Michael McDermott, a tall pudgy man with pale skin and a shabby beard strode with bone-chilling calm. He was carrying an AK-47, a 12-gauge shotgun, and a .32 caliber pistol.
I was running away from him, taking leaping strides down the long corridor of the renovated mill building in Wakefield, Massachusetts; blazing past rows of deserted pale blue cubicles. My eyes were wide open, taking in every detail. I could almost see the individual fibers of the course synthetic fabric on the office dividers. I held my breath for that entire hundred-yard sprint so that I could listen intently for sounds of danger behind me.
I heard nothing except the pounding of my feet on the industrial carpet and the beat of my heart bursting out of my chest.
I desperately wanted to see what was behind me, but dare not break my stride. My goal was to reach the life-saving emergency exit alive, and as quickly as possible.
If I had looked behind me, I would have seen McDermott walking away from me. Between McDermott and me lay his first victim, the sweet, cheery receptionist who had greeted me with a smile each morning of the two weeks I had been working at Edgewater Technology. She was already dead from the five ear-splitting shots that had interrupted the start of my new employee training on the morning after Christmas, December 26, 2000.
The bar on the exit door yielded with surprising ease against my adrenaline-fueled muscles as I burst out into the crisp, sunny winter morning. I took my first breath since I started running, as the below-freezing air seared into my lungs.
My eyes darted around searching for danger. No one was following me. I was alive.
But seven of my colleagues died that day.
Those of us who survived spent the rest of the day in the community hall of the church across the street, staring blankly at each other. Everyone was trying to figure out who had come into the office on the day after Christmas, but had not made it to the church. We sat making the tough determination of who was safely at home with their families and who was dead.
The police asked us to stay for questioning. I waited as the black and white mechanical wall clock ticked off the torturous minutes that turned into hours of milling around or sitting on metal stacking chairs with a bunch of near-strangers. The police released me at 4 o’clock and my girlfriend Valerie, who had been waiting outside in the cold, met me to drive me to her home. With shoulders dropped and head stooped, she looked up at me with anxious eyes, studying my face for any signs of what I was feeling. She was smart enough not to ask any questions. In the car she held my hand until I withdrew it because the contact hurt too much.
I was in a daze. Numb and thoughtless, but consumed with blind thoughts. When we got home I lay on the couch, staring stoically at the spackled beige ceiling and its circular brown stain – the reminder of a leak long ago. I said nothing.
Valerie’s four-year-old son, Thomas, was playing contentedly with his new toy airplane and train under the glittering Christmas tree. From time-to-time he would ask me to come play, and each time I would decline. After half a dozen failed attempts to engage me, he scrunched up his eyebrows in confusion and said, “Mark, why you not playing today?” I answered as best I could with “I’m feeling very sad today, Thomas,” holding back my tears. His toys immobile in his hands, he thought for a moment more and said, “I make you feel better. I give you a hug.” He climbed onto the overstuffed brown couch, pressing his tiny body against mine and gave me a hug and a big, wet kiss.
Then with an ability to switch emotions like only a young kid can, he went back to playing with his toys.
His wonderful caring and heartfelt confidence in his ability to make me feel better touched me, but I still had terror burning in every fiber of my body – to a depth that I would not fully comprehend for months.
At the time of the massacre I was nearing the end of my three-year apprenticeship to become an Integrated Awareness® Teacher. Fortunately my fellow students were already some of the most talented healers in the Northeast.
I knew that trauma like this would have a deep impact on me, and I was determined to recover from it as quickly as I could. The evening after the event I got together with five of my fellow apprentices to begin my healing process. I lay on the massage table in my most comfortable sweatpants and a thick grey sweater as they connected with me. One-by-one, ten of the most loving and courageous hands I have known made contact with my body.
One pair of hands on my head monitored the hyperactive, but disorganized activity in my brain. I had nowhere to run and nothing to run from, and yet still my brain was speeding like a terror-crazed rat on a wheel. My eyes were open, but I only saw formless shimmering whiteness in front of me.
One pair on my ankles – one of the primary body sites for terror. As those two hands connected with my ankles I felt a surge of white-hot burning energy course through my body. My impulse was to run, run, run! The muscles in my legs clenched as the connective tissue between my calves and shinbones wanted to crawl off my body. It took everything I had to keep myself planted on the table. Those two small but persistent hands stayed firmly on my ankles: not backing off from my terror; not trying to make me feel better or soothe me; but gently, lovingly and firmly insisting that I felt my feelings without fleeing. I flashed back to the experience of running down that deadly corridor, knowing that there was a murderer behind me, but not knowing whether he was coming after me.
One pair of hands connected to my pelvis and tailbone – another prime repository for terror. As the owner of the hands allowed herself to connect with and feel the terror lodged in my tailbone, so too did I. I leaped off the table – vertically. And then thudded back down. Everything in me wanted to get away from these feelings. To shut them down. Every second on the table I wanted to get away from these people who were demanding that I feel instead of going numb. I wanted to escape to the car and tell Valerie to take me home. I had to get out of there.
But I had asked for this. I wanted this. I could feel the love and caring flowing from their hands, and their unrelenting commitment to supporting me in my healing, no matter how tough.
I writhed on the table in a wash of unbearable feelings, but I stayed.
My team of healers worked in silence, connected through their open hearts and coordinating with each other through their exquisite attention to what was unfolding in my body from moment to moment.
As a pair of hands connected with my heart the most painful memory of the day exploded in my brain. A young mother arrived at the church with her new baby in arms. I did not know her and was far enough away that I could not hear the words spoken, but I understood everything from their body language: with pleading fear on her face, she asked the first huddle of people she recognized the question: “Is my husband here?” He was not in the church. The inevitable conclusion was that her husband, and her baby’s father, had perished in the office. She collapsed in tears as her bewildered baby clung to her.
I didn’t know any of these people, but my heart went out to her from thirty feet across the hall.
As I lay on the massage table, tears seeped from the corners of my eyes and formed puddles in my ears.
By now I was experiencing the full range painful emotions of the day – only more intensely than the first time around. On that day I had shut everything down to survive. Feelings were not important, only avoiding death was. But today on the massage table… I embraced all the intensity with the loving support of my colleagues.
And then the last pair of hands. One connected with my liver – the seat of life purpose in the body. The other connected with my spleen – the seat of spiritual connection. In my mind I protested, Are you serious! You want me to look at life purpose and my connection with God in the midst of all this? You have got to be kidding me!
Contacting those places made it both worse and better at the same time. It made the bleak reality that a man could kill seven colleagues because he was upset about alimony payments being garnished from his paycheck all the more poignant. But acknowledging the terrible reality of how cruel humans can be was necessary for my healing process.
But God – where the fuck were you today!
I was willing to acknowledge that there’s such a thing as a direct spiritual connection with God, but not yet willing to deepen my own connection in those circumstances. No way!
My Integrated Awareness colleagues and I swirled around in a sea of emotions, body sensations and movement for an hour or two. I don’t think any of us had any sense of time. But gradually the intensity subsided. I wasn’t done with my healing journey, but I was finished for today. We were all exhausted.
Valerie drove me home. The only words I could manage were “I love you” and then I slept for twelve hours.
I received sessions every week or two over the next couple of months until the intensity wore away and our sessions became mundane.
There was still something that felt not quite normal in my life, but none of us could put our finger on it.
The final piece of healing came six months after the event. We were at a training program at a community hall in Sonoma County, California where we explored the arrangement of the muscles connecting each vertebra of the spine (there are about a dozen distinct muscles between each vertebra). A fellow apprentice gently contacted, energetically, the muscles on the inside of my lower back. It was supposed to be an uneventful exploration to get familiar with the area. But instead, I was right back there running for my life. My back arched and I broke out in a cold sweat. A lightening bolt ran up and down my spine and every hair on my body stood on end.
I realized that I had been holding those muscles deep in my spine locked tight in protection since the deafening gunshots put my body into survival mode. As we stayed with that point for a few minutes I gained an awareness of my spine that I had never had before. I could visualize each muscle in the chain of my vertebrae, and those muscles gradually relaxed – for the first time since the event.
I could feel that this was the last piece to my healing from the trauma. I was done.
I breathed a deep sigh of relief as a peaceful, happy smile spread across my face.
I slid off the massage table and walked outside, feeling a little wobbly on my feet. It was another sunny day, but this time warm and inviting. A gentle breeze lovingly caressed my face. I brushed my hands through the fresh-cut grass and its scent filled my lungs with gratitude.
My lunch that day – just an ordinary chicken Parmesan sandwich – tasted as good as anything I have ever eaten.
And yes, eating that sandwich and feeling the warming sun on my skin while sitting with friends on the cracked concrete steps of the community hall was a spiritual experience.
I had re-connected to myself, and connected to God.
Find Your Path to Healing
If you have experienced trauma, you know the lasting impact it can have on your life.
My path to healing was particularly intense and worked well for me, but that does not mean it would be the right path for you. Everyone is different.
What I would like you to take away from this article is that healing is possible and that it’s important to face into the pain. It does take courage and it is most definitely tough at times, but it’s worth it.
Find a skilled professional who you can trust with your deepest vulnerabilities and go for it.
Nietzsche is famously quoted as saying “That which does not kill you, makes you stronger,” but I think that’s too much of a generalization. I would say, “That which you face courageously and learn from, makes you a better person.”
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