by Stephen Jay Schwartz

It was Wednesday of this week, in Santa Monica, at a new cafe across the street from my usual cafe.

I went outside for a little break and to make a phone call. I called my wife, talked story points for the new novel.

It had been an exceptional day. Filled with serendipitous moments. A great meeting at Sony Studios with the director of the film project I’m writing. A great meeting also with the guy who will be revamping my alto saxophone, enabling me to play music again, after a fifteen year hiatus. And then a new cafe, filled with the promise of new cafes, where I know no one and can focus on focused writing. It was a good day.

I turned off the phone and seconds later saw the decorative Christmas lights, which hang year-round between street signs, suddenly swing and shake wildly. I thought we were having an earthquake.

Which brought a strange memory, of telephone wires swinging wildly a few years ago. I thought that was an earthquake as well.

I asked a guy beside me what it was and he said there had been a naked woman dancing on the rooftop of the building next to us. It dawned on me that something might have hit those Christmas lights to make them shake so wildly.

I looked up the street a ways and saw a small crowd gathering. I walked up and saw the woman’s body on the ground. People hovered over her, passersby compelled to stop. They touched her shoulder tentatively. Someone found a sheet and draped it over her.

She was breathing. An occasional, deep breath. But no movement. Her head was completely shaved. People were saying she was a transient, that she was doing drugs, that she was crazy.

The police cars came. A woman said she was a nurse and a cop gave her a pair of blue, rubber gloves. She checked the woman’s pulse. A fire truck appeared and eight paramedics leapt into action. They did a quick visual examination. I heard one of them say, “agonal breathing.”

Crime scene tape went up around us quickly. The street filled with police cars. Cops rushed into the building where she had jumped—there was word that someone had been up there with her, maybe another jumper. I heard a cop say they were treating it like a crime scene. A forensics van pulled up.

The woman was put on a gurney and rushed away. Cops began taking statements. Blood remained on the asphalt where she had landed. It was a five-story fall.

I walked back to the cafe.

People were talking. It hit everyone differently. It hit everyone the same.

We were soothed by the fact that she was alive when they took her away. That she was breathing. I had seen her back rise and fall from the breaths.

Everyone who came into the cafe asked the barrista what happened. I sat at the counter, piping in when he fumbled for words. I said she was breathing.

A man came in and asked the question. We told him and he nodded. He’d seen a lot of these. He was a fireman. He said it might have been agonal breathing. I said, yes, that’s what the paramedics said. The fireman frowned. She won’t make it, he said. Agonal breathing is what the body does when there’s nothing left to do. It’s the body’s survival mechanism after intense trauma. It meant she was circling the drain. This is what the fireman said.

I worry that I’ve disassociated. It frightens me that I can talk about the details. I observed so closely the work of the police and paramedics. I took it in as if it was research to be used in my never-ending quest to get things right, to make things real in my writing. I wonder if I’m callous or if I’m simply in shock.

I remember that other day, a few short years ago. When I saw the telephone wires swaying. If I had left work thirty seconds earlier it might’ve happened to me. The wires were swaying because a telephone pole had been severed. This happened when the tow truck, traveling sixty miles an hour, tore into it. This was after the truck plowed through a dozen people waiting at the bus stop.

I drove into this scene, thirty seconds after it happened. A Hieronymus Bosch landscape. There were bodies in the street. And people rushing by. Children from the school next door staring through a chain-link fence, tiny hands gripping metal. A man running in his underwear, his arms waving.

It happened next to a police station, so the cops arrived quickly. I was told to stay in my car, drive on, clear the scene. I drove on, into the normalcy of the city streets beyond. I heard sirens, watched emergency vehicles pass, going the other direction.

And I thought to myself…did that happen?

I was in shock, although I didn’t know it. I would find out six months later in my doctor’s office when he told me I’d been suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This, after a five-month crusade to convince everyone I knew that the Bird Flu was the new Armageddon. That the Bird Flu would destroy us all. I had reams of research to back me up. I bought the face masks and emergency supplies and I was considering getting a shotgun to protect my family for when the System collapsed.

I was delivering my litany to a good friend when he asked the question, “Has anything strange happened to you recently? Have you experienced anything traumatic?”

Nothing, I said. I’ve been a bit stressed. This Bird Flu has really got me down. I haven’t been eating that well. There was this crazy accident I drove through a few months back where I saw three dead bodies and one of them could’ve been me if I’d been there a few seconds earlier and…

That’s it, he said.

The doctor gave me some anxiety pills and I took one and hated it and didn’t take anymore and gradually, during the course of the next few weeks, got better. That heavy feeling in the back of my head began to lighten. I think it was just the identification of the source of the trauma that set me straight.

As I sat at the counter of my new cafe, clinically replaying the images of the woman lying in the street, the cops arriving, the blue rubber gloves, the paramedics set into action, the police taping off the scene, I wondered if this was shock.

The barrista kept getting the question, with each arriving customer. Gradually his ability to explain what happened slipped. Soon he had trouble saying anything. I stepped in to fill the blanks. Something in me fed on their moment of reaction. I absorbed it, tried to process it, wondered why I didn’t react as they did. Was I desensitized?

The barrista was quick to explain that he had not intended to see the body, that he had only been walking to the grocery store for items for the cafe. That, when he saw the body on the ground, it had taken a moment for him to understand what it was. He was not the kind of person to go running to the scene, he insisted. It seemed very important that he communicate this.

I was one of the people who went running to the scene. I was there thirty seconds after she landed. I was there seven minutes before the police arrived. Thirteen minutes before the paramedics. I was aware that I could do nothing to help her. I observed, only. I was there, perhaps, to watch her die.

We write about these events, in our fiction. We visit the morgue and the coroner’s office and occasionally go to crime scenes. I’ve been to the morgue. I’ve seen autopsies. I’ve been in a room with three hundred bodies. They looked like empty gloves.

To be where a life was, just moments, seconds after that life has been extinguished…this is another story. This is sadness. I have been here a few times before. I’ve seen the bodies of two jumpers who leapt to their deaths from the clock tower of my college campus. I’ve stared at the body of a college student attached to his motorcycle on the ground in a pool of thick red blood as I hugged the shoulders of the friend who had driven the car that hit him. I passed the bodies of the men and women who were standing at that bus stop…

These are the tragic moments, the ones we remember. We linger on them. The inherent message is that life is fleeting, that at any moment the rug can be pulled out from under. In that instant, the bucket list comes out. What can I do with the time I have left? How long do I have? Have I said everything I need to say to my mother/father/wife/children? Have I left them enough to get by? (Money, guidance, wisdom, tools?)

I think this is why I run to the scene. It’s not to witness gratuitous violence. It’s not because I yearn excitement or that I find things morbidly entertaining. I run to the scene because I want to live. I want everyone to live. I want to understand life, and to understand life one must accept what is not-life and attempt to understand that as well.

I spoke with a friend of mine, later that night. She had seen this woman at the cafe the day before. She remembers staring at her for no apparent reason. She remembers thinking, “What is it with that girl?” There was an energy, a something-something about her that got my friend’s attention. Did my friend somehow know that this woman would be leaping to her death the very next day?

I remember the documentary I watched about the Russian theater attack in Moscow back in 2002. This was when the Chechen terrorists stormed a theater, planting women wearing suicide bombs in the seats, holding eight-hundred and fifty theater-goers captive for two and a half days. The Russian police pumped a chemical agent into the theater ventilation system to put everyone to sleep, but the gas was deadly and a hundred twenty-nine people were killed in the process. In the documentary, theater patrons were interviewed and many said they saw something strange in the eyes of the people who ultimately died. It was a distant look, something that suggested their lives were already over. As if they knew their time had come.

Perhaps this was what my friend saw. The day before. The woman leapt.

Sometimes I wonder, when we write in our fiction that a man has been shot dead, do we know what we have written? Have we considered what we’ve done for the sake of story? What does it mean when a woman jumps from the roof?

I run to the scene, to learn what to write.


41 thoughts on “FIVE-STORY FALL

  1. Barbie

    This post gave me chills all the way through, especially the end. I have to confess, it was a bit of a trigger for me. My aunt leapt to her death about two and a half years ago. The woman who was there with her was in shock at the funeral — she took a ride with us — and said the exact same thing: deep, occasional breaths. I hope they didn't feel pain. God, I hope they didn't. I think about doing that sort of thing more often than I should, posts like this scare the heck out of me, thanks 🙂

    Maybe people do know when their time is about to come, I don't know. Maybe somewhere deep inside they know that's it, it's time to go. I really don't know. This blog post made an impression on me, I don't know what else to say.

  2. J.D. Rhoades

    The curse of the writer. Other people look and go "oh, how awful," we take notes. Sounds like it shook you pretty badly. Hope you're alright.

  3. PK the Bookeemonster

    Oh, Stephen, your post was so moving. Your reaction to the event was …. human. We're curious when such things happen because it IS not the norm. We want to help but know we can't and sometimes being a witness to someone's life ending is the most we can give them. We are acknowledging them — it would be worse to ignore and not care at all.
    I've said it before that we have a strange choice of entertainment in crime fiction. I will be the first to say that I love crime fiction above all else. I don't read it to solve the puzzle but I do read it for the solving or resolving of a crime and more often than not in fiction justice prevails as it doesn't in real life. I don't like to read the darker novels because I don't read for violence or despair and I don't read the cozier novels because murder should not be taken lightly. I read the procedurals — either contemporary or historical — because I want/need to see the perpetrator caught. Justice served.
    In JD Robb's books, Eve Dallas always "stands for the dead" and even if they were the scum of the earth they become "hers" and she will not stop until it is put right. That is why I read crime fiction.

  4. Catherine

    I've wondered sometimes if part of what makes writers write, is there ability to observe and take in details and be able to read people's emotions and possible actions from a moment. I know that you said you want to understand life and non-life.

    I wonder if this stuff is developed before writers even know how to write…and by this I mean before school. I wonder whether particular set of observer skills are developed in those first five years of life for some are the first stages of becoming a writer.

    What I'm coming at Stephen, is I think the need to know and understand is very closely intertwined with observing and relating and we all have different styles. Maybe some people observe and immediately express what they've seen in an output of visible emotion…maybe some of them work it out on paper.

    I wonder a particular type of observing /writing is a driver for building stories, sharing our understanding. For me as a reader, the emotional honesty of the observer/writer in turn builds my understanding of life.

    Stephen don't be too hard on yourself. We're all just doing the best we can with what we've got.

  5. Catherine

    In regards to how tragic the events have been that you've discussed this probably seems really shallow, but I'm squinting at the screen like a crazy woman…it's late on a Friday night and after confirming the above post I noticed typos which adds to the glitchy vibe of my comment. Apologies.

  6. Nancy

    This really strikes a chord with me. Whenever I'm involved in a traumatic event, I distance myself. But it's not to observe, it's to partake in what is really happening. As people have pointed out, it's not the event per say, it's the loss of life, which is so precious to us.

    By pausing, by taking heed of what is really going on, it's my way of paying homage to the event that I know will linger in people's memories for years. It's my way of saying YOU mattered to me, that I witnessed your death, and damn it, even though you were a stranger, your death meant something to ME. Whether it's my dying father, an accident victim, or even — and this isn't shallow — even when I witnessed a dog run over, these events (for lack of a better word) matter. To me. To everyone around me. There's a patina of emotion that we cull from the victim, the bystanders, and our psyches. It makes us who we are.

    And how sad would be our world if we simply walk away, turn our heads, not ask 'what happened?'.

    I don't think this is the writer in us, Stephen. I think it's our love of life, our awareness. We'd be like that even if we were not writers.


  7. Debbie

    Stephen, there is nothing wrong with you in terms of your response; your ability to talk calmly about what you witnessed. Being able to talk about it comes unfortunately, from too much experience. Not with crime fic, but real life. I too have been there. I watch the reactions of those around me and can tell who is inexperienced by trauma, by death, by emergencies. There is a condition called acute stress reaction that might interest you.
    Keep talking to those who know you well; you know what's necessary to check into, in terms of your own mental health, and your post may have helped me with my own. Thank you.

  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Barbie – I'm so sorry to hear about your aunt. From what I've read about agonal breathing there doesn't seem to be any pain associated with it. It sounds painful, but apparently the victim is not aware of any pain. Thank you for sharing your story.

  9. MJ

    I haven't found a way to use my PTSD from a bad car accident yet. Still too aware of the fact that I need to keep thinking myself out of constantly bracing for the next 75 mph slam from behind and slam into concrete. But someday…

  10. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Dusty – thanks – I think I'm all right. I think writing and talking about it from the get-go is the key to managing it.

    PK – that's a wonderful explanation for why you read crime fiction. I might use it as my own. Thank you for your compassionate response and for sharing your thoughts.

    Catherine – I love the idea that we form the writer-self in those first five years of observing life. I think you have something there. It's the way we perceive. I remember trying to react to the world around me, first in music, then by making Super 8 films. I pursued both of these avenues but only writing seemed to really capture it for me. I finally feel comfortable expressing these feelings through writing, more than any other medium.

  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Zoe – Great words, words to remember.

    Alafair – thank you for seconding them!

    Nancy – I agree that it is not specifically a writer response; it's a human response. I think that because I'm a writer I tend to hide behind this wall of observation – hide my emotions, that is. I've learned that I need to break through that wall very quickly or else the feelings will adversely affect my behavior, without my knowledge. And I'm learning to let myself feel the same pain when an animal loses its life. I've grown so attached to my dog that I think I'd be wiped out if anything ever happened to her.

  12. Richard Maguire

    What an amazing post, Stephen. Your sense of shock, anguish, but, above all, your humanity shines through this report. It's what makes you such a talented writer.

  13. Harley

    You really made me think today. I witnessed something strange, similar, awful 2 years ago, with my then-9-year old daughter. We still talk about it sometimes. For weeks after, I had to recount the incident to everyone I encountered and didn't know why. I researched the victims online. I talked to other people who'd witnessed it. I visited the scene weeks later. I prayed. I felt like a nutjob. I feel a bit less like a nutjob now. Thank you.

  14. Karen in Ohio

    Stephen, this is such a moving essay. As writers, we do tend to be "noticing" kinds, don't we? But don't you also think that writers are also artists, people who think deeply about the world and our reactions to it? And as artists, we are compelled to express those deep feelings, in whatever way we can. Painters paint pictures; sculptors sculpt 3-dimensional objects; writers describe in words. Writing is a healthier way of dealing with what can sometimes be an overwhelming rush of emotion, so overwhelming that those without such a creative outlet have no way to relieve those feelings.

    A close friend is dealing with the aftermath of suicide right now, and we have had one in a close family member, so I've had occasion to muse on why and how an individual could be in that much pain as to take their own life. And how they can be so unaware of how those left behind will have to deal with it all.

  15. Louise Ure

    I don't think you run to the scene to learn what to write, Stephen. I think you're there because you're so receptive to the communal "we". You can identify with all kinds of pain. And you take it in like a sin eater.

    Agonal breathing and Christmas lights in the same post? That's why I love your writing.

  16. Brett Battles

    So Steve is temporarily locked out from posting comments, so he asked me to upload the following…but first I actually was reading about this tragedy yesterday ( To know that a close friend was right there immediately after, makes it all the more chilling to me.

    Here's Steve's comments:

    Debbie – thank you for that link – I checked it out right away. It
    explains a lot. And I'm glad my post helped you.

    MJ – thankfully I have never had the terrible experience of being in a
    major car accident. If I did I think it would be on my mind constantly,
    and in my dreams at night. I hope you get through the PTSD soon. It's a
    mighty bitch – I remember living in a fog for a very long time because of
    it. It's a strange sensation – a muffled depression. Take care of

    Richard – thanks for the kind words.

    Harley – you were definitely not such a nut-job. I also researched the
    car crash that killed those three people. It was terrible because two of
    them were married, and they left five kids without a mother and father.
    The local fire department had a fund-raiser for them and I attended,
    donating money I couldn't really afford to donate at the time – but of
    course I could afford to – it was that important to me. I was very sad at
    the event, reaching out to fire-fighters, telling them I was there, that I
    wished I could've stopped. I felt guilty for having to leave the scene.
    This trauma stuff can really screw with you, man. And the girl who jumped
    from the building didn't die – she's in a coma now. I'm keeping tabs on
    her through friends and newspaper reports. Thanks for sharing your story.

    Karen – I thank God I have a way to deal with such trauma – I don't know
    what I'd do if I didn't write. I used to play the blues on my sax, years
    ago — it was a very lonely, sad sound. It was frustrating because I
    never felt I could really express my feelings through music alone. I
    guess that's why I developed as a writer. And I forgot to mention that my
    father committed suicide when I was twenty. I've been working and
    re-working that for 26 years now.

  17. Murderati fan

    Steven, basically what everyone said. Marvelous writing about the incident and your subsequent reactions.

    I'm wondering: how do you feel about returning to that cafe, you looked forward to having a place where everybody didn't know your name, yet now everyone knows your face, can you still focus there.

    Your description of your reaction brings to mind how survivors of childhood sexual abuse build containers in their mind to hold their pain.

    Your wife must be a truly amazing person.

  18. Karen in Ohio

    Musicians are also artists. Composers would probably be closer to writers, vis a vis expressing emotions, yes?

  19. Kathleen Pickering

    I guess it all goes back to "Who Am I?" and "Why Am I Here?" Death ends all those questions . . . then raises more. This post is amazing, gritty, touches deep and makes one immediately self-aware. Not surprising, coming from you, Stephen! Well done.

  20. Timothy Hallinan

    Stephen — I reacted to this on several levels, and I'm almost ashamed to admit that the first was that it's a powerful and economical piece of writing. To a writer, I think it's fair to say, life is just a delivery system for material, and on one level this experience is, of course, material, as are your reactions to it. And you did it the honor of writing on tiptoe all the way through the piece, which I think is the response we owe an event like this if we're going to go through the process of transforming it into words and sentences.

    My second reaction was that I was very, very glad it happened outside your Santa Monica cafe rather than mine. I don't have any idea how much I would have internalized this, but I doubt I could have worked through it so deeply and so quickly. I probably would have poured it all into the ear of my long-suffering wife, who doesn't need it at all.

    Anyway, terrible experience, great writing. I hope against hope that the woman is alive (if on some level she wants to be) and not permanently impaired.

  21. Schwartz, Stephen Jay

    Louise – loved your comments – thank you. You made me smile with your last line.

    Brett – thanks again for posting for me, and for including the link.

    Murderati Fan – I will go back to the same cafe – I have new friends there now, and I we have what I think the professionals call a "trauma bond." Sudden, instant friendship. I'll still manage to get some writing done.

    Karen – even composition doesn't quite do the trick for me – the emotions are expressed, but the message in still abstract. I cannot get to the point with anything other than writing or film making, and film making takes too damn long.

    Kathleen – thanks for your wonderful comments. Gritty is me. I like how you say that it makes the reader immediately self-aware. Nice observation.

    Toni – thanks, sweetie.

    Tim – great words, thank you. Yep, I like the economy of words in it. I cut and tightened it after the first pass, feeling that it needed to be tight, poem-like. It seems to express her brevity of life. Unfortunately I've seen a couple bizarre things outside of that cafe. I was there the day the homeless guy was hit by the city bus, too. Remember that? You like to stay on "uptown" Main Street, where things are calm. You need to come back to the hood, my friend. Thanks again for the wonderful things you say.

  22. Phillip Thomas Duck

    Poignant, beautiful post. I think the madness of the world definitely draws in those of us that write. And I do think in some way that writing, particularly about crime and mayhem, is an attempt to make sense of a dark world. I remember the day after the 9/11 attacks taking a ride to Jersey City, NJ. At the time I was the district manager for a major oil company and one of my locations was right outside of the Holland Tunnel. I wanted to go and check on my manager at the location as well as see for myself what the scene looked like up close. I had to be escorted through JC by the police because most vehicles, other than emergency vehicles, weren't allowed on the streets. When I arrived at the station, my manager–a male I might add–fell into my arms and began to sob. I remember comforting him the best I knew how and then remarking to one of the scores of emergency workers on scene, "What is that smell?" To which he replied, "Death." I will never forget the smell or his words in response to my query. Ever. Life is dark. And writing and reading is therapeutic. I will keep reminding myself of both truths.

  23. Schwartz, Stephen Jay

    Phillip – Holy shit, your comment gave me chills. I couldn't even find a way to write after 9/11. It was just too big. I couldn't wrap my mind around it. I still can't. It might be possible if I had a specific, personal recollection, but I really don't – I was just one of the millions who stared with eyes open at the TV set for four weeks straight. I was stuck in Ohio – Columbus, to be exact. I rented a car and drove around the Amish towns, looking at the peaceful Hockney landscape, watching the horses and buggies and the Amish living their lives as they always have. It was soothing, it was the only thing I could do.

  24. David Corbett


    What a beautiful, mesmerizing, lyrical elegy of a post. I have to run to a meeting, and hope I can write more later, but just this quick note:

    The filmmaker Amy Hardie made a documentary about her 48th year after dreaming her horse would die — only to have to fall dead the next day — then dreaming she would die in her 48th year. The film is about that year. She fell ill, and as you can imagine . . .

    I won't spoil it. Here's a link if you're interested:

    But the message became: If you live each day with an over-awareness of death, it stifles and depresses you in ways you can't imagine. Debilitating depression. She came to believe it was far better to live as though you'll never die. Never.

    Having watched both my brother and wife die young from awful diseases, I often think of death, and living to the fullest because of it. But then an odd and anxious depression comes over me, a sense of helplessness and dread. And that's a rotten way to live.

    I once a character who'd come to think of life and death not as different things, but as two sides of the same thing, more left and right than before and after. I've been visited by my brother and wife after their deaths — or so it seemed at the time — and it's not just because I'm part Irish that I have an inclination for spooks and faeries. (God? No. Ghosts? Oh yeah.)

    All of which is meant to say: Do not be afraid. Forget about it. Care and watch and see. And write (which you did very movingly and wonderfully.) There's no fault in it. We want to know just a little bit more about this mysterious thing we call our life. And there's no moment more compelling than when that life appears to be vanishing — to where? Don't fault yourself for being the messenger, or for wanting to get the details right. You wished no harm on anyone, and I know you, you're a good man. I'm not saying that to be kind. I'm saying it because I know it to be true.

    But I understand the misgivings, and maybe can write a little more about that later.

    Wonderful post. Thank you so much.


  25. tess gerritsen

    Stephen, powerful words!

    I tend to walk the other way when there's been a tragedy. I don't want to see it. I think I've seen too many dead bodies and I just don't want to deal with any more. It's odd about your experience with PTSD. I handled 9/11 pretty well. But then, two weeks later, while shopping in the grocery store, I suddenly felt an overwhelming urgency to buy up emergency stocks of macaroni and cheese and powdered milk. Because something bad seemed like it was going to happen. My kids laughed about it when they watched me unpack those boxes and boxes of foodstuffs we'd never use. A year later, I threw it all away. I'm still puzzled by that weird panic attack in the grocery store, but PTSD explains it perfectly.

  26. Schwartz, Stephen Jay

    David – I'm definitely going to check out the Amy Hardie documentary. Sounds just a little intense, which is right up my alley. Thanks for the kind words. I wanted you to read this post because I know where you've been, what you've had to deal with in your life. You've got a strength and a tenderness and a wisdom and a poetry about you, and it comes from who you are and how you've dealt with the cards you've been dealt.

    Tess – Yeah, you've seen it all. I saw bodies in the Coroner's Office, but it was a one-morning experience. You lived it. I often wonder how that daily experience would alter my perspective on life and death. I totally get your grocery store moment. I had to throw away a lot of ridiculous shit, too…like Pop Tarts and old pasta…what was I thinking?

  27. Jenni

    You had a very human response to a tragic, shocking, emergency situation, and you recorded it with such immediacy that it leaves a lasting impression. I know what it's like to bury the emotions for years after something like this, and believe me, it's better when you can talk about it and try to come to terms with what's happened without burying it or suppressing your emotions. What I've learned about PTSD is that each experience builds on the others, so that each seems far more traumatic than the last. When something triggers PTSD, it can quickly spiral your mind into a place you don't want to go. I empathized with what David said about that awful obsession with death if you dwell on it. When we suppress our emotions, they come out in unpredictable and sometimes frightening ways and with often unintended effects. It is good to talk and to write; both help immensely. And I think the sooner we do both, the less traumatized we are by the experience in the long run.

  28. Cornelia Read

    Stephen, a week from today is the anniversary of my dad's suicide. It's this big, wobbly distortion that I can't look at head-on, in a way. I've been in shock a lot in my life–car crashes, some other bad shit. It has a long-lasting effect, and the PTSD is really fucking hairy. I empathize with your bird-flu fixation. For me it was flying. The shit is really, really hard. You are a good man to examine it in yourself, and to write about it. Thank you.

  29. Schwartz, Stephen Jay

    Jenni – great comments, thank you. Yeah, PTSD is strange and intense. I can't imagine what it would be like to be in a combat zone. To see death every day, to wonder if today is the day you're going to go. Watching friends disappear. I feel fortunate that I haven't seen too much of this in my life. I don't know how soldiers deal with it. I think I would lose my mind.

    Cornelia – you've just about made it through the first year – the hardest time. I remember how hard it was getting through the first year after my father killed himself. Every day was chaos. I didn't ever experience the PTSD until I witnessed that accident with the tow truck, however. I was in shock from my father's suicide, but I did a shit-load of writing in an attempt to nip it in the bud. It did help. And yet, nothing really helps. You just have to go through it. The pain and shock is and always will be there. But it is manageable. I can see how the PTSD would affect your feelings for flying – that must have been very difficult, considering all the traveling you have to do as an author. I remember that feeling in my head…it was like wearing a lead cowboy hat, all the time. I remember the weight of it. I remember this strange taste of metal on my tongue…there was a metallic taste to PTSD for me. Very strange. It took a long, long time to disappear. I hope it eases up for you soon.

  30. Reine

    Stephen, I tried to write something earlier but could not. I have not lost a parent this way. I have lost close friends to suicide and murder, and it left me feeling empty while overly full. So hard to express. PTSD. I just try to keep going. Mostly I struggle with wanting to let go while not forgetting – imposssible so far.


  31. KDJames

    Stephen, it breaks my heart that you can wonder even for a moment whether you're callous. Then again, maybe you don't mean it as being indifferent and feeling no emotion, but rather as having formed an outer shell to protect yourself. And that seems likely. God knows, I've got one.

    I think the more sensitive and empathetic we are, the more likely we are to form a barrier to shield ourselves from events that provoke extreme emotions. If anything, probably you feel too much, too deeply. Maybe you don't see that in yourself, but it permeates every word you write here. Beautifully spare and moving.

    I'm sorry you were a witness to the event. And yet I'm glad someone was a witness who is able to relate it to others with depth and feeling and as more than just the necessarily dry facts of a police report.

  32. Schwartz, Stephen Jay

    Reine – feeling empty while overly full…yes, that's a good description. That, and more. It's almost impossible to articulate exactly.

    KD – wow, you nailed it. An outer shell to protect the fact that I'm insanely sensitive to things. I've been accused of being too sensitive (mostly as a child), and then I've been told I was callous (as an adult). See the progression? It took me years to become sensitive again, trying to shake the appearance of being callous when cowering in my shell. It's a hell of a balancing act.

  33. Katherine Howell

    Incredible post, Stephen. I had a similar thing happen to me recently when I was woken by a huge car crash outside my motel while away teaching writing workshops. As an ex-paramedic I have a good first aid kit in the car, and I got it and went down to the scene. One driver was trapped and semi-conscious and I looked after him until the local crew arrived. Back in my room later I couldn't sleep, and realised not only how glad I am that I quit that job but how it's still with me, the memories of the awful jobs I did back in the day are still with me, and how thankful I was that he wasn't more badly hurt because maybe then I wouldn't have been able to help him. I haven't been able to find out anything about him since, and I hope he's okay.
    Like Tess, I think I've seen too much, and if someone in uniform is on the scene I walk the other way. When it's just happened, though, I always go, and I see the relief in the eyes of the other people who've run up to help but don't know what to do, and I know I'm helping them if no-one else.

  34. Schwartz, Stephen Jay

    Katherine – when I was in college I took an emergency first aid class, hoping to become that guy who could do something in a scene like the one you described. It did not come natural to me. I was a mess every day of class. I learned how brittle we are, how easy it is for us to crack and break and bleed-out. I didn't have the nerve to do anything but pass the class–barely. And I wouldn't trust myself to know what to do in an emergency scene like the one you described. It's great that you keep that kit in your car always–it's good to have someone like you around in times like that.

  35. Katherine Howell

    Hi Stephen,
    love that phrase 'how brittle we are'. And so true!
    One of the things I carried away from my 15 years in that job was that nobody ever knows what's around the corner. Accident victims would constantly say, 'I can't believe this has happened'. I never ever walk out of the house on an argument, or without saying goodbye, or without a hug and a kiss. Because you just never know.

  36. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Katherine – I'm exactly the same about leaving the house. Hugs and kisses and warm things to day.

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