Article by: By: Jonathan Ryan Wamback
– One of the many problems of being a victim of violence is that no one really understands. I honestly wish that I could just explain the torment, the despair, the toll on all parts of your body in a sentence. I can’t. It is difficult to understand something that no one else genuinely understands. It’s not easy to be a victim of extreme violence. I can attest to that.
Almost a decade ago, I received a very serious head injury at the result of a brutal assault. I spent three months comatose and was paralyzed for an additional six months. And almost ten years later, I, like every other victim of extreme violence and close relative of a murdered family member, still feel the devastating effects on my emotions, just like I still feel the effects of the injury on my physical well being. One thing I have learned, from attempting to help others, is that I should be relying on my own experiences and wisdom in order to explain myself. I have seen the effects that a human’s hate and violence can have on another human. I just want to show what I have seen and felt, which for such a long time I was unable to do.
I must have tried to explain what it is like to be a victim of extreme violence a hundred times – the feelings, the physical turmoil, the complete and utter anguish and grief. The reason I failed was because of those same feelings. I myself didn’t understand this world full of horrible thoughts and emotions that followed my assault. It was like being thrown into the middle of the ocean in a rowboat, unable to swim. All you can do is just keep rowing. And that is what I have been doing for much of my life. Even now, it is taking a lot out of me and much courage to write this.
I didn’t understand my own feelings and the thoughts I was having. Trying to understand something that no one else understands is a very difficult task. For ten years and now still, I am struggling to understand myself, the self that I was forced into. My thoughts and feelings are still blooming as I try to understand what the life of being subjected to injury at the hands of extreme crime means. But I was really forced to understand myself. I couldn’t just sit back, a victim of myself, because the behaviour and character traits I was expressing, caused entirely by the thoughts and feelings I was experiencing, were unacceptable to live a happy life in society.
Though it was an extremely difficult feat for me to overcome, the hardest part of my life was not the injury or recovering from it. The hardest part came after, upon reintegrating into society. I didn’t know what to expect of people’s reactions, the things people said, and most of all, I didn’t know what to expect of myself. I was reintegrating in society. A life where I was forced to relive my traumatic assault through dreams, asleep and awake. Haunting, vicious dreams in a state of delirious reality replaced my conscious world with utter horror. The dreams of self-similar experiences, of being battered and destroyed all over again created for me a personal prison. A life in eternal fear of nearly everything. A life where I was forced to believe the unhealthy and paranoid thoughts, which led to that fear. This ultimately prevented me from living a life and from enjoying my youth like I would have had this not have happened to me. For many years I was not thinking clearly. My responses to people had been nearly destroyed for this duration. The fight or flight reflex is damaged after a severe assault. The only way I was able to continue living my life was by making myself forgive those who took much of my life away.
I have been lucky in many ways in my life. I have been lucky to have survived a horrible injury at the hands of crime. And I have been lucky to have been given a chance to make a new life and for the gift of being able to eventually move on after the violent crime committed against me. I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish these feats had I not been lucky, had I not had a terrific family, great support, had I not kept faith. All of these things contributed to my great determination that I had at the time. I was lucky. But there are a lot of people who are not as lucky as my family and I are. There are those who are not given a second chance. Those who die as a result of their injuries. And those who, having lost someone so dear to them, are unable to move on. I was very lucky to have survived with injuries like the ones I received.
Following my injury, I lost the ability to distinguish other’s intentions and actions. Because of my paranoia and anxiety, I couldn’t develop a distinction between those who meant good will and those who meant me harm.
I cannot describe the feeling that everyone is staring at you in a hostile way, and always saying bad things about you. The softest whisper invokes a terror that perhaps that whisper is talking about you. A sudden unexpected sound invokes a terror that maybe it is all happening again. Your life is in jeopardy. I can’t explain the feeling of knowing that you are always being followed when you are driving and walking or that most people are plotting your demise. The feeling that there is always someone who is coming to take your life away, the feeling that you are always on the run is unbearable.
Because of all of these haywire emotions and thoughts I was forced to isolate myself from those who I cared for and those who truly cared for me – my supporters, colleagues and peers, and most of all, from my family and friends.
Because I suffered brain damage as a result of my attack, I was living in two worlds. With brain trauma, obviously the brain is affected in many ways. One of these ways is the fact that brain damage can harm the natural filters of the brain that control what one says and what one is thinking. This was the case in my situation. Of course, after sustaining such a dangerous head injury following a brutal attack, the violent and intrusively paranoid thoughts that accompany Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are merged with the head injuries effects. In my case, this allowed my paranoid and hyper-vigilante thoughts to escape my mind. I would often vocalize a threat to something or someone, who definitely meant me no harm, but who I perceived to pose a very real threat at that moment. This whole situation was always extremely difficult for me, because after I would lash out, I would realize what I had done almost immediately and I would feel terribly. But again and again, for nearly five years, the thoughts and awful feelings would return almost instantly. I’ve unfortunately hurt a lot of people this way. For that I am endlessly sorry. I did not do any of this to intentionally hurt you or because I was a bad person. I was very badly hurt and traumatized. The difference between then and now is that I am now a much more faithful man and I have sought counselling. As a result of the counselling, I have a great deal more control and less of these intrusive thoughts. People said, ‘you should really move on’. What I have learned, through myself and the hundreds of victims my family has tried to help, is that pain after violence rarely or never just goes away.
Speaking with many victims, I now understand that I am not the only one who is experiencing these thoughts. Every victim of extreme violence experiences this stress to some degree. Every victim of extreme violence copes differently. My situation, because of my brain injury, was harder to cope with. And like almost every other illness, it came in waves for me. There were times when I was better able to cope with the stress. At first, when I emerged from my coma, I was generally happy. I was happy because I was in a state of dissociation. I didn’t understand what had happened to me yet.
So I turned to addiction. Not because I was weak but because I was unable to cope with the reality I was violently thrust into. For a long time I was angry with myself that I was unable to kick these filthy habits. The reason I really didn’t want to was because I genuinely felt as though the benefits of continuing far outweighed the negative effects they would have on my body. When I would smoke, for example, my mind calmed for a while, relieving the horrible stress and paranoia I was experiencing. To some degree they control the thoughts going through my head. My addictions do not feed my psychological state, they actually reduce them.
Because of the feelings and thoughts I was experiencing and the fact that very often, I would vocalize a response to what I viewed as a genuine threat, an awful circular pattern of spite and hostility between myself and a world who viewed me as a bad person developed. They had justification in thinking that because some of the things I would do were inappropriate. But they also didn’t understand. The fact that, since the injury, I viewed the entire world as hostile and bad to me is a little ironic. I truly believed they posed a very serious threat to me. The more I threatened others, the more they threatened me. Most of this, on my part, was fuelled by what I perceived as a threat to my own safety. Others were only responding to the fact that I was threatening. And those who really only meant good will to me, I was forced by my traumatized mind to attack. The utter confusion, guilt, fear, anxiety and paranoia were devastating. In no way am I justifying my actions at times. I would feel threatened and I would frighten and often shout out. This feeling for me grew as people began to recognize me because of this and scorn. Because of the fact that they became hostile to me, I felt more threatened. I am not a bad person – I was very badly traumatized. Thank God I was given the opportunity to heal my actions and mind, which many victims of violence are unable to do.
The effects of being thrust into a world of fear and anxiety right out of a life of comfort and faith is overwhelming. For me, the effects of being one day an active youth, just being a kid, to the next, being in a hospital bed, completely unable to move was likewise, unbearable. That next day for me, was literally three months later. Being paralyzed, for me, was a life where my only thrill came from the occasional thought that crossed my mind and trying my hardest to regain strength. In those early days, I would lie for hours trying to move my pinkie finger just a little.
There was, from my situation, a TV movie made. Though this movie was an excellent illustration of the life of a crime victim, it did not analyze the long term effects of the crime. It couldn’t analyze effectively the pain and suffering my family has been through for the past ten years because it was only a movie. Time restraints prohibited telling the whole story. Of course, it was glamorized to a great extent and because of that glamorization, it, from my point of view, created an illusion that everything was alright for me and that I was living an emotionally healthy life on the path to a heroic recovery. I am just a person. Clearly, the effects that crime has on the individual cannot be summed up this way.
I really should have taken control of my life. And I would have if I could have. I’m not saying that I was weak. For this is the life of being subject to extreme violence. I am a person. The Post Traumatic Stress is metaphorically like a devastating disease of the body. It’s impossible to improve your life if you feel that you are always in danger. I was not trying to act this way. The feelings, thoughts and emotions are destructive. They build in you exponentially until you seek help. And after you get help, you feel some temporary relief, but then something happens and then another thing until you are nearly right back where you started from. I was sure that some cure must exist, but I was not yet at that point. I wasn’t ready to deal with the horrific feelings until now because those feelings were so ripe and angry. After all that I have lived through, what I have seen and felt, I think it is understandable that I was angry. I was living in the personal hell, which my assaulters sentenced me. The way victims of violence are treated by the judicial system, the financial stress and social aspects aside, the emotional damage violence can have on a person is endless.
I guess that the message of this piece is that this is the life of the victim of extreme violence. No one asks for this sort of pain, this life. Every victim copes differently with the effects of crime. But what I have learned is that a stress similar to my experiences affects all victims of violence. The truth is that I wouldn’t wish this life on the worst of person. Because after all, a victim, no matter the reason for their being assaulted has people who care about them. Don’t take advantage of your life. Enjoy it and cherish it, because after all, it can be taken away so easily and quickly. Forgiveness can take you a long way. I don’t expect you to understand because you haven’t experienced it. I hope to God that you are never forced to understand. I just hope that, in time, you can empathize.