The Intimate Recovery from Violence

This post was written shortly after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013.

What happened in Boston this past week, what veterans see in war, and what inner city kids experience every day is real violence.  Not what the rest of us see on TV or read about on smart phones, but gritty, caustic, nauseating violence.  When violence does hit the headlines, the focus tends to be on the act – the bomb, the gunshots, the means of assault – then a brief period of mourning for those hurt or killed.  What often never gets discussed is what comes after: the private and intimate recovery from violence.

Recovering from violence is like an elevator ride to the depths of hell.  You are alone, in total darkness, surrounded by demons on all sides.  You have no sense of where bottom is until you finally hit it.  All you can do is hold on and try to survive the ride.

I experienced violence eleven years ago when my friend, someone I had dated, was murdered.  Even the most seasoned investigators were shocked by the brutality and randomness of the crime.  My friend was woken from sleep, bound and gagged, tortured for his bank card pin number, then strangled and left alone for two days until, frantic and distraught, we convinced the police to search his locked apartment.  When they found him, they had to identify him through dental records.  During the trial we learned that he had been a victim of chance; the kitchen window in his apartment was close to a drainage pipe that snaked down the side of the building to an alleyway below.  We later found out that his killer, who was tried and convicted, had been abused as a child, lived through foster homes, and attempted suicide in his early teen years; the tragedy, it seemed, knew no bounds.

Did justice through the courts bring closure?  Yes…and no.  Closure is an elusive ghost.  With a trial you have the satisfaction of knowing that someone was punished, that the rules matter.  But closure is about more than justice.  Closure is about reconciling the violence you experience with your previous worldview.  And that reconciliation is an excruciating process to undertake.

The immediate aftermath of violence, particularly when it is newsworthy as it was in my friend’s case, is traumatic from every angle.  There is the trauma of watching law enforcement go about their business; police officers swarming the site of the crime, questioning you as if you’re a suspect and telling you nothing about what is going on. There is the trauma of being questioned by news reporters who are well-coifed and rehearsed in their pity; you see in their eyes that they are looking beyond you to the potential of the story in the days ahead.  There is the trauma of feeling, for the first time in your life, what it is to be in a world without rules.

At some point the shock and awe of the violence slides from the news.  It starts to recede from the memories of those not directly impacted.  That is when you start your descent, alone and in earnest, into the depths of hell.  If you’re lucky, you have access to good healthcare and therapy.  You’ll need it, because your therapist is like the service operator that will help guide you down to hell, and then help you get back up.  If you’re lucky, you have a belief in something larger than yourself to cling to for support during the initial descent, be it God, a pride in country, anything.  But most of all, if you’re lucky, you have family and friends who love you and who are rooting for you.  They are your hope.  Your reason to claw back up after you’ve hit rock bottom.

The initial descent into hell is dominated by a singular revelation: a person’s life, just like a purse or a car or a pack of gum, can be stolen. We see this in TV all the time, but living it is entirely different. That life is so precarious and can be taken so easily, so wantonly, by another person is terrorizing.  For most of us, this concept is foreign because protecting and nurturing life is our state of normalcy; we take it for granted that everyone else feels the same way.  But in hell, it’s the opposite.  This revelation crystalized for me months after the murder when, holding my carving knife in the kitchen, I glanced at my future husband and thought to myself, “I could kill him with this; all I require is the will to do it.”  I quickly put the knife back in the drawer, disturbed by my own thoughts.  When I later told my therapist about it, she said it was normal to have such thoughts.  That your brain has to adapt to the trauma. But learning that these types of thoughts are “normal” after a trauma is cold comfort; you still feel like a freak.  You become afraid of your own humanity.

Being afraid of yourself, and feeling extreme discomfort in your own skin, is what characterizes the next part of your descent into hell.  You are increasingly consumed by a sense of dread.  You are now far enough down that you cannot see the world from which you came, yet you cannot sense where bottom is, either.   You cannot sleep because being alone inside your head is terrifying.  Silence and stillness are enemies.  You start leaving the TV on all the time, your nights bleed into mornings, and then sleep deprivation makes you increasingly irritable, more prone to outbursts and hysterics.  You search for ways to cope.  I chain-smoked for weeks and months afterwards, the smoke scratching down my throat and into my lungs, a searing catharsis to release the mental demons rattling inside my brain.  I understand why some people escape to drugs, alcohol, cutting themselves.  You need a release, any release.  What’s more, the demonic energy you absorb in hell needs an outlet; so what doesn’t get released through coping mechanisms eventually escapes anyway, often irrationally.  Many months after the murder, I became hyper-anxious around my mother; when I visited her, I would cry uncontrollably, sobbing and heaving on the floor anytime she left the house.  I felt despair in my gut, convinced her death was imminent.  The people around you start to grow increasingly concerned.  If you’re lucky, they stick by you, they tell you they love you, they re-assure you and give you time.

For me, the final phase of my descent to hell was characterized by feelings of suicide.  In my mind’s eye I was sitting on the precipice of a bottomless pit filled with dread and despair.  The pit had a pulsating energy to it; it was black nothingness that consumed the light.  I felt this pit swirling within my gut, I suppose within my soul.  When I had these feelings I cried uncontrollably and had specific thoughts about how I would kill myself, such as slitting my wrist with a razor blade or hanging myself from the planter’s hook in my living room.  My therapist told me that these thoughts, too, were normal.  She said that if I was really, truly, suicidal, my “plans” would have been more concrete and foolproof.  Her lack of alarm was a comfort to me, it helped me feel less deranged.  She also informed me that feelings of suicide were as bad as it got, rock bottom.  Somehow, it was extremely validating to learn that it couldn’t get any worse.  It helped to know that I now had a choice: to either stay in hell or start to haul myself back up that elevator shaft to a new normal.

Thanks to therapy, family, friends, and a belief in God, I recovered.  I was fortunate that I had means to make certain adjustments. I moved away from Washington, D.C., putting distance between myself and the countless associations with my life before and after the violence.  I got married and built a new life with someone who loved and supported me, and ultimately helped me move on.  I chose to leave therapy but I had close friends who were trained in psychology and social work; casual calls to catch up were transformed into hour-long discussions about grief and healing.  At some point I was able to finally let go; to say goodbye to my murdered friend and to live within my own skin.  To live within a world in which murder is not just a plot line on a TV show, but a real experience.  Now that I’ve lived through it, I feel tremendous compassion for anyone who must take that elevator ride for the first time.  I cannot imagine how much worse it is to take that ride after having lost a child, a brother or sister, a spouse, or a part of your body to violence.

I used to believe that things happened for a reason.  I now think that is simplistic and naive.  What I now believe is that when violence happens, we can choose to let it define us, or we can try to make sense of it.  We can learn how to prevent it going forward.  We can help shape a future defined by love instead of hate.  These beliefs are part of my recovery.

What happened in Boston this past week will have repercussion in the years to come for so many people who were near the bombs, heard the gun shots, or knew the victims.  It will surely impact those who are physically recovering in the hospitals.  What we can each do is acknowledge that their recovery is far from over.

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