Why I work with violent people:
In 2008 I was en route to a child’s birthday party via taxi when I heard a loud voice in my head say, “This is a gift.” In the next millisecond, the cab driver screeched to a halt shouting, “He’s killing her!” I looked to my left and saw a man holding a woman in a fur coat by the hair with one hand and stabbing her repeatedly with the other.
“Call 911,” I yelled as I jumped from the taxi.
“STOP!” I screamed as I instinctively ran towards the stabber.
He paused and looked in my direction. We were about six feet apart as he raised the oversized knife towards me. I would say we locked eyes but, in fact, he seemed not to have eyes that could lock. He did look at me and me at him. But his eyes had a lack of color similar to someone in the middle of a seizure. He looked at me, the moving target, and shuffled forward. It wasn’t the knife he brandished that terrified me. It was the eyes.
I ran back to the safety of the cab and he resumed his vigilant stabbing, trying to pierce the fur coat and even to remove the woman’s head.
I would like to say I was the hero that day but, actually, I was the girl hiding and screaming, “make it stop,” while occasionally peeking to see if it had. There were many people standing frozen in a state of traumatization. None of us had access to our frontal lobes.
Eventually, the man was shot. He stumbled back a bit letting go of the barely living elderly woman. Police arrived and both the woman and the man were removed from the scene.
I gave my card to the police in case they wanted a witness. I offered to do neurotherapy for free for anyone connected to the incident and continued on my journey to the birthday party.
There is so much I could share about this incident and all the learnings it brought me but I have a focus for this article so let me just make the pertinent points.
1- I knew how to help myself not get PTSD. I looked for all the wonderful things around me minute by minute, making a point to see, hear, taste and smell beauty. I couldn’t talk about what I had seen, though and knew I had to. I could feel the incident shrinking into a fragment of my brain like an unexploded mine buried in a forgotten field waiting to be triggered. So I forced myself to share. One slowly spoken word at a time I described what I saw. Then, since I had shared it once, I could share it everywhere, on the streets, from the stage, in my writings. I told everyone, family, friends, strangers. I gave myself neurofeedback and, ready for a little direct exposure, google searched the incident.
2- It took a while to locate since it happened in New York City and, as my search made plainly obvious, an attempted murder by stabbing on the streets of NYC was anything but uncommon. While looking through the many articles my head swam with the vivid memory of this tall, thin, underfed, barefoot, ragged jeaned, shirtless, knife-wielding black man with tightly woven hair. In my mind’s eye he stood on one leg in the middle of the road after being shot. Someone approached him, gun outstretched. He looked slowly around still in a stupor and dropped the knife now heavy with blood. This is a memory that I can see clearly even today.
Even though I now know that memory is a lie, whenever I re-envision that day, I see what I thought I saw.
When I located the article and saw the image of the actual man though, when I read what he was wearing and took note of where he was shot I was surprised to discover how wrong I had been. Had I been called to point out the perpetrator or describe him to an artist we might have arrested a bit player from the movie Hotel Rwanda.
You see at the time of the attack my brain and its association network had nothing to associate this type of action with. It was beyond my understanding and since in trauma a person’s problem-solving skills from the frontal lobes shut down I could not think creatively or make memories accurately. Thus, my brain ‘filled in the blank’ by superimposing something I had seen before, something similar, something equal in its level of shock. While watching Hotel Rwanda I was safe in a theater and while watching this man stab this woman I was safe in a car. And though what I was feeling was many times more horrible than what I had felt before, I still saw something similar to what I had seen before. My brain did this to protect me from the true story of the moment. This is a common trauma response.
3- As mentioned, fear and trauma shut down the frontal lobes. What we are left with is instinct and habits. That is why the armed forces has soldiers do so many drills and exercises during training: to make fighting a habitual response. When traumatized, people act out what they know and cannot come up with anything new. So “Call 911” made sense. As did “STOP!” Both have been ingrained since childhood. But, “hit him with the car,” was beyond my ability to imagine. As a child I hid from abuse, so hiding was a habit and, acting on impulse, I hid. I understood this because I understand the brain. But I still had difficulty forgiving myself for being so ineffective, And that is why I dedicated myself to understanding violent people and responding in ways that would change their behavioral course.
Yes, this is an extreme example. But, the fact is, fear does this to you. It makes you stupid. It destroys your ability to assess rationally. Destroys logic and leaves people vulnerable to manipulation. Our life experiences shape us, they cannot be ignored. Even knowing how to prevent myself from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, even though I acted on everything I knew, I still was not invincible and had trouble visiting New York comfortably for several years after the stabbing.
You may not be experiencing a stabbing but if you are watching the news about Covid-19, Black Lives Matter, Political rhetoric on the subject of statues and immigrants, actual murders and projected assaults etc., you are definitely experiencing trauma.
I have been thinking about this a lot lately because even as we are being manipulated by ugliness we are also being shown some heretofore unlistened to truths, globally.
The question is: “How do we drop the fear and hang on to our intelligence while paying attention?”
The thought brings me to my Asian son in law.
He hated me so much he orchestrated having me disconnected from my daughter and her son.
It was an extremely difficult situation because I love my daughter and totally adore my grandson. In fact, we were so close he begged to live with me on several occasions. I often cared for him and always found him delightful. However, his mother, my daughter (saved from a nest of sexual abuse when I adopted her at age 13), gave birth before she was married. She ran from her would-be husband with me in tow and spent several years living a life without him in it. Then they reunited and, to be honest, they were (and are) great together. She didn’t want him to know her truth though, so the stories she made up blamed me rather than her own frightened youth. Their son loved me with gusto and didn’t know his dad. Hence, my daughter’s Asian husband saw me as a threat and fought to have me removed from their lives. At one point I realized that my stepping away would be healthier for my grandson than my staying in the picture. So I did. This trauma cut deeper than the man with the knife. This trauma left me with a touch of Asian based racism. I felt a gentle hatred stir in me every time I saw his particular look on a plane or in a store, in a park or at a sporting event, anywhere at all. I also felt at risk of harm, vulnerable and avoided chatting or making eye contact. I noticed myself. I knew where the feelings were coming from and sometimes I just let myself feel because fighting it was too difficult.
I knew it was illogical. I knew I was experiencing triggers from trauma but it still happened. I still felt that way. I also knew that his actions were based on misinformation stemming from my daughter’s lies. I knew that he was not wholly to blame. And still, that particular Asian type stirred anger inside of me. I knew I could get over it but I almost didn’t want to. They had disowned me and there was no one to throw my feelings at but strangers.
Fortunately, I also know that hate hurts the hater. Fortunately, I want to live a life of happiness and ease so that I can teach my children to do the same. Fortunately, I know that everyone comes back if you don’t drive them away. So I did the work of smiling, listening, helping, visiting until the pain faded away. I laid the groundwork for a happy reunion. Now, whether they embrace me or not, I am embraceable. I do not hate. I am not racist.
Except: When I am.
A mere four weeks ago I was flying back from Florida on a surprisingly crowded plane full of mask wearers and the smell of hand sanitizer. I had the middle seat and was sandwiched between an Indian woman on my right and a black man on my left. MyTV wasn’t working and the six-hour flight loomed before me with no reading material as back up. I asked to be moved and was lucky enough that I ended up in an aisle seat near the bulkhead, next to a white male pilot on his way to work.
I made myself comfortable. Turned on the TV and tried to watch a movie. But something was bothering me. My bag was still under the seat in front of my old spot. Normally I wouldn’t worry about it at all. It was better there anyway because the bulkhead has no floor storage. But the black lives matter protests were in full swing at the time and my awareness of racially driven angst had me nervous.
I was not worried about the Indian woman, even though I have had more negative experiences in India than at the hands of black people. I was worried about the young adult black male. He was lovely, by the way. He exuded no anger, just sweetness. There was no reason other than the awareness created by the protests. I tried to stop my thoughts by imagining him as a white man, then as a black woman, then as an Asian. In every case the fear subsided but only as long as I held the thought. The lesson wouldn’t generalize. My bag was filled with medical equipment and I couldn’t stop the idea that he might rifle through it from passing across my mind. It didn’t make sense. It had no basis in fact and yet, there it was, warning me to act.
I believe in listening to my instincts and thoughts at least enough to quell their fearmongering, so I went up and got my bag. Once done I was free to analyze the situation.
This time I imagined him as an old black man and realized it wasn’t just about race it was also age. Because when I imagined him as old I also, imagined him over the impetuousness of youth.
Then I thought about his clothes and recognized his attire as indicative of movie-made bad boys with darker skin. The point is, I wasn’t worried about him, I was worried about his package.
The world has trained me, taught me to fear, and in some ways that has been beneficial. But in many more ways it has stepped up and controlled my feelings, inhibited my intelligence, and shaped my beliefs.
It is only my determination to be happy and mentally healthy that has changed the course of these presets. That is what I wanted to share. What we grow up looking at matters, especially if we don’t know we have the power to change. And even more so if we don’t have that power in the first place. I never really understood how the names of your street, the flags over your head, and the statues in your park could traumatize a person’s youth and cripple their future. Until I imagined that man on the plane as white. Because it gave me an idea.
I imagined Christopher Columbus as a native in full headdress and the reservations stocked with white people. I imagined Lincoln as black and the slave he owned as white. I imagined Franklin Roosevelt as an Asian and the internment camps filled with white people. I imagine Trump as a Mexican filling detainment camps with white children.
Then I imagined myself as a little white girl growing up surrounded by these stories and statues.
And suddenly I wasn’t able to believe in mental health or happiness or the power of change. I was broken. I felt the color drain from my face and wondered if my eyes were also colorless like the man with the knife trying to carve away his pain in a white woman’s hide. It occurred to me that these statues, street/fort/team names and flags, are the trauma and the trigger. Because that is how traumas work. They become the unexploded mine buried deep in the psyche and shaped into a trigger when something similar comes along.
This is a sad time in America, my chosen country of twenty years. When the concept of wearing masks to protect others was introduced I was excited. Reminded me of putting the mask on me first before helping others on the airplane. The point was to do the right thing for my body so I could do the right thing for others. I hoped it would sow the seeds of unity and brotherly/sisterly love. That is not what has happened. But I am still hoping.
Maybe that is the point of this new surge of infections. To give us another chance to do what is right, choose solidarity and neighborly love.
Or perhaps it is just fueling the fire for the end of days.
That is up to us. I choose dismantling the triggers and recreating health.