As we ascended the steps onto the Uptown 1,2 and 3 platform in Midtown yesterday afternoon around 3:30, I saw what everyone else saw. A humiliated man in a suit with head down and pretending to write in a notebook. To his right was an immense, typed display of his story in large print. I tried to absorb as much of it as I could before the express train arrived. Although I didn’t finish, I caught some of the important gist. To sum up, I gathered from the display that this man had attempted to walk across the States, was struck by an 18-wheeler and paralyzed. A man who had been helping the homeless to find work and homes was suddenly in a struggle for his life. It took him twelve years to learn to walk and talk again. And in the process, he lost everything he had and was looking for help to find work. But what really stood out to me was his plea. A heart-crushing plea that is sticking to me. In his typed words, he described how most people read his display and choose to walk away and ignore him. He won’t look up because of the pain it causes.
With his simple words, “When people look away, IT HURTS,” I felt a punch to the gut that sat uncomfortably in my heart. Suddenly, the train arrived, and he was gone as I boarded the train and dashed uptown. But the moment haunted me. I wondered if I would see this person again. Would I be able to rectify my own issues and incongruities with people on the street. It triggered something. I was again reminded of my own humility and a miracle that encompassed my life.
I’m not a crazy person, but for years, I was afraid to talk about it because of how I analyzed the way others would view me. Much like the lonely and defeated man, when people looked away, it hurt like a worm hole to hell. Before running into this man yesterday, I was already reminded of my own past. I don’t dwell on these past experiences. I don’t even consider myself a victim. Before seeing this man look so deflated, I couldn’t always understand why, after several years pass by, certain visions of past horrors resurface.
Hence, my triggers.
Something I don’t share with many people is that I have survived emotional, verbal and sexual abuse as a child. I saw a lot of physical violence as a baby. My biological parents divorced before I was even two years of age. Throughout elementary and through 7th grade, I was called faggot, queer, and homo on a daily basis. I have survived living in a cult as a very young, naive adult in my early twenties as an exchange student in Argentina. I survived a rape at 25, where no police would believe me despite my pressing charges against the man afterwards. I’ve experienced a tumultuous divorce of my parents and saw it tear our family apart when I was 23…with the metaphorical death of a parent at the same age of 23. Then the death of a parent at 27. Suffice it to say, I’ve survived a lot of chaos in my life.
That doesn’t make me a hero, nor does it have me feeling pity for myself. It doesn’t mean that my pain is worse or less than anyone else’s. It has me wanting to share and talk…because that’s how we process healing. I have been in therapy a lot in my life, and I’m forever grateful for it. I have really worked on myself to lessen the impact of my anxieties from an unstable childhood. I’m even a counselor myself. But talking doesn’t heal all the wounds. Talk therapy doesn’t solve it like a magic button. Rather, I have had to go to deep and dark places within myself to allow myself to feel the anger and replace the shame with love and understanding.
And then I have had to go easy on myself when some of that pain suddenly re-enters my world. Like recently when I read the stage directions in Spanish for my fiance’s fellow actors in a reading of an Argentine play. And every day when I see a homeless man out on the street…and especially now, the man on the train platform.
Here’s how I understand my own triggers. And I’m okay with it.
1. As I read the stage directions that night at the reading, an actor cutting me off in a somewhat arrogant way suddenly triggered my cult experience with the sect leader. In 1998, while living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I was naively swept into a new-age sect by my host mother. I innocently thought I was doing good work on myself, as I grew up in family therapy. This felt no different, until I experienced moments where one member started choking another. Or the time that another member and I had to act out our own lives as gay hair stylists and had to kill each other in the end. Or being sexually seduced by one of the leaders. Or how about singing on the streets for money…to give to the group (more on that later)? I was completely broken down, apart, and twisted into something they wanted me to be for the team. I was a robot.
But perhaps the scariest thing was the fact that I was doing all this in Spanish, and one night, when I was acting out my death with the “other” gay guy, I had a difficult time understanding a few of his words because he mumbled. Suddenly, I heard the leader of the cult walk up, look at me and say in English, “Michael, you speak Spanish right? Then stop with your bullshit excuses that you don’t.” The look on his face frightened me. I was legitimately scared of this human being. To make a long story short and fast forwarding a couple of months later, I came back to the States for Christmas to recruit my family and others. A miraculous intervention took place where I never returned to Argentina, and for the longest time, I struggled with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, words I never use partially because of how people perceive it as a weakness, but more importantly, I don’t believe in a labeled diagnosis as a helpful tool for healing. If you knew me before, you knew how much pride I took in speaking Spanish and living in South America. I felt lost, soul-less, and in a rut after I was detained by family from returning to South America. Speaking Spanish reminded me of the pain, so I slowly removed myself from it little by little. Whenever I get tongue-tied today while speaking Spanish, I’m reminded of that moment where the leader scared me. The evil in his eyes frustrate and paralyze me.
Fast forward to the present and the Spanish reading, I know this actor was not the cult leader. But anybody who knows about PTSD knows that memories can be simply triggered. This actor has no idea of my past or what happened. Granted, he was a tad bit cocky in his way of going about stopping me, which was so hauntingly reminiscent of the cockiness of my cult leader. Surprisingly, I handled it well, but for the next 30 minutes of the reading, I could only focus on belittling myself and come up with reasons why I couldn’t read it faster in my second language. In the end, I found my own resolution. I couldn’t blame the actor, and I couldn’t blame myself. Sometimes, it just happens. It’s my second language, after all. It doesn’t define me. I DO speak the language…but when I stumble and when I’m lost at times, it’s because I’m working out my trauma and trying to separate that the past experience is not related to the current experience.
2. Right outside our New Jersey apartment lives a man on the streets. He was evicted from our building because of his alcoholism and it’s impact on his behavior with other tenants. There are times I want to help him, but I become crippled by my certain view of the world. Rewind to 1998 in Buenos Aires. For my “personal” breakthrough challenge that would prove my loyalty to the cult, I chose to sing for $30. I wasn’t homeless, but I sure looked like I was homeless. My clothes hung off my gaunt body as if I had been a drug addict. I could barely keep my clothes up after having lost so much weight as a member of the sect. We spent hours upon hours with each other, not being allowed to eat or stop if we hadn’t accomplished the goals of the leader.
During the few days I sang Walls by Tom Petty and Somebody by Depeche Mode (because they were the only two songs I knew by heart, as I loved them), most people stared at me and walked away. I was turned down. I was humiliated. But one night, as I continued to sing right outside the Recoleta Cemetery where Evita is buried and my partners watching me to make sure I completed the mission, one man and his wife walked up. They happened to be from my hometown of Dallas, Texas and wanted to know what was going happening…why was I here singing on the streets for money? I was 21 and scared that if I didn’t earn my money, I wouldn’t have a place to go.
I felt I had to manipulate, cheat, and lie to save my life. So without hesitation, I told them I was robbed, my luggage stolen, and I was trying to get money to get back to the States for Christmas. I could see the hesitation in their eyes. I only needed $10 more dollars, and after they thought it over, they handed me $20. But then the unimaginable happened. They wanted my parents’ phone number so they could call them and let them know what was going on upon their return from their vacation in Argentina. There was no pencil… no pen…not even a piece of paper. The man’s wife dug around her purse and took out her lipstick and a white napkin. I proceeded to give them the correct number, which later down the road proved to be the miracle when he used the handwritten note on the napkin with lipstick to call my mom, told her the story, and my family intervened on my “recruitment” trip during Christmas. That call was what kept me from returning to finish out my time as an exchange student in Buenos Aires. It wasn’t until 2007 that I returned…all by myself to get the closure I needed. My own therapy.
So today, I am sitting here with the original intent to only write about the triggers from the actor and the homeless gentleman struggling with alcoholism. But life has a strange way of coming full circle. When it comes to helping people on the street, I have a hard time deciphering who’s telling the truth and who is manipulating. Based on my true life story as a cult survivor, one might conclude I would only have more compassion and reach out more. That is a sound argument. But when I came back to the States back in 1998, I came with a lot of anger. I had episodes of anxiety attacks and paranoia where I swore “they” were following me. That doesn’t make me crazy. It’s just part of having PTSD. But I was really angry at the world and myself…for taking advantage and stealing. If I lied to get innocent strangers to help, then what if all these other people are lying? Do you follow me? Shame and guilt.
But today, I understand it differently. I lied because in that moment, I needed to for my mental survival. What would have happened if I hadn’t?
I have no idea if the gentleman on the train platform yesterday is telling the truth. I tried googling the story, and it came up with multiple events from all over the country that didn’t seem to match him. But I cannot deny how much empathy I felt for him in that short moment. The pain…the heartache…and the people just walking by, ignoring his existence. I know how that feels…until that instance when that couple made a difference in my life with just a napkin and lipstick. For the first time since I returned as an angry, pissed off, shattered 21-year-old, I realize that my fear and, perhaps his fear, are the same…being misjudged when people don’t really know the life circumstances. Perhaps I have misjudged him in this blog by questioning his truthfulness. But his body language said he needed a napkin and lipstick just like me.
Today, I am grateful for my own humility and the miracles that come in life. And maybe…just maybe I needed these recent triggers to decode a deeper meaning in my own existence. I can’t help but think back to my dying father’s wishes for me to share my stories and teach others from what I have experienced. Perhaps a piece of this can shed some light on a struggling soul somewhere. I may have been through some hell and back, but I don’t view my traumas as defeating me. I’m a strong person, and I know that. But I haven’t always seen it.
I don’t know if I will see the man at the train again. But if I do, I implore the 21-year-old in me to walk up to him. Maybe I can help him with a simple touch on the shoulder…a smile…or some social activism. I guess I will just have to follow my heart. With caution by my side, of course. After all, caution is a safe bet in New York City. However, whether his story is true or not true, something is there.
Triggers. The truth is…we all have them. And I say that when the triggers come knocking, turn on the lights.