Trauma is an overused phrase in our vocabulary. How many times have you overheard the word used in jest, “I waited in that traffic so long, I was like, totally traumatised”, or “that shop assistant was so rude, I was left feeling completely traumatised”. Because of its overuse and popularity, the word seems to have lost its true meaning, but trauma, as my therapist explained, is simply a word we give to a situation or event where there is too much information for a person to take in. It’s a jolt, an explosion of unusual happenings, physical or emotional, an event we are not expecting or cannot predict. Trauma takes you by surprise, uproots you and shakes your foundations. Trauma changes you, imprinting deep into the tissue of your body. After the initial shock, the subsequent disbelief, endless replays, anger, tears and nightmares, you realise nothing will ever quite be the same again.
Everybody experiences trauma in their life. I have had my fair share, but my most recent experience has taught me a great deal about how trauma effects the mind and body, and how and what is needed to overcome such an ordeal. It happened this January in Cape Town. We were hijacked in the driveway returning from a restaurant where we’d had dinner with friends. Of course, we knew of the dangers of crime in South Africa but having holidayed there on and off for years without any confrontations, we always believed that Cape Town was relatively safe, as long as you were city smart and stayed out of certain areas. The house was fitted with a comprehensive security system so we had always felt very secure. However, we never considered the possibility of someone following us to the house. Our complacency left us vulnerable that summer evening when three armed men snuck in behind our car, just before the gate slid closed.
I was the first to see them. One man in a balaclava ran towards me as I opened the car door. For a split second, I did not realise what was going on, I thought it was one of the neighbours, running in to say hello. But then I saw his gun. He pointed its silver barrel at my face as I recoiled back into the passenger seat and screamed. He reached into the car and yanked my handbag out of my hands.
“COME. GET OUT. COME.” His tone was harsh but whispered.
I did as he asked, shuffling out of the car as quickly as I could. Whilst adrenaline flooded my brain, I felt a large thud of fear land in my gut. My head was spinning, “It’s our turn, it’s happening to us.” All the nightmarish stories you have ever heard about crime in South Arica – the stories of home invasions, rapes, burglaries, hijacking and murders. All the horrible things you see on the news and read about in the papers and hope to God won’t ever happen to you – it was now happening to us.
There were three of them in total plus a getaway driver parked outside. Two armed men dragged my husband and our friend Tim out of the car and held them at gunpoint on the garage floor.
They tried to reason with the two assailants as I was led towards the door to the house by the third.
“We will cooperate, you can take anything you want, just don’t hurt us,” they pleaded.
“WHO’S INSIDE?” the masked man asked me.
“Just the dog,” I lied.
My heart was pounding. I could hear our Ridgeback barking frantically on the other side of the door. I knew my daughter was upstairs with the babysitter, but I wasn’t going to tell him that.
“YOU OPEN DOOR AND YOU CALM DOG, OKAY!” he demanded in his broken English.
As soon as I opened the door, our dog burst into the garage and tried to attack the three men. Her loud bark disorientated them and they lost focus, which meant I was left momentarily left alone in the hallway as the door leading to the house swung closed.
I had a split second to decide to either lock the garage door, locking the intruders out, but entombing my husband, Tim and the dog inside with them or run to press the panic button in the kitchen. I chose the panic button.
As soon as the alarm sounded the assailant burst back through the door, screaming.
“WHAT DID YOU DO? YOU PRESS ALARM? I stood frozen, my hands up in a don’t shoot me pose. “No, I didn’t move, I didn’t press anything,” I lied.
My husband was yelling from the garage, whilst struggling to hold the dog, scared they were going to shoot her.
“She didn’t press a button, you triggered a beam, in the garden, it’s by the gate, you triggered the beam”. He repeated it over and over, trying to convince them.
The intruders knew they had minutes before the armed response arrived so they cut their losses. They took what they could from our bodies, watches, rings, phones and fled. We in turn ran upstairs, locked ourselves into a bedroom and waited for the police.
The effect of this invasion has been multifaceted. Our daughter, although thankfully not involved in the attack directly, witnessed the deluge of police and statement-giving that night and over the next few weeks, it was not always possible to shield her from the onslaught of Neighbourhood Watch meetings and endless conversations about security upgrades. She has since suffered from nightmares and anxiety about being alone in a room.
For me, the worst part has been the disruption to our life. The robbery put up big STOP – NOW EVERYTHING IS DIFFERENT sign. I felt so angry. We were actually doing fine, we were happy. Now this had to happen and F*** it all up. Sitting with the burly South African policeman taking my statement that night, I wasn’t crying. It was too early for tears. I laid my head upon my outstretched arm on the kitchen table, exhausted by the thought of the challenging journey I knew was ahead. I had suffered enough trauma in my life to know just how painful and long this road could be.
For the next few weeks we cocooned ourselves inside, rarely leaving the house. Friends visited with gifts of Valium and wine. We told the story over and over until we were sick of it, bored with our own voices. We hugged each other tightly at night, so grateful for our lives. We were plagued with flashbacks and our daydreams were tortured with endless re-plays and ‘what if’s?’.
When we did venture out we were on guard, hyper-vigilant with all our senses on fire. We lived in a constant state of fight-or-flight. We tried to return to normal but every subsequent Neighbourhood Watch bulletin or criminal report in the local paper, reeled us back into our unsettledness. We could not concentrate on anything else, we lost focus on our work and projects. The ‘incident’ had taken over our lives.
It’s been six months since the robbery and what I have learnt is that everybody recovers at their own pace.
Where, at this point I feel mostly over my trauma, my husband still suffers from flashbacks and anxiety. Recovery can be long process and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can even show up years after the actual event. The key is to be conscious of it and to seek help. Taking this advice, we immediately sought out a therapist who specialises in trauma counselling and made weekly appointments which have helped us immeasurably. One useful realisation was the importance to not make any hasty or rushed decisions while in a traumatised state of mind. Our initial response was to pack up, sell our holiday home and fly back to Switzerland, but we decided to wait and to come back to a place of balance and calm before we made any big life-changing decisions.
Detailed below is a list of actions I found helpful in our recovery. You may not have experienced a hijacking like we did, however these tools could equally be applied to any other kind of trauma.
* Talk about it with your friends, over and over until you are sick of the story. It helps to release the initial shock and trauma.
* Find a trauma counsellor and see them weekly for as long as you need to.
* Trauma changes the way you see the world. You effectively become a different person while under its spell. I felt gloomy and sad, my heath suffered and I became reclusive and lethargic. A friend suggested I try Reiki and referred me to an Intuitive healer/Reiki master who lived nearby. Along with the counselling these healing sessions have been transformative as they were able to unlock the trauma held deep within my body.
* Smudge/cleanse the space that has been violated. You can do this by burning dried sage, or lighting candles. Set an intention to cleanse the space then send any residual negative energy on its way.
* Try not to make life-changing decisions while you are in that deeply traumatised space.
* (This would only apply to a home invasion) Poppy, our dog, has helped us feel safe in our house. The police told us that her role in unnerving the intruders that night was instrumental to their hasty departure so I can wholeheartedly recommend buying a dog with a loud bark!
Recommend reading on trauma and recovery:
Bessel Van Der Kolk – The Body Keeps The Score