I’m not sure when I understood the meaning of hyper vigilance but once I did I knew I had been living this way for as long as I can remember. This state of being is more intense than just being observant. In fact most of the time I could not tell you what color the carpet is in my office or my mother’s house. I don’t know what color the walls are or if the pictures have always been there. I may not even remember later what you were wearing when we spoke. My brain does not seem to find this type of information important and it therefore does not store it for later recall.
When I am in most any situation what my brain is taking in is the potential for danger. I am observing the general surroundings and those who are in my space. I am watching you for signs of aggression or anger and I am storing where all of the exits are and how I may go about getting to one if needed. For as long as I can remember I never went anywhere, even out on my own porch without thinking “What if someone tries to attack me? What will I do, where is the safest place to be?” I have done this for so long that I don’t really have to think through each step I am just scanning and automatically doing it.
My mom is often concerned about my health and she tries to encourage me to sit outside in the sun. She does not understand that there is nothing relaxing about that proposition. I sit there with a steady conversation going on inside my brain. It generally goes something like this. “What if a man comes around the corner of the house and I can’t hear him approaching? What should I do if he rushes me? If this happens I will stand up and grab the chair I am sitting in and attempt to hit him. Okay, that might work but then what? I don’t know if I could get inside the house and lock it before he would recover. I don’t want to be at his mercy inside my house, out of the sight of possible help. I might be able to get around him and down the stairs but I am not certain and I know that I cannot out run him. I could always yell really loud. Yes I would do that for sure. I wonder if anyone would help me if I yelled? Look behind you. The attack could come from that direction so be aware. Turn the chair around and sit with your back to the house so you can see all sides. Yes that is better. At least if he comes from the backside I have more time to get inside and call the police. Did I put that number in my phone? I’m sure that I did, but I need to check that to be certain. I think I will go inside and do that now.” By this time I have sat outside in the sun for maybe 4 minutes then gone back inside and locked the deadbolt.
I at times go places alone. I have always done this as I have spent the vast majority of my adulthood alone. I have to go alone to buy groceries and supplies, but I really almost never go out to eat or do any serious shopping or see a movie alone. For one thing I find these events to be very depressing to do alone and I would rather be at home if I am going to be alone anyway. But for those very few times that I have eaten out by myself here is an example of what is happening in my mind. “I don’t know why I came in here. I should have just gone home and eaten there. I am the only person in here by myself, no wait there is one old man in the corner looking lonely. What should I eat? Maybe just something quick, no need to linger in here. A group of laughing people just came in, they look like they are having fun. Maybe I should just order this to go and eat it in my car on the way home. I hope I parked in a safe place. It is getting dark sooner than I expected it to. I don’t remember if I parked under a light. I don’t want to wait too long to go outside, I may not be able to see if some man comes at me from behind the other cars. I should have just drove on home. I’m not really hungry anyway. I will just get a sandwich to go and head on home where I am safe.”
When I was much younger and in much better physical health I often had thoughts of actual physical violence against an attacker, but as I aged and after I hurt my back I realized that I was so much more vulnerable to being hurt if someone wanted to hurt me. I felt helpless and powerless to protect myself so I think I just became more isolated from the world. If I could not protect myself then I had no desire to even risk it. If I had not had to work to live I could have easily become afraid to leave my house and eventually I would have stayed completely away from other humans. I think I am one of those individuals that projects strength to others but the reality is that I was frightened all time. I think I just got really good at hiding this fear because showing that would have raised the question of “why” and I never wanted anyone to ever know what had happened to me.
If no one ever asked me “did someone hurt you” or “did something bad happen to you” I felt like I was successful in life. Everything I did or did not do was based on keeping this secret. When I was young I got invited to go to the abuser’s house to spend the night. This was because at that time I was friends with his sister who was my age. I was ALWAYS afraid to go there after the day of the rape, but I went to cover up the events that had taken place there. I thought if I didn’t go then I would be questioned as to why by my friend first and maybe my mother eventually. I thought it was a sure way to be found out. I went but I was extremely watchful of him and I did everything I could think of as a very young child to keep safe while I was in the lion’s den. I remember I spent time just sitting with my friends mother at her kitchen table. I made sure to never be alone and if my friend went to the bathroom I went with her or I went to talk to her mother. I was also very scared of this man’s dad and other brothers, but not because of anything they had done. They were now guilty by just being men in my mind. All men were dangerous and scary and I didn’t want to be around any of them ever!
I began at a very young age asking myself “what if” and I always answered the questions. I thought out every scenario I could imagine might happen to me and exactly what I was going to do to prevent a future rape. That was my only goal in life. Period. I didn’t care about anything else but safety and I knew that safety did not exist for me. I was broken by the events in that cornfield and it would be decades before there was healing for that young child who was left there. Going through the “what if’s” in my mind helped me to begin to learn to problem solve and eventually I became very good at moving all of the pieces around to find a solution that would keep me safe for another day, another night.
The one thing that I knew deep in my soul was that I could not bear to be raped again. I just couldn’t live through that again. I guess that on some level all women face being physically scared in some way during their lives. If they are not actually harmed they may be more cautious and aware of the dangers after that, but for adults of childhood rape there is no safety anywhere. We know the horror that others just suspect and we know that we have no control in a dangerous world. It is not easy to have that knowledge and not allow it to adversely affect you.
The only hope we have for healing is through Christ Jesus our Lord. I can now go long periods of time and not be so focused on just the painful possibilities in life. I could go out to eat alone, although I will always park where I think I will be the most safe and I will always pay close attention when I am in parking lots and getting in my car. Do I do this because I am living in fear? No I do this now because I am living in reality and our reality is that we live in a very dangerous world. I pray that someday the women and girls of this world can walk free from fear but I don’t think this will happen before our Lord comes again. I guess until then I will continue to be self-protective and I will try to find ways to not allow this situation to isolate me from others as much. I pray that someday I will have a chance to meet other women who speak my language. But until that time, I will continue to speak to myself. God Bless.
2 thoughts on “What if?”
Once again, tears sting my eyes just hearing the fear in your words. I want you to be safe, and I want you to be at peace and I want you to be able to live in joy. May God continue this journey to get you there in the safety of His arms.
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Thank you Janet. He is doing wonderful things in my life. Ruth has asked me if I still am hyper-vigilant and I told her that I think I am just vigilant now. I am not sure if it is possible to be anything less than this. You know I can see now some of the ways that the Lord was blessing me that I could not see then. For one thing, no matter how very scared I was the Lord kept me and helped me be a productive member of society. I understand fear and someday soon I hope to be ministering to others who need someone who understands how this fear can be so paralyzing. Love you dear.