It wasn’t yet written at the time I needed it, but if you’ve ever been personally confronted with violence or danger, I highly recommend reading Gavin de Becker’s book, The Gift of Fear. De Becker reassured me that my abilities at picking up vibes and knowing what to do about them were sound, because everyone has those abilities. The trick is to listen to and trust them.
“What [many people] want to dismiss as a coincidence or a gut feeling is in fact a cognitive process, faster than we recognize and far different from the familiar step-by-step thinking we rely on so willingly. We think conscious thought is somehow better, when in fact, intuition is soaring flight compared to the plodding of logic. Nature’s greatest accomplishment, the human brain, is never more efficient or invested than when its host is at risk. Then, intuition is catapulted to another level entirely, a height at which it can accurately be called graceful, even miraculous. Intuition is the journey from A to Z without stopping at any other letter along the way. It is knowing without knowing why. […] Can you imagine an animal reacting to the gift of fear the way some people do, with annoyance and disdain instead of attention? No animal in the wild, suddenly overcome with fear, would spend any of its mental energy thinking, ‘It’s probably nothing.’ … We, in contrast to every other creature in nature, choose not to explore – and even to ignore – survival signals. … Every day people engaged in the clever defiance of their own intuition become, in midthought, victims of violence and accidents.” (pp. 28, 34)
There were times, dealing with the threatening person, even very early on that I knew something was really off. I just couldn’t figure out what it was, and more importantly, what I could do about it, given that we were living in the same house. In hindsight, sure, I should have avoided him, and left the house more often. If I’d somehow made new friends, they might have helped – but I was also depressed, and introverts who aren’t depressed have trouble making friends at the best of times, which this definitely was not.
One particular incident was the turning point where I realized irrevocably that my life was really in danger. Yes, we used to be friends (I thought anyway), no, I didn’t know what changed, but right here right now, I’ll be lucky to live through this experience. So I have to focus on the present, and staying alive, no matter what.
So much changed in the five months I lived there. My parents did accept me back, reluctantly, but their house wasn’t ‘home’ anymore. They stopped pestering me about college; insisted I get a job. (Which was exactly what I had wanted to do just a year before, but they had refused to allow it.) My mother regularly reminded me that I had disgraced the family name, and she didn’t appreciate the bad example I had set for my siblings. Essentially, I was on probation, and any offense would get me thrown into the street. My mother promised she would slander me to any relative who felt sorry enough for me to offer to take me in.
My nightmares continued. Technically, I was ‘safe’ in that no one was trying to kill me, but I couldn’t relax. Being in the same room with any male, even my father and my brothers, was terrifying. My skin crawled. I jumped at little (and big) noises. I couldn’t bear for anyone to touch me, at all.
My mother liked to trap me in places like the car, for a long drive, where she would badger me about the threatening person. Or she would tell me how he was doing so well, and ask why I couldn’t be a credit to my parents like him. Just hearing his name, I would have to fight not to throw up; try not to pass out.
Getting a job was an ordeal. I didn’t have a car. No one within walking distance would hire me. (There were no buses.) A bookstore in a mall near my father’s office offered me a job. My father allowed me to share his commute, mornings and evenings. But he liked to get to work early-ish, so I got to the mall ~2 hours before my shift started, every day. Nothing was open. I could’ve waited in my father’s office, but I tended to walk around the empty (open-air) mall. Two 45-minute car rides every day were more time than I had ever spent with my father. He’s an extrovert, and he always had a lot to say. He wanted to talk about my future, but all my energy was going toward surviving my present. ‘The future’ no longer seemed like a real thing. There was just ‘right now – can I get through this moment? The next one? The one after that?’ I had no way of explaining that because I wasn’t ready to tell my parents any details about those five months. Nor did they ask.
I was still using sleeping pills; otherwise I laid awake all night with my fears and worries, or woke up sobbing. The threatening person had been my best friend — but his mother had been even more important as an advocate, and intercessor with my mother – and now both of those connections were lost to me. I still had all the problems I’d had before I left, plus a raft of new, even-worse problems, but now I had a lot fewer resources available.
Luckily the job at the bookstore was exactly what I needed. I met a crowd of well-educated, literate, and interesting people in their 20s, some of whom became my friends. I crushed on an art student with blue hair – only a year older than me. I read a wide range of books, and discussed them with coworkers and customers. Out of my miniscule wages, I developed a budget; I paid rent. My parents saw that I could be responsible, so they started treating me more like a human being than an outlaw. I started dating my first real boyfriend. I found a gynecologist, and went on the pill. I started thinking about my future. Which was going to include college, but only when I was sure I wanted to be there.
I wasn’t a child anymore. My old life was over. My new life was mine to design, from scratch. I recognized the opportunity to throw out all the stuff that hadn’t worked; to find stuff that did work (or worked better).
A few years later, circa 1989, I was still living with my parents. One night, driving home from college night classes, my elderly car suffered a mishap. I did have a vague idea how to change a tire, but this wasn’t a flat. One of the brake drums got damaged somehow (I learned later), and the tire fell off. I was right in front of my old high school, only about 3 miles from home and a distance I was accustomed to walking, but I was uncomfortable just leaving the car there, at the side of a busy road. No cell phones of course. A car stopped, and a friendly man in his early 30s got out and walked over to me, and I explained my dilemma. He wasn’t sure what to do about my car either. I knew my father would have good ideas, but how could I reach him? This man said he lived just a few blocks away, naming the subdivision (which I was familiar with). He offered to take me to his house, so I could call my dad. My intuition was telling me he was sincere, and offered no threat, so I accepted. We drove a few blocks to his house, where his wife was making dinner for their kids. I called my father and asked him to meet me by my car, then the nice man dropped me back over there, while he returned home.
When my father arrived, I had to recount the whole story several times because he was incredulous that I was ‘stupid’ enough to get in a car with a strange man: “Kidnapping! Rape! Murder! What Were You Thinking?!?” In vain, I explained that this man had been at pains to reassure me that he intended to help, not harm me. That I believed him, because I knew he was not dangerous to me. And that, in fact, everything he told me was true: he really did live in Subdivision X with his family; they let me use their phone; he was truly a Good Samaritan.
I was painfully aware of the irony of my father’s concern for my conduct with this strange man, when he had sent me off 4 years earlier to live with someone who did harm me. But I still wasn’t ready to talk about that with my parents, and I was hoping it wouldn’t be necessary to ever do so.
I wasn’t able to convince my father that I had exercised good judgment. But I knew the truth, and that was enough for me. I’d learned to trust my own instincts.
I never dated anyone who hit me, or anyone I was afraid of. But there was a fair amount of emotional abuse, because that seemed ‘normal’ to me. It didn’t set off my intuition the same way as physical threats. It took me years to realize, though, that all along my body was registering discomfort (occasionally panic) and an urge to flee when I spent time with certain people. I misinterpreted those messages partly because I sensed the abyss beneath.
With the emotional support of my counselor, I began winnowing out those ‘friendships’ that were problematic. When all of those were gone, yet I still felt besieged and off-balance, I had to look deeper. And the more I pledged myself to trust my own judgment about what was best for me, the more inescapable it was that my parents didn’t fit with what I wanted for my life. I remember one attempt I made to address a difficult and painful topic for me; my father accused me of trying to blackmail people. Other times, I was just ignored. My mother talked about something she called ‘family harmony’ a lot, but it seemed to mean, ‘please shut up, Laiima, because no one wants to hear from you.’ I was told I was ‘too sensitive’ and ‘tiresome’. The threatening person might show up at any event, which was alarming, since he still triggered my PTSD. When I suggested that perhaps we shouldn’t both be invited to every event, my mother told me, “Well, I guess we won’t be seeing you for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Or maybe ever. We’ll miss you!” A sibling told me the threatening person was more fun than me anyway.
So I began limiting events I attended. On the rare occasions I showed up, my mother was always very happy to see me walk in the door. But no one else was enthusiastic. I never knew what to say to people. If the threatening person was there, I would spend the entire time fixating on where the door was, and trying to make sure he wasn’t between me and it. Later, I would have no recollection of any conversations I might have had.
It took me much longer than it should have to realize that I almost always felt like I had accidentally wandered into the wrong party. Because if I don’t really know any of these people, and they don’t really know me, and I’m scared and worried the whole time … why do I keep showing up?
My mother once told me she would choose the threatening person over me. So I thought, when I stopped talking to her, that she would be happy that I’d cleared the way for her and him to be together all the time. Instead, she’s continued to pester me directly and indirectly. Based on her previous behavior, I’m guessing she wants me to tell her that I don’t mind that she loves him more than me. Tell her that that wasn’t the most devastating thing anyone ever said to me. In the most horrifying conversation of my life.
Instead, if she and I were to talk again, I would have to tell her that her betrayal of me, in that conversation, was infinitely worse than anything he ever did or ever could do. Even if he had killed me, it would have hurt less.
And then to find out 15 years after that conversation that she had deliberately left me in that place with him, knowing I was in danger, because she was unwilling to face the implications?
I can’t forgive any of that.
I can’t imagine an apology that could make any difference. But she’s never tried to apologize for that conversation.
So my instincts were sound. I was right to walk away.