I had been seeing her for a few weeks, and today’s session was no different from any of the others. I sat in her Chicago office nervously spewing my life’s stories, some from the present but most from the past, all the while hoping desperately for answers to the questions I was too afraid to ask. Why couldn’t I feel happiness? Why couldn’t I maintain a relationship? What was wrong with me?
As usual, she nodded occasionally, took random notes and said nothing. There were no comforting words. No supportive smiles. Does she think I’m crazy? Should I keep talking? How is this helping me?
Fifteen minutes into the session, I knew I couldn’t tolerate her stoic expression anymore. I couldn’t bear to regurgitate another story from my string of failed romances or my troubled relationship with my father and stepmother. If she wasn’t going to offer a diagnosis, I would have to ask for one. I wanted a label, something to which I could attach the pain, the fear, the emptiness. If I gave it a name, perhaps it would finally go away.
So I did it. I asked her the question I was most afraid to ask. I asked her what was wrong with me.
And she gave me the label I thought I wanted to hear: post-traumatic stress disorder.
But how could that be? I was a 26-year-old magazine editor. I had never served in the military or held a dangerous job. I had never been the victim or witness of a violent crime. How could I have PTSD?
She explained that children who lose a parent at a young age often experience PTSD symptoms, even into adulthood. My mother had died when I was a toddler. I had no memory of her death or any effect it might have had on me. But there it was: the reason I couldn’t visualize my own future, the reason I felt perpetually detached from others, the reason happiness seemed constantly out of reach, the reason change terrified me.
I had lived with my mother’s death all my life, yet I had no idea, until that moment, how much it had haunted me.
* * *
Several friends back home had told me about the “Love Lock” bridge in Paris, where couples attach locks to symbolize their undying love, and I had hoped to visit it during our family’s trip there earlier this month. But when you cram London, Paris and Amsterdam into a seven-day visit, some things just don’t make the cut on your itinerary. When we stumbled upon the bridge during our walk to Notre Dame, I was thrilled at the chance to squeeze it into our adventure.
Our visit to the bridge was unplanned, so we had to buy a lock and borrow a marker from a street vendor. I wrote our last name and the year on it, while my husband and children searched for a vacant spot on the lock-laden bridge. Apparently there is a lot of undying love in the City of Light. When we finally settled on a location and affixed the lock, I was overwhelmed with emotion. This trip had been both an ending and a beginning for us. Summer was over and my oldest child was about to start high school. I had spent much of the past few months struggling with my own fears about the changes in his life and ours. I had been worrying so much about all the bad things that could happen that I hadn’t been able to see the good.
As we stood there on that bridge in Paris — my husband of almost 18 years, my 14-year-old son, my 12-year-old daughter and 45-year-old me — I imagined my kids returning to it as adults. I saw them married with children of their own. I pictured my husband and me coming back as silver-haired grandparents. I knew we would be holding hands, and I knew we would still be in love.
On that bridge with my family, I saw the future for the first time in my life. And it was happy.