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When I Shared My Trauma Story With a Stranger

I found myself completely flat on a beer-stained floor with the weight of a foreign body pinning me to the ground.

This wasn’t a sexual assault, but my attacker was intoxicated and reckless, didn’t have permission to touch me, and the incident separated my life into “before” and “after.”

It was the start of Spring Fling of my freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania. Spring Fling is a half week of intensive binge drinking that the university organizes and encourages. It’s the highlight of the year for most students. As the festivities began, my girlfriends and I went to the football team’s party. All floors of the house were packed, and my friend asked, “Wanna go up or down?” I shrugged and pointed up. I would forever regret choosing “up.”

As we climbed the first three steps of the 15-step staircase, two people in front of me dove to the left to avoid the oncoming avalanche. By the time they cleared my line of vision, a very intoxicated wrestler had flown through the air—nose-diving from the top of the long staircase towards the bottom and about to break his fall against my body.

His face hit mine, and my nose snapped to the left. Our bodies stuck together like glue until my head finally struck the ground with a loud thunk.

When I realized what happened, I gathered the strength to roll his heavy frame off of mine. In shock, I jumped to my feet and tried to shake it off, as though a severe head injury and a deformed nose could be shaken off like a handful of insects on my skirt.

The Aftermath

I spent the next day — the Friday that professors cancel class and the University sponsors all-day festivities — inside the sterile walls of a hospital.

For the next month, I dealt with a wide array of concussive and post-concussive symptoms, ranging from sensitivity to light and noise, dizziness, blurred vision, disorientation, mood swings, insomnia and pain. I took my final exams late. In the summer, I underwent the first of two expensive and painful surgeries to realign my nose in the center of my face.

When a volleyball kicked from a hundred feet smashed into my head the following summer, I relapsed. Consistent with medical knowledge that a second concussion in close proximity to the first is more severe, my symptoms were stronger and longer-lasting.

Throughout these two recoveries, I lost friends who became fed up that I was not the same carefree woman I was before and still not able to participate in certain activities. A student group revoked my leadership position because they didn’t “believe I still had a concussion.” My head spun as I studied for and sat through the LSAT. I struggled through physical pain to stay in school.

The Three-Year Anniversary

During my final Spring Fling, I attended a packed concert with a different group of girlfriends. Crowds of intoxicated people were my greatest anxiety, because waving hands and bobbing heads had the potential to make contact with my own head. This happened twice that night — the first time hitting my nose, which sent me straight to the bathroom to check if my nose had shifted positions, and the second time making solid contact with my head.

I spiraled, and like always when my head got bumped, attempted to differentiate between my fear of re-experiencing concussion symptoms and actually experiencing them. Was this the head impact that would really debilitate me? The room spun. Suddenly, the incident that happened three years ago felt more like it happened three minutes ago.

Within minutes, I made the unusual decision to abandon the night. I didn’t tell my friends, and none of them seemed to notice that I left. I ran toward the exit and saw a man and a woman stepping into the only taxicab on the street. I assumed they were Penn students with a destination somewhere near campus. Not wanting to wait for the next taxi, I jumped in the front seat while they made out in the backseat. They and the driver ignored me as I slumped down into my seat with my hands over my eyes.

The campus security officers ignored the mascara running down my cheeks as I walked through Locust Walk and entered my building where the only neighbors I knew were likely still at that concert. I walked into my apartment close to midnight, collapsed onto my sofa, and let out a long howl. I hoped that my walls would block out my loud cries.

Suddenly, there was a rap on my door.

Shoot. Someone heard me.

I muffled my cries and held my breath, trying to convince whoever was at the door that maybe she heard wrong.

There was another rap, rap, rap. Louder this time.

An unfamiliar voice called, “I can hear you crying. Can I come in?” I stayed silent for another 30 seconds, hoping she would go away. But she persisted. “Can I come in?”

I threw the door open. A short, African-American woman dressed in sweatpants and a T-shirt stood in the doorway. I had seen her before but we had never interacted. After a quick glance at my tear-stained cheeks, she jumped onto my sofa.

She told me her name was Chelsea. Chelsea had been studying for exams when she developed a late-night craving for a Snickers bar. She was on her way to the building’s vending machine when she heard crying. Realizing she had never reached her destination, I smiled and told her, “I can do you one better.”

Even though I would never be able to repay her for comforting a total stranger, I could give her something better than a plain old Snickers bar. I handed her two mini Snickers ice cream bars from my freezer, and she clapped her hands in delight.

With her sweet tooth satisfied, Chelsea asked me what happened, and she listened patiently to my fears, anxieties and post-traumatic stress in a way that my friends and family seldom did. She shared her own trauma: Chelsea’s friend on campus sexually assaulted her the previous year, and she had taken a leave of absence. Her family had never understood why she was suffering so severely, and she by and large carried her burden alone as she battled to stay in school. Although we were strangers to each other, we both understood the isolation that results from being misunderstood by those around us and helped ease that pain for each other ever so slightly. By the time she left two hours later, laughter had replaced some of my tears.

On the night I felt most alone, a stranger refused to let me be by myself.

I never learned Chelsea’s last name, and my attempts to search “Chelsea” and “University of Pennsylvania” on Facebook were futile. I slipped a thank you note under the door that I believed was hers but couldn’t be sure and didn’t run into her in the last couple weeks of the school year. Even though I’ll probably never see her again, I’ll never forget her.

What Chelsea taught me is that you can’t know unless you ask, and you can’t understand unless you listen . . . and really listen.

Especially during a global pandemic, where levels of anxiety, depression, and isolation have skyrocketed for so many people, acts of kindness like what Chelsea did for me five years ago are more important now than ever and can make all the difference. Never underestimate the important role you can play in another’s life by showing some kindness.

Thank you, Chelsea.

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