The Perils of Meditation
by Pearl Johnson
(December 2010 to December 2011)
Reading the description of post traumatic stress disorder on the Veterans Administration website both terrified and comforted me. I was reading my story. I realize I sound like one of those medical students who becomes convinced she has every disease she studies, but I am no medical student (as I am no veteran) and I have no desire to cope with the reality of PTSD. I have no desire to cope with the real world at all. I would prefer to live in the land of glass half full optimism, and deny I have a real problem I must face. I would prefer to keep moving on until I find that place where everyone is kind, and troubles melt like lemon drops. Wait, that is just a song. I live in a world that appears continuously dangerous to me, but is in reality a mixture of good, bad, and neutral as the world has always been, and I want to learn to live peaceably in that real world that will always hold both suffering and joy.
Why was I, a woman in her 50’s who never served in any declared war, reading about PTSD on the VA website? The short answer is that my sister said it would help me understand how I am, how she is, how our family is. The long answer is that my father was a World War II veteran who served as a Marine in the South Pacific, and I now believe it likely he developed PTSD from that experience. Either that, or he was simply a son-of-a-bitch. I prefer the PTSD diagnosis because it explains matters much better. It explains his nonstop drinking, his inability to hold a job, his sudden turns to shocking violence (think doors knocked off their hinges, a wife slammed in the head, children knocked off their feet, and on – use your imagination), his ongoing verbal abuse for his wife and children (think slut, whore, bastard, worthless, and my personal favorite – pisswilly), and his belief everyone was out to get him, including his wife and six children. I prefer a diagnosis of PTSD because that allows my now dead father to be a man who had a problem, rather than nothing more than a man who was a problem.
The last part of this long answer is that my father’s PTSD spread to his children like a communicable disease at some point in my father’s long and raging life. Of course, I could easily be wrong, and none of us have PTSD. If that is true, I cannot explain us.
For me, I prefer to believe I have PTSD because there is something I can do about it. I am not limited to being an angry woman who sees the world as a dangerous place. I am a woman who can read that mindfulness helps those with PTSD ease the looping of painful thoughts racing through their brains. I can read that meditation helps teach mindfulness. I can meditate every morning before I face a world where people tailgate, let their unleashed dogs snap at me, or tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about no matter what I am talking about. I can meditate every morning before I face a world that feels full to bursting with hate speech and a desire to grind down the dignity of our fellow humans. I can know these petty meannesses are not the fullness of the world, as my father’s rage was not the fullness of the world. There is also what mindfulness shows me before my eyes to be the fullness of this life.
With the winter of 2010, I started every morning with meditation, believing it would give me a path of escape from life’s challenges. I recognize my intentions were selfish, that I wanted an express path to peace, and a way to tune out the anger that permeates my ongoing relations with my birth family. I do not have the slightest idea if I am typical, but meditation did not give me an escape route, as much as it gave me a heightened awareness of what I found challenging in my life. It quickly became clear meditation was not going to give me anything. I had to make choice after choice about how I wanted to live that might give me peace. I was going to have to stop longing for life to be different, easier, and I was going to have to consciously choose to live acceptingly in an imperfect world. The idea that enduring my crummy childhood should be rewarded with my finding a quick and easy perpetual state of mental bliss through meditation was going to have to go by the wayside. Meditation was apparently taking me on a different path.
Winter progressed as a hard winter, a winter that flayed us Michiganders with cold and ice and snow. I yearned for spring, for being able to step outdoors without first bundling into my down coat. I ached for leaves unfolding and strangely colored caterpillars and evenings with light. Each day I told myself to be grateful for this day, this moment, yet I was ready to throw aside plenty of days and moments for the thrill of walking through a woods bursting with violets and trillium. A cold that seeped into every cell of me created foolish impatience, an unwillingness to grasp the beauty around me.
I may have longed for the rebirth of spring, but I walked methodically through my snow shoveling, back and forth up and down the driveway. My world of the moment was snow, snow, snow, so I pulled myself back into that world of snow, snow, snow. There is beauty in a world of snow, especially when the damp snow clings to the trees, and all is still, before the snow blowers’ two-stroke engines shatter the solitude. There is beauty in the animal tracks, and the cross country skiers and sledders in the park, leaving their own sets of tracks. I filled myself with the loveliness and liveliness of a winter without end, learning on even the coldest days to turn my face to the sun and feel its warmth on my face. That is, if there was any sun. On gray days, I learned to look for the cardinals, the chickadees, the long legged red fox, to understand the world is always more than gray. I adjusted to focus on the beauty before me.
For family matters, I could not adjust to find beauty by meditating each morning. In the early part of February, my mother went into the hospital. I went to the emergency room to wait with her while the emergency staff sorted out what was to be done, and one of my sisters and one of my brothers arrived to wait as well. Here was an emergency that could result in death. My mother’s insides no longer worked as insides. Her bowels were pressed and twisted into closures from hernias from prior surgeries that both saved her and left her broken. She had come to the hospital vomiting blood. We all settled into the cramped patient cubicle in ER (my mother heavily dosed with morphine) to wait for a myriad of doctors to confer on what could be done to save my mother.
I thought my brother, sister and I had all arrived at the hospital to comfort my mother, and one another. I was wrong about that. My brother took this time to launch into diatribes on the wrongness of the world. Egypt was throwing off dictatorial rule, and he was certain that would end badly for the USA. Obamacare equaled death, not the possibility of health care for those without it. Liberals were destroying everything. His complaints thudded on and on, and eventually he expounded belligerently about his need for guns, and how he needed to buy more guns to protect himself. I felt as if my head was being bashed against the wall. While I know my brother makes angry conservative statements because starting an argument is his way of releasing stress, the last thing I wanted was a political argument. I did not want to respond with angry retorts that all he wanted was an ugly, violent world full of meanness, hate speech and harm to others. I have spoken such cruel judgments to him in the past when faced with his belligerence. All I wanted was to find out what was happening with my mother, and give her support and love. I did not want to defend my right to see the world differently from my brother. I kept silent as my brother spewed his views, until I hit my breaking point and asked, “Can’t we just give it a rest?” Big mistake on my part. I had reacted, so my brother was off to the races. What he had wanted was a reaction. He started repeating, “Give it a rest? Give it a rest?” in a mocking tone. I knew in a moment I was going to be labeled a nut job liberal, and he would heighten his rant.
I fled the room, going out of the ER, outside where I could watch my breath and shiver while wrapped in my down coat, feeling safer in that killing cold than in that room with my birth family. I called my husband, and he told me I was going to be okay. He always says that, because he believes it. I called another sister (the one who had pointed me to the VA website) and she told me my brother was coping with PTSD. I was back to PTSD, and I was back to mindfulness. I was back to meditation teaching me to be more mindful. What did that mean? At the moment I had no idea, but I knew I needed to go back into the ER. I had stood by my mother through many illnesses, and did not want to abandon her now.
When I returned to the room, my brother had veered into complaining about the inadequacies of family members. To summarize, we make poor decisions, don’t work hard enough, are, as my father glowingly told us over and over and over – worthless. Except, this was not my father. This was my brother spewing the hate I had grown up with, and never wanted to encounter again. His mindless ranting banged through my head. My sister added her own hostile commentary from time to time. I knew if I bounced this new twist off my other sister she would say, “Our sister is coping with PTSD.” And I was ready to respond with, “So what.” I had reached a breaking point that would not be fixed by standing out in the cold for another few minutes.
I had looked to meditation to take me somewhere else when I happened to be with some of my siblings. It was going to be my secret weapon for coping when my brother unleashed one of his self righteous storms of ultra conservative moralizing. What happened instead is that I asked myself what I was doing in that emergency room. Was I helping my mother by wondering if I could bring myself to go to her funeral if she died? I thought of her dying, thought of my brother at her funeral holding court about the sins of anyone who held any belief other than his, and saw my sister piping in with her own comments, and I could only picture myself walking away. These thoughts helped no one, especially my mother, whom I am certain had hopes of living through this trauma.
Meditation, my secret weapon, had not given me what I expected. It made me question, not cope. How could any of this be right? What could I ever get from being part of this family other than unrelenting misery? I knew none of us were bad people. I knew my brother may have saved my mother’s life when he was a teenager. More than once, he endured my father’s punches protecting my mother from those punches. One night he pounded my father’s head into a wall to stop him from destroying us all. My brother now saw danger everywhere because he had known danger everywhere too often in the past.
But I did not come from the family down the street. I came from the same family as my brother, and I, too, had known danger everywhere. I, too, had grown up living with my father’s incomprehensible rage. When I was a teenager or young adult, I remember a Detroit police officer shot a child during a raid. The officer said he had mistaken the child’s toy gun for a real gun in the darkened room. Feeling pain for everyone, I said maybe the officer really did believe the gun was real, and my father became enraged. It was the officer’s job to know before shooting. We began screaming the most horrible things at one another, and my father grabbed my coat, and tore it. I knew he wanted to tear me. I knew my mother was angry that I had “upset” my father. I pulled on my torn coat and fled out walking in the cold night for hours, wondering if I would go home, and if I did not go back, where would I go. I was in school and did not have the money to leave. How did this happen? How had we managed to brutalize each other over a shooting that had nothing to do with us? And why was my father so disturbed by this shooting, he was willing to let his daughter know she was asinine for wondering if the shooting was nothing more than a horrible accident? Of course, now I know the answers to these questions could all be found on the VA website for PTSD. My father reacted with fury to all danger, all potential danger, and the world often looks dangerous. It took too long for me to understand the source of my father’s pain, and it became my pain, my brother’s pain, all our pain. We all came from the same family.
I knew the defiant rage that went on in my brother’s head from our shared past. It was the same defiant rage that went on in my head. I could not stop his suffering and he could not stop mine, but we could have tried not to hurt each other further. We couldn’t seem to manage that. I was ready to walk away from them all, including my mother, and not look back.
Days went by, and my mother was sent by ambulance to Cleveland for surgery. It became clear she would live. Mostly, I stayed away from her, but called her daily to speak encouragingly and get updates on her progress. I wished her well, but could not bring myself to drive regularly to Cleveland to see her and cross paths with my siblings. I did drive to Cleveland once, and throughout the drive, I hoped I would be hit by a truck and killed. I hoped I would lose control, drive off a bridge, and die. It is so hard to let go of hurt, and be mindful that the world holds the option of joy, as well as pain. I told myself I could keep hoping for a better outcome with my family. I kept telling myself my husband expected me to come home. I kept telling myself to be mindful of the reality happening around me, and that reality was not bad: good weather, a clear road, people who smiled at me at the rest area. This was not a world of pain. All the pain was in my own struggling PTSD brain.
I avoided my family for months. Each morning I meditated, trying different approaches as I read more and more about meditation and Buddhism. None of the approaches made me proficient at meditation, but I accepted the effort of calming my mind mattered more than achieving a meditative experience others might envy. I didn’t know where I was going, if I had a secret agenda of putting my Humpty Dumpty broken family together again, or was merely hoping for less suffering for all the broken people in the world, which happens to be all of us. I never expected meditation to lead me to avoid my family, but that is where it lead me and I followed because nothing else had taught me to respect my PTSD brain, and guide it, not berate it, into accepting the world as it exists with its interconnecting suffering and joy. Nothing else had taught me how to live peaceably with myself. Nothing else had given me the hope I could behave with respectfulness towards all, including those who had hurt me. I accepted that, for the time being, behaving with respectfulness meant keeping my distance, while I learned to cope better with the suffering that drove my family to react hostilely to one another.
Early in December 2011, I attended a family gathering. It seemed the respectful thing to do; nothing more than that. Before arriving, I told my husband and son that if I said “It’s time to go now,” I meant we should leave immediately, grabbing our coats, calling out goodbye, dashing out the door, and driving off to the more peaceful world I’ve constructed. I had no intention of becoming entangled in my family’s anger.
I do not know what happened in my self imposed absence, but not one person at the gathering said something cruel to or about another person. Not one person tried to force his or her views on another. Not one person tried to start an argument. This included my brother from the ER who walked up, hugged me, and said it was good to see me. While the peaceful interaction was miraculous, I knew it was no miracle. It was a choice made by each of us to behave as if we all mattered to one another.
We did not apologize for the many hurts we have given one another in the past, but we treated one another with respect. Perhaps apologies and deeper discussions of our past will come in the future, minus all the anger of the past. I don’t know, and I accept that may never happen. It has not yet happened. Most of us still rarely see or speak to one another.
Meanwhile, I have kept on meditating. I doubt I am capable of ever fully calming my danger seeking PTSD brain, but I have found I am capable of taking the moment before me, and living it more positively than how I lived similar moments before I chose mindfulness meditation. I have struggled in the past with regrets over my life choices, but I have no regrets over choosing meditation, and all it has required of me while giving me a path to a more loving life.
Pearl Johnson (a pseudonym for privacy) is a life long resident of Michigan who writes to better cope with life’s complexity. She is proud of her father who served in frequent, heavy combat as a Marine in the South Pacific in World War II.