• The Alien Issue

    One Singular Date

    The Alien Issue
    Ryanfletcher web

    Illustration by Jenna Brager.

    One Singular Date

    Nine years ago, Ryan Fletcher came very close to dying after being jumped and assaulted by a dozen people. He still lives with residual trauma and chronic pain. This is the story about the single most important date in his life.

    Nine years ago, I was jumped, beaten by a dozen people, and kicked in the head repeatedly. My face hurts every fucking day now. My brain only works how I’d like it to part of the time. I’m still learning how to talk about my residual symptoms, how not to be consumed by traumatic memories or chronic pain, how not to live in fear of my brain’s decline in relation to all this ... and how to relate, generally.

    Let me back up. 

    I was 25 years old, living in Washington, D.C., my hometown. I was a punk rock kid turned radical activist, a high school dropout living in an all-vegan collective house. I rejected every convention I could think of, or at least I liked to think I did. I lived to work on activist projects – I wanted to make a better world and I wanted to refuse to participate in an unjust one. For my day job, I organized large protests and did communications work for social causes. The rest of my time I spent setting up underground punk shows to benefit causes that I believed in. I ran a cooperative bookstore and community center. I had a police file, and the FBI visited my friends on a seemingly regular basis. One friend was facing life in prison for his role in environmentally motivated arsons, and my community was in the thick of organizing for his legal defense. Life was busy and tumultuous. 

    My neighborhood at the time, Columbia Heights, was in the middle of a wave of gentrification. This was a fairly new phenomenon: the area had been hit hard by riots in 1968, and when I moved there in 2000, swaths of blocks were still burnt out and abandoned, and crime rates were high. This was an area that most white people disdained. It was associated with violence, drugs, and gang activity. But within a few years, condo developments started popping up all over. 

    I spent my childhood visiting relatives in the adjoining neighborhood of Mount Pleasant. During my teenage years, I would hang out in Columbia Heights and surrounding neighborhoods going to dive bars and church halls for underground punk shows, doing community work at homeless shelters and volunteering with anti-poverty and needle exchange programs. No matter how “dangerous” or crime-riddled, I’ve always felt more at home in these neighborhoods than anywhere else in the world. 

    Soon, my so-called peers – who ridiculed my love for D.C. for years and called it a ghetto – were also lured here. Slowly, the streets of Columbia Heights, historically a battlefield for urban youth caught up in gang violence, became also a playground for young college graduates and professionals. Drive-bys, open-air drug markets, and $15 cocktails held a turf war, while housing and living costs skyrocketed. 

    Over the next 10 years, Columbia Heights transformed from a working class black and Latino neighborhood to a trendy hot spot profiled by the New York Times as one of the hippest neighborhoods on the East Coast. In some areas, housing prices increased 500 percent between 1999 and 2005. The city was violently and decisively changing. 

    I felt these changes as I walked through the neighborhood. Tensions were boiling between old residents and new ones. I felt awkwardly positioned somewhere in between, ultra sensitive and aware to the transitions taking place around me, but not firmly on either side. I grew up in D.C.'s neighborhoods. Much of who I am today is because of my experiences in this city. Punk rock and radical activism have decades of history in these neighborhoods, and have both unintentionally contributed to and been impacted by gentrification. On these streets, my white skin lumped me in with a much wealthier and privileged class than I have ever felt a part of. It lumped me with a class I have been rejected by and alienated from my whole life. 

    There is one singular date that marks the separation of two distinct periods in my life: before April 30, 2006, and after. I think about that distinction regularly, perhaps even daily. It is carved into me like a deep scar. It’s amazing how much an experience can shape us and continue to give and take throughout our lives. Nine short years ago, I had one of those experiences. One day that changed everything. A before. An after. This is the story about that date.

    Early in the evening on April 30, 2006, I rode my bike from my house in Columbia Heights in Northwest D.C. to Petworth, where my friend Morrigan was hosting her birthday party. When my old friend Chris Corrigan and I left the party, the night felt still young, so we drove somewhere between Morrigan’s and my house, parked and took a long walk to a local bar. Like the party, I don’t really remember the walk, or the bar. I don’t remember anything until we arrived back near Chris’s car. He had parked at Spring near 11th Street, one street south of the house of some other friends. In fact, two of my closest friends lived there, on Quebec Street above Spring, and I would walk or bike this route to and from my place on 11th, often multiple times a day. If there was one part of the city I was most familiar with at that time it would have been this ten-block stretch. 

    As we walked to Chris’s car, I picked up my bike along the way. Soon after we encountered a small group of local kids, no more than three who stopped us to ask directions. Before we approached them a siren went off inside my mind. I heard warning bells that I didn’t decipher as such until many days if not weeks later. A voice in my head told me to change course, to cross the street, to not continue to walk any further in the direction I was headed. But I didn’t heed my own advice. I kept going because another voice suggested I ignore myself and question my own cautiousness. Why was I suspicious of these kids? Did I really have any reason to be? Was I profiling them?

    “Where’s Adams Morgan? How do we get there?” one of the kids asked. Chris and I slowed our pace to respond. We both answered, mostly pointing, “That way”. It was evident these kids had no interest in our answer. In a matter of seconds Chris and I both felt the interaction intensify and become immediately hostile. Another kid appeared from behind a tree. We walked off the sidewalk to cross the street, walking between two parked cars. As the kids followed us, another one who was squatting behind a car popped up, and now there were five of them. The one from behind the car grabbed Chris. A friend joined in. Two of the kids held Chris in a headlock while they shouted threats at both of us.

    I froze. I didn’t know what to do. At this point I was in the street, about four feet from where Chris was standing. There was a larger group of kids off in the distance, almost a full block away. The kids were young, different ages, but probably all between the ages of 12 and 16 – perhaps a bit younger or even older, it’s hard to tell. It didn’t occur to me to fight them. At least not in the moment. I don’t remember what I said to Chris. I wanted to yell, “Chris, come on, man. Let’s get the fuck out of here.” I don’t know what I expected him to do. I remember thinking, if only he could get free, we could run. It was an unreasonable thought. Just as I had it, a car’s headlights shined on all of us from the distance and was driving towards the intersection just ahead of us. As the car approached, all of the kids scattered. Chris and I looked at each other. We locked eyes in genuine fear for our lives. We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know where to go. But we knew we had to run.

    We were scrambling. Chris ran over to me. We both turned to run together, but as the kids scattered, the car drove past us. And as quickly as the kids scattered and ran away, the car was gone. Once the kids noticed the car was out of sight, they began to run after us. And now we were prey. They were in pursuit. 

    We had to run in different directions. Chris had an opening to run south in the direction of my house. I ran east. The kids followed my trail. I was running while pushing my bicycle. I thought I could get some momentum and hop on. If I got on fast enough, there’s no way they could catch me once I started pedaling. I remember running but I don’t know if I slowed down to mount my bike, or if I never got that far. I just remember going down. Something, or rather someone, hit me on the back of the head. I was on the ground now and I was helpless. I think I covered my head. But I can’t be sure. All I remember was looking west down Spring Street and watching five people turn into ten, and then some. While one group caught up with me and took turns kicking me as I lay on the ground, more kids came from afar. At the end, there must have been at least a dozen people, if not more. At some point the sight of multiple kicking legs turned black. I was out cold. 

    I came to on the sidewalk, completely dehydrated. A man stood over me, asking me what happened. “How did I end up here?” He asked what my name was. I did not know. I couldn’t remember. But somehow I thought to hand him my wallet. I was covered in my own blood and I was laying in a pool of it. I asked him for water, but he said he didn’t think he should give me any. I told him that “if I didn’t have some water soon, I would pass out.” I went black again.

    Sometime within the hour, I came to again, now in an ambulance with my best friend in the world Farah sitting next to me, doing the job that it seemed like the paramedics should be doing. Comforting me, trying to diagnose what was wrong and what I needed.

    Chris had managed to run back to my house, 10 blocks south at 11th and Fairmont, knowing I would have headed there, and hoping I had made it. We’d shoot the shit about our crazy night and he’d head back to Capitol Hill. I’d head to bed, exhausted, but relieved. And safe. Instead he called Farah to tell her what happened. 

    When they put me in the ambulance I had already lost pints and pints of blood. For a moment, when I used my tongue to feel around the inside of my mouth, I noticed a gap between my teeth and remarked to Farah “I lost a tooth.” I breathed a sigh of relief. A tooth. They can replace those. She looked back at me with a sweet smile, nodding her head as if to say, “No, I wish that’s all it was.” I can’t remember if she touched my face then, or if she just explained. I soon realized my jaw was split in two and the skin of my cheeks and my chin were practically all that was keeping my lower jaw from literally dropping to the floor. 

    I continued to spit up and choke on blood while passing in and out of various states of consciousness. Farah sat with me, holding my hand while trying to encourage the paramedics to actually do their job and get me to a hospital. At some point during all this the police showed up on the scene and tried to interview me, delaying my trip to the E.R. even longer. They insisted I had been robbed, and scribbled together some nonsensical that more resembled the plot of a TV procedural drama than what had actually just transpired. In their report, this was a robbery. Keep in mind, I had my cash and my wallet when I arrived at the hospital.

    I’ve been asked on numerous occasions if my assailants were ever caught. My answer has often been, “I hope not, but I’m sure they were, eventually, even if it was for something else.” 

    After a couple of days in the hospital and major surgery to put my face back together, I spent three months on bed rest at home. I had several procedures and surgeries throughout that time and almost daily medical appointments and tests. My jaw was wired shut. I couldn’t really talk. I couldn’t really eat. 

    The big challenge was learning to live in the city again. I had to overcome PTSD and regain the courage to just walk out the door of my house. I lost tons of weight – about forty pounds. I’ve been a skinny kid all my life, my average healthy weight is 150 pounds, and I’m 5’11”. I sipped every meal through a straw for six weeks, and those are the days I bothered to eat at all. I became angry and depressed. I got a taste of the awful healthcare system. I got in fights everyday with my doctors who continually made mistakes that only prolonged my healing and worsened my illness. After one particularly grueling surgery I almost overdosed on painkillers and an excessive dose of anesthesia due to poor medical care. 

    I had many friends and acquaintances from the punk and activist scenes come out of the woodwork to show support right after the attack. This was heartening and amazing, but honestly, it was mostly fleeting. I was at times completely moved by the care my community showed, and at other times completely devastated by how thoughtless people could be. After a few weeks, the solidarity and aid stopped, and only my closest and oldest friends really paid me attention. Even many of them seemed to be upset that I was not healing fast enough. This cemented the idea in me that people in need of support and care need to be able to set the terms of what they need and when. The rest of us need to be responsive. This seems obvious, and it’s something that receives a lot of lip service, especially in activist communities and social movements. But it’s rare that it actually guides our collective actions. 

    The list of supportive gestures that helped the most during that time of recovery included my brother who slept on my couch until I didn’t need him to anymore, and my co-workers who covered my work so I could still receive a paycheck. The best support I received was from people who tried to identify and fill immediate needs, while letting me deal on my own time, on my own schedule, not theirs. 

    The attack itself and the months after were the least of the trauma I would experience because of that assault. The worst would start a year later and continues now, nine years later in the form of chronic pain and other health problems. There are many reminders of that one singular date. Excruciating migraines. Crippling nausea. Anxiety. Fear. Being triggered by big things and small things. The sound of someone walking or running up behind me on the street. A constant urge of fight or flight. Reminders from people who have never had anything bad happen to them, and from people who have experienced far worse than I can ever imagine. Everything. Everything reminds me of that singular date.

    In the first year after the attack, I didn’t even acknowledge the anniversary. Now, nine years later, the memory of it inhabits my mind so strongly that I feel like a different person in the weeks preceding and following the anniversary. Each year it becomes more significant, not less.

    In the time since the attack, some of the people dearest to me have experienced immense hardship of their own. One of them lived through five years in isolation units in multiple federal prisons; another lost her mother to cancer; and yet another lost her baby – the list goes on. I increasingly feel that life is a journey of mostly loss and struggle – it’s how we navigate it, how we treat each other, how we hold each other up, how we support each other in the face of struggle, and how we work together to combat the forces that make struggle necessary that truly defines us. If we do our best as a baseline, then we might find, be open to, and create real joy in this life as well. And in this, I am grateful for the perspective this experience has provided me, even though and because it makes me feel like an alien in an uncaring society. This feels helpful at least in the sense that it inspires me to strive to not treat those close to me like aliens in the face of hardship.

    The incident brought a world of pain. It forced me to experience a depth of trauma I could never imagine. But it has also brought me gifts. Some of the strongest relationships in my life were born in and because of the aftermath of the assault. 

    In 2014 on the anniversary of the attack, I felt more affected by my memory of the trauma than I had in years. I felt alone. Eight years later, chronic pain and other health issues still persisted. It felt like too few people in my life acknowledged or remembered what this day meant to me and what it meant for my life now. It was a day of quiet and isolated reflection. I was at a loss for how to channel it. My life was better, I had improved my health significantly. I’d learned how to manage the chronic pain and other issues. I felt rooted in a community with good friends and meaningful work. Yet the demons of that one singular date and the alienation surrounding it still lingered, and lingered in a more profound way than ever before. 

    For the first time, I went back to the intersection where the attack happened. The neighborhood had gentrified so much it felt like another world. I took some pictures and walked in the street. Going back didn’t do much for me. I went home and posted an article on a social media platform that I wrote years before. I didn’t say much about the anniversary, just this: 

    “Eight years ago today I had an experience that forever changed my life, and after it I feel very fortunate to still be alive. Following that experience, I’ve had to do a lot of growing and healing to get past it and I still live with quite a few health problems because of it. Part of that healing process involved a writing project with one of my dearest friends. This thing still holds up many years later – and I think we inspired quite a few people to start giving more consideration to the subject in our respective activist communities.”

    It felt satisfying to put something out into the world. However brief, however vague. And the next day something happened that would turn everything on its head. See, in the fall of 2013, I went to a guided meditation class. I was ending my business of ten years, breaking up with my partner in that business, and trying to start a new one at the same time, and I wanted to find ways to manage the stress. The class was taught by a guy named Jonathan. He was in his 50s. I noticed a fresh and beautiful tattoo of a dragon on his arm in the most vibrant of colors. He spoke with a calm and commanding confidence. I immediately knew that he was not of this world. He was one of my people.

    I left the class and months went by. Occasionally, I was reminded of Jonathan. At some point we became friends on social media. His posts intrigued me further. On May 1st last year he posted something about May Day and I commented on it. He sent me a message that he had seen my post (the aforementioned) the night before. He said that he thought we might have more in common then an interest in May Day or radical politics, as significant as those commonalities were. He told me that he, too was marking the anniversary of a life-changing event, his had taken place twenty five years before. I shared my story. He shared his. A year later, I described what we learned about each other in the following social media post:

    “Last year, on May 1, I posted on FB: ‘Eight years ago today I had an experience that forever changed my life, and after it I feel very fortunate to still be alive.’ Shortly after I received a message from an acquaintance, Jonathan, explaining that on May 1, 1986, he also had an experience that forever changed his life. When Jonathan was 25, in 1986, he was attacked by four men, one of whom had a knife, causing multiple injuries to his face, at 16th and Shepherd St NW. On April 30, 2006, when I was 25, I was attacked by a group of a dozen or more six blocks away, at the corner of Spring and 11th St NW who beat and kicked me in the head until I was unconscious. We both live with ongoing health problems and chronic pain from these events.

    Neither of us ever imagined meeting another human being who had gone through something similar. We are both reminded how much healing occurs within relationship, and both are deeply grateful for the other. We are blood brothers.”

    Between the time we discovered our shared trauma and posting this we became dear friends. It’s hard to remember that we have only been friends for a little over a year because there is something deeper running through us that makes the friendship feel timeless. It’s hard to explain the significance of meeting Jonathan and how much we have in common. Our thickest common thread is survival. The similarities of what we survived, where these events took place, who we both are and were in our lives at the time, strengthen our bond. Jonathan was living in an activist collective at the time of his attack. In fact twenty five years earlier, his life at the time looked a lot like mine. 

    It struck me that Jonathan grew up living in Beirut and Tehran and survived bombings and lived through assassination attempts on his father and also the kidnapping of his father, among other things. He grew up living in war zones and yet he shared with me that the attack he survived in D.C. was the hardest thing for him to talk about and share with others. He told me how he tells few people about it because he feels most people can’t handle hearing it. Talking with each other has helped us both reclaim our stories. Meeting Jonathan forever changed how I relate to my before and after date. It provided a new way of understanding what happened to me. Most of all it broke the alienation and isolation. Meeting him and learning his story created a new lifeline for both of us. 

    Jonathan has lived with his “one singular date” three times longer than I have. I think it’s fair to say that he is still in a process of healing in relation to it. I think this will be a lifelong struggle for both of us. I’ve learned, personally, and through the experiences of those who have benefited from support through tragedy and hardship, that when meaningful, concrete support has been present in times of need, it creates an important sense of community. Such community can help us get through the most painful and difficult situations. These moments when people are able to provide and really come through for each other underscore the best that life has to offer. I believe that. However, this isn’t a call for community.

    For those of us who have survived the things that we survive, our culture conditions us to keep these things inside. We fear judgment. We fear making things awkward, or worse. If we hold it in, the choice should be ours. In part, writing this is about letting my story breathe. If only, so I can remember how to do so, and find the strength for it. I want to live in a world where trauma and hardship are not things that make people into an alien or an “other”. Our life experiences should not be dividing lines that create borders that only some dare to cross in association. Fighting for a world without artificial borders means, in part, that we have to keep sharing the things that many don’t want to hear. 

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