In retrospect, it was a predictable and preventable relapse. Here is the rough order of events leading up to the day I died in the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition:
September: Separated from my husband of 11 years.
October: Las Vegas shooting.
December: 20th Anniversary of the shooting at Heath.
January: Shooting in Marshall County, Kentucky. (This is the first time I ever spoke publicly about my experience. That was January, you all. 10 months ago.)
February: Shooting in Parkland, Florida.
I am not always deeply affected by mass shootings, but the heightened attention and public discourse about gun violence, sustained over time, really got to me. So many active shooter drills. So many facebook landmines to dodge!! So many people making uninentionally hurtful comments. The Marshall County shooting was a breaking point for me. It hurt in a way I honestly did not know I could hurt. I could relate so personally and deeply to those students and that school. I literally thought constantly about them, feeling what I knew they were feeling at each moment. By Valentine’s Day (my first Valentine’s Day as a single person), I was a disaster. I was not eating, and barely sleeping. I had panic attacks and flashbacks every day. My body wasn’t functioning, and I had developed a host of mysterious autoimmune symptoms that my doctor couldn’t understand or explain. My hair was falling out in clumps, and I was losing weight. But the strangest thing was my emotions. Inside, I was an angry, frightened 18 year old girl who had just watched her brother murder her friends - emotionally, I was Kelly Carneal. But I had a 40 year old brain with a degree in Clinical Psychology, which watched the whole thing with curiosity and sort of marveled at my unraveling.
In retrospect, I should have been medicated. Maybe hospitalized. I was overcome with this constant foreboding - I was absolutely certain I was going to die. I told several people that, but they didn’t seem to realize how much I was spiraling. My safety net had deteriorated, and the people around me didn’t really know how to be helpful. I tried several times to reach out for help, but I was woefully ineffective at communicating my needs, or receiving help. My brain knew the effective things to do, but my feelings would just spray out everywhere at seemingly random times. Intellectually, I knew I was in trouble. But I was emotionally incapable of . . . well . . . anything. Incapable of functioning, incapable of asking for help, incapable of receiving help. I was completely hopeless to change the trajectory of this relapse, and I knew it.
So when the crash came that day in the Heroin Coalition meeting, I felt sweet, sweet relief. I can still feel my cheek on that cool, dirty linoleum floor. It felt like submission, and submission felt like hope. Finally, it was all going to change! My universe would be rearranged. And it was. In short order, I found myself divorced, unemployed, homeless. Some of these things were by choice, and some were by consequence. And while it all looked like stress to the outside, it all felt like freedom! Like happiness! Like joy! It was the best thing that had ever happened to me.
This will sound insane to some of you, and make complete sense to others. You see, for 20 years, I showed up. I showed up for school. I showed up for work. I showed up for meetings. Even when I was having panic attacks and flashbacks, I showed up. Even when I was hurting and angry, I showed up. Even when I was ashamed and lonely, I showed up. I also showed up for people, for my family, for causes and issues. I was proud of my ability to show up. I thought it was proof that was strong and resilient. But for the first time in my adult life, I had nothing to show up for.
Nothing, that is, but me. And so I made a big, calculated, and life-changing decision. For six months, I decided, would show up for my own life. I made a conscious decision to stop. And I would not show up for anyone or anything but Kelly Carneal - that 18 year old girl who had taken over my emotional life. She needed to grow up, and she needed to do it differently than she did last time. In 1997, Kelly Carneal did not stop after the shooting. She was scared and she was angry, but she went on. She went back to school, she graduated on time, she went on to college, then to grad school. That girl was a force. A rock. She plowed through it! She was widely praised and admired for that thing, and it became her go-to strategy for life. In retrospect, that was the thing I needed to do back then - I had to prove to myself that I could conquer all that trauma and fear. And I did! I can. I still conquer things, but I’d realized that it isn’t always the healthiest way of being. I needed to learn some new skills. I needed to learn how to stop fighting.
So I got a redo, and I did it differently. Instead of fighting my feelings, I embraced them. Instead of conquering, I started letting defeat in. What I didn’t realize then was that would be the first of many times that I’d revisit and redo that first year of my life after the shooting. You see, as soon as I showed up for my life, it started to show up for me. In big and magical ways!! Giving in to the crash allowed me to revisit every moment, feel it, and look at it with a new set of eyes. And by the time Kelly Carneal grew up again, I developed a whole new appreciation for her, the thing she overcame, and for the life she gave me. Did she do everything perfectly? Oh, God no. But any reasonable person would say she did a pretty dang good job, given the circumstance. BECAUSE THE CIRCUMSTANCE WAS INSANE, YOU ALL!!!
I had coffee recently with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. After we chatted and did the “What have you been up to?” catch up (which is a BIG catch up for me these days!), he looked at me and said, “You somehow seem different. How do you feel?”I thought for a few minutes. The distance between my heart and my head is very far, and sometimes it takes me a while to get words for my feelings. In this case, I couldn’t do it on the spot. I waved my hands up and down and said “I feel like this. I don’t have a word for it.” But about 24 hours later, the word came to me, and I texted him.
“Anchored. I’m not drifting through the world anymore. I feel anchored.”
So for the first time in my adult life, I feel anchored. I can look at myself with empathy, and I can even appreciate my crazy ass story. And for the first time in my adult life, I feel like a whole person. A person with a past, a present and a future. Kelly Carneal Firesheets.
And that, my friends, was worth dying for.