Tragedy

Fifteen Years

I can’t believe it has been fifteen years today. Fifteen years since I learned the world wasn’t as safe as I thought. Fifteen years since we were attacked on American soil in a big way that I was able to comprehend. Fifteen years since I sat glued to the television, watching as the second plane hit, people jumped to their deaths, the buildings collapsed, the footage of flight 93, and the footage of the Pentagon.  We watched in each class as the body count grew higher and higher. I cried in the hallway with Mrs. Wilcher and other kids didn’t understand why I was so upset.  Throughout the whole day, I only remember one teacher turning the television off for any length of time. Thank you, Mrs. Shope.

September 11,2001 was the beginning of a very long (and still continuing) anxiety ride for me. It was the most frightened I have ever been. It shaped my world view and affected my decision making abilities. Even though the attacks happened over 500 miles away, the effects were immediate and long lasting. To this day, when I see a plane flying what I perceive as too low, my heart starts pounding and my hands get sweaty.  Even though I still have so much residual anxiety, the attack desensitized me to violence in many ways. SO many people died that day- 2,996- and so many people have died of related causes since- somewhere around 1,000- that other disasters don’t seem as bad to me, even though any loss of human life is a tragedy.  I remember watching the news about the Space Shuttle Columbia explosion and thinking, “oh, that’s not too bad.  At least it was only seven people.” The death count from September 11, 2001 has somehow become a type of gauge to me for measuring other disasters, and I’m rather uncomfortable with that.

The most formative event of my youth and one of the most formative of my life, I don’t see how there could possibly be a time in my life where 9/11 is no longer this enormous black spot.  I even have a morbid collection of 9/11 “memorabilia.” DVDs of the news footage, documentaries, magazines, and even the New York Times from September 12, 2001.  At times, 9/11 is less consuming, but it is and always will be a part of my life and who I am as a person.

I didn’t know any of the people I watched die on live television, but I knew that they were people’s brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, mothers, fathers, grandparents, and friends. I had never considered before that day that something so horrible could happen to friends and family members. I had also never watched people die on live tv before.  Now days, when there are tragedies happening around the world that the news deems worthy of covering, I elect to read about them on Twitter, Facebook, and newspaper websites instead of watching them unfold on television. The anxiety is just too much and I know first hand what effect watching events live can have on a person.

On the other side of things, I have never felt profoundly happy at the news of a person’s death as I was in May of 2011 when Twitter started blowing up that the president was going to make an announcement.  Twitter was full of speculation that Obama would announce Bin Laden’s death and the President’s announcement did not disappoint. Almost ten years later, the man who orchestrated the attacks was finally dead. 

In closing, time has passed and the bipolar disorder and medications for it have affected my memory in some pretty big ways, but I will never forget September 11, 2001 or the way I felt that day.  I will also never forget the somewhat magical sense of community that existed in the months following the attack. I have never seen our nation come together in that way before or since, but it’s comforting to know we are capable of doing so.

Tragedy

This is not about adventure.

This blog post is not about adventure.  It is not about fun or happiness or sunshine.  It is not about memories yet to be made or exciting experiences.  It’s just about what is and about what is not.

Death.  It’s a sad part of life, but it is still just a part of life.  From the time we are old enough to understand that we will never see someone again (and often even before), we are taught to fear death.  We are taught that it’s something dark and ugly that we should cry about alone in our rooms, but not talk about or share our feelings about.  We are taught that funerals should be a place for crying and mourning our own loss of a loved one instead of celebrating the life of the person who has died.  We are taught to be selfish and be sad when we lose someone, even if their death marks the end of a long, difficult, and painful battle.  We are taught that death is an ugly, scary thing that we should fear and avoid and that we should not plan for or talk about.  We are even taught that it isn’t polite to say “died” or “dead” but that we should use euphemisms such as “passed on,”  “left us,”  and “passed away” instead.  I am not saying that you shouldn’t cry when someone you love dies.  It’s okay to experience whatever emotions you have and to experience them freely.  I’m just saying that we been socialized to cry and be miserable and that maybe that isn’t the most healthy way of dealing with death.

Literally everyone is dying.  From the moment we are conceived until the moment we leave this world, we are on a journey that culminates in our death.  It does absolutely no good to fear death because it is completely inevitable. You will die.  Everyone and everything you love will die.  I’m not being morbid, that’s just the way the world works.  It doesn’t help to fear death or be extra cautious, because living and eventual death have a perfect positive correlation.  You cannot have one without the other.

 J.K. Rowling’s quote is so lovely and true.  Something in life is going to go wrong.  No one is perfect, no one’s life is perfect, and we are all delusional for thinking that there are perfect people with perfect lives somewhere out there in the world.  This is one of innumerable valuable lessons that Jo Rowling has taught me.  If you are constantly afraid of dying or of the people you love dying, it’s impossible to really live.  If you are constantly so upset about your loss of someone else or your fear of failing or dying yourself, you merely exist.

People with anxiety disorders don’t get that.  I didn’t get that until very recently.  I have been living my life so terrified that I or someone close to me would experience tragedy or die that I am 23 years old and have barely lived my life.  I have made so many choices that I regret based on a deep seated and socialized fear of death.  I realize that my anxiety is more extreme than the typical person’s, but I wouldn’t go off of rope swings or travel away from my family because I was so terrified of death.

My grandmother and my dog are actively dying and I don’t know when they will die.  My dog has an 11.5cm tumor on her liver and can’t regulate her blood sugar.  Her belly is swollen.  She feels pretty good most of the time, but there are times throughout the day when you can definitely tell that she doesn’t feel good.  With Missy, we have the option of ending her suffering and preserving her good quality of life.  When it comes down to it, we will not be selfish.  We will let her go when she needs to go.  My grandmother’s preliminary biopsy results show a grade 4 blioblastoma multiforme tumor.  We don’t know anything for sure, but based on statistics I have found online, the prognosis isn’t good.

This entire experience over the past week has been confusing and complicated.  I was hysterical when I initially found out about Missy’s tumor, but I had to accept her death very quickly.  We had an appointment to “put her to sleep” (another euphemism for death/dying) one week ago today.  She is still here and I have had one more week with her than I ever imagined I would a week ago.  I have been so incredibly privileged to spend time with her over the past week.

In January when I visited my grandparents, I recorded my grandmother talking about visiting the White House, meeting Elvis, and playing with my brother and I when we were small children.  In April, I had the enormous privilege and honor of conducting an over two hour long audio-recorded interview with my grandmother as part of a project for my Developmental counseling class about her life experiences.  While she wasn’t feeling well when we conducted the interview, her tumor wasn’t impacting her memory or speech yet at that time.  While she can still speak, she can no longer move her left side or walk and has experienced some confusion and forgetfulness over the past few days.  I have been meaning to audio-tape my grandmother about her incredible life for several years, but only finally got around to it just in time because an assignment forced me to.  My professor gave me an absolutely amazing gift by giving me this assignment and my grandmother gave me an even greater one by sharing her life story with me.

I am sure that I will cry when they die, but I am equally sure that I will not be as completely hysterical as I have been over losses in the past.  Instead, I will actively and consciously remember everything that I have to be thankful for and the wonderful and enormous ways that they positively impacted my life.  I will cry for myself, but I will smile for them and remember the time I have spent with them fondly.

Any way you look at it, it seems like my life is kind of falling apart right now.  It’s strange, but I don’t feel overwhelmed or super sad about everything that is going on.  Instead, I just feel so incredibly grateful for the extra week I have had with my dog and the audio-tape I have of my grandmother.  Her voice is only ever going to be a click away.  I am also incredibly grateful that even though everything is happening very quickly right now, I will have an opportunity to go see my grandmother and support my mom soon.  I guess I have just finally learned that life is going to happen and there is nothing I can do about it except appreciate the meaningful events and try to live it to the complete fullest.

Adventure, Kenya Travel, Tragedy

The Implications of Hell Week on my Travel Plans

Disclaimer: I am going to be very open and honest about my feelings, thoughts, and experiences as well as the actions of my family members over the past week or so as they relate to my Kenya trip. No one is forcing you to read this and no one forced anyone else to treat me with less than the respect I deserve.

Second Disclaimer: If you treat me like an incompetent child, there is a 99% chance that I will tell people about it. If it is related to my travel and volunteer choices, there is about a 60% chance it will end up on this blog.

Last week, my whole world kind of crashed down around me. On top of several other things and the beginning of final exams, I learned that my twelve year old Jack Russell Terrier, Missy, has an 11.5 cm tumor on her liver. We could try to biopsy and operate, but chances are high that she would only get one more year to live and she would have to spend that year doing chemotherapy and radiation while recovering from surgery. The presenting problem was that her blood sugar was dangerously low, causing convulsions and discomfort. After seeing three different vets, the final of which more or less suggested that we give her prednisone to keep her blood sugar up and keep her comfortable overnight to say goodbye and put her down in the morning, her primary vet suggested that we try giving her honey every two hours and see how she does. We had an appointment to put her to sleep last Tuesday morning. This morning, she ran around the yard sniffing things, wagged her tail, and barked at some noises she didn’t like.

On Thursday morning, I found out that my grandmother has a 2.4cm brain tumor. It is in the very middle of her brain and affects her motor skills. If they were to operate, there is a good chance she would lose mobility, sight, and speech. Her biopsy was scheduled for today at 12:30, but her neurosurgeon had an emergency situation in the ER and they may not do her surgery today. Following the biopsy, her neurosurgeon will come up with a treatment plan to try to shrink the tumor so that she does not lose mobility, sight, and speech.

At the end of last week, I was seriously considering cancelling the entire trip. What if my dog is still alive but not doing well in July? What if something happens to my grandmother? What if my mom or dad or brother need me and I can’t be there?

On Tuesday night in Counseling Theories class, we learned about mindfulness. John Kabat-Zinn teaches that you should be completely present with whatever you are doing and live rather than just exist.

Don’t just exist, live.

Those words are so powerful to me. Instead of being sullen and feeling sorry for myself because of everything that has happened recently, I just need to live. I am so incredibly appreciative of the two hour long audio-taped interview I did a few weeks ago with my grandmother where she shared much of her life story with me. I am so happy that I went and saw her in January. I am so incredibly thankful for the extra week I have had with my dog so far. Death is a part of life. It is a sad, uncomfortable, icky part of life, but it is a part of life. There is always always always ALWAYS something to be thankful for. That can be hard to be mindful of at times, but it is the truth.

The more and more I thought about Kabat-Zinn’s words, the more I realized that I cannot and will not let my anxieties or the anxieties of others dictate every choice that I make and everything that I do. My trip to Kenya will be the experience of a lifetime. It would be crazy to miss out on that for a series of unknowns and what-ifs.

The majority of my family doesn’t support my decision to go to Kenya and volunteer in an orphanage for two weeks. I have struggled with this a lot in the past weeks, particularly since I received a thirty minute lecture from the grandmother without a brain tumor about my reasons for wanting to go. I am not a religious person. Even if I was, I still wouldn’t like the idea of a missionary trip. I resent the idea of requiring something in exchange for what you offer to people in need. “Read our scripture and we’ll give you food.” “Come to our service and we’ll help you.” I hate that. I want to go help these children because they are individuals of worth and value. My life will be enhanced and forever changed by experiencing them as individuals and the way that they live. They are giving me a great gift by allowing me to come and spend time with them.

My grandmother is very uncomfortable with the fact that my humanitarian trip is not Christian based. She was very insistent that I am not going to Kenya because I want to go and make a positive impact in the lives of others or because I am a kind, intelligent, compassionate person, but because the holy spirit has called me to go. I found this incredibly irritating. I wasn’t hurt or upset, but the idea that I have no real choice in the matter is absurd and ridiculous. I did my best to murmur “Mmmhmm,” “Okay,” and “Yeah” the whole conversation, but my grandmother could tell I wasn’t really feeling it, which upset her. My religious beliefs or lack thereof are my business and my business alone. What I believe would be an entirely different and very long blog post, so I won’t get into that right now. However, it makes me angry that this has been a frequent point of discussion with many different people about my trip to Kenya. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard “Well, is the organization you are going with a Christian organization?” Why does it matter? Quite simply, it doesn’t. The organization I am going with is a non-profit that is dedicated to addressing the overwhelming needs of children around the world. They send volunteers and funds to make the lives of children around the globe better.

She asked me about the cost and how I am funding the trip. I told her that I am going to attempt to get a scholarship for international travel from our local rotary club and that I have raised some donation money to buy supplies for the children once I arrive in Kenya. She asked me if the church I attend would help. I replied that I don’t go to church (not that I have to justify myself to any of you, but organized religion really isn’t my thing). She asked me if I at least “watch Joel” on Sunday mornings. I replied that I do not. It’s important to note at this point that in the entire 23 years I have been on this earth, I think my grandmother has gone to church maybe three times. I don’t have specific memories of her going at all, only memories of her excuses for why she didn’t want to attend Christmas Eve Mass with us. She said “well, you don’t do any of it, do you?!” The hypocrisy of this statement makes it almost hilarious. She then proceeded to tell me that God is going to “hit me with a sledgehammer” when I get back and that, because I am not going with a Christian group, people will think I have made the trip for selfish reasons. This is interesting because all volunteer work is at least a tiny bit selfish. You don’t volunteer to feel bad about yourself. You volunteer to feel like you are making a positive impact and, most importantly, to help other people. If helping others made people feel bad, no one would be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to volunteer. That important piece of knowledge was imparted on to me by a dear and very smart friend (Thanks Monica!) That said, I truly don’t believe that it is selfish of me to go live in an orphanage in rural Kenya for two weeks. If anyone disagrees with me and thinks that I’m just going to Kenya to have a great time, I will be happy to show them photos of my living conditions (and the constant living conditions of the children) when I return. If I wanted a vacation, I would go to Kenya just for a safari and stay in a nice hotel.

The conversation continued with her asking about the shots I must receive, if I had already gotten them, and her general implication that I am completely incompetent and didn’t think this through at all. Her reaction is not an uncommon one. Many people have told me that there will be men with machine guns at the airport when I land in Nairobi. They have asked about the safety of the orphanage and whether or not I have checked with the Department of State. Family members have repeatedly insinuated that I haven’t thoroughly checked into the safety of my trip. They have repeatedly asked for specific details about my decision making process and indirectly questioned my competence to make this decision.

I hate to remind everyone and make people uncomfortable, but I suffer from this little thing called Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I don’t really do anything without thinking through the pros and cons and possible repercussions very thoroughly. I have trouble deciding what to wear, what movie to watch, what food to eat, how to behave, which way to drive to my destination, how to react to information I am given, and what to say to people to name just a very few things. I constantly worry that I have made a wrong choice about even the smallest things and that there will be negative consequences. I think about choices too much, not too little. I once decided that I didn’t want to hang out with a guy as friends anymore because I was worried that one of us might start to like the other one and I didn’t think he was the type of person I would want to eventually marry. I am not an impulsive person. That just isn’t who I am. I research everything. I have read all of the travel advisories and the reviews of the non profit. In undergrad, people would tease me because I used google so much. The very idea that I wouldn’t research an international trip that I am taking extremely thoroughly, especially since I am taking it all by myself, is laughable.

I have anxiety about almost everything. I do not have anxiety about this trip. Helping others is what I need to be doing. Giving back to this world and the people in it is one of my core values. I very carefully and comprehensively assessed what type of volunteer work I want to do, the non-profit I will volunteer with, the location of my volunteer work, the safety of that location, the possible benefits, the possible risks, and the other pros and cons of specifically choosing an orphanage in rural Kenya. I am incredibly confident that I am making the right choice.

During my intense personal reflection and serious contemplation this week, I realized that other people’s discomfort with my choices isn’t my problem. It isn’t my responsibility to make other people feel good about the choices I make. It wouldn’t be fair to me to let my life pass me by and miss out on amazing experiences because of other people. I am a twenty-three year old intelligent, capable, competent, compassionate, caring, kind, generous, giving woman. I am capable of making my own decisions and making them in intelligent and informed ways.

Following all of this introspection and the terrible week I had last week, I decided that I should do something selfish. For many years, each day has been a struggle to balance the needs and wants of other people. I put others’ thoughts, feelings, needs, and wants before my own. I try to always respect other people’s feelings and lived experiences. I do everything I can to help the people I care about, even at great inconvenience or even sacrifice to myself. Like Kabat-Zinn mentioned, I want to really live. I want to do something that is just for me that isn’t all about the effect it will have on someone else. How many times am I going to get to travel through Europe and to Africa? Hopefully not just this once, but there is no guarantee of that.

I initially thought that I would just enjoy my four hour layover in Amsterdam by going into the city to see Anne Frank’s house. Then I decided that there was so much else I wanted to see there and I should spend twenty four hours there, stay in a hostel, then catch my flight to Nairobi. The Van Gohs, the Rembrandts, the canals, and the palace….they are all incredible things that I really want to see some time. When looking into flights, I realized that this would be significantly more expensive than flying “straight” to Nairobi. I considered this fact, then decided to look into alternate flight options that were less expensive, but still allowed me to experience something amazing in my travels.

If you know me at all, you know that I am a Harry Potter fanatic. The books have been an escape for me in times of depression and anxiety and they have taught me many valuable moral and political lessons. On my birthday in March, Leavesden Studios (where all of the HP movies were filmed) opened a Harry Potter set tour. This news and the fact that I am strangely intrigued by Jack the Ripper, Henry the VIII, and the British Monarchy made my decision very easy. For LESS than I would have paid to stay in Amsterdam for 24 hours, I will be staying in London from a Monday morning to a Wednesday night. I have wanted to go to London for a very long time, so it would feel wrong to miss out on any opportunity to go, even a selfish one such as this. I want to go for sooo much longer and I hope that I will be able to eventually, but there is a chance that I will not have that opportunity. I need to really live. We only get one shot at life, so I want to make it a good one. I want to have wonderful experiences rather than just float through life. What’s the point of earning money if you don’t spend it on doing something amazing that you will really enjoy and will remember forever? I would so much rather have experiences than things. I have too many things as it is. When I am old and gray, I want to be able to look back on my life and smile. I want to have few if any regrets.

I have struggled with this because it isn’t fair that I have the opportunity to have these amazing experiences but my parents have never been to Europe. I am who I am and where I am in life because of their love, nurturing, and support. It seems very unfair for me to go have a wonderful adventure while they stay home and worry about me. This is a struggle for me because I am growing and changing every day into a more independent person. I am trying to find the balance between complete independence and codependence and that is not an easy task. I need to support the people I love and be there for them in every way that I can because that is just who I am, but I can’t let that hold me back in my journey or put others above myself all the time. It’s great to put others first in your life, but sometimes a person just has to focus on and nurture herself.

So that’s that. I’m going to have an amazing, incredible, selfish experience in London before I go give of myself completely to some of the people who need it most in this world.

Wow. You really read all the way to the bottom? Kudos to you.