BOSTON — Many Boston Marathon bombing victims weren’t physically injured in the attack, but they do have psychological wounds that linger a year later. And each week, some of them meet in a support group at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
“I just promised myself that, no matter what, I have to go for some amount of time so that I’m not afraid,” participant Manya Chylinski tells the group, referring to her decision to attend this year’s marathon. “The finish line is two blocks from my house and I don’t want to be afraid.”
Everyone in this support group shares one thing: they were at or right near the marathon finish line when the bombs exploded.
Kirsten Ripple, of South Boston, who crossed the finish line 11 seconds before the first bomb exploded, says she will run the race again this year.
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“Part of my reasoning behind running was that if you don’t run again, then they took your marathon experience,” Ripple explains, “and it’s just not fair that they would win.”
On this day, the support group is five women, all of them struggling with the one-year anniversary and the upcoming race itself.
Callie Benjamin is an employee at Forum restaurant on Boylston Street and was in the restaurant when the second bomb exploded outside. The arrival of spring weather has raised her stress level, she says, because for the first time since April 2013, it feels like that time when the attack happened.
“My body itself is really anxious all the time,” Benjamin explains. “And every day that it gets warmer and warmer, I keep thinking that [the bombing is] going to happen again.”
Last year, Chylinski was in the bleacher seats at the finish line, across from Marathon Sports — in other words, front row to the carnage. She believes certain marathon bombing survivors have been largely forgotten.
“There’s this whole group of victims who are invisible, and I fall into that category because I wasn’t physically injured but I was psychologically and emotionally injured,” Chylinski reflects. “But that hasn’t been sort of the story for the past year.”
Ripple joined the support group just a few weeks ago after keeping a lot of her emotions bottled up for months. She used to wonder if it was abnormal to be feeling so anxious because of what she went through.
“I’m nervous to walk alone in my neighborhood at night,” Ripple tells the group. “Constantly, every noise that I hear, I’m just like, ‘What was that?’ And I feel like I’m just so much more on edge. And I always saw people just as good people. And now I feel like I’m more paranoid about things, like I just don’t trust anyone. And that’s not who I was before this.”
Ripple says running a marathon — just one marathon — had been on her “bucket list,” and last year she finally did it.
“I celebrated for 11 seconds,” she says. “I almost sometimes will feel selfish for feeling bad about myself, that ‘Oh, you didn’t get injured so you should be happy that nothing is physically wrong with you. You’re still able to run. You’re still able to live your life, where other people died and lost limbs.’ ”
Katherine Manners, one of two Beth Israel therapists leading the support group, tells Ripple that’s a common reaction of survivors who thought, in the chaos of the marathon attack, that they were going to die.
“There is this sort of push-pull to acknowledge that for themselves, to really feel like, ‘You know, I’ve been through something, and I am traumatized. But I wasn’t injured and I didn’t lose anybody close to me, and so I really shouldn’t feel that bad,’ ” Manners explains. “And I think that that guilt and mixed feeling has been really difficult, sort of compounding your experience.”
Mary Ellen Talbot was near the finish line last year — her first-ever Boston Marathon — watching for her cousin, who was running to raise money in honor of her terminally ill son. This year, she’s approaching marathon day with resolve and dread.
“I’m going back. I told you, no one’s going to stand in my way. I’ve got that attitude, that stubbornness,” Talbot says to the group. “I want to respect the people that were killed, the people that were physically and emotionally injured, the people that didn’t get to finish that race. But I am terrified — terrified — of going back.”
Talbot herself is a trauma therapist but, like some other people who saw the bombings, she wasn’t able to go back to work right away because she felt so overwhelmed. She and Chylinski say they worry about others who may have marathon-related trauma but aren’t getting help.
“A lot of people don’t want to hear the horror of what you heard, saw, smelled,” Talbot says. “But if you don’t and you keep burying it, you’re not going to be healthy physically and emotionally.”
“I think people fail to recognize that this could even be a class of victims because mental health injuries are not considered on par with physical injuries,” Chylinski adds.
And these women say they’re not sure who to confide in. Some survivors seem unaffected, so it’s hard to relate to them. Or they want to talk with victims who feel the way they do, but they’re afraid of dredging up someone else’s anxiety or sadness. Family and friends who weren’t present at the bombings often don’t seem to understand.
Manners, the therapist, points out that those same relatives and friends may not want to bring it up with survivors.
“They feel like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to trigger her,’ so they don’t say anything, which makes you feel even more isolated,” Manners tells the group. “Yeah, it’s a difficult dance.”
Then there are the people — even strangers — who have no problem bringing up the bombings.
Last April 15, Olivia Savarino was working at Forum when the front of the restaurant blew up.
“I was a bartender there, and a lot of people would ask, like, ‘So were you here that day?’ like almost like a touristy thing. There would be a bus would that stop in front, and they’d be like, ‘This is where the second bomb went off,’ ” Savarino recalls. “And it was just kind of like a glorified tourist attraction, and I just couldn’t deal with it.”
So she got a job at a different restaurant. But she can’t escape her memories or her conflicted feelings over “Boston Strong.” She’s not alone in that.
“Maybe [Boston Strong] was something that helped people get through everything, but to me it came across as people saying, ‘You should be Boston Strong, so suck it up,’ ” Chylinski says. “And it’s everywhere, and ‘Yay, Boston Strong,’ and hashtag BostonStrong, and ‘Woohoo!’ And it made me feel, ‘OK, if I’m not strong, what does that say about me?’ ”
Find a variety of resources for marathon bombing victims, including counseling services, here.