The Trauma Manifests: Charlene’s story part 2

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Posted: July 09, 2020

Last week, we told the intimate story of what it was like for Charlene Waiganjo, who was six-months pregnant, to be trapped in Westgate mall during the terror attacks of 2013. You can read the story HERE. This week, we talk about how the severe trauma of her experience wreaked havoc on her marriage, her relationship with her newborn baby, her work and her everyday life.

After escaping Westgate, my husband took me to the Aga Khan Hospital maternity ward. At this point, I really started reacting. I couldn’t keep still. I wanted to hide in the cupboards. I kept asking people why they were so complacent. In my mind, it made perfect sense that the hospital would be the next target. I really believed the terrorists would follow us there and that everyone needed to hide.

I was in hyper mode and the baby started popping around like popcorn. We thought I would definitely lose the pregnancy because of the shock; it was just too much. The doctors told me if I was not going to calm myself down, they would have to do it with drugs which would potentially be harmful for the baby. They did a lot of tests and it took a couple hours for me to calm down. When we were done, I refused to stay in the hospital because I was just too scared. My doctor, who was trapped in lockdown at Village Market, prescribed some calming medication that would not harm the baby and I went home around 9pm that night. Being at home was less stressful than the hospital and I went to bed and slept I think for 2 days!

When I woke up, the first thing I told my husband was that I wanted to see all his family and I wanted to see all my friends. I needed to talk to them and see them- even the ones I knew didn’t like me. The family thought it was too much too soon but I was insistent. So we had to call everyone and they all came. It was very strange. I think because of the profound moment when I wrote my goodbyes in Westgate, I had accepted my fate (that I would die that day) and I felt like I shouldn’t still be alive. So somehow I needed to see everyone to accept the reality that I was still alive.

What did you say to them?

I don’t think I said much. It was more of just connecting with them that pulled me back into the reality that I’m still alive and still here.

And did life go back to normal after that?

I can tell you that life definitely did NOT go back to normal after that as everyone expected it to. I was not able to leave the house at all. I became extremely fearful of a lot of things. My fears were exasperated by multiple bus bombings in Nairobi and the Malaysian Airlines plane crash among others. I became incapacitated. It took me three years to recover.

I could not go to work because being in the same place for a long time just presented too many challenges for me mentally. The possibility of an attack seemed too great a risk.

I could not go into a shop or a mall to buy milk because I felt I would get trapped and wouldn’t function. I thought I would freeze, become clumsy and drop things. I would need to know where the exit was. I just couldn’t deal with it.

I also suffered from survivor’s guilt. People would say that I survived because of my belief in God, but I didn’t believe that because many God-fearing people died that day. It made me feel terrible and I kept asking myself ‘Why me?’ and ‘What is the purpose of life?’

I had anorexia from a previous childhood trauma and had been self-medicating with diet pills for years. As soon as I felt rattled or anxious, taking the pills would give me a feeling of control. It all had to do with control for me.

What were you doing all day if you weren’t working?

Obsessing. Researching what happens when a plane crashes- I developed a severe phobia of plane crashes.  I read reports about what happens if your heart races too much, what happens if you fall from a tall building (people believe you are dead before you reach the ground; I learned that you are not). I spent my days obsessing about death, all the different ways death can come and how I could survive.

Did you research how to recover from trauma?

No, because I didn’t realize that I was traumatized.

Were you able to sleep?

I had a lot of nightmares later on (not immediately following the attack) so I couldn’t sleep. I developed all sorts of illnesses. I was constantly sick. I became a wreck.

How was your relationship?

My husband and I couldn’t go out, not even to a family function because of my fear of going anywhere in the car.  If he was going to a meeting- I couldn’t understand why he would risk having a meeting at a mall a restaurant or a hotel. So it brought a lot of conflict because I imposed all my fears and anxieties onto him and that put a strain on the marriage.

And tell me about your daughter. She was born somewhere in the middle of this trauma?

I was able to go to the hospital for the delivery of my daughter but after she was born, we came straight back home.  In the first months, I was not able to be a good mother to her. I developed post-natal depression. It was difficult for me to bond with her. I struggled with the fact that she was there. That I was there, not gone. That she was there. Not gone. I didn’t bathe her for two months and barely interacted with her at all. My husband took care of everything.

She was dedicated on a Sunday morning when she was three months old but it was hell for me to attend. And then after the dedication, the next time I went out with her was when she was 9 months old.  To go out was huge planning- everything was calculated including the time – 5pm, which I thought was the least likely time for an attack. We went to Java House at Valley Arcade- I still have a photo.

So, how did you start to recover from this crippling way of life?

I was such a hermit and such a wreck that my husband and a good friend arranged an intervention for me.

That’s where we leave the story today. In part 3, you will learn how Charlene made a full recovery from her trauma.

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