Do I have to keep putting the A to Z badge at the top? I’ve chosen to put it at the bottom from now on. This is a long post. Get some coffee. Make yourself comfortable.
When we owned Moonrise, guess who docked her much of the time? Yours truly. I remember fondly the days when I would “ride cowboy” by standing on the seat behind the wheel and steer her into her little slip. Those days are behind me. Now we have full-keeled, heavy bodied, center cockpit Galapagos. As much as I love our boat, I loathe docking her. That’s because of the nature of traumatic memory and how it seems to live forever in our bodies sometimes, coming back to haunt us at the worst possible times.
If you’ve been following along with us for these years, you may remember the first time we took Galapagos out for a sail down in Astoria, Oregon. That was the day that three bad things happened all in a row. In the post I wrote about that day, I used sheer vulgarity. That was a day that got lodged in my psyche and in my body, and most importantly: in my brain in the wrong location. I haven’t been able to shake it yet. I am determined that I will. But for now, it still lurks around. Amy G. Dala does her utmost to ‘save my life’ with this one, no matter how hard I try to shut her up.
We had taken Galapagos out for the first time with her shiny new engine, on the Columbia River. We had just pulled over into a quiet area to practice things like turning on her keel, raising sails, you know…all the things that you need to know how to do on a boat. I don’t want to repeat all the things I wrote about in the original article, so suffice to say we were already a bit concerned about what might be going on with the engine and the transmission. Also, the bilge pump kept coming on and Mike couldn’t figure out why. There were enough things to be worried about that we decided to cut the trip short and return to the marina.
I got cocky and confident and decided I would bring the boat into the marina myself. Well, it was the first time for both of us with this boat, remember? May as well have been me that took the hit. The dock was a straight shot and there was plenty of room if I flubbed it. I knew the current was wicked getting in and I would have to gun the engine to keep from getting swept into the steel wall at the entrance to the marina. I counted on having to use the engine to slow her down once inside.
What I didn’t count on was the transmission sticking in reverse, although one reason we were returning was because we were worried about the transmission. Go figure. Denial is a terrible thing sometimes. I had overshot the dock on the first pass due to current. No harm done, I was backing up to try again and the transmission stuck hard. It was completely jammed and once our girl is moving, she doesn’t stop very well unless you use the engine to stop her. Not being able to put her in forward, she just kept moving back. The dockhand was running down the dock yelling at me to throw the thing into forward, (Really? You think???), the Coast Guard boat at the fuel dock was lined with faces watching the drama unfold. I don’t remember giving a rip about that. But I will never forget the sickening feeling as the rear of my beautiful boat slowly pushed into the steel fishing vessel behind us, bending our starboard steel davit just enough to remind me every time I see it now. It was, in a word, awful, even though it could have been worse. Turns out, this was a traumatic experience for me. And I don’t use that term lightly.
Part of what defines a trauma is how the person experiences it. What separates a traumatic experience from any other kind of bad experience is that by definition it overwhelms the person’s coping mechanisms. People go into a dissociated state of awareness as a protection. They may experience the event as though they are watching it happen to someone else, like it’s a movie, or as though they are watching themselves from outside their body. Time seems to slow down. Sometimes people will actually be unable to remember the sequence of events later, or they may be missing critical sensory information such as sounds or sights. Some people get tunnel vision. These are signs that the brain is going to be recording this memory differently than a regular daily event. And that’s a bad thing.
Let me give you another example. A few years ago I was doing a Critical Incident Debriefing at a bank that had been robbed. This is where a therapist goes in and helps the staff process the event. There is a specific protocol. In this incident, two robbers came in waving weapons and shouting for everyone to get onto the floor. There was a lot of yelling and the criminals threatened to hurt people if they did not comply. Everyone present that day agreed that it was an extremely frightening event and commented on how much yelling there was. Part of my job was to assess each individual in the group for evidence that they may not integrate this incident very well and need help processing it.
One man clearly would need more help. He had hidden under his desk, eyes squeezed shut, as soon as the robbery began. He expressed to the group his surprise that everyone was reporting how loud the event was. He had heard nothing. To him, the entire episode had happened in complete silence. He didn’t even know it was over until someone found him under the desk. He had absolutely no memory of any kind of sound. For him, the current memory was one of silence and no visual cues; just one long incident of being scared literally to death. I referred him for further evaluation.
Traumatic events are cumulative over time. If you’ve had a number of events that have been pretty hard to take, over time your ability to handle unusual stressors can get eroded. It may seem like you are able to take things in stride, only getting a little overly concerned about some situations, until suddenly one more thing happens and you’ve hit the end of the line. Then it can be a little like flipping a switch and there’s no turning back without some kind of intervention.
This was not my first rodeo with traumatic events. Even though this event was certainly not in the least life threatening, the conditions under which this happened proved to be a perfect storm that overwhelmed me. All the things that happened that day, being on a new boat in new waters, and my own personal history all converged and I experienced this event through the lens of a traumatic experience.
Oh, and the bilge pump thing? Our shaft seal had lost two bolts. It was leaking like a mother f*&^. The third thing? Once the docking debacle had been resolved, Mike discovered water in our brand new engine. Brand. New. Seriously. We were so completely beaten we both could have walked away from the whole project then and there.
I long for the days when I had the confidence to pull Moonrise right up into her slip without undue stress. Buying this boat down in Astoria without ever having taken her out on the water was a huge leap of faith. We knew she was a good boat. We never doubted it, and she has proven herself many times already. We actually love our boat. But we had zero experience with a full keeled boat and we also had zero experience with the kinds of currents that are ever present on the Columbia River. Every time we left the dock it was a challenge. Every time we came back, it was a challenge. And there was no one to teach us. Talk about trial by fire. And we chose this… WHY? Oh yes. Because we loved the boat and just decided we would make it work. How did I know that this would be the straw that broke my camel’s back?
Ever since that day I have been very anxious, in fact sometimes terrified, whenever we are underway in a tight space close to other boats. I have wanted to avoid taking the boat out because of my fear of bringing her back in. This has been, really, just terrible. I know what has caused these feelings, but knowing what causes post traumatic feelings goes only so far in handling them. To be fair to myself, I have actually docked our boat. If there are no other boats around, and the dock is a straight shot, I can swing that without a worry. When we pulled into Canada and check in at Poet’s Cove, I docked her and was so proud I almost cried.
When there are no other boats around, I’m fine. There is nothing to hit but the dock. I don’t care much about hitting docks. And this summer, in spite of the fact that I suffered from pretty bad anxiety for almost the entire trip, I got to know the boat better and became more confident and comfortable on her. I have to think that once we are aboard and sailing around as a lifestyle, I’m going to get used to her even more and become more confident over time. I actually do believe that.
Added to my stress was that Mike was learning, too. I didn’t realize how much that mattered to me until he said that out loud; how much he felt responsible, and how much got nervous, too. That actually made a huge difference to me, and it helped calm me down quite a bit. It’s highly possible that the amount of anxiety I was feeling was magnified because part of it actually belonged to him. That was just a really bad, horrible day for us both. I consider it a testament of strength and our probable success as cruisers that we didn’t throw in the towel right there.
Now every time Mike docks the boat successfully I feel better about it, so I’m learning, even if I’m not, yet, doing. A couple of times last summer, after the trip, I actually thought ‘I’ll bring her in this time’, but then I wouldn’t let myself, because if I rush this and something doesn’t go well, it’s going to set me back considerably and it’s not worth the risk. The fact that Mike is mastering this makes me feel loads better. When he wasn’t confident either, you really wouldn’t want to know what all was going on in my head.
The last time we were out I handled the docking situation really well. I didn’t worry about it at all in advance, and when we approached the marina, I was pretty calm and cool. I waited until he did his part, then stepped off onto the dock and tied her off as though I’d been doing it all my life. Damn, that felt good.
You know why I handled it well? It wasn’t because I talked myself into it. Like I said, with traumatic memory, that rarely works. I’m glad that I know that. I’m grateful that I have the level of professional knowledge I have. I finally decided I’d had enough of this crappy anxiety and how much suffering it causes me, as well as Mike, and went on medication. That’s right. I went on Zoloft. And thank God for it. Looking back over a few years I realize I should have done it a long time ago, probably when I hit menopause. It has calmed Amy G. Dala down enough that I can feel like myself again. I may still be a little afraid, but I can put it in perspective once more and I know that eventually I will learn and it will be fine. This is a true gift because seriously, anxiety can ruin what is otherwise a beautiful thing: being on the boat.