WASHINGTON — Three months after supporters of President Donald J. Trump violently stormed the Capitol, Alisa La, a close aide to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, sat in the office suite where she had hid from the rioters, describing the lasting effects of her traumatic experience on Jan. 6.
Just as she finished speaking, an intercom began blaring: another lockdown.
She went through the same motions as on Jan. 6. She checked with colleagues to try to figure out what was going on. She reached out to family members to let them know she was locked in the Capitol. She complied with orders from the police to stay inside as cable news stations broadcast images of the grim scene outside.
Soon, Ms. La would learn the reason for that day’s alarm. A knife-wielding assailant had fatally rammed a police officer with his car outside the driveway to the Capitol and wounded another officer. The carnage appeared to be unconnected to the events of Jan. 6, when the pro-Trump mob invaded the building in an attempt to stop the certification of President Biden’s victory.
But it was another reminder of the lingering impact of that day. Before Jan. 6, the Capitol seemed almost impenetrable, its pristine dome the physical embodiment of a secure and stable democracy. For many, it is now tinged with an unshakable sense of hypervigilance, trauma, anger and sadness.
On Saturday, far-right activists will hold a rally at the foot of Capitol Hill to demand “justice” for those arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 attack, part of an effort by Republicans to play down or deny what happened.
It remains excruciatingly real for the people who were there. These interviews with some of them, conducted over the last five months, have been edited for length and clarity.
Senator Lisa Murkowski Before heading to the Senate chamber to vote against the challenge to Arizona’s election results, Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, stopped in her “hideaway” office in the basement of the Capitol. As I’m planting my stuff, I hear somebody literally tumbling down these five carpeted steps going into the bathroom, and then just this wretching, heaving — this gut-wrenching sound. I opened up my door and the bathroom door was wide open, and I could see the frame of a police officer right in front of the sink. He was washing his face out. And I said, “Can I help you? Are you OK?” And he looks up at me, his face is red, his eyes are swollen shut. And he said, “No, I’m OK.” He raced by me, he says, “No, I got to get out there. They need my help.” I went back to my hideaway a couple days after. It was the first time that I’d been there. There’s still glass, there were still water bottles. They cleaned up some of the mess, but it was still just kind of really eerie and very, very unsettling. The plexiglass riot shields were still out in the hallway there. I got into my hideaway, and I could not close the door. I was unsettled being there. I moved out of my hideaway, so I don’t go back there anymore. I really liked it, but it was just too much déjà vu. That memory is still there. That little public bathroom right across from my hideaway — I can just still hear the awful sound of the officer as he was trying to rid himself of whatever the spray was. This has been a hard spring for me. A part of it has been because of Covid. I was short-tempered. I just couldn’t get myself out of the hole. I spent more time dwelling on, just looking at my phone and news. So the April recess, I did something that I’ve never done: “I’m taking one week. And no, you can’t schedule me.” But you know, nobody wanted me to be by myself. There were heightened threats, apparently, that we had to be attentive to, and I respect that. But I didn’t like the feeling. I felt that my wings had been clipped. It’s hard. But we’ve got a job to do, and we need to be focusing on what’s in front of us today. So in order to focus on that, maybe the easier thing is to try to push the reality of what we faced those months ago to the further corners of your mind. It doesn’t make them go away. That story will always be with us.
Representative Veronica Escobar Representative Veronica Escobar of Texas, a Democrat, was seated with other lawmakers in the upstairs gallery of the House chamber overlooking the floor, watching the electoral count, when rioters began pounding on the doors. I remember the pounding very clearly, and it was so frightening. It was so, so frightening. I remember Jim McGovern, trying to maintain order inside of the chamber — which now, looking back, it, too, just seems so surreal, but it speaks to the fact that we didn’t understand the peril. I remember being told to put on our gas masks and that awful sound, that awful sound. When I hear that sound, it is very triggering for me, that high-pitched sound. I remember very clearly people saying, “Take off your pin” [indicating a member of Congress] and me thinking, “Absolutely not.” But I also was conflicted, because I thought, those insurrectionists here to do us harm will recognize the pin; they may be on the lookout for those of us wearing pins. But I also was afraid that Capitol Police would not recognize us as members without our pin. I did and still do feel more vulnerable as a woman of color in Congress, because the vitriol is so hideous. I didn’t initially want to go back, because it was so scary. But as the night wore on, I just remember thinking, “We have to finish our work. We have to.” Going back in there did feel like going back to a scene of a crime. I have not been up in the gallery. We were invited back for the joint address, and I turned the invitation down. I’m generally a very optimistic, happy, upbeat person, and I also feel very much that obstacles and that challenges make a person stronger and it builds resilience. But I definitely have needed the help of a therapist to try to have tools to manage moments that are really difficult. I had an anxiety attack on a flight to D.C. We were all in line to get onto the plane, and all of a sudden I noticed several T.S.A. agents at our gate. Immediately, I could feel my heart beating more quickly. I sat down and I started scanning everybody boarding the plane for patches on their arms, for T-shirts, for the things that we saw on Jan. 6 — the identifiers. I felt like people could hear my heartbeat, it was beating and pounding so powerfully. And I texted my family and I said, “Hey, guys, I’m on the plane. I just want you to know I love you.” In that moment, I just started panicking and felt a lot of anxiety and I thought we were going to die. It sounds ridiculous in hindsight, but it was really challenging, and thank God we were wearing masks, because I just started weeping. Even after we boarded, we took off, I was just sitting there quietly weeping.
Traumatic memories are stronger than other memories.
Fear can function like a blinding flashbulb. During a terrifying experience, hormones like adrenaline are released, with the effect of “burning the memories of the incident into the brain,” according to Dr. Roger Pitman, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder.
This happens for a good biological reason. Stress hormones facilitate learning, helping us to recognize and avoid events that have put us in danger in the past.
But after trauma, the memories can be so vivid that they may cause problems, returning when they are unwanted in the form of bad dreams or intrusive thoughts.
And they may be triggered by incidental details. On Jan. 6, for example, a person inside the Capitol may have feared for her life in a certain room, near a particular statue. The statue can become what psychologists describe as a “conditioned stimulus,” activating the memory of the whole experience, Dr. Pitman said.
Those memories can impair a person’s concentration, ensnaring him in a memory as he tries to focus on an immediate task. They can trigger fear responses, like a racing heart, sweatiness and jitters. The person may be on edge, disturbed by reminders of the incident, such as the place where it happened.
Those effects generally fade naturally in the months after a traumatic experience; only after three months would clinicians consider a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, and even then, only 20 percent of people who live through a traumatic incident will be diagnosed.
But they can be disabling, said Lisa Najavits, a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
“It can almost be like a place within the person that when they’re reminded of the event, it comes right back,” she said.
Remmington Belford Remmington Belford, the communications director for Representative Yvette D. Clarke, Democrat of New York, was in the Rayburn House Office Building on Jan. 6 when rioters breached the complex. While it seems like it’s been ages, I still close my eyes and see that day again. We really saw how fragile our democracy was. Congress is kind of getting back to normal. A lot of the outrage and disapproval of what happened is starting to go by the wayside. A lot of the members and senators who voted against certifying the election that I feel are responsible, along with former President Trump, are just getting a pass. I don’t have any type of grace to give them. I saw one of the members of Congress who’s been pretty notorious and involved in that, and I had this overwhelming feeling of — I won’t say fear, but just concern and just, like, wanting to place distance between her and I. There are still remnants of trauma and fear that these people are still allowed to be here. And they could be plotting another one. I’m very jumpy. I’m very skeptical. I think with the insurrection compounded with the pandemic, my interest in going into spaces with large crowds has truly almost left me. I have, like, about a 10-person maximum kind of thing. I used to love going out and being in crowds and going to concerts and things like that, but now I just truly enjoy being home. I work closely with my therapist to identify mechanisms in my space that kind of lull me when my anxiety is heightened, when I think about things like: “What if they’re doing this again?” I’m from the South. So there’s this collection of rules that you grew up under. There’s certain places you don’t go after dark, certain exits off a freeway you don’t take because that city is notoriously racist. So being on Capitol Hill, seeing the faces of those people that own that type of disposition, the mass of people so close and so focused on doing harm, for me was one of the scariest portions of what happened that day. I have close friends now that I did not know prior to the insurrection. Staffers who shared their stories. There’s a camaraderie there; there’s a bonding there. My therapist calls it “trauma bonding.” It has been a blessing and a curse. It’s created lots of anxiety, but it’s connected me with some amazing people, and that truly has been transformative.
Alisa La As the mob breached the Capitol, Ms. La and her colleagues barricaded themselves in a room in Ms. Pelosi’s Capitol office suite, hiding in the dark as rioters ransacked it. Ms. La recently left her job on Capitol Hill. You’re sitting in the dark, and you’re just hearing these awful, haunting noises. Clearly people were throwing glass and all that stuff, but then the things that they were taunting and saying were just disgusting. I always think about this: What if they opened the door? This is where we go to work every day. You feel some sort of safety in coming here, and then you just watch it all get destroyed. You have to balance out this personal “I feel violated, my stuff feels violated, my safety feels violated,” but we have this immense responsibility to certify the election and do good for the American people. It definitely hits you at different times — to every day see new video and all that, and then put it on top of what I walk into every day. That is a little tough. I remember sitting on the speaker’s balcony and we were having a little goodbye lunch for one of our colleagues. Even though nobody could even access that space, all I could see in my head was people running up, and my mood was totally different. This is not like a traumatic thing would be like getting mugged, right? That’s not on the news every day. It’s not in the national conversation, like what happened to us is. It’s just so much bigger than all of us, and to relive that trauma kind of every day. We all came back to work Jan. 7, so there’s not really time to heal. I remember coming home and telling my husband, “Can you just make sure you announce yourself as you’re coming in?” I get spooked really easily. And then the slamming of doors was tough. I’m in this silly Facebook group about Bravo TV and “Real Housewives,” and I find a lot of stress relief in it. I felt more comfortable telling my story on that platform of 10,000 strangers than I did my own Facebook friend group. I was like, this is my story. I want everyone to know that they came to hurt people. They didn’t come to just destroy things — they just couldn’t find anyone to hurt. One big thing that I had to deal with is reactions of others. You can’t expect too much. No one knows what to say. No one has the right thing to say. There’s no manual on how to deal with an insurrection.
The 9/11 Effect
Looping. Scrolling. Poring over photographs and second-by-second digital recreations.
When you have lived through a terrifying experience that is also major news, it can be impossible to step away. The internet offers a deep, perpetually open rabbit hole, an opportunity to flood yourself with detailed, graphic imagery.
For some people, watching footage might be helpful. The brain may be looking for ways to temper the fear response, which is generated by the amygdalae, almond-shaped clusters of gray matter in the temporal lobe. Clinicians sometimes try to help by exposing the patient to reminders of the episode in an effort to blunt its effect, a process known as “extinction.”
For others, though, ruminating over media coverage deepens their distress and sets back their ability to work and socialize normally, as demonstrated by research carried out after the Sept. 11 attacks and the Boston Marathon Bombing.
“Some people really become almost obsessed by an event and keep watching it — almost not wanting to, but not being able to tear themselves away,” Dr. Najavits said.
Still more distressing for those who were in the thick of the Jan. 6 riots is a public effort to play down the seriousness by Republican lawmakers supportive of Mr. Trump.
Dr. James S. Gordon, a Washington psychiatrist who has led support groups for about 80 Capitol Police officers and numerous members of Congress, described this as a “moral injury.”
“Officers are being accused of being wimps or being derelict in their duties, demeaned and demoralized from outside,” Dr. Gordon said. “They’re putting their bodies out there to protect the lives of these people in Congress, who are saying to them, ‘Nothing much happened. What’s your problem? Get over it.’”
Months after the event, these public denials serve as “a continuation of the betrayal they felt on Jan. 6,” he said.
Capt. Carneysha Mendoza Capt. Carneysha Mendoza, commander of the Capitol Police’s Civil Disturbance Unit and an Army veteran, was eating lunch with her son at home when she started getting frantic calls about violence at the Capitol. She raced to the scene and fought the mob for hours, suffering chemical burns to her face. I dropped everything and came in to work. I immediately called the dispatcher so I know what I’m walking into. I could tell in her voice that it wasn’t good. As soon as I park, I hear about the breach at the Rotunda. Once I go in, that’s when I see this group of maybe like 200, maybe more. I remember them being loud. I was so overwhelmed with like, “Wow, I can’t believe this just happened. I can’t believe all these people are in the building.” I just pushed my way through the crowd and immediately, I see my guys, my Civil Disturbance Unit. They were on a line and they were sweating — they were working so hard. And they were holding all these people back. So I immediately jumped on line with no gear on. My arm got caught between a railing and the crowd. One of my sergeants pulled my arm out and said he saw my arm breaking. We ended up losing the line. The demonstrators overpowered us. The Rotunda was full of people, and it was smoked out. It took us a long time, but eventually we pushed people out. I didn’t even know I was out of breath until I looked at my Fitbit. It showed me in the exercise zone for four hours. At the moment, I didn’t feel any type of emotions; I just was focused on the job. After I reflected on things, I was angry. I was really angry. Everything that happened afterward was disappointing. The lack of support from some people, the division, everybody’s trying to blame someone for what happened. And just the fact that it happened here — you know, in the land of the free. I went to the doctor later, and they diagnosed me with chemical burns. A lot of us got chemical burns, actually. I keep hearing more and more people who got them. I know some people wouldn’t report their injuries. When I inhaled it, I knew I inhaled it, because I felt it burning in my chest. I went home. I wash my face, wash my hair, and that’s when I kind of started feeling everything burning. My eyes were burning really bad. My face felt like it was on fire. There were nights where I couldn’t sleep because it was burning so bad. My face literally burned for two months. Most days when I sit and actually think about it, it makes me upset. Obviously, it’s been difficult. It’s been really difficult. For me as a commander, part of my job is to lead people. Sometimes it’s hard, because you hear a lot of negativity and you want to bring people together. We don’t like counseling. Most of us have type-A personalities. A lot of people don’t ask for help. I’ve had my ups and downs; it’s like a roller coaster. Some days, I’m fine. Some days I’m focused on making change. And some days, I’m just having a bad day. Sometimes I think we forget to focus on the fact that we were attacked. I didn’t sleep for a long time. As a C.D.U. commander, I’m always constantly thinking to myself, “What could I have done differently? What could we have done differently?” It’s still a hard question to answer. Until I get a clear answer, it’s always going to haunt me.