TOO MUCH EMPATHY?

Back in October when I went to see “Captain Phillips,” I wrote about the reaction I had of being (somewhat) traumatized by the events in the movie, even though I was never kidnapped.  What I am discovering now is certain books and movies are incredibly upsetting in ways I have never experienced before.  While I was in Atlanta for Christmas, I went to see “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.”  I, of course, knew about apartheid while I was growing up, and you’d think I’d remember how bad it really was in South Africa during that time.  I guess, though, that being so far away and so removed from it, it simply did not have any effect on my life.  When I lived in Europe in the late ’80s, a time when Americans were still not allowed to go to South Africa, there was an agency in Cape Town that wanted me to come to work.  Since I was in Spain, I could get around the fact that I was technically not permitted to go there.  In the end, though, when they found out that I was 29, it was decided that I was ‘too old’ and they withdrew their offer for me to go.  Anyway, I was plenty old enough to know what was going on.  What I did not know was the extent of just how bad it truly was.

The movie made that very clear.  I left feeling extremely sad, but not necessarily for the reasons one might expect.  Of course, what they, both the blacks and the whites, endured over the many years that apartheid was the law of the land was beyond horrendous.  In the past I would have felt sympathetic, and that would have been the end of it.  I would have felt bad, but, really what did it have to do with me?  Now, however, what happens, what I feel, on top of the sympathy and empathy is a sense of knowing exactly what the people who lived through that kind of trauma are going to go through emotionally, for possibly the rest of their lives.  And I also know that most, if not all, will not get the kind of therapy that is needed to heal from such trauma.  That breaks my heart.  Even writing about it is hard for me.  I have no way of knowing if this is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life or if it will fade over time.  I am hopeful it fades in time because it is a hard way to live.

The acute feelings that seeing (even in a movie) or reading about traumatic, tragic events brings up in me makes me think that my brain still has some healing to go through.  I do think it is mostly healed because I am able to focus and work, things I was unable to do while I was in the process of getting through it.  I am able to do most everything I did pre-attack.  And while there are worse things than being highly empathic, I always feel like I am on the verge of tears.  After the movie, on the way home, I tried to explain to my parents how I was feeling, without sobbing.  I guess what I am trying to say here is the kind of knowledge I now possess because of being sexually assaulted isn’t necessarily a good thing.  As hard as I work at being happy and putting it all behind me, I think there is an underlying sadness that hasn’t yet gone away.  These days it does not take much to push me over the edge.  So, I will continue to avoid certain books, or at least skip the parts I cannot bear to read, and I will not see some of the movies I might otherwise enjoy.

AN UNEXPECTED TRIGGER

Recently, a friend of mine asked, on a scale of one to ten, ten being completely okay, where would I put my healing?  I said a ten.  Because, honestly, I do feel like I am all better.  But, really?  Can I, will I, ever be all better?  I have to believe this is the case, and I would say that it IS true for me now.

I went to see “Captain Phillips” on Sunday.  I even skipped my beloved beach yoga to go to the 10a showing.  By the way, it is a great movie and Tom Hanks did a wonderful job.  Imagine my surprise when the movie triggered in me flashbacks, of a sort.  Obviously, I was not kidnapped by pirates, but something in me definitely resonated with the story.  I can only guess it was the trauma they suffered from the ordeal.  When they were in the life saving craft and one of the pirates looked out the window and saw three American Naval War Ships, all I could think was, Wow, you should never piss off the Americans because they WILL hunt you down and do whatever is necessary to defend their citizens and property.  I also thought, why would they not just give up?  Could they not see there was no way they were going to get away, either with Captain Phillips or with what they had already done?  Why wouldn’t they just surrender?

This is what happened when my guardian angel was on his way to save me from cockroach boy.   Clearly, someone was coming, and even more clearly, there was no way he was going to be able to follow through with his intention to rape me.  Yet, he did not stop.  He did not even get off of me, he just continued with his ‘plan’.  It was not until my angel was leaning over and yelling in his face to get off of me that he finally, I’m sure reluctantly, got off and ran up the sidewalk to the street.  I know now that he was in some kind of zone, as were the pirates.  Watching it on the big screen, but seeing myself in a similar situation was rather upsetting.

The other part of the movie that really hit home for me was after he had been rescued and was on the American ship.  He was so obviously in shock, and I do understand that they were all just following protocol, but the way he was treated reminded me of how the EMTs treated me.  I never mentioned this before because I never wrote about it at the time.  It has never left me, though.  You have to remember I was in a lot of physical pain after my attack, as I had been slammed to the cement and then fought with my attacker for however long.  My back hurt, I had many abrasions and cuts, and I was in shock.  Just as in the movie, they wanted me to sit down.  I didn’t want to because my back hurt and it was more painful to sit down.  Basically, they ‘forced’ me to.  I was told they wanted to take my blood pressure and other vital signs.  I told them that whether I was sitting or standing, whatever reading they got was going to be off the charts and not what my normal blood pressure would be.  I felt like no one was listening to me and it did not feel good.  In the movie, the ship’s doctor said, “I need you to sit down.”  It was just the way she said it that brought back my memory of the paramedics and how they responded to me.

It seems ironic to me that the most innocent of things can now trigger in me the very thing I worked so hard to get through.  I can understand how seeing a movie about rape or some other kind of physical assault would be hard, if not impossible, to watch.  (Actually, I do not think I could even see that type of movie now.)  I guess that there are some things that will be with me always.  I do hope in time this type of thing happens less and less.  The truth is the me that was attacked that day no longer exists.   You know the adage, ‘what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.’   Well, cockroach boy did not kill me and I AM much stronger.