uncomfortable confessional crap

You know, you get so used to your life that sometimes you fail to recognize how odd it is. Or how odd it seems to other people.

I was reminded of this recently. It was a pretty ordinary situation; I was with a friend in a dimly-lit hallway and there was a bit of light peeking out from beneath a closed door. I must have hesitated a bit before opening the door. Well, no, I know I hesitated a moment. I always do.

“What was that about?” my friend asked.

“What was what about?”

“That pause before you opened the door.”

pause a moment

I don’t talk about myself very often. I don’t really spend much time thinking about myself. I’m not very self-reflective. I’ve lived with myself my entire life, so there’s nothing really new there for me to learn. I’m aware that other people don’t hesitate before opening a door that has a light shining underneath it — but it doesn’t occur to me that it’s odd that I do it.

But when somebody else notices it, you sort of have to explain. And how do you do that? How do you tell somebody that when you approach a door in a dimly-lit hallway — a door with a light shining underneath it — that you hesitate because you always remember opening a similar door with a similar light and finding a dead guy hanging from a pipe? How do you do that without sounding all dramatic?

Because it’s really not dramatic. There’s just a moment — and seriously, it’s just a very brief moment — when you have to suppress an old spark of fear. I know I’m not going to open that door and see a dead guy hanging from a pipe. But my brain always says “Okay, prepare yourself for something horrible, then open the door.” And I open it and everything is okay.

I was a medic in the military. For most of my military career I was assigned to a large medical center, in a unit called Special Functions. I was part of a team that responded primarily to respiratory and cardiac emergencies. Most of what we did took place within the medical center; cardiac arrests, respiratory arrests, that sort of thing. But sometimes we’d be sent out on ambulance runs.

I don’t recall what sparked this particular run; somebody must have assumed there was a living person in some sort of respiratory distress. But there wasn’t. We responded to a hotel where somebody from the base worked part-time on a maintenance crew. The hotel staff directed us to the basement. Some sort of heating and air-conditioning facility.

So…dimly-lit hallway, light shining out from under the door.

The guy had been dead for a few days. All the bodily fluids had drained to his extremities, so his arms and legs were bloated and dark purple. His neck had stretched about a foot, so his feet were almost touching the floor. We were afraid that if we cut him down, the impact would cause his bloated feet to explode, so another medic and I had to support him while a third cut the — I don’t recall if it was a rope or a belt or a cord. Whatever he’d hung himself with. And, of course, there was the stink of putrefaction.

The whole event was pretty ghastly, but really it was just one of a number of ghastly things I’ve seen or done. I won’t say you get used to ghastly stuff, but you do become sort of inured to it. There have been other experiences that gave me nightmares for years, but that wasn’t one of them.

And yet I still flash on the image when I’m in a dimly-lit hallway and I see light under a doorway. To me, it’s not a big deal. Explaining it to somebody, though, is sort of embarrassing. Not because of what happened, but because of the way they look at you.

My friend said “You should talk about that stuff. You should write about it. Maybe you’ll get over it. Put it behind you.” So I said I would, because that was the easiest thing to say.

But here’s the thing: why would I want to put it behind me? Ugly things happen. They happen to everybody. I don’t want to forget them. I don’t mind that the memory of ugly things sometimes cause some minor disruption in my life. Ugly things are supposed to cause some disruption.

I know now what I should have said to my friend: “I still open the door. I always open the door. I’ll keep opening the door.” Because as long as you can open the door, that’s really all that matters.

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20 thoughts on “uncomfortable confessional crap

  1. That memory is a part of you. Why would you ever forget it? You could not possibly erase it from your mind. Thanks for sharing that. Your hesitation is just one small thing that makes you the thoughtful person your are. I’m just glad that you keep opening the door.

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    • It all sounds so much more dramatic than it actually was. Well, no, that’s not true. It was pretty dramatic at the time, but that was a long time ago. Now it’s just a bit of a pause before I open a door under certain circumstances. Now it’s no big deal.

      I guess that was my point — if you can call it a point. Opening the door isn’t a very big deal, so why fuss over it?

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      • You just wrote about the “why”. Yeah, yeah yeah. No big deal. But you did write about it and it meant something to you then and it still does now. So don’t negate the import of what you wrote or its meaning to you, and to the rest of us. It’s illuminating and valuable.

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  2. When I was about four, my dad came home (from work? at lunchtime? I don’t recall) and an argument ensued with my mother, culminating with him taking a belt to her as my two older brothers and I listened to it from the living room. I can still see us sitting together in a clump in and around my dad’s recliner. While this memory has since been scorched into my memory, my older brothers (three and nine years older, respectively) have no memory of it.

    There is nothing that spurs that memory for me… it just lingers. I’m not haunted by it; nor do I feel compelled to try to erase it. It’s part of my past, part of my story.

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    • Memory is some weird shit. It makes perfect sense to me that you’d never forget it…and that it doesn’t actually haunt you. Maybe it has something to do with accepting the reality of the situation, even if you hate it? I don’t know.

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  3. Seems to me a sign of strength, of learned adaptation, that you pause (learned fear response) and then go ahead and open the door (learned assessment of low potential of danger in that particular circumstance). Intense experiences get burned in there whether we like it or not, and I can’t believe you’d ever be able to erase it, nor should you, as you say. My dad had some of those responses for the rest of his life, but he couldn’t always bring himself to open those doors. I didn’t understand why, until very late in his life when he tried to explain a few of them to me. I probably gave him the Look too; it’s a shock and acutely painful to realize someone you care about has gone through such things. The fact that you can think on it and articulate it so well is a gift to the rest of us. Thank you.

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    • Thanks, Beckett. But I have to say, I really don’t think on it. I don’t try to avoid thinking about it, but it was a long time ago. And really, what is there to think about? It’s just a thing that happened.

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      • No, I get that it’s not a big deal in your everyday life, it’s just a small part of the history stuffed back in there, maybe a part of what makes you yourself, even if you don’t usually think on stuff like this. But I appreciate that in this particular instance, you did stop and consider your involuntary response and think on it enough to let us share your experience. So thanks for that.

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  4. Well said. I would guess there’s a hint of PTSD in there somewhere. Ever since my wife suffered a ruptured aneurysm over a decade ago, the sounds and smells of hospitals make me feel edgy, like “what hell will I be entering this time?”

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    • It’s weird how sights and smells and sounds can trigger emotions, isn’t it. Proust and his madeleine, and all that. Sorry about your wife.

      But yeah, I recognize the PTSD. It’s very mild, and barely disruptive at all.

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  5. Beautifully written and shared, as always. Sometimes we tell of ourselves so others may get insights no only unto ourselves, but into themselves as well. Thank you for sharing.

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    • Thanks. I doubt I’ll be talking about myself very much in the future, though. There’s so many other things I find more interesting. I only wrote this because I told my friend I would.

      Also? I’ve always liked that icon photo of yours.

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      • Thanks! I don’t ever think I will change it bedsides all else, I makes me smile, even when I don’t quite feel like it. :)

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  6. I love how Jody put it: the memory becomes a part of you. It’s true, even if it’s not something that haunts your dreams. It is a big deal, and it was dramatic. But I also found it touching that you and the other men that day took the time to carefully tend to that man days after his final moments. He
    didn’t know it, but someone was there for him and that means something.

    It may be hard to talk about too because nobody wants to talk about death. It’s a hard thing to talk about. It makes me wonder why we keep it to ourselves, and when we don’t, why do we feel apologetic about it? Thanks for sharing your story, it’s a brave piece of writing.

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    • Thanks Lisa. It was a big deal back then. Now…not so much. And I think you gave us too much credit. We were being careful with his body not so much out of empathy, but because of the potential mess. Medics become pretty matter-of-fact about dead folks, I’m afraid.

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  7. I think a lot of people have experienced something traumatic at least once in their lifetime, and I’m no exception. Inasmuch as I try to lose the unpleasant memories, they still creep back into my mind from time to time. Yet I continue to do my very best not to let them control me. Perhaps some day, like you, I may be willing to put them into words on paper or in a venue such as this.

    Again, Greg, very well written. And may I also say that, in response to the caption below your title, I hope you never have to get a real job.

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  8. “I’ve lived with myself my entire life, so there’s nothing really new there for me to learn.” Great line. Can I use it sometime?

    Like

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