It was the middle of October in Colorado. The leaves on the trees were beautiful shades of red, orange, and yellow—colors I had never experienced growing up in southern California. But in July 2007, my family packed up and moved to the Denver area. And in August, I started my senior year of high school. I had never felt more alone, knowing that I’d have to start over again in another year when I left for college.
Two months into the school year, my small Christian high school held our homecoming pep rally, and there I was: playing team games with classmates I barely knew. With only around 200 students in the entire school, it was hard to make friends. It seemed as though everyone had already formed their social circles. It didn’t help that I was painfully shy, and making friends had never come easily to me.
Today, I was struggling to try and have fun, to get to know the people I saw in class every day, to come out of my shell a little bit. But I was trying.
After we played a few rounds of dodgeball, we switched to tug of war. It was the junior class against the senior class, with about 50 students on each side of the rope. We had played a few rounds, and the seniors were winning. We came up with a plan to beat the juniors once and for all. On the count of three, we would all pull as hard as we could.
We all tugged on the rope, excited at the prospect of victory. And then came the blood-curdling screams.
I remember feeling the coarseness of the rope as it slipped through my fingers.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone bolt through the emergency exit doors and out onto the field.
“Somebody call 911!”
Several students in the bleachers pulled their phones out and dialed 911.
I froze. My eyes were locked on the white wristband sitting in a pool of blood on the gymnasium floor.
I noticed one student clutching his hand against his stomach. Another student was with him, creating a makeshift tourniquet out of his shirt while teachers and staff frantically searched for towels.
After the chaos
As the chaos subsided, we realized what had happened. Two of the juniors had each wrapped the rope around one of their hands to get a better grip. When the seniors all pulled on the rope at once, it was enough force to partially sever both of the juniors’ hands. One of the students was in shock; he was the one I saw running through the exit doors. When we realized he was gone, a teacher went to go find him.
It felt like an eternity waiting for the ambulances to arrive. Some students were sobbing. Others were praying. Some, like me, weren’t sure what to do. The two students who were injured had incredibly difficult journeys ahead of them.
The police department sent victim advocates to speak with the students, to talk with us about what we had just witnessed. I don’t remember much of what I said to her. I remember sobbing as I began to process the gravity of what I had just experienced.
Some time after the accident, we had an assembly to “reclaim the gym for God.” The idea was that something evil had happened there, and we could pray the hurt away. The school saw it as a way for us to acknowledge that we had gone through something painful while allowing us to move on from the tug-of-war accident and focus on healing.
And so I put it all away, thinking I could just move on. I was 17 and didn’t want to talk to my parents about it. I didn’t talk about it with my younger brother, who was a freshman at the same school and was also there that day.
I didn’t realize how deeply it had impacted me. It took me years to figure out that this event signaled a major turning point in my life. It reformed the way I thought about faith, trauma, and grief in a way that still impacts me today.
The blame game
This traumatizing experience became fodder for news headlines, and often the stories got the details of what I’d lived through wrong. In fact, some stories misreported that the tug-of-war game was between junior and senior football players, effectively writing me out of my own experience.
As much as I wanted to pretend like it was just this weird, crazy thing that happened, the reality is it was deeply traumatic and isolating. I had already felt so alone being new at this small school and being too shy to make friends. I felt like I couldn’t talk about the accident with anyone because I didn’t know anyone well enough. I felt like I should be grateful because I was physically unharmed. I felt like I didn’t deserve to grieve in the same way that everyone else did.
I questioned why God would allow something so terrible to happen to the people who loved and followed him. I blamed myself for being there, for pulling on that rope, and for causing such incredible pain to someone else. I felt guilty that my first instinct in the midst of it all wasn’t to drop to my knees in prayer, like some of my classmates had done. Instead, I froze, incapacitated by my own fear.
Growth from crisis
Years later, I was referred to a therapist for EMDR therapy. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It’s a form of therapy that incorporates the use of both eye movements and bilateral stimulation, like tapping or vibrations, to help patients process traumatic memories and resolve stress responses to the traumatic event.
While I had learned about the fight or flight response to trauma, in talking with my therapist, she told me it sounded like I had engaged in the freeze response, which is something I never knew about. Yet for so many years, I saw my freeze response as a spiritual failing, a sign that I didn’t have enough faith to turn to God in times of crisis.
As we did EMDR therapy together, I realized how much guilt, anger, and loneliness I was holding onto from that period of my life. In the weeks and months after the accident, I felt helpless and alone, like God had brought me to this new place and I had no one to help me through the trauma.
When my school tried to put this all behind us it didn’t sit right with me, but I couldn’t articulate why. After EMDR therapy, I could finally put it into words. By contextualizing the tug-of-war accident as “spiritual warfare,” I felt a sense of personal responsibility for the accident.
If I had just prayed harder, been closer to God, or read my Bible more, maybe none of this ever would have happened.
In reality, there are a million things we could have done that day to have changed the outcome. But we didn’t. Accidents happen. The gymnasium wasn’t overtaken by evil. Satan didn’t make the two students wrap the rope around their hands. They just didn’t realize what they were doing—as adolescents often do.
In the same way, I wasn’t to blame either. I didn’t pull on the rope with the intention of severing anyone’s hands. I never set out to cause anyone pain. It was an accident.
Where to go from here
Seven months after the accident, graduation day arrived. I sat on a folding chair on the floor of the gymnasium as my family looked on from the bleachers. I blinked away the memories of blood spatter as I moved the tassel on my cap from the right to the left. The class of 2008 walked together through those emergency exit doors and out onto the field, where we threw our caps into the air and said our goodbyes. I ended up making some friends after all.
When my friends and I talk about that year, we often reflect on what we could have used more of in order to move forward and to heal. The day of the accident, two people were seriously injured, and my community came together to hold benefit concerts, fundraisers, and prayer services for them. But there was also a gymnasium full of people who were deeply impacted by that event as well. I didn’t know that I needed help, much less what to ask for. So in the weeks and months ahead, I felt like I was left behind.
When traumatic things happen, they can shatter a community, and they affect everyone differently. It can be tempting to try and explain trauma away by reciting the same Bible verses without thought or compassion for the victims of the experience. But supporting and comforting people who are hurting is an opportunity to listen and truly understand how someone is feeling–and then love them where they are.
Sometimes, traumatic things just happen, and being there to lament and to mourn with someone can do the most good. If you want to be there for someone who has just experienced a traumatic event, you can invite them to share their experience or their feelings, offer to listen, or simply be willing to hold space for them. Validate their experiences and emotions instead of trying to offer unsolicited advice or platitudes.
Finally, remember that healing takes time. My close friends and family are still willing to listen when I bring up the accident, but they know that it’s not necessarily an experience I want to relive. Certain days can be harder than others, but I’ve learned to lean on the people I trust and love—and to ask for help when I need it.