Last week I had the honor of spending some time with a young lady with a heart-wrenching history.
Growing up in the dangerous inner-city of North Philadelphia in the 80s, she told me how strong she had to appear just to avoid being beaten up or raped. Then in her senior year of high school, 9/11 happened. For her it was personal as her brother was a first responder in New York and died in the aftermath of the attacks.
So she dropped out of school and joined the service, believing she needed to do something to protect her country. While serving in Afghanistan, the tank she was in hit by an IED. She was 20 years old at the time. When I asked her if she was hurt, she immediately said "not my body, but I have been different ever since."
As soon as she told me about her experience in North Philly, my heart hurt and then opened as I pictured this young scared girl having to act strong every day just to survive. Then, this 18-year-old girl experienced such great pain that I felt myself tearful. And then... As she described her PTSD, all I wanted to do was to hold her hand, listen and have her take me to where it hurt most.
She told me that when she was sent back to Afghanistan for a second tour of duty, she realized that this was about something other than protecting this country. Her only real incentive was to be with her comrades-her family.
Now that she is home, she scans each room for IED's or other potential dangers. She feels as though she is always in danger and cannot imagine ever feeling safe again -- classic symptoms of PTSD. She told me that people either don't understand her or distance themselves from her. As a result, she feels so very alone in this world. Nevertheless she tells herself the same thing she's been telling herself since child "be strong, don't cry had don't show your vulnerability."
Maybe she couldn't cry, but I could. And I did. And as I did, she began to cry, too. Through her tears, she told me how alone and frightened she felt, how she was afraid to socialize because she felt so different from everyone else in the room.
So she worked during the day in a city agency. At night she went to school working on her bachelor's degree in counseling. She said that was her life, just going to school and working.
And then she told me she'd never spoken to anyone about this before. So when I asked her what the experience of opening up was like, she said it was uncomfortable. And then she said it felt good. And then it felt scary. And then she said that deep down inside she wished she could run from herself. When she stopped talking, she looked over to me and just for a few seconds was able to engage my eyes. And then she said something that surprised her: "right now, I feel safe"
She wondered how I was able to understand her experience, so I talked about my traumas. I talked briefly about my school failure and the shame around that, my sexual abuse by my teacher when I was 12 years old, which only added to my shame. How I spent much of my young life desperately wishing to be "normal." And then it all came crashing down when I became a quadriplegic, knowing I would never be "normal" again. I told her this happened when I was about her age and that I too, felt isolated, alone and misunderstood. She cried as she listened and I felt we where so very connected.
We talked about her fears and mine. While she feared death by an unseen enemy, I told her that I wasn't afraid of death. That my greatest fear was not living the life I have.
At the end, we embraced. Not therapist and patient, not to advisor and advisee or even friend to friend. We embraced as two vulnerable human beings whose hearts had just touched right on the fault line where love flows.
There is a Hebrew prayer that says in part: "God is one". I take that to mean that when two humans have an encounter like the one my new friend and I had, that is a Divine experience.
What a tender treasure, these human experiences.