Close to Home

By Kenneth WestphalOctober 28, 2014

Where do you feel safe? Where do you feel at home? 

It could be the house where you grew up, the one with the Tonka toy trucks in the yard and a German Shepherd asleep on the couch. It could be the camp where you spent every summer listening to the soundtrack of laughter, songs, and the whisper of nature that never seemed to cease. Or perhaps it is that spot on the coast where the waves break just right and the sunsets are always perfect. 

We keep these places sacred in our minds. We believe that nothing can touch us in our homes. We know that certain things could never breach the walls of our sacred places.

But what do we do when that is exactly what happens? What do we do when bad things hit close to home?

In February of 2006, right when the events leading up to the start of TWLOHA were beginning to unfold, my sister was a senior in high school. She had a shorter schedule, which meant most days she was home around lunchtime. The Monday after the Super Bowl, my sister came home to find our front door ajar. She walked in, saw things strewn about, and immediately went to leave. Two men and one woman confronted her. They ordered her to lie still on the living room floor or else they would hurt her. She lay there in silence as they finished ransacking our home and left, leaving her physically unharmed. 

“When I was on the floor the robber actually asked me if I was OK because I was so scared. He asked me if I was having an asthma attack; I later learned that it was my first panic attack. It always stayed with me, that he asked how I was, because it reminded me that we are all human.“

“Even right after it happened and I ran for help, I was indignant in the fact that I didn’t want the robbers to take “me” from me. They could have the stuff, but I didn’t want it to alter who I was or to steal my joy. I didn’t want them to steal a piece of me.”

In my 14-year-old eyes, she was unchanged. Britteny was still my sister. She was still the AP student with a 4.0 in her classes. She was still the Varsity athlete who played three sports. She was still the Girl Scout Cadette who would go on to work summers at camp teaching girls how to care for and ride horses. She was still the girl who would open her home up to dogs, horses, cats, fish, chickens, and alpacas in need of a home. 

She was still my sister. 

While they took things from the house, they didn’t take the love and compassion that truly make up a home and a family. 

My favorite memories of my sister involve her and animals. She has always had this connection with animals that is hard to describe. I’ve witnessed true harmony watching her gallop horses around an arena and over obstacles. You should see the smile and elation on her face when she rolls on the floor with her dogs.

“… the panic attacks and the inability to be alone”

I never thought too much about where this connection with and love for all things furry and feathered originated. Perhaps it was my sister’s way of trying to create a home for those who may be lost or scared, a home for those who had been given up on. Maybe it was her way of coping with the fear of being alone. While she rescued these animals, maybe she was in need of a rescue; maybe she needed something that invited hope and love into her life. Maybe she reached for the comfort of the warm fur of a dog when the fear and worry welled up inside her and became too much. 

It took me almost 10 years to admit I’d buried the damage it had done. I realized that I have a whole part of my brain locked away. I know why I still panic or jump when I’m startled. Sometimes I am so convinced it’s going to happen again that I find myself sitting and waiting for it. It’s like they left the house, and I knew I could get up off that carpet, but I never really did. I know that by admitting I need help I am finally lifting my head off the carpet, opening my eyes, and peeking around.”

During the months when I was applying for the TWLOHA internship, and then later when I got accepted, my sister and I would often talk about TWLOHA’s mission. I noticed that she began to use the language of hope, love, and honesty, echoing time and time again her support. Recently Britteny told me she was ready to talk about what she had experienced, that she wished to seek help. She even told me that she reached out to support a friend of hers who was struggling with PTSD. 

Each day, as a TWLOHA intern, I get to answer messages that come in from all over the place. I get invited in to the stories of so many different people. Here at TWLOHA, we talk about fears and dreams. We talk about pain and hope. These messages represent the stories of so many people all over the world, but sometimes we forget that these stories often represent the things that hit a little closer to home. 

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Comments (6)

  1. ari

    Is there a way to contact twloha for counseling/help?

    Reply  |  
    1. Claire Biggs


      Please email [email protected]. We respond to every message we receive.

      Reply  |  
  2. Bessie

    As I stare up to my bedroom ceiling late at night in solitude the memories come thrashing through. I feel the tears start to well up and my heart begins to rapidly pound. It was in this same bed, house that my ex husband, son and daughter lived in chaos. Now I sit in dead silence typing my story. When my daughter Grace was three we would play on the bed. I would say “look do you see the lion and oh no there is a bear” and she would reply in excitement as if there were truly wild animals “oh no Mommy, Hide! Get under the covers so they do not see us” and she would grab the covers and place them over us and we made a tent with the sheets. She would smile with anticipation and pretend shiver. I would ask if she thought it was safe yet and she would scream and grab my hand, “be careful Mommy, not yet” and I would play along with delight. Grace repeated this numerous times and I would have to play the animals went to sleep game and it was safe to go back to normal activity. She never became bored with imaginary play. We would write on each other’s backs and try to guess what the picture was and she always said, a lion, no, an ice cream cone, no a heart! It was always a heart. At the present moment, my safe place is snuggling in my bed with my dog. I know reality can be horrifying and painful at times so if you have lovely memories keep those close to your heart and cherish the sweet memories. Sometimes, well many times I choose to hide under the covers.

    Reply  |  
  3. Rachael

    The summer camp I have spent my entire adult life working at (16 summers). This is the first summer I won’t be working there.

    Reply  |  
  4. Devin Nicole

    Life isnt easy at all. As much as people say that they don’t see people differently with mental illness they do. I know, I have bipolar and SEVERE depression.

    Reply  |  
  5. Mr. Roman

    Kenneth, this is a beautifully written piece, very profound. You are obviously in the right position art gsinoint I your life to help others. I wish you all the very best.

    Reply  |  
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