I’ve been thinking about trauma a lot lately. I know, not necessarily the most light hearted way to start, but I’m hoping to entice you with my brevity and deep, deep thoughts at the top of this post.
This is just a recounting of something I talk about a lot. Talking and writing about stuff helps me get through it; that’s why I pay $18 a year to have this website and publish random stuff that’s on my mind. I haven’t posted in a long time, mainly because I’ve been busy being bad at being an adult, but today is sort of different in an unfortunate way.
I’d like to think that I spent today focusing on moving out of my apartment, getting ready for my upcoming work week, doing other fun adult things like…paying bills, I guess? But this has been sitting in the back of my mind all day, like it does every year. There’s no escaping it anymore. It doesn’t scare me as much as it did in years past, but it lingers in my head long enough for it to be distracting and hinder me from getting much done, which is why I’m here.
Seven years ago today, on February 17, 2010, I was a victim of an armed home invasion. Or robbery. Or armed robbery. Or whatever. The cops had a lot of words for it.
I was at my then best friend’s house, singing a song we’d just heard on Glee, eating a ton of the awesome Indian food her mom always made for us, when three gunmen burst into her house, tied up her family and me in a closet, and robbed their house. Every time I talk about it, I feel like I’m lying. I don’t know why. It just seems like such a surreal thing to have happened. I’m a generally hilarious person; I make people laugh easily and I really can’t resist turning everything into a joke. For years when I would recount this incident to anyone, I would laugh while telling it. I don’t know why. I still don’t know why, really. And the laughing made it seem even more like the whole thing was a joke, although even I wouldn’t joke about something like that.
I remember every single second of the robbery vividly, which is saying something because I can rarely ever remember if I’d eaten breakfast earlier in the day. I remember my friend’s mom sinking down onto the ground and screaming when she saw the men. I remember one of the men yelling at me to stand up and hand over my phone, which I did, and join my friend’s family in a weird huddle on the ground. I remember looking at my watch; 8:04 PM. I remember being led at gun point to my friend’s parents’ bedroom and into their closet. I remember feeling incredibly awkward, since no way would I ever enter someone’s parents’ bedroom on my own accord, but I also remember how it felt to have a gun in my back pushing me to do so and how willing I was to forego my manners to avoid being shot.
I remember one of the men asking me where I lived. In actuality I lived across the street, if you can even believe the sitcom-level irony of living across the street from your high school best friend. I remember I lied to the man and told him I lived on the other side of the neighborhood. I can remember how long it took for me to answer, how he had to ask me twice because I didn’t want to tell him I lived across the street in fear that they’d hurt my own family next, but too nervous and scared to formulate an answer that would be believable enough for him to accept. I remember he accepted my answer and didn’t question me further, but relief didn’t come because he still had his gun on us and just because I managed to stay calm enough to cooperate didn’t guarantee my safety; I was only safe for now.
I remember how I quickly looked away whenever any of the gunmen saw me looking at them, and I remember how disappointed I was that these three men were Black, and I remember trying desperately to somehow mentally communicate with them that they should not hurt me because I’m Black too.
I feel bad for them now, the men. I didn’t then because they were the cause of the worst night of my life and subsequent years of therapy and a dynamic shift in my personality. But now I feel bad for them. They weren’t caught, even after the cops showed up at my school and pulled me out of class to show me pictures and ask me to pick one I recognized. They probably went on to rob more houses after being able to escape and they’ll probably eventually slip up and get arrested, if they haven’t already, and people will assume that they’re robbers because of the color of their skin; they’ll be assumed guilty because they’re Black, which has to mean that they’re violent, which only serves to fuel a racist stereotype that affects me, too. So I guess I feel bad for me too.
Time really seemed to drag on in the closet and I can only really equate it to when you’re in class or at work for what feels like hours and you look at the time and mere minutes have passed. I kept checking my watch; somehow timing the whole thing comforted me. Or something, I’m not sure if comfort is the right word. I stayed quiet most of the time, only occasionally talking to my friend’s little brother, trying to comfort him because as bad as it was for me, I knew it was way worse for the 8 year old little kid in front of me. I thought about how bad this was for my friend’s family, how terrible it must feel to see your entire family bound and shoved in a closet at gunpoint while strange and violent men ransack your house, the one place that’s supposed to be safe. I thought I had it much better than her family because I wasn’t forced to witness my entire family be traumatized right before my eyes. I was lucky, because it was just me.
When one of the men told my friend’s dad to show him “where the gold is” (I’m still unsure if they were operating on some kind of stereotype that Indian people keep gold in their house), her mom grabbed her dad as best she could with restraints on and yelled “no no no no no” over and over and over. I don’t know if I wasn’t understanding because I was in shock or maybe because it sometimes takes me a bit longer to understand stuff, but it finally dawned on me that she was scared that they would take him and kill him. I decided that they had already had enough horrible things happen to them and that I should go instead, since it was only me. I didn’t know “where the gold was,” but I figured I was going to be killed anyway, so might as well get it over with. I figured it wouldn’t be too bad, I would be able to see my grandma and ancestors in heaven and that would be cool. The main thing I kept thinking was that I would miss out on seeing the last two Harry Potter movies, which I’d been waiting for since I was 9 years old, but I convinced myself that they had movies in heaven and I’d be able to see them. It didn’t feel right that after all this bad stuff, they wanted to take my friend’s dad too; that just seemed like too much, so it made sense in my head that it should be me to go.
I didn’t do it out of bravery, or courage. I just did it because I felt bad.
The men didn’t make me go show them the gold or whatever, probably because they could tell I didn’t know where it was since I wasn’t a part of the family. My mom thinks my presence, my blackness, made this night a lot less worse than it could’ve been. She thinks the reason that they didn’t hurt me or my friend’s family is because I was there. I don’t know if I agree.
I remember everything about the short half hour in that night. After the men left, 8:37, we stayed in the closet listening to make sure they were truly gone. When we got out, my friend’s mom wiped a sort of dust over my forehead, just like she did to herself and husband and daughter and son. I don’t know what it means, I’ve never asked or looked it up, but I feel like it was a blessing; we made it out alive. The entire time we were in the closet, there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to die. I kept thinking, it’s going to be so sad for my parents to have to see my body in a closet, and what a terrible way to go out. I thought, I’ve really wasted all of this time struggling through AP government when it didn’t even matter. But emerging from the closet, being able to leave and not be dead, was almost even more surreal than the robbery that had just happened. I really, really didn’t think I would live. And in the days and weeks afterwards, everything felt fake almost, like it was some weird pseudo-consciousness. Like, I had really been killed and was in some limbo between life and death, making stuff up and imagining what my life would be like had I not died. Sometimes I still feel like that. It’s hard to explain.
After the robbery was over and I went home and hugged my family and laid in my bed, I thought, I’m glad this is over and I survived it and it happened so young. I thought, I’m lucky that this happened when I’m a kid because now that I’ve survived this Bad Thing, I don’t have to worry anymore because all the Bad Things are done for me. This was really bad and now it’s over so I’m safe for now. It probably doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it was what I told myself to feel better and not worry too much about the possibility of more Bad Things happening to me.
Seven months later, I woke up for an 8am class that I had to convince myself not to skip because I had just started college and it would be bad to start skipping classes so early into my college career. Seven months later, I dragged myself across campus and sat in class when I could’ve been safe in my bed. Seven months later, I was trapped in a classroom after a gunman shot aimlessly through campus before finally killing himself in the building next door.
You may not remember UT’s shooting very well; compared to the dozens of school shootings that we have in this country every year, it was relatively tame, the only casualty being the gunman himself. I remember being incredibly confused while we were on lockdown for hours as the police were alerted to the situation and as my class of 800 budding journalists either freaked out or attempted to report the story from the inside. I was confused because this wasn’t supposed to be happening to me; I’d already had the Bad Thing happen to me, the worst thing. It had been less than a year, so why was this happening again? Surely there was a mistake, because this wasn’t supposed to happen again.
There was a lot of confusion that day; we watched the people on the news mislabel the buildings on campus and the cops speculate if there was more than one shooter. Lockdown meant the doors to every building was locked, which also meant that students walking to class were stuck outside. I think one of the scariest things that day was hearing outside students banging on the doors, pleading to be let in, and us inside students being unable, and too afraid, to let them. But while we sat in that auditorium, waiting for people more important than us to decide that we were safe, the one thing I kept thinking was how wrong this was and how unfair this was and that I’d already had a Bad Thing and I’m not supposed to be here.
I don’t remember the shooting that well and I don’t think about it often, and when I do it just makes me think of the robbery. Hearing my fellow students crying just reminded me of my friend’s mom crying. Seeing the footage of the kid running through the library waving his gun around just reminded me of the men waving their guns in my face. It was scary, no doubt, but the thought of it is always overshadowed by my first encounter with gun violence.
After the shooting was over, everything pretty much went back to normal. Classes resumed in the days afterward; the library where the kid killed himself was open the next day. The school offered free counseling sessions and I went to one, but it didn’t feel like it helped. Hearing kids talk about how scared they were felt too deep for me and I didn’t want to be reminded of the fact that this same thing happened to me again. It just made me realize how damn unpredictable life is and that I was an idiot for ever believing that I was forever safe for having survived the robbery. I thought I was supposed to be finished. I thought I was supposed to be safe. It didn’t make any sense. For weeks and weeks and weeks, I was scared that something else would happen, something worse. I would speculate what the worst thing that could happen would be, something double or triple a robbery plus a school shooting. I couldn’t focus on any of my schoolwork and I felt like it was all pretty pointless because clearly I had become some sort of magnet for Bad Things. And while my “one Bad Thing a lifetime” theory hadn’t really been relevant up until that point, it was the shooting that made me realize that that line of thinking was flawed.
The truth is, there is no quota of Bad Things that can happen to you. And, ok yeah, it seems a bit juvenile to be coming to this realization so late, but it’s true. And it’s not positive, not dreamily ignorant like believing that surviving one Bad Thing can prevent other Bad Things, and it’s not negative or debilitating, like expecting and waiting for more Bad Things to inevitably happen.
It just is. It just is.
So today, I’m ruminating on how trauma affects us, how it affected me, and what the next steps are. I take medicine for my subsequent depression and PTSD. I go to therapy (sometimes) and that helps a lot, for the most part. I have a deeper understanding of how lasting trauma can be; it’s been seven whole years and every year on this day my brain remembers to go into hyperdrive. I don’t reason with myself about how surviving something bad can prohibit something worse from happening, and I’m not as paranoid about bad stuff happening in the future.
Coping is hard. I wish I could end on a lighter note, but I think realistically confronting the effects of trauma is a good thing. And if that means I have to write a novel length blog post about a thing that happened last decade, then I guess that’s a good thing too.