Sometimes there are events that thrust you into a new way of being, that shake you to your core, that move you out of one state of mind and into another.

For me, it all started with the steam pipe explosion.

I can remember that day like it was yesterday. I was about to leave the office, but I’d sat down to talk to my friend Jen as sometimes I did before I left. This was during my workaholic phase, before I’d officially recognized that there was more to life than work. We’d worked many late nights, and we would order dinner and commiserate about what had gone on that day. Sometimes I would lament  the fact that I had to cancel yet another dinner plan because I had to finish something at work.

On this particular day, I was getting myself out of the office at a reasonable hour. I’d shut down my computer and had my favorite Kate Spade red and pink striped satchel in hand, ready to walk out the door. But on my way out, I started a conversation and sat down on a chair just outside of Jen’s cubicle, and we began to chit chat about whatever we needed to talk about at the end of that day.

Later, Jen would tell me that she knew something was wrong just by the look on my face.

I remember it had rained heavily earlier on that steamy July morning, the kind of rain that seems as if it will never end.  The kind that feels like thick bands of water are shooting down as if there was a leak in the sky.  The kind feels abnormal somehow. But then it stopped and the sun came out and life went on as it normally does.

We heard a loud noise outside, which at first sounded like thunder, though the sound went on longer than thunder normally does. It wasn’t immediately alarming, because of the heavy thunderstorm earlier. But I was facing the window, and suddenly I saw a massive plume of smoke billow upward from the street below.

At that moment—and for the people who were not near a window, I still don’t know how they knew to move—everyone ran for the exit.

This being New York, where no matter how far we are from September 11, 2001 it still remains in the collective consciousness of every day, so that was the thing that instantly sprang to mind. Some act of terror must have occurred at Grand Central Station, just across the street from our office.

We ran down 10 flights of stairs, hysterically at first. Some people were literally pushed down the stairs, and then we all realized that if we had any chance of getting out of the building we needed to take care of each other. We began to move in orderly, but speedy fashion.

As we got to the bottom of the stairs, someone shouted, “The doors won’t open!”

You don’t know panic until you’ve heard that.

My friend Judy turned to me and begged to use my cell phone so she could call her boyfriend. “No, no, no,” I remember saying. “We aren’t doing that. We’re going to focus on getting out of here.”

I momentarily wondered if that made me a bad person and if I would later regret my words.

Thankfully after finding another exit, there was a set of doors that did open. Jen, Judy and I reached it at the same time. Unexpectedly, and completely out of character, I had a paralyzing moment of fear of what was outside. “I don’t know what to do,” I said. Suddenly I wasn’t sure if we were safer inside or outside. Jen took a beat and then said, “Just go!”

I cannot remember details of what the street looked like when we finally emerged, except for the thought that it looked like the aftermath of an incident in a war zone.  We later learned that there was not an act of terror; there had been a steam pipe explosion across the street from our office building, probably triggered by the heavy rain earlier in the day.

It didn’t lessen the intensity of what we’d just been through.

I look back on that experience and marvel at how this one event changed me. I was changed in ways that were uncomfortable and life altering.

Loud noises began to unsettle me, where they hadn’t bothered me before.  I met a friend for breakfast the next morning, and the fire alarm went off in the restaurant. No one moved or seemed concerned, which I found disconcerting. My friend showed up a few minutes after I got settled, complained about our table and had us moved. Then she grew annoyed because her coffee hadn’t come fast enough.

I sat there, trying to act normal though it felt like my frayed nerves were hanging out of my body, while I wondered if I should keep this person in my life.

Trauma brought me a startling and heightened clarity to what was important.

I also had far less tolerance for unkindness and rudeness. I became impatient with other people’s impatience and with their hysterical need for everything to be done immediately, particularly at work. It was a major catalyst that led me leave that job a few months later for one that afforded me a better quality of life, though I still struggled (and continue to, even now) over how to let work go once I left the office for the day.

At the same time, it was the beginning of a series of events that would shape my adult life, many that I still feel in the aftermath of today. Like the family crisis that following year. And the job, and the job after that, that seemed to continually force me to face the question of who I wanted to show up as in the world and where I really belonged.

Those events were all triggers in getting me to this point in my life. These were the events that fully ushered me into adulthood.  The numbers on the birthday cards may confirm that you are an adult, but life pushes you into the lifestage through its changes, only when it is ready.

Change can be good.

A few weeks after the steam pipe explosion, I was having a conversation with Judy, and I mentioned something about that day. I said that something would happen and would take me back to that day. That I felt a bit scarred by the whole thing.

“But, Dena,” she said. “It’s over.”

It was time to move on to our new normal.

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