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May 1, 2004: My Journey to Resilience

Part 1


At an event over the weekend, Jenna said, “when someone asks you about that scar on your neck, you should just say something totally crazy.” Someone else chimed in, “what really happened is totally crazy,” and nobody disagreed.

Woman at work
Debra D'Agostino

I’ll jump into the big event, which happened 20 years ago, on May 1, 2004. I was 27 years old, and a few years into my career as an attorney. I finally got a job that paid enough for my student loans and to move out of the studio apartment near Dupont Circle that I lived in during law school. My new apartment, a one bedroom, was in Mt. Pleasant in northwest D.C., in between 16th Street and Rock Creek Park, and was brimming with young professionals like me. I’m pretty sure that the guy on the corner who wore a puffer jacket regardless of the weather was a drug dealer, but there were three alleged undercover cops always around - in other words, yes, there were some sketchy elements, but I generally felt safe and loved being able to walk just about anywhere I needed to go.


I was casually dating another attorney, “M” while struggling to move on from my ex, “B,” who lived a few blocks from me. B and I traveled to Puerto Rico together, and the night after we got back, I walked in on him screwing his ex, who by fluke we ran into in the baggage claim at the airport. Afterward, he told me that I was too negative, and that it was rude for me to bring up topics like politics while we were on dinner dates. I don’t know what the fuck we were supposed to be talking about after six months of dinner dates, but apparently that was the problem. I was devastated, and thought it was the worst thing that could have happened to me.


friends at white house
Living my best life in Washington DC.

That night, May 1st, I was planning to introduce M to my crew at my friend Laura’s birthday party, which was going to be at her house, which was also a few blocks away from my apartment. Before the party, M was going to take me to dinner at Pasta Mia, a now closed restaurant in Adams Morgan that didn’t take reservations and always had a line down the block. M offered to pick me up, but I told him that I would meet him at the restaurant, which was a 5-minute walk away at most, so that whoever got there first could save a spot in line.


I went shopping in Georgetown that afternoon and put on a new outfit I bought, including a tank top, high heel sandals, and an orange and white ombre scarf, which I thought was so cool (summer weight scarves were a thing then – I have no idea why, but I had at least 5 of them). I was anxious before I left my apartment, but I’m not sure why – it wasn’t like I was nervous about dinner with M, who had no issues with my political chatter. I oddly was also running a bit early, so I emptied the trash cans and otherwise cleaned up in a way that I didn’t ordinarily do. After putzing around for a bit, I took off with my heels click clacking, walking up my block on Irving Street and then turning onto Mt. Pleasant Street.


Part 2


It was still daylight and there were plenty of folks walking about. There was a Salvadorean restaurant on the corner, a bodega, and then a little auto repair shop, which was super random given the neighborhood and location. I remember men hanging out in front of the auto shop looking at me, which was par for the course. I was pretty damn cute back then - I took up boxing after law school (which I can’t recommend enough if you are like me and find yoga stressful but love a good sweat) and walked about 5 miles a day. So, I had ripped arms and flat abs, but big boobs and hips (oh to be 27 again…). One of the men cat-called me, but I paid it no mind and kept walking, although picking up my pace.


As I was about halfway between Irving and Harvard Streets, I felt pressure on my neck. I thought, “did I just get stabbed? No way.” And then I put my hand to my neck, and when I saw blood on my fingers, I thought “holy shit, I just got stabbed.” I’m sure because of the shock, I walked on as though nothing happened, although the stabber was now by my side, and I couldn’t get rid of him. I yelled something like “what do you want from me?” He glared at me and said something back in Spanish. I thought he must be trying to rob me, so I threw my purse at him saying “take it but leave me alone.”


He let the purse fall, looked at me like I was crazy, and then stabbed me again, this time in the lower back. I was panicked, but still standing, breathing, and talking. Given how stabbed people collapse in movies, I was worried that at any moment I would fall to the ground where he could stab me until I was dead, so I started screaming and running around. There were still people everywhere, but it seemed like everyone was frozen, and nobody said or did anything other than stare in horror. I’m sure the whole affair only lasted two minutes, if that, but it felt like time stopped. Finally, an older man came running up the street with a broom, and then the stabber took off in the direction of 16th Street.


Part 3


I ran up to a minivan driving by screaming for help, and the dad in the driver seat stopped briefly and looked at me, before taking off. I still think now about how terrified I must have made the kids in the back of the van feel. A couple who was there told me that they called 911, and the guy said that I could sit with them while we waited for the ambulance. His girlfriend then passed out, hitting the street, and I thought “damn, what state must I be in for her to faint just by looking at me?” So, he called 911 back, and I sat there bleeding onto the curb while he tried to get her conscious. A metro bus came, and the driver stopped, jumped out, and yelled for someone to give him a towel or something. A guy at the auto shop tossed a roll of paper towels at him, and the bus driver applied pressure to my back and neck while an entire busload of people watched.


Woman in purple dress
Me shortly before May 4th 2004

My friend Laura then showed up – apparently several of our friends walked by the scene on their way to her party not realizing that I was in the middle. While I was sitting on the curb, our friend John recognized me and reported back to the group. I started blacking out, but I could hear sirens. I remember a fire truck pulling up and thinking wtf is this, I’m not on fire. When the ambulance finally came, Laura got in with me. I went in and out of consciousness, but I remember being pissed when they cut my favorite racerback bra off me (you know how it is when you find that one that just fits perfectly?), Laura rolling her eyes at me, and then chatter about what hospital we would go to (I mean, they really didn’t have this figured out already?).


I ended up at Washington Hospital Center, and the ER doctor was adorable. They quickly inserted a chest tube into my side (I had no idea what was happening at that point), and I remember saying that I felt like I couldn’t breathe because it felt like I was gasping for air, and he said, “you are breathing beautifully,” and I think I fell in love for 12 or 15 seconds. Hours of tests later, he declared that I was the “luckiest, unlucky trauma victim” he had ever seen. Somehow the stabber missed my major organs and arteries by millimeters, so a collapsed lung was the worst of my physical injuries.


Later that night, I can’t remember the details, but I think B came by the hospital – in any event, what I remember is learning that B was at Pasta Mia with a date when I was supposed to meet M there. I was relieved, in that moment anyway, to have avoided that awkward encounter, which cracks me up as I look back. Like geez, the things I’ll go through to get out of seeing him with another woman.


The police also came by. They assumed that this was a domestic violence situation, and when I explained that I had never seen the stabber before, they were as befuddled as I was incredulous. They asked me some questions, and when I said I was an attorney, they asked if this was a defendant out for revenge or something. I explained that I did employment law and had seriously never seen this guy before, but that I think he cat-called me or something. The police said something like maybe he was pissed that I ignored him, and then my hot doctor ushered the police officer away when he could tell I was getting aggravated.

Part 4


I was discharged from the hospital a few days later, and my mom came to stay with me. While I was at a follow-up appointment at the hospital a week later, my lung re-collapsed literally while they were examining me (once again, very lucky for being unlucky), and they readmitted me for another several days. I had no idea at the time, but it turns out that lungs heal quickly after they reinflate. I remember the doctor explaining that I could never go deep sea diving and that if I was ever on a plane that depressurized it wouldn’t go well for me, but otherwise I would be fine.


After being discharged the second time, I took about another week off, and then I returned to work because mulling about my apartment all day was not helping me physically or mentally. An attorney who worked in our office told me that I looked fantastic, noting that I had slimmed down (I lost 15 lbs trying to stay alive in the hospital, so I was probably the thinnest I had ever been). I got the icks and said something like “well, I’m alive,” and he said, “isn’t that the most amazing feeling, being alive. Aren’t you just so grateful that you are alive,” and I wanted to slap him because no, in that moment I was only pissed off, and I did not feel grateful about anything.


Over the next few weeks, I stumbled into depression. I went from “why me” to “of course me, I’m obviously cursed.” I thought things like if I hadn’t taken out the trash and had left a minute earlier, this would not have happened. Or if I had just agreed to let M give me a ride, this wouldn’t have happened, as though it was my fault that I got stabbed – especially out of all the other people who were on the very same sidewalk with me at the very same time.


I found a therapist, who I saw twice a week for many months. I was functioning on the outside – every day I got up, put makeup and work clothes on, worked all day, and went to the gym after – and soon everyone seemed to act as though nothing happened. But my world had shattered, and I was not, nor ever would be, the woman that I was just before I left my apartment to meet M, and I missed her. It kind of felt like comparing September 10, 2001, to the aftermath of September 11th.


Part 5


At some point, the detective came by my apartment and explained that after the stabber took off, he ran into a man wearing navy and walking a dog up 16th Street, who the stabber seemed to believe was a K-9 officer. The stabber surrendered, and the guy walking his dog held him until the actual police came. The detective also seemed unconvinced that the semi-homeless, mentally ill man who stabbed me wasn’t an ex-boyfriend of mine. He also asked whether I would be willing to make a statement, saying something like a lot of victims in DC don’t want to be seen as snitching, and I was beside myself at what a bumbling idiot he was.


The prosecutors had me come in, and I was quickly able to identify my stabber on a sheet of 12 or 16 mugshots of men with similar complexions and facial hair. I testified before a grand jury, which I don’t recall much about other than looking out at the room full of jurors with sad looks on their faces. I probably went right back to work after, as though I took a few hours off to go to the dentist or something else mundane.


Over the next few months, the stabber was deemed incompetent to stand trial because of mental health issues. The Assistant US Attorney (AUSA) explained that in DC (at least at the time), that might mean that the stabber got to go free. It was on the day of our office holiday party that I got that call from the AUSA, and I remember walking into the office hallway and breaking down into very loud, hysterical crying and my boss looking at me like oh dear god what do I do. I hated that I now always seemed to make everyone around me so uncomfortable.


Several months later, my stabber was deemed competent and pled guilty. There was a sentencing hearing where I testified. By then, I had empathy for my stabber’s mental health issues (after all, I was also struggling to get my own mental health cared for appropriately – and I had health insurance) and I realized how gross it was that we lock away those who are mentally ill instead of getting them treatment so shit like this doesn’t happen in the first place.


I believe I said something in court to the effect of whatever time he serves isn’t going to fix this, but regardless of the outcome, his life is going to be worse than mine. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the only hope I had at that point was that my life was going to be better than that of this mentally ill felon’s. The judge gave him the maximum 10 years, and the stabber’s family apologized to me afterward. They explained that they tried to get him mental health treatment after he spit on a woman a few weeks before he stabbed me, but that he couldn’t be involuntarily held.


I felt lighter as I walked out of the court, like something hovering over me had been lifted, and I forgave him right then and there. It was almost like I had to say to myself, “I forgive you,” to be able to make sure that our lives were no longer intertwined in any way, and I genuinely wanted to release him from my life so that I could move on with mine.

I never signed up for any victim notification service or kept tabs on him. I did make a call to ICE to ensure that he would be moved from prison to ICE custody for deportation once his sentence was over, and then made one more call to verify that occurred.


Part 6


I was (and still am) a plaintiff’s side employment attorney. It was maddening when a client would say that they would not accept a settlement offer “after what they did to me,” or “after everything I went through.” I wanted to yell “oh yeah, do you know what I went through? And do you know what I get? Absolutely nothing but scars and nightmares!” I didn’t do that, although I came close.


I thought about switching practice areas or leaving the practice of law all together, but I knew I couldn’t afford DC rent and living, on top of student loans, without steady employment. The alternative seemed to be moving back home with my parents in Syracuse, NY, and I knew that I could not, would not, let that happen. I was only the second person to graduate college in my family, and the first to become a lawyer or get any kind of advanced degree, and I was not going to go backwards, even if it literally almost killed me.


On the outside, everyone continued to believe that I was moving on amazingly well. I did my make-up and hair, went to the gym and happy hour, and dated like my peers, although many first dates never became second dates. Turns out talking about getting stabbed over dinner is even worse than talking about politics. I sometimes ate ice cream for dinner for two weeks straight (after going to the gym) and laughed it off as something I’m sure everyone else was doing too but wouldn’t admit. I never cooked, never cleaned, and fell behind on bills. Basically, while the veneer was shiny, and I went through all the motions, my life was rotting from the inside.


My therapist referred me to a psychologist who prescribed Lexapro.  I became numb, physically and mentally, which the psychologist deemed a success and I agreed, given the alternative. I rapidly gained weight, and it seemed men stopped paying attention to me, which was a comfort. After several months, I became too numb to care about almost anything, including whether I lived, and had suicidal thoughts for the first time ever in my life. I genuinely never even understood them before, but here I was starting to make plans. Then, one day I was walking outside and noticed how pretty and fluffy the cherry blossoms were when it hit me how fucked up that was. I saw another psychologist who took me off Lexapro and put me on Wellbutrin. I could then “feel” again, and although 80% of those feelings were hopelessness and sadness, I knew somewhere in my brain that it was better to feel than to be numb.


I struggled to pay for therapy, and I remember my therapist suggesting I look for another job or take on side work. I absolutely snapped at her saying nobody would hire me. I can’t take on anything else as I can barely even make it through a day, and that it, meaning my life, was entirely hopeless. She explained that it was the depression that was making me unable to see another life for myself, but I could not believe that I could ever get out from under the depression, and I was furious that my therapist was suggesting that my reality was not the reality. I’m not sure why I so vividly recall this imagery, but it was like I could not see the sky through the clouds.


Part 7


I also couldn’t believe that there would ever be a day when I wouldn’t think about being stabbed. In addition to seeing the actual event run through my brain a few times a day, every time I looked in the mirror, I could not help but to see the scar across my neck. Instead of healing, my scar only turned more and more gnarly. After getting my ears pierced when I was little, I learned that I form keloids, which means that instead of any wound healing, the scar tissue grows and grows. It’s incredibly rare in white people (like me), although common among other ethnicities.

Women in suit jacket
18 months of laser surgery but the scars returned.

After having surgery to remove the keloids from my ears three times and having them grow right back, I had radiation treatment while I was in law school, and the keloids finally stopped growing. Now, I was having to quite literally face an ever growing and painful scar that was a constant reminder of trauma I was trying to move on from. I didn’t put concealer on it because I literally did not want to even touch it. Someone said they thought I didn’t try to cover it as some sort of statement, like here’s this horrid scar for everyone to see, and it blew my mind that someone thought I was intentionally trying to advertise this trauma to the world.


Some people would say things like, “oh my aunt had her thyroid removed too,” and I would nod along. Funny thing about a huge scar across your neck is that there is no way it came from anything good – either someone tried to kill you, you had cancer, or something else horrible happened.


I have gone to countless dermatologists and plastic surgeons over the past 20 years and had countless incredibly painful Kenalog (a steroid) injections into the scar, and even some chemotherapy drugs, but it won’t stop growing for more than a few months at most. It’s creepy, but yes, I can feel it growing as it’s painful and itchy, sometimes to the point where it wakes me up at night.


Johns Hopkins opened a scar revision clinic, and although I had to wait months for an appointment, the doctor (who does face transplants!) thinks he can fix the scar with surgery and radiation, which other doctors were unwilling to consider, given that the scar sits over my thyroid. I’ve been torn between getting injections for the rest of my life or going through surgery and radiation – neither option is really appealing, but at least I have some.


Part 8


There was not a specific day when I woke up and thought “wow, the depression is gone.” But I pushed ahead living my life, and gradually I could see sky as the clouds thinned out. I was able to hope and believe that I deserved to be happy and successful, and today I’m both.


I started my own law firm with a partner while I was on maternity leave after having my first (sounds bonkers, but it worked out perfectly). Now 12 years later, we are still in business, have 30 employees in 9 states, and have more professional successes under our belt than I could have imagined. I stayed in the niche practice area I was in back in 2004, although now I get to do cooler things like represent spies and take down sexual harassers. When clients tell me that their life/career/reputation is forever ruined, I can say, with some knowing authority, that it’s not.


I met my now husband (an ex-football player tank of a man – probably not a coincidence) when I was 31, and we got married two years later. We moved to MoCo and had two babies, who are now 10 and 12 and are amazing. My husband is one of those great dads who does all the laundry, dishes, kid carpooling, and stuff like the kids’ dentist appointments (I genuinely could not tell you who their dentist is).

family
My wonderful family.

When my kids were little, they asked what happened to my neck, and I explained in a toddler friendly way, i.e., I had a cut, but my scar looks different because of how I heal. When we moved further out into the burbs (like into a neighborhood with a swim team and all that jazz), more kids asked what happened. It reached fever pitch two summers ago, with my son asking over and over, but always at inappropriate places, as kids do, like a swim meet. I would say we can talk about it later, hoping he wouldn’t ask again. When I was finally ready, one of our close neighbors, their friends’ dad, was killed in a car accident. Appropriately so, the kids panicked about losing a parent too. It then seemed like a really bad time to explain how some guy tried to kill their mom, so I didn’t, and I still haven’t.


So here I am, with 20 years in the rearview mirror. I don’t believe that I was stabbed for any reason, and while it shaped who I am, I could have done without it 100%. I can see where I used to be in my friend whose husband was killed, although she is trying to muddle through while also being a mom to grieving kids, which is an extraordinary amount to bear. She asked about how I got to the outside of it, and I wish I could tell her to do x, y, and z, but I can’t, because it’s far messier. I can tell her that she’s not alone in feeling like “why the fuck did this crazy thing have to happen to me” though, and I hope that’s some comfort.


I also hope that it’s some comfort to anyone out there in the thick of it, whatever your “it” may be, that my life is now filled with joy, love, and friendships. My life surely took a detour, but that craziness didn’t prevent me from becoming the badass lawyer and cool mom that I was always meant to be. Resilience is in my DNA.

woman with family at beach
The future.

Author: Debra D’Agostino is a founding Partner of the Federal Practice Group, LLP, a law firm based in Washington, D.C. Ms. D’Agostino leads the firm’s federal employment law team and specializes in nationwide representation of federal employees in matters including discrimination claims, whistleblower retaliation, and adverse action appeals. Ms. D'Agostino has more than 20 years of experience in this complex area of law and is admitted to practice in Washington, D.C., and New York. Ms. D’Agostino graduated from New York University and the George Washington University School of Law.

 

Ms. D'Agostino lives in Gaithersburg, MD, with her husband and two kids, and their golden doodle and elderly cat.

2 comments

2 Comments


Guest
3 days ago

Thank you for sharing. God bless you and your family. I am glad you are well.

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Guest
May 02

Thank you for sharing your story. No doubt this will be a comfort to so many people who are going through horrible situations that feel permanent. Your resilience will give powers to others for sure!

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