This is a story about the aftermath of trauma. I am a survivor of abuse. I say this about myself not because it is all that I am, but because it explains certain aspects of me that are unusual and hard to understand. Like my hypervigilance and constant worrying, for example. I am always imagining disaster scenarios in my head. I check for exits and escape routes wherever I go. I try to read other people’s energy so they can’t surprise me. I question and doubt everyone and everything on this planet. I have trouble trusting the inherent goodness of people’s hearts, including and most of all my own. I have trouble feeling safe in my body. I have trouble feeling safe in the world.
When I first came to the U.S. for law school a few years ago, I didn’t study in the library because I was too scared of campus shootings. For at least half a year, the first question I asked of a new American friend was: how do you deal with the possibility of gun violence happening to you or your loved ones in this country. Most people just shrugged and dismissed my question. One person asked back: how do you deal with the possibility of war in your country. That’s when I understood how most Americans deal with the possibility of gun violence. They become numb to it, just like most Koreans become numb to the possibility of war. Most people deal with the possibility of disaster by becoming numb to it. They put it away somewhere in the back of their mind. They curb their sensitivity to it until they don’t notice it anymore. Most people seem to feel safe in their bodies and in the world.
But I am not most people. I am the kind of Korean whose mother brought home packs after packs of water and nonperishables whenever North Korea was on CNN too frequently. My siblings and I had a month’s supply of chocolate pie snacks to feast on each time this happened. I am the kind of Korean whose grandmother told her stories of fleeing from home during the Korean war. My grandmother told me that her parents left her grandmother behind because she was too old and frail. My grandmother told me that she went back to die with her grandmother who loved her so much. I am the kind of Korean who thinks she may die in war but that’s okay because at least she’ll be with loved ones every time she goes back home and who worries about being separated from them forever every time she leaves home.
I suspect most people would think I am being melodramatic and oversensitive. Well wait ‘til I tell you what happened after I gave birth to my first child. Whatever anxiety and fear I used to have about the world before multiplied a thousand times when I became a mother. Every nook and cranny of this world is a potential catastrophe for my baby.
So I am hypervigilant and constantly worried. It has something to do with my history of abuse, family background, and motherhood. I try not to let it stop me from doing things, connecting with people, and living my life. I try not to let it make me weak. I try not to let it make me small. I try to enjoy the time I have on this earth. I try to establish some sense of peace and safety around myself. I live this trying reality. This is my struggle.
The other day, I was at a grocery store with my baby in a stroller. It was early afternoon on a Thursday in the Western suburbs, so there weren’t many customers around. I was inspecting a donut peach when a man started shouting angrily at the store clerk. Something about how he expected better service. Soon his complaint expanded to how he didn’t like the tone of her voice. When the store manager came to the counter, the man only became more furious, swearing and cursing at the top of his lungs. His sense of entitlement was palpable. His insistence that his angry outburst be endured by everyone in the store was absolute. His rage skyrocketed until there was nothing but his thundering roar. Only a tense silence from everyone, including from me and from my little one, who happens to be a deep sleeper. I wanted to say to this person: angry man, you scare me. You probably have your own reasons to be this angry and to express yourself in this way. But your actions convey something bigger than yourself to me. When I hear you scream and curse, I wonder if you are one of those men whose rage means that they will get an AR-15 weapon and shoot at random people in the grocery store. When I hear you explode because you did not like the way another person is, I wonder if you are one of those men who feel like they have the right to exert power and control over other people, the right to determine whether other people have the right to enjoy their time on this earth in peace and safety, the right to decide whether other people get to live or die today.
All of this I wanted to say to the angry man. Instead I dropped the donut peach and hurried to the exit with my baby. Instinctively, because you know I am hypervigilant and constantly worried. I check for exits and escape routes wherever I go. I have trouble feeling safe in the world. The world has trouble being safe for me.