I moved to Thailand for the first time 10 years ago. Newly married, newly graduated from grad school. I was going to save people (children! from sex trafficking!), but, little did I know, I was about to be in need of saving.
On the day my husband Phillip and I moved to Thailand, a state of emergency was called in Bangkok, but I didn't know what that meant. I was engrossed with American politics and this woman John McCain picked for his VP candidate. There was low level unrest and politics mentioned in the local papers, but it seemed contained. And, after all, it wasn't my country.
On October 7, 2008, I went to work at my new Bangkok office. I vaguely paid attention as people talked about some escalation that day in the weeks-long mass protests. My husband and I were staying at a guest house nearby and, after work, decided to go walk around and see part of it on our way to dinner. We were both naive, but, then again, families were out with baskets of food and there were massage stations set up. Even though they were demonstrating in the thousands, all wearing yellow, which was kind of intense, there was a band. There was free swag. It felt like a color coordinated music festival. Kids and grandmas and signs and people smiling to us, saying thank you to us for being there. Until the tear gas started, it was a real good time. We've since learned from Wikileaks and other sources that there was an attempt to force a coup. (Some of) the yellow shirt demonstrators had (allegedly) tried to provoke a police overreaction so that the military would step in to restore order and overthrow the government. And here I was singing along to John Denver or whatever, totally oblivious.
The police shot tear gas canisters into the crowd, except, wouldn't you know it, I got the wrong kind. Did you know there's different types of tear gas? I sure didn't. After the fact, they later did some forensic tests (televised, cause Thailand) and, holy cow, I'm glad I didn't get the Spanish-made kind. On the TV, the Spanish kind landed, spewed and then burst into flames. I got a Chinese-made kind that had just a tad too much RDX to make them explode.
There was a flash and an explosion ripped through my body. My ears rang. My eyes stung. I thought it was just the effects of the gas that rattled me, but, as my husband ran and grabbed my hand, he gestured down to a trail of blood. My ankle had been ripped open and my toenails were black and melted. Oh.
That day, the police used teargas, ostensibly for crowd dispersal, that killed one woman and left one man with no legs. Dozens were wounded. I was the only foreigner.
Two men, god bless them, picked me up and carried me away from the scene. I cry just thinking about them. I had come to save Thai people and they literally saved me from danger. They carried a white woman in the midst of chaos who was twice their size and seizing in shock. There was a triage tent where we took stock of ourselves. My husband was dazed but unhurt. We realized that, in addition to my right lower leg, I was missing a chunk from the back of my upper left leg as well. I was put into a van and driven for a bit. And then I was transferred to an ambulance. No idea what was happening or would happen next.
I was taken to a government hospital, stripped half naked (insult to injury), hosed down with a green garden hose (contaminants from tear gas) and given an injection. Shivering, I was wheeled into an elevator, where I promptly threw up from whatever they injected me with. You don't realize how long elevator rides are until you're riding in one with your own vomit.
They put me in the VIP room. My whole surreal hospital stay was a weird mix of Thais trying to apologize to me in the form of over the top gestures but no actual information.
I couldn't sleep from pain and shock all night; they had to wait until the morning to perform surgery cause some levels were low. The next morning, they were going to clean out my legs using only local anesthesia until I threw an absolute fit, begging them to knock me out. I just wanted to not be awake anymore. I had surgery that day and once more a week after because of infection. And then I stayed in the hospital. And stayed. And stayed.
Unhelpfully (and maybe a little unhinged like) I was obsessed with the pieces of my leg that were no longer in my leg. I would lie in bed and wonder -- where are they now? Where did they go? Are they just lying there in the gutter? Did someone come across them and recognize them as human flesh? In retrospect, this is ridiculous. But I also still wonder where those pieces of my leg went.
The Prime Minister visited me. He brought a giant basket of waxy fruit. He pretended not to speak English and had his interpreter talk to me instead. I was high as a kite and asked him how he liked his new job. On the day of my accident, he had to escape the protesters outside a cabinet meeting by climbing out a window. There were four prime ministers in Thailand in 2008; the one who visited me lasted less than two months. He never did answer my question.
A TV camera crew came and interviewed us in the hospital and set the whole thing to super sad, dramatic music. They even found footage of me in the triage tent somehow, which was super unnerving. The only politics I wanted to wade into was that I wished they would stop using that kind of tear gas on all protesters, and I said as much. Phillip and I looked just awful. We had like two changes of clothes and his hair was long and shaggy. Watching it later I thought, look at those two idiots.
Two guys in suits from the US State Department visited and, unhelpfully, asked why I didn't register at the Embassy upon my arrival a month ago. I did get them to agree to mail my ballot it for me from the embassy. That's how I voted for Barack Obama -- from my VIP hospital room in Bangkok.
HIPA is not a thing in Thai hospitals. Not for my doctors, anyway. I guess consent isn't really a thing either. My psychiatrist took my mother aside and told her not to tell me, but he had me on psychiatric drugs because it was better for me that way. Then he asked her if she knew any of the San Antonio Spurs and if she could get him a signed basketball.
An Australian lady who visited me with her guitar saw me as some sort of freedom fighter. She sang to me earnestly, with eyes closed, a song she had written about her love for the King of Thailand. She left me a propaganda DVD, which I made the mistake of watching one night when I was alone. To my horror, I realized it was footage from that night and they showed the man who lost his legs, sitting up, dazed, with nothing where his legs were but open wounds since they had just been blown off.
I spent Halloween in the hospital. It being my favorite holiday, I had to celebrate somehow. I put on butterfly wings and visited the children's ward with candy. I could barely walk, but I reverse trick or treated, knocking on doors and giving out candy to kids. I think I just succeeded in scaring the shit out of them, which is technically part of Halloween, but I much prefer the Martha Stewart version. The kids I visited got sicker and sicker, until I couldn't stand to go in the rooms anymore. I broke down in tears, reminded of the years my younger brother spent in and out of hospitals. Now I was a limping, sobbing woman passing out candy. Happy Halloween!
I should note that the Queen of Thailand paid for my hospital stay and treatment. She was a patron for those of us injured on that day. She sent ladies in waiting to visit me and they were so lovely and kind. My mom tried to contact my insurance company about my expenses, but they rejected it out of hand on account of it being "terrorism-related." A few months later, I would see King Rama IX and the Queen drive by in a motorcade, and I would cry out of gratitude.
I was released from the hospital on November 11. All told, I spent 35 days there.
My PTSD had a soundtrack. Every time I had an episode, I would curl into a ball and listen to Bon Iver to calm me down from my hyperventilating. Everywhere I went I had to have headphones because, surprisingly enough, you just never know when there will be explosions in Thailand. I first had an episode on December 5, the King of Thailand's birthday. It had been two months, and I thought I was FINE. I was religiously massaging my scars with colloidal silver and balms and creams every night, taking care of my physical body, moving on, doing FINE. But the first time I heard fireworks, I lost. my. shit. And I had no idea what was happening. It would be months before I realized or admitted to myself that what I had was PTSD.
That's another thing - even though it caused “episodes,” I very deeply resented (okay, still resent) the "D" in PTSD. Disorder? How is it disordered behavior to be afraid of the thing that tried to kill you? It seems incredibly logical to me. I think people with PTSD are just woke. We're woke to the fact that everything is trying to kill you. We see what everyone else does not -- that the very earth you stand on can turn on you, that you can't trust that it's a firework and not an IED, that you can't take for granted that a police riot line is there for your protection. We recognize where the threats come from. I think it should be PTSWTF aren't you scared of this too? You should be.
I'm not okay. Ten years ago, this was the hardest thing for me to admit to myself. My husband basically dragged me to go to therapy.
I was so embarrassed and ashamed to even have PTSD. I got to keep my legs! I didn't see combat or witness anyone get beheaded. I basically got blown up at a picnic. I should be fine. Who am I, a privileged person who had one tiny incident, who am I to absolutely fall apart at my first instance of trauma. I worked with trafficking survivors; they don't have the luxury of falling apart, of therapy. I was even ashamed to have been hurt at all -- what was I even doing there? I knew nothing about Thai politics. It wasn't a political act that got me there; it was only curiosity.
Though I was incredibly dubious, therapy helped. I went through EMDR (eye movement desensitization reprocessing), which is good for simple trauma (not repeated or prolonged), and it totally changed me immediately. Before, the memory was me. I lived it every day. Afterwards, it was like I could take the memory out in a box and look at it, circumspect and removed from it.
It was years before I started researching trauma and PTSD. Sebastian Junger had an article in Vanity Fair that helped me a lot. He even confirmed my suspicion that PTSD is kind of good for you, or, at least, that it makes sense:
From an evolutionary perspective, it’s exactly the response you want to have when your life is in danger: you want to be vigilant, you want to react to strange noises, you want to sleep lightly and wake easily, you want to have flashbacks that remind you of the danger, and you want to be, by turns, anxious and depressed. Anxiety keeps you ready to fight, and depression keeps you from being too active and putting yourself at greater risk.
He goes on quote studies about how modern-day combat veterans are experiencing PTSD at higher rates than vets of previous wars. Even drone pilots who don’t see combat are experiencing PTSD. So what is it that gives us this debilitating superpower? Junger concluded that it’s not the severity of the trauma experienced, but the isolation and lack of social support that can determine whether or not someone will have PTSD. This was so completely and totally validating to me. And it makes sense and puts my experience into context given that, just a month for the event, I had moved to a new country, knew no one and did most of my ‘healing’ alone. I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t need anyone. I was FINE.
I tell you all of this for a reason. After this, after the violence and the trauma and the healing from trauma, I was forever changed. Not just my scars, but the way I relate to other people who have survived trauma and violence. I have a new language and empathy that is real and no longer forced. I cried with a friend from Iraq about an IED she lived through, and I felt it. When I work with refugees who are coming down from the trauma of years in camps or fleeing from violence, I know a little, just a taste, of what it's like to feel shame for having lived through something. Or to hate yourself for how you reacted to it. I feel like one of the most important things I can do as someone who went through this is to help friends process trauma so they can feel supported and not isolated. You don't have to experience trauma to relate to people, of course, but I'm so grateful for my experience now. It's become a cherished part of me, in a weird way.
People can survive, be survivors of, so many things. These last few weeks have proven that survivorship is a powerful thing. I have not experienced sexual assault, but I do know how trauma changes you. I know that I blame myself for my "accident" (what I call it now, because people look at you funny when you say you got hit by a bomb) and that I even blamed myself for my reaction to it. I put off counseling because I was FINE. Perversely, shame is deep for people who are victimized by something they can't control.
Even in all this, I must acknowledge my privilege (medical care! counseling!) and the contained nature of my experience. I'm not conflating my trauma with that of sexual assault survivors or refugees. But it is still mine. I get to say what it was and what it felt like. I want that for others as well. I used to have a bombiversary -- it was very important for me to have a space to commemorate this thing that changed me so profoundly. I haven't held one for years, though. It felt silly and indulgent after awhile. Today, my 10th, I've decided, is my last bombiversary. I won't say I'm healed or that it's done with me (there was a pretty bad episode during Diwali in a Delhi hotel room in 2011 and 2017 NYE in Manila was spent under the covers). Besides, I still maintain that my PTSD kept me vigilant and helped me stay alive. I went back today to where it happened in Bangkok, for the first time since that night of the color-coordinated-music-festival-protest-police-crackdown-shit-show. It still feels like the violence was random. That there was no grand plan or design, only a crummy thing that happened to an uninformed tourist in other people's politics. What healed me was in part the surgeries and the doctors and the fruit baskets and the family and friends who messaged and sent gifts. But it was also admitting that I wasn’t fine. And that I needed others. In recognizing my need for others, I recognize that I play a part in the recovery and healing of others.