(Trigger Warning: I’m finally ready to open up about what happened with my brother and how our family has been coping, but this will include potentially triggering topics like assault, PTSD, body image, depression, and anxiety. It’s also long. Without many pictures. You have been warned. *said in stern voice*)
September 19th was a glorious day. It was a busy Saturday at the shop, and I felt confident and happy with how much progress I had made in the last several weeks physically and emotionally. In fact, my optimism was at such a high that I snapped a selfie—a totally out of character move for me—and posted it on my private Facebook profile:
By September 22nd, I had begun work on my next “Off Topic” post in my occasional, personal series chronicling issues with PCOS, weight gain, illness, depression, and anxiety, which was to be titled: “In Which I Extol the Virtues of Exercise.” Over the summer, I maintained consistency with my exercise plan and healthy food diet, and I posted in the shop’s newsletter that in October, I would come full circle on a very important vacation. My family and I were going to Grandfather Mountain for some serious trail hiking—a trip my chronic illness sidelined last year, and I was bursting with excitement to convey how healthy and happy I felt with my readers here. Many of you sent me private messages of encouragement and solidarity, opening up about your own similar struggles and successes, and my heart was fluttering as I began the rough draft of what I hoped to be an inspirational post. “Things can and will improve if you are patient, patient with your situation and with yourself,” I wrote. It took a year, but I finally reached a sense of internal peace and happiness.
That evening, my brother came home from work to find our shed door wide open, and he thought he saw someone or something in the wood line by the side of the house. While I was calling the police, he was ambushed and brutally attacked. Due to the ongoing investigation, I was unable to discuss the details of the case at all until recently, and even now, I can only provide a general description of the event. Suffice it to say, the attacker had stolen a machete from the shed and used it to hurt my brother, cutting him about the face and neck as well as breaking his jaw in four places. My brother miraculously pulled himself up and stumbled back onto the deck. Our dad carried him back inside and applied pressure onto the wounds with enough firmness to create bruises later, and without him, my brother may not be alive right now. His composure and quick action saved my brothers’ life.
Fortunately, none of the cuts hit any major arteries or veins but still created substantial blood loss because of all the capillaries around the face and neck. Copious stitches and staples put my brother back together again, and his doctor (big thanks to everyone at Moses Cone Emergency) did a masterful job with cleaning up the gashes. Scarring should be minimal although his one earlobe must have fallen off on the operating table because it is sewed on backwards—a fact everyone including my brother finds hilarious. The jaw was another matter entirely and had to be wired shut for several weeks, and even now, the doctors are debating how to combat the lateral movement he has. His medical bills are starting to pile up, but as a family, we are trying to be strong and supportive. In our family, that means we have made a lot of inappropriate “too soon” jokes, such as renaming the house “Vorhees Manor,” encouraging the guys in my brother’s Air National Guard shop to want to change his nickname to “Machete” (pronounced the proper way), and joking he could be a Bond villain for Halloween (he ultimately went as the Joker). Humor and jokes have gone a long way toward helping all of us cope with what happened, but in the beginning, no amount of laughter helped ease the pain.
I was and, to an extent, still am raw. The memory which serves me so well in remembering customer names and faces vividly brings to life the terrifying scene of my bloodied brother lying on the floor asking if he was going to die and my dad ensuring he wouldn’t. While my brother spent a day recovering in the hospital, I returned to the house which was no longer a home. Crime scene tape dangled from tree limbs surrounding the perimeter, and the taupe carpet had a macabre crimson trail tracing my brother’s path to safety. My aunt and I went to work immediately, scrubbing until our hands were raw and cold to clean up the traces of the attack. Police and EMTs trampled in and out of our house, and each room, but especially my bedroom where my brother collapsed, felt violated and strange. I couldn’t even sleep there for the first few weeks because the blood stain painfully reminded me of that sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach that I could have lost my baby brother.
The sounds at night sent me into a heart-racing panic attack, and I learned quickly how scary the ice-maker on my fridge can be. I slept with my gun loaded within reach, and I would dart my eyes around at the windows, petrified of finding a face staring back. Walking by the sliding glass door onto the deck was terrifying, and I kept asking myself the same questions over and over. Would the person come back? Will they catch him? How will we make it through this? But mostly, I asked what any normal person would: Why him? Why us? Why at all? The dread and the panic and the endless questions raced through my mind, stampeding over my painstakingly reclaimed peace of mind and happiness. I would wake often breathless and pouring sweat, convinced I was in danger. I was in the grips of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Because of the store, I was unable to take sick days, vacation time, or use benefits like the FMLA in order to focus on recovering and healing, and with an ongoing investigation, I was prohibited from telling anyone what actually happened. Instead, I had to use the vague generalization “Family Emergency” on our signage and imply my brother was in an “accident” on Facebook. Many customers were understanding when we closed for three days; some weren’t. I realized quickly I could only do so much. My brother needed me more than this store ever will, and he is one of the most important parts of my life.
Finally returning to work brought a mixture of relief and exhaustion. A poor night’s sleep and a fragile mental state are not ideal for anyone working in the customer service industry, but I knew I had to put on a brave face and move forward even though my primary instinct was to retreat into a ball of flannel pajamas and dog snuggles. What kept me motivated was the belief I would eventually feel better, and if I shirked my responsibilities now, I would pay for slacking off later. Not to mention, despite the overwhelming desire to quit, the never-ending routine of bra fittings, vendor relationships, client emails, and inventory tracking kept me moving forward and distracted me enough to make it through the day.
At night, I turned to alcohol or sleeping pills. When I was at home, at the scene of the trauma, every shadow, every errant noise, every change in the light carried with it a sinister, foreboding feeling of being in danger—a feeling I know now was factually possible, present, and even likely. Dreaming sober allowed me to relive the experience in its vivid, detailed glory, and instead of reality being in control, I became the victim of a morbid, terribly creative subconscious which was only content when it conjured the most gruesome images and heart-palpitating scenarios. Every violence visited upon my family returned manifold, and I would wake startled and breathless and unable to sleep for several hours. Eventually, the exhaustion took root, and I began to crave anything to help me sleep.
When I poured myself cut glasses of whiskey, there was a blissful, encompassing drunkenness, absolute in its control and which benevolently shut down my over-active imagination to allow a modicum of real rest. And so the next night I poured myself another drink or popped a few sleep aids. Faster than I realized, I couldn’t sleep without chemical aid, and a pervasive dependency emerged. I was a divided self—a polished self-starting and motivated professional battling the overwhelming craving to give up and live in the solace of the release.
For weeks, I would not step outside in the dark if I could help it. My property transformed into foreign territory with faceless enemies lurking in the shadows waiting to wound me more than they already had. The wind raced through the dying leaves, reverberating sound everywhere and nowhere, and I would retreat indoors, locking myself inside. I tried to recover. I would step outside, full of false bravado, only to be chased back into my house by the discomfiting darkness and the fear of what was lurking there.
Ironically, it was Halloween, a night by most accounts when my caution was warranted, that I was finally able to overcome my crippling sense of dread and panic. The cat no one on Facebook wanted (aka “Mordecai duCat”) had not been seen that evening, and I stood on the front and then the side porch calling his name without his familiar vocal response. Eventually, I stepped into the grass of my yard in search of him. The side of the house where my brother was attacked can be absent all light depending on the phase of the moon, and the wood line beside it is practically inscrutable. I squinted into the darkness, but for the first time, I was looking for my furry friend and not the phantom assailants. As I stood there, I thought of how my brother perceived this same spot on the night of the attack, registering it as safe when it harbored a person bent on ill will.
One foot in front of the other, I strode through the dark until I clumsily tripped on a black drainage pipe totally concealed in the night, and I fell hard on my bottom in the damp grass. My heart rate soared for a moment, but I realized I was fine. I stood up, dusted the leaves and dirt from my pants, and moved on looking for Mordecai. I had to fall in the darkness to realize I could survive it and still reach the light. Every step I took made me feel, for the first time in over a month, that I was truly home.
Enough was enough. I walked around confidently, quietly chastising myself for this ongoing and downright dangerous mental state I was feeding. I realized I could not keep living in fear of what might happen. My brother survived and was getting better each day. I had to let the pain go. I had to stop letting one event define how I saw my home, how I saw my brother, and how I saw myself. Bad things will happen to us, and none of us can escape them. Instead of confronting those emotions—talking, writing, any form of productive release, I was waist deep in the dirt digging a deeper and deeper hole to shove those negative feelings into rather than deal with them and the situation as it was.
The Halloween epiphany was a first step, but I had many others to take. It has not been easy, and I have had to work extensively on dealing with those emotions and fears. It sent me to one of the most mentally damaging places I have been in my life, and the recovery process can be slow. I went back to my normal drinking habits and am now sleeping through the night easily.
However, my weight skyrocketed to a new high from the abuse I put my body through, which in addition to the drinking included not exercising and fast food. At one point, I was sitting on my couch in my pajamas, binge watching Netflix, and I had a perverse desire to just eat and eat and eat. I realize it came from a place of self-loathing and an overwhelming desire to just give up. It took me so long to get started and re-develop the good habits I had that the prospect of starting over again was too much. I wasn’t ready to handle it. My mind was hanging on by a frail thread, and the idea of being conscientious about my body and taking care of my physical needs was more than I needed. I had to focus on getting back to a place where I was emotionally and psychologically able to sleep at night without a panic attack before I could worry about whether I had lost weight or exercised for the day.
My brother also needed a lot of attention in his recovery as did the store, and I ultimately put myself so far at the bottom of the priority list that I am only now catching up on the things I enjoy and love. Fortunately, my dad was, as always, a rock, taking care of us and ensuring my brother remained healthy and I didn’t have a total breakdown. After weeks of struggling, I finally feel better albeit nowhere near where I was on the 22nd of September. I miss that feeling and lament its loss. I sometimes catch myself wondering if I will ever get it back, but I choose to believe I will. It was hard to be present each day at the shop telling people I was “good” when I was falling apart and never wanted to get out of bed. Now when people ask and I reply “good” or “great,” I mostly mean it. There are days when I do feel better and even happy, and of course, there are also days when I feel overwhelmed, fat, lazy, and depressed. Try as I might, the weight gain has bothered me a lot more than I thought it would, probably because I was on the verge of fitting back into all of my clothes when this situation occurred and now I am nowhere near them again. A little progress is still progress worth noting, and I’ve taken charge of my diet and exercise routine again. I have a new exercise bike to keep me active during the rainy winter, and I have a wonderful support system keeping me motivated.
I wish I could say some platitude about how realizing life is short helped me cope with PTSD, but life can also be brutal and cruel. Noting its brief length no more helped me get up in the morning than the alcohol helped me find peace. What helped me was thinking back to my scare on Halloween. I realized it was okay to fall down, but I also knew I had to get up, brush myself off, and take one step at a time until I made it back home. And so, in the end, I can say in this post that things can and will improve if you are patient, patient with your situation and with yourself. Bring on 2016!
P.S. Next week, I’ll be back to some non-emotional stuff in the form of TWO BRA REVIEWS! Up on the slab: Freya Hero and Panache Georgia.