'Better. Worse. Better. Worse ..."
That's how Nancy Saltzman describes the process of emotional healing. "When you feel the worst you've ever felt, and you start to feel better, it's not a straight-line progression."
Saltzman knows all about healing. After surviving two bouts of cancer, one in 1990 and another in 1992, the Colorado Springs resident found her ability to withstand trauma further tested when her husband and two sons died in 1995.
What had happened was a tragic end to an otherwise delightful family vacation. Joel Herzog, Saltzman's husband and owner of Total Tennis on Bijou Street, had taken their two boys, Adam and Seth, to watch some professional tennis matches in Las Vegas. A friend had rented a small plane to get them there. There wasn't enough room for Saltzman, but it was Seth's 11th birthday, and she had wanted to be there, too.
So she had taken a commercial flight out to Vegas, and back again. Late that September evening, she got the phone call that every parent or spouse dreads. It was the Custer County sheriff. The private aircraft had gone down in a storm coming home. There were no survivors on the plane.
There was just one in Colorado Springs.
At the time of the accident, Saltzman was principal of Broadmoor Elementary School. Seth had been a student there, and everyone knew Joel and Adam as well. Though she was obviously devastated, she thought it was important for her students to see how adults handle loss and grief. She returned to work a week after the accident.
"Some of them wanted to know about how it happened, what it was like for the boys," she says. "That was hard. But those are the things kids want to know. I have had former students write to me just to say thank you. 'Thank you for showing me how to get through it.'
"You can be sad," she says, "but you still have to get up and go." And that's exactly what Saltzman tried to show her kids at school.
Many would say that what she did for her students was extraordinary, but she says, "I don't think I'm an extraordinary person. I think I'm a pretty ordinary person."
People were interested in what she had to say, though. In fact, they started asking Saltzman to speak about her experiences.
"It took a couple of years to be able to do that," she confesses. But she soon found that people took inspiration from what she had to say about surviving.
In 2006 Saltzman retired from education and began writing a memoir. Now, 18 years after the accident, and after losing her sister to cancer and her mother to Alzheimer's disease, her story can be found in the September 2012 release, Radical Survivor.
The book details the events of the years, but is much more than a timeline. "I talk about perspective, and what helped me," Saltzman says.
She received some assistance with that early on. "I remember I walked into my therapist's office and said, 'How long is this going to feel this bad? Because this doesn't feel good, and I don't want to feel this bad.'"
According to Saltzman, he told her that people can't maintain a high level of grief for too long. Unless they have clinical depression, which is a different thing entirely, people tend to start feeling better in three to four months despite the pain.
"I liked having fun," Saltzman says. "I liked feeling good. I liked knowing I could make a difference. But to do all those things, you have to get feeling better. I mean, I was in love ... I loved my husband — he was an amazing person — and our kids were wonderful. I knew what it was like to be happy and have a wonderful family, and I hoped to have something like that again."
When she wrote Radical Survivor, Saltzman didn't really think about people's response to it, but she soon started getting letters and e-mails. Someone wrote to her and said that they'd had depression their entire life, and her book made them look around and realize what they had.
"Maybe that'll last a day, maybe that'll last a week, maybe that'll last forever, but how incredible is that?" she asks. "That something horrible that happened to me can make a difference for somebody else? ...
"I guess I've always looked on the bright side," Saltzman says. "I mean, I complain like everybody else, but I've pretty much always appreciated my life, and if my life can help other people appreciate their lives, that's very cool."