VOICES: Opinion: Your story always matters

Omar Waheed

Content warning: the following piece contains sensitive topics surrounding mental illness, substance abuse and death.

I think we’re often changed by our worst situations, either for better or worse. There’s no other option.

Getting to tell other people’s stories in Voices, I get the chance to hear the stories of so many people in some of their most defining situations. Unfortunately, no one is interviewing me to hear my most pivotal moments in life. Luckily I run this thing so I have the luxury of sharing it anyway.

There’s a lot.

I could write about the defining moments of my life to almost no end, but the worst experience of my life has had the most profound effect on my psyche and is most worth sharing.

I could share a fluff story about something that makes me feel warm and bubbly inside, like how every time I see my niece Maliyah, she runs up to me yelling “Omaaaaaaaaaaaar. I missed you soooooo much,” and gives me the biggest hug her four-year-old arms can give, then I pick her up and give her the biggest hug my significantly older arms can give her and tell her, “Te quiero mucho mi princesita.”

Or when I hold my other niece Luna and she’s crying, I sing to her the second half of Beach Goons’ “A.M.” as I rock her back and forth.

And while that does make me feel all warm and bubbly inside every time it happens, it’s a limited look into my experience, or my Voice if you will. That’s what we’re seeing in Voices, things that may make you feel good while giving a deeper look at the person, but rarely anything detrimental.

While that’s okay, everyone has one experience that is so negative, they are hesitant to share it.

You could hear about my more nefarious actions stemming from my anger issues, the good things I’ve done, my accomplishments, all the times I’ve self-destructed, bouts with depression or a slew of other stories from the endless tragedy of my life, but I want to share with you the worst two days of my life that spanned over three days and left me with PTSD.

The first day was normal. I went over to my parents’ house to visit my nieces and mess with my younger brother. No big deal, except he had a bad day at work and was feeling some type of way as he went into his room.

Naturally as his older brother, I didn’t stop messing with him and followed him into his room, except he wasn’t having it today.

He reached back and slammed the door with every pound of his body. He’s 6-foot-4 and built like an offensive lineman; there was a lot of force behind that door slam. Unluckily, the tip of my left middle finger was just barely in the way and was clipped off.

I screamed, naturally, he opened the door and freaked out, my mom came over and freaked out, my older brother came over and freaked out. A good ole’ family freak out. I ran into the bathroom to bleed in the sink because I’m a nice person and wouldn’t bleed all over someone’s carpet, family or not.

My mom called for an ambulance, my older brother helped me keep pressure on the rag as my younger brother was crying in the living room. He’s a gentle giant deep down. The ambulance arrived. In all this time, my mother was searching for my missing finger piece, and she found it and put it in ice then headed out to meet us at the hospital.

I got to have the most delightful ride in an ambulance as I started to recompose myself and get my crying and breathing under control while the paramedic asks me a bunch of COVID questions. I passed his test, so he didn’t stop the ambulance and throw me out. I don’t know if he would have done that, but I like to imagine he would have.

He then got bored and asked me some non-paramedic questions like: “where are you from?”

A weird thing to ask the guy bleeding in the back of the ambulance, but I humored him and answered what I always do, “Wisconsin, but I was mostly raised in Iowa.”

He then asked the true classic question of polite racists, “No but like, where are you really from?”

I love this question. Every minority born in the U.S. loves this question a whole lot.

“My mom is half White and half Black from California. My dad was born in Pakistan but moved here almost 40 years ago.”

This was the answer he was really looking for. I like to imagine if I answered I’m from another country, he’d bust out and say, “White power!” and grab my wound to hate crime the little foreigner.

We got to the hospital. I was still in pain, but I was back to myself making poorly timed jokes in uncomfortable situations. The nurse was nice and picked up on my nonserious attitude. She played along with it, which is honestly all I could have ever asked for in an emergency room visit.

She left, some hospital person getting my info came at the same time my mom did. She asked my next favorite question: “Is this your mom?” I look nothing like my mom, I look like a very light skinned Arab.

Offended by the question as my mom always is, she answered yes and then I got to hear the follow up question, “Oh. Is he adopted?”

This old lady couldn’t believe that the woman there was my biological mother. What if I was adopted and this is when I would have found out? That would have been crazy. Sadly, I’m not and look exactly like her grandpa. The resemblance is too uncanny.

I told my nurse about it, and she laughed. She was Persian so she could understand some of what was going on with the subtly racist lady.

When I got cleaned up, some people came to reattach it, thankfully, and gave me some quality painkillers and told me to go to a specialist in five days for some follow up stuff. Here’s the gross part, while they did reattach it, it turns out some of it was completely dead and had to be knocked off so it could heal properly. So now my middle finger is only slightly taller than my index finger on my left hand, my dominant hand might I mention. They sent me on my way and told me to visit a specialist for some post-op treatment.

Next day went by, all I did was chill on these strong pills and watch TV while getting calls and texts from my younger brother apologizing every hour.

You may be thinking, “Oh wow, big deal Omar. People get hurt all the time. No reason to have PTSD over that.”

To that, I say hush your mouth. There’s another thing. The PTSD was triggered through multiple high stress events in quick succession.

Now we approach the third day. The day was as any other, minus the fresh new injury. I went to work late at my family’s store because I dared my father to fire me. Also, the night guy didn’t do his job anyway so what was 30 more minutes of him being a disgusting slob on a stool while being incompetent? And I was injured? Let me be late.

Five minutes went by, the night guy left after he shared whatever racially motivated conspiracy theory he decided to crack up. It was 8:30 a.m. now, a truck pulled up and no one came out. That’s no big deal since the neighborhood our store is in is a hotbed of addiction.

Sometimes people pull up after “partying” all night and finally crash. I typically wake them up after 30ish minutes. Five more minutes went by, and another truck pulled up. They asked me what was up with that woman in the truck out there.

I had no idea what they were talking about, so I asked them what they meant. They told me the woman in the truck was violently shaking back and forth. Being the concerned man that I am, I got out there and looked. I knew exactly what I was looking at: an overdose.

I hopped back inside to grab my phone to call 911 and headed back out. Explaining to the operator what was happening, they told me to try to get to her and get her attention. The doors were locked, and the windows were rolled up. I circled around to the other side to see if I could get in there, and then I saw a needle on the passenger seat, confirming what I already knew.

No dice on that side either. I went back to the driver’s side and pounded on the glass. I was getting some reaction from her as I saw her slightly turn her head and move her eyes to me. She wasn’t speaking and was still shaking. I made eye contact while still pounding on the glass while staying on the line with the operator.

Then it happened, the shaking slowed down until it stopped. The frantic heavy breathing became more and more shallow until there was no movement left. She died right in front of me. I watched the last moments of this woman’s life.

The cops arrived about 20 minutes after that, but I was speechless. They grabbed my phone and told the operator that they were here, then hung up and handed me back my phone. They started trying to get to her, too, until they realized the same thing I did, she was dead. They smashed the window to get in the truck and confirm it. The mood changed immediately to a somehow even more somber feeling.

Pulling up about 15 minutes after that were the EMTs. They started rushing to get there but slowed down when the cops waved something at them. They got her body into the ambulance, checked her for a good 20 more minutes and then pulled off with no sirens.

I went on autopilot and went back into the store. Tears were rolling down my face nonstop as I had an empty 1000-yard stare. There wasn’t anyone I could call to work. It was my family’s store, and we didn’t have employees to swap out. I was stuck in a place that didn’t close for seven more hours.

A lot of people came and went, but no one really snapped me out of it or tried to help me compose myself until a regular and family friend, Randy, came in. He came behind the counter, sat me down and called my father and uncle. No one answered. It was 10:00 a.m., and no one cared. Then he called my mom. She woke up my father, and he simply said he would come a bit early. He came an hour earlier than usual.

I was in my catatonic state until about 12:00 p.m., when another regular came in. He got a pack of Marlboro Reds as he always does and said to me “cool beans.” I finally snapped out of it and started laughing maniacally, tears still rolling down my face and cackling like I was an insane person in a padded room. I finally got to go home and then didn’t sleep for five days.

Every time I closed my eyes, I could see her dying. I convinced myself if I didn’t sleep, then I would never have to see it again. That was a mistake. I spiraled into a psychotic episode after the third day due to the long sleep deprivation and went two more days without sleeping.

I finally had an ultimate moment of clarity and convinced myself that the voices and hallucinations would stop if I simply went to sleep. Somewhere in that cycle, I had convinced myself that what I saw was part of the episode. I think this was the only thing that helped me finally sleep, and I did, for 14 hours straight.

I got a call from my mom to ask me how I was doing after the whole watching a woman die thing. I realized that it was real. I went to work again and received a call from a man saying that he was looking for the truck after the woman died. I can’t remember his relationship to her, but I still did not have an answer for him. The city sent someone over to tow it away was all I knew.

Getting pushed back into the reality of the situation, I felt a deep despair bubbling up. This time I was too tired to not sleep again, but I knew that I wouldn’t. I did the natural thing and took an extra dose of the painkillers and dozed off.

The only way to not drift into another episode and make it to my appointment this time was to abuse these pills, so I did. I didn’t spend much time awake for a couple weeks until I felt like I could function again. Anytime the feelings crept up, I would pop some of these pills and sleep.

I had placed myself in a cycle of drug abuse to cope with the experience. When I finally became fully cognizant, I knew I had a problem and decided to do something about it: no more pills and try to confront the experience.

I was able to fall asleep again, but I wouldn’t sleep for very long due to me still being able to see everything all over again when I closed my eyes. I decided that I should get actual help and sought counseling. I did the first step but cowered out on the next vital steps. Eventually I followed through and was directed to a psychiatrist that specializes in trauma and was diagnosed with uncomplicated PTSD.

I still don’t sleep much. More than before, but never more than six hours unless I pass out from drinking too much, which has now become imperative to me getting a full night’s rest, so I will get recklessly drunk on occasion. Occasionally I’ll have episodes where I can see everything happen extremely vividly and won’t sleep for days then go through the same no sleep psychotic episode thing for a bit.

The point of this was to share a moment of vulnerability. A lot of the stories in Voices are not talking about the unfortunate things in people’s past but talk about the end point that leads to the growth, and I understand that. Why would we allow ourselves to be seen at our weakest by strangers? We want to show this ultimate poise as being strong and able to overcome anything in our paths, ambitiously believing that every bad thing has a positive purpose for the future. I still can’t find one with this.

The reality is that bad things just happen. It’s nice to think that all the pain and strife is for the better, but sometimes it’s arbitrary, and we just have to continue on in our lives with these experiences.

Ultimately, I wanted to share a tragedy. When interviewing people, it’s hard to get them to open up in such a way. When we allow ourselves to be seen and express every bit of our voices, we inspire others to do the same.

Vulnerability is a challenge to express because there always runs the risk that when we open ourselves up to others, they may not care, or they may pass some apathetic judgment on us.

Despite that, if we take a risk and allow ourselves to be seen and heard in all our being, you may find comfort in telling harrowing tales that used to haunt your thoughts endlessly. For me, I used to cry every time I told this story. Now, I can confidently tell this story, and with every passing day, I feel better. I do not see her dying anymore when I close my eyes. Even simply writing this had a profound effect on my healing.

At that, I want readers to know that if they want to share their stories, no matter how vulnerable it makes them feel, they are important. Every step in your life, good or bad, is important.

We may feel as if something that happened was just bad and doesn’t benefit you in any way, but you never know. Solitude in our experiences is something we all believe we have, but if you can muster up the courage to share your story, you would be shocked to find other people have a similar experience that they’ve been worried about sharing and have been bottling up.