Dear Chris (age 22),
Don’t get out of the car.
This will be the heaviest, most personal post I write this month, and I’ve been really pondering if it’s okay to write what I’m about to write and then to put it out into the world to be seen by pretty much anyone who happens to stop by the blog. Yet I have a voice inside that keeps telling me to do it and I’m trying to be less fearful of listening to that voice.
I alluded to it in my post a few days ago when I asked, Have you ever experienced something that so completely altered your life that you thought you would never recover? And then I touched on my own understanding about how hard it is to recover from living in the dark. If Day 15’s post was semi-inspired from watching the character Jack in this weekend’s release of Room, this is a post that touches about what it’s like to relate to Ma. And it’s a post that probably could be expanded into a series all it’s own.
To quote the film…this is the biggest event in my life that has made me shout at the top of my lungs…
I want a different story! While life shouts back, No! This is the story that you get!
In the beginning of 1999, I was excitedly jumping into my adult life with both feet. I was pursuing my dreams and halfway through my first year of film school where I was sure that my life’s ambition was to be the next Kathleen Kennedy. Things were going well. I had already made several great friends, I had a crush on a hot boy who I spent a lot of my free time with (and who I later found out was gay…but that’s a different story), I was gearing up to produce my first film – a 25 minute piece that we had received a $25,000 grant to produce, I was a star student. After a rough time growing up in a dysfunctional family, I was finally feeling like I was in the flow of what my life would end up becoming. The future looked bright.
In one of my first classes six months earlier, a professor had told us that he found that the experience of most of his students at this institution was that they would grow as much as people as they did as artists and that we shouldn’t be surprised to find that we’d experience some struggles here…probably more than we had ever experienced before. I remember laughing internally thinking, You don’t know me. You don’t know what life has been like so far. I’ve finally gotten to easy street.
Boy, was I wrong.
In late February, I was working on a film shoot with a bunch of other students. The weekend had gone well and we were proud of our work together, though very tired after a couple of all night shoots. Sometime around 5am, we were all packed up, got in our cars and drove home to get some sleep.
(Wow. As I’m writing, I just had a wave of nervousness wash over me, knowing what’s to come in my own story.)
I drove home, pulled into my apartment complex and drove around the circle towards my parking spot. Right before I pulled in, I glanced in the rearview mirror, noticing that a car was behind me. Odd since it was 5:30am. The other car turned off its lights and backed up before parking. I had a brief instinct to keep driving, recognizing that the behavior was a bit odd. But I didn’t. I parked my car and got out. I was maybe 20 feet from my front door.
I was just about to put my key in the lock when I heard someone running down the sidewalk behind me. I thought quite calmly, That’s odd. Why is that person running?
That was the last moment of my life when I did not know what real fear felt like because in the next moment someone had grabbed me from behind, I was screaming, and my brief cries of terror were stopped up when he put a gun to my head. I had literally and figuratively not seen him coming until he was upon me…except for that one moment before I got out of the car where my guts told me to keep driving.
I’ll spare everyone the details of the moments that happened next. Maybe that’s for the book version. The nutshell is that I was sexually assaulted by a man who had the power to kill me, and I was really not sure that I would live to see another day. And it was in those minutes that I learned what terror felt like and when fear wedged it’s way into the driver’s seat of my life’s car.
The next hours and days are simultaneously clear as day and a total blur. Realizing it was safe to return to my front door after he had left, being both thankful that my keys were still lying on the sidewalk – believing that meant that he hadn’t gone inside – and fearing opening the door because I might be wrong, the rush up the stairs and collapse into my sleeping roommate’s bedroom – crying so hard I couldn’t speak as we called 911 together – I can’t imagine what that was like for her, the police arriving and taking my statement, the terror that caused me to shrink down in my seat while they drove me past a man they had pulled over as a suspect to see if I could identify him – I couldn’t because I hadn’t seen his face, the hospital, a call from my mother in which I told her that I was “fine” and didn’t need her to come, my brother and her showing up on a plane the next day anyway, moving out of the apartment I would never feel safe in again, the support from the very few people I allowed to know what had happened, my brother telling me that I had to get therapy arranged because I would remember long after other people had forgotten, the grief in “knowing” I was now damaged goods that no one would ever want, the inability to sleep unless I could play Rich Mullins’ The Jesus Demos CD that was the only thing that spoke comfort to my soul (the fact that those recordings even exists is another whole story of it’s own), going back to work and class a couple of days later and putting on a happy face to the world, not telling some of my closest friends for over a year, the shame I felt when other film students (who had no idea what had happened) complained about a new rule that was instituted that said no one was allowed to go home alone after overnight film shoots anymore…
And there were other things simultaneously happening in other relationships that I attributed to my new status of “victim.” In a couple of cases, people that I needed but didn’t know how to support me just sort of disappeared. It felt like every piece of security was being stripped away.
I remember a good friend a few months later, not meaning to hurt me when she asked, “When are we going to get over this?” I don’t remember what my reaction was in the moment but it cut me deeply. My answer now would be, “WE’RE not getting over anything. I’M trying to get over it, but I feel like I’d rather be dead every single day. This is not something I’m ever going to get over completely. In fact, it’s going to end up triggering a whole lot of other shit too. Future me is never going to be “over it”, though in about a decade from now it will start to get easier and after years of therapy and a spiral into depression, I’ll come out of the dark and realize that I can live wholly again.”
I had been such a “good Christian girl” all of my life. I had never even kissed a boy up to this point and I couldn’t understand why God had “allowed” this to happen to me. Wasn’t that supposed to be the payoff? Be good and good will come to you? I remember one moment face down sobbing on the floor trying to figure out why He was punishing me. What had I done wrong? Why, if He was so all-powerful and loving, didn’t He stop this from happening?
When this sort of fear and those kinds of lies live inside you, you see evil around every corner. I remember the feeling the first time (maybe a year later?) that I didn’t feel fear when walking across the yard to my apartment at night and it freaked me out. I had learned to live on high alert and I had a moment of horrible dread the first time I didn’t have that feeling to protect me. Though that super high adrenaline state isn’t my norm anymore, it still surprises me when I don’t expect a man walking towards me on the sidewalk to do something horrible. Even this morning as I came back from the grocery store, I felt it as a man walked past me on the street. It’s not as bad now as it used to be, but that woman on alert is part of who I am now. There will always be a tiny part of me waiting for the next time.
I used to beat myself up for feeling the fear because I thought that would help get rid of it. But it didn’t. That tactic just left me afraid and ashamed. I try to talk to myself and my fear more nicely now…that guy’s having a conversation on his cell phone…guys on cell phones don’t attack women. That’s probably just a nice man out for a morning walk. Just because a man wears his hood up on his sweatshirt doesn’t mean he’s evil. It’s okay that you feel scared right now but you’re probably going to be okay. Etc.
Fear can be our friend, our protector. We sometimes need fear to survive. Sometimes fear is good. But when it seeps into the places where it isn’t needed, it’s not helpful. It can keep us from good things.
I’ve become more and more aware lately of how my reality of fear over the years seeped into more than just the need to physically protect myself. Many of my decisions, no matter how small, have felt like life or death, including my decisions about creativity and love and risk. It goes back to that moment of not listening to my gut when it told me to keep driving my car and to the moment on the floor wondering if I was being punished for making wrong decisions. What if I make the wrong choice and something horrible happens again?
As much as my brain can tell me that this way of thinking is false, it’s still a battle that I face…an internal involuntary reaction that has taken years to retrain.
I can’t tell you the number of times in the past 17 years that I’ve wished I could take my time machine back and tell myself to keep driving. To trust my gut. To not get out of the car. In my version of heaven there’s a room with filmstrips that are sort of like “choose your own adventure” books where we can have a glimpse into life had we made one decision over another. I wonder what my journey would have looked like if this wasn’t part of it. Would I have pursued all of my dreams instead of settling for different ones? Would I have been more open in relationships? Would I be happier?
The reality is that I don’t get to know. And the other reality is that even if the answer to all those questions was yes, it doesn’t matter now. I get to work with what I’ve got and this is what I’ve got.
I ‘ve learned to acknowledge that I am who I am (even on the days that I’m not happy about that) because this is part of my story. It has been a factor in many life choices. It has been a factor in how I see the world. It has been a factor in my struggle with trusting God and keeping faith. It has been a factor in my relationships with my family. But in the end, life is pretty good. All those moments I wished this anonymous stranger had followed through on his threats to kill me because death would have been easier than facing life with the pain are history now.
I’ve been able to share with people who have, in turn, been able to share their own trauma. Sometimes I’ve gotten the privilege of being the only other person in the world who they’ve trusted with their dark places…and I consider that a tremendous gift because I know first hand that the only way to come out of the dark is to let someone else in. It’s difficult to have space for someone else’s deepest darkest when you haven’t had an experience of your own.
This doesn’t mean that I still don’t often shout I want a different story! about many things in my life. It doesn’t mean that I don’t still wish I could tell 22 year old me to stay in that car. I wish it all the time. But I can’t. And the only alternative I see…and have been working for years to embrace…is to be thankful for this one glorious life. To not negate 39 years of a lot of good because of one morning of absolutely horrible. To see first hand, through time and distance and love, that beauty can come out of the ashes, that strength can come after fear, that gladness emerges out of mourning and that peace pokes it’s head through the veil of despair. (Isaiah 61:3, paraphrased)
**I wanted to add a note here to answer some questions a couple of people asked me after first reading this post. The man in question was not able to be prosecuted for this crime against me due to a lack of DNA evidence (a longer more detailed version of the story) and because I did not actually see his face (which I am eternally grateful for actually…I never had to have a nightmare or a memory flash where his face was present.) I do believe that he was prosecuted for a string of other violent acts against women in my same neighborhood all in the same time frame and all with the same MO and at the same time of morning. I don’t know the results of that prosecution and have never wanted to look into it.
Also…I’m very at peace with this now…though I’m sure more peace is always a good thing. That’s a stipulation that I’ve put on myself (stolen from Brene Brown) for stories I’ll tell publicly. So I’m open to talking about it/answering any questions anyone might have.
I’ve left many details out mostly for brevity of storytelling rather than needing to protect myself from you knowing and might write more about such things in the future…possibly in other contexts.
Thank you for all your love and support. We are all the hands and feet of Love to each other!