This post comes with a disclaimer and warning. If you have experienced trauma, it is probably best you don’t read the post. If you choose to read it and feel distressed, please talk to someone who can support you. (This is also a very long post).
This is a reflection on something that happened years ago.
I was taken aback by my feelings about the Me Too movement. I went through periods of anger, hopelessness and even unnecessary bravado until I talked to someone who helped me join the dots.
I was in my twenties. I had a job. I had my own place. I was in love with Dr T. Life was sweet. My unit was a short 10 minute walk to the main street to catch my bus to work. I would walk past a small building site where young tradies would be loud, jostle each other and vie for attention. On a summer’s day and around 7 am, people were out in their garden watering plants, no different than any other day when I heard a jogger behind me.
I moved to the side to let him go by when he hit me from behind. The force sent me flying sideways into the lane way between homes. Out of sight from others we tussled and somehow I whacked him under his nose. He flew to his feet in pain, I got to my feet, and dusted myself off, absolutely furious. I thought he was being dared by his mates and warned him, “I know where you work, I’m going to report you”. He backed off and said, “I know where you live” and then proceeded to tell me his intent. I didn’t process his threat. I was angry at the indignity of what had just happened. On reflection, shock made me process things differently. I went through the lesser priorities of the moment. He had torn my blouse and left a zig zag tear. “He ruined my top!”, “I need to go home and change my clothes”, “Damn! I’ve missed my bus”. He jogged off. A neighbour came to my aid. I waited at home for the police. No fear, still fuming. The police interviewed the tradies and no one could recall seeing the man. I have no memory for the rest of the day.
Later that night I waited for Dr T to arrive for dinner. My unit’s big glass sliding door opened on to the front lawn. The entrance door was at the back of the building. I saw a tall man lean over my mailbox. Dr T! I opened the sliding door. The figure straightened up and walked towards me. The walk was unfamiliar. In an instance I remembered the threat made earlier that day. Fear nearly paralysed me. I stepped back into the unit, locked the door and switched off the lights. I had the advantage of darkness. I heard him check the bedroom window, the two bathroom windows, the front door, then the kitchen window. Then back to the front door and tried to jimmy the lock. I dragged the landline to the door. In panic I dialled random numbers. I knew he was listening. I pretended to talk to the police as if they were down the street, waiting for him. When I stopped talking, there was silence. I knew he was gone. Dr T came over. I moved out of the unit that night.
Four years later the police arrested him. He had attacked 13 women around the city, four laid charges. He was not one of the workmen at the building site but was working across the road from my unit. He had seen me leave that morning. He told his workmates he was going to the toilet, stepped out of his overalls when he jogged up behind me. Then calmly came back and got dressed in his overalls. No one remembered the clothing I described.
He got a $100 fine for each of the four charges.
Life went on. I did not give the incident any thought.
I lived a life like most others. Love, marriage, children, divorce, career. On the surface it would suggest the incident did not have any impact on me. My professional self has been safe and clear thinking. I am trained to deal with the unexpected and I have encountered it more times than I care to remember. I worked in high risk environments before I started my own practice. I travel alone on lonely country roads most of the time for my work. I enjoy a solitary walk in the bush where I am warier of encountering a snake, than a human being. Every time I hear a tragic incident of someone being attacked, I consider myself lucky. After all, I wasn’t harmed.
Or so I thought.
On a personal level this impacted me on a fundamental level. I was trapped in my own home, my safe place. I have lived with triggers without knowing this until I had a light bulb moment in a small town. Maybe I was overly tired to react the way I did and I’m glad I was.
It was a Sunday. The sesh was on at the pub when I saw two men get thrown out. They pushed and shoved as the altercation spilled on to the street, a few feet from me. There was swearing and laughter from observers. I crossed over the road but then abandoned my walk and returned to the car. I was trembling. I went back to the hotel and lay in bed, reflected on why I felt the way I did. I phoned a friend and in talking we realised I was triggered by the loud laughter. I also realised why I am so careful about giving out my home address. (“I know where you live”). Both these triggers were scorched into memory just before and after the incident.
This incident shaped the way I lived without me knowing it. I was fearful in my home for decades but felt safer in the community by day. The incongruity of my functioning puzzled Dr T. When he went to a meeting at night, I went to bed with the children and lay awake in the dark until he came home. On his return, I’d hear him say in irritation, “Why are the bloody lights off!”. I had no answer because I didn’t know why. It drove him nuts!
When divorced I was studying late at night on New Year’s Eve. Our home was within a short walk to the local pub. I could hear revellers and music. I felt safe. The children were asleep. I typed on. Then I heard the neighbour’s dog bark, the gate behind my window creaked. I immediately went to the laundry where the children’s bedrooms were and watched in darkness as a young man walked across the path, the other side of the glass door. I called the police. They checked the property and he was gone. I wasn’t afraid, my maternal instinct sharp. Life continued on.
Four years ago I moved into my current home. The real estate agent stuffed up the whole process and left me in a monumental mess. The first night I sat on the sofa and wept. I had bought the house as an investment but hadn’t thought this through. In a large, dark home I felt vulnerable. I slept on the sofa for the next year with unpacked boxes strewn about. The renovations started, more mess of course and now most of the major work has been done. When I moved in I was comfortable (read safe) but not happy living in mess. The home was ‘booby trapped’ with stuff in corridors. It gave me a sense of safety. It impacted me in other ways, too. I did not wear bright coloured clothing until my son mentioned this a few years ago, commenting I dressed like I want to be invisible. How perceptive of him!
There are some positives to this. I always lock my home and windows by day and night. I do the same in hotels. This has kept me safe on more than one occasion and I’ve written about it in a previous post. I’m more empathic towards those who have suffered trauma. From feedback I’ve received I know I have been able to help them on their journey to healing. I’ve come to realise, one can live a full life, but triggers can be very subjective. The benign can be terrifying for the person who experienced trauma, and dormant, this can surface unexpectedly. I never drink when I’m on my own. Nor do I take medications. I’ve reframed hypervigilance to mindful living. I listen to small sounds and label them accurately. I know the feeling of fear is one from the distant past. This, too, will pass. This is now. I am safe. This process of thinking integrates me.
The old saying, knowledge is power, is true. Meditation and counselling alone did not fix fears. Understanding the triggers and confronting them, has. Who would have thought, despite my work history and my solitary bush walks, I could be reduced to a state of utter panic in a main street, middle of the day and with people around me. I also realised when my children lived at home, I was their fearless protector. When I’m alone, I feel vulnerable.
There is still some lasting impact of that brief encounter. I am still wary giving out my home address and experience irritation when people ask for this. I can’t sleep upstairs if I’m alone at home. I’m uncomfortable with the feeling of being trapped, not claustrophobia, but feeling trapped. (Like I was in my unit with him outside). I dislike underground car parks, preferring the roof, even in intensely hot days.
Once the pieces fell into place I started working towards regaining what I had lost. I live life. I experience life. I help others experience it. I wear bright colours! I often have to return home from trips later at night when all is quiet and dark in the neighbourhood.
I am well on the road to full recovery but this post took over a year to write. I wasn’t sure whether my narrative would raise understanding and awareness of the experience of trauma, but I thought I’d share, just in case it does.
I finished this post at an airport. My flight was delayed. I was sitting in the middle of a sea of loud miners who were drinking and happy to be going home. I was calm as a monk.
I boarded the flight and got to my seat. In a row of three the middle was empty. The man at the window was deep into his screen device. I glanced at it. He was watching a documentary on Ted Bundy. True!
I returned home later that night. The taxi drove away. I was unafraid. I was home. My smile lit up the dark house. I knew I would post this one day.
Until next time
a dawn bird