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Boston Marathon bombing: A bystander’s point of view

Posted 4/14/2014

Posted in

This blog is written by an anonymous bystander of last year’s Boston Marathon.

The most surprising thing about having a bomb explode directly across the street from me was the utter and complete silence. The bomb was loud of course. A crisp, loud, shattering thunder that reached my ears nanoseconds from the moment of ignition.

Then…nothing. Not a scream. Not a cry. Not a heartbeat. Not a breath.

It was 2:50 pm Monday, April 15, 2013 and I was sitting in the VIP bleachers at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, directly across from Marathon Sports. That was the moment I joined an exclusive club—what I call the invisible victim club. Members of the club are those of us who experienced psychological and emotional (but not necessarily physical) injuries as a result of being at or near the finish line.

Since that day, I’ve learned more than I ever expected about how trauma impacts us as individuals. We each experienced the bombing differently in the moment. And we each responded to it differently in the hours, days, weeks, and months since. There is no right or wrong way to react to this—our individual responses are based on our own personal histories and who we were at the moment the bombs exploded.

For me, realizing I was a victim of the bombing was a very difficult step. Witness, yes. That I understand. But for weeks immediately after I thought, like many people I suspect, that the only victims were those killed or physically injured. Even as I suffered symptoms I’d never experienced before, I thought I was only a witness. Not a victim.

At the highest level, a victim is someone who is harmed as a result of a crime or other event or action. Though the word does not flow easily off my tongue when I speak of myself, I was indeed harmed by this event. And I can now acknowledge that.

Some of the harm in my life caused by the bombing made sense to me on a certain level. It was a frightening event and of course there would be symptoms such as the inability to concentrate, feeling anxiety when hearing multiple sirens blaring in the Back Bay, or heart-stopping fear when smelling something similar to the bomb or hearing an unexpected loud noise.

Other symptoms came as a complete surprise to me. Especially the intrusive thoughts.

The first time I experienced an intrusive thought, I was standing on the Red Line platform at Park Street station, awaiting a ride southbound. I turned to watch the train approach from Charles Street. As the first car entered the station, it exploded. The room was filled with smoke and fire and bits of train flying everywhere. The people around me were bleeding and catastrophically injured. I, alone, stood uninjured and whole.

Even as I was watching this all play out in my head I knew it wasn’t really happening. Yet I stood there, frozen to the spot and unaware of anything that was really happening around me. The experience lasted only a few seconds…then I came back to reality, boarded the train, and went on my way. That was the first of many intrusive thoughts I experienced in the weeks after April 15.

The other symptom that came as a surprise was a feeling of isolation. No matter where they were on the afternoon of April 15, almost everyone in the city was traumatized by this horrible event. Boston Strong became the rallying cry. Yet that saying feels hollow to me. Over the summer especially, I didn’t feel strong as I struggled with the symptoms caused by this traumatic event. To me, Boston Strong mostly felt like a command to just get over it and move on. And because I couldn’t just shake off my feelings, the rallying cry left me feeling isolated. Indeed, even today when I feel much stronger, that cry still does not mean to me what I think it must mean to others.

The news media and our civic leaders focused attention on the individuals who were physically injured, and primarily on those who were most catastrophically injured. I understand that. But the lack of attention for those of us with invisible—emotional and psychological—injuries left me feeling isolated. It seemed like the city and society expected all the rest of us who were there that day to be unaffected. But I was affected. So where did that leave me?

A week after the bombing I started seeing a therapist. A few weeks after that I started seeing a trauma counselor, individually and as part of a group. She helped me understand the specific symptoms caused by experiencing a trauma and to learn how to cope with them. The decision to seek counseling was the best one I have made since that day.

As I work through all of this, I have heard over and over again that there is no timeline—it takes some of us a long time to heal and others not much time at all. And I’ve been reminded, also again and again, that the path to healing isn’t a straight line. There are good days and bad, and both arrive unexpectedly.

There are so many more details of my story that I could share. But the most important one is this—as I write this more than seven months after that dreadful afternoon…I see the light at the end of the tunnel. Very clearly and very, very near. Some days, I think (and hope) I may actually be all the way out of the tunnel. Just like a friend promised me I would, as he sat across from me, holding my hand, one week after the bombing changed my life.

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