Essays

My Grandmother’s Murder and My Decade Of PTSD

Today, I’m still finding ways to cope, and I probably always will be. This is my reality after living with PTSD for a decade.

Two weeks after the murder, my tenth-grade biology teacher sent me an oversized greeting card in the mail. In different colors and sizes, students I knew—and some I didn’t—had filled it with condolences. I went to a small school in a small town and everyone knew what had happened. Mom’s mug shot had appeared on the local news just hours after she’d been taken to the county jail in handcuffs. WOMAN STABS MOTHER 20 TIMES had floated across a blue banner under her face.

Everyone knew I was there when my grandmother was killed, and there were no condolence cards for that kind of thing. Mr. M. had made his own by folding a large white poster board in two and stuffing it in a giant envelope. There were no instructions on what to write in a card like that either, so most students wrote I’m so sorry or time heals all wounds or she’s in a better place. Some notes were long, some short, some in ink, some in pencil, but they all shared the same sentiment: it will get better someday.

Everyone knew I was there when my grandmother was killed, and there were no condolence cards for that kind of thing.

The day before it happened, I was awkward and shy and ready for summer break to finally start in two weeks. I loved reading mystery novels and writing poems and posting funny surveys in MySpace bulletins. I hoped to become a writer one day, to write book reviews or interview interesting people about the things that mattered to them. I watched and rewatched the recordings of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill I’d saved on the DVR so I could quote them on my personal blog of poetry and angst. Back then, I didn’t believe in the idea that life could change in an instant. But then it did: one day I was worried about the grade I’d get on my math test and the next I was hiding in my bedroom listening to my grandmother’s murder.

I’m 25 years old now and I have never forgotten the sounds she made when she died. I have never forgotten what her blood looked like when I walked into the room after it was over—how it was nothing like the kind I’d seen in movies, not even the goriest Tarantino scenes. Last month marked a decade since I received that card from Mr. M., and sometimes I wonder if what I really wanted all those little notes to say was it will go away someday.

The summer I’d been waiting for all year turned out to be the hardest time of my life. I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, and was told I needed to see a therapist once a week. I was told it was normal to experience night terrors for a while, but for three months, I dreaded falling asleep. I knew that when I did finally sleep, I’d hear the screams again, see the blood again, relive that night again and again and again. All summer, I slept with the lights on and the door locked and a silver flashlight next to my pillow, and I’d wake up at the same time every night with a circle of cold sweat on the back of my shirt.

On the hardest nights, I experienced sleep paralysis… It was like having an endless panic attack while being stuck flat on my back, completely frozen.

On the hardest nights, I experienced sleep paralysis, a condition that makes you feel trapped in the space between sleeping and waking in which your body cannot move at all. It was like having an endless panic attack while being stuck flat on my back, completely frozen. I confused reality with dreams, and I’d often hallucinate, seeing figures on the ceiling above my bed. In the mornings, I would imagine myself two, five, seven, ten years older and wiser and better. Healed. Fixed. Normal. But time went on and the pain was still there.

Eventually, I could sleep with the lights off or go through a whole night without waking up, but there were triggers everywhere. Anything could spark a flashback. I jumped because a baby screamed while I was waiting in line to take my driving test at the DMV or I ran out of a movie theater because there was a pool of blood on the screen. Friends and family and therapists and books said it would go away eventually. Someday I’d be able to watch a horror movie again. Someday my eyes wouldn’t well up when someone jokingly said, “I’m going to kill you!” Someday I’d wake up and my first thought would be about something other than the murder.

Kristi DiLallo was 15 when her grandmother was murdered while she was in the next room. The symptoms of that trauma still persist; they are very real, and very physical.

Now that the tenth anniversary has come and gone, and as I get further away from the event itself, I feel like the opposite is happening: triggers have gotten louder, more constant. I’ve tried so many times to turn the volume down—through talk therapy, journaling, meditation, and even hypnosis. Over the years, there have been quieter weeks and months, but I’ve still never experienced complete silence. Most of the narratives that actually name PTSD are trauma-to-recovery stories in which time really does heal all wounds and survivors are heroes. And maybe that’s true for some people, but lately, even after all these years, I feel more sensitive than ever to the sight of blood or even hearing the word “murder.”

Now that the tenth anniversary has come and gone, and as I get further away from the event itself, I feel like the opposite is happening: triggers have gotten louder, more constant.

In the beginning, my most frequent symptoms were nightmares. For the most part, they didn’t even have to be triggered by anything; I’d simply fall asleep and have a nightmare about the murder because it was so fresh in my mind. These days, I’m having nightmares again—about twice a month or more—and the triggers can be unpredictable. Of course, some are more obvious, like an unexpected violent scene in a movie, but some are hidden in small pockets of my daily life. PTSD is a difficult condition to explain, because it’s the kind of thing people have to see to believe. We live in a time when trauma is either completely misunderstood or used as the punchline of a joke—the word “triggered” itself has literally become a meme. One of the most difficult aspects of living with PTSD is that it really is invisible: nobody sees those nightmares but me.

Six years ago, I binge-watched the original two seasons of Twin Peaks in one weekend in my college dorm room. I loved the show because it was silly but not stupid, spooky but not gory. It was one of the only crime shows I could watch without covering my eyes, and it offered a meaningful, unique portrait of teenagers grappling with the trauma and grief of a murder in a small town. I recognized myself in many of the characters, even the adults, and I admired them because their grief was loud and absurd all the time: Laura’s mother screaming and crying hysterically, her father dancing with the now-iconic photo of his dead daughter, her best friend searching for the truth about the crime. When you lose someone you love, especially when the loss feels like the stuff of horror movies, you want to scream at the top of your lungs and you want to remember what it was like to look at their face instead of a photo and you want to find out why any of this ever had to happen.

PTSD is a difficult condition to explain, because it’s the kind of thing people have to see to believe.

Last year, I was excited about the long-awaited return of the show, but it gave me the worst nightmares I’ve had in years. Eventually, after watching the first six episodes with a pillow in front of my face, I stopped watching it altogether—after a particularly gruesome episode depicting a bloody car accident involving a child, as well as two stabbing deaths. Friends who knew I loved the original show would text me after new episodes, and I would feel too embarrassed to tell them I’d stopped watching it. I worried about making them feel uncomfortable with the reality of my condition: because of a single night when I was fifteen, I just couldn’t watch the same TV show as them. Recently, I started to ask myself, why am I so ashamed of something I cannot control? Surviving a violent crime is difficult for so many reasons, and the grief and guilt manifest differently almost every single day. Some days I wake up wanting to tell everyone I meet what has happened to me; other days, I want to change my name and move somewhere new and never tell anyone ever again.

Maybe my shame comes from the expectations that other (well-meaning) people have about my trauma. When I do tell people about the murder, the usual response is, “I never would have guessed” or “You look so normal.” There have also been times when I’ve told someone and it made them so uncomfortable that they changed the subject or laughed because they thought I was joking. Even though I often feel completely consumed by the murder on the inside, there will always be people who want me to either perform my pain—in ways that they can recognize from shows and movies about tragedy—or pretend it never happened at all.

“Today, I’m still finding ways to cope, and I probably always will be. This is my reality after living with PTSD for a decade.”

When I think of Mr. M’s condolence card, which I continue to be grateful for, I think of how much other people’s perceptions of my trauma affected my own understanding of it. All these years later, the time heals all wounds narrative just doesn’t make space for wounds like mine—the kind that still sting. Most of those standard clichéd condolences suggest that you won’t be in pain forever, and as a fifteen-year-old girl in the thick of my grief, I saw that as a promise and I clung to it. So what was I supposed to do when the pain didn’t go away? Pretend it wasn’t there and be ashamed that it was.

In the last ten years, I’ve hidden my PTSD from many people in my life—family, boyfriends, close friends—to the point that I hurt myself by not bringing it up. Once, I watched a Scream marathon with a group of friends because I was too embarrassed to say why I didn’t want to. This, of course, resulted in a flood of flashbacks and nightmares I dealt with on my own. In a college sociology course on family relationships, I ran out of the classroom when the professor played a 911 call of a child screaming, “Something bad is happening in my house,” because it reminded me of the night I had to make that call. Again, I felt embarrassed and hysterical and childish, but later, when I told the professor about my situation during office hours, she responded with care and concern. Her only question was, “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

I’ve learned that the only way I can expect others to try to understand my PTSD is to acknowledge it myself—and to cut myself some slack.

Since then, I’ve learned that the only way I can expect others to try to understand my PTSD is to acknowledge it myself—and to cut myself some slack. Last summer, after I stopped watching Twin Peaks, I made myself a promise: I challenged myself not to watch any shows or movies depicting murders, especially stabbing murders, for one month. My Netflix queue got a lot shorter, and the challenge definitely wasn’t something I planned on announcing to the world, but almost immediately, I could feel my mental health improve. I slept better. I didn’t wake up crying. I spent more time reading and writing and exercising. There were still other triggers around me, but I learned that setting my own boundaries gave me a feeling of control over a condition that has rendered me powerless so many times.

Today, I’m still finding ways to cope, and I probably always will be. This is my reality after living with PTSD for a decade: I Google movie and TV spoilers so I’ll know if I have to cover my eyes before a particular scene or if I should avoid watching it completely. I cry a lot, sometimes about the smallest things, and when I start, I don’t know how to stop. I get flashbacks on the subway or while I’m teaching a class or while I’m reading a book at home. And all of that is okay. I can allow myself to say no to a slasher movie and I can leave a room if I don’t feel comfortable and I can allow myself to enjoy the beautiful parts of my life, too. I don’t have to feel like a hero when I talk about PTSD, but I don’t have to feel weak or worthless or ashamed either. I know that although this will never completely go away, it does get better. Mine is not a story of trauma-to-recovery, but it is a story of trauma-to-hope, and I’m still learning how to tell it.

Creative Commons photo by Mark Strozier.