Dealing with a Traumatic Event: One Family’s Story

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare — November 19, 2020 — 6 min read
Experiencing a traumatic event in which you fear for your life can have a lasting effect on your mental health and can even lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) if not addressed. Here’s my family’s story. I wanted to share it in the hope that maybe something we have learned from going through this may help you or someone you know. (Trigger warning: This blog contains a detailed account of a break-in and could be difficult for some to read if they have been through something similar.)

On a quiet Sunday in August, our doorbell rang just after midnight. I looked at my husband with a furrowed brow: “Did you order food?”

The doorbell rang again and again and again as we fumbled with our cell phones to open the app that lets us see our doorbell camera. My husband’s opened first: “Call the police. There’s a guy with a gun trying to get inside. I’m not kidding.”

I dialed 9-1-1 and asked for police to come as quickly as possible. Then came the pounding.

“Save Luke, save Luke,” I whispered insistently to my husband. (Luke is our 12-year-old.) “You have to save him!”

(As I write this post, I am once again shaking so much that I can barely type or take a sip of my coffee without spilling. This is my body’s normal response to the terror of this traumatic experience – still, two months later.)

I think he’s inside the house

Our son was in his bedroom trying to sleep when he heard the commotion.

My husband ran to the kitchen for something to use if they came face to face. I went to the garage and grabbed the first hard object I could find – a bike pump – in case the man (who we did not know) got past my husband.
There was a loud bang. The door frame broke. He was inside.

(My heart is racing now as I write. Tears welling. My body does not know that I’m safe even though it’s daylight and nothing, or no one, is currently threating me.)

I heard what sounded like a struggle and told the 9-1-1 operator, “I think my husband is fighting with him.”

My son hears the door break

Luke leaped from his top bunk to the floor and locked his bedroom door in one quick adrenaline-driven move just as he heard the guy reach the top step.

This man then went into our master bedroom, knocked over a laundry basket, and came back downstairs. That’s when he saw my husband. Thankfully, this is where the story turns less traumatic.

The man (who was still holding a gun) said someone was trying to kill him and asked my husband to call the police. My husband said, “They’re already on the phone. Here, take it.” He handed the phone to the man.

The man went outside where police were waiting and took him into custody. No one was hurt, not even the very confused man who in the end, I believe, meant us no harm and needed help himself.

Here’s where the work begins

If you haven’t experienced something this scary that truly makes you feel like your life is in danger, you may not know what can happen to the body. We didn’t.

Initial reactions to a terrifying event like what we experienced can include exhaustion, confusion, sadness, anxiety, agitation, numbness, dissociation, confusion, and physical arousal, according to the National Institutes for Health.

“Your brain is most interested in keeping you safe, so it will make sure you pay close attention to and respond with fear to stimuli associated with the event,” said Cardinal Innovations psychologist and PTSD expert Dawn O’Malley. “If these physical experiences get worse or continue for months, then we may consider them symptoms.”

You are supposed to talk about how you feel, find calming activities (taking a bath or doing yoga), and avoid watching TV – at least for the first few days – after the traumatic event, therapists told us.

One of the first things to happen to us was not being able to sleep. We emailed work and school to let people know what happened and that we were not functioning well enough to do either. Coworkers and teachers started sharing the story and reaching out with support. 

I truly do love that the principal at my son’s school cared enough to come to our door (fully masked and with a uniformed police officer) to check on his wellbeing and offer any support we needed. But what he likely did not know (because we didn’t know) is that ringing that doorbell less than 12 hours after this happened would send us all back into panic mode.

(The sound of the doorbell or knocking at the door still triggers a bit of panic, but we’re improving with help from trained therapists who have shown us calming techniques that help.)
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Trauma experts reach out to us

Later that same day of the break-in, trauma specialists who work with local police as well as therapists I know from Cardinal Innovations reached out to offer support and talk about what we could expect and how to address it.

Our bodies have a sort of physical memory. So, when you experience a traumatic event, your body can have the same responses it had in the actual event (like me shaking as I write this). It can happen even when your logical brain is thinking, “Everything is fine. It’s daylight. I’m safe.” Your body may say otherwise.

Paying attention to how you feel can help you prevent acute trauma from turning into PTSD, therapists have told us.

The therapists we spoke to said they were most concerned with our son because at age 12 you have fewer coping skills to deal with something like this than an adult does. This means children are more vulnerable to developing PTSD and other anxiety-related issues following a trauma.

Here’s what they told us to do for our son and for ourselves:
  • Immediately after the event, your body will remind you of the trauma at the time the incident occurred. Here’s what you can do:
    • Relaxing activities such as listening to calming music or taking a warm bath (this helps anytime you feel symptoms)
    • Plan relaxing activities at the time the incident occurred
  • Avoid watching TV or using computers/tablets before bed (this advice is generally a good idea after a traumatic event but was of specific significance to us since bedtime is when this happened)
  • Make an appointment with the child’s therapist
  • Contact your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for support if needed
  • Talk about symptoms and validate feelings
  • Blow bubbles with your child to help him with deep breathing (This totally works!)
I hope you never go through something like we did. If you do, though, I hope at least hearing my family’s story might help you know that it’s okay not to feel okay and that there is help if you need it.
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