Falling or Flying.

There was nothing particularly special about that Wednesday, other than the fact that it was the day that I would drive my Grandfather’s old powder blue Honda CR-V along curving country highways, eventually leading to a bridge, and that I’d drive over that bridge, and I’d cross that body of water, and then, once on the other side, I’d go to a business meeting, followed by a much-anticipated dinner with a dear friend. There was nothing particularly special about the minute or so that I’d spend up high, suspended over water, moving fast. After all, I’d done it dozens and dozens of times before. There was nothing special about it at all, except for the fact that it terrified me, and the night before I was due to make that drive, I couldn’t sleep, and I rose early, well before the sun came up.

Rowboat Sunset

In retrospect, the details of how I crossed that bridge don’t seem all that important. What is important is that I had to do it, and so, I did. I did it even though my palms sweat and my heart raced and my legs were wobbly and strangely on fire. I turned up the song on the radio, and I focused on the exhale and the inhale of my breath, and I thought about how Mount Rainier – standing strong and snowcapped and stunning just out my driver’s side window – felt like an old friend. And before I knew it, I was over that bridge, and I had steered Grandpa’s car from the highway on to the crush of Interstate-5, and I was relieved.

The next day, on the way to meet some friends for lunch, I followed different winding country highways to Olympia, the town where I went to high school, the town where I’d learned to drive, the town where I’d first dreamed my biggest dreams and made the plans that sent me to Los Angeles to pursue them. And this time, I felt better, almost normal, in fact, because the sun was shining and the water was sparkling and I felt happy. And I barely thought about that other time, that December, driving those exact same roads, hurtling through the darkness, Dad next to me, drifting in and out of consciousness, the wind pummeling my mother’s SUV and the rain spitting buckets, so much rain that the windshield wipers couldn’t keep up, and I gripped the steering wheel with everything I had just to keep us on the road, all the while stealing glances at my father, wondering if he was sleeping or dying, saying a silent prayer with every mile marker we passed, because every mile brought us closer to home, even though it wasn’t home any more, not since Mom died, not since Dad got sick.

I came of age driving Washington State’s rural highways, snaking over waterways and crossing bridges and winding through forests, so how could it be that the thing that raised me had now become the thing that frightened me? I suppose that’s the power of post traumatic stress, the way that it can shake you and alter your consciousness, making you feel like a stranger in your own body, making you doubt everything you thought you knew. I’m not a solider. I’ve never served in the military. But I’ve been to war. And I won; or at least I think that I have. But on some days, and in some ways, those battles still rage on.

Puget Sound

I recently told a friend that I didn’t think I’d ever feel safe again. The remark was off the cuff and meant to be a sort of joke, but in truth, I meant it. My whole life, I’ve struggled with anxiety, but I didn’t know how to name it, or how to talk about it. Instead, I tried to control it, to deny it, to tamp it down. And for a while, I was convinced that I had beaten my fears into submission. But then along came a tornado of tragedy, a violent storm of death and loss that quickly and swiftly eviscerated my carefully constructed façade that I was brave and strong and that I had it all together.

The storm taught me that nothing in life is certain, a scary prospect for a control freak like myself. But it also taught me that the only way out is through, and that if I don’t want my fears to control me, I have to surrender to them, to walk into them, and to thank them for being here, for reminding me of what’s important.

I had been staying at the beach for almost a week when something rather strange happened. I was paddling around Case Inlet, soothed by saltwater, utterly tranquil, when not far away, a curious seal popped his head above the water. He stared at me and I stared back at him, and before logic or reason could intervene, I began to swim towards him. Sensing a threat, he dove beneath the surface of the water. But I kept on swimming, and as I did, I made my voice a song and cast it out across the sea. “Hello, Mr. Seal,” I said. “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.” And he seemed to understand, because he popped his head above the surface again, and froze there for a minute, just looking at me.

Side View of the Cabin

This went on for several minutes, our water dance, the diving and re-emerging, both of us circling each other, watching, considering, keeping a safe distance but drawing ever closer. I wondered what he made of me, this strange fish in black and white bikini bottoms and ruby red rash guard and faded orange swim fins. And when we were quite close to each other, he dove under again, and as I treaded water, looking for him, I suddenly realized something: I was a long way from shore, and I was alone, and in the murky saltwater, clouded up as it was by sand and seaweed, I wouldn’t be able to see the seal coming, wouldn’t know where he’d emerge next, and if he decided to attack me, or bite me, or pull me under the water, I wouldn’t be able to escape.

And there it was, that fear again, pulsing through my veins like a jolt of ice water. I turned toward the shore and I swam as fast as I could, legs pumping, swim fins slicing though the bay. And several moments later I turned back and I saw my seal again, further away now, but still watching me. He cast one last curious glance my way – a sort of sad farewell – and then turned to swim off in the opposite direction. And in that moment, I knew that he had never meant to hurt me, just like I had never meant to hurt him.

I’m a realist. I know that I’ll never fully be free from the fears that plague my worried mind. On some days, I feel pretty good, like I could do just about anything. And on other days, like the Wednesday when I drove over that bridge, it was all I could do just to get through it. I used to think that soldiering on and suffering in silence was brave. It’s not. It only makes the fear worse. What is brave is being vulnerable enough to talk about the places that scare me, and to run the risk that by telling you that sometimes, when I’m driving my car on the freeway, I feel like I’m moving so fast I won’t be able to stop and I’ll fly through the windshield and hurtle into space, that you’ll think I’m crazy and irrational. And maybe you will. But then again, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll read this and think, “Oh my God, I thought I was the only one,” and you’ll realize – as I’m realizing – that none of us are truly ever alone in this strange and beautiful experiment we call life.

Can we ever really know if we’re falling or flying? I’m not sure. But maybe the answer to that question is simple. Maybe it’s the ones who decide to fly – in spite of their fears – that are the ones who do.

Until next time, friends.

Sarah Black and White

16 thoughts on “Falling or Flying.

  1. Until I moved to Washington I was obscenely afraid of bridges. Someone else would have to drive so I could close my eyes and stick my fingers into my ears so I couldn’t hear the thump thump (in theory) as I was curled in the fetal position shaking. Since I moved here, it’s somehow different. Maybe because I couldn’t see the first one coming. I came out the tunnel on the 90 E and there was this amazing shinning lake and I felt like I was going to fly over it the way the bridge takes that huge dip down to the water from the mountain side.

  2. I can totally relate to the PTSD after suffering a terrible loss. And until you have experienced such a profound loss, you really do not understand what it means to have to move THROUGH it. I know I didn’t and only until I started doing the work, did I understand that I had truly been going through PTSD.

    • You are 100% right Anne. And like you, I had to learn through my own experience. It’s a process and it takes time. But I guess the only way we learn is by living, right? Thank you for sharing with me. I wish you well!

  3. Process and time indeed Sarah’ for it was half a century before I was to accept the flaws of my Body, and it took 3 decades and a half before one day never again feared needles’ (Shots), and right after stated acquiring 18 beautiful and unique Tattoos upon my body, neck and top of hand.

    ‘As for transporting people with bridge phobia’s I only did so once’ and can say it is equal to transporting a collection of ferial Cats. As we drove our dead friend over the Columbia River’ to Vancouver, Wa’ for a fine five star dinner’ I had no clue the hell and torment the poor dear was about to endure.

    And I once while driving my wife and the same dear friend through the Southern Cali Mountains just near Hemet, California. I slowed the truck, opened my driver’s door, leaned out looking down at the road and said (while grinning within’)

    “What is that? Oh God! It’s a Tarantula!! And within seconds I was arm grabbed beaten’ shredded and slapped! Deaf in one ear’ and I never played a practical Joke upon anyone with Arachnophobia again. As for your encountering the water-dogs’ in the cove’ I can just imagine how he took warmth to your smile and knew you were kindred indeed. Otter and seal are the best and dear little creatures of heart.

    Thank you for sharing of your life’s most wonderful’ and scary moments. I love the Photos’ And you are just as stunning in Black and White Imagery.

      • Sarah somehow when I was reading your post here, while I scrolled down with the mouse wheel I skipped an paragraph section’ forgive me, as reviewed again, I read such tragedy forgive me for that’ I can’t even fathom the stunning shock and soul gripping magnitude of what you went through. I am sorry you have also lived with the great confusing sadness of coping with PTSD, not meaning to speak upon myself as I most always do’, I have been coping and trying to understand throughout my entire life as I was not as normal as everyone else, before I discovered there is no gold standard for Normal.

        ‘This brings us back to the essence (the core) of the understanding, and that being we are souls ever changing ever learning souls’ in imperfect body vessels and all in constant changing motion. We as Human beings have four stages of life to move through, we move through them all, and [then rise out of our bodies.] (State this upon research).

        ‘In my studies and along my journaling and blogging upon public forms I have found so many, a vast many’ who also as I’ seem as out of place to themselves due to PTSD’. (the effects upon the human brain of a Post Traumatic event’ [Which can happen as a result of a Car wreck’ a divorce’ mental and or Physical abuse’ War theater Graphic events’ many causing factors’ damaged the Pre –frontal Cortex of the brain’ and PTSD can greatly effect the brains functions’ to include causing Sleep disorders and even as stated in Medical journals it can result in causing type 2 Diabetes.]

        ‘And most people such as myself went through our / go through their entire lives not knowing why we have such disrupted sleep in some cased, not dreaming because of not entering REM state. (With can be countered with over the counter Melatonin tablets. I myself because of constant varying degrees of Physical pain after an industrial accident three decades ago, was not dreaming’ well after taking melatonin tabs at bed time’ I now am a flying squirrel in my dreams and dream every night’ something I missed for a very long time.); Sarah my Cousin she is the most grounded’ together person and I admire her greatly’ like yourself Sarah Kelley’.

        ‘One day when her first marriage ended in a divorce do to her week minded husband and his over control parents; my dear cousins mother and her aunt (my step mother) and her cousins were at her mother’s home consoling her heart and spirit’ she to me by my hand led me aside for a stroll’ and she asked me whole heartidly if I thought of her as being crazy; Believe me I was I was stunned to find she was absolutely sincere her asking me that. I held her dear and told her that in fact I thought she was the most together and wonderful person I had ever known.

        ‘You see’ as much as a mess that my life seemed for my 26 years of my lifetime within my mind’ she thought I had it all together. In this I said: “oh! All this time’ you’ve been as crazy as me! I said certifiable we both are! She went on’ and married a College Professor (He passed away from a Brain tumor) and she became a business woman creating her own business as an Antique broker.

        ‘Those bridges we fear’ Sarah’ are spanners over sorrowed water spanning to greater life opportunities and spiritual growth. We are all so very different and yet we are also traveling over the Bridge to greater understanding’ it may take us a few or more traverses but eventually Sarah we do arrive as we continue our Journey of Life’ and never are we alone.

        ‘At this time Sarah I have no present blog’ as I didn’t fully understand the controls and in my frustration had pushed the’ ‘Never Push This Button’ Button. So I have limited Journal / blog control. And ‘Thank you for friend-ing me Sarah’ it was appreciated and felt both.’ I did not learn to read until I was 8’ and because my Dyslexia and fear of it was so bad’ I would not even write my own family a simple note until I was in my 40’s. It was so painful for me to write holiday cards. We overcome all things’ it is why we are here’.

      • “Those bridges we fear’ Sarah’ are spanners over sorrowed water spanning to greater life opportunities and spiritual growth.” And, “We overcome all things’ it is why we are here’.”

        Yes to both. Thank you for this heartfelt note, friend. Grateful to be on this journey of life with you. Thank you as always for reading and for your kind comments.

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