Photo by Brian Smith.
I was sitting alone in my apartment a week after the accident, attempting to tidy the piles of clothes threatening to take up the entirety of my bedroom floor, when Florence and the Machine’s “Shake it Out” began to play from my iTunes library. As I mouthed the words silently to myself, the emotions festering in my body rose to the surface. For the first time in what seemed like too long, I cried.
And it’s hard to dance with a devil on your back.
So shake him off.
I have been carrying around my own demons for three years, and that’s why I’m here — sitting in a therapist’s office for the first time in my life.
“It’s still hard for me to talk about it,” I mutter, my hands twisted in my lap.
“That’s fairly common in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” my therapist states matter-of-factly, jolting me from my half-trance.
Her words seem frank, as if she’s telling me I have a cold or sprained ankle.
The only time I’ve really ever heard people talking about PTSD is in reference to veterans — people who have seen real violence, experienced unimaginable fear, witnessed hundreds of senseless deaths. I’m a 21-year-old college student who spends too much time on Facebook and has more pink in her closet than is socially acceptable. I’m not a soldier.
This August, my mother and I decided to take a last-minute vacation to Ocean City, Md., where we stayed with my cousin Christopher, a 30-year-old lifeguard/artist who has lived there his entire life.
After a long day of lifeguarding on our second day, Chris joined us on the beach before we decided to go home. We offered to give him a ride home, but he insisted on riding his new bike. He told us he’d race us back.
Chris is the type of person who would surf 20-foot waves in a thunderstorm just for the sheer adrenaline rush. We told him to be careful.
When we reached his condo, Chris wasn’t back. We joked that we’d beat him, even though he’d been so confident he would beat us. After five minutes passed and he still didn’t return, our excitement turned to worry. We tried to justify it. He was driving a bike; we were driving a car. Surely it would take him a few minutes longer to get back.
Ten minutes passed. Then 15. By this point, we started to assume the worst but told ourselves we were being crazy. Nothing would ever happen to Chris.
“At least we don’t hear sirens,” my mother half-joked, I think trying to convince herself that was crazy talk.
Not even 30 seconds later, we heard sirens.
We both jumped in the car and sped to where the sound was coming from. I told myself the sirens weren’t for Chris.
As the ambulance came into sight, we saw a crowd gathered around a spot on the road. Ten feet away, a mangled bike lay on the side of the road.
My mother let out a gut-wrenching scream.
“It’s him! That’s his bathing suit! Oh my God!”
“No it’s not. How do you know? No it’s not!”
When I got out of the car and realized my cousin was lying on the pavement, a 10-foot pool of blood running from his head, my knees buckled, and my body went numb.
This summer at my internship with akronlife magazine, I interviewed a Vietnam veteran who wrote a book about his development of PTSD during the war. He talked about the moment something inside him snapped. For me, this was that moment.
I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to throw up.
Chris was life-flighted to a hospital two hours away in Delaware. For several hours before we made it to the hospital, we had no idea whether he would live or die. All I can remember about the ride to the hospital is feeling like a zombie; my body was there, but my mind was gone.
When we arrived at the hospital, we found out Chris had a punctured lung, a broken clavicle, a severe forehead laceration and a concussion. It would take some time and surgery for him to heal, but he would be OK.
This news should have given me solace. It should have made everything I was feeling go away, but it didn’t. Lying in a hotel bed the night after Chris’ accident, all I could do was stare at the ceiling. Flashbacks of Chris lying on the pavement and images of what happened to me three years prior kept playing like a non-stop horror film in my head.
“Just do the best you can,” my therapist implores, her pen poised above her clipboard.
I’m used to being on the opposite end of an interview, asking people to reveal the depths of their souls so I can weave them into a story. It isn’t easy being on this side.
I clasp my hands more tightly, willing them to hold me together as I threaten to fall apart.
“OK,” I breathe.
It was my third night on campus after moving into the dorms. My roommate and I were supposed to be going out for the first time with some sophomore girls that lived on our floor, but on our way downtown, we decided we wanted to go home. I don’t remember exactly what our reasoning was — that part became a little bit fuzzy after the fact.
We separated from our group and began the walk back to Olson Hall. We proceeded up Hilltop Drive, past Franklin Hall and through the underpass of Kent Hall. Before we reached the underpass, I remember seeing a group of three men huddled together. Something about their demeanor and the way they were huddled together seemed off-putting, but at the time, I brushed it off. When we emerged on the other side of the underpass, we realized the men had made their way around the other side of the building.
The smallest of the three men approached us, introduced himself and shook our hands. He asked us if we wanted to hang out. At this point, I think my roommate and I were both beginning to feel uneasy about the situation, so we said we had to go and started to walk away. As we turned to go, his two friends began to walk toward us, calling out to us and asking why we didn’t want to hang out.
We tried several times to evade them, even going as far as saying we were girlfriends and holding hands to try to convince them. But they didn’t stop. The faster welked, the closer they seemed to get behind us. At this point, my heart was beating faster than it ever has before, and my brain was thinking in a million directions at once. What do they want? Are they going to hurt us? Should we scream? Is anyone around to help us?
When they were less than a foot behind us, one of them said, “Why don’t you give us all your money?”
Before I even had time to process what he’d just said, he was holding a knife less than two inches from my roommate’s neck. He told her to go through her wallet and give him all her money, and she immediately did what he told her. I was frozen in fear. I just stood there, watching her, not even thinking that I’d be next. When she gave them all her money, the man turned to me.
He asked me why I wasn’t getting my money out and told me he was going to slash me. I told him I didn’t think I had any, but he didn’t believe me, so he ripped my bag out of my hands and began to rummage through it. When he found the $80 I had in my wallet, he asked me why I had lied to him and told me again that he was going to slash me. Just then, the third man, who had been nothing more than a silent bystander until this point, stepped toward me and raised his hand to my face, revealing a fist full of brass knuckles. When I looked up into his face, his eyes seemed almost demonic — so full of hatred and malice that looking at him sent chills down my spine.
That image is burned into my mind forever.
All I rmember after that is the men running away, us picking up our belongings and my roommate calling the police. I won’t pretend this is exactly how everything happened. Actually, my roommate says she remembers things happening in a different order. But I guess after three years of trying not to remember, you tend to forget.
After several weeks of worried phone calls and trips to the campus police station, two of the men were finally identified through a surveillance photo taken at the local Circle K. Luckily for us, both men eventually pleaded guilty, and we never had to testify against them face to face.
I have never officially been diagnosed with PTSD, which, for those of you who aren’t familiar, is an anxiety disorder people can develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. There are different levels of PTSD and different ways it can affect the people who have it. Some develop the disorder after a single traumatic event, while others develop it after a series of traumatic events — sort of a “straw that broke the camel’s back,” sort of thing, which I think is the case for me. Some people experience actual flashbacks, while others have increased paranoia in situations that remind them of the traumatic event.
In a typical day, there are so many things that scare me, and not all of them really make sense.
I suppose my biggest fear is walking by myself in the dark. When I come home from a late night in the newsroom, I have about a 50-foot walk to my apartment door once I park my car. There are some nights I sit in my car for minutes at a time, mentally preparing myself for that short walk, which, for me, seems more like a football field in length. There are bushes, corners and trees along that walkway. What if someone is hiding, just waiting to mug me again — or worse? What if they start to follow me, and I can’t run fast enough to get to my door? I realize my fears are irrational, but to me, they’re not. I usually walk with my key between my fingers out of precaution. Any sound I hear sends my heart racing.
Even in broad daylight, I can’t handle people walking too closely behind me. I glance around maniacally the second I get the feeling someone is following me, even though the person behind me usually ends up being some freshman girl on her way to class.
When I hear or read about traumatic events in the news, I usually find some way to scare myself into thinking they’re going to happen to me, too. When I heard about the Colorado shootings at the premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises,” I refused to go into a movie theater for more than a month. Since then, I’ve become scared of crowded public places. Any person I see who looks or acts out of the ordinary I assume could pull out a gun at any moment.
I was supposed to go see an actual doctor, who could diagnose me and prescribe medication, but I talked myself out of it. I’m scared of the thought of being told what I don’t want to hear but really already know. I’m scared taking medication will change me. I’m scared it will make me vulnerable to the things I spend my entire life trying to avoid.
I’m still a 21-year-old college student who spends too much time on Facebook and has more pink in her closet than is socially acceptable. I also have serious anxieties most people would never realize, even if they’ve known me for years.
I suppose, for now, I’ll remain in this limbo between normality and anxiety, at least until I come to terms with what I need to do to get better.
But I think telling my story is the first step toward shaking the devil off my back.
For now, here’s to you Florence:
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