November 3, 2010, I was in an accident. I was walking across the street, on my way to work, when a man in a Nissan Sentra ran a red light and hit three pedestrians, myself included. I looked over a millisecond before impact; in that millisecond I learned what it feels like to be unable to flee an impending fate and to think that death is imminent. This terrible knowledge lingers with me to this day, weighing me down with a frightful sense of the fragility of life. I can no longer trust that drivers will obey the basic laws of traffic and I now know the full pain of driving mistakes.
As a fellow victim of a senseless trauma, I am reeling from the tragedy of the Aurora theater shooting. I cannot fathom why a person would commit such a violent act of hatred towards a group of innocent people. I have been trying - and failing - to put my very deep sorrow into words. My heart goes out to all of those who have been affected by this tragedy, whether they were in that theater or love someone who was.
Life will never be the same again for these survivors. Never again will they have the luxury of walking into a darkened theater in eager anticipation of spending a few hours in mindless entertainment. Never again will they be able to watch - or hear - of Batman, without suffering flashbacks and ghastly nightmares. Never again will they have the luxury of trusting in the goodness of strangers.
The media loves to concentrate on the bravery and resilience of survivors. And in the first few weeks following a tragedy, survivors are strong and brave. But the true test of survival is when the media cameras move on to the next story. When the friends of the survivors forget and move on to their next phase in life. When the survivors find themselves alone, with no one but their own thoughts for company. That is the point when mettle begins to crumble, superhuman strength begins to wane.
Right after the accident, I was strong and brave. I made jokes - my words slurring from the morphine and the traumatic brain injury - about getting into a fight with a car. I fought to let my grad school advisers know where I was and what had happened. I fought to start walking again, one slow painful step at a time. I fought to return to school and the life I had before. I was a “success”, an “example” of the resilience of the human body.
But what I neglected - and what most of the people around me were oblivious to - was the emotional impact of the accident. The pain and the physical recovery were the easiest hurdle to overcome. And yet I used up all of my willpower just clearing the first hurdle. By the time I realized the full emotional impact of my accident, I was drained of strength.
When I returned to my old life, I found that my old life no longer fit. I had changed - I just didn’t know how. Between the anxiety and the nightmares, I found myself unable to handle the high-stress environment of grad school. I was forced to withdraw from my Ph.D program and re-evaluate the new person that I had become. Almost two years after this accident, I still suffer from severe panic attacks and nightmares, all involving cars and the awful inevitability of fate.
And so I ask you to be sympathetic towards trauma victims. I will never understand what the victims of the Aurora theater shooting went through. But I do know that their lives will never be the same again. I would urge you to lay aside the partisanship, the blame, the finger-pointing, and focus on the victims. Focus on their physical and emotional recovery. Focus on who they are as fellow human beings.
I am a believer that our experiences shape who we are as a person. We cannot choose our experiences but we can choose our responses. I am still sorting out the effects of my accident but I do know that this accident has caused me to become more thoughtful, more empathetic towards other human beings. The victims of Aurora will spend years doing the same. As a nation, we need to use this tragedy to reflect on who we are as a people and to become more empathetic, more aware of our shared humanity.