It has been generally accepted and widely known that something happened when I was in Jordan. Its easily pinpointable on the timeline of my life of when things started to shift within me. Up until today I just assumed along with everyone else it just happened to be when my myriad of mental illnesses really reared their ugly multiple heads. I was 20, unmedicated with no professional help, in complete denial of my previous diagnoses, everything changed, when I came back to the states I started to spiral into what on the surface seemed like classic bipolar episodes of extreme mania, depression, and general self destruction – it seemed a simple enough logical explanation.
That’s not what happened.
In the past few weeks something has been bubbling up that I’ve been struggling trying to grasp. The first inkling was when in group therapy a series of incidents between 2 other participants happened and my major comment on the situation towards one of the individuals was “I simply can’t fathom how you can’t see the effect your actions/comments have on other people. How can you not see?”
In my followup individual session my therapist prodded me with what was underlying the comment, saying that it was obvious how deeply upsetting the issue was to me. It was then that I realized that I just cannot understand how anyone can not consider the effect of their words or actions on others. This led to realizing how blinding my own world view can be. I am a compassionate and empathetic person, and the idea that there are people in the world who are simply not the same way deep down was baffling to me. I never understood how my ex could do the things he did with what I now understand as a complete innate blindness to the consequences to me. The same with my father. How could he not see? How could he genuinely not understand? How could he believe that I wasn’t ill and was just an attention-seeking disaster? I didn’t get it.
Earlier this week was the 100th anniversary of what is widely considered the official start of World War I – Britain’s declaration of war against Germany. I understand that being half-British I may have been closer to the issue than most, and that my genuine passion towards history, politics, international relations and conflict resolution also played a part in me being more affected than most. But something kept stirring within me. For those unaware, part of the one of the speeches given over radio in Britain on the day of declaration included the phrase “the lights are going out across Europe, never to been seen again in our lifetime.” The enormity of the situation was staggering. In memoriam, at the same time the declaration was issued 100 years ago, all across Britain and even throughout parts of Europe the lights – all of them – were literally turned off. A single candle or light was placed in the doorway for the night in remembrance. The photos, and the gesture itself, took my breath away. Buckingham Palace, pitch black but for the light at the main door. A single candle outside 10 Downing Street (the residence of the Prime Minister). All of London black and silent but for the flickering lights of candles at doors.
A facebook post from a friend in England stating she was in tears driving home from work late that night at the sight. The somber and incredulously devout necessity to remember, and consider, what had happened. Here in the US there wasn’t a single mention on the news. I lit a candle outside my door and stood in the dusk and watched it burning, partially not caring that no one else seemed to understand or feel the need to consider the issue, partially incredulous at the fact.
Last night my mom mentioned that she didn’t think we had been talking as much. Sure, we spoke every day, but there seemed to be a lack of communication. Something stirred again as I drove over to her house to just talk. It started pouring out – what had happened in therapy, how deeply upset I was about the lack of observation of the anniversary stateside… then slowly it started to happen. I was starting to realize that all of humankind is not deep down innately good, thoughtful, benevolent, kind, compassionate, and that this was deeply disturbing and confusing to me. Why are people mean? How can someone not care – not just on any given issue or towards a particular person per se, but in the grander sense? Why are people rude? War? Plague? How can the default position not be a genuine desire to understand and fix everything and create a greater happiness? My mom interjected “You know, you used to tell me all the time that you were going to fix the Middle East. You were so confident.” My reply? “Mom, back then and up until this very second, I truly believed with every fiber of my being that I could. That anyone could.” It also came to light that I believed that just about everything in the whole world – from domestic issues to Ebola – could be bettered with a conversation. Why would anyone refuse to sit down and genuinely try to help with compassion and understanding towards fellow humankind?
Today before therapy I was exponentially nervous. I knew something was coming. I started telling my therapist everything I’ve told you. My therapist asked how I viewed my mom, who I consider to be my closest friend and the person with the most impact on my development in regards to the same issues. Turns out I see her as the absolute epitome of kindness, compassion, and understanding. Somehow I ended up posing what I thought was a rhetorical question: How could the happiest time in my life be the time that I was in a war zone apparently on the verge on mental collapse? I was SO HAPPY.”
Then, the true question: “What happened in Jordan?”
The answer: not anything even close to what I thought.
I don’t know how we covered so much ground in an hour, or exactly how the revelations came about, but here it is – THIS is what happened in Jordan.
I went there believing I was well on my way to saving the world. I mastered the language, reveled in the culture, and was on the highest high of my life. Several little things about my trip now seem worth mentioning:
1) My host family was comprised of a doctor, a journalist, and 3 people who worked for UNHCR – The United Nations High Commission for Refugees – kind, compassionate, good, hopeful people. I still consider the sons of that wonderful family my brothers.
2) My time spent touring, helping in, and playing with the children of the Palestinian refugee camps was the most genuine joy I had ever experienced – the residents and workers there were kind, compassionate, good, hopeful people.
3) The day I spent on the Jordanian border with Iraq, in a makeshift camp in hellscape of neverending desert sandstorms encased in barbed wire that was a Hail Mary during the sudden refugee crisis as a result of the height of the 2004 American led attacks on Iraq, was what changed me. And until today, I have never told anyone what I saw.
I can summon an exact replica of that camp and its people in my mind in an instant. It was despair that could have come straight from Dante. It was hopelessness. It was my antithesis. It was what I thought I had the power to change, but it was my country that did this in the first place. And there was no hiding the plain fact that I was American.
The people of the camp flooded our small group, wailing, begging, pleading for help. Showing us their burns and shrapnel wounds. Telling us their stories. On their knees telling us what cities their children were still in and begging us – personally – to stop the bombings. Stop the war. Why were we doing this to them? “Please, in the name of God, help us” – showing us pictures of the carnage on the other side of the border, pleading for mercy. Then there were those who simply silently, stoicly, continued to stare into the abyss of the red/orange desert sandstorm and the smoked over sky.
There were two people under medical care, but not for what you’d immediately expect. One was a heavily pregnant woman under what I now realize was suicide watch. When I asked the camp workers why, their eyes went almost blank as they told me in a bone-chillingly flat affect. She was continually trying to self-abort by any meager means available to her. This included throwing herself, stomach first, repeatedly, onto rocks. In her own words, “how can I bring a child into this? All hope is lost.” The other was a middle aged man wearing what I can only describe as a “Cosby sweater.” Colorful designs made of thickly spun threads. Parts of the sweater were missing, holes where it was threadbare. His face and lips were swollen and caked in dried blood and strangely patterned scarred wounds. He fashioned crude needles out of who knows what, pulled the yarn from the only garment he escaped with, and repeatedly sewed his own mouth shut. I was told his explanation for the behavior was something to the effect of “I no longer need to speak. What is the point? No one is listening.”
I didn’t cry. We all were silent on the four hour ride back across the sprawling desert to Amman. My host family knew where I had been. They knew. But they didn’t ask, we didn’t talk about it. They made a big traditional dinner and we all stayed up late that night together. In hindsight I think they didn’t want me to be left alone.
Until today I never realized that what was bubbling inside of me now burst forth without warning 10 years ago this fall. That my world view was rocked. And that I couldn’t take it. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to process. I didn’t go crazy indiscriminately. There was a trauma, a trigger – and I did the best I could to handle it.
This realization of the horrific truth of the world order, evidence of inimaginable suffering and despair – this didn’t start a few weeks ago. It happened 10 years ago. My world changed that day. I couldn’t process, evaluate, or begin to understand. I didn’t have a random manic episode. I consciously chose to stop attending my university classes and live my life. Try to recapture the joy. Explore, travel, spend time with people, find the happiness again in anything I could. And I did – I put that day in a box on a shelf in the very back of the attic of my mind. That’s why I look so happy in the pictures. That’s why I look back so fondly on my time there. Because I was, in the beginning, truly exuberant and joyful. And after that day I made it my mission to find that again.
It’s true that that was the beginning of the spiral. Not going to those classes, combined with serious drinking and partying upon my return to the US, led to my being kicked out of the Honors program I was so proud to be a part of and eventually dropping out of college when my lack of credits at the end of my senior year caught up with me. The shame surrounding those consequences still haunts me. And yes, all these events probably did align with, as well as definitely exacerbate and possibly actually cause my previously dormant symptoms.
But I didn’t go indiscriminately crazy. I was traumatized and my entire belief system shifted. But I didn’t know what was happening, much less what to do about it.
That’s what really happened in Jordan.