CW: mentions of an attempted robbery on New Year’s Eve that did not result in any injuries or financial loss. Mentions of past acute traumas, including a threatened mass shooting, that I have experienced, fortunately also without injury.
Does acute trauma add to the mental trauma load if you’ve already experienced the 9th Circle of Hell? I know that every experience of abuse – past and present – in the 9th Circle of Hell has been one more piece removed from the fragile Jenga tower of my mental health. I know that 9th Circle of Hell trauma compounds, but should I count non-9th Circle of Hell trauma? Does something that I would definitely call traumatic if it happened to others – but that will never take up residence in my nightmares because the price of that mental real estate was set too high by the 9th Circle of Hell – count as part of my “trauma narrative?”
I read a post recently from a blogger with a severe trauma history who witnessed a guy open-carrying a gun in a coffee shop. She was triggered, but she had her coffee there anyway. She had to ask if she should have left or if she was overreacting. Go through enough childhood trauma and your perspectives can get very skewed on things. I commented that the statistics on mass shootings in the U.S suggest that it is wise to leave such situations as soon as it is safe, and maybe even to hang out down the block to call 911 if shots are heard. I almost added that I am very wary of guns “even though guns aren’t a part of my trauma history.” Then I stopped and realized I might be being an idiot. I do have a prior scary history with guns, though I don’t think it is contributing to my PTSD symptoms. I briefly considered writing a future post about whether it is possible to be “triggered” by something while thinking you were unaffected by an event. Then I promptly forgot about it, because ADHD, until my Partner was on the receiving end of an attempted robbery on New Year’s Eve.
We both recovered from the fear within hours, but I wonder – given that other post – if that’s completely accurate, or if we’re just a bit too numbed from the 9th Circle of Hell to respond normally to things that should shake us up for a few days. The robbery wasn’t successful – or I guess very successful – but threats were involved. My Partner did take them seriously until he was able to get into a place with others around to not take them seriously anymore. It was a scary situation while it was happening, even if it ended ok. What is considered “normal” for recovering from acute scares – as that other blogger similarly asked – if your baseline isn’t Hell?
We were heading home from dinner on the subway. Our subway system isn’t accessible in many places. In some places, it’s only “accessible” if you get off at a stop on a line close by, take an elevator, and walk through an underground ramp at a gentle grade that can handle a wheelchair at least a block to the other station. The alternative to walking a block is to have to climb what I unaffectionately refer to as “Stairs of Death.”
Our subway has entirely too many “Stairs of Death” for someone with chronic illness. One set, in particular, are my personal nemeses, as before I learned about the workaround they almost convinced me I’d have to quit improv. Attempting to manage them after performances was wiping me out for days. For me, subway stairs are a legendary enemy. For my Partner, they are a quick bit of physical exertion to get steps on the activity tracker to lose a few pounds. Stress from the Crisis of 2018 means elevated cortisol for those who haven’t experienced it so chronically throughout life that they have actually depleted it years before. Elevated cortisol – and also depleted cortisol, because life isn’t fair – can both lead to weight gain. No matter the direction of physiological response, trauma too often manages to be bad for the waistline.
My Partner took the Stairs of Death and said he’d meet me after I slowly walked there the saner way. He didn’t meet me. I instead arrived in time to watch him leave the station with what looked like a generic homeless guy. However, interactions with generic homeless guys do not typically result in my Partner leaving subway stations to walk out into freezing rain on New Year’s Eve when he is supposed to be waiting for someone who is chronically ill and chronically wigged out about the time of year she hates most. My Partner’s typical response to panhandling is to offer the remainder of whatever is on his paper subway ticket – usually about a ride’s worth – to a person outside of the station itself on any potentially life-threatening weather night, wait for that person to use the ticket to go through the turnstile, and then buy a second ticket home. This effectively donates about three dollars, and my Partner can then top up to the credit card minimum on a new ticket since he doesn’t spend enough to warrant a pass. He’s generously cautious.
The would-be robber approached my Partner in the guise of a generic homeless guy requesting directions to a shelter outside the immediate area. Given we know that we live in one of the top four states for unsheltered homeless – the shelter system is strained to bursting – my Partner paused to consider. There really is a shelter in the area he mentioned, and it was freezing outside. Every homeless person we have ever met would traverse the entire city upside down and backward for a chance at a spot in one of the shelters on a night of freezing rain. Or, well, for a couple dollars to ride around the subway during the days of freezing rain forthcoming if one wasn’t available.
This is not a story intended to suggest that people should treat homeless individuals like criminals. I don’t want to create repercussions for human beings just trying to survive. Generic homeless guys (and girls, since homelessness doesn’t discriminate by gender) typically just want to not die in the Northeast cold. They are perfectly polite if someone turns them down for a subway swipe and are grateful when someone doesn’t. The would-be robber was not a homeless man. He was masquerading as one to disarm commuters, and that is very different.
I had a very difficult time convincing transit authorities that the situation was alarming, but I eventually did. I don’t know if they actually believed he left the station under duress, but the squeaky wheel gets the grease. The presence of my cane and my ADHD ability to never take a breath while shouting probably also helped convince them that the risk to their annual performance review from not helping a “disabled” girl who couldn’t climb the stairs to go find her Partner also helped. They did send someone to search for him on nearby streets. That person eventually ran into my Partner at the very end of the whole affair, so it wasn’t super useful. But, it proved I was right to send someone, and if things had gone south I’d have been glad I did.
The would-be robber had made threats and demanded my Partner take him to an ATM. My Partner was only carrying a credit card, and that credit card had never had its cash advance pin set up. We do not want to ever mistake a credit card for a debit card and accidentally take out a cash advance at 21% daily interest. (I have ADHD. I have made that costly mistake in the past.) My Partner didn’t have to fake his inability to use the card in the machine. He fumbled and tried random pins, the guy got frustrated, and my quick-thinking Partner suggested instead that he could do a money order at the nearest 7-11. The guy agreed (I have to wonder if he was a bit drunk or just stupid. Even in a high-adrenaline situation, I’d realize the problem with going inside a store with cameras while attempting to rob someone! But, whichever he was, I’m grateful he wasn’t forward-thinking, or perhaps was so supremely overconfident he thought he could pull it off?!)
When they got safely inside the lit store, my Partner turned to the man and said that either he could buy him a couple packs of smokes on the credit card and the man could leave without him reporting anything, or he could take his chances as to whether he could make good on any threats before the cashier pushed the alarm. The guy accepted two packs of cigarettes. Maybe he suddenly realized how lucky he’d be to get away with anything at that point.
We called the credit card company, who voided the charges. They recommended we cancel the card in case the criminal wasn’t quite as dumb as he seemed and had had an accomplice snap a photo or install a key swipe recorder on the ATM to get our card number. It was frightening, but it turned out ok. I managed to be insufferable enough to force transit authority help. My Partner thought up a way to cut a “deal” to resolve the situation. Trauma exposure and/or PTSD don’t mean “unable to act in a crisis.”
I’ve certainly experienced violence in the 9th Circle of Hell, but none involving guns. (That I know of, at least. Given incomplete information about some situations, I won’t categorically say it’s impossible.) Still, no robbery or other acute trauma could compare to it to my C-PTSD.
But, I guess I have experienced gun violence, even if I keep discounting it because it didn’t happen in the 9th Circle of Hell. It wasn’t any remembered fear of that event that ultimately stayed my hand when writing my comment to that other blogger. I stopped myself from writing that I had no experience of trauma related to guns because I didn’t want to accidentally invalidate someone else who had experienced PTSD from a similar situation. Trauma is personal. Just because I’m too weirdly broken from the 9th Circle of Hell to have space left over to process anything non-9th-Circle of Hell doesn’t mean, though, that perhaps, that I shouldn’t have processed it. It absolutely doesn’t mean that my “non-history” with guns couldn’t be PTSD inducing all on its own for someone else.
I was technically in an attempted mass shooting. I still feel compelled to add “technically” because it feels like just another irony magnet story to me now, not a true “trauma.” But, it, too, was scary as it happened. I was woken up by a SWAT team and evacuated from my apartment at 7am with only my terrified trauma kitty and my car keys. A neighbor a few doors down with a domestic violence history was firing his guns wildly, holding his family hostage in the apartment. There was enough risk that stray bullets could injure neighbors that we had to be immediately evacuated. He was active duty military, and he also plausibly claimed he had obtained explosive materials from his job that could be used to blow up the complex. Those who weren’t close enough neighbors to have been evacuated in the wild shooting later ended up evacuated anyway because of that threat. The standoff ended safely, though, for everyone including his family thanks to effective law enforcement negotiators, but it made the regional news just long enough to validate my claim that I couldn’t come into the lab because “I’m still in PJs with a cat and all of my stuff is in a potential blast zone.” (What does it say about the U.S. that the event only made the local news “just long enough” – aka about a day – before being supplanted?)
I’ve also been in car wrecks, house fires and even sheltered in place during the apprehension of the Chelsea bomber while interviewing in a round of jobs that ultimately resulted in our move to the Northeast (The bomber turned out to be hiding elsewhere, but I’m fine with police being safer than sorry.) I’ve also been in enough wildfires, earthquakes, tornadoes and other natural phenomena to only half-jokingly claim I will have to add a hurricane and a couple extraneous ones to complete the set. My Partner can now add attempted robbery to his list, I guess?
Any of these events could be considered validly “traumatic.” I’ve seen them listed on various traumatic life experiences scales at therapists’ offices. But, they never seem to “count” to me as anything other than party stories because the 9th Circle of Hell exists.
I would tell anyone else who had a close call with mother nature or criminal activity to talk it through with their therapist and practice good self-care. I’m not a reckless cowboy. I would definitely leave a coffee shop where a man was brandishing a gun openly. But, I also doubt I’ll mention the attempted robbery when my therapist returns from break. I’ve never thought to mention the SWAT evacuation, and if I’ve mentioned mother nature it is probably only in my usual “well, I never got hurt or lost everything so all’s well that ends with a story” way. I have to wonder if that shows healthy resilience and the fact that I am much stronger than the 9th Circle of Hell has led me to believe? Or whether it’s like dissociation: you don’t realize you are too fine to be using a healthy coping strategy until someone else points out the obvious?
What do you think? How personal is “all trauma is personal,” really? Is it healthier to treat every event I’ve experienced that show ups on a traumatic life experiences scale as “trauma,” or is it healthier to continue to craft my trauma narrative such that I “don’t have a trauma history with guns,” because it’s my story and I get to shape its telling?
Should I demand my Partner practice self-care over this attempted robbery, or is it accurate to take him at his word when he laughs and agrees with me that attempted robbery is nothing to dealing with Hell?
Also, why hasn’t anyone successfully sued those cities whose subways aren’t fully accessible? I know if I’d taken the Stairs of Death on New Year’s Eve with my Partner that I, too, would be adding “attempted robbery” to my personal list of potentially traumatic experiences. But that still doesn’t make the existence of all those Stairs of Death and their creepy half-assed workarounds okay…
Need a recap of anything I’m talking about in any post? Check out the Glossary of Terms.