It used to be called a fugue state. Remember that episode from Breaking Bad? Walter fakes a fugue state to cover up being kidnapped? Have you ever experienced such a thing? Like, for real?
I’ve been there, but I didn’t have a clue what was going on, nor what to call it. I knew perfectly well how to describe this warped reality after the fact – it’s the opening of my memoir Long Climb Back. It’s surreal. Out of body. A “dissociated” feeling, just like its’ name. Handy.
I just found out what to call it this past summer. You would have had to have been living on Mars in early July to have missed hearing about or seeing portions of Lavish Reynolds’ video – livestreamed on Facebook – showing the aftermath of the shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, by a Falcon Heights, Minneapolis police officer. In the video, Reynolds remains calm.
“You told him to get his ID sir, you told him to get his driver’s license,” she says, as her boyfriend lay dying beside her, bleeding profusely from several bullet wounds. She calls the officer “sir”. She pleads, “Oh my god, please don’t tell me he’s dead.” She doesn’t scream or tear at her hair, like in a Hollywood movie. She livestreams, for godsake! I mean, what is wrong with this woman?
A dissociated state! In an article written by Danielle Paquette for The Washington Post, a Harvard Medical School psychology instructor explains Reynolds’ odd behaviour. “People are literally not feeling in their body what is going on,” says Jim Hopper. “That circuitry can basically shut down. This is the brain on horror.”
He goes on to say that Reynolds’ act of livestreaming the event was something for her to hold on to, to focus on, to get her through the ordeal. “She’s grasping for dear life to these phrases, this phone,” he said. “You can think of it as a life raft to try to get through this.”
My circumstances were way less horrific than Lavish Reynolds’, so in turn, I guess my life raft was way less sensational. What did I do? Plucked from bed a dozen years ago to hear the dubious news that my healthy husband had suddenly dropped dead? I made coffee.
Enough Is Enough Blog says, “Trauma is any event which can make one feel unsafe in the world, and which affects the mind.” Besides the loss of a loved one, this list would include things like sexual abuse, political events (e.g. holocausts and wars) and natural disasters (e.g. tornadoes and earthquakes).
So, what happens in the body when it’s confronted with something traumatic? A rush of adrenaline, in preparation for fight or flight. A heightened state of alertness with attention focused on the immediate situation. Reynolds innately knew she couldn’t put her boyfriend back together again after that many shots were fired, so she focused on telling the world. In my case, if Hugh was in fact dead, which I highly doubted, it was clear to me that his entire family was in my house. I could see that truth. So, we’re staying awake long into the night? We’ll need coffee! I focused on the water, the pour, the filter, counting scoops (1-2-3-4-5-6). I pressed the ON button, heard a reliable gurgle. Making coffee was familiar. It made sense. I could understand and control it.
What else is happening in a body faced with trauma? Fear, anxiety, and/or anger.
I was sharing death stories with another woman recently and she told me how she found her husband cold, shook him, yelled, “Don’t be dead!”, performed CPR until the fire department arrived then told them all, “Get the f*** out!” because they were ruining a brand new entrance rug. There’s some anger for you.
For me, I guess anger was too active of an emotion. “It’s not unusual for a person to become detached and calm and seem to freeze,” says Enough Is Enough Blog. That was me. Watching from a distance as my mother-in-law told my son, who was home in bed. Calling my two girls. Telling them matter-of-factly, “Hey, your dad’s dead.” Hmmm. Unusual behaviour that is really not unusual because you simply cannot process the situation. It’s too much to take in all at once.
Anyway, I’m not one for labels, but it sure eases a lot of guilt to put a label on my behaviour that night. Hopefully, traumatic events are few and far between in your life, creating few opportunities for fugue states, or even reasons to fake them, like Walter White. I think most of us, though, end up with a life divided, like BC and AD. Hugh’s death did that to me. There was life before 11:19 pm November 29, 2004 (2119 in coroner’s lingo because he died in Edmonton, Alberta) and there is life after. I once felt safe. Death was far-off, distant. Hugh’s sudden death made it real and too damn close for comfort. Geez. Thanks a lot life, for doing that.
As the year on my personal AD rotates to 12, I’m buoyed by this great quote our daughter Randelle posted on Facebook, by author Jack Kerouac: “I hope it is true that a man can die and yet not only live in others but give them life, and not only life, but that great consciousness of life.” This is true of Hugh. And because he lived and this is true of him, it will be true for those who knew him and know of him. Now, get out there. “That great consciousness of life” continues!