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There’s a long list of things I’m deathly afraid of: ghosts, airplanes, aliens, accidentally doing heroin, knives, and home invasions are among the top 100.
Teenage boys shot me in the butt with a BB gun when I was 10, so maybe that’s what kick-started my obsessive fear. Or maybe it was the time I was four and my playmate chased me around the house with a knife as he giggled manically.
Whatever it was, there came a point in my life when I figured out my parents couldn’t protect me from much, and that the world is a scary, evil place, where any rational, reasonable person should be filled with constant, crippling fear.
Does that sound insane? Ask anyone with anxiety. We think that our fear actually protects us, that we’ll be ready for the zombie apocalypse because all the nail-biting hours we spent wanting to puke our brains out have us emotionally prepared.
So naturally, when I woke up one night to my roommate screaming at the top of her lungs, “GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE!” and I saw a very tall shadow at my door, I was completely bewildered and had absolutely no idea how to respond. The shadow man ran toward the kitchen and out the back door before I had time to even consider screaming Courage the Cowardly Dog style.
My roommate and I, Sydney, were really lucky. Nothing bad happened to us, as far as we knew. I mean, I can be a pretty heavy sleeper, so I try not to think about that. But the rude and unsympathetic cop was quick to remind us that we were unscathed, and that nothing was taken from our home.
Which was the weirdest part of the whole thing. Why would some guy break into our house, crawl on the floor, open my roommate’s bedroom door, and shake her bed frame?
What would have happened if she wasn’t convinced a demon had opened her door (she had just seen "Paranormal Activity"), decided to turn on the light, and, in a surge of relief, uncharacteristically yelled at the intruder to GTFO?
(Yes, she was relieved that there was a live person shaking her bed as opposed to a ghost. I don’t get it either.)
It’s in the gaps of all these unanswered questions that my crazy mind lived for the next few months. How did he break into the house? Was he watching us before he made his move? Did he come into my room while I was asleep?
“AHHHHH MGDGF LGKLF,” was basically my only response to all of these horrifying questions. I spent hours on the Internet Googling Richard Ramirez and weird fetishes. Turns out, watching girls sleep is totally a thing.
A few days after the break-in, we received a letter in the mail telling us to pack up and move out, because the crappy house we had just moved into a week ago was being foreclosed. All we could do about it was cry, scream, get drunk, and call our parents.
And oh, I got drunk a lot. Especially after I found out my next door neighbor was a registered sex offender. (Spiced rum? Yeah I’ll mix that with the warm bottle of Gatorade I found in my car. Whatever.)
I drank every night in my bed, smoked up a storm (landlord be damned, since I hated her guts), and absent-mindedly watched the same three "Arrested Development" episodes on loop (I know, I’m the worst, but I still don’t know anything about that show except that Will Arnett is a magician with a Segway).
I kept a hammer and a screwdriver by my pillow. Every bump in the night sent me into a downward mental spiral. I was constantly convinced I was going to die, and I didn’t let myself sleep until the sun came up.
This fear, coupled with the intense feeling of not having a home in the complete sense of the word, turned into violent anger. I would constantly carry a knife in my pocket because I left work late and had to walk to the parking lot, often times alone. I would imagine having to fight off an attacker over and over again.
“Who the hell do you think you are?” I’d say to my imaginary attacker, one heeled foot over his body, my outfit and posture baring an uncanny resemblance to Lara Croft.
It was about nine months later when I was contacted by the victim advocacy program -- a guy, we’ll call him Andrew Swift, was being charged for breaking into my house, and as a victim, I had the right to know all the details of the case.
I could instantly feel the fear and anger roiling my insides into massive diarrhea. So I told the nice lady on the phone to kindly feed my insanity and tell me everything.
She called me just after Andrew was sentenced to two years in prison. She described in detail how surprisingly moving his plea in court was. People from around the community came out to insist how uncharacteristic the break-ins were (he was being charged with two in the same month), and that he was an upstanding student and worker. Andrew claimed he was battling his alcoholism at the time of the crimes, and that he relapsed because of his traumatic and abusive past in the foster care system.
Whoa. There went all my feel-good, self-righteous anger.
I just couldn’t believe this woman was talking about him, the guy who broke into my house and destroyed my sanity. I refused to. He was supposed to be a really creepy, bug-eyed weirdo who hung around preteen chatrooms and WANTED to ruin my life.
Five years later I checked up on him to write this article. He remade his Facebook after coming back from prison and went back to school. He has a healthy amount of friends, some of who my friends are friends with. His statuses oscillate between lighthearted and despair. His last status is a straight up suicide note. It ends with a, “see you on the other side.”
A few days after he posted that status, he was arrested for attempted burglary. It’s weird, I’ve never met this person, but he plays such an important role in my life. It’s like someone gave the anonymous face of fear an identity: a 20-something college kid only two degrees in separation from my own Facebook network.
It’s tempting to reach out, to try and meet him so that I can say, “See? Home invaders aren’t so bad after all. You have nothing to fear -- the world really is a nice place filled with pretty flowers and lots of streaming options on Netflix.”
But I know I have to move on and accept that this isn’t just about what I want. That I have to end my high-and-mighty fantasy of meeting him in prison, of connecting emotionally and somehow saving him from his sad foster kid past.
When I think back on the break-in, it’s a mixed bag. Sometimes at parties, it’s a crazy story. Other times, when I’m scared and my heart’s racing and I’m all alone, it’s a cruel joke. But I learned that ultimately this narrative isn’t just about me being a “victim.”
It’s an ongoing story about who I choose to be even in my most vulnerable moments, and when I need to recognize that other people need more help than I do.
It’s not like Andrew Swift was the last mentally ill guy who violated my safety bubble (it’s an unfortunate theme in my life). And it’s not like I won’t continue to suffer through the things I fear most -- like the loss of loved ones, or encounters with disease-carrying ticks on camping trips.
Sure, life’s a bitch. But I don’t always have someone to point the finger at. Sometimes, I can put my brave face and big girl panties on, and face the music.
Life’s scary. Always has been, always will be. I’m still afraid of airplanes, bears, brain tumors, and buff men. I constantly check the closet and under beds for what my roommate calls, “the little old man.” But at least I know I’m not a victim unless I choose to be.
And if I choose to be? I’ll drink boxed Moscato over rum. It’s cheaper and mixes better with sports drinks.