It took about two years for PTSD to hit full force. Once the exhilaration of survival yielded to the resumption of normalcy in everyday activities, my defenses were lowered and the protected boundaries were left wide open.
As it does, it took me by surprise at an inopportune time, while I was out of the country staying with friends. It hit so severely I hardly knew what was happening. It was precipitated by the combination of lingering grief at the suicide of my daughter’s close friend and the pending death of my brother-in-law, who had been a part of my life since I was sixteen. Complicated with being out of normal daily rhythms, my emotional vulnerability created perfect conditions for the full onset.
For those without personal experience, it is hard to understand it is not a mind over matter proposition. It is comparable to willing a heart attack to stop once the symptoms have begun. It is not a matter of reassuring us we are now safe, that we have nothing to fear. Trying to apply reason to an illogical sequence of responses doesn’t work.
It has been a painstaking therapeutic process to disassemble the images, to separate piece by piece the sounds, smells, sights and feelings that are imprinted as a whole, to reassemble them to stand individually and diffuse the intensity. While I have found EMDR therapy immensely helpful overall, I still experience nightmares, though infrequent they are none the less disturbing; as well as a terrifying physical reaction to sirens, which seems oddly more resistant to therapy than seeing guns.
There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think of the events of that day, multiple times a day, but it rarely elicits the intense emotional responses it once did. I merely observe and move on most times now.
I advocate for and with domestic violence survivors with no ill effects. Recently, however I was introduced via social media to a rare intimate partner shooting survivor, who herself is in the throes of PTSD. I find myself again reliving not the shooting but the aftermath of my shooting through hers. I recognize I have more work to do in therapy, yet the value of our unique and growing kinship far outweighs the negatives. She and I understand something few others can begin to grasp.
We both traverse friends and acquaintances expressing “I know this terrible thing happened to you, but when will you back to your old self again? Do you have to keep talking about this?” as we begin to comprehend this is who we are now. While my new friend recoiled and hid in an unexpected reaction to firecrackers on Independence Day, I sat in a movie theater, watching as the female character was hit in the chest by a flurry of gunfire, trying to tough it out; trapped between immobilization and fear.
She, too, is a tireless voice in a silent war few are able to fight and fewer still want to know about. She, too, is a mom who has to navigate not only her own trauma but that of her child who witnessed it, whose father is also at the center of that trauma; a child whose stages of emotional healing throughout his life will draw her back in. She, too, will at some point share her scars with future partners. She, too, recreates a life every day as she hovers somewhere between the before and after.
Her journey, however, is her own. I am simply a fellow traveler enormously grateful to know this strong beautiful woman walking this path at this time with me.