[The following is a transcript of the story I told at Drinkers with Writing Problems’ monthly live lit show called “Lit Up” at Brisku’s Bistro (DWWP’s “home bar”) in Chicago on March 25, 2016. This piece was written specifically for this show’s theme of “Instinct.”]
When I was a young girl, maybe 8 or so, I first felt the edges of my will against the forces of the world around me. My mom told me that I never had to hug or kiss a relative if I didn’t want to, especially any male relatives. This was my first permission to act against something that I didn’t want to happen to me. It was then that I started to trust what my stomach was saying when it felt twisted, to look over my shoulder if I were compelled, to believe that I had a truth to be told. Among the many lessons my mother has taught me, this is one of my most treasured. I’m lucky that I didn’t need that advice any earlier than when she gave it to me.
In life, work, and school, I tend to be both a rebel and a rule follower. I like knowing what the rules are so that I can break them. Structure tells me where the boundaries are, it creates the line that can be crossed. I prefer to fly under the radar to stay out of trouble, but this doesn’t mean that I won’t break some rules and relish in doing so. I like my world to be organized but I enjoy a little controlled chaos once in awhile.
I have learned over decades that the world can be a lawless place, it can be senseless, and you rarely have any control over it. This is a terrifying thought. Humans try to build as much order into the world as we can, it is jarring when something breaks through the ether and tries to strangle us by the neck. Searching for meaning helps us give order to the chaos of trauma.
Trauma throws us out of boundaries like a wrestler throws their opponent out of the ring; it makes you unsteady, you second guess your steps, you can use your body and will to fight it but if you don’t deal with it, it will deal with you. Moments become crystallized because you are forced to live them over and over again.
I now go through life knowing that it can be taken at any moment. But the most important thing that I have taken from trauma is to learn about myself and the world around me. I lived through two life changing events in the course of a year. The first was surviving the 8.9 earthquake in Japan on March 11, 2011 and less than a year later, witnessing the shooting and killing of a stranger here in Chicago.
Here is a list of things that I learned about myself during those two instances:
- When you realize that the shit is going down, you are going to want to RUN.
Part A: You will run down 14 flights of stairs in a bathrobe and bare feet in a Tokyo hotel and you will continue to want to run even if it is not the safest option for you. You would run across the surface of the ocean if you think that it would get you away from the shifting earth.
Part B: You will run when you see flashes of lights and the sounds of pat-pat-pat on a cold Friday night in the middle of winter in Chicago. You will want to run so much that the first words out of your mouth are “FUCK! RUN!” You will run as fast as you can, trying not to trip and bust your face open on an icy city sidewalk. And this is okay, because…
- You will try to help people along the way. Some people may think that running is for cowards, but I can tell you that this isn’t true.
Part A: Before running to the nearest exit, you will scream your best friend’s name down the hallway to make sure that she is okay so that you can run together. Even in the middle of running down flights and flights of stairs, you will stop for the Japanese teenager who is bawling and freaking out and you will grab her by the shoulders and look into her face and say in English, “You have to come with us. Please come with us.” She may not take you up on your offer, but you will know that you tried.
Part B: When you are running down that city sidewalk, you will warn people walking in the direction of the danger and say, “Turn around. Don’t go down there. You don’t want to go there.” You will wait at what feels like a safe distance for your then boyfriend, whom you lost in the shuffle, at the bottom of the stairs of the Brown Line station.
- Everything will slow down for you. 15 seconds feels like 15 minutes and 24 hours feels like forever. You will be like Alice in Wonderland falling down a hole in the ground. Life for you is now a permanent trip to the other side of the looking glass.
Part A: You will see plaster dust falling from the walls and the ceilings. You will see the walls of the stairwell cracking as you run and it will be so surreal that it will feel like watching a movie because this can’t be real life. Later, you will take a picture of the cracks, not to show to anyone else, but just so that you will know that you weren’t imagining them.
Part B: You will see the look of surprise on the Walgreen’s security guard’s face as he falls into the revolving door seconds after the flashes of light and sounds. When you recall these scenes, this is what you will see in slow motion over and over and over again.
- You will want to do research about what is happening to you or has happened to you. However, you do not know how you will feel about the answers until you receive them.
Part A: You will ask your Japanese hosts, who have cared for you and fed you and gotten you drunk for the last 30 days what is going to happen next. You will need to cope with the ashen look of worry on their life-worn faces. You will not want to hear that things could get better or that they could get much much worse.
Part B: You will be saddened and relieved to read in Chicago Breaking News that the shooting you witnessed was targeted and that there were other targets but they weren’t you. You will find out that that day ended with the shooter committing suicide and being discovered the next morning in a frozen northside alley.
It will feel like a chapter on your life has closed like the shutting of a book. You will simultaneously hate the media and yet be grateful to it for giving an end to your story.
- You will think about your loved ones, but you will also feel like they are very far away. You will feel incredibly alone.
Part A: You will be disappointed by the fact that your boyfriend is not waiting at the gates for you like he should be and you will be so relieved that your best friend’s family is your family and they will hug you and tell you that they love you. But you don’t want the panic to win. You will reach out to your loved ones and seek professional help immediately. If people around you can’t handle it, you probably don’t need them in your life. You will break up with that boyfriend. You will discover that many people are dealing with anxiety and no one is talking about it. You will get a cat so that your 2-room studio doesn’t feel like a tomb.
Part B: You will realize that you can’t date someone who can’t talk about the shooting, who can’t deal with death when death is all you think about. Instead, you talk about it and you try not to take on shame or guilt. You have to tell yourself not to take it on.
- You are going to need to tell your story over and over again.
Part A: People are going to be interested in your involvement in such a “historic” event that they will be practically bloodthirsty for it. Most won’t realize that telling your story is the same thing as reliving it. It will evoke your feelings of panic, fear, and despair.
Part B: The more you tell the story, the further away it will feel; the details will start to fuzz around the edges. You may be able to breathe better and you might know what to say to another person who has also experienced trauma. You will be able to go through a revolving door without a panic attack, but you probably will still think about it.
Lastly, 7. Life will have a different meaning.
Part A: You will tell the people in your life that you love them at the exact moment you feel it. You will search for the perfect bowl of ramen to remind you of the happy moments you had. You will look at 30 days worth of pictures in which you are smiling, eating, and celebrating life with your new international friends. You will hold close all of our memories of a magical country.
Part B: You may think about death a hell of a lot more often. But you will know that you are a survivor, because that is who you are.