Opinion The Jan. 6 mob surged at me. Then the trauma rushed in.

(Ellen Weinstein for The Washington Post)
(Ellen Weinstein for The Washington Post)
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It’s been a year since I lost my sense of safety. A year since thousands of angry Americans came like rain to my home city, flooding the streets where I ride my bike, surging up the Capitol steps, shattering windows and reality as we knew it.

On Jan. 6, 2021, I spent hours weaving through the pro-Trump mob, interviewing anti-government mercenaries and families duped into believing the 2020 election had been stolen. As rioters climbed the Capitol walls and bludgeoned an overwhelmed police force, they cracked a defense we thought impenetrable: democracy itself.

Journalists were dragged and thrown over a ledge. They had their cameras smashed on the pavement. My colleague and I were accosted by snarling men and women. Video of me, unflinching, circulated. Many who saw it said journalists must have “nerves of steel.” People lauded the “calm” and “grace” I showed in defusing the situation with humor. In fact, I was overwhelmed by the loss of control and ashamed I’d stood frozen for so long.

Trump loyalists scream threats and profanities at The Post's Kate Woodsome and other journalists after rioters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Video: Joy Yi/The Washington Post)

I can be composed under pressure because I’ve been reporting for two decades. But don’t mistake composure for calm. I was afraid of provoking the mob. Ashli Babbitt had just been shot inside the Capitol, and people were looking for someone to blame.

If I’d yelled or run, would they have physically attacked? Faced with fight or flight, my brain chose freeze. I disassociated temporarily, watching myself get called a Nazi for doing my job. Other journalists filmed on their phones but didn’t intervene because, after all, I looked calm, and it was news.

Watch and read 'This is what it looks like when the mob turns on you' by Kate Woodsome

Journalists make order out of chaos to help others understand what’s unfolding. Perhaps this allows the brain to protect itself in the short term. We did our jobs at the Capitol. We returned home. We worked in isolation, telling a quarantined, unvaccinated world about the history we had witnessed. And then, without pause, we prepared for Joe Biden’s inauguration, which would draw many of the same journalists back to the building where they were lucky not to have died.

In truth, Jan. 6 was too upsetting for the brain to process normally. We may tell ourselves we’re “rattled but fine.” But a nervous system flooded by trauma isn’t fine. Trauma is a psychological injury that lulls you into thinking you’re safe after surviving without a scratch, only to wash away the ground you thought would hold firm.

As the psychotherapist Resmaa Menakem teaches, over time, a person’s trauma can look like personality. Growing angry with the banal. Insomnia. Drinking. Scanning everywhere for threats. Maybe this is simply how you are. Or maybe you’re tying your shoes with broken fingers.

Each journalist covering the insurrection swam in different parts of an ocean, the manifestations of our injuries as different as we are. Some arrived late, after the breach, and said they’d seen worse. They seemed barely affected. Others still jump at loud noises, have nightmares, suffer panic attacks.

Opinion by Jason Kander: I denied my combat trauma for years. Survivors of the Capitol attack must not do the same.

For me, Jan. 6 was just the beginning. In the days after, my “calm” and “grace” looked different off camera. I made trips to the bathroom between interviews with “Morning Joe” and Indian television as adrenaline and cortisol shot through my nervous system, straight to my bowels. I stayed productive at work but skipped doing laundry, afraid I might be attacked in my basement.

I avoided Jan. 6 news and, with therapy, started feeling okay. But months later, I had a flashback so real that I no longer saw the house I was in, nor the childhood friend I was with. Instead, I was at the Capitol, and he, in my mind, was a rioter. I screamed for him to back away — what I didn’t tell the insurrectionists.

Eventually I spent a week at what I like to refer to as “trauma camp.” Yes, there were s’mores. Even better, there were other people with trauma, ready to heal from past psychological injuries keeping them from living fully today.

Until then, I’d felt like I didn’t have a right to post-traumatic stress disorder. We knew Capitol police were traumatized, some so much they took their lives. Members of Congress were nervous returning to work. We wrote those stories. But journalists aren’t supposed to be the story. So we normalize hypervigilance, emotional numbness, catastrophic thoughts.

It’s hard to heal from an invisible wound when newsrooms using the vocabulary of trauma still aren’t fluent in the language. Colleagues remarked that having PTSD in the past — I once saw a source after he was fatally shot in the head — should make this easier.

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We need to understand that the toughness that makes journalists good at their jobs can also make them sick. Keeping trauma in the shadows only reinforces a culture that lauds us for the courage we show under fire, rather than for the bravery of saying we’re hurt.

“Rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation,” the late bell hooks wrote. “Healing is an act of communion.” I now bond with others who know healing from trauma is nonlinear. And a year later, I’m making friends with my nervous system, which still sometimes fires false alarms. “Thanks for trying to protect me,” I tell it. “I don’t need you right now. But I know you’ll be there when I do.”