The Desolate Places
by Anne Whitehead
Desolate (adjective, verb):
devoid of inhabitants and visitors
joyless, disconsolate, and sorrowful
showing the effects of abandonment and neglect
devoid of warmth, comfort, or hope
Somewhere along I-191 in Utah, I saw red, grey, and brown. There was nothing else, except for a few brown roots masquerading as plant life. A sign said, “flash flood warning,” which made my friend and I laugh. Rain couldn’t possibly fall in this place. At least not enough to let anything grow anyways. But we were wrong, as my SUV bounced over the hills of the two-lane road now filling with water in the worn spots. We laughed again, at the sign that warned us about cows that could easily cross the road at any time over the next 20 miles. My thoughts turned to the wellbeing of Utah’s cows, and I wondered if they knew they were lost in the expansiveness of the desert.
We agreed that this wasn’t land, at least to us East Coasters. There’s nothing more comforting than rolling green hills and a tickling breeze on my neck. But I wouldn’t find that in Utah. It’s in these places that my mind takes a hiatus from being one with my body and wanders off in uncharted directions.
I’m not ready, I thought as I tiredly searched for the Snooze button on my phone. The start of another work day. I don’t know when I’m ever going to be ready.
My morning routine had slowly reduced itself to shortcuts. With seven clients to see today, I zipped up my invisible shield, the one that separates my personal stuff from my clients, and left my apartment.
As an outreach clinician, my day included traveling from home to home to conduct my appointments. I used to savor the time in between clients to reflect, but now saw it as just another unbearable fifteen minutes alone. For the past three months, my brain couldn’t help but utilize this downtime to utter the most unrelenting negative thoughts about what happened to my father. I had tried all of my coping skills I knew—dance, exercise, hot showers—but even music reinforced my negative perseverative thinking.
I surrendered and texted my therapist for an appointment. It's been five months since I finished therapy, and I was frustrated that my symptoms seem to be returning. I just couldn't figure out how to make sense of everything.
I didn't cry during my first session with Amy. She knew just how to redefine the truths I desperately needed to see—that what happened to my father and family was total bullshit. I don't remember exactly what we talked about, but I'm sure it included something about adding intention into my routine. Amy knew that I thrived off achieving goals, no matter how big or small. In my exhausted, overwhelmed state, I couldn't remember that.
She was doing for me what I do for my clients: reminding me who I am when I'd forgotten.
"Are you okay?" my mother asked when I returned from the bathroom for the third time.
I was absolutely not okay. I tried to push that thought from my mind. This was my family’s first time out to dinner since Italy. Despite my sister being away at college, my parents and I were happy to finally all sit down at a restaurant and pretend that we were happy, that things were normal.
And for the first minute that we sat together, we were our old selves. We weren’t stressed, fearful, overprotective, or frustrated in that minute. But that moment was over when my mom started telling the waitress of what happened in Italy. This was her way of coping, telling people what was going on, even if it is a complete stranger. I think it helps her to put on a front when things are challenging.
I looked at the menu, now without an appetite. Thoughts of Italy wouldn’t stop entering my mind. When my dad propped his head on his hands while reading the menu, I started shaking. The goosebumps on my arms burned like they did once before, and my stomach ached to get rid of any food I just ate.
I was ready to run. Away from the disgusting happy people, the noise, and the food. I tried to remind myself I was in Glastonbury, Connecticut, and not Venice, Italy. I tried telling myself that I was safe—but I didn't feel safe. I felt like I was going to die.
With the tug of his hearing aids, he placed them on the restaurant table and complained of the worst headache of his life. I saw his eyes start to close and his hands raise to his temples, pressing into them. “I’m fine,” he said, I’m not sure how many times.
The restaurant blurred, and I was no longer able to make out the fine details of the Venetian art and architecture that we paid all this money to see. I don’t remember the look on my mom or sister’s faces. I don’t remember much actually—but I do remember this sense of urgency.
I jumped from the table and ran to our waiter. I’m don’t know what I said, but it was enough to illicit that my dad was having an emergency and needed help. I don’t know what 911 is in Venice because I didn’t think I would need it on vacation. My body was like a motor as I paced back and forth in panic, watching my mom’s tears fall onto the consoling shoulder of another waiter, my sister expressionless and frozen, my dad lying down on the restaurant booth, dying.
This is a dream. This is not happening. This can’t be happening.
I threw up in the restaurant bathroom. I was not in control, and I lost all ability to measure time. It didn’t take long for paramedics to arrive and take my dad to the hospital, or so I was told. Every minute we waited felt like years, with other restaurant patrons witnessing my own personal nightmare unfold in front of my eyes.
We were an American family in a Venetian hospital with no translator and no compassion. The doctors said he had a stroke. That was all we knew for nearly two weeks as we waited for my father to recover. The walls of his room stale and blank, without even a TV to console our emotions. Every day was like the repeat of a bad sitcom, waiting on more information that never came and wondering if we were ever going to go home.
We were grateful because it could have been worse. Way worse. He was able to walk and talk. The only thing he couldn’t do was see out of part of his left eye. My mother, sister, and I would gladly accept it, convincing ourselves that such limited impairment was a blessing. The stress continued on for nearly two weeks as more tests were run, our search for why remained strong. And yet, it was my greatest internal struggle.
Why my family? Why can’t my parents just have something nice for once? This was supposed to be the family trip of a lifetime.
My mind oscillated between quiet during each positive sign of recovery and panic during each setback. There was no middle. It was hard to hide my lack of regulation, or my sense of trying to go on as “normal”to protect my family. The trauma didn’t end once we left the restaurant.
I had never before found myself in such a happy city, decorated with ornate architecture and loud with the hubbub of tourists, but when I looked around, I saw absolutely nothing of comfort. I was small and insignificant. I was every emotion and none at the same time. When I looked around I wanted the whole place to burn.
As I continued to drive and admire Utah’s red rock landscape, I saw the fire. The fire that fulfilled my anger, anxiety, and depression for almost a year. The fire that ruined my family’s vacation, stole my father’s eyesight, and slapped us with the reminder that we’re not immortal. The fire that intruded my thinking and tested my family’s resilience. For the first time, the world reflected back to me the image what I felt that horrible day and the months that followed. It swallowed me like the vastness of Utah’s endless plains. Only resilient plants are able to survive in this type of climate. And like the desert plants my family and I were forced to adapt to our new normal, growing out of what felt like nothingness to become stronger.
ANNE WHITEHEAD is fascinated by the stories of others, which frequently inspires her writing. Anne is passionate about helping others in her work as a mental health therapist. She enjoys being present for those who have no one and teaching others adaptive coping skills for life’s challenges.
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