telling my story
[Warning: this post contains attempted gun violence triggers.]
I was wondering if/ when the flashbacks would start.
They're not quite flashbacks and not quite anxiety attacks. I don't actually know what to call them. Hyper-vigilant episodes, I suppose. Yes, that's an apt description. I lay awake late at night and hear people breaking into my house. Except they aren't. And I know they aren't, I know it is in my mind.
I was wondering when the episodes would start. It has been a long time since I have had one. They're mostly reactions now to hearing about gun trauma. (Although not always. February is not a great month for me, although it is getting better.)
You see, when I was 21, I was held a gun point in an attempted robbery on the grocery store where I worked.
I remember it with crystal clarity. The gun, pointed at my head. Falling to the floor, covering my head. Being pulled up, off the floor and taken to the beer cooler where two other of my colleagues - hostages - were. How soon after two more hostages joined us, one at a time. How frightened I was for the managers, that they would be shot for not cooperating. How they told us to get moving, took us out the back door and how the police yelled - and one shot fired over our heads - as the men used us as human shields and escaped over the train tracks, jumped the fence and left us.
Fifteen minutes of my life. And then hours waiting for the man hunt to be over, for the police to come and interview us so we could go home. Going in groups to the restroom because no one had done a sweep of the store so how were we to know if there was anyone else hiding?
But we were safe. I was safe. Everyone was safe. The robbery was a bust, nothing taken due to that quick thinking manager who had called the police and put the rest of the cash drawers into the safe before they found him.
But you don't just walk away from being held hostage without effect. I am a survivor now. It's a part of my life experience that most people don't have. I know how people react to having a gun pointed at them (very differently, it turns out - each of the six of us had a different physical and emotional reaction). I know that moment when you look down the barrel of a gun and don't know what is going to happen next.
(And more. I believe I know more about myself from this one event than most people will ever find out in this lifetime. In the end, what I took from that experience was positive. I made it positive, because I had to, but moreover, because that lesson serves me in the life I wanted to live, in the life that I do live.)
Whenever this comes up in conversation with new people, they are completely shocked. Thinking maybe that it would have changed me more, I guess? Made me more cynical? But I didn't let it. I couldn't.
I don't talk about it in day to day conversation. It doesn't affect my life much at all almost seventeen years later except in very subtle ways that most people don't see.
I do have nighttime hyper-vigilance, tho. For slightly different reasons. My name was printed in the local paper as one of the hostages. Only one of the robbers was caught. I was afraid the other might come after us. (He didn't. And was probably killed in a similar robbery attempt on another grocery store less than a year later. The other is presumably still in jail. I wish them both peace.)
By printing my name, the media put me in harms way (or so it felt at that time). I am exceedingly sensitive to how other people are treated by the media (and now by social media) as a result.
But to be truthful, I had always had hyper-vigilant episodes at night, even as a child. I was terrified aliens would abduct me. (Seriously, me watching scary movies is a very bad idea.)
Over time, that fear morphed into a fear of intruders. But since I know why and have spent a lot of time working on being able to calm myself and breathe, I know the anxiety is just anxiety. I am able to breath through it, to let it pass. (It passes. It passes. I go to sleep. Totally fine.)
One minute can feel like fifteen in the middle of the night, but it isn't. It's just one minute. I absolutely know the difference between fear and reality.
I have experienced trauma and survived. I have taken that experience and shaped it into my own.
And I am not alone.
Sometimes when I tell this story, I find another survivor and we exchange stories. That doesn't happen very often, but it does happen. It makes me sad beyond belief that everyday people are sharing this experience I had. (And worse. Much, much worse. My heart breaks. I know I how lucky I was.)
We can't go around telling our stories every minute (except maybe in the first weeks/ months, when everyone is asking and we need to process). But they can't stay hidden, either. It isn't a secret that I was held hostage. But it isn't part of my everyday story anymore, either. It is my history.
And our histories matter. Our stories matter.