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Tracy Strauss Headshot

Out of Terror, Togetherness

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Four days after the Boston Marathon bombings, Friday, April 19, 2013, I awoke in the early morning to the sound of an incoming text. I'd been having a nightmare in which I was running from two assailants who were bent on killing everyone in their path with guns and bombs. Frantically, I tried to find a place to hide, but no place was secure.

Such a nightmare is not out of the ordinary for me, since I have PTSD. But the sound of the text startled me out of my dream world and into what was in fact a scary reality.

My friends know I don't have a text plan, so they only text me in an emergency. I grabbed my phone and saw my friend in Jamaica Plain had messaged: "Are you at home? Just checking in case you haven't gotten the news to stay in. It's all very unsettling."

With an unlisted phone number, I hadn't received the "shelter-in-place" call from the city. I'd gone to bed before the news broke. I didn't know while I was sleeping that terrifying things were happening: MIT police officer Sean Collier was shot and killed a little over a mile from where I lived; the Tsarnaev brothers, Boston Marathon bombing suspects, allegedly hijacked a car at gunpoint in Cambridge, holding the driver hostage; the hostage escaped and relayed information to authorities, who then raced to track down the suspects. A chase and bloody confrontation ensued. One of the brothers was dead, the other still at-large. The surrounding communities, which included my neighborhood, were on lockdown. I was not to go outside or answer the door.

I turned on the television and saw every channel flooded by reports of terror. What was happening was not a dream -- it was real. Surreal.

In the days after the marathon bombing, I witnessed so many Bostonians experiencing a mental state I'd had as my normal baseline for years: intrusive memories, intense shock, fear, anger, sadness. Over the course of my decade of recovery treatment for PTSD, I'd accumulated a stockpile of mental artillery to effectively respond to the aftermath of traumatic events. I put them into practice.

Two days after the bombing, when a friend told me she couldn't concentrate and was "in such a fog" that she accidentally dropped a plate of food where she thought there was a counter, I told her to stop watching the news. How many times did we need to view the bombs going off, hear the terrifying screams, or see marathon spectators and runners collapse or flee? Once was enough. There is a fine line between confronting the terrible truth in order to mobilize ourselves and replaying the horrific details in a way that re-traumatizes us.

Yet, that Friday morning, I couldn't turn off the television -- I had to stay informed. I was a single woman, living alone, stuck in my tiny attic apartment with the media as my only connection to the world. As I watched events unfolding in "real time," as a reporter on-scene yelled "oh my God, oh my God" over and over again, adrenaline pumped through my body, then melted into numbness that climbed from my feet to my limbs to the top of my head. My thoughts raced: I imagined the suspect might show up at the house where my apartment was located, behind a vacant supermarket parking lot. I worried he might be hiding in the basement, which my negligent landlord sometimes left unlocked.

I felt isolated. The two tenants who lived below me were out of town. My phone service was spotty, and for a long while I couldn't receive or make calls. As the day went on, I began to feel claustrophobic, like a prisoner in a secluded cell, separated from the rest of the world. I looked out my window at the abandoned city street, searching for someone, but there was no one.

In the afternoon, the news reported that we might have to continue the lockdown through the weekend. I didn't think I'd be able to endure even the rest of the day without speaking to or being with another person. I had my two rescue cats (they were sleeping) but I yearned for the sound and the touch of a human being.

At one point I was able to make a phone call to a childhood friend in New York. I reveled in such contact, until my service cut out again.

I went onto Twitter to "be" with others. I tweeted, "It's 1 of those times when I wish I didn't live alone."

To my surprise, people reached out: Novelist Sarah McCoy wrote, "I empathize. One of the scariest few days of my life was being in apt alone during hurricane." A writer and professor, my friend DeliaCabe, responded, "Yes, at least you can talk to us here. I've had those moments when I was isolated like that." Author Jenna Blum tweeted, "You're not alone. The Twitterverse is with you."

For the next several hours, Twitter was my gathering place. I baked a pumpkin loaf cake and posted a photo. Several "tweeps" (a person's followers on Twitter) tweeted what they were bringing to our virtual "lockdown potluck." I felt grateful for the company.

Finally, that night, the remaining suspect was caught and the lockdown ended.

Saturday morning, I opened my apartment door and walked down the street, marveling at the basic freedom I'd once taken for granted. I took the T to Harvard Square, where I ran into an acquaintance and her friend at Starbucks. We shared a table and our shellshock. As we chatted over coffee and tea, I learned that they too lived alone and that, during the lockdown, they'd felt the same painfully keen separateness from the world that I had.

Now, in arm's reach, we embraced each other. We rejoiced in the simple pleasure of togetherness.