When you see news accounts of people experiencing traumatic events, shootings, violent or sexual assaults, kidnappings, accidents, fires, drowning and more, it may seem both commonplace and far removed at the same time. The fact that the news tends to sensationalize such terrible events might numb you to the magnitude of the trauma these victims endured.
But when it happens to you, you’re stunned, frozen with fear, totally unprepared. The aftermath leaves you deeply scarred, physically, psychologically and emotionally shattered.
I know exactly how this feels. I was a victim of such trauma. Yet, I did overcome this life-altering experience with psychotherapy.
It was a beautiful, sunny day in June when I drove into the parking space behind my best friend’s apartment building. She lived on the other side of the building, and so couldn’t see me approach. Thus, she had no idea what was about to happen. Neither did I.
Since we were going to do our hair and nails at her place before going out to a restaurant for dinner afterward, I gathered my purse and situated the bag containing shampoo, conditioner, blow dryer, curling iron, hair spray, makeup and change of clothes in the front seat. There was no one on the sidewalk and no cars nearby. As I opened the door to get out, my purse was hanging on my shoulder, my car keys in my other hand.
Suddenly, I felt something sharp pressed into the left side of my neck, and someone grabbed me roughly to pin my right arm back.
“Don’t move,” a man’s voice commanded.
I didn’t. I couldn’t. Everything seemed so surreal. Time seemed to stretch on forever as I stood petrified.
I felt my purse yanked off my shoulder and felt the sharp tip leave my neck. I sensed motion and after a few seconds realized my attacker was gone. I turned my head and saw two young males running down the sidewalk that led to another apartment building and forked to a small park.
For some reason, I started yelling at them to stop. Then, inexplicably, I took off after them. One turned, saw me, and they split. I ran after the one I thought had my purse, although I couldn’t be sure. He had a huge head start on me and I soon lost him.
The sidewalk ended on a residential street. There was a man watering his tiny patch of grass and I ran up to him and asked if he’d seen a young guy barreling by. He said he hadn’t and asked me what happened. Out of breath, just then beginning to realize how foolish my actions had been in trying to chase my attackers, I told him. He urged me to call the police.
I felt like my legs turned to Jell-O, but I slowly made my way back to my friend’s place and tearfully related what happened. She drove me to the police station and I made a report. The officers held out slim hope that the attackers would be apprehended, but said they’d be in touch if they did.
We went back to my friend’s place and had some iced lemonade. Forget the evening plans. Forget me going home to my apartment that weekend. My house keys, identification, wallet, address book with my home address in it, my checkbook with the same, my medication, all were now in the hands of my attacker.
I did call my upstairs neighbor to give him a heads-up. He promised to watch my place.
Three days later, on my return home, my neighbor met me at my door. It had been broken into and the doorjamb was destroyed. My neighbor said he heard loud banging the night before and went out on his balcony to look down. He yelled and saw two guys making off with something, although he couldn’t see what it was. He called the police.
I spent the next few nights at my mom’s house, while the landlord installed a new door and lock at my apartment. I also got a call from someone who said they’d found my purse, and wanted to know if I wanted it. I was afraid this was a scam, so I arranged for the finder to meet me at the police station with my purse. I did, and the purse was fine, although the money, my ID, checkbook and keys were gone. I offered a $20 reward, which the man gratefully accepted. I had to borrow the money from my friend to give to him.
The Nightmares and Flashbacks Begin
For months after the attack, I never slept through the night. I tossed and turned, knowing that when I did fall asleep, I’d have vivid nightmares that replayed the traumatic event over and over. In the daytime, any sudden movement put me on edge. The sound of a man’s commanding voice anywhere – on the TV, radio, in the market, at work – put me right back to the attack. I felt the knife tip, heard his insistent voice, saw the wild-eyed look in his eyes. The latter is something I remembered in the split-second when he turned to look at me on that sidewalk.
As I attended night school at university, I was also afraid to go from my car to classes. My schoolwork suffered. I had to finally drop out of school for the semester.
At work, my attention wandered. I couldn’t stay focused on the task at hand. Often, my supervisor would find me gazing off into space. I barely knew he was there, for what I was seeing was the attack happening all over again.
He suggested I go for counseling and said my company benefits would pay for it. I asked a few friends for recommendations for a psychotherapist, selected one, made an appointment, and began therapy.
The Long Road Back to Mental Health
It wasn’t easy reliving the violent episode with my therapist. Although he knew that was the reason that I started therapy, there were other items in my past that needed attention as well. We first had to establish trust. I’ll admit the thought of psychotherapy was very unnerving, but I was in a precarious state and needed help.
My therapist was a kind, gentle man. He spoke softly, whether to ease my fears or that was his regular demeanor. All I know is that I instinctively trusted him and believed he wanted the best for me.
In helping me learn how to deal with my trauma, we went over self-protective measures I put in place immediately following the attack. He also encouraged me to stay in close contact with my upstairs neighbor, my family, co-workers and friends so they knew my schedule and could tell if something was off. This gave me an added sense of security.
Working to rebuild my self-confidence and self-esteem took quite some time, and he used different approaches for that. I know I cried a lot during sessions, and a lot more at home. Still, I felt I was getting stronger every day.
I knew that I’d never again put myself in harm’s way. Before exiting a vehicle or building or wherever I went, I taught myself to be keenly aware of my surroundings. I needed to be able to quickly identify escape routes, to impress on my memory specific details of people, places and things around me – in case I needed those facts later.
While in those days, I don’t recall the words post-traumatic stress disorder or panic attack, I know now that I probably suffered from both. I was prescribed anti-anxiety medication that I took for a period of months before my therapist felt I could be weaned off them.
Did therapy help me overcome trauma? Absolutely. Was it a rapid healing process? No, it took a couple of years to undo the damage that one traumatic act of violence inflicted. Yes, I did heal. Frankly, the episode gave me an overwhelming appreciation for life and gratitude that I was able to survive what could have been another fatality statistic.