Hannah, guardian kitty.
Last Friday, April 19, at 6:45 a.m., I awoke in my tiny attic apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, startled by the sound of an incoming text. I’d been having a dream in which I was running from two assailants who were bent on killing everyone in their midst with guns and bombs. I was frantically trying to find a place to hide, but nowhere was secure.
Such a nightmare is not unusual for me: I have PTSD. I didn’t know the reality that’d been transpiring while I was sleeping.
I sat up quickly and reached for my phone. The text was from the New England Conservatory of Music, located in Boston, where I’m liberal arts faculty: “Due to public safety concerns, NEC is closed…”
Seconds later, I received a text from a friend in Jamaica Plain: “Are you at home? Just checking in case you haven’t gotten the news to stay in. It’s all very unsettling.”
Was I awake, or was I dreaming? I turned on the television and saw the reports of bloodshed that had occurred in my town overnight, the death of one of the marathon bombers, the current search for his armed-and-dangerous brother. “Shelter-in-place”: I was not to go outside or answer the door.
What was happening was real. Surreal.
I began to panic: could the suspect on-the-run be hiding in the basement of the house where the garret was located? In the basement, there is a washer/dryer machine accessible to tenants in a neighboring house through a cellar door, which I’ve frequently seen left unlocked or open to the outside parking lot. As I watched the news, I was suddenly alarmed. My nightmare was still fresh in my mind: I needed a reality check, so I messaged a friend who knows I have PTSD.
My friend assured me that it was near impossible that the suspect was in my basement at that time, because the local news reported he’d been seen on foot in Watertown, a few miles from where I live, around 6 a.m., however it was a good idea to check the door. She wrote, “Be quick.”
In times of stress, Hannah and Sam serve as my danger gauge. If an intruder (or even a friend) were in the vicinity, I knew that Sam would be hiding under the bed. Hannah would have her nervous facial expression and twitching ears. But now neither exhibited signs of anxiety – they were curled up, relaxed on the bed.
I went downstairs with my legs shaking, holding my breath. The cellar door, to my relief, was shut and locked. Quickly, I returned to my unit and secured the triple locks on my door. Even though I live in an attic, I left the shades drawn.
In the days after the bombing, I’d witnessed so many Bostonians experiencing a mental state I’d had as my “normal baseline” for years: intrusive memories, intense fear, anger, sadness, shock. Over the course of my decade of recovery treatment for PTSD, I’d accumulated a stockpile of mental artillery to respond to the aftermath of traumatic events. I put them into practice.
On Wednesday, when a friend told me she couldn’t concentrate and was “in a fog,” so much so that she accidentally dropped a plate of food where she thought there was a counter, I recommended she avoid the media. How many times did we need to see the bombs go off, or hear the screams of terror as we watched spectators and runners collapse or flee? Once was enough: we understood the depth of destruction and pain.
In our attempts to mobilize, to emotionally arm, there’s a fine line between facing facts and re-traumatizing ourselves, the latter of which causes further harm.
But Friday, I couldn’t turn off the TV or Internet. As I watched events unfold, I felt numbness climb from my feet to my limbs to the top of my head. I trembled with the fear of traumatic experience. The tenants who live below me weren’t home. Hannah and Sam, the “rescue” cats, were now sleeping.
I felt isolated.
For a time, I couldn’t receive or make calls – phone service was flooded – though I could get voicemails and texts. I posted status updates on Facebook. Thirty-nine and single, I tweeted, “It’s 1 of those times when I wish I didn’t live alone.”
I wanted to hug someone. I wanted to be hugged.
To my surprise, people I knew and people I’d never met reached out: Novelist Sarah McCoy responded, “I empathize. One of the scariest few days of my life was being in apt alone during hurricane.” Boston Globe blogger and professor friend Delia Cabe wrote, “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, social media was my home base. I baked a pumpkin loaf cake and posted a photo. Others listed what they’d contribute to our “lockdown potluck.” Sam came into the living room then, begging as usual for dinner. I opened a window: Hannah hopped up to look out at the world.
Saturday morning, the terror over, I left Hannah and Sam, and my apartment, and walked down the street, reveling in such basic freedom. 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, aside from their one or two felines. While our pets always provide us a source of companionship, during the lockdown we felt a keen separateness from the world, a longing for people.
We were relieved now, in arm’s reach. We embraced each other, and the simple pleasure of living.
What were you, and your pets, doing during the lockdown? Share your experiences and other comments below.