The man caught my attention. His disheveled appearance and angry outbursts made me come to the conclusion that he was either on drugs or mentally ill. He stood beside a bicycle loaded with bags and yelled at everyone who passed by.
I did what I often do in situations such as these; I averted my eyes.
Moments after walking by him I heard a series of pops. My mind raced, and when I turned to look back, he shouted at me and pointed a gun in my direction. There were several more pops.
For a few brief moments, it felt like everything stopped. Life, time, and existence froze until I looked down at my coat. I expected to see myself covered with blood, and I anticipated my legs would buckle beneath me like in the movies.
There was no blood. I was still standing.
I realized that it wasn’t a real gun that he fired at me. It was a cap gun.
This encounter launched a steady unraveling of my life. My mind was tormented with visions of this incident. I grappled with reality. I was edgy, tired, and unhappy. It took a complete mental breakdown, months later, for me to get the help that I needed.
The months that followed are one of the darkest times in my life.
While other moms were pushing their children on swings at the park or playing hide and seek, I faced the challenge of overcoming Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
While families went on picnics and took day trips to the zoo, I was locked in my house, fearful to leave, and I spent much of my time in a state of perpetual anxiety.
Fitful outbursts of tears would grip me at random times, and the darkness I felt wasn’t just metaphorical, it was literal.
When I was pregnant with my girls, I had visions of a joyous childhood full of smiles, giggles, and magical whimsy. I tried to hide the distress from my 5 and 1 1/2-year-old daughters. I wanted to shelter them from the pain I felt, but my emotions often got the best of me. I couldn’t identify with their frustrations. I wanted to scream, “Who cares about your lost toy! I thought I had been shot!”
Of course, I would never say such things but I did what seemed most natural. I hid.
Parenting books don’t cover the trials of life we may face and they rarely offer advice on how to care for your children while you’re mentally unstable. I didn’t find a Pinterest pin of 5 Ways to Navigate Parenting While Suffering from PTSD. I was on uncharted territory, and it terrified me.
My slow but steady recovery required the assistance of many professionals and months of counseling appointments. A large component of my treatment was supervised exposure therapy. These sessions involved looking at pictures of my workplace and keeping my mind present. Looking at the photos filled me with emotion. Terror, sadness, and anger would pour out of the corners of my eyes.
During exposure treatment, I was challenged to avoid looking back on the incident. Remembering the trauma escalated my emotions. I also couldn’t look towards the future as the fear of returning to my work threatened to slow my progress. All I could do was stay in the present. I looked at that picture of my workplace and told myself that it’s just a picture, I’m safe, and everything is OK.
After I had conquered the task of looking at a photo of my workplace, I progressed to standing with my therapist on a sidewalk 32 blocks away from the site where the incident took place. The time spent in the exposure sessions was often 2-3 hours long, and the therapy was emotionally draining.
Sometimes I would walk only a few steps. My legs often felt weak, and my breathing was shallow. The therapist prompted me to talk about what I was thinking so that I wouldn’t get caught in the trappings of my mind. She would coax me to use breathing techniques and to focus on my task at hand.
The progress was slow. If I were able to walk five blocks closer to work, we would celebrate. There were hugs, pats on the back, and sometimes, baked goods or ice cream. Each achievement was acknowledged and celebrated because every accomplishment brought me closer to wholeness.
It was the most trying time of my life, but it was also a period when I went through tremendous growth as a person and as a parent.
I learned about the fragility of life. I realized that time can’t be spent dwelling on the negative or what’s lacking but rather should be spent celebrating all that is. There is much to be thankful for if I take the time to seek it out and acknowledge it.
I discovered the necessity of being present. Dwelling on the past filled me with sadness, focusing on the future filled me with anxiety, but being in the present gave me contentment.
I recognized the value of sharing my feelings. It’s OK to tell my children I’m sad. I don’t need to be happy all the time to give my kids a happy childhood.
I learned to have patience with myself, and I was able to extend that grace to my children.
I discovered the importance of self-care and realized that before caring for anyone else, I needed to take care of myself.
I recognized the strength of the family unit. My recovery came from having a supportive husband and children who inspired me to seek wholeness.
I learned the power of forgiveness. In one minute my life, as I knew it, was taken away from me. In forgiveness, I was able to reclaim all that I lost and more.
I refuse to believe that this experience was a random, unfortunate event. The growth I’ve experienced and the life I have as a result of it is too great. The lessons I learned while parenting through PTSD reverberate through my life, and their echoes are louder than any cap gun.