Monday, May 30th was the 25th anniversary of my attack. How fitting that this year, it fell on Memorial Day. While we all were memorializing and honoring our lost heroes, I had my own private vigil.
Generally, anniversaries commemorate a happy occasion, a special union, or something wonderfully memorable, even worthy of celebrating. Owning an event planning company in New York City for the past 25 years, I know this firsthand and have built my career by perfecting the art of the party. Yet, my own anniversary has been the day I have privately mourned my innocence and youth.
On May 30, 1991, coming off a New York subway, unbeknownst to me, a complete stranger followed me five blocks to my friend's apartment building, and down her hall, where he attacked me and stabbed me over 37 times intent on leaving me for dead. But I fought back. I punched and kicked, I blocked and screamed and I survived.
It's the day that cemented everything as a 'before' or 'after'. I saw my existence as before my attack or after it. I grew up very fast that day, the day I lost my joy, and realized that life wasn't always fair or happy and 'why me?' is a futile question to ask.
Even after the physical attack was over, I still needed all my mental strength for the months and years to come. I had to do police lineups and answer the District Attorney's question. My story was plastered all across the papers and on the television news stations showing the composite picture I had helped to create. There was a grand jury hearing, and years later I sat face to face with my attacker at the trial where my testimony put him away for attempted murder.
I had learned the very valuable lesson in my young twenties that we are all mortal, and all we really ever have is today, and this one life, so make it count. I knew I had to spend the rest of my life in pursuit of happy moments and people celebrating, even if I wasn't sure if I'd ever have my own again. So I became a party planner.
People always ask me if I think I would have turned out this way if this had never happened to me. It's an impossible question to answer, as it's part of the fiber of my life, as inseparable to me as my own skin, now, these 25 years later. Would I have become a party planner if not for my attack? I'm sure not, but 'after', I was on a mission, and would have probably mastered any career choice. I was going to prove I deserved my survival, at least publicly. At the ripe age of 25 I started my own event planning company, Save The Date, completely sure I was going to succeed. I took on my new business with the same force and strong will as I did my own survival, never looking back. After the unimaginable happens to you, you sort of have a tricky relationship with fear, either it owns you, or you just don't believe in its power any longer. Privately though, I suffered. I had years of denial, posttraumatic stress, eating issues, exercise issues, control issues, and lived this totally dichotomous life.
The first ten years or so afterwards, I measured my life by work accomplishments. I won awards, grew my sales by millions of dollars each year, rolled out my company to different cities, spoke to groups of future entrepreneurs talking about passion and perseverance and went to M.I.T for an entrepreneurial 'MBA'. At first glance, I even seemed to have a balanced personal life. I broke hearts and had mine broken. I traveled, had a great group of friends, got a summer share in the Hamptons, and I even rode the subway again, but most of all, I appeared to be normal. I buried that attack so deep down that I nearly forgot it happened, unless I got a glimpse of the scars... and even those faded within 10 years. Years passed and I never told anyone what happened to me on that day in May. It was my secret and I never wanted to be defined by 'victim', even though I perpetually felt shame about the attack, like there was an invisible V was on my forehead. Every day in the mirror I saw my own personal bumper sticker -- I Am Here God Damn It -- And it wasn't enough to just survive, I was going to thrive! So I fought for my worthiness, every single day...
It was amazing to me, just as those scars faded, the belief that I would always be different faded too. I married my best friend and we have three amazing children. I've made lifelong friendships and settled into my career -- all the while keeping my secret safe. I rarely gave it air, except every May, towards the end of the month, I would get into a funk, sort of an anxious state of malaise. I would say to my sisters, "I think I'm getting sick," or "I feel so tired this week, I think I'm coming down with something," and one would gently whisper, "Jenny, honey, it's May.... You always get like this in May." Then I'd remember, and settle into my introspective place and just go dark for a few days. After, I'd bounce right back, spinning around in my oh-so-busy life, being a wife, a mom, a C.E.O, a girlfriend, a Board member, a volunteer, or whatever cause was happening to fill up my days and nights so I didn't have to go back to being in my own head again.
That frenetic pace worked, for years and years. Until it didn't.
The last few years have been different. Something changed. Everything that had served me for over two decades started to hurt me. All my ambitious energy and fighting power was exhausting me, so much of how I was living was still to prove I deserved this life and to avoid a lot of feeling. I had so much built up hurt in me that I kept locked down so tightly it was suffocating me. When I started to journal my feelings it felt more like purging than jotting down notes. I decided that writing about my attack and struggles as a memoir would be cathartic, so I published I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag My secret was out. Did it make me finally go back to that place and finally gain some closure? I said yes, I thought so.
What I know now was that writing it was just one more ambitious move to keep the world spinning and keep me at my marathon pace. I believed the success and publicity of the book meant happiness and personal success. Again, I needed outside affirmation to point to for my self-worth. My real unraveling came the year after the book was published, in May, of course. After the year of tours and articles and publicity was done I nearly had a breakdown. That's when I feel like the universe hit the halt button, and I really started to contemplate my life and the decisions that I have made, both the good and the ones I have regretted. I had lost myself completely in all those years of 'doing' instead of just 'being'. I barely remembered the happy, spontaneous girl I used to be, or the woman I had wanted to become. I didn't recognize myself anymore. I went into a dark place a few Mays ago, the darkest since my attack.
Only when I felt all my pain and all my 'fragility', a word that I have dismissed for most of my life, did I understand that power is not in the fight, but in letting go. It was time to really let go of all the expectations I had placed on myself. I craved peace and stillness, finally, after so many years of running.
I re-examined just about every relationship in my life, and it if truly didn't make me feel good or feed me in the way I needed, I let it go. Including my marriage. I married my best friend, and he still is. He is a wonderful guy, he was just never 'my' guy, and we both knew it. I never believed I was allowed to have it all back then, and felt so unlovable that someone loving me so much and having security was more important than other connections that I craved and needed, but ignored. I have lamented real friendships that had gone neglected and apologized to those I hurt when I was hurting so badly. Some people forgive, and some just moved on without me, no matter how I tried to resurrect them. It's still a hard lesson for me to recognize and understand that there is nothing I can do to control situations or other people; I can only control my actions, behaviors, and attitudes. I know this so well, even though there were still times I believed I could have done something to control my attacker from picking me.
I now take my own advice about happiness, it is up to me to own my life and move forward. I re-prioritized my work life and put my kids above it all. I am happy. I live way more simply now and enjoy being alone in ways I couldn't understand before. I have true friends and relationships and never get involved in things not meant for me. I love the motto "less stuff, more happiness." I have forgiven myself for the mistakes I have made. I have finally forgiven myself.
I know my life will continue to be a journey, one that has had more peaks and valleys than most maybe, but now I am grateful for it all. I am proud of what I have done and what I have learned. I am thankful for my family and friends, my husband for giving me our kids and that time of security and commitment, and for my work which has helped me through the years when my personal life was too hard to focus on. I am ready for another 'after'. This time, it will be a 'happily after' no matter the outcome. Maybe it's my Act Two or my do-over. Don't we all deserve one?
So this year, surviving my 25th anniversary, I am going out with my nearest and dearest, and I am going to toast myself and my life... all of it. I am going to embrace the fact that I am here, and I finally believe I deserve to be happy. I'm taking a page out of my own book. I'm not looking at May 30th as sad and private, but a new beginning and a celebration. Who better to plan it?