post-traumatic growth

6 Whole Years

6 whole years since the bombing. It feels like a lifetime ago and yet it’s not very hard to find myself back at the finish line in my mind. The sounds and what my eyes took in are still so clear like no time has passed at all. The confusion and shock linger too. I sometimes wonder how something I know to be true can still feel so unbelievable.

2,190 days have gone by. Some felt ordinary while others have dragged on, filled with mental challenges. And I was one of the lucky ones so I can’t imagine what some of my fellow survivors might be feeling today as we all work to move forward the best we can.

April 15, 2013 was the day my life, and the lives of so many others changed. Some gone forever. Others physically changed. The rest of us, mentally altered just enough that our lives too would never be the same. In many ways that day feels like a line in the sand. I know for me I think about my life now in two parts – before the bombing and after. The Elena I was before feels so far away from the Elena I am today. She feels like a distant memory. Once in a while I find a picture of myself before the bombing and I feel like I am looking at a stranger and that’s hard for me but then I realize that my hopeful, positive, and patient demeanor hasn’t changed and I think those characteristics have given me the strength to live and grow through this season in my life. I thank God for giving me those gifts so long ago. I believe it was in His plan to make me that way knowing what I would one day endure. He is so good.  As I look toward my future, I feel confident in my plan to continue sharing my story and healing journey with others. I know it has helped others.

This week I received an email from the mother of another Boston Marathon bombing survivor who is now deep in his struggle with PTSD. He needs resources, support, and to know he is not alone. I called on my survivor friends and together they recommended many specialists in his area that he can now call on as he hopefully chooses to heal. This is a gift! This is why I write here and it’s why I speak out and share my story. This is my calling and I won’t stop. Survivors of mass shootings and acts of terrorism from years ago are taking their lives every day and they don’t have to. I will work in their memory each day to share my message of hope for healing. Their pain and mine should have meaning and I believe it can inspire other victims to move forward with their lives if they choose to embrace the journey.

So today, 6 years later, I choose to move forward and carry the many lessons this experience has taught me. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to see my life through PTSD’s lens and to use that vision to help where I can.

 

Be the hand of a hopeful stranger

A little scared but your strong enough

Be the light in the dark of this danger

‘Til the sun comes up

A Safe Place To Land – Sara Bareillles

More Than Gold

A few days ago my daughter and I were quickly unloading the dishwasher together before leaving for soccer practice when sadly, a plate slipped through her little hands and shattered across the floor. It was loud and propelled her into a fit of frightened upset. I comforted her as I swept up the mess and threw away the broken pieces just in time for us to bolt out the door. It wasn’t a big deal. After all the plate, a gift from our wedding registry, was over ten years old. It had served its purpose. Just as swiftly as we made it to practice I soon forgot the whole plate breaking debacle and went on with my afternoon. Later that evening as I caught up on some Instagram scrolling I noticed a picture of a broken bowl with ribbons of gold holding it together. Below it were these words, “Kintsukuroi — to repair with gold. In Japan, broken objects are often repaired with gold. The flaw is seen as a unique piece of the object’s history, which adds to its beauty. Consider this.”

Consider this? I couldn’t keep my mind off it and it had nothing to do with the broken plate from earlier that day. It had to do with me. Just like that fractured and mended bowl in the photograph I too have those golden seams running through my heart and head. Piecing together what trauma and PTSD have left behind. I’ve spent the last six years of my life tirelessly filling in the fissure in my life’s bowl. A crack so great I never thought I’d be able to live my life again, more importantly, live the beautiful life I had planned for myself when I twirled around in dress-up clothes as a child, walked down the aisle to my groom, and held my newborn babies tight.

My crack signifies a life that was taken from me nearly six years ago when I stood at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and witnessed two bombs explode leaving behind shattered lives. It symbolizes the mental and physical anguish I went through on a daily basis and the nightmares that kept me from sleep each night. Anxiety and depression had chipped away at me until there wasn’t much left and I plead for help. Even in the psychiatric hospital, where I’d hoped to be put back together, my cracks grew deeper. But it was there, at my very bottom, that I found the strength and courage to start mending my life on my own terms. I had never thought of that process as beautiful before but knew it was worth more than gold — because I am worth more than gold.

The gold that has pieced me back together is strong. It’s made me resilient. My gold is made up of everything that has helped me heal. Not just the therapy and tools I have leaned on or the therapists and specialists who have cared for me; it’s made from the belief I never lost in myself, the gentle care I gave myself, and the faith I always had that tomorrow would be better. Those gleaming ribbons are made brighter by the people who held my hand along the way and knew I would pull through when I doubted the process. All of this, the fracture and the glue, have made me whole again. Not whole in the way I was before my trauma, but restored in a different, stronger, and more beautiful way.

Though I am imperfect and flawed, I can now step back and admire the workmanship that I did to rebuild me again. Aside from my children — it’s my best work to date and I am proud to be sharing it with others.

I encourage you to consider your own “kintsukuroi” story as you examine the challenges and trials in your life. How can you embrace those injuries, grow, and make them shine? What will it take for you to make beautiful what is broken in your life? I can’t promise you that when you start this process you won’t feel like the ruined plate I so carelessly discarded. I do know that as you grow and find your cracks filled with precious healing, you too will see beauty in what is left behind.

Finding Ways to Grow

With a new year ahead I find myself focused on finding ways to grow in 2019.  I want to expand my reach, find new ways to share my story, touch people whose shoes I’ve been in, and remain grounded enough to take on these lofty goals. It’s crucial to still take good care of myself because I don’t plan on sliding backwards now.

I’m in a good place. I feel like a good majority of my healing has been done (I’d say 80%). I string together more good days then bad. I feel mentally healthy and strong. I still have set backs but they are fewer and farther apart. I remain in trauma therapy and under the care of my naturopath. And I can feel my brain healing as my cognition and memory seem to be getting better. All good things! So I wonder how I can still manage to grow from here.

I started thinking yesterday about how plants grow and perhaps some of the answers I’m seeking about my own growth are rooted there.

A tiny seed gets carried and dropped by a bird or the wind and finds its way under leaves and brush to a patch of dirt.  It nestles itself down below soil’s surface and waits for rain and sun to work their magic so roots can take shape. Then a baby shoot appears and decides where to grow. Some grow straight up, confident of their path while others grow outwards looking for space among friends. And once they start off in their own direction their leaves, fruit, and blooms take shape. Always changing. Storms come, summer sun scorches, winter freezes, and still that plant changes. Birds, bugs, and bees become visitors too taking what they need to live. Still the plant grows and changes with the understanding of its environment. Always ready to embrace the changes.

PTSD was a huge environmental change for me. It shook my branches and rattled the earth below me and still I’ve managed to grow. Now I have all of these baby shoots growing from my trunk and I am so excited to see how they will take shape.

Growing. Blooming. Healing. Changing.

I’m not sure how I’ll accomplish all these goals, or how they will shape me, and change me and that’s the scary part. Until I get there I’ll just embrace my experience and see where I grow.

Grateful

Life has been busy lately and I have been working on a few passion projects that I pray will come to fruition in 2019. And as my energy has shifted towards the birth of these projects I find myself overwhelmed with gratitude. I am so grateful to be here, to be doing well, sharing a beautiful life with my family, and for the growth and clarity I have been granted this year. God is so good!

I wanted to reflect on gratitude this week with Thanksgiving upon us for a few reasons.

The first being that we, our country and world, are facing such turmoil lately. Fires, mass shootings, terrorism, political unrest, trauma, and pain. Where many see an endless mess, I try and focus my energy on the countless opportunities we have to turn it around. I think an easy way to start this positive ball rolling in our own lives is to focus on what we are grateful for and reflect that for others. I know for me when I was sickest there were people close to me that encouraged me just by expressing how thankful they were for me, for my friendship, and love and that appreciation saw me through times when I couldn’t see my own value, worth, or purpose. Imagine how we could change the world by expressing our love and gratitude to those around us who are struggling? I see a positive domino effect of difference being made!

My second reason for my reflection on gratitude is that it’s free. With the holidays upon us I feel like many people, myself included, get wrapped up in the sales, gift buying and giving, parties, and extra expenses that aren’t really what this season is about. I know for me all these extra commitments can leave me feeling frazzled. So I am committed to investing some of this energy I have wasted before towards the gratitude I want to express and share with everyone around me. I think it’s the most beautiful gift to give and receive.

Third, did you know that expressing gratitude is scientifically proven to improve your health, well-being and relationships? In this article, published by Harvard Medical School, the process of expressing gratitude results in people connecting to something larger then themselves and ultimately leads to greater happiness, positive emotions, improves health and builds stronger relationships.

The article details some easy ways you can cultivate gratitude in your own life and here they are;

Write a thank you note — I love writing thank you notes and receiving them too!

Thank someone mentally — this takes no time and little effort but can make a difference.

Keep a gratitude journal — I personally do this and believe it to be a great practice!

Count your blessings every day — Amen!

Pray and Meditate — two of my favorite things to do!

My gratitude journal starts with these people and moments we’ve shared together recently!

MexiCAN

There has been a long running sentiment in my family and I’ve been reminded of it lately as I face changes, challenges, and fear that I can’t make it through either.

My dad is a proud Mexican-American. He grew up with deep pride in his roots and passed that along to each of his children. Whenever one of us faced something hard and we would utter the words, “I can’t”, my dad would chime in with his usual uplifting speech that ended with the question, “Are you a MexiCAN or a MexiCAN’T?”

I laugh about those moments now when I’d roll my eyes at him and walk away. All those times when what I had before me was easier than what I face today. Those were the days let me tell you.

I have been thinking lately about how I wish I could go through life more easily. Without less pain and void of mental challenges and physical ailments. I remember what it was like when all my days kind of blended into one because they were so easy to get through. Damn that was a good time!

Now life is a bit harder. Some days are really challenging. In fact there are days that I wish would end because they suck so badly and then I don’t sleep so there’s no relief. It’s like playing an endless game of tag and there’s no base. Which will tag me next – my PTSD or my new found friend Hemochromatosis? And just when I think I can’t get through it I hear my dad asking me that aforementioned question and I smile.

I am a MexiCAN. I will do this and be stronger for it.

Summer Reflection

Searching for sea glass has become our favorite way to spend time at the beach this summer. Yesterday my daughter and I were on a long walk down our neighborhood beach looking for more treasured pieces to add to our growing collection when we uncovered several shards of glass that were litter. Too sharp to keep and dangerous to others walking on the beach.  We decided the glass should be buried deep below the sands surface with the hope that we will find them ready for our collection next year. After all, they must tumble around in the sand and surf more. They need more experience before their surface is smooth and polished.

It made me think how our lives are much like sea glass. We start off whole and perfect when we come into the world. Unblemished. And then cracks form as we grow and experience life, failed relationships, love, pain, success and failure, ups and downs. Just like bottles and other glass litter breaks as it crashes against rocks and whatever else it encounters on its journey to becoming sea glass, we too are shaped by the bumps we encounter. 

I made the choice in that moment there on the beach to be more like sea glass. To let my experiences shape me for the better, accept changes that aren’t easy, embrace my reflection and imperfections. I know that conscious choice everyday won't be easy because they are choices I have been pushing to accept for almost two years as I grow, change, and bloom.  The cracks are still a part of me but I know I am a better person because of them. 

We have had an amazing vacation. It has been a good time for us to recharge our batteries and live freely. We spent time with dear friends and with our survivor family. We ate all of our favorites. We are each going home tan from our daily trips to the beach (best weather ever this year). And we are sad to leave.

Our endless summer days may be coming to an end but the memories we made with be with us forever.

Survivors Sharing Part 1

In November of last year Jeff and I traveled to NYC to join other terrorist attack survivors for a Strength to Strength retreat. I wrote about it here Thankful.Grateful.Blessed.

We had the opportunity to meet and bond with so many wonderful people. It was emotional, life-changing, and powerful hearing everyone's stories. I remember getting back to my room after hearing Elaine's story and I knew that her words had changed me - I could feel her pain. She and I became fast friends. We bonded over therapy experiences, post-traumatic growth, and our strides to find healing. She is a treasure in my life.

Elaine survived the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya on September 21, 2013. Ironically, September 21st is the International Day of Peace. That day 67 precious lives were lost and I know Elaine carries their memory with her.  You can hear her story in an interview the gave to Anderson Cooper here. I have no doubt that what she shares in this article will touch you too.

Elaine and I have been talking for some time about how we could share our experiences with other survivors and those suffering from PTSD. We taped our last conversation and each shared how we live now as survivors with PTSD. This is the first part and I wanted to share it with you as June is National PTSD Awareness month.

Recovered

We are home from Boston and finally recovered from jet lag! 

I want to thank all of you; my family and friends, and followers for the prayers and love you sent my way during our trip. I felt it all in the form of the most beautiful peace during our trip and I believe they also helped Jeff push through the most difficult marathon in over 40 years.  The weather was terrible!

In the month leading up to the anniversary of the bombings I found myself overcome with symptoms of my ptsd. I shared this with my trauma therapist as she worked to help me prepare for the moment when I would confront the finish line with my kids in tow. My head was full of self-doubt; how could I keep myself together in those crowds, with all those triggers, and take care of my kids too? I realized I was trying to fit all of my plans for that day into a box.  A place I felt I could control. As I went through the motions of the EMDR session I was reminded of a time when I was a girl. My family and I were in line for a roller coaster at an amusement park and I was dreadfully nervous.  The roar of the cars of the track, the screams coming from the riders before me, and the uncertainty of what I would face on the ride were too much for me to take. However, those memories became muffled with the feeling I had once I stepped off that thrilling ride. I felt light and free, I was happy, and I felt confident because I had not let my nerves keep me from conquering my fear. This ah-ha moment became my motivation for the finish line. I decided I was going to embrace the experience for what it was and let is shape me instead of trying to fit it all into a space in my mind that I could control. 

I wanted to share that with you because I think much of life is a roller coaster ride. Full of ups and downs. Twists and turns. Moments you dread and those which take your breath away.

I sure hope that my life is full of more ups. More exciting moments that take my breath away.  Less of those that leave me lying in my bed trying to escape the world.  Either way I know my life will be lived fully and beautifully. I owe that to those who lost their lives on April 15, 2013 at the finish line, I owe it to Officer Sean Collier who was murdered by the bombers, and I owe it to all the survivors – those physically and invisibly injured. I owe it to my family and all of you.

I wrote a reflection for Maria Shriver’s website and it will be live soon. I will share it as soon as it’s published. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy some pictures of my family from our time at the marathon.