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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Please Look at Me!

“Please, just keep looking at me and I will be OK.”

I was speaking to another woman who also got pulled over ‘for further inspection’ at a TSA checkpoint. All I knew in that moment was that I was headed for a full-fledge meltdown in front of God and country and I needed another human with caring eyes to hold me steady.

It was so unexpected. It had been some time since I had gone to therapy and though I still had ‘moments,’ they were nothing like what was happening as the woman TSA officer explained the ‘pat-down’ procedure. I fly frequently and thought I was impervious to the very uncomfortable experience. I normally brace myself incase I get ‘chosen’ but this time, I had no luggage and was simply going through TSA to pick up my grandson.

Since it was clear I was having a problem almost immediately, I am not sure why the TSA officer didn’t offer a private room. I thought that was protocol. It wasn’t even a busy time at the airport. I don’t know what went wrong.

I looked at the woman behind me and said, “I was abused. This is difficult.”

She said comforting words I do not remember and looked at me with kind steady eyes. I braced myself while still protesting the need for a full-body pat down. I was clearly in trouble so I said to the woman with the kind eyes, “Please, just keep looking at me and I will be OK.”

Then the TSA officer spoke some very unfortunate words.

“If you stop interrupting me, this won’t take long.”

Suddenly, it wasn’t a TSA officer who was touching me invasively. How very unfortunate that she used my rapist’s words.

Right there, in the middle of the TSA area at Denver International Airport, I experienced a full PTSD flashback of the day I was raped as freshman in college. The woman with the kind eyes never looked away. She never flinched as I sobbed and shook and felt my body floating above the very present memory.

Through the fog, I heard the kind woman ask the TSA officer if she could hug me. I felt the hug ground me but was still disoriented as I searched for my belongings. I made it to the tram and was relieved to find it almost empty. The man sitting at the other end of the car kept his eyes on his phone while I sobbed and regained control.

Slowly I began to put the puzzle pieces together. I had processed the trauma that caused this PTSD flashback but it seemed that those particular words had not been fully processed. I wondered if there would ever be a time when I would stop experiencing random turmoil from the extensive trauma I experienced. I wasn’t sure, but without these times, it would be easy for me to once again dissociate from the truth of my story.

I needed a plan to calm myself. I decide that next time, I would ask for a private room, inform the TSA officers of my trauma, and explain that saying those particular ill-chosen words would not be a good idea.

The tram was swiftly approaching the station. I was reminded that there really isn’t time for trauma to heal in our world. Life goes on. I needed to carefully navigate escalators, people movers, and trams to reach my destination and gather the waiting child. As I carefully placed my feet one in front of the other, it reminded me of the life I had lived just barely above the pain. It was necessary to just keep moving.

Slowly, I found the part of me that walked away from trauma and acted like nothing happened. This time, I promised myself I would blog the story because I now fully understood that victims are never completely free of the effects of abuse—even when healed. We can place it in the past and stop it form invading our daily lives, but we can never change the fact that it happened. Yet, when healed, we can use all the ways it made us strong to change our world. What doesn’t kill us does make us stronger.

The pain is all around us if we are watching. The opportunities to help other humans during their moments of distress are all around us. We have a choice to avert our attention like the man in the tram or to step forward and look into the eyes of the human who desperately needs someone to care. It is hard to know if I actually wanted the man on the tram to acknowledge my obvious distress. I am not judging, but if listening carefully, we will know when it is appropriate to step in. Everyone is uncomfortable in these situations, but some have learned to walk past the discomfort in ways that truly make a difference.

There is so much more about this incident that I will be discussing. I somehow learned very early that the eye contact that most abuse victims avoid was a key to both my survival and the ability to disguise my traumatic past. I will be discussing the research findings about ‘the gaze’ in an upcoming blog, but as I was ‘falling’ I understood what I needed the woman to do and she apparently understood also.

For now, I am simply grateful for the woman who was willing to hold me with her eyes.

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