The air was heavy; that I remember clearly. And I’d started to walk toward my car, after just teaching my morning class, when there was a pull at my belly button. I pivoted and began to walk toward my daughter’s preschool instead. As I stepped on to that side of the campus, I saw teachers running out with babies and rolling cribs out to the grass. Fire drill, I thought with blind optimism, as I grabbed a baby out of a crowded crib and carried him to the grassy area across the street. I looked back in time to see the rest of the children running out with their teachers. Then, I realized that all three schools on the campus were evacuating. My throat swelled as I thought, “where’s my kid?” A teacher and friend must have seen it in my eyes because she placed her hand on my back and said, “the older kids are coming out the back.” It may have been the three longest minutes of my life, as I waited to see her. I scooped her up, and then began two hours of waiting with over 500 children in three different “secure locations” surrounded by police, firefighters, and later the FBI.
I don’t usually write about my personal trauma because I feel that it takes you, the reader, out of the story. Instead of finding our shared humanity through me, you may start to see me as the victim and start to feel compassion toward me as something other than yourself. But I felt this story needed some framing and also on a more selfish note, I need it out of my system and this is part of my process.
It is in these times of emergency, that we find out if our ‘practice’ (our yoga, meditation, or therapy) is working. Where do we draw our strength when the air is heavy and the wolf is at our door. Will you run? Will you fight? Will you freeze?
In this specific example, I saw people of all ages respond in these three very different ways while all working toward the same outcome- stay alive and save the children. The run instinct, other than literally running away from a possibly dangerous building, also presented itself in the form of disassociation. Because our bodies were physically trapped, as a survival mechanism some were able to convince themselves that there was no emergency, they were not scared, and everything was okay. That’s not necessarily bad. We needed to keep the children happy, and if some people could actually convince themselves that we were safe, then that energy could be transferred to the children. And it worked. The children still believed that last Monday we took a very strange field trip to two neighboring buildings.
As we transferred the children from one building to another, a man (a stranger to all of us) began filming all the children. This triggered the fight response in me. My heart started pumping as soon as I registered what he was doing, and in what seamed like half a second I had crossed the twelve feet that separated us and was two inches from his face. I’m not completely sure what I said, but all I know is that he ran, and fast. That’s my instinct. That’s how I survive, but my practice has also taught me that it only manifests with force when I’m defending someone against injustice. I also recognized the fight instinct in others during that time, and not surprisingly most of the fighters were women. Remember, a woman can lift a car if a child is pinned under it.
Then there were those that froze, which is a perfectly rational survival technique. Just ask the possum. It adds value when there is a large group of people. We definitely don’t need everyone running and fighting. In a centrifuge, we need a grounding force. However, it’s interesting to note that even the possum must later go through the motions of the incident. It will either run or shadow box after the predator is gone, allowing that built up tension to dissipate.
We were in an apartment recreational center when the police announced that the children would be released at 12:30p. I grabbed my child and walked passed the hundreds of parents waiting to see their children, as I tried to ensure them that the children were okay. We walked to the end of the block and just like that it was over. Yet somehow it wasn’t. The air was still think, and my throat swollen. There were tears behind my eyes.
Where do we draw our strength when the wolf has sniffed our bellies, but allowed us to live another day. Like the possum, the trauma still lives in our bones. How do we dissolve that energy? We can run, we can fight, but we absolutely cannot freeze. Me? I ran. Actually, I’d planned to go for an easy twenty minute run. Instead, I found myself sprinting until I nearly threw up, fell down, and cried. That’s how I released the trauma in my body. I meditated and practiced yoga the next day, and again today. Finally, I’m writing this, now that I’ve gained some distance from the pain in my heart.
Everyone is different, so I ask- Where do you draw your strength? How do you release your traumas?