Something weird happened to me on Saturday night and I've been wrestling with it and my feelings about what happened, so here's what happened.
After a night of beers and a bonfire, at about 3 a.m. I wound up with some hurt feelings regarding a previous incident and was alone, so I went into a park to think. I live close by the park and the city I live in is small, and while I know that the population of any city doesn't guarantee a person's safety, I felt safe. I sat for a while sulking and then decided to walk home, thinking that a fun and shorter distance might follow the top of the dike in the park. From the top of the dike I could see both into the park and into the neighborhood below me so I had a good chance of seeing any marauding college kids, patrolling cop cars, and other nuisances. I walked for a while until at a bend I looked down into a streetlight positioned behind someone's home and saw the figure of a man below me. He was milling around and I thought I heard the jingle of dog tags, so I assumed he was walking his dog. Still, I immediately felt unsafe by his presence, so I turned around on the dike to go back to the house where the bonfire had been. I figured I would cut through my friend's backyard and through the alley and avoid this man completely.
As soon as I turned around I felt like an asshole. I imagined how shitty that man might feel seeing that he made a woman so uncomfortable just by his presence that she would turn in the other direction to leave. I remembered a story a friend told me about a similar incident and how, while he didn't blame her for her discomfort, he still felt bad that he made someone feel afraid of him. I then thought about how stupid I was going to feel if my friend caught me walking through his backyard. I imagined the conversation - me telling him that I saw a man and was afraid and so turned around, and how stupid that sounded and how stupid he would probably think I was. I could hear him saying, "It's just a guy! He was probably walking his dog! You have nothing to be afraid of!"
When I got to his gate, I couldn't open the hinge. He had gone inside and I could hear his dog barking at me, so instead of having to deal with the conversation I'd already had in my head, I decided I would be fine walking through the neighborhood. I headed toward my house, back in the direction of the man in the streetlight. When I first saw him he was behind the houses, along the dike, so I figured I would miss him entirely and have nothing to worry about, but as I got to the end of the block, across the street in the shadows I saw him crouched down in a row of hedges. When he saw me he stood up and I panicked. I ran back to my friend's house and pounded on the door. I told him what happened and probably started crying. I was shaking and completely terrified. My friend called the police and then asked me to show him where I saw the man. Again, my first thought was to doubt myself.
This had all occurred in the span of about 5 minutes, but I suddenly wasn't sure any of it was worth my being so afraid. We left the house and I kept thinking that the man would be gone, that I would look like an idiot, a liar, a hysterical asshole who was, probably as usual, getting worked up over nothing. But, when we got the the street corner, he was there, walking around in the shadows between two houses. For a second I felt justified, and then I felt afraid again. This had actually happened, some strange, shadowy guy seemed to be waiting for me for some reason. That's a terrifying reality.
My friend and I went back to his house and he told me he would walk me home. I stood in his backyard feeling a surge of anger and loudly threatened to kill the stranger - not the smartest move, I know. I picked up two bottles and imagined breaking them over his invisible face. We started walking and I made sure no one was following us. On the way to my home we saw several police cars rush to the area where I had seen him and I had a panic attack. When I got home I was still terrified and armed myself with a vegetable peeler that was sitting on the counter. I made my husband check the basement and attic for any intruders, I locked every window in my home, pulled down all the blinds, had another or several more panic attacks. I was screaming. I was so angry and so scared all at once, and the next morning I felt the same way.
On his way home, my friend waved down a cop and asked him what happened. He was told they found some drunk kid in the neighborhood who was trying to get home, that he lived right there on that street. I can't help but feel like all of my doubts were correct, that I, classically, overreacted. It was just a guy, and probably the person who had the most damage done to them that night was this kid whose feelings were hurt because he scared the shit out of a dumb woman and then had the police called on him. But I can't help but wonder if this was just some kid trying to get home, why did he hide in those hedges?
As I continue to wrestle with whether or not I was justified in being afraid, I realize how completely and utterly stupid that kind of thinking is. That kind of thinking is often why people get hurt - they end up in uncomfortable, unsettling situations and rationalize their way through them until it's too late. Every personal safety class or PSA or whatever will tell you to always trust your instincts, to get the fuck out the second you feel like you need to, and that's what I did, but I still feel like an idiot. Like a child or some other dependent who can't and probably shouldn't make decisions for themselves. I feel like this should be this cut and dry situation - I was scared, but then I was safe and now it's Monday and it's over - but I can't stop going back and forth about it. I hate that I can't even land on how to feel. Scared and angry and then angry at myself for being scared and then angrier yet for trying to rationalize and criticize feelings that I should be allowed to have. I keep thinking about how this must sound to other people - but that other people aren't me, they weren't there, they didn't see what could have been a very artful shot in a teen slasher movie of a distant shadow that looks like a bush turn into the shadow of a man. Even as I write this, as I once again justify my fear, I still feel like I'm overreacting. I could have been hurt, if there were ever a night when I could have been hurt it was this night, and I can't stop telling myself I'm wrong. I feel like the cathartic ending of this post should say something about forgiving myself for having feelings I can't control, something about how valuable fear and anger can be, something about how there are some seriously messed up (dangerous even) discourses that I've internalized that could have allowed for some terrible thing to happen to me because it's mean to appear scared or stupid to overreact or to react at all, something about trusting yourself, about not being afraid to be afraid, to get help, to be uncomfortable and to do something about it, but I don't know how to say those things yet.