Illustration: Polly Becker

I Survived...The Joplin Tornado
Once I heard how bad the storm could become, my daughter, Kayla, and I got into ready position, the way we had a dozen other times tornadoes had threatened: sitting in the bathroom with a mattress over our heads. She'd just arrived home from college, so we were chatting and catching up. My husband came in the house and called out, "That thunder won't stop." Seconds after he joined us under the mattress, our ears popped, and the blasting force sucked the air out of my body. Then all the windows exploded.

The house started shaking violently, so I clung to the toilet, hearing the water sloshing around in the bowl. After about 15 seconds, everything went quiet. We were just about to get up and assess the damage when the backside hit. We'd thought we were safe, but we were just in the tornado's eye.

The house was a one-story, and the roof tore off, piece by piece, until it was pouring rain inside. The wood in the walls cracked apart. It sounded like a jet engine was roaring above us. Debris pounded the mattress, drowning out my husband's shouts. As the suction intensified, I tightened my grip around the toilet and closed my eyes, praying I wouldn't get ripped away. Kayla screamed; I was too terrified to make a peep. I was sure we were going to die. I just hoped it wouldn't be painful.

Then it passed. What felt like forever was probably only 30 seconds or so. We were left crouching in half a foot of water, buried in slabs of wood and rubble. Dirt filled our mouths, our eyes, our pockets. When we climbed out, we could see for miles—our house and all the others were rubble. Fires were blazing.

We lost everything. Wedding photos and baby books, basketball trophies, Christmas ornaments, family heirlooms—my father-in-law's gun from the Korean War, my grandmother's antique washboard. For a week, I didn't even have a pair of shoes. We thought our cat had been killed; Kayla went to the humane society every day. It would be a year before a former neighbor posted a Facebook picture of a stray seen roaming around. She suffered from respiratory issues and had a mouthful of sores, but now she's back with us and in good health. She just hides during storms.

Though it took months to get our insurance money, within six weeks we'd bought another house—this time with a basement. (We'd been only three years away from paying off our lost one.) The new place is starting to feel like home. My mom gave me some family photos; we've done some planting in the yard. The other day, my husband said, "Hey, I think we're actually starting to get some clutter," which made me laugh. Of course, we could lose it all again one day. But now we know we can start over if we have to.
—Teresa Thaman, as told to Sarah Engler
Woman by herself

Illustration: Ruth Sorenson/Getty Images

I Survived... Almost Being Raped
I was on my way home from work, cutting through the park. On that day, the sun seemed to set faster, and suddenly I found myself walking in the dark. I was less than half a mile from my apartment, but the path led me over a bridge, across train tracks and through an unlit underpass.

Then I heard him—a stranger running alongside me in a half crouch, partly obscured by the bushes. My mouth went dry, my legs felt like water. But I didn't pick up my pace; instead, I stopped, turned, and faced him. He came out of the bushes and said he'd been watching me "for a long time."

As he walked beside me, I steered us closer to the edge of the park. When we reached the bridge, a train rumbled past, and he seized the moment, lunging at me as his hands closed around my throat. He forced his tongue into my mouth. The self-defense skills I had learned years before kicked in, and I dug my thumb into his eye, hard. And then came the shock: He didn't flinch. He only grew bolder, pulling at my clothes. My mind flashed to a tip from an old guitar teacher: "Press the strings like you're pinching a flea." I put every ounce of my strength into that thumb, and finally he let go.

"Don't be like that," he said.

"It is like that," I replied nonsensically.

I was shaking with fear, but I looked him straight in the eye and began to back away. I turned to sprint the hell out of there, but then I remembered another self-defense lesson: Never run, because then you're prey. So I walked away—alone—through the pitch-dark tunnel as I punched in 911 with trembling fingers.
—Kris Herndon
eHarmony commercial

Illustration: Harriet Russell

I Survived... Seeing My Ex in an eHarmony Commercial
Five years after my husband, David, and I divorced, a friend sent me an e-mail: "Brace yourself, Olga. I just saw an eHarmony commercial, and I swear it's David—and his new wife." "That's impossible," I thought. If David had remarried, he would have told me; we'd stayed amicable and still called each other on our birthdays. Yet four days later, there he was on my television, walking arm in arm with his new wife on a beach. "After my divorce," he said, "I didn't think I could love again." My heart clenched as I remembered the good times we'd shared over 13 years of marriage. It's not that I wanted David back, but seeing him so content made me excruciatingly aware of how unsettled I felt in my own life. Work was overwhelming. My boyfriend had just broken up with me. My cramped apartment had ceilings so low they threatened to close in on me.

I couldn't escape the commercials. There were a few: David and his wife on the beach, at an ice rink, sharing how much they meant to each other. It came on in an airport lounge while I was traveling for work, and I blurted to my colleagues, "That's my ex!" I had to laugh. It was funny. I eventually sent David a congratulatory e-mail on his birthday. I was happy for him (honestly!), but I had to focus on being happy for myself. David may have remarried first, but in the end, I realized he and I were never in a race.
—Olga Losada, as told to Naomi Barr
Car accident victim

Illustration: beastfromeast/Getty Images

I Survived... Getting Hit By a Car
My first memory is waking up in the ICU and seeing two metal poles bolted to my left leg below the knee. "Ahhh! Huh?!" was all I could think before conking out again. I was on so many painkillers that I wasn't fully conscious for a week. My parents said every few hours I would mumble, "What happened?"

I don't remember the accident, but the raw facts are in the police report: I was jogging across an intersection on the Upper East Side of Manhattan when a cab rammed into me. The cop who'd been at the scene said I bounced into a tree and hit the ground with a tremendous thud. The driver stayed until the ambulance came.

Fierce pain seared throughout my left side: I had compound fractures in my lower leg and shoulder, plus a broken pelvis. My parents camped out in the hospital for nearly three weeks, then moved me to their home in Boston, dropping everything to take care of me. For the first month, my whole body was so weak I couldn't even budge, so I lay in bed all day. Throughout the night, the intense throbbing would wake me up. With my mom's help, I'd inch out just to use the bathroom, a makeshift bucket toilet steps away. I couldn't even wipe myself.

The doctors promised a full recovery, but only if I worked tirelessly to rebuild my muscles and flexibility. I spent the next two months in a wheelchair (not that I was strong enough to wheel myself). But I've always been pretty athletic, so eight hours a day I pushed myself through rigorous physical therapy.

Little by little, I started to move: bending my knees, flexing my feet, lifting my leg, standing, bathing, pushing myself in my wheelchair, shuffling on crutches. At times I'd cry and scream with frustration, but each breakthrough brought me closer to freedom.

Now, just shy of a year and a half later, I still can't run. (My knee gives out immediately.) But I can bike, do yoga and hike—35 miles on weekends. I'm addicted to exercise. Maybe I'm even a little crazy. And I feel too lucky to stop moving.
—Charlotte Rutherfurd, as told to Sarah Engler
Passing gas in yoga pose

Illustration: Harriet Russell

I Survived...Flatulating in Yoga
It was my first-ever yoga class: 90 minutes for beginners at the Y. I knew nothing about the practice, so when the male instructor announced the poses, I was like, "What in the hell is warrior what?" I just wanted to release my type A tendencies while folding myself into a pretzel. And it was actually going okay until about 20 minutes in, when it was time for a series of poses on our backs. Gamely, I lifted my legs over my head, and suddenly pffft! I didn't have time to even think about holding it in: The rogue toot reverberated throughout the studio. And then, dead silence.

I'm an avid runner, and when you pass gas during a group run, there's a collective laugh, and someone might call you out, but you keep on. Here, everyone—my disingenuous self included—looked around for the guilty party. As the stink lingered, I was mortified; the source was pretty obvious to all. The teacher spoke up: "That reminds me. It's smart to avoid eating for several hours before class." I couldn't wait to leave; who's so Zen he can't laugh off a fart?

A mere eight years later, I finally found the guts to go to another class. Upon entering the studio, I immediately confessed to a few women: "This is the first time I've been to yoga since 2003, because last time, I farted." Everyone cracked up. Yogis can have a sense of humor. As I unrolled my mat, one joked, "Well, don't sit next to us!" I grinned back, reveling in my full disclosure, and got ready for class.
—Kelly James-Enger, as told to Amy Paturel

Next: The 6-step guide to conquering your fears