Showing posts with label trauma. Show all posts
Showing posts with label trauma. Show all posts

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Post-Mormon Forgiveness

          Growing up Mormon, there were a lot of stories about forgiveness. In many of the stories, the happy ending involved the wronged party forgiving the perpetrator, with everyone living happily ever after. As with many of the other moralistic stories I grew up with, these narratives now strike me as being highly contorted and artificial. 
          I should say that I do believe in forgiveness. However, I feel like the forgiveness narratives that I grew up with ended up putting too much pressure on the victim to forgive the perpetrator, in many situations at the cost of the victim. Nowadays, my views on forgiveness are very different. In an ideal world, people learn from mistakes. They grow up, move on, and in the process, become a better and wiser person. However, this world is far from ideal and the reality is that many people just don’t change. Either way, the past can never be undone. As a result, I am much more careful about who I forgive and who I choose to trust. 
          Two and a half years ago I was hit by a car while walking to school. The driver was an elderly man who hit three pedestrians. This accident was, in so many ways, the result of negligence on the part of the driver – I just had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Unfortunately, this twist of fate ended up derailing my life in ways both physical and emotional. 
          And so that brings me to an issue of forgiveness. In this particular case, what does forgiveness look like? The truth is, I don’t harbor a whole lot of ill-will towards the driver. I hope that he understands the impact of what he did. I also sincerely hope that he never drives again. But the attitude and actions of the driver is outside my control. I am no longer seeking an external form of forgiveness. 
          If I wanted, I could have reached out to the driver. After the accident, I was given the driver’s information, including his home address. I suppose, if I wanted to, I could have arranged to meet him. But the simple truth is: I don’t want to meet the driver. Perhaps he feels sorry for what he did. Perhaps he doesn’t. Perhaps he has stopped driving. Perhaps he hasn’t. Either way, I have had to struggle with the consequences of this driver’s mistake. As a result, I just don’t want to depend on someone else’s actions in order to move on. 
          I hope that the driver is doing well. I hope that he can forgive himself. But that is his own personal journey, not mine.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

When Life Will Never Be The Same Again

Note: This post is in memory of the victims of the Aurora theater shooting.  My heart goes out to all of those affected by this senseless tragedy.

          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.  

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Re-examining Priorities In Light Of A Near-Death Experience

          Two years ago I was the typical ambitious grad student; I worked my way through college and graduated from Cornell University with an honors degree.  I then enrolled in a Ph.D program in developmental biology at a top-ranked medical college.  My motivation defined me - I was content to put in the long hours necessary to complete my schoolwork and begin developing my research project.  My life's plan was mapped out for me - Ph.D, post-doc, professorship in academia.  School was spent in a blur of studying and lab-work; I was relentless in working towards my goal.  Life was school and school was life.
          And then, at the beginning of my second year of grad school, I was in a life-altering accident -- I was hit by a car while walking across the street, in the type of freak accident that people hear about on the news but never imagine will happen to them.  There were a total of three pedestrians hit - I was the first to get hit and sustained the most serious of the injuries.  My head hit the windshield, completely shattering the glass, and resulting in a mild traumatic brain injury.
          I was lucky - my physical injuries healed within a matter of months.  The brain injury took a little longer - for about six months I had a mild stutter and I got dizzy every-time that I tried to work out.  But the emotional imprint of my accident turned out to be the most lingering effect.  I developed an acute fear of cars, which in the car-centric city of Houston is prohibitive to maintaining a normal life.  Between the acute panic caused by my accident and the everyday stress of working in a high-charged grad school environment, I turned into a sobbing, hysterical mess.  For the first time in my life, I was unable to fulfill the responsibilities expected of me.  I no longer knew who I was - I had always defined myself by my work ethic and my ambition.  Now I was incapable of working a full-time job, let alone a graduate program that demanded every ounce of my concentration.  I was forced to withdraw from school and redefine who I was as a person.
          This accident has forced me to examine who I am as a person.  During the accident, when I saw the car heading towards me a millisecond before impact, my last thoughts were not about my career options or my life as a grad student - my last thought was the achingly sweet look on my husband's face as I kissed him good-bye that morning.  The idea that I might never see him again crushed my heart.  
          And so now I am at a point where my days are centered around my pathological fear of cars and the unsettling feeling that my life is no longer defined by how busy I am.  Withdrawing from grad school has wreaked havoc on my self-esteem as I struggle to understand how I have changed in light of a near-death experience.                
          I am now re-examining my priorities in life.  What I have discovered is that my priorities in life are centered around family.  Once my life has settled down - once I am at a point where I can live a functional life again - I will return to school and the pursuit of a career.  But when I do return, I will return with the attitude that although a career can be fulfilling, my full heart belongs to the people I love.