Here’s what winter is like if you’re me: the meat of your muscles protest walking up the hill that Tacoma is built on. Your hands get cold while doing the dishes. Scratching your chin while shaving is more embarrassing than anything else, but it does require a bandaid. Your hands get cold while trying to strike a match on Sundays. Your hands get cold while trying to get your bus pass out. Your hands get cold the majority of the time, in winter, and some energy could be saved by simply making their default state that of coldness so you wouldn’t have to clarify each time that they are, in fact, cold again.
When you go outside, they start pale with a tinge of pink, which is generally a fine state for my hands to be in. Then they dribble into red and pale splotches, which is still fine. It’s when they get purple that it starts to become a concern. The knuckles and the scars and the very tips of my fingers are the first to go. When you press a pale indent into them it takes too many seconds for the blood to flow, syrupy and slow, back into place. Then, this pair of hands turn white, and this is not good. At this point they have been numb for a while and they might even start to feel warm if the sun hits them right.
All in all, this process takes about half an hour. Sometimes longer if I’ve got gloves, or if I have really warm pockets for some reason. Notable other extremities this will happen to: the tip of my nose. My ears if I’m not wearing a hat. My feet, which used to get the worst of it (although I’ve started wearing thick socks and heavy boots to combat this). The medical term for what this sensation is called is Raynaud’s syndrome. I’m used to it, though, so I use the layman’s term, which is “it’s fine, this is just what happens if I’m outside too long”.
Here’s some facts about hypothermia: Do not rub the skin if it is cold. There are little tiny ice shards, I think, and they can make a million small cuts that don’t bleed. Also, you’re supposed to warm the core of the body up first. You can warm the hands and feet but you don’t want that cold blood rushing back to the center of your body because then the heart will taste it and think all blood is supposed to be that way and then your body, which is still very cold and only just thinking about warmth, will get colder and then you will die. Take off any wet garments and put on warm dry ones. Depending on the situation, blankets might be better than clothes. Imagine huddling in your bed in a hoodie and underclothes and three blankets and still shivering. Sometimes, I find myself playing the hypothermia game.
Here’s the rules of the hypothermia game, in case you’d like to play along at home and it is cold enough to do so: Go outside without any gloves. Get yourself a hoodie and sweatpants, as these are by far the comfiest garments, then walk for a long long time. Or bike for a long time, if that’s your thing, or just sit outside in the cold. After you realize that this was probably a bad idea and question why you did it in the first place, start heading home.
Now you need to warm up! (This is assuming you’ve made it home by now. If not, please just reread the above paragraph until you get there.) I hope you remembered the hypothermia facts that I gave you earlier. They might be important. Full disclosure, I don’t remember where I learned those facts, and it’s pretty likely that you don’t have hypothermia. But you never know; this could be the fateful final round of the hypothermia game for either one of us! Anyway, go ahead and get those warm clothes on and wrap yourself in some blankets. Curl up in bed.
Now, I don’t know how you played it, but one of my hobbies is going on really long walks. (This is inadvisable if you are a regular person, and it borders on insane if you are me, who has circulation issues and some sort of connective tissue disorder and chronic fatigue and a poor sense of direction. I’ll occasionally go for a nice twelve-mile wander, get home, use the bathroom, and lay on the floor for the rest of the day.) That’s what I did with my round of the hypothermia game. I’ve found that if you walk for five hours, by the end of the first hour your body falls into a rhythm and is able to maintain a stable temperature. Don’t get me wrong; this is a stable temperature that leaves you at a baseline of ‘cold, numb, and hungry’, but it does keep you from shrivelling up into a small frozen raisin.
The trouble starts when I get back home, curled up in bed with those warm clothes, and I’ve been there long enough that the numbness recedes and my body starts to register other sensations again. All the other parts of the game are bearable because this part isn’t.
I imagine that I can feel the outline of my hip burning through my skin. Each time the ball scrapes against the socket, bright sparks appear. After walking so far, I find that there are enough sparks to fill up the socket and push the joint away in an act of blatantly impossible personification. Fireworks burst out of me at the seams, and my body trembles like a live wire. If you’ve ever seen a live wire in person, you know it doesn’t really tremble (or at least, it’s not supposed to). I am much the same. My body is stiff and tight and rock solid in my bed, but there’s that burning inside that hurts to touch. I can’t keep from touching my body, given that I’m trapped in it, but I can pretend it’s not there.
I can close my eyes and dissolve into the air under the blankets and let everything be warm and not have to worry about everywhere my body goes when there’s no pain to hold it together.
Later, when I press my hands together, I feel bones wriggling. It shouldn’t be possible. Maybe some of what I’m feeling beneath my fingertips are tendons, the little tissues that knit bone and muscle together, hardening and lifting as they work. But I still think they shouldn’t move that much, that I shouldn’t be able to dig in and all but grab the knuckles. My firework pain has died down to a lighter, a consistent little flame that only flares when I move.
Is this what it’s like for you?
When I was fourteen, I had a surgery. They cut open my torso and moved some things around. Afterward, I had a pair of long scars— almost fifteen inches if you measure both of them together. I can’t feel any sensations along the scar tissue besides pressure when it’s poked occasionally. Even then, I wonder: is it really my skin and the severed nerve endings picking up on the pressure, or is it the ribs beneath? Is my skeleton doing the job I was promised my organs would?
In sixth grade, our teacher read a book to us about a kid who goes skiing and gets buried in an avalanche. He ended up encased in a little pocket under the snow for several days. There are a lot of fun survival activities that he does, such as poking a tiny hole up to the surface so he can see when it’s day or night, or doing jumping jacks in place to prevent freezing to death and/or losing muscle definition. I think he eats a raw rabbit at some point? Anyway, eventually his brother comes along and finds him and gets him out, and he only loses a few toes to frostbite.
Listen, I’m sorry that I made you play along with me. I’m not really sure why I did it. I’m not even really sure why I went on a walk. Maybe I was just bored. I hope you didn’t actually stop whatever you were doing and put this book down in order to go stand outside for a while. That’s bad for you if it’s cold out, and depending on the time of year it might not be cold out, and if it was people were probably looking at you like “who’s this guy with no gloves”, and there’s still like a quarter of this essay left so you should come back and finish reading it.
Pain, just like the cold, becomes boring when it persists long enough. It’s like the third day that school is cancelled from snow. All the powdery stuff that’s good for sledding is gone, and your dog has trampled all over the half-melted packed stuff already, and your brother doesn’t want to have yet another snowball fight with you. Your parents say school is probably cancelled because the roads froze overnight, but they don’t look frozen, they just look dirty and wet.
Here’s the thing about the kid trapped in the snow: he could just accept it. Freezing to death after being crushed alive is probably one of the most miserable and hideous ways I can imagine dying, but I think one could argue that it’s the easiest route to take. Rescue isn’t guaranteed (as long as you’re ignoring the fact that this is a children’s book) and the possibility that you could survive as long as possible, expending all that effort doing stationary jumping jacks and eating raw rabbits, only to die anyway? It’s pretty depressing.
Here’s the thing about the hypothermia game: It’s not really a game. It is, a little bit, but it’s also a dare. It’s a challenge. It’s my enemy. It’s a confession. It’s a question. What’s the worst that could happen, really? What happens if I live like this forever? What happens if my skeleton is the only real part of my body? What if it isn’t? Does it matter?
Here’s the answer to the hypothermia game: the worst that could happen is death. The worst that could happen is that you live the rest of your life with arteries that forget how to hold themselves open. If you live like this forever, it means you have to wear gloves when you go outside. If you live like this forever, you get to choose if you wear gloves. If you live like this forever, it means it won’t be winter forever.
"I Remember the Day I Killed My Wife" | Michael Kevin Shirley
This essay contains depictions of domestic abuse, child neglect and spousal death.
I don't know what the point of journalling is. Don't know what good it does, but I'm doing this because I want to get the facts straight. Nothing else to do now. The Prison therapist, counselor, whatever the fuck they are, said it would help me to process my feelings or something to tell my side of the story. My attorney thought it sounded like a good idea and said it might help with my appeal. What the fuck do they know? I'm an alcoholic who blacked out and killed his wife in a drunken rage. What else is there to tell?
I remember it was a Friday, payday. I had just got off work, and the nightlife of Reno was already in full swing. Usually, I would go down to the bar and get a couple of drinks, and if some pretty lady didn't pick me up, I would stumble to my girlfriend's apartment just off the main strip. However, I tried to do the honorable thing and leave the bars, slots, and women behind and head home for the weekend. I wish I had gotten drunk and picked up a pretty woman at the bar or casino instead.
It had been over a month since I had made the 4-hour drive home to see my wife and kids. Working construction like I did usually means working long distances away from home for weeks or months on end. If you want to get paid the big bucks, you go where the work is; in the city. I've been all over San Francisco, Sacramento, and LA, and I have got to tell you Reno is the best. Like Vegas but smaller, Reno was the place for me or any man who wanted to unwind and escape life and responsibility. Which is what I did, but I've always been good at working. I just wish I was as good of a father as a worker or a drunk. With how much I work and try to support my family, I've never been home for longer than a week at a time since the twins were born. I used to drive home every day while working in Sac, a four-hour round-trip home every day. Stupid decision; I saved money on hotels, and gas was cheap, only a dollar and twenty cents per gallon, but I got home in time to eat dinner and go to bed. The next day I would wake up at 5 am and do it all over again, working ten-to-twelve-hour days, five to six days a week. Did that for over a year, trying to make it work but never again. It's just not realistic for the long term.
It was midafternoon when I got on the freeway after cashing my check and grabbing a couple of sick packs and a pack of smokes. The desert heat was unbearable even in late August. The AC in my Chevy Nova was busted, so I kept the windows down, playing the new Metallica cassette tape, "Load," at full blast the whole way home. I enjoyed every minute of the long drive home with a warm beer in my lap, a lit cigarette in my hand, and a six-pack sitting in the passenger seat.
When I pulled into the circular gravel driveway in front of my house, I started to feel a little buzzed, and my memory started to get a little hazy. I remember sitting in the car listening to the last song on the tape while I finished my last beer from the first sixer. After the song ended, I turned the car off, grabbed my black leather bag and the other sixer out of the back seat, and went inside. My two youngest twin boys, Mitchel and Kevin, rushed at me as soon as I closed the front door, making me drop my bag and six-pack in the hallway. Both of them were screaming and smiling as they jumped into my arms, saying, "Daddy, Daddy."
I remember this moment clearly because the boys made me drop my beer, and I realized then and now (as I'm writing this) that the happiest I've ever been in my entire life was in that moment, coming home to my kids running into my arms. It was also the closest I've ever come to an epiphany, that critical moment when you realize that everything you've been doing is wrong and it's time to make a change, quit drinking, and be there for your family. I won't lie and say I'm a good father or husband, but I tried to be one for a long time. It just never worked out, but that moment gave me hope again that it wasn't too late to make a change.
Then my wife, Mary, entered the hallway through the kitchen door, screaming something about me having a six-pack and already being drunk. Then she gave me some more shit for being over an hour late and how I must have stopped at my whore's house before coming home. I hadn't even been home for more than thirty seconds, and she was already hammering into me about all this bullshit. I didn't even have time to say anything in response before she disappeared back into the kitchen with a puff of black and grey smoke coming out of the other room.
I looked down at my twins, trying to find something to say, feeling embarrassed and pissed off that she said all that in front of them. When Mitchel pointed at me and yelled, "Daddy's got a whore." Then turned and ran into the living room, giggling and trying to hide under the couch pillows.
"What's a whore, Daddy?" Kevin asked, pulling on my pant leg and looking me dead in the eye with a child's curiosity and innocence.
I choked on my own spit in reply, and before I had time to recover, Mary appeared in a little puff of black and grey smoke. The woman resembled a witch, with her long black hair matted and frizzy and dark circles around her eyes. She pointed at me with a long and bony finger, looking down at Kevin, and told him that a whore was a woman who Daddy sleeps with because she won't blow me anymore. Then she disappeared back behind the door in another puff of smoke.
"What's a blow nob, Daddy?" Kevin asked without hesitation. I almost laughed, but out of frustration, I yelled at him instead and told him to go watch TV with his brother.
I pulled a beer from my last sixer, cracked it open, and took a long swig before I ventured into the witch's den. Walking through the door, the kitchen was a mess like the rest of the house. Pots, pans, and dirty dishes were scattered everywhere. Mary was chain-smoking, like always, hunched over the stove, looking like a crone. The steam, smoke, and bubbling sounds coming from the stove didn't help with my mental image of an evil witch at her cauldron. The smell of cigarette smoke in the room almost overpowered the smell of whatever she was brewing.
I made my way to the small island that separated the kitchen from the dining room. The dining room table and the island were cluttered with papers, old leftover food, and other trash. The back sliding glass door was left ajar to try and let some of the smoke out, but it wasn't working very well.
She must have seen or heard me come into the kitchen because without turning around to look, she said something about hoping I worked overtime because we were behind on our bills. It was always money with her. She was worse than I was with money, but to hear her tell it, it was always my fault for everything that went wrong financially. I worked twelve-hour days, five to sometimes seven days a week. I spent years staying in roach motels and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day for lunch to save money so I could send it back home to her and the kids, but it was never enough. Every payday, it was always the same; this isn't enough, you're spending too much, and I need more money. I have to live too.
I remember telling her I had her blood money and that we could discuss finances after dinner. She seemed to relent a little and became almost sweet. Made me think of the witch from Hansel and Gretel, all sweet till she throws you in the oven to cook you alive.
Dinner was a blur, but we made it through without incident. Mary and I talked about the twins getting ready to start school in August and how she hardly ever saw the older two anymore. Apparently, Alen and Maree preferred to stay at their friends' houses more than at home. I could hardly blame them. I was around even less for them than I was for the twins, which is saying something. But that's the thing about firstborns; they're the practice kids who get it the worst. The parents don't know what they're doing, and because of that, they're usually neglected, mistreated, and misunderstood. Life is hard for firstborns. Mary and I are both firstborns in our families, too, but that's hardly an excuse anymore. I thought maybe I could make it better for Kevin and Mitchel, but I was wrong.
After dinner, the twins and I sat on the couch and watched Star Wars on VHS. I remember the kids loving the light sabers, making pretend swishing sounds as they swung around imaginary swords hitting each other.
By this time, I had only a couple of beers left, and I was feeling pretty good, lying on the couch with my feet up. The boys had stopped play fighting after I yelled at them or something. I think Mitchel was drawing or coloring something on the floor, and Kevin came to lay with me on the couch to rewatch the movie.
I think Mary went back into her den as Kevin started to narrate the entire movie to me like I didn't just watch it with him. He would say, "You see that guy, Dad? He's Luke. He's a good Jedi. And you see him, Daddy? He's an evil Jedi," pointing at Darth Vader on the screen.
I just kept saying, "Yeah," in reply as I started to doze off.
Then, out of nowhere, Kevin turned to me while still sitting on my lap and, with that childlike honesty and curiosity, asked me why I fought with Mommy so much and if I thought it was because I drank so much?
His question simultaneously woke me up from my daze and stunned me into silence for a moment. Being drunk, like I always was, I decided to tell him the truth of it. I told him how my drinking was a big part of the problem and that money was another part. No matter what I seemed to do or how much I gave, it was never enough to make Mommy happy with me.
Mitchel chimed in without glancing up from his drawing, "What about your whores, Daddy?"
I told them both the truth. Being gone away from your family and working long weeks for years on end is lonely. I told them that it wasn't just me, that their mom had her whores too, and that's why we fight so much; money, drinking, and whores. Thinking back on it all now, I wish I had tried harder to be a better husband and father, but I didn't. I could blame it on being drunk, but I was always drunk.
Apparently satisfied with their answer, they went back to drawing and watching the rest of the movie without another word. I remember I had just finished my last beer when the wicked woman appeared again in a puff of smoke, materializing right in front of me. I about jumped out of my skin, seeing her standing there over me with a strange kind of hungry look in her eye like she just caught a fly in her web. She didn't even say anything; she just motioned with her hand to meet her in the kitchen and then vanished into another puff of smoke.
Sitting up to get off the couch, Kevin suddenly and violently whipped his head back and slammed into my face. There was an audible snap before I felt a warm liquid starting to pour out of my nose. The pain was so great I couldn't see as my eyes started to water and swell. Cussing at Kevin, I pushed him off me and made my way to the bathroom down the hall. Where I reset my nose and got it to stop bleeding.
Kevin stopped me at the kitchen door crying and trying to tell me how sorry he was and how the back of his head hurt really bad. While the blow to my face had sobered me up a bit, I was still drunk, and I didn't care about his excuse. At the start of my rage, I yelled at him and told him to stop being a baby, that his head was fine, and that he needed to get ready for bed.
Mary was sitting among the papers and the trash on the dining room table in the kitchen, still chain-smoking. I almost couldn't see her through the smoke; it was so thick. Sitting at the table next to her, I lit one of my Camels to fight off her Marlboro smoke and try to clean the air a little. I already knew what she wanted, so I pulled out my wallet, grabbed most of my large stack of cash, and threw it at her. The stack of cash stuck together instead of fanning out like I thought it would have and hit her hard in the chest, making a thud sound as it did. She grabbed the cash without even flinching, then looked me dead in the face, without counting it, and said it wasn't enough.
I saw red. The fact that she didn't even count it before asking for more fueled the rage that I already felt from my nose being broken. She wanted all of it and didn't care about me. What, was I supposed to live off of peanuts for the next month? I told her she was being a greedy old witch, and that's all she would get from me.
I started to stand from the table, and she tried to take my wallet out of my hands. We fought over it for a moment, the table and chairs sliding all over the kitchen as we got rougher, pushing each other back and forth. She started screaming at me that it wasn't enough and that because I didn't send any money home last month, we were behind on bills and blah blah blah. I had heard it all before, and I didn't believe her. I knew she spent most of my money on cigarettes, scratchers, and useless trinkets that cluttered the house. It was true that I didn't send any money home last month, but what I just gave her would have covered everything for the month. I made sure of it by working double overtime if she had just counted it.
I only remember bits and pieces of what happened next. I think I started to yell back at her, telling her how she was a money-hungry witch and that I wanted a divorce. She said something about how she's been fucking some guy and that she already filed for divorce last week. I think that's when I pushed her against the wall. She retaliated by slapping me in the face. I heard another cracking sound and instantly felt the rush of warm blood pour out of my nose again. The pain was double the second time.
I turned away from her and flipped the table, sending the rest of the papers and trash flying across the room, the table stopping as it slammed against the fridge. I think one of the table legs must have hit Mary when it flipped because she screamed in pain, and I saw her holding her stomach or arm as she ran out the back sliding glass door. I started chasing and calling after her. I don't know why I was chasing her. I think I wanted to make sure she was okay, but I should have just left her alone. Outside, she nearly ran me over as she got in her car and sped down the gravel driveway. Small rocks and pebbles flew everywhere, hitting me, my car, and the living room windows, cracking the glass. I still had my keys in my pocket, so I started my car and went driving after her.
The police report says I caught up with her and then rammed her off the road, where she crashed into a tree and died on impact. My attorney is trying to fight and plead that I never hit my wife's car or purposely tried to drive her off the road and that she lost control of the car. I couldn't tell you what really happened.
I think about that night now; I dream about it every day and how so many things could have gone differently. I don't know what good journalling and telling my side will do. What I did can't be forgiven or undone. I know I can never forgive myself.
I remember the look on Kevins' face through the cracked living room window that night as I drove after Mary clearer than anything else. My headlights focused on him like the bright lights of some Hollywood stage. He was crying and banging on the cracked window. I couldn't hear what he was saying, but playing back the memory in my mind, I could see his mouth moving and finally make out the words. He was yelling for us to come back, saying, "Mommy, Daddy, come back." But neither of us ever came back, and now they will never see their mother again because of me.
What happened was an accident, but I am still to blame for my actions. I know that, but I can't stop thinking about my boys and older children and what they are going through now. I think of how little I've done for them and now how much I've taken away from them. I want to take it back, but I can't. I want to make things right for my kids. They need me now more than ever, and I need them. All I want is to get out of this cell and hug my boys like I did coming home that night. I just want to hug them one more time before they grow up and see what I truly am. A drunk and a bad father, but I'm afraid it might already be too late for that.
"These Roots Run Deep" | Isabella Pettis-Infante
The Eye of the Storm I
In the eye of the storm, I find myself at Mount Tahoma, a place that seems too beautiful for a person like me. What’s a person like me? According to the lawyer defending the perpetrator from my high school, it’s someone who loves to ruin the lives of good, honorable young men for fun.
He tried to convince the judge that I was mentally disturbed and just trying to get money for my broke Hispanic single mother. Between the endless questions, and the faces of my community impassively watching me testify, I found myself drifting out of my weak, exhaustion-clad body to an afternoon last June, an afternoon filled with lilac wildflowers and tourists with sunscreen on their noses. To a view of towering pine trees and a valley with sparkling streams winking up at me. The smell of fresh mountain air, the distance from my problems, and the love I had in my heart for my little brother, who sat beside me, braced my body.
I anchored myself to that memory of contentment and peace. And although my heart was clawing its way out of my chest when I gave my testimony, and tears of humiliation were making my mascara run, I was coherent. I spoke the truth even when every part of me wanted to bury myself beneath the Earth, in a stone coffin shielding me from their eyes filled with disbelief and their tongues that spat venom on my festering wounds. But even there, I believe that this memory would have found me. It was always going to find me. Like a great maple, its roots ran deep, so much deeper than their hatred.
Forest therapy is a recent term coined in the 1980s from a Japanese tradition of Shinrin-Yoku. Forest bathing. Surround yourself with towering trees. Immerse yourself in a biome that we have dwelled in for thousands of years. The stones and wet earth anchor you to the core of our existence. I picture the people's incredulity in Japan when these psychologists told them that a simple walk through the forest would help with the hellish emotions and thoughts they were having. I see their monotone haunted faces shaded by tree branches as they take to the woods. I envision them emerging, not miraculously healed, but with a flicker of hope in their hearts. Maybe they stood up just a little bit taller. Atlas’ burden was made lighter.
It’s heartbreaking to think that now we have a form of therapy, including nature, when we are nature, like a hare or red fox, interchangeable with the soft touch of ferns and the cool shade of evergreens. Only, our modern world has made us forget. The rates of mental disorders such as depression and anxiety have been increasing in the past decades. The homes of hares and red foxes have been destroyed and replaced by steel edifices and smoke-dispersing factories. We sit at computer screens tied to our desks.
What are the repercussions of such a drastic and swift transition? What is the toll on our environment, our homes, our minds, and our essences? Forest bathing is effective because we have been deprived of something essential to our survival and functioning. Nature.
The Eye of the Storm II
Nature is a talisman. One that we can put on anytime we want. Like a silver pendant of Black tourmaline, we can slip it around our neck. Even looking at a picture of nature can wash us in clarifying calm waters. Through nature-based art therapy, people reported higher levels of happiness and satisfaction. When participants in a study who suffered from PTSD went on a walk in nature, the severity of the symptoms, many of them were experiencing decreased significantly.
Right before I went to that sexual assault trial at the Thurston County courthouse, I scrolled through the memories section of photos on my phone. And almost immedatey, I stopped on the image of the afternoon hike at Mount Tahoma I went on the year before in 2018 with my Mom and little brother. My eyes scanned the photo over and over like if I stared hard enough, I could be transported back in time. But that image stayed with me. Even as my emotions were skyrocketing, some deep inner part of me was still on the ground, walking through meadows, and tall pines, soaking up the sun’s rays. I was a spooked horse with nostrils flaring and hind legs kicking, but the picture stilled me. I didn’t bolt and run. I felt shame, disgust, and terror, but I didn’t let them take the reins.
When I was at home from school one weekend visiting with my Mom, she told me that when we were little, she took us, the three youngest, on hikes or trips to rural areas. She spoke of how she would always ensure she brought Eachean too because he had blue eyes, fair skin freckles, and blond hair. My little brother Francis has dark brown hair and eyes with a deep tan. We both have my mom’s Mexican coloring. “I was so sad that I had to think of that as a mother. I had to think of having Eachean with us as a kind of protection against racism.” My mom decided that going into nature was worth the risk because she knew that spending time in nature was essential to our neural development and health.
So growing up, the four of us would drive in the car to the Olympic National Forest or the Nisqually Nature Preserve. She told me that even when she was pregnant, she would take one of us in the stroller and one on her back and go on hikes in Montana when we lived there. She knew these memories would be vital for us as we faced life’s challenges. In this way, my natural instinct was nurtured. I ran to nature during times of trouble or when I faced persecution.
In Japan, during the 80s, a mental health crisis was in full swing. The mental health specialists all got together to problem-solve and figure out what factors were contributing to the rising rates of suicide, depression, and anxiety. One of the leading causes they discovered was the impact of urban development and the new introduction of an advanced technologically based world. Most jobs switched to being on computers. Schools cramped children into high-stress environments. Then when they got out into the workplace, they were locked within the confinement of a cubicle for the rest of their days.
Japan wasn’t the only nation suffering–this poison was working its way all across the globe in China, the U.S., and Europe. In Japan, they built trails explicitly made for the implementation of Shinrin-Yoku, after doing a study where they would have subjects take walks in a laboratory setting and then in the forest. The ones who did the mental health walks in the forest had lower cortisol levels (a stress hormone) at the end. This form of therapy worked wonders for Japan's population; soon, other countries followed suit.
My Mom knew that our relationship with nature would be irreplaceable because of our higher likelihood of having MDD based on experiential and genetic factors. My Mom has suffered from MDD since she was a teenager. And it weighed heavily on her that those traits could be passed down to us. Over half of the cause of MDD is genetic. And when I hit puberty in fifth grade, the genes set in. From then on, it was a constant battle for me to get through a day without feeling the suffocating fumes of depression finding their way into my system.
I found ways to be outside through doing track and cross country or going on walks and hikes with the family, and although that dulled the edge, it wasn’t enough. I started taking antidepressants during my sophomore year of high school because it became all enveloping after I experienced assault and harassment from a classmate. None of my classmates in my catholic high school believed me. I found a hate letter in my backpack telling me to kill myself. Later that night, after I silently threw away the letter, I was up late, self-hatred and fear swirling in my head, creating a whirlpool dragging me under. I took some medicine in the cabinet from some old prescription and stuffed as many pills as possible in my mouth. I only swallowed half of them because I panicked after that. My Mom found me with my head over the porcelain toilet bowl throwing up. After that, I tried Duloxetine, Fluoxetine, and Trazodone, and each one took away those suicidal thoughts, but they left a ghostly version of myself. Numb and listless. I struggled to feel anything at all.
Karachi, Pakistan, was the site of terrorist attacks in 2015 on the Pakistani people. Pakistani health providers were the main targets. The ones who survived these attacks suffered from PTSD. An excrucitaing inferno. Burning away all of a person in the hottest of its flames. I am all too familiar with the reality of living with this mental disorder. There were times when I would do anything to escape its clutches. PTSD causes debilitating symptoms like an inability to remember things, severe aggression, paranoia, and flashbacks where you relive and relive everything that you are dying to forget.
Doctors put survivors of the terrorist attacks through a nature-therapy-based regime. Five times a week, they would have stretching, which lasted ten minutes, and then they would walk for fifty minutes around the park—seeing animals from the zoo, mountain views, and woodland on their route in the Safari Park of Karachi. All of the people in the study had post-traumatic growth. I am in awe of the results of the study. That walking outside could heal them so much. It is one thing to feel the therapeutic power of nature, but reading the facts and studies validates my experience and impresses upon me, even more, how imperative nature is to my healing journey, and to all of our healing journeys.
No Man’s Land
I am sitting on a Bridge above Tumwater Falls, My feet dangling over the edges. I let go. My hands release. My breath escapes from my chest in a rush. I let go. Silently I fall towards the river rushing below. I let go.
I’m arguing with my Mom in the dining room of our house. It’s a Friday afternoon after a heavy therapy appointment at eleven this morning. She doesn’t understand me. I need to run this afternoon at LBA park in the woods. Even if it’s just for 10 minutes, I need to feel the wind rushing on my face. The canopy of trees protects me from overhead. I need my legs to ache for my lungs to push, reminding me that I’m alive. She tells me it’s unsafe to run by myself at LBA. I’m trapped. Again. Nowhere to turn. Nowhere to hide. The fight ends in quiet. I grab my keys, tears streaming down my face. I don’t make a sound as I slip out the front door. In my head, a dam broke. Flooding. The voices in my head crescendo to a cacophony.
He was right. No one loves you. No one understands you. Alone. Abandoned. Damaged goods. Crazy, stupid girl. No matter how far you run, no matter where you go. There’s no hiding.
I’m drowning, sinking lower and lower. I don’t know where I’m going. Instinctually I drive towards Tumwater Falls. The bridge over the river is narrow. I hit the curb and almost crash into another car. I barely miss it. I know I’m in no condition to drive, so I park my car. And think of calling the 1-800 suicide crisis hotline. I dial the number, but it puts me through several steps. I hang up. I turn my head and look out the window at the bridge rising overhead.
Go. Jump off that bridge. This is your life now. Do you really want this hell to continue? Just get in your car park next to the Bridge and free fall.
My body is shaking with the desire to listen and fulfill my need to escape. I see myself on top of the bridge sitting on the edge and plummeting towards the ground. I don’t know where I’m going. I open my front door and walk to the viewing area below the waterfall and bridge. People walk by, but they don’t see my face. My body leans over the rail as I gaze into the water. The sound of it moving, flexing over rocks and stone, dulls the voice. I think of my body floating in the water at rest. At peace in death. And I find a reprieve. I allow my fantasy to wash over me. I picture the cool water on my skin soothing the burns of my fear and hopelessness. The clenching of my soul relaxes, and I release it all into the tons of water pouring down until there is nothing left. Only once I dream of death can I come back to myself. When I get in the car, I sob. I can’t believe how close I came to the edge. How far I went before I was pulled back.
I think back to that moment in the car when I drove to the waterfall. What led me there? Looking back, I think that maybe I was searching for a reason to stay, a reason to live. I knew the plane was going down, but how could I parachute before it crashed and burned? I didn’t think of a person. Not my Mom, not my brother; I couldn’t even think to call my therapist. Everywhere I turned, they all caved into one voice. No matter where I looked for proof that I was wanted and needed, the evidence pointed to a lie. That lie sunk its way under my skin and bled into my veins. Working through my arteries till my blood was pumping it through my whole system. My heart beat to its rhythm.
They say that a black hole is the ultimate no man's land. Matter is a crushed aluminum can. Space and Time are shattered, dispersing into dust within the void. I think that's where I went. A black hole is remembering everything that they did to me. It’s going back to the memories of when I was powerless, a bug under someone’s shoe. It’s gazing into the mirror, then looking away in disgust, in shame. It’s digging through the medicine cabinet, looking for expired meds. It’s a Friday afternoon gazing out on top of a bridge at the waterfall crashing down.
Natural Instinct II
December 2022 marks one year of being off antidepressants. I was sick of being cut off from my emotions. Sick of being a husk. I knew that getting off them would mean taking on so much more responsibility. I would now have to care for myself and find other ways to cope with the tangled jumble of depression and PTSD that I was experiencing. My natural instincts took me to nature for healing, for balance. I started forest bathing and eventually took up trail running. I felt the animal in me rejoice at the chase through the mud when branches hit my face and bushes scraped my legs. I felt alive. For the first time in years, I could breathe even as I went into oxygen debt. Dead bugs clung to my sweat-drenched body, but I felt beautiful and terrible. Wild and feral. Strong and Powerful. When I would stretch near the trailhead, the world took on a euphoric glow from endorphins. The woods and I twined together light, limbs, and leaves. I had been starving to death and hadn’t even known it. Now the hunger welcomed me, illuminating the way out.
My mom spoke to me about a Poet named Mary Oliver. “Her story is very poignant, Isabel, I think you will love her work.” So I read through the article that my Mom sent me and learned about the story of a woman who spent her years in the wilderness, a journal, and pen in hand. Mary Oliver lived in an abusive home, her childhood was filled with agony, yet serenity, peace, and healing fill the lines of her poems.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
I admit I succumbed to tears when I read these lines. Mary Oliver found solace in her exploration and contemplation. She said that the beauty of the world saved her. By beauty, I don’t think she was talking about nice beaches or picturesque views. She was referring to the world that is full of contrasts. Both hatred and love, fields of wildflowers, and tsunamis. Suffering and joy. Pain and peace. After abuse, you feel weak, ugly, and insignificant. But when you connect with nature, you are connecting to a power that bows before no one, one that you are a part of.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Nature continues, even when we can’t. As someone who survived sexual child abuse, I feel a kinship with Mary Oliver. On my healing journey, there have been times when I felt I couldn’t go on anymore. When I felt like I was frozen in those memories of the torture and pain, I went through. But when I went out into the forest, I saw the seasons change; I heard the frogs croak. I saw the geese flying overhead. And I found hope in the patterns, comfort in the fact that one day I would shed the layer of that monster’s lies.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
We are all a part of mother nature. Her exploration of it healed Mary Oliver. On her excursions, she gained something that allowed her to breathe wisdom and comfort into her work. Because nature was the ointment alleviating her wounds. It has served as a source of restoration in my life. I know of its agency. We are intrinsically a part of our Earth. Only through it can we be made whole again.
How did I survive the ultimate no man’s land? How did I stand beneath the waterfall instead of catapulting toward it? How did I end up answering the questions on that stand? Nature connects us to our essence. We are beautiful creatures of this Earth, twisted and distorted by the harrowing harm we have done to our home, to our planet, to ourselves, and to each other. I sometimes paint trees on a blank, white canvas during my therapy appointments. I make strokes with sage, malachite, viridian, and teal to imitate the branches of a douglas fir or ponderosa pine. And after revisiting the memories of the sexual trauma I survived, I walk behind my house in the greenbelt beside the railroad tracks and then past the stream.
I inhale the air. Breathe in. Breathe out. At night when I was too terrified to sleep because of nightmares, I walked around my neighborhood in late winter, letting the cold rain cut deep into my bones. I welcomed the shock of icy air and the tears of clouds. Nature grabbed me around the shoulders and shook me awake. I am not. I was not what he said, what they said. I hear the truth reverberating through my being. The truth they could not strip from me banishes their lies. I am a survivor, a soldier carrying on. In no man’s land, in this void, I will grow as tall and strong as the forests I walk through.