Trigger Warning: this post discusses violence and includes a story featuring a gun.
“Hit the floor.”
I learned that particular phrase in pre-field training. We had just gone through the first of two simulated hostage situations. As it concluded and we began debriefing the experience, one of our trainers instructed us to “hit the floor the moment you hear gunfire.” The two simulations impacted me deeply, and although I never had need of her words during my life abroad, I never forgot them.
Fast forward ten years to 2020, the year a tiny strip of RNA brought the world to its knees – and our lives to a screeching halt. Covid-19 may not be all-powerful, but it was still powerful enough to bring us “home” prematurely. My family is now living stateside for the foreseeable future.
A year of bicontinental transition meant living in four houses in the span of ten months. My pre-field training came flooding back to me just days after we moved into our third house of the year. We had just settled in for a family movie night, when all of a sudden a man walked around the back corner of the house.
He was carrying a gun.
I froze. The man stopped and stood still, studying the opposite corner of the yard. Then my husband told all of us to “get down and stay back” while he figured out what was going on. The kids sort of crouched on the floor, curiously bobbing their heads up and down to watch my husband, as he watched the man on the other side of the glass.
I, on the other hand, threw myself prostrate on the ground. The only thing rattling around my brain at that point was the old instruction to “Hit the floor.” So I obeyed it.
After deciding the man looked friendly, my husband walked outside to introduce himself. They spoke for a few minutes, and he learned the man had merely been following a groundhog into the yard. Groundhogs wreak havoc on yards, the man explained, and he was only trying to eliminate the large rodent he’d just seen scampering into our yard.
It was all easy-going and understandable and no big deal at all. Except then my husband walked back into the house, where I was still lying prostrate on the ground. He looked confused. “What are you doing?” he asked.
I shrugged. I thought the answer was obvious. “You told us to get down, so I got down,” I replied.
“I just meant to stay away from the window while I investigated. We’re in the woods of rural Missouri; no one’s going to shoot you here,” he informed me. “You can get up now.”
“Well,” I said in my defense, “in training they said to hit the floor if you ever see a gun. So I hit the floor.”
At this point laughter erupted from my husband. Soon the children joined him. I felt rather silly at this point, but I just repeated my defense: “This is what they told us to do!”
And I do what I’m told to do, because I am a rule-follower. I follow the rules at school, I follow the rules at work. I follow the rules at church, I follow the rules at home. I follow the rules on the road, I follow the rules at the store. I follow the rules everywhere I go.
My husband replied, “Those were instructions for the field. You don’t have to worry about that in rural Missouri.”
He chuckled again. A minute later he added, “I’m probably going to have to tell this story sometime.”
Except he didn’t have to, because I told it first. The End.
But that’s not really the end of the story, though, is it? Because people all over the world still live in dangerous circumstances every single day. And because even in my passport country, the threat of violence isn’t unthinkable. I realized this afresh on January 6, when my family and I watched violence unfold at the U.S. Capitol building.
I signed up to write for the Bloopers theme last year, before the Capitol violence. By that time the groundhog story had become something of a family joke, and I’d wanted to poke a little light-hearted fun at myself. I’m sure I did look funny lying on that living room floor in rural America, where the risk was very low.
But here’s the thing: my brain had displaced the danger. I was in a safe place but acting like I was in an unsafe place. This kind of hyper-awareness was not new. A few years ago during a home assignment, my husband noticed his own hyper-vigilance during a mundane trip to the superstore. He realized he was expecting a thief around every corner. He checked and rechecked his pockets, he checked and rechecked the car doors. He surveyed the parking lot constantly – and for good reason.
Friends and acquaintances in Cambodia regularly had their bags snatched from them, especially while riding motos or getting in and out of tuk tuks. Petty theft was commonplace, and after so many years of living in that environment, we had internalized the need to protect ourselves from it, even in the broad daylight of suburban living.
There’s more. On our first two visits from Asia, we would lock the front door behind us every time we entered the house, regardless of what we were going to do next. This was by force of habit: in Cambodia we kept the front door locked at all times, usually with several additional padlocks at night.
The risk wasn’t imaginary. Several friends had experienced break-ins, and one night early in our life abroad, a truck deposited several young men on our doorstep at 4 am. They woke us up, shaking the gate and screaming at us to open it. We watched from behind the gate until they eventually left, but my nerves were raw for weeks. I still remember that as a frightening experience, and I cannot laugh about it.
My mom thought our door-locking habits were odd; my parents live in an extremely safe neighborhood and she was not nearly as wary of danger as we were. She didn’t say anything about our behavior until this year, when we apparently stopped being quite so vigilant about our door-locking. We’d come a long way from our first visit, she told us.
Those of us who’ve endured any type of trauma know that there are reasons behind our reactions to situations, whether or not our responses seem reasonable to others. And in fact, when I first read what I’d written about this “blooper,” I was concerned that my response to the groundhog-gunman was a trauma response.
So I invited the insight of my husband, who provides pastoral care for people around the world. He asked me if I felt afraid when I “hit the floor” or whether I had any nightmares or flashbacks or continuing anxiety over the experience. I could honestly answer no. This time, hitting the floor was more of a trained response than a trauma response.
But that doesn’t mean that those of you reading this right now haven’t experienced trauma or that my stories haven’t triggered you. Some of you may currently be facing danger. And as I write this, I personally know people living in dangerous situations across the globe.
When we sign up to serve cross-culturally, we don’t know what the future will hold. We don’t fully know what the risks will be; neither do we fully know the rewards. We open our hands in obedience to the Father without knowing what will happen. Many of us will experience danger. All of us will experience heartbreak.
Sometimes in the midst of these trials, we can catch a breath and laugh at ourselves. But many times we can’t. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Strange things can happen abroad. We need the grace of God and the support of our community to continue to walk forward in love and obedience.
May the grace of God be with you if you are processing or living through trauma today. May you feel His ever-present Presence, and not simply know in your mind that God is with you. And may you trust in His unfailing love even as you face days that are uncertain.
From the Velvet Ashes team: if you are in the midst of processing trauma in your own story, know you don’t have to do it alone! We would like to recommend a couple of resources for the journey to healing.
GRC– online counseling, debriefing and care for cross-cultural workers