This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.
I was 21 when my cousin called and asked me to pick him up. He was working a cash-in-hand shift at a night club run by a meth-addled biker. I had no idea it would be the night I'd come within an inch of death.
I arrived, parked the car, and found him at the door acting like a staunch bouncer even though he had zero experience. He didn't even have a security license and was only there because the real doormen were "busy in the office." Between door rotations, I watched them disappear into the owner's office—a revolving door of speed rails and a crack pipe fog. Even without the drugs, the place was enough to induce paranoia in a monk.
Suddenly, I noticed some muffled yelling in the distance and a series of pops that sounded like car backfire. Then I heard a loud crack near my head, like someone beating a piece of corrugated iron. The real bouncer dropped, so my cousin and I followed and huddled into the urine-drenched corners. Looking up, I noticed a hole in the wall beside where the Maori guard was standing seconds before. Another three shots abruptly blew out and I could feel my head spinning. We were outside but I felt claustrophobic. There were no big flashes of pivotal events from my life, just the same question pounding in my head: am I fucking low enough? That and some wishful prayers from a momentary convert.
After the shots, my ears were over-sensitive, like they'd been tuned to some anxious frequency in a city I no longer recognized. Everyone just stood around in a daze. Junior, the sixth Melbourne Storm rugby prospect, told us that the owner "owed some serious fellas a whole bunch of coin."
I watched him tuck his shirt in and put his lanyard back on before reassuming his position next to the door. Someone asked him over the radio if it was all over. I wasn't sure if he was in shock or if he just had no idea what else to do in the situation. People from the night club line rushed to their cars, while others with wavering jaws innocently lined up as though nothing had happened. I told my cousin to quit that night and we bounced out of there.
I don't think I've ever fully got over that afternoon. I now think about life and death at the weirdest times. It doesn't keep me up at night or arise when I'm drunk. Instead, it appears when I'm focussed on the rhythm of a speed ball, or when I'm buying a ticket at the movies, or getting my hair cut. I often think about why I'm alive and how close I came to a long sleep good night. But I also wonder if the trauma had a positive effect on my life. Whether it made me more conscious about the gravity of decision making or opened me up to a different, more life affirming course.
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Living with these thoughts, I was curious how getting shot at has affected others. I know a former military interpreter named Salim who was subcontracted by the Australian Army on several tours through Afghanistan. I met him in Germany after he married my cousin. Back then, he seemed full of life. He loved partying and was all about popping bottles, rented expensive cars, and Rolex pieces. I visited knowing he's changed in the years since.
"The first time I got shot at I woke up to the fact that the world's fucked and we are all just going to die sometime and that's it," he told me at his house in the Melbourne suburbs. "We were in big mud houses with wavering curtains and I remember thinking it's not very windy. Then we heard the guns all at once. It was the echoes that were really haunting. I sometimes dream about looking through curtains and pulling curtains. It's really weird; it's kind of trippy."
I've known Salim for a long time now. Long enough to know that since his discharge in 2009, he has been quite reclusive, rarely leaving his home. I asked him about this and what role these memories have played. He wouldn't give me a straight answer but instead described how others moved on in ways he couldn't.
"It was weird watching one guy, singing Usher's "You Got It Bad" and then dropping down to return fire like clockwork. They knew how to dissociate," he said. "I wasn't really able to do that, and probably still can't."
I looked around his apartment, there were no Persian rugs or cultural signifiers. His wife said he just lounges around with his headphones on listening to rap all day. I asked for her thoughts on her husband's recovery.
"He is scared that if he is actually hearing things, that he will have to see a psychiatrist and feel like he's going mad. In our culture, a madman receives no respect."
"He is already insecure about being seen as a traitor in the Afghan community. If people start saying he has gone mad they will claim it is because of something superstitious. He did the right thing as a Muslim—he beat the bad guys. But in doing so he came home defeated."
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For Salim, the violence seems to have become wrapped up in fears about betrayal, citizenship, and belonging. He was on the right side, but now he's full of doubt. "We were doing night raids on Afghan homes, we were shot at by Afghans, so being an Afghan was very strange. When I came back to Australia—the place where I was born—visiting family and going to their homes at night really fucked with my head because they were all Afghans."
"I thought the windows were going to blow out, or because I wasn't with my team, I would feel anxious and get very paranoid. I felt like I was about to be ambushed and shot. I couldn't sit with any of my own people in the places that are supposed to be my real home."
It seemed as though the violence of getting shot at, tends to propel and inflate pre-existing anxieties. The skill must be in finding a way to navigate that anxiety in order to exploit it to your advantage.
I was put in touch with a guy who seemed totally unfazed by having his house shot at in a West Sydney drive-by. Jase's* tactic was exactly the opposite of Salim's, and instead of having any anxieties about the future, he was totally prepared for the ensuing violence.
"It started around 2:30 AM on a Sunday morning," he explained. "I had a few friends in the garage with me having drinks and then we started hearing shots. We thought it was young kids letting off fireworks because it was summer vacation."
Jase has been a drug dealer involved in street gangs since his early teens. He knows all too well the tit-for-tat violence that his profession embodies.
"I was flipping out from all the noise, and then I heard a glass smash and my wife yelling. I looked at the boys and said 'man I think someone's shooting at my house.' It felt like it just kept going: bang, bang, bang, bang. I kept yelling 'get down! Make sure you're fucking down!' A bullet went straight through my chandelier and shattered it."
I wanted to get past Jase's bravado, so I spoke to his girlfriend over a cup of tea in the kitchen. "He doesn't really get involved in that stuff anymore," she said. "He's much more reserved, not as reckless. He doesn't sell drugs anymore and he's been looking for a job in construction for the last couple of months."
Before I left I asked Jase if he thinks about the world differently since the shooting. He thought for a moment before replying. "When I was 15 my dad got sentenced to six years and it rocked my system. In between that, burying friends, and all the shit you read about in the news, I see the world as being able to fuck you at any given chance."
Trauma seems to yield an array of experiences that stand in contrast to how we hope our happy-go-lucky lives might unfold. It either allows you to embrace an amor fati (love of one's fate) attitude, or it reveals us to the fragility of life and awakens our perspective to the broad horizon of suffering. Trauma might, as Friedrich Nietzsche describes it, help to "make oneself a new pair of wings."
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