Over and Over Again
I’m supposed to tell the story every time it comes into my head, so here it goes: Once when I was visiting my sister, a man burst into the house in the middle of the night and robbed us at gunpoint.
I’m supposed to tell the story over and over and over again because a few years after the robbery, I started having panic attacks. This is a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, which happens when you don’t process your trauma in a healthy way. If you avoid thinking about the bad thing that happened, your brain keeps you on high alert all the time to try to protect you from the bad thing happening again.
Your brain doesn’t trust that you are ever safe. It sends you warning signals at inappropriate times. You might have nightmares or become afraid of the dark. You might cry sometimes for no reason. You might start having panic attacks one day when you are running and spend an entire year terrified of walking up a flight of stairs. And the only fix is to tell the story again and again and again.
The story comes into my head a lot because I live in America and nearly every day there’s a high-profile shooting being reported in the news. And so, nearly every day, I get barraged by people’s well-meaning tweets asking me to imagine the terror the victims must have felt being in a room with an unstable person pointing a gun at them. “Think about what that would feel like!” they demand.
And then I can’t stop thinking about it.
Once, when I was visiting my sister in New Orleans, there was loud knocking on the door. My sister thought it might be someone she knew, so she unlocked the door. But it wasn’t someone she knew. It was a man we’d never seen before, who shoved the door open, pointed a gun at my little sister and yelled at her to lay down on the ground.
The thing about gun crimes is that there aren’t really any survivors. I didn’t come out of that house the same person I was when I went in. That person died on the cheap, laminate flooring between the kitchen and the living room in the house on Robert Street. The person writing this essay is the person who took her place, stepped into her life, and went on with things because, well, what else is there to do?
Every time I hear about a new mass shooting, every time I hear a body count, I’m doing math in my head. Because I know that the death toll is always so much higher than the numbers reported in the news. The kids in that school in Texas who were reunited with their parents—the ones who got to go home and change into their pajamas and be held—they aren’t the same kids who put their shoes on that morning. Those kids aren’t ever coming back.
One time, I was visiting my sister when a man with a gun came into the house. I never saw him. My sister shouted at me to get down on the ground. “There’s a man with a gun,” she said. When the man yelled for me to come into the living room, I crawled in with my head down, and I kept my face pressed against the floor the entire time he was in the house. I thought that if he was sure I never saw his face, maybe he wouldn’t kill me.
Here’s a thing I have learned about trauma: the initial event is usually cinematic and wild, but the part you live with every day is just exhaustingly repetitive. The story of the time I got held up at gunpoint is entertaining the first time you hear it. It’s after midnight in an unfamiliar city. The humidity hangs in the air like smog. There’s a strange sound. Louder now—the wind? The characters promise drama: the narrator, the unstable gunman, the kid sister. The stakes are life or death.
I’m not saying I like telling it. I’m not saying I like having it to tell.
But to tell the story toward healing, means that you aren’t telling it to be entertaining. You aren’t telling it for the benefit of the listener at all. There’s no information you’re trying to get across, no bigger point to be made. You’re telling it to help restructure your memories, to make them less painful and chaotic. You’re trying to change your relationship to the events, move it into the past, so you can exist in the present, and move toward the future.
This one time, a while back, I was robbed at gunpoint with my sister in Louisiana. You can assume all the usual cliches apply. Yes, he hid his face. Yes, he made us lie belly-down on the floor. Yes, he was clearly in the throes of some kind of mental health crisis. Was there yelling? Yes. Crying? Yes. Was I more terrified than I have ever been in my life? More than I even thought possible? Did the sheer vastness of the terror expand my entire view of what it means to be a person? Yes. Yes. Yes.
You get the idea. You can fill in the details from movies and video games. You’d probably get it pretty close, especially the dialogue. It was a lot of “I will fucking kill you,” that sort of thing. I don’t really like talking about it, but I’ve been told that it’s important.
The first time I had a panic attack, I didn’t know it was a panic attack. I was training to run a 5K with my sister when, suddenly, I couldn’t breathe. My lungs were making a sucking sound but no air was coming in. My whole body started to shake. My heart was pounding. My ears rang and my vision went black. I sat down on the sidewalk and someone ran out of a restaurant to help me.
I went to the emergency room because I thought I was having a heart attack. I was absolutely sure I was going to die. My EKG was normal, but next time I went running, the same thing happened. It happened again and again until I could barely jog a block without feeling like I was going to die and crawling home to rest.
My endocrinologist checked my thyroid levels. (Normal.) He ordered a scan of my heart and lungs. (Normal.) He asked me to pee in a bottle for 48 hours to see if I had a rare tumor growing on one of my adrenal glands. (I didn’t.) When he ran out of things to test me for, he asked me if I’d ever heard of panic attacks.
Actually, I wasn’t just visiting my sister in New Orleans. I had driven down with her from Cleveland to help her move into a new place before the school year started. My boyfriend was with us, too. I didn’t mention him at first because it just seems like a lot of characters to keep track of. When the man with the gun pushed his way into the house, it was my boyfriend who yelled for me to get down on the ground. At first I thought he was being sexy, playful. “Aubrey, get down on the ground,” he said, his eyes wide. I think I might have giggled.
The thing I remember most vividly is the terror. No memory I have—not even the births of my own children—is stronger or more clear that the feelings of fear I carry from that night. The heart-pounding, ground-swinging, jaw-tingling fear I felt were because of the adrenaline my glands were dumping into my body.
Adrenaline is a hormone your body makes under stress. It’s responsible for your body’s “fight or flight or freeze” response. It’s the reason really scary things like car accidents seem to happen in slow motion. Adrenaline elevates your heart rate, increases blood flow to your brain and muscles, makes you hyper-alert and aware. This is so you’ll have the resources to, I guess, wrestle a coyote or outrun a bear.
The adrenaline was useless, of course. There was nothing for me to do but lay on the floor, trembling and terrified, and try to think of things in the house that were valuable and easy to carry and that would make this guy go away, preferably without murdering us first. But my body kept on making it anyway. I guess it was the only thing it could do.
When the man with the gun came in, my sister’s roommates were there too, two of them. They were asleep the whole time and didn’t know that a man with a gun had forced his way into the house and was terrorizing us downstairs. I don’t really know how to think about that part of the story. It must be a whole other kind of trauma to learn that all this had happened underneath you while you slept, to learn how vulnerable you were without even knowing it.
I remember thinking that if this guy killed us, either the roommates would hear the shots and come running and be killed as well. Or they wouldn’t, and they would come down the stairs in the morning, thinking it was a normal day, and find our bodies, already cold and slightly bluish, soaking in lakes of our own blood. I remember a passing worry about how long it would take them to find my parents’ telephone number, given that this man had already put our cell phones in his pockets.
You’re supposed to tell the story over and over again, because you have to tell it in a certain way. It’s not enough to just say what happened because after a time you become adept at disassociating the trauma from the words you use to describe the event. By now I’m pretty good at saying “I was once held hostage at gunpoint during an armed home invasion” without even blinking. I can tell you “I’m a survivor of a gun crime.” I can say “I got robbed once, in my sister’s house” and nothing will happen inside my body. It’s like telling you “I’m from Cleveland” or “I played softball” or any other completely neutral fact about my life.
What you have to do is go deep enough into the actual memory itself that you start to feel scared. You need your heart to race, your chest to feel tight. You need that thin film of sweat to flash across your palms. Every time you do that, every time you take yourself back to the feeling of the hard, white tile pressing against your cheek, every time you let the memories come and you do not die, you send your brain the message that you are safe. That a very bad thing happened to you once upon a time, but that that thing is not happening now. These things in your mind and in your memory can’t hurt you. The coyote is just a picture in a book. The bear is a word you say out loud. You don’t have to run, or fight or freeze, you can just be. You can just be okay.
One time I woke up in the middle of the night and there was a stranger in the house with a gun who told me over and over again that he was going to kill me. And now every time I wake up in the middle of the night I can’t be sure there isn’t a stranger in the house with a gun. The thing is, my main fear isn’t even that the man will kill me this time. I just don’t ever want to feel the way I felt in that house on that night ever ever again.
Do you know what else causes your body to produce adrenaline? Running. It was the adrenaline that triggered that first panic attack. When I ran, the adrenaline coursing through my body, my racing heart and heavy breathing replicated my physiological state during the robbery. So my brain sent me the same messages: You are not safe. Someone you’ve never met has their finger on a button that, if pressed, will end your life. You’ll never be a writer. You’ll never be a mom. Your whole life, which has seemed up to this point like some great mystery is actually no mystery at all. It was just this. Just these twenty-one years, and then you die of brain trauma or organ damage or blood loss on the floor of your sister’s rented house in Louisiana.
This is why, when I ran, I felt like I was going to die. Because my brain was telling me, You are going to die.
And after a while it wasn’t just running. Soon I couldn’t do anything that made my heart pound or my breath run short. I couldn’t watch scary movies. I couldn’t sing loudly in the car. I couldn’t walk quickly in heels. I couldn’t go into Ikea. And after having panic attacks under all of those circumstances, just thinking about doing any of those things was enough for my adrenal glands to start the adrenaline dump. It got to the point where my vision would to start to go in and out when I just looked at a long flight of stairs.
The man with the gun got angry a lot. He wanted more money. He wanted us to have had nicer cell phones. At one point, he shouted that he was going to put a bullet into my boyfriend’s skull and I gasped his name, Steve. For the rest of the robbery, the man with the gun said his name again and again: Why you lying, Steve? I need more money, Steve. I’m going to fucking kill you. Steve.
When I went to go see a therapist about the panic attacks, she told me that they often come from trauma that someone hasn’t fully worked through. “Has anything really scary ever happened to you? Have you ever been tied up or threatened?”
“No. God, no,” I said.
She went on with her list of questions, asking me about my life.
About twenty minutes into the session, I interrupted. “Oh, I just thought of something,” I said. “About three years ago I was robbed at gunpoint.”
The therapist looked at me, leaned forward in her seat. “That’s exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. Why would you not mention that?”
“I just…forgot,” I said.
“Aubrey.” Her eyes were the same gray as her hair. Not even a hint of blue. “You absolutely did not forget.”
Look, I don’t really like talking about it. So for a long time I just didn’t talk about it. After not talking about it for so long, I didn’t really think about it much. And then, some days, I didn’t think about it at all. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
But the harder I worked to quiet my brain, the louder the warnings got inside my body, until I was having panic attacks every time I moved faster than a brisk walk. It turns out that it’s actually really important to confront the big, scary, unmovable monsters in your memory or your body will literally shut down until you do.
Once I was in New Orleans with my sister and my boyfriend, and this man came into the house and terrorized us for what felt like hours. My sister had this hand soap in her kitchen that smelled like orange. Not like “oranges,” like the fruit, but like “orange” the color—like lollipops or popsicles or children’s cough syrup. I had my hands in front of my face on the floor, and every time the man yelled, I would inhale sharply through my nose. The orange smell flooded my brain and the tiles swung beneath me. I worried I would fall over from the dizziness, but then I remembered I was already laying down on the ground.
The therapist told me to tell her what happened. Then she asked me to tell her again. Then she had me close my eyes and pretend I was back there, on the cold floor of my sister’s place on Robert Street. She asked me to picture everything I could see, hear the man yelling at me, feel my heart pounding into the tiles through the thin cotton shirt I had been sleeping in. Then we did it again. And again. And again. This was supposed to help me process the trauma in a healthy way so my brain and my body would stop revolting.
It must be a tedious process for the therapist. After a couple run-throughs, even the most gripping trauma story must get pretty old. No one wants to hear you tell the same story over and over and over again. Especially when they already know the ending. Especially when, most of the time you’re telling it, you’re also crying.
But the telling is the cure.
One time my boyfriend and I were visiting my sister and a truly unstable man came into the house in the middle of the night with a gun.
The thing about panic is that it starts in the brain, but it happens in the body. Once it starts, you can’t get away from it. There’s nowhere to go; the call is coming from inside the house.
When the man with the gun came through the door, I wasn’t wearing my glasses. I felt naked and powerless. If I had a chance to run, where would I even go? How would I find my way?
To be a survivor of gun violence in this country is to be forced to relive your experience again and again. The details of everyone else’s terror echo the details of your own terror. The sounds of shaking voices on the news remind you of how surprising it was to register the tenor of your own terrified gasps.
At some point the robbery was over and the man with the gun told us to stay on the floor and count to one-hundred. He said that if we didn’t, he would come back in and kill us. An obvious lie, but we laid there and counted anyway.
Sometimes it feels like I’m stuck in this ever-lasting loop of other people’s trauma triggering flashbacks to my own trauma. America mass-produces victims of gun violence; there are more and more of us every year. No one comes out of a gun crime without wounds that bleed forever.
After the man with gun left, Steve reached for me and I tried to crawl to him, but my body was an unfamiliar pile of electricity and bones. My knee slid on the tiles, damp from my sweat and tears, and I fell.
My story didn’t make the news. You didn’t read about it online. There was no discussion, no commentary, no calls to action. This kind of thing just happens every day.
My brain thought the impact from my fall was the impact of the bullet I’d been bracing for during the entire robbery. And in some ways it was. It was the bullet that took out my sense of safety, destroyed the feeling of invincibility I’d taken for granted all those years.
It tore through so many hours of sleep I couldn’t even count them.
It shattered the part of me that used to feel in control of my own life and my own choices. The part that didn’t take shit from anyone. The part that didn’t lie down.
It killed the part of me that wasn’t afraid of fear. It killed the part of me that assumed I’d walk out of every room I walked into.
It killed so many parts of me that I still wake up in the night sometimes, and am surprised to find myself alive.