Aftermath – recovering from trauma

2015 was supposed to be a good year.

I had high hopes for my writing career, and many plans for the new year. After the home invasion, when my family and I were held captive for 3 hours, most of my plans for 2015 went down the drain. Three months later, and I still find it hard to write (as witnessed by the three-month long gap between posts), and most days I spend just trying to stay out from under the bed.

Recovering from trauma is difficult, and takes a long time, and we are all dealing with it differently. There is no “one size fits all” quick fix here. My oldest son started getting aggressive – he hits his little brother and throws his toys around, but much more worrisome, he is starting to exhibit signs of self-harm. My husband pretends it didn’t happen at all, and sleeps a lot to get away from it. He’s never truly experienced anything that violent, and he has no coping skills to deal with it. Me … well … I don’t sleep, I have severe anxiety and I get panic attacks. I don’t want to be home (at all, the less I can be here, the better), and every time I read about yet another attack (and believe me when I tell you, there are plenty right now), everything comes crashing back, and the little progress I’ve made disappears.

I can deal with what happened to me, in my opinion it wasn’t that bad. It could have been much worse, and judging by what others had to deal with who were victims of the same gang, we got off lightly. I can’t deal with what happened to my son. Over and over again, I replay that moment he ran into our room with that big smile on his face, the moment they grabbed him, the moment I begged them not to hurt him, the sudden fear on my child’s face as he realised Mummy and Daddy weren’t having some kind of late-night party going on in their bedroom. I remember the moment they started trying to tie him up, his voracious fight, the moment of blackness when they pistol-whipped me, coming to and seeing them choking him, but most of all I remember my impotence to do anything about it. I hate myself for failing my child. Realistically, of course, there was nothing I could do. My arms were tied behind my back, and I was disoriented from the blow to my head, but that doesn’t stop the feelings of self-loathing and failure. I keep running it over in my head, wondering what I could have done differently. I should have done more to protect him.

I am angry at myself for going to bed that night. We knew they were coming for us; they tried three times the week before, but my husband convinced me they wouldn’t be back. I should have known better. My husband doesn’t always live in the real world with the rest of us, and likes to pretend bad shit isn’t happening. I should have stayed up, but it was Thursday night, and I had been up every night since Monday, standing guard over my family, and my body just gave in – I couldn’t do it anymore. I hate myself for listening to my husband when he said they wouldn’t be back, I should have listened to my gut that was telling me loud and clear, “they are coming, they are coming tonight, don’t go to sleep, they are on their way. Stay awake. Wait for them.”

I don’t blame the men who came into our house for stealing. The unemployment rate in South Africa is a staggering 50%, and our welfare system is inadequate. There’s practically no help for the unemployed. People need to live. They need to eat. They have families. I understand the rampant crime rate. If you have nothing, then you will take from those who do have something, however little they have. I blame them for hurting us. It was unnecessary. They could have waited until we were out of the house, or they could have locked us in the bathroom. Even so, from a criminal point of view, I understand the necessity to tie us up (if they didn’t we could fight back), but I do blame them for hurting my son. He was 100% compliant, and lay quietly by my side, until they decided to tie him up. There is absolutely no mitigating circumstances for doing that to him – no reason at all.

Yet, what confuses me so much, are their acts of humanity. Even after choking my son, they showed great concern for his comfort, and after tying him up, they gently lay him down on a comforter they took from our bed. They closed my youngest son’s bedroom door, careful not to disturb his sleep. Before they gagged me, one of them took my asthma inhaler and gave me my medicine, concerned that I might get an attack and die. They removed the galvanized wire from my husband’s hands, and replaced it with shoe laces, so he could free himself once they were gone. Before they left, they apologised to me.

I can not describe the emotions I’m struggling with. I can’t explain why I’m perfectly okay the one day, and a nervous wreck the next. I can’t explain why I’m able to go to bed one night and sleep soundly, and other days I won’t go to bed until sunrise. I can’t explain why I understand the criminals and their actions, because I kinda do. I don’t excuse them, I just understand why they do what they do. Anyone who thinks criminals are just lazy has clearly never seen these guys in action. It’s hard work, and dangerous at that – you never know who will take a stab or a shot (literally) at you. So yes, I kinda feel sorry for them, because the ones who were in our home do seem to be reluctant criminals. The emotions are terribly conflicting, and terribly confusing – and because I’m one of those people who can see and understand both sides, it’s very difficult for therapists to help me, and often times it angers people.

And what do I do now? How do I move on? How do we, as a family, move on? How do my husband and I move on as a couple? We have seen a trauma counselor, with little success. I do not have an answer, and it frustrates me. People who went through similar experiences tell me you never really recover, you just learn to live with it. I am angry, I am hurt, I am extremely bitter. So very, very, very bitter. 2015 seems to be the year of the criminal. Crime is the worst I’ve ever seen it in South Africa, and there is no end in sight. Every day, violent criminals are released from prison to make room for new ones, and because there’s no rehabilitation in prison, and no work outside of prison, they come out and just pick up where they left off, possibly more violent and deadly than they were going in, because prison is “Crime University” – in there, they only learn how to be better criminals, and nothing else. Knowing all of that, how are we supposed to move past the fear?

How are we supposed to move on?

2015 was supposed to be a good year.

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