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Beyond Boston: Anxiety in the wake of tragedy

We were sitting at the dinner table on September 11th, 2001. Mom and Dad had taken the time to explain what a terrorist attack was, why a group of bad people wanted to hurt Americans. My long bony arms were stretched out in front of me, across the muted floral tablecloth. A breadcrumb was sticking me in the arm. My throat felt tight–I couldn’t breathe–and my muscles were tense. “Erin,” my mom said, attempting to reassure me, “it’s okay. These things don’t happen all of the time. You’re safe.”

“Can we just stop talking about it?!” I cried, desperate to turn my attention to anything else. It was too scary.

That night, I didn’t sleep. At some point, I darted down the hall, and crawled into bed with my parents, hoping they could make my fears go away.

I can’t remember exactly when I had my first panic attack–though I must have been 6 or so. Anxiety has always been a very prominent part of my life. Now 20, I’ve come a long way from the shaking shell of a girl I often was but moments of terror still take hold of my brain easily. A murder in the small sleepy town I was raised in left me with visions of psychosis. I convinced myself that I could lose control in a similar way and even hurt someone that I love, or even myself. I had to take time away from my classes and from track. My anxiety overwhelmed me.

In the wake of the bombings at the Boston Marathon (“the Boston Marathon bombings” gives a strange sort of agency to the event itself, rather than to the perpetrators themselves), my mom told me about a little girl just like me. She struggled with anxiety after the shootings in Colorado and Connecticut–the media’s powerful focus on both incidents no doubt fueled her fear. Like mine, the anxiety wasn’t rational. Her mother would reassure her, “That can’t happen here, honey,” when she tucked her into bed in their small home in the Boston suburbs. But now, it has happened there; Boston joins a list of cities that have been forced to face terror head on. I’m sure this little girl is struggling. At night, when her body is seized by what some might consider irrational horror, she feels disconnected, almost inconsolable.

These are just two examples with, I’m sure, a great deal of companions. In the wake of this anxiety one reassuring thought has been widely circulated since yesterday’s act of terror: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping,” Fred Rogers once said. Monday afternoon–as CNN, NBC, and FOX have continued to remind us, with film and pictures–someone set off two bombs along the finishing stretch of the Boston Marathon. It’s hard to see through the flame and smoke, but the blast drew immediate emergency response–from police, bystanders, runners. In this disaster, like any other, the helpers were there. For those two bombs, there were dozens of helpers, whether they realized it or not, fighting back against the violence and the terror.

I didn’t sleep well that night. The bright orange flash that I’ve only seen on video has sunk deep in my brain. I woke up to my alarm, sheets twisted around me and pillows on the floor. I don’t remember my dreams exactly, I just remember feeling scared. There was no one in my room to reassure me. I flipped open my laptop, my eyes scanning more news of the bomb–what it was made of and who the police are looking for. I finally rested on the stories of heroism–helping–in the wake of the bombings on Boyleston Street. There is story after story of helpers–far outnumbering the front page stories about the bombs. This strength in numbers tells a much greater story than any act of terror might. It reminds all of us, children and adults alike, that there is an inherent good in this world that will ultimately overcome the bad.

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