Subway Sociology #3: Of Subways and Cigarettes…

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. (Heck, this isn’t even a post to imply that criminals deserve much of the way they are treated by a broken legal system. Far too many end up making those life-destroying choices because their own poverty, trauma, lack of options and a generally uncaring world left them feeling they had no other choice. I’m generally for fixing the underlying conditions that create crime as the most likely solution. Violence is never ok. Abuse is never ok. But, life is complicated and remediation should be an option for the willing, if only because then it makes it so much easier to pick out the truly horrible humans, like some of the ones I’ve known in the 9th Circle of Hell, from among the desperate who would gratefully seek another path if only offered one.)

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. 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 at that moment!)

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 short-sighted 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 also 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 threatening with 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 initial threatened 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. (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 just stories because the 9th Circle of Hell exists.

I would tell anyone else who had a close call with mother nature or threatened violence of any sort 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.

 

 

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18 thoughts on “Subway Sociology #3: Of Subways and Cigarettes…

  1. I can’t speak of gun or even subway trauma as I live in Armpit,midwest USA, population 450 including livestock…What I can say, based on the appointments I had with Dr. T before she left the practice…I was talking about the abrubt move, the change of cars, the gain/loss/.loss of income…and she told me that post traumatic stress disorders are being re-defined because if something bad enough happens to you, even once, or repeatedly, it leaves dents in the psyche thus trauma. And our cross to bear in the mental health community is dealing with stuff, like in my case, my father telling me he got drafted to the Army straight out of high school after his adoptive father beat him 16 years and he doesn’t blame his swinging arm nightmares on anyone,it is what it is….so we’re left to feel, even with professional validation, friend/family/partner support, that our feelings simply don’t count.
    I disagree. Had someone pointed a gun at me and all that…I’d have probably offered up sex cos I have like $3.99 on my debit card, no credit, and I can’;t afford cigarettes even for myself let alone them…That may sound flippant but it is not intended to be, because…sadly, it’s my truth.
    I hope you and your partner are able to get on the same page soon so neither of you feels silly or dramatic or ignored. Traumatic experiences don’t contain themselves to a specific box on the form, as the prior doctor proved to me.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I get it. I can definitely tend towards a level of flippancy and joking about the 9th Circle of Hell that even I know is unhealthy, because, well, what else can I do? Before I understood it was basically a state of semi-permanent dissociation, though, I managed to share one of my worst trauma memories in a way that my Partner thought for a long time *was* actually just a joke. I know I’m forcing the humor to the point of dissociation, not just flippancy, when it comes to *that* place. Whether I’m forcing it for these other events and/or whether a decent dose of gallows humor and “prioritizing” which traumas to devote mental flipping out space to is why I’m not a just puddle of goo on the floor, who knows? Whose to say flippancy *isn’t* a valid coping mechanism? I guess that’s the philosophical question, isn’t it?

    I am thoroughly impressed my Partner thought of *cigarettes* though. Neither of us have ever smoked, so how his brain got there I simply do not know. But, it was probably a genius move surpassing even the idiocy of a would-be robber entering a place with cameras without a mask on.

    We both definitely are joking that this was a metaphysical sign we should blow our savings and anything else it takes to ensure we spend next “holiday” season outside the U.S. (If any foreign readers want to sponsor us for a visa, we’re also in so long as my sibling can come too…) We’ve traveled places most people would consider much less safe and never had anything happen even on NYE, though it can be boisterous anywhere. So, of course, it is the same subway stop that I take weekly to get to improv that ends up being where a dude tries to rob my Partner. The gallows humor practically writes itself.

    The tunnel I take as my “accessible” alternative is more isolated from the transit authorities than the stairs of death. I’d performed the night before, too. I definitely hope that robber or another of his ilk never figures out my “accessible” path exists and sets up there someday. We reported not just what had happened at the stairs of death, but also my concerns that guy will eventually think to roam the accessible pathway as less visible/easier territory now that transit authority knows his description. Will it help? Probably not, but who knows? I have to take that line change at that station to get home from improv, so here’s hoping the statistics that between the two of us we’ve almost certainly been approached by hundreds – if not thousands – of panhandlers across multiple cities and only ever had this one bad experience means it remains mentally healthier to under-react than to add even more personal triggers to my already too-long list.

    But, if a fellow practitioner of gallows humor recommends taking this seriously, maybe I’ll ask my Partner to come along to my first therapy session this year and devote 50 minutes to *not* shoving it into the miscellaneous “not the 9th Circle of Hell so doesn’t warrant thinking about” trauma box…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I read this all the way through. Thoughtfully, carefully. And when I got to your questions near the end, I did not have any answers. But I sure do understand your thought process.

    I have several similar, “second hand” traumas. And I don’t feel like they are “my” traumas. Although, in a way, they were.

    One example is that my daughter witnessed the murder, by gunshot, of a woman who lived about a block away from us. My daughter was 13 at the time. I had given my daughter permission to walk with her friend the few blocks from our home to a large grocery store, to buy some candy. I gave her money, asked her to buy a particular candy bar for me too, and told her to go straight there and come straight back. It was a “good neighborhood,” so I figured she would be safe. And it was still daylight.

    I was starting to wonder what was taking them so long when I got a call saying that my daughter had witnessed a murder. I rushed to the store as quickly as I could, and there was yellow police tape strung all around, and a woman’s body lying half out of a car, her bare legs stretched across the pavement. There were police cars everywhere. And there was my daughter and her friend, sitting on the trunk of a car, their eyes big as saucers, flanked by uniformed police officers. Red and blue lights were revolving, revolving, lighting up the night — the sun had gone down while my daughter and her friend were gone.

    Then came multiple police interviews, always with a female officer present, and with me always there at my daughter’s side. Hearing her halting, brutal story, over and over again. A sketch artist came by the house and the suspect’s face was drawn before our eyes.

    Learning the identify of the murder victim from that night’s news report was a shock. I had spoken with the victim at length on the phone a few days before, when she called about an ad I had in the local paper for babysitting. She loved her 18 month old son, that much I know.

    It turned out that her husband, an officer on a Navy ship, was having an affair with a young enlisted woman. He had hired the hit man. The husband and the gunman are both in prison forever, now. But that would not happen for several more years. In the meantime, as fast as I could make it happen, I moved my daughter and the rest of our family hundreds of miles away, out of state, to get away from the bullseye target we felt we were living under.

    It wasn’t my trauma. It was the neighbor woman who was shot and killed, not me. It was my 13 year old daughter and her 14 year old friend, not me, who were standing just a few feet away in the parking lot under a street light when they saw, and heard, the gunman kill the woman, grab her purse and run. My daughter’s friend, who grew up in a rough place, immediately hit the ground and crawled under a car. But my daughter just stood there, frozen to the spot. As the gunman ran right past her, he aimed his pistol at her, said “You don’t see nuthin girl,” and then my daughter passed out and hit the pavement. She and her friend were the ones traumatized, not me.

    But damn. Damn.

    This happened in 1988. On May 13. A Friday. My daughter is now in her forties, a therapist intern, soon to be a licensed therapist. She has done amazingly well.

    But damn. I hate guns.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. These things aren’t easy are they? It seems in practice we say, I would do this or that, but our past traumas start to take over and all sorts of decision making abilities are gone for a time. I hope that you have no more “circle of Hell” experiences. And from my point of view, sometimes (often) using humor can help put things in a different perspective and help us cope. I know it helped me to talk to my therapist about the coffee shop incident. I certainly do a lot more scoping out the people sitting in public places I have gone too in the last two weeks, but now I know that if I feel uncomfortable I have the right to leave. Keep exhaling!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. That’s scary but he was super smart about it. I’ve been robbed. I was working at Family Dollar as an assistant manager. He didn’t have a gun (at least he didn’t show one) but he threatened me & the cashier. It was scary at the time but I don’t consider it a trauma either because I’ve been through worse. I think it just depends on the individual & circumstances. One lady from another store got hit over the head with the handle of a gun.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This guy only made threats, too, but didn’t show his proof. So, it’s unclear if the guy *truly* had the means to back up his threats as he said or not but it’s not the kind of thing you question while alone. If you ask and he can back it up, you’ll have escalated the situation further. If he doesn’t really have anything, well, he still has fists and you’ve still potentially given him more reason to want to use them. That’s why he waited until he was in the 7-11 – it seemed prudent to assume the threats were “back-up-able” rather than arguing and learning the hard way that they were. But, yeah, if we’re being technical he threatened things he could do, but we can’t say for sure that he could have “made good” – and are fine with not having had to learn!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m not sure if it was scarier that we legitimately couldn’t get into the ATM and that might have enraged him or if we could and he could have gotten all the rent money that was set to autopay the next day on 1/1. I am glad we didn’t have a pin set up, so my Partner wasn’t acting when he couldn’t use the credit card in the machine. I think I’m leaning towards not carrying debit cards ever anymore. The only thing that we ever can’t use cash for anymore seems to be splitting drinks with people after improv, etc., and they all seem to take venmo…

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  6. Great post. I also hate guns. Most of my abusers were big game hunters so there were lots of guns around me growing up. They always scared me silly, as did seeing how gleefully my male relatives could kill animals, with no remorse.
    I used to think that an ability to brush off everything from theft to death threats was a sign of resiliency, as you said. After years of therapy, and continued crap blowing up all around me, I suspect it is dissociation. Gallows humor has a place, IMO. Like anything, if we start using it to avoid, rather than as a coping tool, it might be an issue? There are no easy answers.

    On a technical note: I often smell cigarettes or booze (even weed) on people I meet, past trauma has left me with an overactive sense of smell. So I am guessing that your partner smelled smoke on the gunman’s clothing or breath and made the connection that he was a smoker, perhaps without even fully realizing it. I have read that our sense of smell ‘goes to work’ before anything else, especially when we are in danger.
    The story of what happened to your partner and his ability to get out of the situation like that reminded me of a book called ‘The gift of fear’. Have you read it or heard of it? I found it empowering and helpful in sorting out ways to tell when I was truly in danger.

    It might be triggering for some to read, as the author goes into detail and gives examples of when an automatic fear response saved someone from a dangerous situation, similar to this story here. He had a traumatic childhood and he credits early life experiences (avoiding his mom’s abusive boyfriends beatings)– for his ability to detect dangerous situations and to know when a situation is about to escalate. The author started a high profile agency serving celebrity clients (he counsels them on when a stalker situation is truly dangerous, etc.).

    I am glad your partner was not harmed and I have heard Cuba is a nice place, and relatively inexpensive, for winter travels. ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We wanted to Cuba in 2016, but I guess Trump put back in place the travel restrictions? So, now I’m still not if we’re allowed to go or not. Your explanation makes sense – now that I think about it I think some of his relatives smoked when he was young outside the house. They had long stopped by the time I met them, but I have a vague memory of him saying that when we first met. I do wonder if my “narcissist” radar is part of how I survived the work purge. Like, on the one hand I fell apart in front of my boss at the height of last year’s crisis because PTSD sucks. But, on the other hand, I look back at posts I wrote before the worst of last year’s crisis about how I handled some of the times he flew off the handle at the whole team. I see myself more accurately predicting which of his moods were “dangerous” and when to approach him with news he wouldn’t like. My therapist has flat out agreed that, though she can’t ethically diagnose someone she doesn’t know, the emails and other communications she’s seen from him seem to fit the traits. Maybe subconsciously I survived that purge – even after a PTSD meltdown I’d assume he’d treat as unforgivable- because I was subconsciously responding to cues like that guy you described. I should read that book. I’d rather be triggered and learn how to use it to be safer than not trigger myself and miss a tool to use to protect myself from potential abusers in the future. I wish I believed I’d never meet another one in the 9th Circle of Hell, but, well, those “instincts” say that’s unlikely…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh no that would stink if Cuba is still off limits… A friend who went to Cuba this past holiday is from Canada, so there very well could still be a ban for American citizens!
    Yes, I would trust your instincts. I’m no professional but your boss sure sounds narcissistic to me.
    The author’s name is Gavin de Becker, I just did a google search and he has his own protection agency website now, too. I have been planning to re-read the Gift of Fear book as I read it before my official diagnoses and extensive CBT therapy.
    There is a difference between being ‘too reactive’ and trusting intuition in order to react quickly. I hope to find that balance (someday??). I mentioned the Gavin de Becker book to both of my therapists and neither one had heard of it. Although the one therapist was very supportive of me ‘listening to intuition’ and healing enough to be able to trust myself again.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m so sorry you and your husband had to go through that! No matter how traumatized it still instills the thought in the back of your head for a long time or possible ever, that thought that you aren’t as safe as you once were.

    As Casey pointed out above, what’s traumatic for one person, may or may not be traumatic for another. I was raised with guns. Having been raised on a cattle ranch with lots of boy cousins, I had one too, which I received as a small child. My (violent) stepdad had a gun case and a gun rack in his pickup truck. At no point was I ever scared of the guns, him with a gun in his hands yes. If I was in a coffee shop and someone had a unconcealed weapon I’d size the person up. I’d also probably not stop doing that until one of us left the shop. The truth is though, if things went South that guy might very well save your life.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This in reference to not seeming to feel as affected by subsequent traumas. I know about this. My story does not have to do with criminals or criminal violence, but you can read in my “From
    Within and Without” about the disconnect that happens with repeated traumas. My therapist says I have become desensitized to trauma, but the effect is still there just compartmentalized away.

    Liked by 1 person

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