This Article Is About Trauma, Fear, and PTSD but It’s Not, Like, a Bummer
Don’t worry, I’ll guide you all the way through the story.
I was still sniffling from the remains of a panic attack when I opened up an email from a reader that started with, “Newb freelance writer here, I just looked over your website and noticed you are living my dream! Congrats on living the dream!”
And I felt stomach-clenchingly guilty for feeling so scared of a life I was supposed to be enjoying. Then, of course, I felt idiotic for feeling guilty for feeling scared. And then angry at myself for feeling idiotic for feeling guilty for feeling scared.
(Please continue to write nice things to me.)
If you’ve been keeping up with my story, you know that I moved to Barcelona, Spain with my parents and my grandma after my grandpa passed away three years ago. Six months after moving to Spain, Nana was diagnosed with breast cancer and the whole purpose of this insane family migration endeavor became clear: the reduced rent, free healthcare, and close proximity of three adult caretakers (my parents and me) made breast cancer a (relative) breeze. We got through it as a family. Nana’s now in remission, my parents have retired, and I’ve followed my dream of becoming a freelance writer. That sounds like the end of a family indie movie, right? Very The Big Sick. Very Little Miss Sunshine. And sometimes it really is. I’ve certainly written it that way before. But angles look sharper when they’re coming at you head-on and I’ve been letting the fear angle knock me almost clean off my feet lately.
Fear runs in the family. Specifically, fear around how unsafe it is to be a woman in this world. More generally, fear of death.
When I was a kid in Tucson, AZ, Nana wouldn’t let me walk home after school because she was sure I had a pedophile target on my back. I had to wait in the Principal’s office until she could come to pick me up.
To be fair, a man did try to convince me to get into his pickup once, but I ran away as fast as I could, inherited trauma pumping through my veins. I’d heard enough stories from my mom and Nana to know exactly what was happening. Unfortunately, this instinct and education didn’t prevent me from being physically overpowered by a boyfriend in my early twenties.
When Nana was a little girl, she’d gotten into a stranger’s car after he’d asked her to show him where the local school was. When he unzipped his pants and exposed himself to her, she somehow managed to shame him so heavily that he pulled over and let her out of the car. Her ultimate triumph over the situation didn’t do much to protect her from a lifetime of PTSD around it.
*Fucked-Up Note: Even though Nana was very clear that the man who exposed himself to her was white, the police tried to pin it on a black man, dragging him to her house and insisting that she identify him as her attacker. She refused. The true perpetrator turned out to be a well-known figure in the community who never faced charges.
When my mom was a preteen, she was walking to the store when a stranger grabbed her breasts, laughed, and kept walking. Embarrassed, she ducked into the store but didn’t tell anybody. On her walk home, he was still there waiting for her and he tried to get her into his car. She later recognized his face and car when she saw him on the news for a string of murders he’d committed with his cousin in Los Angeles. He was the infamous 1970’s serial killer, the Hillside Strangler. He was suspected, but never convicted, of the “alphabet murders” — three girls with alliterative names whom the perpetrator raped, strangled, and dumped in towns that started with the same letter as their name.
Carmen Colon in ChurchvilleMichelle Maenza in MacedonWanda Walkowicz in Webster
My mom’s first and last names, at the time, started with M’s.
Fear is like a weed. If you let it keep growing, it overtakes the whole garden.
We’re not unique. I bet there are women reading this right now who’ve had similar experiences. Perhaps not to the serial killer degree, but still. My guess is that, like me, you’re a little sick of having to explain why you have every right to be afraid. Why you never, ever leave your drink unattended at a bar or talk to a man who comes up to you on the street. And when everyone from college students to movie producers to the President of the United States is getting away with sexual assault… well, then you’re in a gaslit echo-chamber. You shout your fear into the void and all that comes back is denial, mockery, more violence, and more graphic stories to add to the collection you know you shouldn’t be keeping so close to your heart.
Nana came of age and raised her children at a time long before the #metoo movement. She didn’t know that she had a “right” to be afraid. She wasn’t talking to other women about their stories. She simply knew her own trauma. And she knew that, if it could happen to her, it could happen to her kids and grandkids as well. The only person she could truly rely on to keep her and her family safe was her. And she made a promise that, even if it killed her, she would get all of us to the age of 18 without any significant traumas occurring.
This didn’t work, of course. And it ate away at her. Fear is like a weed. If you let it keep growing, it overtakes the whole garden. I’ve been afraid my whole life. Of going outside by myself. Of something happening to my family. Of embarrassing myself. Of putting myself out there. Of hurting or offending anybody.
From what I understand, excessive fear and anxiety are both genetic and a learned response, so the deck was kind of stacked against me from the start. Then trauma came along and added PTSD to the mix, a hormone imbalance stirred it all together, and BAM!
Deep. Debilitating. Depression.
In Barcelona, Spain, of all places.