By Eddy Ameen, PhD – Assistant Director, American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS)
During the four years that I lived in Boston in the mid 2000’s, I would make a point of watching the city’s marathon each April. The event was always more than just a finish line; it was about the joyous and cheering crowd, the sunny skies, the volunteers eagerly passing out water cups and orange slices, the moms inching their babies in strollers up to fences, the runners who write their names on their arms so we could cheer to them in our loudest voices of support.
It was a day of celebration that no Bostonian would willfully pass up if he or she were lucky enough to have off on Patriots Day. The day after, I’d always feel inspired enough to say “Next year, I am going to run this marathon, too!” Perhaps if I had listened to my friends (who tend to know my quirks earlier than I do), I would have realized that the motivation would only last long enough to propel me a few laps around the Chestnut Hill reservoir.
But old habits of optimism die hard.
After a six year break, I returned to the Boston marathon a few weeks ago to celebrate my younger sister’s first race. (Unlike me, she inherited the exercise gene and completes the endurance goals she sets out).
At about 9:00am, she texted pictures posing at the runners’ village by the starting line, and I texted pictures of me and my brothers at the finish line, waiting with our signs for the excitement ahead. Her friends stood nearby with their homemade shirts. Moms and babies. Volunteers. They were all there too. Nothing had changed.
As you know, much would be different in the next four hours. The race ended abruptly when two homemade bombs exploded recklessly, mere yards on either side of us.
Sulfur would fill the air.
Helicopters would appear overhead.
Three people would die, and then a fourth and fifth in the aftermath that shut down a city.
Dozens would have life-altering injuries, including members of our own psychology community.
Our sense of safety would be rocked to the core.
As a psychologist, a son, a brother, I felt obligated to be strong, rational, and ever-available to process the escape, the horror, and the aftermath with my family—even though I was not sure I knew how. I remember coming across a book once called something like How to cope like a psychologist. I’ve kicked myself at least 20 times since the Marathon because I didn’t pick up that book years ago. How I wished I had some guide, someone to remind me what the heck I was supposed to do for myself, and for those I love. I felt like an imposter.
Within days, thankfully, a few answers emerged. Not about why this event happened, but about what it means to survive something of this nature. Here’s what I’ve come to realize.
1. When horrible things happen, I remember what matters most to me. Taking the train back to my family’s house in Rhode Island that night, I had a short list of people I wanted to hug and hold tight. They are what mattered most. Life’s most important matters were in perspective, long enough for me to recognize how frequently they are not.
2. I appreciate the efforts others go through to make me feel comfortable – even people I wouldn’t expect it from. The notes of support. The texts to just “check-in.” The morning walk to get coffee. The space to reflect in my own thoughts. The room to slow my pace down a notch. The chance to turn off the TV when the media’s unrelenting spin seems to depersonalize my experiences.
3. I realize the world is smaller. A community of fellow survivors and witnesses forms almost automatically. Even Facebook became flooded with images of solidarity mere hours after the bombings. This collective “we” forms out of nowhere—and together we are aware that things can be so quickly taken from us. That connectedness is an amazing healing force. It lets me know that this surreal event did happen and that people haven’t filed it away to the recesses of their minds just yet. Especially when I can’t.
4. I understand that mental healthcare works – for those in psychological pain who think about committing acts of violence, and for those of us who might have trouble healing by social support and self-care alone. APA and Greater Good offer tips for those who need a boost.
5. I recognize my own humbling commitment to practice peace. At home, at work, and in the spaces and interactions in between. Alive, I have the ability to meditate on peace and let the possibilities for creating it unfold.
Each of these little lessons has been a silver lining in what is otherwise a terrible tragedy.
As for my sister, she’s lacing up for her next marathon, and I will be in Boston next April to cheer her on again. A little anxious, but keenly aware of the significance of carrying on.
Like a marathon, recovery is an endurance test, and healing depends on the size of the cheering crowd.
I encourage readers to think of one thing they can do to build peace in their homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces.
Or one thing to honor the healing process of a loved one.
Or even one thing you do to make the world around you feel smaller.
Please share in the comments section.