Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Fight or Flight

Adrenaline assists the human body in mounting a response in times of trouble. Fight or flight -- that's what we're supposed to do when facing peril. But what if instead your innate response is pure paralysis?

I'm about twelve years old. I'm window shopping at the mall. I exit one store and stroll into the mall area to wander through a car show. A man walks up and starts reading a display out loud. He makes some kind of small talk -- I can't remember what he said exactly.

I move on. And so does he. He makes a joke or another comment. I glance at him and realize he's probably about thirty-five. He continues to chat. He's starting to give me the creeps.

I move on. Again he follows me.

I'm starting to seize up internally. I'm not sure what to do. He keeps talking. I continue to panic. Eventually, I move quickly away, cut through a drug store, and out into the parking lot.

He's standing right there.

He starts talking to me about going for a ride in his car. I say no. At some point he puts his arm around me. I ask him to leave me alone, and he does. I bolt through the parking lot back to my grandmother's apartment.

By the grace of God, the story ends there.

I just read this piece by Elizabeth Foss. Every word she wrote resonated with me. I was that nice, mostly polite, fairly compliant girl who didn't know what in the world to do when a thirty-five-year-old man stalked her.

Here's what I didn't do:

I didn't yell, "Get away from me!"

I didn't attract any attention from a shopper, a cashier, or a rent-a-cop.

I remember this event as clearly as if it happened yesterday. I was afraid, and my fear made me freeze. Part of my whole response to this was exactly what Elizabeth hits on -- girls who are polite and concerned about the feelings of others can make poor, poor choices.

Years later I was at a party with my best friend. Her curfew was fast approaching, so out the door we went. I realized she was in no condition to drive. This sort of dilemma is all too common. Do you get in the car and hope for the best, or do you confront the driver? I took her keys and drove to her house where quite a scene unfolded. I grabbed the phone and punched in my home number, anxious to have my dad pick me up asap.

It was late. Dad was tired. He was more than a bit put out by the whole affair. But I never hesitated to call him, not for one second. In the way my dad has, he groused and muttered and then said, "Well, now that we're up, we might as well get a hamburger."

A year or two after that, I was living England. At 1:00 in the morning, I left a friend's dorm room -- alone --and headed back to my room. As I moved through the double doors into the common room, I noticed someone behind me. Not thinking a thing of it, I continued on. I passed the phone booths and suddenly decided to call my parents. With the time difference, I would catch them around dinner time.

As I dialed, I noticed that the man who had been behind me was now sitting off at a table in a corner. My parents weren't home. I headed back through the common room and toward the doors. As I started out, I thought I should try my folks again. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that as I was leaving, the man had started to leave as well. I turned around and headed for the bank of phones. Still no answer. Then I noticed that the man was once again sitting at a corner table.

I'm imagining this, I thought. I'll pretend to go back out and see what he does.

I walked to the doors. He got up and followed me, now for the third time. The building had twenty-four hour security. Do I report this, or do I dash to my room? Feeling a bit ridiculous, a bit paranoid, I walked to the porter's office.

"You're going to think I'm crazy," I remember saying. "But I think a man is following me."

The porter looked for the man who by then was nowhere to be found. He walked me back to my room. The next night I answered a knock on my door to find the same porter standing there.

"Are you the woman I walked home," he asked. "A woman was assaulted last night. The police would like to interview you."

I was interviewed three times. To my knowledge, the rapist was not caught. I knew the victim slightly. She had taken my place as coxswain of a crew when I realized that rowing was not the sport for me. She dropped out of school.

Kindness, manners, obedience -- we work very hard on these virtues. We want daughters and sons who are friendly, polite, and giving. We need to balance this with wholeness, confidence, and boundaries. At twelve I was paralyzed by fear; by twenty-one, I managed to ask for help. I'm so glad that I did.

I look at my four children, still so young and innocent. I want them to grow up to be prudent and smart. I want them to have a healthy respect for their bodies. I want them to have the courage to say No! --forcefully and convincingly -- when No! is needed. I want them to heed that inner voice that shouts This is a bad situation.

I want them to know they can always, always, always call.


Amy Parris said...

Wow Kel! That's so scary. Thanks for the eye-opener.

Anonymous said...

I will remember this post, and when my daughter begins to go out and about on her own again I will gently suggest that sometimes it's fine to be impolite.

Dianne said...

What a powerful piece...full of memories I'm sure. Now that my granddaugters are older, I will show this to my son and daughter-in-law and my daughter and her husband. Maybe we should do some role-playing with them and practice yelling "get away from me, stranger!" or something!

You're right - we've been taught to be polite and that definitely isn't always the right thing to do. I spent TEN years of my long nursing career as a Child Psych RN working with emotionally disturbed and abused children. Oh, how I wished a million times that those children had been taught what to do. Sadly, some of the time the perpetrator was someone they trusted.

Kelly said...

Thanks for your comments.

Dianne - I think that role playing is a good idea. All children need to learn how to protect themselves. College life and dating bring a new set of challenges that girls in particular need to be prepared to face.

I agree - it's often a person you trust who is the source of brokenness.