10 years since the accident

On Thursday April 17th, 2009, the car my mother was a passenger in went out of control between Elizabethtown and Keene Valley in the Adirondak Mountains of upstate NY and was struck by a minivan traveling in the opposite direction. The occupants of the minivan and the driver of the car mom was in all survived. But the life of Ann Staples Kennedy came to an end, and my own life was turned completely upside down.

My family at the Saranac Lake ice castle. My wife Michelle is in the light blue jacket and red scarf, with mom standing next to here in the dark blue jacket and our son Travis behind them in the red coat. Daughter Bailey is hatless walking towards them to the right with purple snowpants on.

Somewhere around twice that long ago, at some point in the late ’90s i remember a specific conversation that i had with mom. We talked at length by phone at least every few weeks for most of my adult life, perhaps more consistently as we both continued to age. During this specific conversation around two decades ago, i expressed my cynicism about the future. Mom was somewhat upset by the depths of my negativity and did her best to argue that the glass was more than half full. But i was adamant, even to the point of predicting that at some unknown point in the future, the reality would become obvious to many more folks due to events that would reveal the true dysfunction of humanity on a planetary scale.

In the aftermath following September 11th, 2001, i came to realize what a watershed moment those attacks consisted of, shattering our ever so fragile collective illusions of optimism for the future. It had been a heady few years prior, at least here in the U.S., with the promise of what technology could potentially bring to us all via the dot-com boom. Even by early in 2001, the bloom was starting to fall from that rose.

It’s hard to know for sure (since both of my parents are now dead) whether the memory i have as a very small child, of holding my dad’s hand as we peered through a fence down into the construction site of an enormous foundation hole was actually “real”, but i’m pretty sure (and the timeline of my age lines up correctly) that we together witnessed the early period of the World Trade Center starting to go up. In any case, since i was born in NYC, spent the first 5 years of my life living there and continued to return regularly throughout my childhood and then worked there for extended periods of time later in my life, the downing of the twin towers really felt like a direct attack on my tribe.

In conversations with mom following that horrible event i don’t ever remember referring back to the cynicism i carried even before the devastation and the crushing of so many dreams along with buildings and planes and the people in them. But it didn’t really need to be spoken aloud. The world, for me and for so many others was never the same afterwards.

Hope perished.

Especially in these last 10 years, my own journey has brought me to new places and (by necessity!) a fairly intense level of self-awareness. In the immediate aftermath of mom’s death in the spring of 2009, i was completely adrift mentally. Unsure about how i would even be able to function without her listening and active support, despite the fact that i’d already made it well into middle age myself, my sense of coherence gradually unwound completely, and 7 months later, just before Thanksgiving of that year, i experienced a complete and utter psychotic break.

There were a large number of delusions that i experienced as rock-solid reality as i literally lost my mind. Time had become non-linear and i lost the sensation of the present being separate from the past being separate from the future. One of the most haunting images that levered its way into my consciousness was that i was flying one of the planes and that mom was flying the other as we both headed for the two tallest buildings on the island of Manhattan. It was like an out of body experience. Being horrified at what we were about to do, but also having no ability to change course and not complete the terrible task.

In the end, my lovely wife Michelle called 911 and i was transported to the local hospital bleeding from a deep gash on my left elbow that i’d given myself by climbing in and out of the bedroom window i’d smashed out (another of my delusions had to do with feeling that i was no longer permitted to use doors). The ambulance personnel and state police officers who’d responded to Michelle’s call for help had handcuffed me to the gurney. My memories from that point are choppy, but i won’t dwell on what i do remember (which was quite intense and worthy of a whole other story just by itself).

Dr. Schweitzer, the psychiatrist who was on-call at the hospital that morning, and i ended up developing a very good relationship over the course of the subsequent months and years as we worked together to try to find a way for me to regain some mental stability. It was not an easy road for me. I found that there was an awful lot about myself that i didn’t understand or even like. For years i fought against the medication (haloperidol or haldol for short) that evened out my moods. Initially i was very reluctant to take it, for fear that i would end up losing my “edge”. In the spring of 2011 i very nearly had another break on this same anniversary as dad was diagnosed with cancer, necessitating the removal of one of his kidneys. Additionally, on April 15th of that year, we got word that my cousin Joe Kennedy had been killed in action in Afghanistan. Drastically increasing my haldol dosage kept me out of the hospital, but only by the skin of my teeth. That summer, even with the extra haldol, i needed additional strong medications to just be able to get consistent and regular sleep.

Dr. Schweitzer continued to work with me. There were still so many questions looming in my head about mom’s death, my relationship with her and above all just an immense amount of incredibly powerful grief. Dr. Schweitzer urged me over and over to just drop it and just to find a way to be at peace with some of my questions being forever unanswered. I tried to take his advice. By the end of 2013 i had tapered down my haldol dose to a minimal level and was doing better. After i had initially explained various facts and impressions from my past to Dr. Schweitzer, he came to a point where he no longer wanted me to talk about this stuff with him any more. The “old-school” education he’d received many decades prior taught him that some things are best just left undealt with. I found this strategy to ultimately be problematic. There was a lot i’d suppressed for many years even prior to mom’s death. But i tried to follow Dr. Schweitzer’s advice. It turned out to be practically impossible. Thinking that i had “gotten better”, in the spring of 2014 i decided (on my own — with no more medication to prescribe, i was no longer seeing Dr. Schweitzer at that time as he’d advised me to just stop taking the minimal dose of haldol i was on in December of 2013) that i was well enough to “properly memorialize” my mother. And so i came up with a plan to build a tiny free library deep in Sage’s Ravine along the Appalachian Trail that would allow her love of books and wilderness to live on. There were a number of complicating factors, but in the end, nothing got built and in early June of 2014 i had a 2nd psychotic break. I ended up spending three days at the Four Winds facility in Katonah, NY, where i was labeled a substance abuser for my regular marijuana use. By that time, i’d been wanting to taper off my pot smoking for a number of years. I did get high once or twice after coming home, the last time (to this date) being on the summer solstice of that year.

My haldol dose was extremely high during my 3 days as an inpatient and for the months following (given intravenously because i “couldn’t be trusted” to take the pills voluntarily (which grates on me to this day — there was never a time following that 2nd psychotic break when i would have refused to take the haldol that Dr. Schweitzer told me i needed orally, but such are the vagaries of the mental health care system…)). That summer i lived in a sedated fog. As my haldol dose was permitted to gradually come down i sunk into a fairly deep depression. Three decades of daily marijuana use had taken their toll. Without the “easy answer” of getting high, i found i was unable to enjoy life. For several years i did very little other than go to work and come home to read in bed in the evenings and all weekend.

Dad died of lung cancer in the winter of 2016. It was not an easy time, but i’m blessed with a very close extended family and we all supported each other. Later that year, when i tried to refill my haldol prescription i was told that Dr. Schweitzer had also died. He’d previously urged me to find a new “chemist” (sticking to his guns that talking was not something that would be productive for me to do, even in a relationship with a doctor and/or therapist) but i’d not taken any action.

Early in 2017, my hand was forced, as i was running out of haldol. I found a young resident psychiatrist who would see me. Dr. Dahal explained to me that modern psychiatry no longer believed that suppression/avoidance of difficult topics was the best course of “treatment”. And gradually i again began to open up about some of the issues which Dr. Schweitzer had insisted that i leave alone. As i got regular exercise (mainly swimming, though i resumed hiking and paddling as well) and a new medication was added (lamictal/lamotrigine) the depression finally began to clear. Dr. Dahal rotated out of his 1 year appt. and i had to begin anew to establish a trust relationship with his replacement, Dr. Mathias.

In the spring of 2017, my mother-in-law Gillian was a pedestrian in a crosswalk nearby in her home town when a pickup truck struck her and killed her. My own reaction was to compartmentalize my intense grief for her in the immediate aftermath of that horrible event, and i was able to provide support to other family members throughout that summer. In the fall of that year, my intense emotion finally burst. It felt like more than i could take, but on the bright side, i didn’t lose my mind this time around. I’d tried to “safely” bleed off some of my mental pressure by diverting my anger to a person (who is now an ex-friend) on the internet that i had substantial disagreements with, over important issues like gender and racial equality. That didn’t end well, as i found myself just so worked up over what i perceived as his racist and misogynist views (and for the record, i still maintain my evaluation is correct, though he would not concur i’m sure) that it interrupted my sleep.

Luckily, i was able to see the woman who oversaw both of my young resident psychiatrists, and she helped me understand that the “real” issue was my grief over Gillian which had suddenly come to the surface. She also told me that intolerance is never a reasonable option, even in the face of someone else’s intolerance. We don’t want to bring ourselves down to their level. I found that advice impossible to immediately integrate, but after thinking long and hard about it, i do mostly think she’s correct even if her (and now my) position stands in direct contradiction to that of Karl Popper.

I eventually requested to come under the care of this very wise woman, who is both a reverend and a psychiatrist and she treats me to this day (i’m deliberately omitting her name for the sake of her privacy).

Over the course of the past few months i’ve also been seeing a therapist much more frequently. She and i have brought up many of the issues from my past into the light of day. My relationship with mom was and remains quite complicated. She undoubtedly loved me very much. But she wasn’t perfect, and i’m now coming to understand that some of what i experienced as a young child really had profound and lasting effects on me. On mom’s side of my family, there are a number of folks who’ve had severe problems with alcohol and other substances. Dr. Schweitzer was adamant that i’d inherited a “missing filter” (that he felt that the haldol helps repair) from mom.

Mom herself did drink when she was younger. At some point (probably around the time i was between 8 and 12 years old) she did stop completely. Later, after she and dad divorced (when i was in college), she became very active in AA, and continued to be involved deeply in that organization for the rest of her life. To my knowledge, mom never did have a complete mental breakdown, but she certainly struggled with depression for a number of years. A few years before her death, she did go on medication, which seemed to really help her an awful lot.

It’s obvious to me (now!) just what a difference it makes to lose someone “naturally” (as happened with dad and more recently, his 2nd wife Judy, who i ended up becoming extremely close with) vs. the suddenness of an accident. Obviously it’s always tragic when someone we love dies. But when it’s completely unexpected, it really can rock one’s world. I think that when (an)other human(s) is/are complicit in causing the death, this compounds the potential effects on us.

Probably this is one of the reasons that 9/11 took so much of a toll on so many of us. It wasn’t an accident, but was rather a deliberate act of violence. And yeah, i do have enough self-awareness to realize that by dint of my white, cis-het, middle-class, developed world privilege, my life up until the turn of the century had been really blessed. Certainly there are people living in other parts of the world (and many living here in the US, but hobbled by poverty and/or unsafe, chaotic neighborhoods in which they live) who never experienced the “illusion” of optimism that began to crumble for me even before 9/11 took place.

My mother’s cousin Janet has been a resident of Greenwich Village in Manhattan for my entire life, and she’s been a really generous host whenever i’ve wanted or needed to spend time in the city. After my family moved north into the Catskill Mountains when i was 5 years old, i returned many times, sometimes with family and sometimes alone, very much enjoying my visits.

At one point (probably in 2002 i would guess?) some distant European relatives were visiting the U.S. for the first time and my son Travis and i were co-opted to act as tour guides for these two women on a day trip to New York City. It was mostly a really fun experience (i had never before taken the Circle Line tour which circumnavigates the island of Manhattan and is a boat ride that i highly recommend), but these visitors were also adamant that they wanted to visit Ground Zero. My unprocessed grief over the sheer horror of the event gave me no desire to return to where those two skyscrapers had once stood. But in my role as host, i felt obligated to take these two visitors there. It was just as awful as i imagined. There was an opaque fence that prevented a view down into the hole. It was covered with notes, flags and other mementos left by all kinds of ordinary citizens looking for a way to express their grief. To me it was completely overwhelming and after getting a glimpse of this fence, i turned and practically ran in the other direction, leaving Travis and the two young women to follow me away from what they all i’m sure realized was far too intense for me to be able to confront at that time.

A couple years ago, i was writing to a group of friends about my continued inability to process 9/11, and one of them recommended i watch The Trees, a documentary about the creation of the memorial site there in lower Manhattan. I still had such intense emotion that i was somewhat reluctant to intentionally engage in this way. But i decided that i would try. The movie rocked me. I found it incredibly powerful, but not in a bad way, as it was a message of peace and healing. With tears still running down my face, as soon as i finished watching, I called Janet and made plans to take a trip down to see the memorial site. Michelle and I joined Janet and her husband Peter almost a year ago. I successfully timed our trip to coincide so that the Survivor Pear tree would be in bloom. It was incredibly crowded, but i nevertheless found it to be healing.

My plan is to return this summer when the swamp oaks are leafed out on a weekday. I’m going to try to see if i can make it through the memorial museum, though if i’m not able to do that, i will try not to be self-critical

I’ve done an awful lot of writing over the past 10 years. Most of it not as publicly as this. But it’s been quite a journey.

As i’ve struggled over the course of this past decade to a firm mental footing to stand (and even build?) upon, i’ve realized more and more just how much we all create our own reality. Just a few months ago, on the final day of 2018, i took a hike down into Sage’s Ravine which opened me up to the possibilities of what life and the world are capable of offering. I was at that time in the midst of a mental state that some could (and have!) describe(d) as manic. But it was qualitatively different than the many previous manic states i’ve experienced.

Sage’s Ravine on the final morning of 2018

My understanding of complex systems science (this is a topic i’ve been reading up on and learning a lot about in recent years) played a part in my understanding just how much everything is connected, and that how each of us individually has the potential to make a real difference with regard to the future trajectory of humanity. Not that this is guaranteed. But it’s possible. Down there alone along the Appalachian Trail on the final day of last year i experienced a deep connection to a sense of all-encompassing consciousness. And i felt very much like the Universe was communicating directly to me: giving me permission and even encouragement to find my purpose as an agent for positive change.

I think back often to those conversations i had with mom so many years ago. And how she always encouraged me to try to keep a positive attitude. It wasn’t possible for me at the time we were having these discussions. But i’m finally coming around to a point of view that seems quite in sync to what i now imagine hers was. While there is plenty to be dismayed about with regard to human interactions with each other and the rest of the planet in terms of the possible futures these dynamics might bring, sinking into despair is not the correct response. I now take heart in my belief that if i try to work towards the more beautiful future i’m convinced is an option, there’s a chance that my actions will actually bear fruit.

All my life i’ve realized that i’m a fairly sensitive individual with a capacity for a lot of empathy. I have no doubt that most of this comes directly from mom, whether via genetics or socialization.

Grief, Dr. Schweitzer told me early on, “should” only be intense for at most a three month period following someone’s death. I tried hard to integrate that “fact” into my thinking as a way of attempting to stabilize my mental state. But even now it seems fairly arbitrary. The idea that we should “get over” the death of a loved one within at most 90 days really doesn’t resonate with me.

10 years ago, i immersed myself totally and completely in my grief over the loss of my mother. I found a power there, but it was not something that i had control over, rather it had control over me. Those incredibly intense feelings and emotions were a way of maintaining a relationship with mom (or trying to?) through the memories that live inside me and all the stuff (books, artwork, objects and even her house itself) which remained behind after her living soul had departed this plane.

I traveled back and forth to the Adirondaks frequently, sleeping in mom’s bed when i was visiting her house, desperately missing her in those months immediately following her death. It took a long time for me to let go of the personal effects, and even now, Michelle and i continue to hold on to some furniture, artwork, books and other mementos which resonate deeply with me.

A couple years later when my brother and i finally sold mom’s house, i was retraumatized by the necessary triage of all the stuff she’d accumulated. After donating and selling a fair amount, there was still enough to fill up a small dumpster. And i lit a fire out in her firepit in the backyard and burned a fair amount as well. The heat of the fire seemed to at least partially soothe my soul. I was so grateful for the help and support of Michelle, Janet and Peter during that trying time, as they were willing to tackle the disposal tasks which were just too much for me.

I am of two minds when i reflect back over this past decade. Of course i miss mom terribly and would love to have her back. But somewhat surprisingly i’ve finally found myself somewhat at peace with the manner and timing of her passing.

I certainly came fully awake and alive due to the shock of her sudden forced permanent absence ten years ago. While i’ll never know if i had it within me to journey to the person i am today had mom not been killed in that car crash on that fateful day, the twisting, turning path i did take is one i’m thankful for, as it has allowed me to become in touch with my own true nature in a way that gives me a better perspective on both my own inner self as well as the external world. I know now just how intimately connected those seemingly disparate entities are.

Especially later in her life, but to some extent all the way through it, mom really facilitated deep meaningful connections between individuals. She didn’t always succeed, but she made myriad attempts not only to connect personally with others, but also to try to forge connections between the different people she’d gotten close to. While she lived, i rarely (never?) cultivated my own inclination to connect others (though i did personally develop a number of close friendships). But gradually over the course of the last decade, i’ve realized that i inherited at least part of mom’s gift for bringing people together. Though to this day i find i’m somewhat socially awkward in certain situations in a way that she wasn’t, certainly at the end of her life. But that’s OK. Fighting against and through that challenge is something i’m willing to do.

I don’t know if i’ll ever get that tiny free library built in Sage’s Ravine. At this moment it’s pretty far down on a long list of tasks i would like to accomplish. I will go back there though. The gift i received from the Universe, which came to me there on the final morning of 2018 is one i will be eternally thankful for: no longer does my life lack purpose. I want to find a way to connect humans together with each other at scale, and i plan on spending much of my remaining time on this planet trying to accomplish this goal. There is so much more that we have in common with each other as compared to our differences of opinion which separate us.

Honoring, respecting and protecting the ecosystems, life and integrity of the planet is also central to my “calling”. I’m not yet quite able to put in to words just how linked these two seemingly disparate aspects of my future endeavors are. But i have zero doubt that this is the case.

Property rights, especially over those things that we were never meant to “possess” in the first place (land, water, air, etc…) are counterproductive. As is the capitalist system in its present form, which promotes greed and selfishness as aspects of our personalities which should be cultivated and celebrated. Believe me, these traits need no external reinforcement.

Ideas need to be shared to truly thrive. Modern technology gives us the opportunity to share ideas globally. So my own work will be about trying to connect others around common goals that i believe are shared by most of humanity. By providing a framework around which important endeavors can be knitted together, i will work (along with others who are like-minded — if you are such a soul, please do reach out to me via my email address: charlie.derr@gmx.com and let me know how you envision us working together to improve the future) to try to build a community of allies who believe strongly in social justice, the sacredness of the natural aspects of our world, and the potential for humanity to transcend what right now look like insurmountable problems. Together we can do it; i’m sure of this.

Thanks to what mom taught me, both during her life as well as after her death, i finally have shed the coat of cynicism that i once thought i needed to protect my fragile self with. In descending down the rabbit hole of insanity twice, and teetering right on the brink a bunch of other times in the last decade, i’ve come to realize the ways in which that fragility was an illusion as well as how to build myself a more robust core. Of course i’m still a work in progress, but the “visions” i had, some of which were born out of what so many would attribute to true madness have expanded my notion of reality to encompass a far wider range of experiences, states and perspectives than i would have been willing to accept prior to this last decade.

I look to find a way to initiate and facilitate true dialogue as well as constructive actions in service of the dreams i know mom would be encouraging me to pursue were she still here on the planet with me.

Namaste, ~c

P.S. Here are two links which resonate with me deeply. It’s possible i’ll come back here to add more later. Caitlin Johnstone on connecting our inner journey with our global goals. Jeremy Lent on creating an ecological civilization.

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I lean left. I’m very interested in having constructive dialogue with people who hold differing opinions.

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Charlie Derr

I lean left. I’m very interested in having constructive dialogue with people who hold differing opinions.