My Journey Through Trauma with Fear, Tears and Gratitude
I have this deep love and respect for ordinary and regular days. This surprises some people because I’m an adventure seeker, a risk taker, and I love being and doing anything out of the ordinary. I see ‘normal’ and I run.
Trauma changed all of that for me in a matter of seconds.
Just over ten years ago I had to muster up enough strength to try and make it through a day without crying in front of my clients. I battled with fear on a daily basis. I woke up and saw fear looking at me straight in the eyes, taunting me that he or she was going to get in my way as much as possible. It felt like my job was to try to avoid being knocked down by fear.
We were one of the many families that were part of the Red Caboose Day Care shooting. Let me back up though because for me, what led up to that day is where the fear started.
In November 2003 Carlos and I were driving home from my parents’ house in Richland Center and our almost 3 yr old Alex was in his car seat. We were going about 60 miles per hour when the young guy driving in front of us (who was uninsured) pulled to the side of the road and made a U-turn right in front of us. He had realized he had forgotten his cell phone at the restaurant he had just left and without looking behind him, hastily turned around to get it. It was a horrible car accident. Based on the speed and the impact our car was totaled and it is unbelievable that aside from Carlos’ broken rib we were okay. I thank my angels and the seat belts, the airbags and the safety of our Honda Civic. As with any life threatening moment I remember many details of that night. The weeks following are very fuzzy though. We needed a replacement car for the Civic and at the same time we felt it was necessary to trade in our second car, which was an older car without air bags for a minivan. We were planning on having a second child and all of a sudden I didn’t care about what a minivan represented. I just knew it was big and would keep us safe. There were chiropractic appointments and there was the insurance battle. I had anxiety attacks when I was in a car, especially as the passenger. There were the loud noises that freaked me out and there were nightmares. We were a busy working family and we made it through those weeks and into the holidays as best as we could. Things started to settle down again.
On March 9th, 2004 Carlos took Alex to day care as I had a morning of showings scheduled. He was working at the bank then and wasn’t scheduled to start until noon so he was able to stay at Red Caboose for breakfast and eat with the kids. I was showing homes to a woman who was moving here from a different country. I didn’t know her too well. At around 11am I got a phone call from the office that I ignored. Moments later they called again so I answered it. I remember where I was in the house I was showing when I answered. Rosemary, the receptionist, was on the line and she asked if I had heard – apparently it had been on the news already. She went on to inform me that Carlos and Alex were at the office with her. Something bad had happened at the Day Care and they needed to see me. They were okay. I remember standing by the front window looking outside as she told me that a man was holding the kids and teachers hostage when the police came in and shot him. Carlos was with Alex in the lobby and couldn’t talk on the phone. She didn’t know much else.
Carlos remembers the guy coming in to the Elephant Room holding two butcher knives. He remembers one of the teachers fighting with the bad guy and getting cut and knocked down. That was Gary. Then the bad guy, which is what we call him, ordered the kids and the teachers to a different classroom. Carlos held Alex and hid in the bathroom but after a while they came out because Carlos was scared that it would put them in more danger if the bad guy found them there. It was in the Bumblebee room that Carlos experienced a feeling that this guy was not going to hurt anyone. I don’t know if it was the tone of his voice or a look in his eye but I imagine it eased the fear. Then the bad guy ordered the two parents to close all the shades and made everyone sit in the corner. There was commotion, the cops were outside. The director was there trying to talk to the bad guy. The teachers were telling the kids it was going to be okay. They instructed them all to put their heads down. Carlos was holding Alex tightly with his head against his chest and protecting his ears when the police came in and shot the bad guy. Carlos was there to protect Alex in the best way he could. And it all happened so fast.
They call it Suicide by Cop. The bad guy wasn’t really a bad guy. He had mental problems, maybe depression. I don’t really know. He needed help and wasn’t able to get it. They think he put himself in that situation so he could end his life. Carlos could tell that he wasn’t there to hurt the children or anyone else. But he did. He hurt Gary and many families that were affected. I imagine his family was hurt too. Carlos knew exactly what Alex experienced and what he did and didn’t see. This comforted him as many families, myself included, had no idea what their child experienced that day. The not knowing is horrible. Three and four year olds can’t describe what a parent really wants to know. I didn’t know what really happened either because I wasn’t there. I was showing houses. I was going about my ordinary regular day.
The after affects were intense. The police department connected us with a trauma counselor from the victims department or something like that. Carlos had group therapy with the teachers and other parents that were there. I cried for a month. I literally cried for a month. I couldn’t talk to anyone without crying. I had two clients that I was actively working with to find homes during that time and we set clear boundaries. We couldn’t talk about it, or my family, or anything really that would make the tears stream down my face. And sometimes the tears came anyway and instead of comforting me, they talked about something else. Something ordinary like the flooring. Those were the only clients I worked with because besides them, I couldn’t handle conversations. And I didn’t work much for that month or so afterwards. Both my clients were women and both were gracious with me during that time. The other moms from the day care became a safe place for me to cry with and talk to. I hugged a lot of people, for a long time.
When you take your child to day care, when you send your kid to school, you assume safety and protection. That experience rocked my feelings of safety. It wasn’t just the safety of the day care, it was my world. It was the world I was living in. I asked Carlos if we could move back to Mexico. I was sure he would want to but he didn’t. The counselor acknowledged that the car accident and its recent trauma played a big part of the fear and constant tears I was experiencing. Of not having any control of horrible things happening. Of experiencing such close contact to death and life changing moments.
Alex had been in the process of potty training and he took many steps backward after that. He hated loud noises. I cried a lot. Carlos was strong and sensitive with us. We found our way to walk together through that time, holding each other tightly. It was a month later that I found out I was pregnant and a month after that when I was rear ended by another non-insured young driver. Again, I wasn’t hurt but I was shaken and fell back into living with fear. I felt like a wobbly baby giraffe trying so hard to walk steady yet I kept crumbling to the ground. I just wanted to be strong, stay strong and be with my family.
Those experiences happened so close together and were direct messages to me that anything can happen at any time, there are no guaranties and life is short and sacred. These are messages we hear a lot, messages people write and talk about. When I experienced trauma, I felt that message sink deep inside at a cellular level. There was a shift in my consciousness. My fear turned to gratitude with each day that ended with us all at home, safe and sound.
The times I cherish most are early mornings when I wake before anyone else is up and late evenings, right after the kids are in bed. Safety is something we pray for and give thanks for at the dinner table. Thank you God, for helping us get through the day safely. As the sun rises and my sleepy boys grumpily eat their cereal and I step over the laundry basket and reach for my coffee cup I am so grateful for this ordinary moment, for a regular day with regular problems. I don’t live in fear anymore. I worked through it. Gratitude heals me. People that have lost loved ones have told me about how they miss the ordinary moments cuddling on the couch or grilling out and the bickering that happens getting kids ready for school, forgetting to pick up milk. These are moments I no longer take for granted.
I could have settled into anger but I never experienced anger. I had moments of ‘why me’ (especially after being rear ended when I was newly pregnant) but they were fleeting. I knew that it could have been worse. As bad as it is, it could always be worse and I am quick to find gratitude in what I know to be true. I can evaluate the gifts and I tally them up when I start to crumble (my heart is beating, I have my legs and my arms and a house and family – whatever comes to my mind). Then I take the time to rest and hold on to those gifts and pray for strength. I looked at the fear and I decided I didn’t want it. I didn’t want to live in it or play with it or let it leach on to me. I noticed it and accepted that it was part of my process. And then it slowly went away.
I don’t know a lot about the tears. I’m sure there is some theory that someone can offer me. All I know is that they still well up in my eyes when I talk about the experience. My nose gets red. If I’m not careful with how the conversation plays out, I am at risk for a real hard cry. I usually keep myself in check. When someone I know is suffering I cry. When something horrible happens to people I don’t know across the country I cry. When I sit with clients that are struggling, tears well up in my eyes. Sometimes I apologize and I used to feel stupid. But I’ve learned that this is just who I am. My heart feels so intensely and I am so raw with emotion.
Gratitude has been the most healing and powerful experience. I literally hold on to my ability to find gratitude as my rock in life. And the more I practice it, the more it becomes who I am and not something I do. I love that about getting older and choosing what serves me and letting go of what doesn’t.
Right now as you read this, you are safe. I hope those around you are safe. And for that let’s take a moment to be grateful.