that I was disappointed, too, but that we just have to wait, and that it will be OK. It will be OK. Perhaps he was traveling to see a dad he rarely sees. I don’t know. I would have loved to hear this reassurance, that it will be OK, many times when I was a child. But my words were birds that few away. I was no one he knew and my words meant nothing. He remained inconsolable. His disappointment and frustration was painful to watch. It hurts even now as I write this in the comfort of my bear’s nest (my office).  And I find my disappointment nothing compared to his.

Rick and I found our way back onto a BART train bound for home with our neighbor willing to pick us up. We’ll try this again tomorrow.

Copyright by Karen Najarian 12-21-12