The artwork is an original piece titled "Someone at the Door" by Chicago artist Ken Shaw. I bought it about 35 years ago.
(The first part of this piece was written in-the-moment, as an email to a friend following what, for me, was a traumatic experience. The second part of this piece was written about 10 days later, as part of a healing reflection. It occurs to me that this experience, and the reflections, might help someone else experiencing trauma and/or seeking compassion for self or others.)
PART 1 – AN EMAIL TO A FRIEND AFTER THE TRAUMA.
A woman just banged on my door and damn-near broke it down. It scared the bejesus out of me. F*#k. Half-asleep I opened the door. She was looking for Jake. No Jake here.
I talked to her for a couple of seconds and then she reached into her purse for God-knows-what. THAT’S WHEN I FREAKED. Was she reaching for a gun or a knife? I didn’t know. I closed the door. She pushed and pushed against it, but I finally got it closed and locked.
Then she got mad. And started yelling and then kicking the door. Kicking the door. Kicking the door.
Heart in my throat. I found my phone and called the police.
They arrived and found her next door, banging on that front door, looking for Jake.
They got her down the steps and have been out in the street with her for 15 minutes. God. CPTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) City.
Drunk, doped, and psycho people freak me out.
I was already agitated having gone to sleep worried about the political tension between the USA and Iran. These existential threats weigh heavy on me. Potential war. Australia burning out of control. Floods swamping the South. Then there is my dog, Cosmo, barking, barking, barking.
My heart is pounding out of my chest.
Writing this is helping me calm down.
I am here. It is now.
I’ll play Scrabble on my phone. I’ve read that playing a game after a traumatic event can help prevent Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I wonder if it can help folks who, like me, already have Complex PTSD and don’t want it to get worse because of some random-ass occurrence like a large and apparently out-of-control woman trying to break down your door while accusing you of harboring a guy named Jake?
Okay. Breathe deeply. I wonder if the police will check on me or not. Damn. I could be having a heart attack and they wouldn’t even know. And I could do something about that. I could call them and say, “Please come check on me.” Okay. My heart rate is slowing down a bit.
Damn. I had gone to bed early because I didn’t sleep well the last two nights. Both nights I’d checked my phone during the night. That is not a smart thing to do when I want a good night’s rest. I flunk sleep hygiene.
Well, the police left. I don’t know what happened to that woman.
She was about 5’9 and probably weighed 180. I’d opened the door thinking it was my housemate’s son banging on the door. Maybe he and his mom had driven straight through the night and were back from their trip.
I’m so damned glad I got the door closed. She just kept kicking it. For about two minutes she kept kicking on it. I cannot believe the police didn’t ask me if I wanted to press charges. I get that pressing charges would just extend the trauma. But they didn’t even come back up the steps to check on me or call. Nada.
What a weenie I am. There are people in flood zones, fire zones, war zones and I’m freaking out because a tanked-up human tried to kick the door down. But, trauma is trauma. A friend would remind me not to diminish how terrified I was; I am. Again, she reached into her purse, I thought she had a gun. Guns terrify me. Absolutely terrify me. Mention them and sometimes I can smell gun oil.
Okay. I am gonna be alright. I’m gonna play Scrabble for a few rounds. I suck at
Scrabble. I’ll do it anyway. I’ll get up and dance to discharge all this adrenaline. I remember the Community Resiliency Model (CRM) advice and push against the wall. This helps.
I put my back against the wall and breathe and push, using my thigh muscles to really press in. I turn around and face the wall and push, push, push on the wall.
This helps. I jump up and down. I do pushups.
I have power and agency. I am strong and I’m in my body. This helps. I have choices. I have choices.
I can drink water and eat and go to the bathroom and turn on music or a movie or write. I have choices. I am alive and I have choices. It is 2 a.m. or so and I can write some more and I have choices. Thank God for choices.
PART 2 - A FEW DAYS LATER:
I look back on the whole experience of the woman at my door and I am overwhelmed with compassion for myself as a little girl. When I was a child, my father, who was a traumatized human himself, would often wake us all up in the middle of the night after a night of drinking. He fought with my mom. He had a hair-trigger temper. He grabbed her by her hair, twisted her arm behind her back. Smacked her.
One time he broke the glass to get into the back door.
Another time there were gunshots.
Guns were always around and, in my mind, were a constant threat. I was always afraid that he would use one on Mother or himself or on all of us. Or one of our pets.
And so as I reflected on the recent night and all of those nights as a terrified, helpless child, I felt tremendous compassion for myself that I went through that kind of trauma and drama night after night. And that day after day I would want to go back to sleep and not go to school because I was so very tired. But Mother always pushed me to get dressed and out the door to school so she could go to work.
Never, that I remember, did we ever stay home after one of those crazy nights.
So that little me would go to school. Lots of times I would get carsick on the way to school, get there, go in, and have a hard time not throwing up.
It wasn’t until third grade, when I began to have sleepovers at friends’ houses, that I got my first glimpse that other people’s dads didn’t break into their homes in the middle of the night.
In addition to feeling tremendous compassion for my younger self, I thought about the woman who tried to kick the door down. I began having compassion for her. Hell, if some things in my life hadn’t gone SO WELL, I could have been her.
I also know the experience of this woman coming to my door was random, not intentional, as the adverse experiences in my childhood were. I began wondering how she ended up in this neighborhood. She is somebody — a daughter, sister, aunt, niece, maybe even a mom — and she is NOT her behavior. She could have just been out for a cocktail and somebody could have slipped a “Mickey” into her drink. Or she could have been out drinking because she was in horrific grief. We never know why people do random, sometimes bizarre things.
My dad? I feel compassion for him too. I have for years, thank God. I’ve felt compassion for both of my parents. I think he drank and acted out because he was in pain from his childhood trauma, and from World War II, when, as a young submariner, there is no telling what kind of fear he experienced.
His trauma doesn’t excuse his violence. But seeking to understand the roots of his behavior has softened my heart and helped me to forgive and move on and to have, sometimes for long stretches, healthy relationships with men I have loved.
I am grateful that I can look at my father and mother, both of whom terrified me, with compassion. They were also terrified and terrorizing. Like the woman at my door.
And THAT is the whole point of integrating this new knowledge about ACEs science into our lives, right? A “turnaround”?
Somebody in the cycle has to stop and connect with the reality that the behavior of someone who is acting out – drinking or raging or whatever – is not about us.
It is about the person who is acting out and something that happened to them, some pain they are expressing in a way that is the best way they can in the moment. And probably most of their acting out is a cry for help. I have to remember that.
And in my job with ACEs Connection, I know I have to remember this and move forward with compassion, and model this to the people with whom I work. I want to show people how to not traumatize and terrorize already traumatized people. And that is why I need to practice self care, compassion, and compassion for others.
Days later, as my body still works to settle down after those flight-fight-freeze moments of terror, this means I treat myself gently.