So much has happened. So much is happening.
The past two months have been one long rollercoaster. I went from cheerfully, hopefully unemployed to despondent, defeated unemployed. I started preparing to: move across the country, relinquish having my own living space, leave the friends I have built so much of my life around, introduce myself to an unfamiliar job market, and try to figure out how I could possibly pay off my loans while living entirely off my sister’s generosity. I received a phone call I hadn’t dared to hope for, offering me a new and exciting job. I spent one week in an ecstasy of relief and accomplishment and the next in a rictus of nervousness and apprehension.
There were days of my head spinning so quickly that I couldn’t focus on anything and subsequent days of delight and exhaustion. I felt pride in my capabilities and a terror that the people who had hired me would decide they had made a terrible mistake. There was a week of illness during which I ran out of several important medications, such as antihistamines, and I recovered from that only to plunge into the depths of magnolia blossoms and misery. (Spring can end now, thank you.)
This week, just as I was preparing to rejoice in beginning my fifth week of productive employment and celebrate with a trip to the pharmacy, Patriots’ Day saw the worst disaster my city has seen in decades, if not longer.
There are no words to properly describe the emotional state I have been in for the past few days. I was so deeply wrapped up in the stress of having a new job, the discomfort of fighting a cold and the limitations of budgeting after three and a half months of unemployment that I had nothing left to devote to processing an act of violence against the city I love.
I have so many conflicting, spiraling thoughts that a yard stick couldn’t make a straight line from them.
My personal history with major life transitions has always been rocky. I knew that landing a job that would challenge me, that would teach me new things, would be a shock to my system. I haven’t been challenged by anything in years; at least, not challenged in the way that needing to learn a new skill set and an entirely new industry would challenge me. As far as my work life, I have become downright complacent and lazy. The only challenges I faced in the working world up to this point have been in sheer work volume, not in topic or difficulty or innovation. While I relished the idea of having to struggle to complete a satisfactory day’s work, I was positively terrified by the realization that being new to things would mean that I probably wouldn’t be excellent at them. I am, after all, a perfectionist.
During the past few weeks, unwinding and ignoring stress at the end of the work day led to an obsession with Doctor Who. I had used my tax refund to finally – finally! – get Internet for my apartment and I abused BBC streaming with alacrity. Unfortunately, in this as in many other things, I abandoned all good sense and spent more than a few days getting (unhealthily) attached to characters and living, breathing in epic high-drama. This past Sunday, I watched a particularly emotional episode and immediately transitioned into a deeply personal conversation with an old friend who asked for my insight into a number of different matters. There followed a stretch of overwrought sensitivity and overactive imagination.
Going into Monday morning, I was sleep-deprived, worried, pensive, nostalgic, unsettled and anxious. Good conversations with coworkers, some kind words from my team and the realization that I had made it past lunch without feeling completely out of my depth combined to make me feel more relaxed and confident than I had felt for quite a while, despite the itching of my eyes. The stress of the previous evening melted away and I started to feel somewhat chuffed about my day.
I like to have my cell phone set to display a virtual fish tank while I work; I can glance down and take a breath and watch some carp swim around, a moment of zen, while I try to remember which process document applies to whatever I’m working on. I always leave it on my desk. I rarely expect it to buzz. When it buzzed in the middle of Monday afternoon, I glanced down.
Tell me you’re ok.
That is not a typical message from my mother. Even considering the teary phone call I made to her Sunday, thanking her for her support and encouragement over the years, it seemed somewhat overly dramatic. If she’d wanted to see if a good night’s sleep had calmed me down, she would have waited until after work to call me. Still…I sent her a quick note just saying that I was in good shape.
Then she asked if I had heard the explosion. And how close I was to the marathon.
Phones started pinging all over the office. Parents, friends, roommates, classmates, everyone was trying to find out where everyone else was. At our distance and height, neither of the explosions were audible and the sirens were muffled.
News started pouring in from the television, from people reading aloud from websites, from text messages and emails. Our office has sight lines to MIT, Bunker Hill, the Harbor Islands, Logan, I-93, the Fort Point Channel, but there is one tall building directly across the street that blocks our view of Chinatown and, just beyond, Copley Square.
Many offices in Boston are closed on Patriots’ Day. It is a distinctive holiday of re-enactments and athleticism and tourism. If offices didn’t close, there honestly wouldn’t be enough room for the events in the city. And Boston is small, smaller than seems possible. Everything in Boston is near everything else. You can walk from the edge of Brookline across the city to the shores of the North End in roughly half an hour. What you can’t do is get from downtown Boston to the suburbs – Brighton, Medford, Quincy – without taking mass transit.
It was as I stood in the break room, sipping a bottle of water and wondering if it would be better or worse if I could see all the way to Copley, that the reality hit me.
Terrorism. In Boston. In my home, in my land, in the city I had repeatedly considered the likelihood of attack on and dismissed. Every September for the last nine years, I have thought about the possibility of such an event and decided that there was no way we would ever end up on someone’s list.
In that moment, staring blindly across an alley at a brick building that hid smoke from view, I realized that I have a form of latent PTSD from the other severely traumatic event of my life: September 11, 2001. Suddenly, I couldn’t be alone. I could not face the prospect of being alone in that room with my thoughts. I thought about going home to my quiet apartment in the suburbs and shook. I had a desperate urge, a physical need, to call everyone I went through that first horrendous day with and verify that they were all right. (I didn’t need to. Nearly all of them beat me to it.) I kept picturing a fireball and people jumping out of the windows of a skyscraper, even though Copley is populated largely by older, lower buildings. As the afternoon wore on, I became more and more paralyzed with the shock. I couldn’t decide what to do with myself. I couldn’t stop watching the live blogs. I couldn’t figure out how to get home by any manner other than the subway past a questionable situation at the JFK library or a three hour walk. I couldn’t even let myself think about being alone.
Then, the office closed down. Everyone still lingering needed to leave. As confused as I was, as incapable of processing as I was, I headed for the subway station and stood dithering while I tried to decide which direction to head. A station attendant told me that nothing had been said about the situation near JFK and trains were still running there, but still running through two downtown stations without stopping. I could have gone home. I couldn’t be alone. I headed to Cambridge, opposite the direction of my apartment, and found myself entirely unable to handle the fact that I was on a crowded subway car underneath a massive crime scene. Topped off by a signal problem at the end of the route that caused a delay, I was ready to have a nice, screaming meltdown by the time I clawed myself out of the train and back above ground.
Despite the careful no-news-watching policy my friends and I adopted that night in favor of simple togetherness and mindless comforts (read: MarioKart 64), that intense anxiety stayed with me. When I drifted home Monday night, safe, and back to work on Tuesday morning, safe, I retained the achingly taut shoulders. I distracted myself with work every bit as thoroughly as I’d distracted myself from work!stress with television shows.
The logical portion of my brain knows that there has been shock and that there are constructive ways of dealing with it; the emotional portion of my brain wants to be as ignorant of the situation as possible. In 2001, I was glued to the news and absorbed every horrific second of it. This time around, I did my best to check in only after lengthy intervals in the hopes that there would be more reliable, more digestible information rather than the same nightmarish stories over and over.
Tonight, I still feel that immense anxiety. After spending my day determinedly burying in arranging paperwork by type and chronology, I realized that distracting myself with podcasts had been A Very Bad Idea Indeed.
I meant well. I listened to a few wonderful storytelling podcasts (The Moth, StoryCorps) and learned about devious bacteria (Science Friday) and then selected a two-part This American Life piece on Harper High School in Chicago. It was magnificent listening. It was fascinating and informative. And it just about crushed me.
Coming off several weeks of very carefully not thinking about the nervousness and worry brought on by a new job, a weekend of intense emotion and three days of utter shock, it was an ethnography of an urban high school that made me realize I needed to do something other than distract myself or I was going to end up curled up in a ball on my kitchen floor, sobbing incoherently and rending my hair at some point in the not-too-distant future. Happily for my sanity, I had no other plans for tonight.
There is no way for me to say “I’ve been dealing with a lot” without making it sound self-patronizing. I know I should cut myself some slack on the job front - anyone is going to have nerves and face a learning curve when starting a new job. I should take solace that none of my friends or family were injured or killed in Monday’s bombings. I should allow myself time to process my shock and the memories this week has brought up, allow myself my current discomfort in crowds, allow myself to be relieved when I see the armed guards on the street, because this is not a normal situation.
I am struggling to show myself compassion. I experience a moment of self-loathing every time I discover that my work performance doesn’t meet my personal expectations. I feel guilty for feeling reassured by the highly visible policemen in the plaza with their bright vests. I am horrified by the assault rifles held by guardsmen even while their uniforms make me feel safe. I am conflicted and distracted and I don’t feel well physically because spring is the time of allergy suffering and because stress and my stomach do not get along well and because I ate too much salt yesterday.
Acknowledging the things that are causing stress is a huge step toward being able to process them, come to terms with them, and move on with life. To be honest, it would be worse if I were feeling nothing right now. Anxiety over a change in life status is a perfectly normal phenomenon. Shock is a common reaction to an unexpected tragic event. Heightened emotions are to be expected when tired, not to mention while reeling from a two-week span of rapid-fire changes in prospects. It would be more worrisome if I didn’t have some kind of emotional reaction to the events of the past week, to the past three months.
The world continues to turn.
I have a new job, with an amazing team and really great coworkers, which is both intellectually stimulating and a fantastic outlet for my organizational OCD. I have wonderful friends all over the country who care about me and about each other. I have supportive, loving parents. I have a sister who sneaks out of her meetings to call me and check in. I have a city of incredible spirit and hearty history that is reacting to extreme violence with love and determination.
While I’m working my way through the process of grieving for the events of the 2013 Boston Marathon, I can take delight in the fact that this entire region is refusing to stall, refusing to be terrorized, refusing to give up on daily life and human kindness. There is a line in the song “Hey California” by Catie Curtis that goes, “People want to know why you’d live back east when the weather there is cold and the people there are cold. I say the people are why I’ll never leave.”
The people are why I am sitting down and writing these thoughts. I want to help my city recover emotionally. I want to help myself recover emotionally. How can you not want to live in a place where people respect your personal space while walking down the street but are willing to share a hug at a moment’s notice? Where even the fiercest scowls can be lifted by the notes of a jig? Where brilliant intellectuals share café tables with scruffy punks? Where every third person you meet works in healthcare or human services? Where directions are given in terms of relation to the Green Monster? Where tour guides in period garb drift amongst the businessmen, the shoppers, the homeless, the athletes, the inventors, the writers, the scientists and the sightseers?
As I said before, Boston is small. Geographically speaking, the vast majority of Boston’s land is actually landfill, earth stolen from the sea. The villages that were originally Boston’s suburbs are more like its neighborhoods now. “Boston” is an umbrella term that can encompass Boston, Roxbury, Dorchester, Charlestown, Allston, Brighton, South Boston and East Boston (both of which are practically foreign lands!). The proper term, “Greater Boston Area”, is a mouthful. Boston is rambling, stretching. And we’re a family. Everyone who loves Boston loves Boston fiercely. We delight in our past, in our legacies, in our stories.
Monday’s bombings and emotional aftermath will become one of Boston’s stories, one of my stories. The city and I will mourn, rage, grieve, rant, fuss, abhor, denounce, defy and internalize what has happened here. We will be stronger for it. It will take some time. There will be dark moods and tearful nights and irrational fears and irrational anger but there will also be the confidence that we experienced a tragedy, responded efficiently and compassionately, and are capable of doing so again. It won’t be easy. It probably won’t be pretty. None of that matters. We will come out of this, out of our exhaustion and fear and sadness, and be a people that knows intimately just what wonders it is capable of.