The Phantom Pain

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Are these fears healthy and prudent? Or are they irrational and holding us back?
Are these fears healthy and prudent? Or are they irrational and holding us back?

It was a typical winter day in Ohio.

Around 9 a.m.

Co-workers were milling around, getting coffee and chatting.

I work in a large, shiny office building with hundreds of people. Our building sits along an Interstate a few miles outside the city.

Me and five others have desks nestled in a corner of the second-floor corporate offices. Huge windows line the walls, giving us a view of a busy two-lane road outside.

A typical winter day in Ohio generally consists of snow-covered grass and below-freezing temperatures. Moisture on the roads can freeze into an invisible layer of ice. Black ice, it’s called.

Driving the speed limit is encouraged in such conditions.

On this particular morning earlier this year, one driver didn’t get the memo.

He was driving a plain white contractor’s minivan. Recklessly. More than 80 miles per hour in a 35 mile-per-hour zone, the police said.

He lost control.

Through the large bullet-proof glass windows of our office, we all heard the sound of screeching tires, then a series of loud bangs as the van barrel-rolled across the road, taking out one of our company’s medium-sized trees, and slamming into six cars in our parking spaces nearest the road.

The driver was ejected and thrown headfirst through the windshield of a green BMW that had just gotten out of the body repair shop the day before. It was the last thing he ever did.

Now, those parking spaces are called “Death Row,” here. There is a mulch circle where the tree used to be.

Those spaces used to fill up pretty early in the morning. Now, many people are hesitant to park there.

As if the van crashing into them, and that man dying, makes it more likely that something bad will happen again, when—weather aside—the statistical probability of car accidents happening right there are the same every day.

It’s a Human Thing

We knee jerk. It’s what we do.

Terrorists fly planes into buildings. Then we’re terrified to fly.

I lived in Toledo, Ohio in September 2001. They evacuated the tallest building downtown that day. It’s only 33 stories. New York City alone has well over 100 buildings taller than that.

Remember your first trip to a movie theater after all of those people were shot and killed watching The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colo.? Mine was a few days later. To see that very movie. There were extra policemen in theaters everywhere. I did think more about rogue gunmen that night than I normally would.

Similarly, not long after the D.C. sniper situation, some asshole with a rifle in Ohio was shooting drivers on their morning commutes just outside of Columbus. People everywhere were thinking about getting shot just driving their cars after that.

Whenever I walk into rooms in my house where I’ve seen the biggest spiders, I always catch myself looking in those same spots for them as if they’re most likely to show up there.

There are countless examples of this completely illogical, yet ever-present mental and emotional reflex many of us have to traumatic news or unpleasant situations.

Which brings me to…

My Next Relationship

I talk a pretty big game about wanting to meet someone. To eliminate the loneliness. To share moments. To connect on the kind of level that brings people together in meaningful ways.

But, like those people shaken when stepping on airplanes those first days, weeks and months following the Sept. 11 attacks; like those people nervous about walking into movie theaters after the Aurora shooting; and like everyone at my office hesitant to park in “Death Row,” I have an almost-involuntary aversion to letting myself get too close to another human being again.

I want to. In my head.

I believe inner peace and happiness lie there.

I believe satisfying physically intimate relationships lie there.

I believe a balanced life lies there.

But it does something funny to my chest. To my insides.

This idea of letting someone in again.

I’ve written about the feelings of rejection from my short-lived online dating experiment.

And other incidents have popped up where I realize just how fragile I am now.

I feel angry when people I care about are mistreated by their partners.

I feel concerned when people I care about have doubts about their relationships.

I feel sad when people don’t like me as much as I like them.

And it hurts when someone pushes me away. Whatever their reason may be.

More specifically, I feel all of these things more acutely than I ever have before.

The anger burns hotter. The concern, more pronounced. The sadness, heavier.

The pain? It scares me now in ways I’ve never experienced.

People who shouldn’t be able to hurt me can hurt me now. Little things that might seem silly and meaningless evoke feelings similar to when my wife expunged me from her life.

It’s like a layer of mental and emotional toughness has been stripped away, leaving me frail and weak. Vulnerable. Easy to damage.

Does this type of wound heal? Will scar tissue form? Is it possible to reacquire the armor I once possessed?

I don’t know.

Maybe time will heal this wound. Making me healthier.

But in the meantime, I have to ask myself some hard questions about what I’m willing to endure. What I’m capable of enduring.

Am I going to let a relative stranger in enough to hurt me the way my ex-wife did?

Am I going to ruin potentially good things by keeping people at a distance?

Am I being illogically reflexive? Irrational? Am I avoiding perfectly adequate parking spaces due to fears that don’t make sense?

At some point, I’m going to have to be honest with myself and others about these questions and answers.

Because I don’t want to live recklessly.

I don’t want to lose control.

I don’t want to end up a victim of self-destructive behavior.

Dead, but on display. Like that man on the BMW.

Unable to remind those looking on in horror to keep on living.

And to do so unafraid.

12 thoughts on “The Phantom Pain”

  1. Hi. Your take on life is inspiring, yes after the 9/11 I think many people were afraid. Afraid to live, the way I see things is that if we keep questioning life, love, work, spiders etc etc, we constantly grow spiritually and get wiser. I am not saying we become Know-it-alls, that for the guys much younger than us! Kidding.

    And then we least expect it life happens and we either stand by and be a spectator or a player. Thanks again for your posts. Ivan

  2. Here are a few lines from my poem, “Life is never fair.”
    Go through life with laughter
    Moving forward you will see
    The dreams which did matter
    Might become a reality

  3. I believe, when you met someone you are drawn to…and comfortable with letting in, you will. Trust your gut…but in time you will have to actively allow yourself to be open. It’s not a guarantee that you will never be hurt again. There is no way to say that will never happen again…but that is never a reason to not be open to the possibilities.

    1. I philosophically agree with this strongly.

      However, no matter how much I don’t want my leg to kick when the doc hits me with that little triangle mallet thingy, my leg involuntarily kicks because of my natural Spider-Man like reflexes.

      I want to be open. But I may involuntarily protect myself. We’ll see. I really have no idea what I’m talking about.

      1. None of us really do…that’s the beauty of it. 🙂
        I have the same reflexes myself…Oh, you want to be nice to me…well let me put this 20 foot steel wall up and show you.

        The trick it to keep trying…and not give up.

  4. You’re still really fresh Matt… it’s hard to imagine your life different, your heart stronger and your braveness returning… but I guarantee you that it will…
    Love might kick you in the jejunum again, it fucking happens, but you will have better skills to cope with it, learn from it and move on.
    I have faith in you.
    Just don’t take anything in my life as an example, my dysfunction knows no bounds…

    1. It’s funny. I was really gung ho about dating when this all went down.

      And now?

      Not so much.

      I appreciate the reminder to at least try and exercise patience. Thank you.

      1. I’m not sure what it says about the state of the world when I’m actually the voice of reason….
        But I’ll be here to remind you whenever I think you’ve forgotten ?

  5. Cut yourself some slack – you’re still mourning. There’s no timetable to go by. You’ll be ready when you’re ready.

    I went through a series of relationships in my twenties that left me completely shut down emotionally. I had ZERO interest in dating for a long time. I equated relationships with pain and I had no desire to go through it again. Gradually, that changed and honestly, after taking time to think about what it is that I’m looking for, I’m more open to now than I ever was before. It will happen for you too. Of that I have no doubt.

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Matt Fray

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