There is no woman who better embodies “Surviving & Thriving” than my dear friend, Trisha Meili.
You may know her as “The Central Park Jogger.”
In the 1980s, Trish was a twentysomething investment banker for Solomon Brothers, living a high-powered New York City lifestyle and leaning into anorexia as a coping mechanism.
On April 19, 1989, Trish set out on her daily jog through Central Park. Though she has no memory of what occurred, she did not return from her run. She was brutally assaulted, raped, and left for dead.
After surviving a coma and traumatic brain injury, Trish was thrust into the spotlight when the trial of her alleged assailants, the “Central Park Five,” gained national media attention.
Though it was a long and difficult road to recovery, Trish found her ultimate purpose in advocacy, becoming a powerful voice for brain injury and sexual assault survivors. She’s written a book about her experience and serves as an “open book” for all in the hopes of inspiring others who’ve suffered trauma.
I’ve stayed in touch with Trish for many years and she’s been a comfort to me during difficult times.
Today, on the 30th anniversary of her attack, I am proud to share Trish’s important voice with you.
As you’ll read in our conversation, she is a testament to the strength that resides in approaching the world with radical vulnerability.
Her strength soothes me – and I hope it fills you with confidence to overcome life’s trials!
“You Sound Fabulous”
Trish: Helloooo! You sound fabulous.
Ingrid: Oh, well – I’m good!
Jimmy: Hi Trish! I’m here, too. It’s been a long time, huh? You don’t come back to San Diego! We gotta do something about that.
Ingrid: When we last saw each other. That was in Point Loma, at the Old Venice?
Trish: That’s right! Time just flies. I was there for Scripps Health Care. Speaking at a brain injury conference.
Ingrid: And you’ve just returned from the Amazon rainforest. How was that?
Trish: You know? Vacation is a good thing.
Trish: I’ll tell you – both [my husband] Jim and I (and he says hi, too!) we just love to be out in nature. We were on a boat. There was no WiFi, no Internet. We were not connected at all.
Ingrid: And what did you find?
Trish: There were a couple times initially when there was a lull in time and I’m thinking: I need to go check my phone. But nuh-nuh-nuh, you can’t do that. And it’s kind of stating the obvious, but wow, how dependent I’ve become on my phone.
It was so great to not hear any news. They woke us up at 5:30 in the morning. We were on this small boat and they had what they called canoes – small skiffs – that would take us around some of the tributaries. Everyday there was a jungle walk.
None of us are bird watchers, but it turned out there were a lot of birds, and it was meditative to just sit down and watch.
Ingrid: Observing and listening.
Trish: There was a couple from San Diego and I asked if they knew you two and they didn’t.
Jimmy: They couldn’t be from San Diego, then!
“I Focused On The Present Moment”
Ingrid: Trish, I knew I wanted to speak with you for my Conversation Series ever since I called you a year ago. When I found myself speechless. Do you remember that?
Trish: Oh yes, I remember.
Ingrid: It was before I was diagnosed with Logopenic Primary Aphasia. I thought I had a brain injury – I wasn’t sure I knew what was happening to me – but I knew it was something more than depression.
It was a scary time, not knowing.
On April 19, 1989, you were attacked and left for dead in Central Park. You were in a coma after the attack.
Trish: I was in the coma, officially, for 12 days. And after, my brain was still healing. I would come in and out of consciousness.
The brain maintains a hierarchical system of what’s the most important. I’ve never remembered the attack. Maybe memory isn’t the most important.
My vivid memory – the first memory I had after the attack – I knew that I was in a hospital.
A former boyfriend was in my hospital room – and I was telling him to shut up! I kept telling him to shut up. Because he kept answering a question that I was asking the nurse.
One of the characteristics of somebody with a brain injury is what they call perseveration: you just keep asking and focusing on the same thing. I didn’t realize I was asking the nurse the same question over and over!
He was trying to help out, and I was really annoyed.
Trish: I kept thinking: God, he keeps talking so much. Why won’t he shut up?!
Trish: Apparently – and I don’t remember this – I did start to ask what happened. Why am I here?
The prosecutor asked my family not to say anything because they wanted to find out how much I remembered. She came in for several days in a row. Much later on, she told me in a gentle way that I was hurt in Central Park and all of that.
In the moment, though. I couldn’t think about what happened. I couldn’t think about the attack – I wasn’t able to. I wasn’t capable of it.
Ingrid: What were you capable of?
Trish: Being able to…to roll over. Or touch my nose. That made me feel better. Oh! I’m seeing improvement.
One of the greatest advantages of my brain injury is that I focused on the present moment.
I couldn’t worry about the future. All I could think was: here I am. My therapists are giving me assignments and I have to complete those assignments to get better. That attitude, I think, allowed me to see some sense of progress.
Jimmy: Trish, did you know you were progressing from something? Was your past dark or did you have memory of your life before the incident, or were you just beginning again in the moment?
Trish: I’ve often called that time, “Learning to Begin Again.”
I had a small period of no memory – from about five o’clock the evening the night it happened, until about seven weeks later.
I did remember my past but it almost seemed…? At least early on, I wasn’t thinking about my past. Oh man, I used to be able to do so much and now I can’t do anything.
I don’t remember having those thoughts.
I do remember having some thoughts when I was at the rehab hospital – the long term acute care hospital. This was probably…two or three months after the attack. I thought to myself: so, I still have a long way to go.
By three months, I started to walk.
I just had this sense: you know what? It’s going to be okay. I don’t know where I’m going to end up, for sure, but I think that it’s going to be okay.
Jimmy: You didn’t have a sense of deep anxiety that you weren’t recovering fast enough?
Trish: Here’s one thing that I’m thinking in hindsight was an important factor.
My dad told me that the president of the company where I worked, Solomon Brothers, had told him that I would have a job. I think that gave me some sense of calm, or – relief, maybe? I remember thinking this, too: I don’t want to be a poster child! I want to earn the fact that I can go back there.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to do what I once did. Still, I had this sense of –
Trish: Wisdom. Inner wisdom. And sometimes, I like to think back to that. Because now? I can get frustrated with myself. It’s like darn. Or, damn!
That’s when I say: stop. Take a step back.
Ingrid: Take a breath.
Trish: I had to pay attention with my brain injury.
I had to pay attention to the present to try and understand what my mind and body were doing because nothing was coming naturally – especially early on.
I can’t say: oh, I’m so glad this happened to me. But, I’m so thankful for my attitude most of the time. I can’t say “always” because I do get frustrated and down and such. But most of the time, I think:
Look at what I’ve opened my life to.
I can’t say that I never would have come to this peace if the trauma hadn’t happened. You just don’t know. But, focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t.
“Focusing on What You Can Do”
Ingrid: Have yoga and mindfulness played a significant part in your healing process?
Trish: Yoga has been a huge part of my healing. I didn’t do yoga before the attack because it wasn’t “active” enough. A few years after I was out of the hospital, I still had balance issues, veering issues.
A friend said, “Why don’t you take a yoga class at the local YMCA?” I thought, “Okay! Sure.”
It turned out this yoga class was part of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction yoga. Have you ever heard of this?
Ingrid: You’ve mentioned the book to me, “Wherever You Go, There You Are.” That was his?
Trish: Yes! An intern from his program in Massachusetts was leading an eight-week class at my Y in Connecticut. In this class, it felt like the universe coming together.
I realized this idea of mindfulness and paying attention in the present really came to me “naturally” through my attack. I found yoga was a safe space to explore what my body could do.
Ingrid: Good for her! I find that yoga for me…the asanas are repetitive. It’s up to you to choose the asanas you want to do that day.
Trish: There’s also the spiritual part of it. There’s clearly the physical part of it. But the spiritual part? It keeps me connected to my soul. To my true self. It keeps me grounded.
Jimmy: We’ve been practicing Iyengar yoga for twenty-five years. Ingrid has more patience with it than I do.
Trish: It’s so nice doing it together too. And I’m not wishing that someone would do it with me, but there will come a time, for [my husband] Jim!
Jimmy: You’ll set a good example for him!
Trish: Oh! And, oh oh oh oh. See! Oh! On the physical side!
Trish: I can do a handstand, now! You know. In the middle of the room without a problem. I can’t do a headstand, but I can do a handstand.
Ingrid: Very good!
Trish: So that makes me feel great, too.
“A Thousand Pound Weight Dropped Off My Shoulders”
Ingrid: Trish, in your book, you talk about how long it took you to go in for the final diagnostics, to find out what the extent of your damage was. Instead of just surviving, when did you feel like you were ready to begin to heal?
Trish: That’s interesting. That was many years – 12 years – after the attack, when I took a neuro-psych exam.
There’s clearly healing going on all that time. But getting to that point of acceptance? And learning to accept myself? To say: okay I’m willing to see what’s a measure of the deficits?
It was when, in part, I was feeling good about myself and my surroundings. And a big part of that was because Jim, my now husband, had come into my life.
He – you know! – he’s just a wonderful guy. What a wonderful guy he is.
And! Again, a number of things starting to happen and fall into place.
Ingrid: The universe responding in some way.
Trish: Another part of that acceptance? I started to speak publicly. Not as “The Central Park Jogger.” But sticking my toe in the water.
Some opportunities came up with that. A good friend of Jim’s said, “I know an agent who would be really good.”
Writing the book really gave me the opportunity to be there for other survivors in ways that I never could have imagined.
Someone wrote to me that she’d been raped over thirty years ago and she never told anyone because she felt so ashamed. After reading my book, she felt comfortable enough to tell someone she was very close to.
She wrote to me: I felt a thousand pound weight drop off of my shoulders.
Imagine, for thirty years, carrying that weight around? Obviously, it’s not that everything is suddenly okay. But that sharing, and not necessarily in a public way – just sharing your story with one person. The impact that can have to help you heal.
Jimmy: It must be very fulfilling when you can actually help somebody and they tell you about it. That has to be a terrific place to be. How did you prepare for your very first speech?
Trish: The first speech I gave was to the Rape Crisis Center in New York City. That was to advocates. To share with them how important the work that they’re doing is because of how they helped me and my family. I really hadn’t done public speaking prior to that.
I learned – you know what? Talking about yourself – it’s not that hard to do!
Also, I wanted to let them know the impact that they had. The real big one, the real big public speaking moment, was actually with Jon Kabat-Zinn at Spaulding Rehab Hospital in Boston.
He was so encouraging to me. And he understood: we’re just trying this out. He gave me guidance and such. He was a gentle friend.
And I felt very comfortable in front of this medical community. They get caught up in the details of healthcare and the administrative stuff, and they forget: this is why I do what I do.
Jimmy: You were a living example.
Ingrud: And you went on to become a prolific advocate for brain injury and sexual assault survivors. You were so inspirational when you did your speech at the CCS event in San Diego.
Trish: 2004 – over ten years ago!
Ingrid: Oh! How could that be? Almost – fourteen years ago! Fifteen years ago! How has that message evolved over the years?
T: My message is a simple message. The essence of it really hasn’t changed.
Number One – We can do so much more than we ever thought possible. I learned this from my own healing.
Two – Other people are important in the healing process. They can create an environment that really unleashes, I think, something that every one of us has deep inside.
Three – We can overcome adversity. Because life is adversity. We’ve all experienced something.
Ingrid: How have people responded to that message?
Trish: I’ll tell you one thing. It was in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Someone in the audience – a brain injury survivor – raised her hand to ask a question.
She started with this caveat of how she sometimes has trouble finishing a thought…she’s not quite sure how something’s going to come out. And then she asked her question, which I honestly can’t remember. But!
I realized she was saying, “I usually can’t do this.”
I just stopped her and said, “Look at what you just did. You just asked your question in front of 200 people. And you asked it so clearly.”
Everyone started applauding.
Ingrid: That’s so fantastic!
Trish: It was just building her up. And it was building me up, too.
“There’s Definitely Uncertainty, Stepping Into The Spotlight”
Ingrid: And you know…”Celebrity.” Trish, you’ve spoken publicly about your trauma on The Larry King Show. And The Today Show. Many other media outlets.
When Jim died, I became the focus of attention as his widow. Did you feel that you were unfairly named or labeled as “The Central Park Jogger?”
Trish: No, I I didn’t feel that way. Yes, I have these labels. Of rape survivor and brain injury survivor and victim. And, I’m proud of who I am.
In coming forward, I had to be so centered and grounded in who I was that I could deal with some of the uncertainty. There’s definitely uncertainty, stepping into the spotlight.
One of the first people who interviewed me was from Newsday, a newspaper on Long Island.
This woman interviewed me. She had a timer with her during the interview. She would ask me a question, I’d think a bit, and then I’d respond.
In her article, one of the things she wrote was, “Trisha took 15 seconds or so to respond to my first question.” I really felt that in my gut, you know? She was just trying to find what was wrong with me. That hurt.
The press is tough. The press is tough because they’re always looking for a sensational aspect. I have mixed feelings about the press.
Ingrid: Have you been contacted by [director] Ava DuVernay? [With regards to her upcoming Netflix series, When They See Us, based on the controversy surrounding prosecutions of the “Central Park 5” for Trish’s brutal attack.]
Trish: I know she’s doing a Netflix show and I was contacted by a woman requesting an interview. I think they thought I was still in New York City. I said, “You know, I’m not in the city now, is there another time?” I never heard anything back.
This is all part of the controversy of the case, and this is really hard. Because, you know, her perspective is “The Five.”
Jimmy: That was the perspective of Ken Burns as well.
Trish: This summer, as part of the settlement…it isn’t all out there yet. But! On a website of the City of New York, there’s public information from the first two trials. When “The Five” sued the city – there’s all the depositions and their original videotaped confessions are there. For anybody to listen.
I’m glad that this is out there – so people can see. I’ve watched a couple of the videotapes and it is really hard, to listen. They are all about half an hour long. It’s not only about me.
It’s just really – it’s really hard to listen to. Especially when it’s you.
Part of what keeps me moving forward is transforming the negative energy of the attack into a positive force.
I’m very involved with addressing sexual assault kits that haven’t been tested. It’s a nationwide issue. It’s heartbreaking to see these thousands and thousands of kits around the country – just left in inventory. Each one represents a survivor.
I’m a survivor representative here in Jacksonville, Florida, and thank god we’re addressing this here and around the country.
In a way, it’s good to work with law enforcement and the prosecutors from a survivor’s perspective, and educate them. Real progress is happening.
“We Lose Touch With Our Wingspan When We Hunch”
Jimmy: Have you gotten to meet anybody that you’ve really wanted to meet in your travels? Besides Ingrid and me. Any of your heroes and heroines along the path in doing what you do?
Trish: So! I tell you. I have met so many incredible people who just demonstrate the power of the human spirit.
They’ve touched my heart. They inspire me, and we inspire each other. In some way, that’s why I have to remind myself that it’s important to get the message out there.
Ingrid: So, who are these people? The individuals? The people you hold in esteem?
Trish: Survivors of some sort! Brain injury, sexual assault, cancer. There’s just been a tremendous amount of sharing of stories.
I will say, Ingrid, when I read your most recent piece with Bruce Springsteen I did think: oh man, I’d love to meet him!
Ingrid: Something I always ask people that we talked to – if there was a great conversation that’s changed their life in some way. A conversation that you remember from throughout the years that you wouldn’t mind sharing with us.
Trish: Something more recently…with one yoga instructor. We were talking about this idea of New Year’s Resolutions versus New Year’s Intentions.
We were talking about where you start from with a resolution. It seems that something isn’t right, and you’re going to fix it. You’re going to “resolve” to do X, Y, Z because you’re not satisfied with – whatever! Your weight, something like that.
As opposed to starting from: I’m whole. I am in a good place. And I intend to – in a way – further what I’m continuing to do. That was such a good conversation to have at the beginning of this year. And to me, it very much related to this idea of being and focusing on what you can do. Being proud of what you are.
And – is this running ideas together? Because something else that I was thinking of. Ingrid, when you were asking about interviewing and the media and if I was looked at as the victim.
Something that I think my healing has taught me – from all the support I’ve received – I have always felt like a survivor rather than a victim.
The difference between victim and survivor is more than semantic. Feeling like a survivor helps me to heal.
Being a survivor really allows me to take responsibility. Not for the beating and rape, but responsibility for where I put my energy. Each day moving forward.
Clearly, I’m the victim of a horrific crime that nearly killed me and left me with a disability. But, I’ve always felt like a survivor.
There’s a quote that I saw in “The Book of Gratitude” that relates to this. For me, it’s a physical expression of this.
“We lose touch with our wingspan when we hunch.”
When I think of being a survivor, my chest expands. When I think about being a victim, I contract. With a wingspan? That to me is like strength. And moving forward.
Ingrid: And you can fly.
Trish: And part of it? It’s also how you interact and what you get from other people. And that’s why I say, “In no way, shape, or form have I ever done this alone.”