As I pull into the dirt parking lot at Chatfield, I feel a tingle rise up the back of my neck and then I physically shiver – it’s that whole-body kind of shiver and it’s not from the brisk early morning air. “Something doesn’t feel right about this place today,” I say under my breath as I take my key and my phone and step out of the car. On second thought, I get back in, grab my bag and remove the pepper spray that serves as my keychain on most normal days. I almost never run with it – always removing it from my car key so I can run more comfortably without the bulk. Whether it’s instinct or paranoia or God, something’s telling me to be careful today.
My music is playing through my earbuds but I’ve lowered the volume so I can hear what’s going on around me. My senses are operating on overdrive and I can feel every footfall as the gravel crunches beneath me. By mile two on the dirt path, I’m already exhausted from an anxiety that seems to be pulling me down into the dust. But then it hits me. It was the near-empty parking lot. It was the dawning light. It was the car that looked abandoned with jumper cables dangling from beneath the hood. My physical symptoms of fight or flight were the result of post-traumatic stress – triggered from an event that happened 20 years earlier.
It was an unfortunate event that could have changed everything I believed and felt about trusting, protecting, and suffering. Honestly, I think I was born with the curse of compassion. I was wired to feel an almost unnatural and unhealthy empathy for the suffering. Looking back on it now – and after years of deep and intensive introspection – I think it was because I was highly experienced on the subject. It was the one thing I really knew about and it drew me to those in need like a magnet. In my life, the people who were in trouble – whether physically, spiritually, or emotionally – seemed to always find their way to my proverbial doorstep.
There is no one on the trail this morning and the 300-days-a-year Colorado sunshine is having trouble jockeying for position with the bullying clouds. There’s an eerie mist hovering over the lake. I shiver again and the entire ten-minute event from 1995 when I was a 20-something corporate professional launches to the forefront of my mind and starts frantically unspooling. The disabled car. The darkening parking lot. The nagging feeling to help someone who is stranded. But what happens in my mind next is not what you’d expect.
As I run, I’m not reliving the slow-motion details of the attack that took place in the back lot of my former employer around 6 p.m. on a cool, overcast October evening. I’m not feeling the visceral fear that I did when the attacker opened my passenger door and arrogantly got in. I’m not feeling embarrassment because I trusted this stranger when he said he, “just needed someone to help jump start his car so he could get to his second job.” I’m not feeling my heart race uncontrollably as the back of my adrenaline-induced fist hit his nose as he tore my skirt. I don’t feel the shame I did when he laughed and spat and ran off yelling, “You’re not even worth it, bitch!”
What I’m feeling at this moment is an indescribable appreciation for this run. For this day. For this life. I’m happy to have all of this. I’m here. I was protected. “Thank you God,” I whisper to the wind.
But, this is not how I felt moments after the attack and then the weeks and months to follow. I was angry. I was embarrassed. I felt like a soft-hearted fool. I wanted to shut everyone out. I thought the Good Samaritan parable my Nana shared with me as a child was surely nonsense. I was never going to let myself be tricked again.
During those dark days, I believed it was faith in God and humanity and grace that had gotten me into the mess in the first place, and it was my own quick thinking and strength that had saved me. The whole horrific event taught me that I needed to be unbreakable –tough not soft. All business, no emotion. Protect your heart. Protect yourself. Too bad for anyone who is suffering in my wake because they’re on their own now – I’ll never again be the sucker that drops everything to help others. Good luck out there. You’ll need it.
[To be continued]