July 10, 2011

What would you have done?

Early this morning--I'm assuming a little before 2:00 am--I was startled from sleep by one of the most terrifying sounds I've ever heard. A girl came pounding up the stairs right outside Rob's second floor apartment screaming WAAAKE UUUP!!! with a blood-curdling urgency that can only be described as primal. I can't imagine a human making such a harrowing noise without being fueled by the massive amounts of adrenaline that enable mothers to lift cars off their trapped children. A couple seconds after I awoke, someone opened a door--there was more screaming--some yelling--I thought I heard the word "accident"--and then more banging as people ran down the stairs.

Then there was silence.

I was utterly paralyzed. My heart was pounding out of my chest. My eyes were wide open and fixed at a point in the room where light was coming in through the blinds and casting faint silvery patterns on the wall. My breathing was forced and shallow and every sound around me--the dripping of the water heater, the humming of the refrigerator, my own circulatory system--seemed magnified against otherwise utter stillness. I was alone. I expected I'd hear sirens soon, or maybe more neighbors waking and responding to the screaming that had ended only seconds before. I wondered, "Should I call 911?" but in my fear I couldn't even force my arm to reach over to the nightstand and grab the phone. "Shouldn't I get up and go to the door?" I kept thinking. "What if someone's out there and still needs help? Should I call for help? What if someone's dying out there?" But as the minutes ticked on and the silence continued my paralysis only seemed to increase.

I don't know how much time passed before I was first able to move. I felt my hand at the bottom of my arm--my mind traveled down to its five rigid digits, cupped palm down against the sheet, and I wiggled a finger. It creaked stiffly as my heart rate increased even further. I blinked. I swallowed. I moved another finger. The girl's screams echoed in my ears. Still no sirens.

Gradually, after what felt like an eternity, I mustered the wherewithal to pick up my phone and look at the time: 2:07. I put it down again and tried to listen into the silence--hoping to hear something that would tell me the fire was out or help was on the way.


After another few minutes I thought I heard distressed voices again and my heart rate increased. Had someone drowned in the pool--fallen out of a window--crashed a car--been chased or mauled by one of the bears that may have been roaming the neighborhood--had someone been killed or raped? My imagination went wild and I was feeling terrible for still being unable to act. Rob left for a physics conference in Cardiff a couple days ago and as I lay alone in the bed I was regretting his absence, asking to myself, "why did this have to happen now?" I wanted him to be there and put his arms around me, comfort the fear out of my frozen body, and give me the strength to do something rational like call the police.

Finally it was a need to use the bathroom that compelled my stiff limbs into quasi operation. I turned on the light. Though it was quite warm in the room the adrenaline still coursing through my veins raised huge goosebumps all over my skin so that it felt like sandpaper. I opened my laptop and wrote Rob an email telling him what happened and that I was terrified and wished he'd been there with me.

At quarter to 3:00 I was still in a state of mild shock and panic and decided to call my mom. I needed to hear her voice, tell her what happened, and ask what I should do. Even though it was the middle of the night she listened and tried to comfort me--said that whatever had happened it sounded like someone had responded to the girl's screams and that needed help had certainly been reached. A little after 3:00 am the noise started up again. There was pounding up and down the stairs--yelling--whistling--a frantic sort of bustle in and out of one of the apartments on my floor.

My mom finally persuaded me to call the police, if only to gain reassurance that, yes, there had been an emergency, but personnel had responded, and everything was going to be ok. I was shocked when the lady answering the line at the Tompkins County dispatch said nothing had been reported. She asked me some questions and inquired as to whether I'd like to have an officer come by. After some hesitation I said that, yes, that would likely make me feel better--I mean, it was 3:00 in the morning and there was certainly some sort of disturbance taking place. I called my mom back and told her what the lady had said and got back into bed--reassured that an official was going to be around shortly to assess the situation.

I'll be leaving later today for Austria and had already been planning to get up before the sun this morning in order to reset my internal clock to European time and get a jump on the jet lag I'll have to deal with sooner or later. Last night I set my alarm for 4:01 am and went to sleep expecting to wake up groggily, give Patrick (the only other person in the country who I know is awake at such an odd hour--he's an astronomer) a call to help get my brain going for the morning, and putter around the house doing some final packing and making sure the place looks good for when Rob returns from the UK. It's supposed to be a nice day again, and I was even kicking around the idea of driving out to some lovely lookout to watch the sunrise--a pleasure I've deprived myself of for far too long. Instead I'm still stuck here in bed watching the sun through the blinds, puzzling over the mysterious happenings of a few hours ago, and embarrassed and frustrated by my lack of ability to respond in an emergency.

From the time you're in grade school everyone starts preparing you for dire circumstances--how to give the heimlich maneuver--the basics of CPR--stop, drop, and roll--call 911--don't talk to strangers. I, as I imagine most people have, grew up thinking that I'd be prepared to act in an emergency--that I would be able to keep my wits about me and provide basic help if needed. Tonight I discovered that in the heat of the moment, the body's reflexive responses to high stress can be a bit more unpredictable and difficult to control than I'd anticipated. I failed this test--I hope no one was further hurt or jeopardized by my inability to respond.

What is it about my makeup that caused me to freeze in response to a cry for help while someone else reacted immediately? Do YOU really know how YOU would react during those first few seconds of heart-pounding terror?

The feeling of paralysis I experienced last night was similar to instances in my adolescence to late 20s where I've awoken inexplicably, been unable to breath or move, and felt as though there were some sort of evil or demonic presence menacing me. While I was still very religious I thoroughly believed there were devils in my room trying to possess or hurt me, and similar demonic stories I heard in sunday school did nothing to help allay my fears. When I began distancing myself from religion a few years ago I started to wonder if there might be another explanation for these terrifying episodes. I found that this type of sleep paralysis is actually quite common in healthy people, (as well as those suffering from sleep apnea or narcolepsy), is occasionally a symptom of migraines, and can sometimes be brought on by high levels of stress. There are chat rooms full of people who suffer from sleep paralysis as well as the related experience of night terrors. Such experiences are sometimes accompanied by hallucinations or a feeling of being oppressed by an evil presence, and similar stories of demons tormenting people in their sleep go back centuries.

Once while on a brass quintet excursion, our whole group--plus one member's wife--was holed up in a single crummy hotel room trying to catch some shuteye before hitting the road again the following morning. Sometime during the wee hours, the wife jumped out of bed and started running around the room screaming wildly. Still half sleeping, I reflexively responded by screaming in tandem and within seconds the other guys in the group had leapt out of bed, turned on the lights, and tried to figure out what had provoked two women into such terrified paroxysms. The wife's husband gently took her back to bed, and things gradually calmed down until we were all able to get a couple more hours of--perhaps a little nervous--sleep. The wife apparently suffered from occasional night terrors and the next morning the two of us swapped stories of visiting devils and evil spirits.

When I heard the girl's screams last night I was reminded of that instance. Then as now, other individuals present had been able to respond quickly and effectively while I was handicapped by overwhelming and sudden fear.

I still don't know what went on last night. I never heard back from the police department and after about 4:30 all the activity next door had dwindled to nothing. Maybe there had just been some crazy drug-filled party and someone had passed out, or overdosed, or done something else stupid and dangerous that they didn't want any authorities to know about. Maybe the girl had been hallucinating. Maybe there really was an accident--but one that one of the neighbors took care of on their own--maybe that person was a hero for a time and all the noise I heard an hour after the screams stopped were reactions of relief from those involved.

Whatever the real story, I know now that I'd better give some serious thought to becoming more mentally prepared to act appropriately in an emergency. Of course I hope I'll never have to be someone's only link between life and death--that I'll never have to witness or be a part of a mortally threatening situation--but one cannot control how or when these things happen. And if it does--heaven forbid--I sincerely hope I react better than I did today.

Special thanks go to my mom, Rod (for undoubtedly having to be woken up too), Patrick, and later even Rob (who called me internationally while on a coffee break at the conference), for their assistance and reassurance.

1 comment:

  1. This is a very good blog post, Kelly. I think it makes me realize that I, too, may be unprepared to act appropriately in a dire situation. It would be good for all of us to update or at least learn some skills.