Hello My Amazing Live Out Louders,
Happy Tuesday! While Tuesdays are not a day that I would traditionally share my deep and intimate thoughts with you all, January 15th is a very significant date in my life! And because it is so impactful, I would love to share what this date means to me.
Three years ago today—January 15, 2016—is the day that I went into a restaurant (after concluding a week-long mission trip in a rural community in Burkina Faso) to sit down, talk about the trip’s highlights with my team members, eat amazing pizza and drink a cold Coke. Little did I know when I sat down at 6:30PM, that in just one short hour, I would be fighting for my life at the hands of young al-Qaeda combatants.
It was completely unexpected, I won’t lie. In all of my travels and in none of our “pre-departure” phone calls, was I ever informed about the realities of terrorism and its unfortunate ever-presence in today’s international society. Thus, when two kids stormed into Café Cappuccino, started shooting people at point-blank range and then proceeded to blow up the establishment, I was caught a smidge off-guard to say the least.
Nevertheless, in the last three years, so much has changed. Given the vast array of highs, lows, and even lower lows, I wanted to take some time to reflect on my journey since January 15, 2016.
Following the terrorist attack, I was immediately evacuated from Burkina to my parent’s home in Georgia. Most of you all don’t know this, but just two short days after returning from the attack, my boyfriend-at-the-time broke up with me…over the phone.
What was a dangerous potion of a girlfriend’s newly-minted emotional and mental health issues, a boyfriend’s significant deficiency in the emotional intelligence department, and a dash of what I’m assuming was shock for both of us, led to an explosive argument and heartbreaking end to our relationship. While I have come to appreciate this absolutely devastating event, this was the most painful way to start my physical and emotional healing journey from this horrific nightmare called a trauma.
Returning to Chicago after my three-weeks in Georgia was horrific. My attempt to seamlessly re-integrate back into my “normal life” was unsuccessful. I was grieving the loss of my relationship, I was too scared to participate in activities that brought me joy (i.e. eating out, being social, etc.), I faced constant noise triggers living in the city center of Chicago (which often spiked my PTSD paranoia), and my sadness from survivor’s guilt was becoming so unbearable that I would barely leave my house — other than to go to work or force myself to go to therapy.
Let’s just say I wasn’t following Lil Duval’s instructions and “living my best life.”
But, one of the random and sometimes functional benefits of PTSD is the “YOLO” attitude you develop after surviving trauma. In fact, after surviving trauma, most medical professionals encourage you not to make any major decisions, as the sporadic nature of your decision-making could cause an impact that has long-lasting effects. But for me, something had to give — I need to feel again.
So, I got a pet — more specifically, an emotional support dog! Of course this didn’t happen overnight. I asked my therapist-at-the-time about the benefits of dogs for PTSD patients, while I was filling out applications on PetFinder. But this cute little nugget on the right honestly just fell into my lap through the amazing grace of God.
Chino has been nothing short of a blessing over these past three years. To be honest, Chino is the primary executor in re-building my social life.
Because of him, I leave the house to go on walks, I started to rebuild social connections through conversations at the dog park (both in Chicago and DC), and I have become extremely less sensitive to noises/sound triggers. Having an emotional support animal has significantly aided me in my healing journey, so much so that I do not believe that I would be where I am today without Chino!
But even after getting Chino, my life in 2016/2017 was really in a rut. I was still dealing with severe PTSD and situational depression/anxiety, all the while hating my place of employment. I felt lost and wasn’t making any headway on finding a new career, even after six months of short-term disability and endless job applications.
I also felt completely disconnected from my friend circle. There were numerous days were I felt that I had nothing in common with people who I had known my whole life, and sadly that included some of my closest friends and family. I didn’t know how to share my feelings of deep sadness, confusion and anger. I was constantly infuriated about people’s inability to connect with my pain and the pains of the world, which led to frequent outbursts spurring from irritability. It seemed that I related more to 6 people, who I had only spent a week with in Burkina Faso, over those who had known me since elementary school.
But when one of the Burkina team members suggested that we do a meetup on our first anniversary date, I became giddy. I became thrilled at the idea of reconnecting with those six individuals who, like me, witnessed an awful part of humanity on January 15, 2016. Instead of wallowing in the pain that we very much remember experiencing, we get together annually and reconnect as a survivor family.
Each year we choose a location (where one of us resides) and come together as a group! We take a weekend to reminisce about the good times we shared in the Morpougha community, honor the 29 beautiful souls that unfortunately fell victim to senseless violence (2 of which were on our team), and lastly, we order PIZZA!
Pizza has become a tradition, as most of us ordered pizza at Café Cappuccino on the night of the attack. Unfortunately, it never came. (I think we all know why.) So, each year (around the weekend of January 15) we come together, order a pizza to share, and celebrate our lives and the fact that when it comes out, we probably won’t try to be killed by the time it arrives at our table.
As difficult as my battle was with my unhappiness at my former place of employment and the long period of time where I was confused about God’s purpose for my life, it has been really amazing to see how my career and life trajectory has been completely reshaped in just 1,095 days.
After months of being mistreated at work, getting re-broken up with by that pesky ex of mine, thousands of dollars being drained from my savings account for therapy expenses, applying to grad schools, getting rejected from two national fellowships, having one national fellowship interview postponed, and quitting my job, a light finally shimmered at the end of the tunnel!
I got into American University and received their inaugural fellowship for educational equity!
Also, after five months of uncertainty, the Payne Fellowship finally held interviews for their international development graduate award in June (just two months before I was set to start school with no financial plan of how to pay tuition or housing). And through the power of God, I was granted a $96,000 award to help me cover my tuition, living expenses, give me two amazing internships, and offer me a direct pathway into USAID’s Foreign Service upon my graduation. In literally the blink of an eye, all my prayers were answered. It was like a dream that I couldn’t wake up from because it was actually my real life.
But sometimes when everything you have prayed for comes to you all at one time, it can be extremely overwhelming. Within two weeks of being notified about receiving the Payne Fellowship, myself and nine other members of the cohort were moved to DC to begin our internship on The Hill. So I moved to DC, worked for a month, flew to Chicago, put all of my furniture from storage in a UHaul, drove the UHaul to DC, flew to Georgia, drove my car to DC, started graduate school (after being out of school for three years) and began working two jobs – PHEW!
Although I was extremely grateful to God for this complete new life revamp he provided me, I felt this crippling necessity to be happy and succeed as a way to show Him my gratitude for my new circumstances.
But, I felt like a fraud. I was sad because I left all of the friends that I’d made in my three years of living Chicago, I was still mourning the loss of my ex-relationship, I was overwhelmed by my high-functioning depression and PTSD, I was gaining weight, and engulfed in both schoolwork and research for my graduate assistantships. However, the most painful sensation was “feeling like a bad Christian” for being stressed about the circumstances and life changes that I so desperately prayed for every night.
Something had to give — I was beginning to not feel again. And indifference and apathy are probably two of the hardest things to experience as a Myers-Briggs ENFP.
So, randomly I joined a run club – DC Run Crew to be exact.
Every Monday, a large group of people come together to do HIIT workouts and run as a team. Little did I know, this weekly activity would be everything I needed to begin to connect with others again.
Let’s be clear, I am NOT a runner. But, running with DC Run Crew has allowed me to become active again. One of the hardest parts of battling PTSD, depression and anxiety is the frequent exhaustion and loss of energy that comes with these illnesses — and they’re often silent and unnoticed. But the crew has made me feel again. Every Monday, I know I’m going to be surrounded by people (like my beautiful friend McKenzie) yelling “You can do it La,” and telling me that my body has the strength even when my brain is telling me to quit. Honestly, has been one of the most fulfilling activities in which I have participated in my healing journey.
But as much as my healing journey may read as a linear path towards taking PTSD by the horns and showing mental illness who’s boss, it has very much been the cliché roller coaster-ride analogy. There are days (much like today), where I am able to show an immense amount of gratitude for how far I have come out of the depths of sadness and pain and put into perspective the transformation that has occurred in my life over three short years. But, there are numerous days where I sit on the couch, mindlessly binge-watching some Netflix or Hulu show on complete auto-pilot — strangely still managing to achieve all A’s and complete my graduate assistantship work.
Although it’s not the healing journey that I imagined, I don’t think I could have asked for it to go another way.
While I can’t in good conscience say that my survival anniversary is now a completely happy day, filled with champagne and a massive turn-up, I have reached a point where I am able to look at how far I have come in my progress and healing and that alone gives me joy and hope!
So, on this third survival anniversary, I am ready to shout out all of things that I have been able to do in the last 1,095 days.
So, here’s to finally being able to: sit down at a restaurant by a window; sit down on an outside patio; go to a concert, go to a music festival; go to outdoor events with crowds of people; return to Africa; live abroad again; slowly rebuild social connections; take a shower (on most days); go outside for walks; be able to slightly bend my big toe again; smile on days where my heart hurts; end the mourning of my past relationship; find my vocation in education; communicate my sadness to others; create an online space to talk about the uncomfortability of living with mental health illnesses; seek therapy; travel successfully to 10 new countries without dying; work on The Hill; work in Guatemala; working 2-3 jobs throughout school, and in just 5 short months, hold a beautiful master’s degree in my hands!
A huge thank you for everyone in my life who has been a line of support in my life. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for allowing me the space to be sad, happy, annoyed, depressed, confused, irritable, grateful, overly chatty, whinny, doubtful, whimsical, enthused, and all the other whirlwind of emotions that I have been able to be over the past three years.
With love and reflection, thank you for reading, from a grateful survivor,