Let me tell you about the day I died in a Hamilton County Heroin Coalition meeting. It was a normal work day. I wore a suit. The meeting was packed, and the room was warm. I took a seat next to my colleague/adopted big brother, Tom. We talked about our boys. They’re in class together at daycare. His was not napping well. There were TV cameras, and a New York Times reporter. He handed me a business card. This was not typical. When I shook his hand, I realized my palms were sweaty.
Why is he here? Does he know who I am? Does he know he is sitting next to the Girl Whose Brother Shot People? I do not want to be in the New York Times.
I did quick math in my head.
Two months after Marshall County. One month after Parkland. Does anyone even care about school shootings right now? Was there one today and I missed it? It’s so hard to keep track.
I squeezed his business card and felt the corner poke into my palm. The pinch brought me back into the room. The meeting started. There were the usual updates and banter. Round table reports. I couldn’t pay attention. My heart was beating too loud. I glanced at Tom. He jabbed me in the ribs and smiled.
Can he hear that? Is my heart beating that loud? Am I gasping for air? I can’t breathe. It’s hot in this room. I’m so cold. I am very afraid. Someone is going to shoot us. Someone is going to shoot them. We’re all going to die. We’re all going to die in this room at the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition. Us and the New York Times. Won’t that make a headline?
The kind of terror that happens when you have a flashback or panic attack is hard to describe. It’s not in your mind. It’s visceral, physical fear. I’ve learned to manage it by playing around in my brain. My brain is very smart. After 20 years, I do this almost automatically, reflexively now.
No one is going to hurt you. You are just having intrusive thoughts. This is a symptom of your PTSD. Marshall County really got you. It gave you so many feelings. But that’s not your trauma. Those feelings are not real. Don’t indulge them. I am going to die. We are going to die in this room at the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition Meeting.
But the feelings in my body were real. And they did not stop. I leaned over to Tom, “Do you have your gun?” He did. I scanned the room and counted the number of highly trained professionals with weapons. Tom, The Chief, a Cincinnati Police officer I didn’t know, a couple Sheriff’s Deputies. There were five. I added the three Deputies at the entrance to the building. Eight. Eight highly trained professionals with guns. Eight people to protect me. But the feelings got bigger and bigger inside my body. Raw. My brain became more and more desperate.
Tom has a gun. Tom is your big brother. Tom will protect you. I’m not breathing. Tom has a gun. Breathe! Tom is your big brother. Breathe! Tom will protect you. Breathe! We are going to die. We are going to die. Tom is going to die. You are going to die.
The feelings and the thoughts swirled together. Faster and faster and faster and faster. My brain could not keep up. The room got warmer, my body got colder. I shivered. Then the door opened, and a man walked in. He was tall, lanky. He looked familiar, like someone I hadn’t seen since college. I couldn’t place him. No one noticed him but me. No one noticed his gun. No one noticed him shooting.
You are having a flashback. This is a not real. You are safe. Breathe! This is just your brain playing tricks on you. That man is not real. You are safe. Breathe! You are not safe. You are going to die. Get out. Get out. Get out. GET OUT.
I stumbled to my feet and towards the door. I couldn’t see the man with the gun, but I felt his breath on my neck. Did I make noise? Did everyone see me? Maybe they would think I had to pee. I stumbled into the hallway. I didn’t know where to go. I was so cold, shivering. It was hot. I was sweating. I knew the man was behind me. I didn’t want to turn around and face him. And then I remembered a talk one of my mentors had given me a week before. “Kelly,” he’d said. “You’re a fighter. I love that about you. Everyone loves that about you. But you have got to learn when to stop fighting.”
Why am I thinking this now? I need to stop these feelings. No. Breathe!
Stop fighting, Kelly. This is when you stop fighting. Let the feelings happen. They’re just feelings.
I slid down the wall and sprawled out on the floor. The tiles were cool, and I pressed my face against them. I started to cry. The panic welled up inside me.
This is shameful. What if someone comes out and finds me here? They will think I’m crazy. They will gossip about me. They would write it in the New York Times. The Girl Whose Brother Shot People had a meltdown at the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition. She is so damaged. They will take me to the hospital and have me committed. It would be safe at the hospital. There are not guns there. They would understand. They would help me there. Stop fighting. Stop. Fighting.
The man with the gun came down the hallway. I looked up at him. He looked down at me, no warmth or recognition in his eyes.
He is not real. This is not real. Stop fighting. Stop fighting.
I was curious. Who was he and why did he come here? I studied him, and realized why he looked familiar. He was my brother. Not my brother now, but my brother then . . . lanky and powerful with a gun. He was wearing Chucks. I’d forgotten that detail. He wore Chucks that day. “Just kill me.” I said. “Please kill me this time.” He raised the gun, pointed it at my face, and pulled the trigger.
A panic attack consumes all time and space and sensory experience. I don’t know when I came to. I was still on the floor, I had dirt all over my suit. I had a normal, almost funny thought.
They do not splurge on cleaning services here in Hamilton County.
I felt strange. The feelings were gone just as quickly as they’d come on. My body was a mix of sick like a wine hangover, and relaxed like I’d just had good sex. I felt calm, grounded inside. There was snot on my face, and my mouth was dry. My hair was disheveled, and tears and mascara pooled on my cheeks. No one had come for me. I did this alone.
What was that? That’s never happened before. He killed me. I just died and no one knows. Does anyone know?
I rolled over to my back and took ten deep breaths. Then I stumbled to the water fountain for a drink. Then to the bathroom for a mirror. I examined myself, fixed my ponytail, splashed water on my face, and walked back into the meeting.
I looked around the room.
How are you having this meeting when I just died? How are you having this meeting when my brother just killed me? I died out there and no one knows.
Tom leaned over and touched my arm, “You okay, sis?”
How do I answer that question? Do I tell him what happened? I’m fine now. I didn’t survive this one. I always wished he’d killed me. I got my wish. I just died. I need to get out of here.
“No. I need to get out of here.”
It was the first time in 20 years that I let the feelings happen. I didn’t know it then, but that was the bottom of all the bottoms. The relapse. Next, would be the redo. Then the reset.
Stop fighting, Kelly. You need to learn when to stop fighting.