Emotional and Physiological Trauma after an Act of Violence

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Manya Chylinski:    They were all so uncomfortable with us giving them hugs. And one of them said to my friends; I think this is what firefighters must feel like. I think police officers don’t usually get hugged to say thank you. But it was, it was an amazing experience. 

Todd DeVoe:    Welcome to EM Weekly, your emergency management podcast, and this week, we are talking about the hidden or the invisible injuries that occur, during traumatic events. This week we have with us, Manya Chylinski.

Manya was sitting in the grandstands across from where the first bomb exploded, during the Boston marathon. Now, Manya was not physically injured, but she still had mental scars that came away from that day. And this is Manya’s story. And how she is helping others cope with that traumatic injury that is not physical, but psychological.

This interview is pretty intense at times. I want those involved in the Boston Marathon bombing response, to realize that this is going to be emotional at some point. So be aware of that.

Now on to the interview.

Manya welcome to EM Weekly.

Manya Chylinski:    Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Todd DeVoe:    So Manya, you and I were talking earlier and trying to learn a little bit about your situation and your fantastic story. Just share a bit of that day, when you’re at the Boston Marathon.

Manya Chylinski:    Yes. So the marathon finish line is not far from where I live in Boston and that day is such a big party, so I always take it off and go to the finish line to cheer on the runners. I rarely know anybody who is running.

I just liked being part of the celebration and take my responsibility as a spectator near the finish line very seriously. You know, yelling and screaming and calling people’s names if they have them on their tee shirt.

In 2013 I was lucky enough to get seats in the bleacher seats at the finish line. So even closer to where people are finishing. That’s where I was with some of my friends, (At 2:49) when the first bomb went off directly across the street from me. And I was, frozen in place watching them go off. And I knew it was a bomb. I don’t know how I just knew it was a bomb.

Todd DeVoe:    You knew it was a bomb right away. Did the people around you realize it was a bomb as well?

Manya Chylinski:    I’ve heard stories from a lot of people that day and people have told me they didn’t think it was a bomb. A lot of people seem to think; perhaps it was an electrical transformer that had blown up. Somebody that I was with thought it was a water cannon that had gone off. And so, she didn’t realize what it was; I think until the second bomb went off. And then we realized it wasn’t some accident.

Todd DeVoe:    So one of the things that we talked about is the fact that there’s the physical trauma from the bombs, you know, people getting injured from, from the explosion or the shrapnel. And then there’s a psychological trauma from being there, proximity-wise and, knowing people that were involved, walk me through the psychological trauma.

Manya Chylinski:    So, in my case, immediately following the bombing, that week afterward, I was struggling to sleep. When I did sleep, I would wake up with nightmares. I had trouble concentrating. It was challenging to do my work. I work from home, so I wasn’t in an office with anybody else’s kind of input.

So I had to motivate myself to work, which was very difficult. I wasn’t doing a good job taking care of myself in terms of eating anything like that. And early on, I started having, what I learned later were called intrusive thoughts.

And that was being in a place imagining that it [a bomb] exploded, that all the people around me were killed or injured and that I was okay. But somehow I was once again in this place where a bomb went off and my body, it’s time that would happen, would react as if there had been a bomb exploding.

 And I was frozen in place again, and you know, heart-pounding, all of those feelings and then I would, it felt like I woke up and would open my eyes and realize that Nope, I’m still in the subway station and everything’s okay or I’m still in the theater and everybody’s still watching the show. There’s nothing wrong. And those, the interests of thoughts, in particular, were quite frightening because I’d never had anything like that and didn’t understand what was happening or how to deal with them.

Todd DeVoe:    So, are those, like dreams, like do you see that or is more of a thought process?

Manya Chylinski:    I would describe my intrusive thoughts as a waking dream. So as vivid as some dreams I have when I’m asleep and not just happening when I’m wide awake. And it felt to me as if I was really as if what was happening. So I, it felt to me the time when I was standing in the subway, and it looked like the train had exploded, and people around me were injured and dead, it felt to me like that was happening. I was standing in the subway station, and it felt like you know, it was hot and smoky and all those things. It was as if all of my senses had been hijacked and thought this thing was happening.

Todd DeVoe:    Wow. That’s deep right there, so at what point did you say, okay, I need to, I need to seek out counseling or help or find people who are doing this as well?

Manya Chylinski:    I sought out mental health treatment just a week after the bombing. And I’ve learned since that time that it’s unusual to seek formal mental health treatment. So quickly, in my case, I was feeling so distressed and, and so confused about what was happening to me, and I knew that you know, a trained mental health professional could probably guide me. So a week after we had a moment of silence at 2:49 the following Monday and it was not very long after that that I was on the phone to my doctor’s office asking if I could see someone in their mental health department.

And that’s when I learned that you could get an emergency mental health appointment if you need one. The Clinic got me in the next day, and it was a few weeks after that that I realized I still needed help. I still didn’t feel I was, recovering in the way that I wanted to. And that’s when I met a Red Cross volunteer who was handing out information from the Massachusetts Office of victim assistance. And it was a list of resources, and it included mental health resources, and that’s how I connected with a trauma counselor. And then eventually with a group, that that trauma counselor led to help people who had been at the finish line.

Todd DeVoe:    Do you think that the groups are relevant?

Manya Chylinski:    Yes, the groups are incredibly important. Even though I had been at the marathon with friends, we all dealt with it differently, and I didn’t feel that I could connect with them in particular about the of distress I was feeling. And I felt very isolated after the experience because we weren’t hearing stories of the people with psychological injuries on the news. My civic leaders were not talking about it. The focus was much more on the physical side of the event. I felt very isolated getting to go to one of those groups and meeting other people who had been at the finish line who was not physically injured but who experienced similar kinds of distress was huge for me. I realized I wasn’t alone, and you know, it wasn’t just me that was having a problem.

Todd DeVoe: We talk about the victims of these events by numbers of people killed and or injured. However, we don’t talk about the number of, of psychological injuries that occur. Is that something that we should be as emergency managers and probably and first responders and public safety people? Should we be thinking about all of those that weren’t physically injured those days?

Manya Chylinski:    Yes. I think it’s critical that we think about the people who were impacted even without physical injuries. Then, there’s a statistic that says for mass violence, which is similar to a natural disaster, that for every one physical injury, there will be between four and fifty psychological injuries. So the scale can be much more significant when you’re looking at the mental health impacts.

 And I think from my perspective, what I was looking for early on, watching the news conferences and listening to my mayor was validation that my experience was real. And by not counting the number of people who might have been psychologically traumatized by not talking about it on the news, that was very isolating.

So I would love to see that, you know, the ticker at the bottom of the news saying the number of people who were killed, the number of people physically injured and the number of people potentially traumatized by this.

Todd DeVoe:    I have a, a good friend of mine, Aaron Siebert has a podcast called Combat Vet Vision. And he discusses PTSD, and he runs some PTSD groups as well, here in southern California. Aaron is part of PTSD Foundation of America for, for combat veterans. And he talks about how in some cases people who come to be combat, PTSD groups and although they might be suffering from issues, they don’t fit in that group. Aaron stated that they could do more psychological harm to them themselves. Is there some of that going on as well with what some of the groups that you’re in?  Are people that weren’t there at the finish line coming in because they, they want to feel that they had some trauma? Is there, is there any risk of that?

Manya Chylinski:    In my experience, we didn’t have anybody in any of my groups who came in for other reasons. They were only people who had been at the finish line. I have heard of those kinds of stories, and I know that mental health professionals do worry after an event like this, about what they refer to as creating victims.

At something like the marathon bombing, you know, a mass tragedy like that, you can expect that maybe 10 to 20% of the people who experienced it could be diagnosed with something like post-traumatic stress disorder. Like they have symptoms that are enough to be genuinely diagnosable.

But that number means that you know, about 80% of the people aren’t going to be diagnosed with that and aren’t experiencing symptoms at that level. So most people you know, can heal on their own without necessarily seeking form mental health treatment.

And there’s a delicate balance between, letting people know that they’ve been traumatized and it’s okay if they need help. And then somehow telling people that they have been traumatized and turning them into victims when they didn’t feel like it in the first place.

That’s a really sophisticated, calculation that I don’t fully understand as, as a survivor myself, I’m not a mental health expert, but what I’ve read is there, there is a concern in making sure you talk about the trauma in a way that is inclusive of those people who experienced it but also doesn’t sort of catch people who weren’t necessarily traumatized but make them think they were.

Todd DeVoe:     Take 9/11, for example. We were talking about some people who are even here in Los Angeles that, that witnessed it on TV, maybe friends or family that were in New York. And we’re feeling the effects of that. Can people who aren’t even near there have some of the same traumas that say people that were there?

Manya Chylinski:    Yes. People who are not physically in that location can get mental health symptoms even as much as something diagnosable like PTSD. Your connection to the incident doesn’t necessarily have to be physical. You don’t necessarily have to be there.

If you know someone who’s in was involved, that can be a challenge. They’ve done studies, especially in New York after 9/11, and they did find that people across the country have a small percentage of people did have symptoms of PTSD because of the event.

How you’re affected by something like this is so individual for each of us. And it depends on the past traumas that you’ve experienced, your support network, all of those kinds of things. If you’ve had PTSD before or you’ve had a significant trauma before, something like a 9/11 or a Boston Marathon bombing can be very triggering. So it doesn’t, you don’t necessarily have to be there to get some of these symptoms.

Todd DeVoe:    Wow. So, because of television, we could be spreading some of this trauma across the country in the world?

Manya Chylinski:    Absolutely. And one of the things they told our, groups that we get reminders of occasionally, is to limit our exposure to the news. And, you know, try not just to glue ourselves to the TV or the computer screen to watch these things.  I rarely watch the news anymore because I can find these, anytime there’s mass violence, it can be very triggering.

Todd DeVoe:     I understand that for sure. It seems like something is going around and around the world every day. It’s a small world now with television and cable, and of course, the 24-hour news cycle and they have to fill something. So, when, when things like to happen in New York City where the guy drives a truck, down the bicycle path or other events such as the, like the shooting in Vegas, are all these trigger points for, for people that have suffered a situation like you?

Manya Chylinski:    I’m going to say yes because I indeed found all of that very triggering and I would imagine that other folks did as well. I can, in my case, I can imagine myself in that situation, and it takes me back to remembering how it felt when I was in danger.

Todd DeVoe:     I want to go back a little bit.  You are saying that you work at home, you didn’t get out to an office after this occurred and you felt isolated.  Somebody who works in the office situation. Do you think that the, they have a little bit more of an outlet than somebody that works at home? And do we have to be concerned about those that are a non-traditional worker now?

Manya Chylinski:    I think that we do have to be concerned about those who are non-traditional workers. One of the things that are most helpful for individuals after experiencing trauma is getting support, is having their experience and their feelings validated, but getting support and whether that is through friends or family or coworkers.

In my case I wanted, I was glad that I worked alone. I tried to not be around people. And I think if I had had to go into an office that would have been an additional layer of support, whether I knew it at the time or not. But I do think in cases like this, we do need to pay attention to people who for whatever reason, may not be working in an office, or they may isolate for some other purposes. I think it’s essential to find a way to reach out to our friends and neighbors in cases like that, to make sure they know that they have the support.

Todd DeVoe:    You have a good friend of mine who, who works from home and, he was telling me that get some point. He was feeling like he didn’t want to be around people anymore because he didn’t feel comfortable interacting with them. Did you feel that same way at all?

Manya Chylinski:    In the days after the bombing, I felt probably everything you can imagine. I felt at one point that I needed to be in groups of people, and then I felt as if I didn’t want to be near anybody and so I would go out to walk and talk to the police officers who were guarding the crime scene and get myself out there. But I think because for me personally because I didn’t have an office or a kind of support network that was shaped like that, it was easier for me to isolate myself because I could just come home, turn off the phone and shut out the world.

Todd DeVoe:    What was manhunt like for you?

Manya Chylinski:    The Friday after the bombing is, was big, that was the day of the manhunt is it started on Thursday night, and the Governor asked everybody to shelter in place. It was for the city of Boston. It was a voluntary order, but almost everybody adhered to it and the streets were quiet and, you know, I believe they shut down the transportation network as well.

I started the morning by watching the news because somebody had texted me, but it happened overnight. And pretty early on in my watching the news, I realized I had to stop because I was making myself feel physically ill. So I turned off the news and had quite a productive day at work because I didn’t check social media. I just focused on my work. And it was at the end of the day when somehow it reached me, and I don’t remember how that it was over.

 It had been resolved, and I started hearing all of these cheers outside of my window, people yelling and screaming and jubilation. So, I got dressed, and I went outside and met some of my neighbors and discovered what, you know, they had, captured one of them.

And, we all just walked around that evening, and we ended up in the Boston Common, everyone just so relieved to have that over cause the city had been so tense for that week. And I remember we all started hugging the Boston police officers who were there and telling them to thank you, for their service and excuse me. They were all so uncomfortable with us giving them hugs. And one of them said to my friends; I think this is what firefighters must feel like. I guess I think police officers don’t usually get hugged to say thank you. But it was, it was an amazing experience, to be out there with everybody celebrating.

Todd DeVoe:    yeah, that’s a number one that’s, much. That made you feel a little bit better, you know, just this, it’s not, not a lot, but I understand that. And then, must have been, wow. I can’t even imagine to put myself in that. And that situation right there. And whew. What a story. Well, so now you, you go around the country talking to, to groups, about this, by your experience, how can people find you?

Manya Chylinski:    They can visit me on my website, which is Manya cielensky.com, and I talk about my experience. I talk about resiliency. I want to help people understand what it’s like to experience trauma like this and what we can do as employers, as a community, as emergency managers to help people who’ve experienced psychological trauma.

Todd DeVoe:    By the way, everybody, I’m going to have everything down in the show notes, all the other links, And, and look her up and look at her, start the story. It’s worth doing. So. And if you guys are looking for, for speakers, I recommend having her come out and talk to your group. I spoke to a bunch of people before, this interview, in the emergency manager space who’ve had you, at their, events that are, they’re rarely highly, appreciative of what you bring to the table — talking to emergency managers and public safety officials.

Manya Chylinski:    Oh, thank you. And I’m so pleased to hear that, you know, it, my mission is to change how we talk about emotional and psychological trauma after these kinds of events. And it means a lot to me that my message is getting through to these folks.

Todd DeVoe:    So if you could talk to all of the emergency managers at one time, what would you say to them?

Manya Chylinski:    I would say that it’s essential that we pay attention to people who’ve been emotionally and psychologically wounded. It is, it’s a real thing that happens to people. And when we don’t get validation, it can add to our feelings of shame and guilt, and that can prevent people from getting help. Because we feel, you know, we suffer on top of the emotional and psychological distress that we’re feeling. And I want to make the invisible visible. I want us to be able to, to talk about in three emotional and psychological pain with the same care that we talk about, physical pain and the physical aspects of traumatic events like a bombing or a shooting. I want to be part of fixing that.

Todd DeVoe:    Well, why do you think you so much for your time this morning? And I do appreciate you sharing the story and, thank you for what you’re doing for the people that are the silent victims.

Manya Chylinski:    Oh, thank you very much. It’s my pleasure to share my story, and I hope that it helps at least one victim of an, an event.

Links

Web: www.manyachylinski.com

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/manyachylinski/

Twitter: @manyachylinski

Email: info@manyachylinski.com

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