I was already late when I landed in New York in the summer of 2007. LaGuardia was nothing more than a wash of noise and a glimpse of blue carpet as I hurried to a cab. In moments I was speeding toward Soho, fingering loose twenties in my pocket and hoping my hotel wouldn’t turn out to be a dive. Officially, I was in town for a seminar—five and a half days to meet with others in the historical profession. Off the record, I was in town to rediscover the kind of person I could be, to make some kind of claim on the concept of being well.
Depression and PTSD were my companions, entities born out of more than one experience of sexual assault. I was in my early thirties, toting around the heavy, broken mental suitcase in which I’d once stuffed all my secrets, and my skin buzzed with the mantra of cope.
I was in town to rediscover the kind of person I could be.
My breakdown, three years earlier, had been unglamorous — a paralyzed hour in my car at a strip mall in Minneapolis, staring at a Kinko’s I could not enter, hands on a steering wheel I could not use. I was frozen by grief, by a lifetime’s supply of questions gone unanswered. I was — as one therapist suggested — finally the adult I’d wanted to turn to when I was younger. Every fear and heartache had come rushing out.
I was displaced when my breakdown demanded my wholesale attention — on a research trip, five hours from the college town where I’d made my home, in a country that was not that of my birth. I had displaced myself after college, emigrating to the United States for graduate school. I had displaced myself in my research, choosing to study states outside those in which I lived.
Displacement was my default, my choice when I had no idea how to continue in the place I was in. New York was the latest expression of this habit. I fixed my sights on that city with a restlessness that I can now see was desperation. I wanted to go somewhere alone to prove that I could. I wanted to exist somewhere unfamiliar with the hope that wellness might be somewhere I could find on a map.
New York and I had a history. Fifteen years earlier, I’d washed up at Port Authority, a foreign-exchange student with an overstuffed backpack and too little money. The address of a hostel was in my pocket. My friends promised to meet me on the Upper West Side. I took a cab to the hostel, found it filled to capacity with German tourists, left notes for my friends, and called every other cheap place to stay that my guidebook could offer.
Everywhere (predictably) was packed to the gills, and sitting on the edge of a planter, two paces from a call box, knowing no one and having no plans, the New York geography of NYPD Blue (my only internal guide to the city) rose up to engulf me. I was convinced that at 10 a.m. I was sure to be raped.
I wanted to exist somewhere unfamiliar with the hope that wellness might be somewhere I could find on a map.
My fear didn’t come to pass. After making more calls, I found a room in student lodgings close to Columbia University that cost $104 per night. It was far beyond my budget, but I saw no alternative. The on-site cafeteria was closed; I was utterly lost.
I had no appetite for exploration; gravity seemed to be pulling at my feet with twice its usual power. I ate Wheat Thins and canned pears (staples pulled from my backpack), drank bottled water and watched TV while sirens blared too often and close outside. I slept in my clothes because that spoke of safety, returned my key next morning, and stared incredulously when the desk clerk counted $104 back into my hand, mysteriously returning my money to me in full.
“Was there something else?” she asked when I stared a little longer.
I shook my head and fled the building before either of us could find out if she’d made a mistake.
I was as afraid of good fortune as bad.
But in the summer of 2007 I was no longer that student. This time my hotel had been booked weeks in advance. It was clean, if spartan, with a bed-frame that tore at my shins when I passed from closet to bathroom. I discarded my weighty bags in a heap on the floor, found another cab, and made it to my seminar’s opening reception before it was over. I smiled and made small talk, listened hard and acted as though the world would meet me halfway for the effort in the spirit of faking it until I was sure that I was the equal of anyone in the room.
But I was still the girl who’d sat on a planter years before, who’d been lost in the city once, and it was that girl who’d paid attention to the route from hotel to reception space, convinced that safety was built from vigilance. When the time came for my peers and I to make our way home, I knew the way and led others with me. I wanted to believe I was in my element.
Displacement worked its temporary magic, and I found things to love. The utter desertion of Broadway at 8 a.m. was a quiet I hadn’t hoped for. The streets were twice as wide as they seemed by night. I picked my way across the grid system from hotel to campus, a dozen blocks north and west in any combination.
By Wednesday, I had found the route that took me past the greatest number of stores that sold flowers. I watched as shopkeepers hosed down the sidewalk each morning; stopped at the drugstore, bought water one day, a notebook the next; picked my sidewalk by virtue of sunshine or shade; and watched the gray of old brick disappear beneath scaffolding that emerged as a speckled brown-blue on the other side.
There was, for a time, peace to be had in discovering no one saw me as anything but whole. There was the possibility of reinvention at crosswalks, in bookstores, and at the hole-in-the-wall restaurant where I drank a mojito. People asked where I was from, dollar bills changing hands and stories following. The questions were meant sincerely.
There was the possibility of reinvention at crosswalks, in bookstores, and at the hole-in-the-wall restaurant where I drank a mojito.
But transparency was its usual struggle. That the people to whom I spoke were strangers I’d never see again didn’t reassure my wariest self — personal details were surely fodder for cruelty. I had learned as much years before, groped on a trans-Atlantic flight under cover of darkness and forced to spend the next hour’s breakfast weathering pointed questions about my life by the man responsible for the assault.
In my shock and disarray and certainty that I was trapped (the flight was fully booked; I’d sat awake through the night rather than call a flight attendant after he touched me, certain I wouldn’t be believed), I had answered his queries, and regretted doing so, wondering for weeks if he might show up at my door. Given that — given my impulse to protect myself and my fear that I could not — it was with trepidation that I said anything or shared a few words and offered a smile.
Wednesday, my colleagues and I took the subway uptown — a visit to the Historical Society and an afternoon in the museum. I hated the subway long before we were introduced. New York was manageable above ground, with its heat and noise and distant sky, but below was a different matter, a closing in of air and space where an unfamiliar darkness was pushed back with weak electric bulbs.
I thought of other trains — of the London Underground and the perfect diction of the recorded voice that urged me to mind the gap and the carriages, and of the Chicago El clattering along aging tracks, offering glimpses of sky at every downtown turn.
But in New York everything was hot and stuffy; the trains were crowded. Beauty and comfort were laughable goals. I became, like everyone else, an unintended locus for touch — elbows, back, shoulders, and knees. There were accidental intimate brushes of fingertips and messenger bags.
By 81st Street, I was ready to crawl out of my skin, jittery and shaken by a wash of contact I didn’t want and had long since rejected when given the choice.
Unsafe, unsafe, ran the mantra in my head. I was triggered.
In that particular city, no one would have noticed if I’d acted strangely, yet acknowledging my discomfort never seemed an option. My feelings split; I was outwardly engaged, steel-bright, and certain, but only because I had buried my panic. It rumbled beneath the architecture I showed to others, busily transporting discomfort, worry, and fatigue away from my face. I held it below-ground with the willful cadence of my breath.
The only part of myself that I dared let run free was my intellect.
That pretense required fuel, and for the last few days in the city, I positioned myself by the window of my hotel room at night, picking up one, then another of the unsecured wireless signals in my neighborhood. Email substituted for physical comfort, for knowable places, for my tiny home with a lock sunk meaningfully into the front door.
The only part of myself that I dared let run free was my intellect. It was easier to think of the global ramifications of historical argument than to think of my physical self, six floors up in a hotel a thousand miles from home.
Saturday came. I walked with a friend through the hubbub of Times Square. Should the ancient prophecies of a dozen religions come true, I thought, this would be my particular hell — lights and crowds and the stink of car exhaust, the pull and push of too-hot bodies, the driftwood wreck of families beached on a shore of asphalt, and cameras at the ready to prove they were there.
I felt no camaraderie with other out-of-towners in that place, only dislocation and a longing for space enough to speak a thought out loud and have it heard, resenting that the best communication was an elbow in the side or the wave of a hand. My friend and I wove through the crowd, headed to a neighborhood bar five blocks away, a city oasis with white walls and vases filled with orchids. Here at last I could breathe, speak, and laugh politely as though I understood this city. My mimosa rested on a bright pink coaster.
But I fled without remorse the next morning, hoping my sunglasses hid my relief from the man who drove my cab. I checked in early for my flight, glad to let someone else manage my luggage, and browsed the airport bookstore, choosing a book at random because I recognized the name of a familiar author. The book was my ticket to social solitude, an acceptable act of hiding. When the plane took off, I watched the horizon only so that my stomach would hold steady and dozed fitfully as we headed toward the Midwest.
Later that day on my second flight, at the height of a hop-scotch jump between cities, I looked out the window and saw a waiting expanse of green. Below me stretched June fields of young corn and soybeans, an occasional spread of timber, back roads glinting a dusty brown-gold. There was sunlight, and space, and I hung, suspended, Clair de Lune playing softly on my headphones, my book half-read in my lap.
I felt a humming in my bones, a wonder at the ordinary beauty of it all.
What if I stayed put? What if I stopped believing that salvation was found in leaving and looked for something instead in my returning home?
Living in one place — in a single, physical location at a single point in time — ran spectacularly up against the dictates of my PTSD. Triggers could conjure flashbacks, folding time and place so that every scrap of evidence provided by my senses pushed me back into my twenties again, or to in Minneapolis, or Milwaukee, or the UK.
I would know the year by the quality of the sunlight, or the scent of newly made bread, the texture of fabric against my fingertips, and the pressure of a breeze dancing over my face. It could be winter, and I would think it was spring. It could be ninety degrees, and I would shiver. And when the flashback passed, I would gasp and collapse. I would want to sit if I were standing and lie down if I sat.
The impossibility of life lived between then and now sent me looking for a therapist and trauma-informed care. I found someone an hour’s drive away who introduced me to EMDR — eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, a treatment for trauma that coaxed both halves of the brain to work in tandem to resolve the memories locked up in body and mind.
Piece by difficult piece, I reclaimed my mind from its self-protective impulses.
Week after week I rooted myself in a solid grey armchair in front of a strip of small bulbs and watched lights run right to left and left to right. I called up polaroid snapshots of my very worst memories and then, as my eyes moved back and forth, let go of the images and waited for my body to lead. I twitched and jerked; I kicked a leg, then the other. I felt burning pressure in my elbows, a pain in my stomach, though sometimes I’d feel nothing at all. Piece by difficult piece, I reclaimed my mind from its self-protective impulses, tricks and tactics that had helped me to survive but which now were maladapted to the life I lived.
I was no longer in danger — a mantra I repeated to myself day after day.
I was no longer in danger. I came, very slowly, to grasp that fact.
I bought a house. I had never liked dirt, but, as I chipped away at my memories, I planted bulbs. I set a wine-red clematis into the ground by the steps of my porch and scraped back years of mulch to put black-eyed susans in the ground. I hung twists of fir and pine and berries on the front door every winter, and I tried to coax forsythia to bloom in the spring. I swept my steps, filled planters with gardenias, and trimmed back the raggedy hedges at the north and south of my lot.
The maple in my front yard turned to flame every fall without input from me, and I felt myself shifting to stand amid the living things around me instead of the grasping memories of my past. On the occasions when my history still demanded I pay it attention, I could step inside, lock the windows, and bolt the front door. But I had given each of my friends a set of keys.
I changed therapists before I next returned to New York, switching out the deeply physical practice of one style of EMDR for another, gentler approach. I flew into LaGuardia and once more took a cab, this time to a better hotel in the heart of midtown.
In the years since I’d last visited, I’d learned the art of packing light, and it took mere moments to hang my dresses in the hotel-room closet and set my make-up by the sink. I pulled on a different jacket — the weather was unseasonably warm — and slung my cross-body purse over my shoulder. It held my wallet, my phone, and a travel-sized packet of Kleenex.
I had only a weekend in town that January, and conference panels to attend, but I plunged outside to find a good cup of coffee and discovered I wasn’t afraid.
Over the next few days, I walked the perimeter of Central Park up to the Met. I ate a hazelnut tart in the basement of a museum dedicated to German and Austrian art, and drank a soda made with cucumber that was delightfully weird. I walked through a rainstorm to find a tea shop with a friend, and we both dripped quietly over our egg sandwiches and smoky Himalayan tea, laughing at our bedraggled state. Nearby, a six-year-old was holding court over a birthday party. Beside us sat two old women, chatting companionably in a language I didn’t know.
I plunged outside to find a good cup of coffee and discovered I wasn’t afraid.
I wasn’t displaced — I was growing to know my own center, the direction of home, and the difference between running and stepping away. I still carried trauma, but the weight of the memories hitched up on my shoulder or tucked snug into the crook of my arm were not as heavy as they had once been. I was not new, nor reinvented, but I’d stopped hoping that this city — that any city — could save me.
I finally loved New York. I finally found me.