Best of 2019: What a hostage survivor knows now about trauma

I've learned that trauma is humbling, and it can't be overpowered by will alone

Published December 27, 2019 6:00PM (EST)

Los Angeles Police SWAT officers, and Los Angeles firemen wearing bulletproof helmets, evacuate a child, after a gunman barricaded himself inside a Trader Joe's store in Los Angeles, July 21, 2018. (AP/Damian Dovargane)
Los Angeles Police SWAT officers, and Los Angeles firemen wearing bulletproof helmets, evacuate a child, after a gunman barricaded himself inside a Trader Joe's store in Los Angeles, July 21, 2018. (AP/Damian Dovargane)

This life story was originally published on Salon on July 20, 2019.

For the viewers at home, most hostage stories end with the captives released and the suspect taken away in cuffs. The music soars, the credits roll, and news anchors return us to regular programming. Rarely do we see what happens next — that for many, it’s just the beginning of a new hell. Trauma is humbling — it took me nearly a year of resistance, setbacks and shame for me to finally accept that. Yes, the trapped miners are now free, but some now sleep with the light on. Some soldiers avoid Veteran’s Day parades — the uniforms alone are triggers. Me? I don’t shop at Trader Joe’s.

On July 21, 2018, at 3:15 p.m., I was finishing up a quick trip to the store when a man fleeing police slammed his car into a pole outside the Trader Joe’s in the Silver Lake neighborhood of northeast Los Angeles. The gunman ran for the entrance of the store, opening fire on the police. They shot back; an assistant manager was killed.

You might have heard about it. It was a slow news day and most of the LAPD turned out. I'm told CNN carried it live, and the scene looked like a war zone. The view inside the store looked entirely different. About 75 shoppers and employees hid around the Trader’ Joes, but I only knew about us —  a small group kept near the gunman as he and one of the hostages tried to negotiate his surrender. A wounded, scared, frustrated young man, and 15 other people, sitting on the floor surrounded by a trail of blood. The situation dragged on in tense, elongated minutes, then hours. He threatened to kill us more than once. Terrified but furious, I resolved that — no matter what — I wasn’t going to die in a damn grocery store. But I also feared my legs wouldn’t work if I did try to flee. Would he shoot me in the back if I made a run for it? I sat there so long, I saw the blood begin to dry. It transformed from the bright, glistening Kubrick red to a duller rust color around the edges. Would my blood spill here too?

The experience remains terrifying, heartbreaking and stupid beyond measure. Everyone responds differently to big events. That’s also true with trauma in general. Perhaps that’s why both individually and collectively, Americans know so little about the obvious consequences of our violent culture. I worked in TV news for decades where I watched and occasionally interviewed endless survivors of every imaginable horror, but I had no real understanding of what trauma can do to a person until it happened to me. And like countless others before me, I first assumed I was inoculated. “I’m strong. I won’t have PTSD.” I thought. “Sure, I’m rattled, but I’ll take a few weeks off, let the news cycle move on and that’ll be it.”

To my complete surprise, the experience left me shattered.

A simplified rundown of what happens in the body under extreme stress: When the fight or flight response fires, cortisol and adrenaline release. Non-essential functions are suppressed, including the immune system. When this goes on for a year or more, the body isn’t killing off cancer cells or fighting off other diseases. This is why stress can be a killer. A year later, I still have elevated cortisol levels.

The tough don’t get traumatized — that’s the common belief. We assume we can predict how people will respond by their character and backbone, but it turns out those are wholly irrelevant yardsticks. Instead, reactions to trauma — including war, car crashes, rape, hurricanes, abusive relationships, alcoholic or otherwise unstable caregivers, assholes who hold people hostage inside stores, all other imaginable scenarios ad infinitum — impact some profoundly, while others who experience the same event bounce right back. We don’t know why. Evidence does show previous trauma, especially in childhood, can make one more vulnerable to post-traumatic stress and other health issues. Ongoing trauma, or a single extended event like mine, can do more damage than shorter “give me your wallet” scenarios, but that’s not a universal rule.

After the standoff ended, dozens of well-meaning friends and co-workers all said roughly the same thing to me: “You’re so strong. You’ll be fine.” I agreed. After all, we tend to praise survivors for their courage even as their knuckles turn white from barely hanging on. We know that’s not what you want to see, so we hide it.

When I was clearly impacted from the very beginning, I resisted admitting so. I feared that if the tears started, they might never stop. To prove to myself that I wasn’t defeated, I even returned to work in the hyper-violent daily news cycle. I needed the stability and to be doing something I’m good at. (Don’t underestimate the value of routine and feeling competent after a knockdown.)

And it was OK — until it wasn’t. It’s not constant crying and panic attacks, after all. I was still functional. I did my shtick; I cracked jokes. I acted like everything was normal. I took my crying breaks then tried to shake it off. I felt ashamed every time symptoms flared, and beat myself up for not bouncing back sooner.

Working in news after you’ve been news is like boiling a frog, only the frog is you. Anxiety builds cumulatively. A police pursuit Monday, a SWAT situation Tuesday, another pursuit Wednesday — by the time Thursday’s mass shooting, tornado or vivid security video footage of an armed robbery rolls around, I’d be hiding in an edit bay sobbing. The weekend isn’t enough time to recover when a breakdown looms.

The barrier I once had that allowed me to do this gig got blown out in Trader Joe’s, and now I feel it all, and I see new trauma victims in every frame. Do they have help? Do they know what they’re in for? The people around me treated pursuits like sporting events. I did too, before. Now, the horrible knowledge I have stops me: Is some innocent person about to die?

I couldn’t do it anymore. I had to get off the firing line.

Getting back on the horse works in many life situations. Facing your fears does allow people to move past difficult experiences but in the case of post-traumatic stress, exposure therapy can prove counter-productive. One fellow hostage was told by his family just one week after the incident, “Aren’t you over that yet?” He was just coming out of the shock and beginning to feel the impact of that terrifying day. A second was forced by police to go back into the Trader Joe’s right after the event to speak with detectives and retrieve his stuff, and his supportive friends were told to wait outside. He told me this was one of the most damaging moments of the entire experience. Another hostage was pushed by family to shop at that same store within a couple weeks of the shooting — again, to “help him get over it” — even as he begged not to. Back when I covered crime, I remember interviewing a teenage girl and her family after she had been shot while riding an MTA bus. Her mother and brother said, in front of her, “She’s such a baby,” rolling their eyes, “she needs to get over it.” I have no idea if she ever received help for the likely trauma she suffered, or the additional wound her family inflicted by dismissing a terrifying, life-threatening event.

My family was and is loving and patient. In my case, I was the bully to myself. Operating on an old, wrong idea that “if it hurts, it must be good for you,” I refused to accept I couldn’t just pick up where I left off. Once I decided, spontaneously, to walk into a different Trader Joe’s in order to face the tiger and pick up some arugula. Within 60 seconds of passing the flowers by the front door, a sea of Hawaiian shirts swam before me, blocking my path. Sounds went hollow, my vision distorted, and I couldn’t breathe.

The anxiety attack forced me to put down the whip and slow down. Some experiences truly are life-changing: Trader Joe’s left me with a new, unfamiliar fragility and vulnerability that took time to accept. It would be many months before I slept through the night and dreamed about anything else. Simple things can sometimes overwhelm me now — any confrontation, encounter with sketchy people, or dealing with health insurance. I had to leave a café once because I couldn’t breathe.

And I’m sure it’s not just me. Right after the event, one person after another grabbed my elbow, leaned in and quietly confessed.

“I was robbed once. I can still see the black gun.”

“I got jumped as a teenager and it took me a long time to be able to walk down a street alone.”

“I was in a terrible car crash years ago. I still get scared driving down hills.”

My doctor shared she was carjacked.

So many stories.

There is a basic human need to be heard, for these experiences to be recognized. I suspect they also wanted me to know I wasn’t alone. There is a club, mostly anonymous, filled with survivors. We are the members.

You don’t get to decide whether you’ll have post-traumatic stress or if you’ll be spared. Whether you get it immediately or 20 years after the event, though, know it is not a disorder. In fact, it’s the natural order of things. These reactions and feelings are how the nervous system instinctively responds to abnormal events. In fact, I’ve got plenty of company in thinking the “D” in PTSD needs to go. That one little letter does tremendous damage.

This was first pointed out to me by a friend from film school. Reluctantly — groups can sometimes be challenging now — I went to a gathering and had the fortune to be seated across from screenwriter Pete Chiarelli. Not only is he a wonderful writer, he’s also a thoroughly decent and compassionate human. He hadn’t known I was involved in the Trader Joe’s standoff until he saw me on the episode of “48 Hours.” Pete told me the “D” in PTSD is bullshit. I was so relieved to hear someone say that. I realized because of that letter — the “disorder” designation — I’d felt damaged. Broken. Labeled. Othered. Then he told me about his dad.

General Peter Chiarelli Sr. served nearly 40 years before he retired, leading troops into battle and serving as Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, among other distinguished positions. He’s also spent years working to help soldiers with both traumatic brain injury (TBI) and PTS, so I called him to talk about it. He describes the “D” as “a barrier to treatment” that he’s battled to get rid of.

“I had these 24-year-old kids who came to me and said that they did not want to be told they had a disorder, so they wouldn’t go in and get help,” he said. “They didn’t want that on their medical record... so, they had to find a way to help themselves. What did they do? They drank. They took drugs. They looked for ways to self-medicate.”

Self-medication makes the problem far worse. A warrior can’t tolerate being blasted by feelings; a warrior must conquer the enemy. But when the enemy is your own instinctive reaction that cannot be beaten with force, failure is the only perceived outcome. We all know about the horrific suicide rate among veterans. How many deaths can be linked back in part to the shame and stigma of this condition being labeled a disorder?

The general went after the issue head-on, asking for the "D" to be dropped from PTSD. “I went before the American Psychiatric Association before they were getting ready to publish DSM V. I asked, would you please change the name? Would you please . . . drop the ‘D’?,” Chiarelli said.

It didn’t work. Thanks to Chiarelli’s efforts, the armed forces have largely dropped the “D,” but the medical community yet to follow suit officially. Some psychiatrists have proposed the term "post-traumatic stress injury" instead. Yes, please.

Since we can’t agree on the name, it’s not surprising that we know relatively little about post-traumatic stress. The only diagnostic testing is cognitive. There’s no blood test or other biological marker to determine the presence of anxiety, depression, PTS or other related conditions. Talk therapy helps a great deal, but trauma lives in the body. EMDR uses eye movements (or other bilateral stimulation) to desensitize and reprocess traumatic memories. Multiple studies show it’s highly effective, especially on short, one-time traumatic events such as a car crash or a hold-up, but it can occasionally be re-traumatizing. Ask me how I know. Somatic experiencing provides a gentler approach to the same process, but it takes time. Not to mention that these treatments, and therapy in general, can be expensive, and specialists can be difficult to find outside of metropolitan areas.

Fortunately, there’s movement toward helping the youngest victims. Drawing from the ACE (adverse childhood experiences) study out of San Diego that shows the relationship between toxic stress in childhood and disease in adults, the House Oversight and Reform Committee recently held its first hearing on identifying, preventing, and treating childhood trauma. California’s Surgeon General is focused on addressing toxic stress in children across the state.

I hope we’ll start talking seriously about not just trauma, but the acute stress so many of us live with. To the body it’s all the same. A year after my hostage experience, meditation, frequent exercise and trauma and talk therapy, along with regular connection time with friends and family are helping me find my new normal. I avoid unnecessary activation. I love David Fincher, but I won’t be watching “Mindhunter” — or for that matter, “Killing Eve” or “Homeland.” Suspense and violence are no longer entertaining to me.

Shortly after the shooting, my darling friend, a musician and dancer, sat on my sofa and told me her story. It’s harrowing, horrifying, and haunting — and hers to tell, not mine. I wept with her. She said that now I also understand what it means to be powerless in a way most don’t, and if I could dive into it, to really own the vastness and the deep truth of that powerlessness, it offers a profound spiritual knowledge. Then it becomes your superpower.

Mass shootings will continue. This is certain. There are too many guns and too many people in need of help who don’t get it. Trauma is the great untold story of America now. Since we are clearly unable to stop the endless violence, we must do better to help those suffering from the natural impact of these unnatural events. We also have to care more — about everyone. From what I have read in the court documents and elsewhere about the perpetrator in the Trader Joe’s standoff, it sounds like he too has untreated trauma. He even told one of the hostages that day that he just needed someone to talk to. Can we please start listening?

By Lynnie Westafer

Lynnie Westafer is a writer, filmmaker and journalist in Los Angeles

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