Below is an essay I wrote for my final paper in one of my classes. It’s about dealing with past trauma, and highlights some experiences I’ve had.
I have good days and bad days due to past traumas. When I get through the bad days to find the good ones waiting for me, I live a fulfilled life. I don’t let don’t the past hold me back. I believe in managing my terror so I can live my life.
The morning I wrote this was a bad one. The County Bus pulled up at around 10:28am. I was waiting impatiently at the curb side; it pulled in just a few feet ahead of where I was standing. And as I walked to the opening doors I felt the crowd gathering behind me. It is vital to me that I be one of the first people on the bus in the morning. When I am first in line or I am close to it, I almost always find a sea of free seats and I will not have to sit next to anyone. I will not have to spend fifteen to twenty minutes with my chest tight, a heart beating wildly, and tears threatening to spill out. The ride from downtown to campus won’t be one filled with terror in the back of my throat because a man I do not know is so close to me; his presence, whoever he may be, a heavy weight at my side trapping me in. When I have the choice I am able to select an empty seat, drop my backpack down next to me and put out signs that I clearly do not want to be sat with. It may be selfish of me, the bus often gets crowded, but it is a selfish need I can’t help. A crowded bus might break me someday.
On the winter morning in question I was first in line like normal, but the bus was already crowded. I shuffled past the bus driver on reluctant feet while scanning the rows of people. As far as I could see there were no seats that did not have at least one person in them, except for one, which I started for. I was a scant few inches onto the bus when someone hopped into that lone, precious seat. My little bubble of space was soon filled and there were no other empty seats available. My shoes were suddenly glued to the ground and there was no safe place on the bus. I could feel the crowd behind me, an almost tactile sensation of body heat and impatience. I jerked backward and felt myself collide with the person behind me, a brief whisper of heat along my back. I pivoted on my feet and dropped myself down on the furthest seat on the bunch upfront, right up against the metal barrier to the stairs into the bus. The seat next to me was empty, but the one just past it held someone. He or she were a blank, a blur in the peripheral of my now narrowed field of vision. I dropped my head and was just lifting my hands to push my hood back when someone dropped into the seat next to me. Their body brushing up against mine as they sat down. Suddenly, I was caged between a man I did not know and the metal wall next to me. My arm hovered in the air for a moment, not enough space left for me to bring it down without being pressed even closer to my neighbor on the bus. So I crossed it over my chest and gripped onto the metal barrier. I twisted and turned in my seat, trying to get further away from the person sitting next to me. In my mind I was berating myself with ugly words meant to hurt myself; if I weren’t so damned fat I wouldn’t be in this position. If my weight matched my height I’d be fine. If I had just a few less inches to my width I’d have enough room!
The constant stream of people moving past me broke me out of my vicious thoughts, I became aware of just how little space was left on the bus. More and more people filed onto the bus, until there were no seats anywhere and now there were people standing in the aisle hanging onto the metal bars above. The bus started up and left the station. Every time it braked for a stoplight, or a car ahead of it going slow, the body next to mine pressed even closer. The gentleman sitting next to me was carrying on a conversation with another standing in the aisle just past him. Neither was aware of the terror choking me up inside or the wetness at the corners of my eyes. Neither was aware that every time the bus braked or turned and that body pressed into mine I felt like I was being struck. Not physically. It was an emotional strike. Each time the warm, solid form of someone else’s body pressed against my side it felt as if my emotional shields were being hit with a hammer, until they were beginning to crack. Every time someone walked past me to get off of the bus and their body brushed against my knees it was like I was being kicked. It was as if someone was assaulting my emotional body, attempting to break my ephemeral bones.
“County Community College.” The voice of the driver broke through the storm that had been building inside of me. Ironically, given the source of my fear, the man’s voice was like a beacon of hope. The announcement that we would be at the college soon was something other than terror to hold onto. I would be able to get free soon. Once the bus stopped and the doors opened I would no longer be trapped.
The bus turned onto the road for the college, and the body next to mine pushed into me again. The heat, the solidness of another body, was an assault to my mental willpower. The shields that I keep up against past trauma were beginning to crumble. It was as if they were good as destroyed. I could see them in my mind’s eye. They were walls of red brick and white mortar that had been beaten down by heavy hammers, fists, and feet until they were crumbled and ruined and nothing but a pile of red and white dust. The walls were down and the monsters would be free to come in soon.
The bus stopped and the doors open. My feet slipped underneath me on the wet slickness tracked in from the rain. My hand on the railing, I didn’t fall. My feet on concrete. My feet on grass. The world slightly tilted, still moving. I pushed across the spongy grass until I could no longer feel someone behind me or next to me. Until I had broken free of the crowd. The doors of the main building pulled open and I pushed into the warmth, letting it wrap around me. My head was too light for my shoulders, the air too choppy for me to breathe it, people talking and laughing around me. I kept moving. I think I may have been running. I think I may have been dizzy. It didn’t matter, I had to keep moving or the monsters would get me. If I moved far enough away I would be okay.
As I was putting distance between myself and the crowd I could hear Meatloaf giving voice to my terror as he sang the line, “And though the nightmare should be over, some of the terrors are still intact. I’ll hear his ugly, coarse, and violent voice and then he grabs me from behind and he pulls me back.” (“Objects”, Meatloaf).
I wasn’t running away from the bus. I wasn’t running away from the crowd. I was running away from that spectral hand that was waiting to reach out and pull me backward if I let it. I was trying to get away from the flashbacks. The more space I put between myself and the crowd, the more space I put between myself and my demons; the memories and the lingering pain. I was escaping the past with every step that I took. I wasn’t being pulled back to the times where I was a helpless child listening to the screams with nowhere to run. I wasn’t trapped and I was proving it to myself with every step I took.
Every step I took the world solidified around me again. I could breathe the air again, the air around me was no longer choppy. My head was no longer spinning. Every step I took reminded me that I was in the here and now; as I moved I walked away from the past and got control of myself. By the time I pushed open the doors of the main building and walked out into the courtyard I could see the world around me again. I could clearly see a group of three young men standing by the directory. In casual jeans and t-shirts, wearing North Face jackets, and having no backpacks to speak of they were talking amongst themselves. They weren’t monsters, I had gotten away from those, these young men were just college students like me.
I managed my terror by putting distance between myself and my trigger. I got away from the place that made me feel trapped and crowded, and in doing so I got distance from my terror. I believe in managing my terror.
So, yes, this morning I ran off of the bus at a speed that only fear inspires in me, but I didn’t break down. I didn’t start crying. I didn’t get thrown into a flashback. I got off of the bus, I got distance between me and my trigger, and I went to class. I didn’t let my past trauma pull me back and keep me from living life. This morning was a bad morning, but it was so much better than it has been in the past. At nineteen, going to Dragon Con in 2006, being in large crowds and unable to see any exits or windows made me hyperventilate and hide in my hotel room. Five years before that in 2001, at CreationFest the crowds made me have a mild breakdown. I still remember the heat, all of the bodies pressed all around me, the slow crawl from the stadium back to our camp. People pushed, people shoved. Bodies were up against mine. My fingers curled tight in the hot, slightly damp fabric of my uncle’s shirt. I was so scared that I began to sing, and continued to do the entire torturous journey up to our camp site. It may have been a coping mechanism but I think it was a little spark of insanity that had me pouring my terror into whatever random hymn I could remember at the time. I sang until my throat was raw, and my lips were dry, and I felt like I couldn’t talk for a week. I sang because all I wanted to do was drop into a little ball and scream and cry, but I couldn’t because I would have been trampled. Over the years I have begun to manage my trauma better.
I do believe in managing my terror. I do believe that when you can overcome your trauma you will have a happier and more fulfilled life. Sometimes I have bad mornings. Like the morning in question here. I try not to let these mornings define me. No, I refuse to let these mornings define me. People have spoken before about “domestic abuse victims” or “child abuse victims” with me, but I refuse to label myself as a “victim.” I’m a survivor. I survived so much. From witnessing domestic abuse to a toxic marriage with an emotionally manipulative and abusive husband. I survived these things, and I’ll continue to and I believe others like me will survive as well. I do believe that we have, can, and will survive despite our traumatic experiences.
It is a struggle at times. I have good days, and I have bad days. The good days, however, are so very worth it. When I manage my terror and am able to meet other people it is a triumph. Being able to make a connection with another person is an amazing gift. It is one that many people take for granted, and when you have experienced a trauma that shatters your faith in people you know just how precious contact with someone you trust not to hurt you is. I struggle with it sometimes, but I keep pushing myself. When I’m struggling with it I distract myself as best I can, I have my phone with me and read something on it or play a game. I talk to people on Skype, or I listen to music. If my phone isn’t with me I try to get away from the stimulus that is setting me off. If it isn’t something I can just walk away from completely I find just that act of getting up and walking away and coming back helps. I hate feeling like I am trapped. I hate feeling like I can’t get away, this is why being stuck on a crowded bus is so awful for me, because I can’t just leave. So when something is triggering me and I can just walk away for a little bit, it helps. The act of getting up and moving away helps remind me that I am free. No one can hurt me if I can just walk away from them. And there very few things, or situations, in the world that I can’t walk away from. Reminding myself of that helps me a great deal. My freedom is important to me.
So I walk away, I listen to music, I play a game on my phone, I read a book, browse the internet, or talk to people through the safety of the screen. I do these things and I manage my anxiety and my past traumas most days. There are a few things that I wish people would do, however, that might help people like me. If you are on a crowded bus, or subway, it might be courteous to not sit directly against your fellow passengers unless you absolute have to. In general, just respect other people’s personal space. If you don’t have to touch them to sit, walk, or whatever you are doing – don’t touch a stranger. If you must be in someone’s personal space be sure to limit physical contact as much as you can, it will probably relieve the other person a great deal.
Yes, in the real world there are situations we can’t help. A crowded elevator, bus, elevator, or a packed Walmart. So many different places where inadvertent touching might happen. It can’t be avoided one hundred percent of the time. So if you have problems with being touched or crowded, like I do, know what triggers you and how bad it triggers you. Know different ways to keep yourself distracted from it, and try to convince yourself you are safe. And if you can’t, if you are really struggling, just tell someone. Just open your mouth and say, “Excuse me, I’m really uncomfortable, can you move?” Maybe they can, maybe they can’t, but I bet having been told that you were uncomfortable they’d do something to help you.
At the end of the day, don’t let your fears control you because life is too precious to be allow terror to hold you back. Whether it’s something from a major traumatic event or stage fright, if you manage that terror you’ll find the world opening up for you. I choose to live. I choose to get up every morning and go to school. I choose to step out into the bright sunlight, walk down the hill and to the bus stop. I choose to step onto crowded buses. I choose to live, and not look back. I choose to manage my terror.
A crowded bus might break me, but I won’t let it.
Meatloaf. “Objects in the Rearview Mirror May Appear Closer than They Are.” Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell. Ocean Way Recording, 1994. CD.