Wednesday, March 19, 2008

left to wonder about the meaning of safe and sound

I discovered this saved as a draft from February 26. I don't know why I didn't publish it... but I like it, so I'm going to now.

For the first time in the three years I've been on my own, last night I secured the chain on my front door before I even took my coat off.

I haven't really been sleeping well since the tragedy at NIU earlier this month. Most of the rest of the country is in the same boat, I'm sure. Other school shootings haven't affected me this way, so I was surprised to find myself with heartburn and an upset stomach (my common side affects to nerves) every night since February 15. For a while, I thought it was because NIU is a lot closer to me than any of the other shootings. I've been to DeKalb many times; I've driven through campus; I've known people whose lives have been changed from the education they received there. I reasoned that I should probably expect a different personal reaction since I had personalized NIU at one time or another.

I followed the interviews on the news; I signed the condolences guest book; I watched the memorial services; I cried with the families, friends, and employees. It wasn't until the week following the shootings that I discovered what was really going on: I was afraid. I went to one of our lecture halls to take some pictures for an article I was working on, and when I got to the bottom of the steps - center stage - I realized that there's really only one way in, one way out. Three doors, situated at the very back of the room, would be my only hope if someone came in at that very moment with a gun. I had spent four years sitting in that hall, bored to tears on some days, lifted to intellectual heights unforseen on others, and now I was suddenly finding myself panicked and afraid. I ran back up those steps faster than I've ever run before in my life. I'm not comfortable being defensive... especially here, where well-being and preservation come so easily, naturally.

Sometimes I have a hard time dealing with fear - sadness, compassion, and empathy are the emotions I'm most comfortable with. When something like NIU happens, I convert every emotion to sadness. Sadness I can deal with. Compassion for the victims? Piece of cake. Empathy for those left to pick up the pieces? No problemo. But fear... fear is a little trickier. I don't know where to put it, so I often cover it up, hide it with feelings I can handle, drown it in chocolate cake or something. But now, after I've dealt with my sadness, worked through my compassion, and imagined every empathetic scenario possible, fear is the only thing that's left.

I've been debating whether or not I should blog about this. Several nights ago, a violent incident occured on the campus of the school I work at. I was working from home and received a panicked call from a colleague. All I heard was the word "guns" and my palms instantly became so sweaty that I almost dropped the phone. My stomach quickly contorted itself into one huge knot, my esophagus began burning, and my heart nearly pounded itself out of my chest. As media relations personnel, I was kept abreast of the situation, and it turned out not to be as serious as initially thought. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, then sucked it right back in. Why was I relieved? Just because it wasn't serious this time? Because it wasn't anyone I knew? Because I wasn't directly affected? Because it wasn't anything like what happened at NIU, Virginia Tech, Louisiana Tech, countless others?

I think what's really bothering me is that I've never been afraid to just be before. I've never been relaxing on the couch and suddenly gone rigid with the fear of what if someone started shooting through my windows right now? I've never gone to sleep at night with thoughts of what if someone breaks in and kills me tonight? floating through my head. I've never finished a shower in the morning and been afraid to pull the curtain back because what if someone is standing there with a gun just waiting for me to step out? Movies about haunted houses, ghosts, Ouija Boards, and exorcisms have always scared me far more than those about serial killers, murderers, rapists, and stalkers. I'm finding myself in the opposite now - tangible versus intangible - and I'm flailing. No longer can I find sanctuary in the small, safe town I live in; now instead of feeling safe and secure behind my closed-but-not-locked front door, I'm finding myself pricing deadbolts and buying baseball bats. Because what if?

Call it an existential crisis, call it growing up - call it whatever you want. I'm not okay with being scared to just live my life, mediocre as it may be. For the first time ever, I'm finding myself wishing for fears of monsters under the bed, ghosts in the corner, and skeletons in the closet.


KiKi said...

I too am a scaredy cat. You'll see me rushing to my car, keys in hand, finger on the panic button. I'm the one who always knows where the nearest exit is, too. People are crayzeeee man.

MissHum22 said...

I lived on my own for a few years in the city. I had a ground floor apt in the back of a 2 flat with no air conditioning. So one night, in the dead heat of summer, all my windows open, I hear someone open my window & drop into my kitchen. And of course, there I was in nothing but a pair of underpants to make this rapists job all the easier and the worst part was I had no bedroom door - just a bohemian tapestry hanging in the doorway. After swallowing my heart back down, I realized there was no escape, so I was just going to have to attack him before he could attack me. I stealthily got out of bed & grabbed all I could find - an iron candle holder, and with catlike reflexes slipped out of my bedroom and stood behind the wall, waiting for him to walk into the living room.

When he didn't, I stepped boldly out into the kitchen and realized no one was there. The noise I had heard came from next door, where the college guys were sawing 2x4s on their deck at 1 AM. The noise of the saw & wood dropping carried into my house, just so, with a weird enough echo to sound exactly like my window opening & feet dropping in on my floor.

I'll tell you this though, I am pretty fearless when it comes to myself, but my daughters - that can bring me to my knees.

Funny, though, I've had 2 instances where pervs tried to grab me when I was young & two flasher experiences. I should write a post about that. I should be more scared than I am, considering!

Becky said...

That is so frightening, and I know fear quite well. I've always been afraid of such random acts of violence. And the NIU tragedy just hits too close to home for comfort.

KC said...

Honey, I went to NIU as an undergrad. Being somewhat of an emotional stone, I never thought I could feel so much compassion for people I didn't even know. I have nightmares about it as though it were me in that lecture hall.

It is SO true that you really don't understand it until it hits so close.