Cheetos & PTSD

Cheetos & PTSD

First of all, I want to thank everyone who left a kind and thoughtful comment on my last blog or on my Facebook post sharing the blog link. It was my first entry in about two years and it meant a lot that the subject matter connected with so many of you. I appreciate you letting me use this platform to share what the past two years have been like and I hope also to motivate others who went through loss during this time to open up in some way, either to others or to themselves through whatever means feels most comfortable with them. We don’t have to totally relate to one another about loss to make an effort to understand someone and empathize with what they are going through. And it’s always a soft, gentle reminder that if we’re not going through the same thing right now, we will at some point in our lives. Let’s learn from each other now to prepare ourselves for that future day.

So this blog title — what the hell could that possibly mean?

I haven’t eaten a Cheeto in nearly 90 days. Big deal, you probably are saying to yourself. Well, you first have to know that I have loved Cheetos since I can remember the delightful first crunch and that joyous experience as a kid of taking our orange-dust coated fingers and leaving our trail wherever we might travel through the house or my favorite part – across various important documents like homework or cards we’re preparing to send and discovering these lovely orange imprints after the fact.

This blog isn’t about snacks, though I could write a tome to challenge Ayn Rand. What it is about are those unexpected, lingering effects of losing somebody or in my case, the not so forgettable experience of finding someone you love has passed at their home. Whenever we hear about someone being found dead at their home, especially if it’s someone we care about, a lot of us might think or say aloud, well, I hope they passed peacefully in their sleep. I always worried after my dad died, if I might stop by to visit my mom on my day off one day and find my mom had passed. It was my greatest fear. She lived alone, didn’t see a lot of other people on a regular basis, so unless I had just spoken with her, it was a legitimate fear based on this new reality.

The last time I saw my dad it was after I had picked up my mom at home after the paramedics took him to the nearest hospital. When we arrived, they escorted us to a small room and I knew immediately what they were going to tell us. Sure, he could be in a coma or something not quite as final, but I had a feeling ever since I spoke to the police officer on the phone who stressed with urgency in his voice that I needed to come immediately in the middle of the night to get my mom and accompany her to the hospital. I heard right then what was about to happen or who knows? May have already happened.

Next, we were taken to a room to say our goodbyes, and I saw my dad lying there at peace but it didn’t feel like him at all. His cheek was cold to the touch when I leaned down to kiss him goodbye one last time. When I wrapped my fingers around his hand, I only felt a chill run down my back and not his usual warmth or strength when he clutched back. It was the oddest, scariest and most painful experience I had ever gone through in my life but it did feel final and perhaps that’s what allowed me to keep going the next year and a half trying to help guide Mom through the murky marsh of widowhood.

I didn’t get that peaceful closure with my mom and that may be what has made the loss tougher. My husband and I found my mom, lying on her living room floor, and MSNBC blaring in the background on the TV (she had become hard of hearing). She had not responded to my phone calls the night before nor the next morning. We both knew we needed to drive up to her place because even with her odd sleeping hours, this could not be good. When we pulled around the corner to see the newspaper in the driveway and realized that was from 3 days earlier, my heart sunk.

You know how you can have a bad image etched in your brain that you just cannot shake like an Etch A Sketch and brush it away, as much as you might want it to disappear? This will always be my last image of my mom, and I’m well aware that in time, the picture will become fainter (I certainly hope so) but for now, it haunts me. It appeared she had gotten up in the middle of the night, probably struggling to sleep again which happened frequently. She had a full glass of water on the counter still sitting there, some of her daily vitamins and pills on the table and an opened bag of Cheetos. It was clear she’d gotten up to have a snack and catch up on the news, just hours after we’d said goodbye following a really special anniversary get-together at her place and a dinner outing. The night before my dad passed, I talked to him on the phone that Friday night. I was so grateful that we had a wonderful conversation. The only peace I have regarding my mom is that I know how she spent the last night of her life and it was with us celebrating a happy occasion and sharing some food, laughs and time together. I clutch to that fact.

We don’t know exactly what took mom’s life but it is likely that it was a cardiac event. The last vision I have of my mom is her lying on the floor, a few stray Cheetos beside her and ironically, situated in the exact same spot that my mom said she was holding dad on the floor when paramedics took him to the hospital for the last time. That coincidence hasn’t escaped me.

I told the paramedics the name of the funeral home we had used for Dad’s cremation, and their representatives arrived within 90 minutes. They prepared Mom inside so I might have a final time to say goodbye to her. I wonder now if I should have said yes, because maybe it would have helped me shake that final image from my head. I don’t know if it would have or not. But I said no. I didn’t want to see her like that again. That wasn’t my mom anymore. Like my final ‘visit’ with Dad, it was just a vessel. She was gone.

It has been 83 days since I opened Mom’s door, and life changed yet again. This lily above was sent to me when my Dad died and it’s still alive over 2 1/2 years later. It is definitely showing more signs of age and distress than this earlier photo, especially after our cooler-than-normal winter temperatures recently. I’m a lot like like this lily. I’m still standing following the first one, and now since the second loss, but I won’t kid you – I’m definitely much more frayed around the edges and not nearly as vibrant as I was before. But this more recent experience hasn’t stopped me from continuing to do things – I still work (a lot), I still celebrate (we had lots of family occasions since then), and I still love. I keep moving forward though the lingering effects of that day haunt me on a daily basis.

I didn’t realize until about a month ago that this is textbook definition of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). According to Mayo Clinic, “Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.” Well, thankfully, I’m not having nightmares and clearly my anxiety is under control enough that I’m able to return to my mom’s house weekly to continue cleaning out belongings for packing and donating. But the flashbacks happen – a lot. I can be doing something totally random, not even related to my mom, and like a morbid 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon, I can connect the dots to that day and there I am again, back in the garage, opening the door and walking up to her and her strewn Cheetos.

So, no, I still haven’t eaten Cheetos since that day. Maybe it’s an odd side effect of this whole ordeal but I can’t help it. I know with time it will get better. I also know there are resources out there to work through what I’m feeling and if expressing it doesn’t help enough, I may need to explore those other avenues for self-healing.

I had heard people talk about finding their loved ones at home but never did I realize how impactful that experience can be on those left behind. I feel such empathy now for my friends and family who have gone through something similar. Grief can be sneaky, and it can creep up on you in the most subtle and unexpected ways. The challenge to defeat it is to accept it, express it, and learn from it.

Thanks for reading. ~ CK

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