IN THE MONTHS FOLLOWING the carjacking, I woke up a few times each night startled by sound. When I walked, my eyes patrolled the street. Adrenaline came in surges many times per day, like the tide on another planet. I couldn’t sit in my car when it wasn’t in motion.
First, I thought time was the answer. I would wait it out—a week, a month, a season. My mind began to turn in a tighter spiral. I thought I would try anything. As one treatment, I was asked to sit in the car and rate my fear on a scale of one to ten intermittently. These were called exposures. During the few minutes I managed, as promised, my fear peaked and fell. Learning how to watch my fear from the outside, as if an eel at an aquarium, didn’t help what had become most ragged, something I denied until the last possible minute, as my mind crumbled from beneath me: my soul.
The word had always embarrassed me. I thought it was because I took language seriously, and as a lifelong skeptic, even a cynic, soul felt like an allergy. The closest I came to imagining it was a wisp of smoke. Trite, cliché, hollow—everything I wanted to wring out of language. I had friends who could say it, and in their mouths, the word rang clear as a bell. Still, it made me blush—for them, for myself—that they felt animated by something beyond mind or body, and that they needed a word for it.
When I describe this person who didn’t believe in her soul, I mostly think she was lucky. I no longer spend time not liking her.
ALMOST IMMEDIATELY AFTER the carjacking, my brain began to flicker in every in-between place: hallways, alleys, parking lots, corners, roads. Scanning, measuring, guessing at what was safe and unsafe, until I was at the next place behind a door. Then, my circuits would calm until there was a loud sound, and my head would swing suddenly, like a dog toward a knock at the door.
My brain did all of this checking without me, and I could not find an off switch. This was the crux of the wildness that had come upon me. It was the first sense I had that my brain was not me, as it dragged me along like a forceful friend holding my hand.
I began to notice how I would situate myself in public places, with my back to a wall where I could see everyone come and go. The assumption: Someone is coming, someone is hiding. Will you see them before it’s too late and you’re pinned down? That’s how it felt as he pointed the gun at me, like I had a pin through my center, couldn’t have dreamed of moving, not even wiggling my useless arms.
IN DUTCH STILL-LIFE paintings, among the blocks of gouda, flayed artichokes, and glowing cherries, there is sometimes a fly. As symbol, it reminds us of decay. Even in the stillness of the painting, this can’t sit here all day.
A fly was buzzing about my days, hovering and alighting. At the stoplight, at the gas station, ahead of me on the sidewalk. Death, death, death.
THE MORNING THE MAN with the gun came toward me, my mind retreated, not to return for some time. My lizard brain woke up.
It was September and still warm in Michigan. I was at a gas station, just finished pumping. I never watched the security footage, but I know what it would show: a thin man, ticking with withdrawal and circling the car, while I am distracted like a soft-bellied thing in a nature documentary.
In the moment, nothing that could be described as a thought went through my mind. My mind was blank as a sheet. Everything narrowed, telescopic, toward the man in front of me. My body shifted backward, I raised my palms flat. I saw his face, then his mouth, then the black hollow of the gun, like a tunnel I was entering.
I was petrified, closer to the literal meaning than to the emotion, as if in stillness I could become impenetrable.
He folded himself into the car and disappeared quickly down the road, toward the biggest thing in the town of 500, the metal silo of the grain elevator.
My legs ran toward the gas station store, where I entered the world of the living, those with minds, the brain in a nice suit, who looked at me curious, then confused, then afraid.
When I asked a teenage clerk to lock the door, so certain the man would come back for me, the boy did so slowly, with his eyes on me. I was the only scary thing in sight. No one in the store saw what had happened.
I AM AWARE NOW, as I never was before, that the brain is an organ, created from bottom to top, a glass being filled.
The fearful part, toward the base of the brain, once lied sunning itself on a warm stone, asleep. That day it woke up, made me do what I needed to do: nothing, to step back, to give the car away. Once awoken, it was confused and restless, having been called upon in the most unlikely of places: among soybean and corn fields in the rural county where I grew up, on a Sunday morning where, everyone kept reminding me, this doesn’t happen.
THE MAN WAS FOUND later that same night at a fast food restaurant fifteen miles from the gas station. He had scored heroin, and no longer withdrawing, he was trying to figure out his next move when the blue police lights came flying into the neighboring small town.
While I recognized him from the moment I walked into the lineup—the curve of his head, how his ears stood out, his wide mouth—what set him apart from the other men was how still he was. His eyes were fixed on an imagined wall while everyone else moved naturally. Still enough to disappear. On the other side of the mirror, I had a chance to study him up close, old yellow lights humming behind him. I think he heard me shifting my weight, the sound I made when we were face to face, face to glass, closer than we had been the morning before.
From the detective, I learned he was homeless and living in the woods, that he had robbed people before for drug money. He had served short stints in prison and had been out for a couple of years. Through the detective, his mother told me how sorry she was. She had called the police when she saw the news story, feeling it was her son.
For weeks all I could think about was what would happen to him. Addicts laced my family tree as they do most, and prison was as unlikely to work this time as it had twice before. I wanted to fix this at the root (what was the root? ). I didn’t know then how I had fallen into a machine much larger than myself, how little what I did mattered. The detective said, as if to comfort me, “It could be life.”
Life life life.
Lapping at the shore of my conscience.
Even as he became crafty and demanding, causing me to appear for hearings only to waive them, or agreeing to a deal before reneging, I thought of the “habitual offender” status dangling in front of him, a supplemental charge that would cause his sentence to multiply by the sum of his past. Like watching himself be buried. If I were in his position, I would try anything too.
My empathy was real, but it was also an urgent distraction while waiting for whatever had been shaken up in my mind to settle, which I was sure, in time, it would.
EVERY MAN WHOSE HANDS I couldn’t see sent electricity through my body, made my breath go somewhere else, made my mind slip out the backdoor.
“IF YOU LOOK AT IT one way, he didn’t even touch you,” said the poetry professor, whom I loved. I drank my wine and nodded, wishing to disappear from her dinner table.
I held the same thoughts. She just put them into the air. It did nothing to sedate my wild brain, though I wished it would. Rationality was a badge I wore proudly, my stake in a wobbly world. I had always wanted my emotions to be airtight. But suppose you enter a different world. Suppose being afraid was the smartest thing you had ever done, your brain doing what it was made to do. But now it cannot turn off, because it knows. And then someone says, in response to a well-honed fear, as if you’re a child, “You know that would never happen—”
Living this way is like standing behind a one-way mirror. I can see you, but you can’t see me.
I WENT TO THERAPY for a couple of months where I was taught to swap out a toxic thought with one I could live with. I appreciated this low standard.
Thought: This man on the sidewalk is as likely as any to be dangerous.
Revision: There is nothing about this man that seems acutely dangerous.
I would try to sink my thoughts like enemy ships. To put my mind on a shorter leash. I wanted to get back to the world everyone else seemed to be living in, where they were astonishingly unafraid.
“THE SELF IS NOT the soul,” Fanny Howe wrote, but that was as close as I could get to a synonym. My self put a flag in the ground. My self stood knee-up at the bow of the ship like Washington over the Delaware. Self had a feeling of ownership. It was mine. The soul was slippery, shape-shifting, amorphous.
“It is the soul (coherence) that lives . . . in a potential state of liberty and harmony,” Howe says of childhood, “until the self replaces the soul as the fist of survival.”
In place of a soul I’d grown a self. It was large and flowering but had shallow roots. I couldn’t get over her parenthetical: (coherence). That simple. I had never felt less that my mind was part of my body, that my soul was part of my self. Your soul, like your skin, may be one of those things you don’t feel until it’s no longer intact. I was splintered, in pieces.
My soul had been dormant, like a bulb in cold soil, and now it was quaking.
THE THERAPIST HANDS me a paper that reads “The Linen Cupboard Metaphor.”
Memories in P T S D are a bit like items stuffed in a messy linen cupboard. Whenever you brush past the cupboard the door flies open and items fall out . . . a typical response is to try to stuff things back in the cupboard, and to close the door as quickly as possible. But this just keeps the problem going: memories are jammed in the cupboard, and the door will still swing open at the lightest touch.
Treatment for P T S D involves:
• slowly taking things out of the cupboard
• examining them carefully
• folding them neatly
• putting them back in the right place
Down to the bullet points, this metaphor soothed me. Yes, my mind was cluttered. Yes, I could put order to it, and she could help me, like an organizational guru, though it always seemed to me that the job of the professional organizer is to choose attractive boxes in which to put things, and so you are left with a closet full of boxes, in which things are hiding.
HEALING ISN'T LIKE THIS at all. It is like crossing a wide river at night. Wading in one step and then another until the silty bottom drops out. Going backward and going forward seem equally out of reach. All the while, you’re being pushed ahead by the sheer force of time.
“You cannot fold a flood / And put it in a drawer, —” Emily Dickinson wrote.
USING THE METAPHOR of an oyster making a pearl from a grain of sand, Psychologist James Hillman writes, “To get rid of the symptom means to get rid of the chance to gain what may one day be of greatest value, even if at first an unbearable irritant, lowly and disguised.”
Was it trite? Was it true?
THE ANGER OF OTHERS always came as a surprise. When the newspaper posted an article online about the carjacking, the commenters made fun of the man’s mugshot, how ugly, picking him apart. To my face, someone said, “I hope he burns.”
Don’t you know he has nothing? Or whatever is less than nothing. This is all subtraction.
THE MIND TRAINING of therapy helped, but it didn’t heal. Though it was my sole mission to eradicate it, my fear was a solution, if an outsized one. The problem: a violent world, the cornucopia of ways in which we hurt each other. I don’t remember talking about this deepest grief in therapy. I’m not sure I knew it was there yet, like turning on a faucet without being aware of the well below.
SOUL: “The original concept . . . is thought to mean ‘coming from or belonging to the sea (or lake),’ because of the Germanic and pre-Celtic belief in souls emerging from and returning to sacred lakes.”
The following spring, the part of me that crawled out of any ancient lake was lying on the shore, unable to keep going.
WHAT BROUGHT ME to my soul was something else, a second thing.
One day, six months after the carjacking, I—a woman who is hoping her fear will slowly dissipate like fog—stepped out of my apartment and into the hallway. I was taking my cat to the vet and holding a heavy pet carrier.
As I shut the door, I see a man leaning against the wall a few feet from me. I probably smiled. Then what I see is his thumb raising and lowering the angled blade of a box cutter, level with his shoulder, and looking at me intently. This man had just been painting an apartment with a group of other men, who are now gone, and it is just me and him, pinned at the end of an empty hallway. Me and him and the box cutter. Actually, another man is here. I see him as I turn to walk away. He plants himself along my path to the stairs. No one says anything. The boxcutter growing longer, or shorter, I don’t know. I’ve stopped looking. I walk quickly, then descend down the stairs, as quickly as I can holding the carrier. Someone trails behind me but at a distance. I reach my car, where I’m not yet aware that I’m holding my breath, or maybe panting, and then I drive all the way to where I’m going, a low sound escaping from my mouth, before I park the car, fold in half, and wail.
IN THE POEM “In a Dark Time,” Theodore Roethke writes, “What’s madness but nobility of soul / At odds with circumstance?”
THE MAN, THE BLADE, the other man, the stairs, the car, the road, the man, the blade, the other man, the running, the engine starting, the moan slipping out like a tea kettle boiling.
IT IS HARD TO TELL A STORY that didn’t happen, a plot than never coalesced. And yet it wounded me fully and cemented the deeply-rooted and unsolvable problem: possibility. Anywhere, anytime. In the morning by the cornfield, outside my door in the middle of the day. Never mind the street, the night, all the places we’ve been taught to be afraid.
“You were in luck—there was a forest. / You were in luck—there were no trees. / You were in luck—a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake, / A jamb, a turn, a quarter-inch, an instant,” Wislawa Szymborka, the Polish poet, writes of chance in the poem, “Could Have.” She continues:
“So you’re here? Still dizzy from
another dodge, close shave, reprieve?
One hole in the net and you slipped through?”
Yes, one hole in the net and I slipped through.
Because he thought I had a dog inside the carrier.
Because I acted as if I didn’t know what was happening.
Because it was daytime.
Because I moved quickly.
Because the second man came too late.
Because I imagined all of it.
Because they lost their nerve.
“TRUST ME IF IT COULD have went down, if—if—if it could have gone down any other way . . . ” said the man who robbed me in a final police interview.
BRAIN SCANS OF PEOPLE with post-traumatic stress show oxygen leaving the language center of the brain, the Broca’s region, when they are in fight-or-flight mode. Language swept out and away like a tide. Or, like the phrase the air was sucked out of the room. I can see the man with the gun, the man with the box cutter, but they are not made of words. What I render here is silhouette.
As the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer writes of jellyfish, “if you take them out of the water their entire form vanishes, as when an indescribable truth is lifted out of silence . . . they are untranslatable, they must stay in their own element.”
When I say afraid, I am always inferring a missing piece—[for my life.]
I WENT TO THE VET appointment where I proceeded as if nothing had happened. It was a necessity of living in those months—to be terrified but to assume my brain had miscalculated, that I had imagined it. The only way I lived with the dailiness of my fear was to doubt it, though it didn’t make it go away, instead kept me trudging forward with it beside me.
What had happened in the end, nothing? At home I went limp, eyes staring off into middle-distance as I circled, then was sucked into, what didn’t happen, why it didn’t, if it was going to happen again.
The months I had spent with my mind on a leash were all undone. The thought revisions were a game to trick me into safety. My denial, so thorough and headstrong, had eroded week by week until I existed as a trip wire. This was beneath my awareness. I sometimes would be nearly out of breath and didn’t even recognize it was from fear, fleeing something. I kept going—to the store, to work, forward.
“As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself,” writes psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk. “The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know.”
The man with the box cutter affirmed what I knew but tried to reject as anomaly after the carjacking: the world was unsafe and unpredictable. Those who did not know this were lucky, as I was once. A violent thing could happen at any time, and it could happen again, like rare lightning. Even being afraid couldn’t prevent it. “Of the world as it exists, it is not possible to be enough afraid,” philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote.
I BECAME SICK AND THIN. Drinking even a glass of water caused a sharp pain at the top of my stomach, like being skewered. For once, I did not go to work.
The soul can stage acts of defiance to save us.
I just mistyped soul as “whole.”
KATIE FORD'S POEM “The Soul,” ends this way:
“It was that it didn’t need
or require my belief
that I leant upon it
as a tired worker
The soul was my henchman, my conductor, the woman upstairs whose footsteps I heard but did not see. The needle on a compass leading me first deeper in.
I PICK UP A BOOK called The Wild Edge of Sorrow. On the cover, a painting of a flaring sunset behind water grass. The book says many things that embarrass me, and I can’t stop reading it. The book says broken heart, grief, soul activism, alchemy.
The sorrow book tells me, “No part of us releases in a state of judgment. The overly critical mind creates a state of contraction, whereas compassion softens and makes possible a state of beginning, a fresh and unshaped ripeness.”
I wanted to be ripe. I was so soft with pain I could feel the flies coming on.
READING DID SOMETHING for me speaking could not. It allowed me to try on self-compassion in secret. At first it felt soft and illicit. The ideas sat on the surface of my mind but in time began to soak in. Reading put new voices in with the old ones, and cleared out the debris like a good fire.
THE MAN WHO ROBBED ME has written me a letter. The detective says he asks for letters to provide victims some closure. He also says it is another admission of guilt for the file. There is nothing pure in this process, I am reminded, and wonder if the detective has already made a copy.
The letter is on lined notebook paper, folded into a small rectangle. My name is traced over and over in a pebbly cursive, like love notes from boys in high school. The sight of his handwriting, my name. It’s hard to describe why it matters. After all this time, standing across from him as he robbed me, studying him from behind the one-way mirror at the line up. Here he is. The immediacy of seeing my name, like a voice in my ear, opening me.
His second daughter was born while he was in jail. His first has learned to walk, but he wasn’t there to see it. He says he is a good person when he is clean and sober. He says he is a human who has made a big mistake and will pay dearly for it. He hopes for forgiveness, but hesitates in asking. I want to say: you don’t need it and it is already done.
The legal process, the hearings and lies and deals, went on for nearly a year. Why won’t he let me go, I thought, until I was reminded that he was fighting for his life. We weren’t opponents, and he wasn’t holding me back from anything. I was swimming upstream, away from what was happening, and then became tired, stopped swimming, and began to float.
At sentencing, the judge states that the man is to have no contact with me, something I did not realize I might want until the door was closed on it.
HIS WANT, LIKE MY FEAR, are essential functions of the brain seeking what is required to survive. Just enough want, just enough fear—the balance labels us as human, as civilized. But these drivers can become overactive and intensified, like a broken machine whirring away. It is the natural vulnerability of our system. The drug, the fear, become substitutes, shoddy symbols for what we really want: acceptance, love, safety. All of the abstractions I resist naming. Instead, we have heroin to soothe, adrenaline to make ready. If nothing else, I wanted to mourn the right thing.
ANNE CARSON WRITES: “I wonder if there might not be another idea of human order than repression, another notion of human virtue than self-control, another kind of human self than one based on dissociation of inside and outside. Or indeed, another human essence than self.”
THE WISP OF SMOKE I imagined earlier, my stand in for the soul, I know what it is now, of course: a sign of human life. That little fire.
“POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS, a disorder that is so often viewed as a problem of neuroscience,” writes journalist and former Marine David J. Morris, “is perhaps better thought of as a social wound, a damaging of the intricate web of relations that keeps a person sane and tethered to the world.”
Please don’t hurt me. Is that the message we are all, at each moment, putting out into the universe?
COMPASSION MEANSto suffer with. I don’t mean to say I am good or righteous. I mean to say, a stone is dropped and we reverberate into one another like water.
IN THE SORROW BOOK there is an anecdote about the author apprenticing to be a psychoanalyst. There is a rock sitting on a table in the elder therapist’s office. He puts his hand on it and tells the student it is his clock because “the soul operates at geologic speed.” He points to a small clock next to it. “It hates this.”
I GET A LETTER in the mail, informing me that I’ve been enrolled in victim information services. In bold, the year 2031, his earliest parole date, fourteen years away. The number crushes my chest like a ball of paper.
“WHATEVER WE PUT INTO the shadow doesn’t sit there passively waiting to be reclaimed and redeemed,” says the sorrow book, “it regresses and becomes more primitive.”
The snarling animal in me, the closer I got to it, something shook loose. As I learned to keep it in my lap for a moment, a feeling of relief like a flood receding, an animal turning away.
IT’S HARDER, SOMEWHOW, to bring the suffering up to the ground floor, to live with the living, my friend writes me in a letter. I’m used to visiting it in the basement. The invalid animals of my life. But increasingly, there they are, at the table, asking for the salt. Fine. Fine.
FEAR GNAWED ON MY BODY. When I began to feel safe again, it was like coming up from a cellar after a storm, the green sky still and moving farther away.
THERE ARE SO MANY WAYS to create the illusion of forward movement, like when a train rolls past in the opposite direction. Forward, onward, and the next. I wanted to be past all this the moment it happened.
You have probably done this too, thought you could be faster, more ambitious, than your pain.
Each time I was pulled backward by the fear, I was angry and impatient that it kept interrupting my real life. But this, but this, but this.
And, and, and—the word keeps circling back to me like a dog without a leash. It has its own orbit.
But—all of the subtraction by loss. His life, his years. How brutal the world. You see, the sorrow has made me earnest.
And—The soul moves at geologic speed. And. Life less as a balance sheet and more as a current, carrying all of it.
Water, life, keeps rushing and rushing over us, slowly changing our shape—too slowly to even be perceptible. I want to believe we are becoming finer things. Not more beautiful but softer.
LIA GREENWELL is an essayist and poet currently at work on a book about fear. Her work has appeared in the Missouri Review, Kenyon Review online, Witness, and Ruminate among other publications. She is a graduate of the M F A Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and has received scholarships from the Rona Jaffe Foundation and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Lia has taught creative writing to high school and college students through the Girls Write Now program in New York City and as the 2015 Joan Beebe Graduate Teaching Fellow at Warren Wilson College. She lives in Detroit, Michigan.