On a soft summer morning, a Sunday in June, our front door stands open to the sleeping city. The old house inhales dawn, and our normally bustling block soaks in quiet like a sponge. The screams seem far away at first—cutting through the morning silence, rising like a set of waves on hard sand, louder and higher, louder and higher again. Coffee mugs land on tables. Listening at the back windows, then moving to the front porch, the shrieks become words. Help! I’ve been stabbed! I’ve been stabbed! A young woman stands across the street, leaning on a neighbor’s railing. Help me! Help me! I’ve been stabbed!
I experienced trauma as a child, and I was a therapist for a decade. But that morning, I re-learn how perception is torn by trauma, how time pauses and re-winds. As I recognize danger, colors brighten, and sounds sharpen. The fear jabbing into my belly is immediately tamped down, creating space for decision-making.
I ask her, Do you want me to call 911?
Yes, call, I need help! She walks toward me, left arm holding her right. She pauses to lean on a parked car. The block is eerily quiet, deserted. Where are the usual early dog-walkers and baby strollers? Why hasn’t anyone else heard her screaming?
I tell my husband, Call 911. Now. She’s bleeding a lot. I grab a chair from the porch and set it on our lawn. Here, I ask her, sit down, please.
I don’t want this to be happening. Blood streaks red stripes down her legs and oozes slowly from the back of her neck. I put my hand on her fear-damp shoulder and tell her she is going to be okay. I ask her to keep her wrist up, to squeeze the towel I’ve wrapped around it to her body. I’ve been stabbed! I’ve been stabbed! Her voice shakes. Her pupils are circles of glazed fear.
He stabbed me! He’s in a car. He’s still around. He’s in a car! She stands up to keep running from him, to repeat the motion that kept her alive this morning. The mind tells the body now now now run run run!
I look up and down the block and see no one.
Your job is to sit still right now while we wait for the ambulance. You’re going to be all right. I rewind. I repeat: Sit down, please. Help will be here soon. You are going to be okay.
The ambulance comes. One strong woman takes each of her elbows and walks her inside its big doors. The siren wails away.
Soon, police crime-scene tape closes both sides of our street, and pooled blood dries slowly on the plastic chair in my front yard.
The sun is high when neighbors begin to gather in tight circles on the corner. I avoid them. I try not to swirl my thoughts into whirlpools by over-telling the story. I focus my mind on the police, mostly women of color, whose compassionate intelligence shines over their face masks. Talking to my friend, I describe their supervisor, wearing a simple summer skirt, badge around her neck.
Mid-day, a firefighter hoses down the blood in the street and on the sidewalk. Water pressure flips the plastic chair over and leaves a patch of bare mud on the lawn. We use a soapy brush to clean the dried blood off my car.
The next morning, I wake up and think, Crap. That happened. I recite the thank God’s: thank God we heard her; thank God her injuries will heal. I remember my hard-won crisis-counseling mantra: trust the intervention you could give and when you gave it.
I have a nightmare the next night: I’m still a therapist, working at the university counseling center. I’m supposed to be doing something, but I can’t remember what it is. In my dream, I avoid my frustrated boss and finally tell myself, in a refrain, I’m going to have to quit. I’m going to have to quit.
Four days after the stabbing, I’m hoarding gluten-free bread. I have one loaf in the bread basket, two loaves in the freezer, and two in the refrigerator. I’m not anxious, I’m just hungry, right? Before I left the job where vicarious traumas stuck to my skin like burrs, I’d open my desk drawer to find six open bars of chocolate in my desk drawer, each with one solitary and reassuring square remaining. Under my desk, pairs of Piccolino sandals and Dansko pumps seemed to multiply on their own–as if someone else had bought them. Until I realized, until I finally said, I’m going to have to quit.
Day nine, I look down at my sneakers and see small circles of rusted red-brown. Oh. Blood specks on my shoes. I remember that, not long ago, I helped someone. I keep walking.