To Soften the Blow
On the evening of January 20, 1967, my father shot my mother with a twelve-gauge shotgun at a three-foot range across our dining room table. All of us, their six children, were present in the house when the gun went off. My three brothers, who my father had gathered at the table to watch the event, fled when the gun exploded. We three girls, ages five, seven, and nine, remained in the house while my father pointed the gun at my whimpering mother, trying to shoot her one more time – to finish her off. For thirty minutes, my nine-year old sister stood between my parents, her face inches from the barrel of the gun, shouting one word repeatedly at my father.
As I screamed, I shifted my gaze between this horrific scene and the eyes of my five-year old sister. The pro-longed pain became too great. I had to make a choice between continuing to stare at the reality before me or into the loving eyes of my sister, eyes that transported me to a place that felt more real than the nightmare I was living. This single choice molded my life, crystallizing for me that all that exists between perceiving something as negative or positive is a choice. My older sister eventually found more words and resolved the conflict. Her words saved my mother. In that moment I learned a simple truth: if the words of a nine-year old girl can bring down a maniac, the right words can solve any problem.
The gun blast shattered my mother, literally, and our family, figuratively. I was simultaneously traumatized by the horrific act and enlightened by the miracles I experienced in the aftermath. I returned to my second grade classroom with no counseling. I solved my conflicts the only way I knew how – with violence. For seven years I did not say a word about the shooting. Eventually, my rage-filled body could take it no longer. One day, a very intuitive principal altered the course of my life in twenty minutes by looking me in the eye, giving me space to cry, and speaking the right words. I learned once again that all that exists between perceiving a situation as negative or positive is a choice. His continued attention sustained me and allowed me to enjoy my teenage years.
Although I was no longer violent as an adult, I was brought to my knees in the midst of my divorce. Realizing my deplorable lack of communication skills, twenty years after the shooting, I finally sought professional help. I could run from my past no longer. Gandhi said, “The only demons are those running around in our own minds and that is where our battles must be fought.” I began to battle my demons, and, as a warrior replaced the victim in me, I came to understand the spiritual implications of violence.
I did no technical research for this book. I am not an expert on posttraumatic stress. I tell about the shooting and my parents’ divorce at a time when divorce was extremely rare and shootings in suburban neighborhoods were virtually unheard of. I have always known I was meant to do something in response to being shown so much love in the midst of so much horror. This book is my something. My life and the people I reached out to, constitute my research.
I’m not a perfect person. Writing this has been a humiliating experience, as I have cringed writing the good about myself just as much as writing the bad. I have tried to give a complete picture of one human being struggling with posttraumatic stress.
A trauma or an act of violence is often retold in a single sentence. He was injured in a car accident. She was raped in the stairwell. They lost a child. A soldier lost his leg to an IED. Their parents divorced. A bomb went off in the square. The tornado destroyed their home. We lost our friend when the towers fell. I was bullied in school. He was fired. My sentence is, “My father shot my mom.” Five words.
To the person who experiences a trauma and feels its effects, the event has far greater impact than words in a sentence can convey. In fact, it can alter a person forever. It can, and often does, lead to a life of resentment, anger, bitterness, fear, shame, and more violence. We can become bitter or choose to become better. There is no way to take away the trauma, but there are ways of managing responses to it so it does not destroy virtually every relationship a person has. I began to heal my anger using the miracles I saw on the night of the shooting: eye contact and words.
My discussions with those coping with posttraumatic stress, particularly soldiers and those abused, made it clear to me that anger and negative attack-thoughts were the most destructive elements. If not dealt with, the anger becomes rage, and the person begins to hurt others. If a person does not want to be angry, change is possible. A commitment is needed because it can be a long and arduous task. Change comes in lightning bolts of zigging and zagging. Zigging: moving three steps ahead. Zagging: moving two steps back.
There is great difficulty in being the angry person, whom I label “A.” Although this person wants to be transformed into a happy person, whom I label “Z,” he hasn’t the foggiest idea how to make the journey, which I refer to as B through Y. These are the steps no one really shows a person how to take, and this is what makes change seem so unattainable.
Everyone wanted me to change; I wanted to change – to be different, but no one could show me how, and worse, when I tried, I felt shame for doing it wrong. I groped in the dark without an instruction book to guide me, trying to understand how to simultaneously purge the anger I carried while managing the conflicts in my present-day life. Although managing posttraumatic stress is a life-long process, I have documented my initial eleven-year journey of B through Y.
The most challenging time of all came after admitting I needed help. If you, too, are an “A” and are trying to become a “Z,” you are welcome to use any parts of my B through Y as a roadmap for your own personal healing. There is value to the struggle, living the ups and downs – great joy and great pain – as you journey. I used all the resources I could find, every educator and healer. Every step, no matter how ugly the struggle, was worthwhile.
This book is not meant to be a tell-all story about anyone but me. I have written stories about my being bullied and the bully I was, from my perspective alone. When my father left, we children continued his legacy of abuse inside our household. In spite of it all, we ultimately succeeded in developing into fine and decent human beings. My siblings are the most important people in the world to me. Because I know their stories, I have more respect for them than any humans on earth. When all is known, all is forgiven. Nothing in my words is meant to hurt anyone, especially them.
My story is extreme. Yours may not be. It may be more so. Or perhaps you were neglected and, therefore, cannot pinpoint an important event in your life, but feel traumatized all the same. Pain cannot be compared or measured; only the one who suffers can feel it. However, others can share in and witness the healing process.
I did not learn about the natural responses to grief, which include shock, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, until twelve years after the shooting. I spent those twelve years believing something was terribly wrong with me. Learning this valuable information was enlightening, but realizing I’d lived without it for so long was devastating. We all suffer traumas, big and small. Children need to be taught the stages of grief early, so they know when they are in them. They need to know these responses are normal and natural. We adults know our suffering during a loss will end, but teenagers struggling with suicide have not had enough major losses to know their depression will lift and acceptance will come. It is up to us to cultivate this emotional intelligence in our young people.
Whether you are a person who has posttraumatic stress, loves someone who does, or just has had drama, trauma, and stress in your life, it is important while reading this not to compare yourself out, saying, “Oh, this has nothing to do with me.” Rather, compare yourself in, by trying to find yourself in these pages. If I follow this practice, I find myself in everyone’s story. I become a less judgmental, more tolerant and forgiving person. I soften.