I woke up Sunday morning to a dozen breaking news reports on my phone’s lock screen. Before I could check the time, I saw that over 100 people had been shot at an Orlando nightclub, and half of them were dead.
Maura wanted to snuggle with me in bed. She had crawled in, full of giggles, asking for tickles, then curled up and fell asleep on me. I held onto the embodiment of sweetness, love, and innocence while reading about senseless tragedy.
I knew I shouldn’t read the news stories. I was already in a not-fabulous place, and working hard to keep from spiraling, but my insatiable need to know always wins out. Then my brain takes all those details and runs away with it.
Maybe it’s extreme empathy, or a really amazing ability to imagine myself in the scenario, but I will read stories and my brain wonders what it must have been like. I will step into the scene like an actor in a movie. When I watched the first World Trade Center building fall, my first thought was “Oh my God, there were still people in there.” I could imagine the stairwell, what would happen first? Would the ceiling come down on me, or would the stairs give out from under me? Would there be a moment of free falling before impact? That’s just how my brain works.
By Monday morning, more stories about the victims of the Orlando massacre were brought out. As I was reading one about a mother receiving text messages from her son right before he was killed, on the side was a link to another story of a mother, frantically looking for her son – who was also murdered in the nightclub that night. These mothers showed pictures of their beautiful boys smiling, and I wondered, my God, what it must have been like to be waiting to hear news. Knowing the longer you waited, the less likely that news would be good. To hope that your son is critically injured and unconscious in the hospital rather than still in the club, dead. To wait hours, only to be told the worst has happened. To say my heart went out to those mothers, and all the mothers, was an understatement. Their children weren’t much older than my own sons. I tried to find hope in the line stretching around the block of people donating blood to the victims, or the posts of support, but my brain had gone down the other tunnel – where it was just tragedy. Senseless tragedy. Heartbroken mothers. Pictures of smiling faces that will never smile anymore because of one angry person.
It was one person. One person who did this. I can instantly come up with dozens of wonderful people to remind myself that the world has more good people than bad. But that didn’t help me.
I realized long ago that these sort of things affect me. It’s not that I’m making it about me. I swear, I’m not. I just, I don’t know, feel it so much. I don’t know if I can ever describe it properly. But it’s the reason why I tend to stray away from tragic stories. Not because I don’t care, but I’ll care too much, if that makes any sense. I don’t know if it’s linked to my anxiety, or depression, or if it’s just a ramped up sense of empathy.
So in a moment of self-care, I walk away from the tragedy. To give myself breathing room. To give my brain time to wind back down to normal levels. Yesterday, I decided to distract my brain by reading “The Fifth Wave” again, as I got the final book, and like to re-read the series as the new books come out. Yes, I used alien invasion and the wiping out of most of humanity to distract myself from yet another mass shooting. I watched cat videos and a Korean soap opera with my daughter. I stayed away from the internet for a while. I’m going to do more of that today.
But please understand, my silence isn’t that I don’t care. It’s just that I’m caring so much, I get frozen. I have to back away so I can keep breathing, so that I don’t hide under a blanket for a week. I post silly videos and find a reason to laugh because I have to snap out of the funk trying to pull me down.
But I do care. I always care. I promise. I just have to make sure I take care of myself, because I have to take care of others. And it’s hard to take care of others when you’re hiding under blankets.
And for anyone yelling “OMG THIS IS ME!” as you read this, let me know, so I know I’m not the only one who goes through this rollercoaster of emotions at every horrible tragedy. And let me say this – it’s okay to back away from it all for the sake of self-preservation. I believe we can change the world with baby steps. We may not be able to make the petitions, but we can sign them. We may not be able to march on the capital, but we can smile at a stranger or help a friend. We may not be able to change everyone’s minds, but we can teach our children by example. We can have a ripple effect of our own. Even if it’s from a keyboard behind a computer screen.