TRIGGER WARNING: This will not be a light post and could trigger a reader who has been through a similar incident. If you or a loved one has been close to a murder, please proceed with caution or skip this altogether.
At the beginning of each year, I choose a word that will shape my actions for the next 365 days. In the past, my words have focused on improving my physical body, career, home or family life. Never have I focused on my mind and soul.
This year my word is “heal.”
I was raised to be scrappy and tough; to fight my way through and not let anything hold me back. I was taught that experiencing emotion was to become dramatic and that only people seeking attention are dramatic. I grew up to be a tough woman who survives great challenges. I also grew up to be a woman who processes emotion poorly. Feeling sad evokes a panic reaction in my body and sets off a cascade of events all leading to another sleepless night.
It’s not the best way to live and certainly not the way I want my daughter to live. So this year my focus is not on my career. It’s not getting in awesome physical shape. It’s not in having a magazine-worthy home. It’s on healing my mind and spirit. This year I am working to unpack past traumas and finally mourn them. As feelings arise I am going to talk about them and learn new ways to process and work through the cascade of emotions that normally knocks me down.
When I was in high school my first “real” boyfriend murdered his family in cold blood. It was a horrific incident that brought national attention to our small southern town. I remember the night so vividly. My family was watching our usual evening television shows when my best friend called.
“You need to go somewhere that you can sit down and close the door,” she said without greeting.
I wandered off to my room and once the door was closed she told me – my ex was being chased by the police and was a suspect in a murder. My parents heard the conversation and within moments the television channel changed and I watched the story unfold in slow motion. The doors were locked and the blinds drawn. Without speaking we hid, terrified that our home would be next.
The details were slow to emerge. His parents bludgeoned to death. His siblings brutally attacked and barely hanging on. A sledgehammer. An ax. A kitchen knife. In the middle of a quiet subdivision where nearly all my friends lived. Off of a quiet road. Blocks from our “excellent” high school.
The police chase ended in a cul-de-sac where the girl who sat in front of me in homeroom lived. The images broadcast over and over again are burned in my memory. A young wild-eyed man, shirtless with satanic symbols scratched into his chest. These images still haunt my dreams.
We never talked about the incident in my house. I was sent to a psychiatrist where I was medicated and told this was not my fault. I was instructed to move on with my life. My mother reminded me that horrible things can happen to anyone and that you never know a person 100%. After several months, I was deemed “healthy” and sent back into the world, my brain a fog of Paxil, unresolved grief, and paralyzing fear.
In time I weaned off the medication and did what I do best – pushed the memory aside. Sometimes a person would bring the murders up and jokingly refer to me as “the girl who dated an ax murderer.” I would brush it aside. “Shit happens,” I’d say. “Life is fucked up.”
My life changed forever that night. I rarely talk about the incident because no one knows how to respond. And how could they? I have only written about it once, in a letter that I never sent. I found the letter last summer while visiting my parents and the floodgates opened. Looking back, finding this letter marked the beginning of my breakdown.
Fast forward to today. I live in a place where “bad shit” happens daily. In fact, this morning we awoke to helicopters circling in pursuit of a man suspected of knifing another to death at the McDonalds down the road. There are constant reminders of how messed up and unsafe our world is.
There are things I see in everyday life that trigger an intense fear reaction. Occasionally I can connect the dots and realize X was causing me to remember Y and that all is actually ok. The bulk of the time, though, I fail to make the connection. All I know is that at one moment my husband is hacking away at a large squash for dinner and suddenly adrenaline surges, my heart goes nuts, hands start to sweat and I begin to spiral, but I don’t have time think about it. I have a family to feed, a child to put to bed, a husband to help, aging cats to take care of so I push it away.
For the past few months, I’ve been paying careful attention to what triggers these feelings and acutely aware of how much this experience has been ingrained into my psyche. I have been practicing love and kindness towards myself when something triggers me. A person sledgehammering a sidewalk at a construction zone. A friend chopping vegetables at lunch. My husband using a saw to repair the house. So many little things bring such an intense feeling of panic and fear. No wonder I’ve been operating in burnout mode for so long.
I know no amount of therapy can erase this and other traumatic experiences from my past, but I do see light at the end of the tunnel for how my body and brain react to triggers. With time and practice I hope to see the man sledgehammering the sidewalk, notice the beginnings of a fear response and then assure myself that in this moment, there is no imminent danger.
I started this post a ball of nervous energy. Frantic after news of a tragic occurrence down the road, scared to drop my daughter back at school after the holidays and terrified to return to an empty apartment for the day. Although writing this has taken up the bulk of my child-free time, I feel like a gigantic weight has been lifted. It is freeing to speak openly about my secret and, dare I say, healing.
Do you have a word for your year? If so, what is it?