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A Shot in the Dark Scars Mind and Body

April 18, 1993|JAMIE T. BARTON | Jamie T. Barton is the pseudonym for a Los Angeles writer.

I stood on that same corner, gazing down silently at the gutter in which I'd lain a week earlier. I stared at the faded stains of my blood on the street, and started when a young man in a battered sports car paused too close to me and for too long.

I despised this rabbit's reflex, so new and unnatural in my life.

I used to walk around at all hours, an urban adventurer savoring the charms of my Miracle Mile neighborhood. The miracle, I'd tell inquirers, was finding a parking space. Not for me, though; I went on my Schwinn or on foot to coffeehouses and cafes, accomplishing errands and enjoying outings.

Until one warm Friday last July, when a carefree evening careened into disaster and my life abruptly changed.

As I walked home from a restaurant with a friend, I saw two young men approaching the corner where we would be crossing. They let us pass, then one of them asked me to give him my purse. We were already across the street. I clutched it closer and said, "No." I'd never heard of a long-distance mugging.

The sudden crack didn't sound like the gunshots in the movies. It sounded like a firecracker. It didn't feel like a bullet, either. More like an insect brushing against my legs.

Seconds later, my inability to walk forward, the echo of the explosion and the warm, dark liquid flowing down my thighs exploded together in my brain.

"Oh, my God, I've been shot!" I screamed. I staggered forward a few steps, then lay face down near the curb, unable to move any farther.

My companion thought the men got into a car and drove away. Busy helping me, he didn't get the license number. (According to the police detective who called me later, there were no clues as to who shot me.)

Lying there quietly in the street, my head cradled in my arms, I saw a life passing. No, I didn't expect to die. It was my old life, the one where I biked all over my neighborhood, leg-pressed 360 pounds at the gym, hiked the Santa Monica Mountains, walked along Melrose. Would I ever walk again?

Six hours of emergency room treatment and a warm dose of Demerol later, I was finally cocooned in my hospital room. I was a very lucky woman, the doctors told me: Passing through the tops of both thighs, the 38-caliber bullet had missed every major artery and all the critical nerve groups. All it had damaged was some self-repairing muscle tissue and a bone I couldn't pronounce--the ischium--but would have trouble sitting on for the next three months.

Over the next two days in the hospital, I napped between shocked phone calls--"You've been what!? " I hobbled back and forth to the bathroom. I cried on the physical therapist's arm when I couldn't climb a flight of stairs--me who did half an hour on the Stairmaster six days a week and lived in a two-story townhouse. And I barely endured the hurried attentions of overworked interns. They said I'd recuperate. I'd be fine in a few months. I could go home now. But I couldn't even get up the stairs.

What would happen to my productivity as a journalist? How would I work at my computer, or survive an interview, I wondered the next day.

I'm not used to being helped. I'm not used to being helpless. I'm used to being the helper; the resumewriter, the chicken-soup cooker, the crying post, the mother confessor, the care-giver for a friend with AIDS. Now it was I who needed care.

The moment I had dreaded all weekend came. My hard-won independence had evaporated; I didn't know for how long. Reluctantly, I called my younger brother--"You've been what!? " he echoed--to ask for a ride home from the hospital, and to tell him I'd need some assistance for a while.

He insisted I call our parents in San Francisco. I didn't realize how fragile my spirits were until I heard my mother's worried voice: Did I want to come home for a while? Did I want them to come down? How was I feeling? I could barely talk. I'd call her back later, I sobbed, when I was more together. I definitely needed some serious mothering.

Dad flew down that afternoon. He went into instant action, calmly cleaning, cooking, filling prescriptions and driving me to the doctors.

I was left to focus on my physical and emotional wounds. Both were still throbbing painfully. The ache in my body I numbed with Vicodin. The damaged muscles I painstakingly--and proudly--strengthened with physical therapy. The entry and exit wounds I bathed and dressed. But the doubts and self-blame were slowly infecting my soul.

That foolish "no" I had tossed my assailant festered. I couldn't share that with anyone; maybe I'd lose their support. I could discuss the fear, the vulnerability, the disregard for the bullet forever buried in my left leg, but not that one word buried in my psyche. I'd said, "No."

I realized, that first time I went back to that corner, sweat-soaked with fear at the passing of a man's car, that I'd need professional help. I contacted a psychologist specializing in crime victims' cases--how I hate that word victim-- and started the healing process.

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