Tag Archives: Harassment

Is Fear Pathological?

File:Shirley Strickland.jpg
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Melburnian, October 2006.

2013 was a lousy year for running in my life. I kicked off the year with a persistent tendon injury in my foot which forced me off the road for a few months. Then, just as I started to ramp up my training again, things came to a head with my neighborhood stalker and completely ruined my running routine.

I still ran a lot despite the stalker, but it wasn’t quite the same as before. One major change was losing my favorite route, because it took me past his house.

Today I ran my old route alone for the first time since that day almost 9 months ago. It starts at my doorstep, takes me to a park that’s a couple miles away, and then back to my home. I always know I’m halfway done when I see the pink wooden turrets of the playground’s castle in the distance.

Today I ran that route, only in reverse. I drove to the park and ran the opposite way starting from the castle, and when I neared my own neighborhood, I turned away and ran back.

I’ve missed my old route. It has good landmarks to mark the distances, it’s scenic, and most importantly, it has gently rolling hills. I love running hills like these. There’s a rhythm to them that makes running uniquely pleasurable and somehow adventurous. You reach the base of the hill and attack it, quickening your stride, swinging your arms in short, tight arcs, breath accelerating, heart racing, calves aching until you’re at the top. Then instantly the rhythm reverses. You ease off and let gravity do the work as you float downhill, and I swear it feels like flying: easier and more natural than walking. Sometimes you feel like you could run forever.

Flats are the worst, though. I hate running long stretches of flat ground. It’s one of the reasons that I hate and despise treadmills and tracks–while they’re better than nothing, they take much of the joy out of running, the rhythm and flow, the alternating of fight and victory that convinces you to go just a little further than you thought you could.

Life’s like that, I think. We suffer on the climbs, and we exhilarate in the floating, flying descents, but somehow the flats are the worst. The stagnation, the parts of your life when you feel like you’re running parallel with your dearest goals which never seem to come any closer.

File:Tracks.jpg

Did I mention 2013 was a terrible year for running in my life? I spent most of it running flats. After I ceded my neighborhood route to my stalker, most of my runs took place at the track in a nearby park. It had a lot to offer safety-wise: set back off the main road, there was no way the creep could follow me in his car or even know I was running there. And I got to know the little community of people who frequent the track everyday, elderly retired folks and athletes and children, mostly. But running a flat 1k loop is torturous. It’s got nothing on the hills.

I realized something else today: how much my experience with the stalker has shaped my life. These days when I run, I watch passing cars reflexively, and if I see one that looks remotely like that gray Nissan Sentra that I’m oh-so-familiar with, the panic starts in the back of my brain. Suddenly I’m arguing with myself. “You’re okay,” I say, “you’ve got your cell–here, in your pocket–and besides, look, it’s a Honda, see?” Meanwhile the other voice jibbers about pain and death and panic and running away to hide, NOW, before it’s too late.

I mean, I get it. My brain’s trying to be helpful. All those months ago, in an instant my fear ran right up the scale until it hit with certainty: “I am about to die.” And when I didn’t, my brain made a few extra connections, turned up the volume on certain warnings, hoping to prevent a reoccurrence.

It used to be worse. There was a time shortly after that day when I was afraid to check my mail. That got better with time. And I was terrified of my old running route. Even today, I never fully forgot the panic.

I used to think this sort of fear was pathological, but I’ve discovered something: almost every woman has a story like this.

It happens at parties, when in a corner, we start sharing these tales. And instead of shock, the other women nod, eyes wide, and they understand. And I hear over and over again how many of us are afraid. Perhaps most of us, to some degree. We swap “safety” tips and compare notes and exchange sympathetic hugs before we go back into the world to run uphill against the fear.

In fact, I think that we consider it pathological for a woman not to be afraid.

This occurred to me while reading James Tiptree Jr.’s short story, “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled Of Light!” The story revolves around a woman undergoing a psychotic break. She believes she lives in a future where for unexplained reasons, men no longer exist, and everyone in the world is friendly. This means she’s wandering around a big city alone at night, in high spirits, rejoicing in the health of her body and the beauty of the world. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, a group of men stalks her. At the end, they violently attack her.

The story is told in retrospect through interviews of people who saw her the night of the attack. These people fault her for her optimism, happiness, and lack of fear, and they universally perceive her demeanor as pathological. As a result they blame her for what is done to her, even though they all have the opportunity to intervene along the way.

This resonated with me: that we live in a world where women are supposed to be afraid, and for some reason we consider the fear a healthy thing, to the point where failure to be afraid all the time is held against us. And so we blame ourselves and obsess over how we “provoked” our harassers and attackers into targeting us, accepting without question that it is wrong to assume we can live without fear.

Every woman has a story like this, after all.

But I don’t want to run on the flats for the rest of my life. I love people. I love talking with strangers, finding shared interests and common ground, the blossoming of new friendships and deepening the roots of old ones. My life would be much less rich if I lived in fear all the time.

File:Castelo-dos-Mouros 1.jpg

I don’t want to be afraid of people. I don’t want to be afraid of you.

But how do I balance that against the fear? How do I fight back against the constant, exhausting barrage of threats masked as concern, the idea that it’s my job to hide myself, lest bad people choose to inflict harm upon me?

I don’t really know, honestly. But I’m going to keep running the hills. I hope you’ll run with me.

On the horizon, I see a castle.

Creeper Guy vs. The Mongolian Deathworm

Creepers gonna creep.
Creepers gonna creep.

We interrupt your regularly scheduled medical microfiction to bring you a personal story. If you’re here for the flash fiction and prefer to skip, you won’t hurt my feelings. Check out the archives instead, or check back later for what I’ve got cooked up next. Otherwise, pull up a chair and pour yourself a cup of coffee. This tale is true, and mine.

As some of you may know , for the past year I’ve had occasional encounters with a creep in my neighborhood who likes to follow me in his car when I’m out running. These encounters have been very rare, perhaps once every couple of months. Nonetheless, Creeper Guy’s behavior’s been consistent enough that a pattern has emerged.

The pattern goes like this: on the way home from a run, I pass by his house, which is at the entrance to my neighborhood. He sits in his car with the engine idling. I pass him, reach the intersection just down the road, and he pulls out of his driveway and begins following me. Sometimes it’s the slow, creepy, driving-right-behind you following. More often, he does a few roll-bys at around 15mph up and down the street–perhaps to maintain the pretense that he’s “coincidentally” driving in my vicinity, over and over again. Historically, having a run-in with him prompts me to radically change my running route, and sometimes stop running altogether for a few weeks (sad but true).

Recently I’ve been ramping up my training in the hopes of running some more races in the summer and fall. And since it’s almost summer in Georgia, I’ve preferred morning runs to avoid the ridiculous heat. Mornings, unfortunately, are when Creeper Guy likes to make an appearance.

Steve Irwin
Steve Irwin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This last Wednesday was going to be special. I intended to reach a new training milestone. To motivate myself, I even picked out something special to listen to: Drabblecast B-Sides #9: Connor Choadsworth–In Search of the Mongolian Deathworm. If you’re not yet addicted to the Drabblecast, you have to understand that this particular episode is unique. It’s a hilariously inappropriate parody of nature documentaries, Bono, Dune, Dr. Seuss, Christmas carols and more, narrated by a character named Connor Choadsworth who’s something like a deranged Steve Irwin.

So on Wednesday, I hit the road. Everything went great until the homestretch, 15 minutes away from home. I was running along a major road with plenty of traffic when I noticed Creeper Guy’s car drive by. It’s easy to recognize by a large, distinctive decal on his back windshield. I didn’t think anything of it until I approached my neighborhood entrance a few minutes later. This is where it gets strange. Several hundred yards ahead, his car rolled up out of the treeline as if he were going to turn out onto the major road. He looked in my direction, saw me, and rolled backwards, back into the neighborhood!

Real subtle, Creeper Guy.

By now, I was beat. It was the end of an especially hard run, after all. Now I had to stow my iPod and deal with Creeper Guy. I had to pass his house to get home. Hoping he wouldn’t mess with me today, I pretended to talk on my phone as I ran past. Sure enough, he was sitting in his car in the driveway with the engine idling. Sure enough, he waited until I reached the intersection to pull out onto the road.

At this point, my body helpfully dosed me with some sweet, sweet adrenaline, which eased the pain in my legs but made me feel woozy. I prayed he wouldn’t try anything today. I had no strength left to give.

Fortunately, another car queued up behind him to turn at the intersection, which meant I got a head start booking it toward my house. He managed a couple of drive-bys before I got there, but the timing worked out so I was able to get home without him seeing where I live (this makes more sense if you see my street). It probably helped that I gave him the death-glare each time he rolled by and kept up my one-sided phone conversation. We both knew I was watching him.

Chicago police car
Chicago police car (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over the last year, many of you have told me to call the police on Creeper Guy, and looking back on it, you’re absolutely right. When I reflect on it now, I had some complex reasons why I didn’t.

For one, I’ve never had to call the police before. Before Wednesday, I failed to see my own predicament as something that deserved their attention. I thought they’d be annoyed if I bothered them about this problem. While Creeper Guy scared me, he’d never done anything outright illegal.

Another thing: filing a report felt like acknowledging that a problem did, indeed exist. It’s much easier to assume it’s all a misunderstanding or coincidence. I harbored Creeper Guy no ill will. He was a neighbor, after all. We all want to believe that our neighbors wish us peace. I’ve noticed that people sometimes employ similar logic with health problems. Something doesn’t feel right in your body, but you put off going to the doctor because it’ll somehow make the issue “real”. You’ll have to deal with your lung cancer or kidney stones instead of continuing to believe you’re hale and hearty. Same with my hangups about filing a police report.

But Wednesday was different. The treeline hide-and-seek irked me. But something else put me over the edge.

It was Connor Choadsworth: In Search of the Mongolian Deathworm.

As I was talking myself out of calling the police, I noticed my iPod lying where I’d dumped it on the table. In all the hassle, I didn’t get to finish the podcast I’d saved just for this run.

Just... 5... more... minutes!

Creeper Guy ruined Connor Choadsworth. And that pissed me off.

I was so pissed that I dialed the police on the spot. A few minutes later, a police officer stopped by my house. We had a nice long chat about the whole situation and came up with a plan for dealing with this guy while keeping me 100% safe. At long last, I’m reasonably confident that I won’t have another run-in with Creeper Guy, and if I do, I now have a plan in place for handling him much more effectively than I did in the past.

After the officer left, I finally finished Mongolian Deathworm. And it was awesome.

Lessons Learned:

  1. My local police officers are awesome.
  2. It’s okay to call 911. Really, it’s okay! No more fake phone calls while jogging.
  3. The psychology between creeps and the people they harass is complicated. Don’t be so quick to write folks off as dumb for failing to take action against a creep immediately. Hindsight is 20/20. (For podcast addicts, I find this apropos to a controversial Escape Pod story that ran last month).
  4. Fiction is compelling. Sometimes it can reach into the real world and influence your decisions. It’s why we write, even my medical microfiction. Thanks, Drabblecast.

Happy Friday, gang. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments below. Even better, leave me a link to something fun!