When a human being is in danger or faced with acute stress, there are a few ways that they are biologically designed to respond. This is a biochemical response signaled by our brain. These aren’t responses that are thoughtfully determined after sitting down with a cup of cocoa and drawing out a pro and con list. Our senses, our surroundings, and the release of hormones and specific signals from our brain determine how we will respond, decide what we will do first. Our ancestors used these responses to continue the survival of our species.
There is the obvious reaction, which is to run. This is the “flight” reaction that we have all no doubt heard of and experienced in our lives. This is when we hide, seek cover, or find a higher ground. When a friend does something to hurt us, we avoid them or choose to ignore the conflict. When there is chaos, we flee and seek solace in a quiet place. When we were playing tag on the playground as kids and we see our friend designated “it” coming towards us, we would immediately run away. This is a natural instinct signaled by our brain to run, flee, and avoid. This response is usually my go-to.
And then there is the other well-known reaction, to “fight.” This one can be seen in many situations besides an actual physical brawl. More often seen as facing our problems head on, arguing our case, taking action in some way or form. Fighting has never been my strong suit. I’m not a fighter. Fighting means confrontation. It means hurting feelings and potentially creating more conflict. My brain does not naturally signal me to fight and never really has. I have to sit and drink a cup of cocoa and write out a pro and con list in order to convince myself to fight.
Which brings us to the third, lesser known reaction to danger. This is a reaction that people are more recently adding to the original idea of “fight or flight.” I really wasn’t even aware of this reaction to danger, but after going back and finally dealing with a lot of the stressful experiences in my life, I can see that I gravitate towards this reaction often. A reaction that is a primitive way of responding to stress, when your brain isn’t sure whether it can fight or if it should flee. This reaction, portrayed as a deer in the headlights, is to “freeze.”
So on December 11th, 2017, I was faced with what my brain saw as danger and as stress. My brain had an idea, because it was told as such, that I was going on a drive to just “talk.” After saying I’m too exhausted to hang out and I’ve had a long day, he texts, “I’d love to hangout and just talk, we can still go to Lake Wedington if you’d like! I’ll do my best to be better.” To be better about treating me like a human being. I told him he wasn’t talking to me like a human being, but like an object or just a warm body. In the days before this night I felt incredibly uncomfortable and hesitant but he just pushed more and more. And he pushed to go on a drive. Pushed and pushed. Pushing and what I can now see as manipulating me into agreeing to hang out that night.
And granted, we did go on a drive. For about 5 minutes to a dark, deserted parking lot near Lake Wedington. No talking had really happened. He told me some anecdotes about working at a pool back home in Texas. I was trying to be positive and fun even though I was so insanely exhausted. Exhausted from studying, finals approaching, from working until 12:30 AM and coming back to work the next morning at 5:00 AM. Exhausted from eating even less than I had slept, and burning off the few calories I let myself eat by running. Exhausted from an eating disorder that was just beginning to really spiral out of control.
And as he pulled into the dark parking lot and found a spot away from the street where there wasn’t actually a chance of traffic, I was embarrassingly surprised. Okay. So maybe we aren’t going to just talk. And as he opened his car door and got out, I followed suit and stood outside in the 12 degree air. And then he began to put down his back seats. Okay. It was very clear now we aren’t going to just talk. And then as I’m standing outside the car with the back passenger door open, there is that signal to my brain: stress. Danger is near.
You may be thinking.. “What? How is this danger?” Well, yes, there’s no punching or screaming. He isn’t chasing me down to knock me over the head with a club or holding a gun to my chest. No threatening words or blackmail are leaving his mouth. But we are completely alone in a dark, deserted parking lot with little traffic likely to pass by. And why would they think to stop anyway, just from seeing a car parked? Many would be thinking here that I am not in danger. It’s all in my head. Hell, I have been one of those people when I looked back. But if I had had the time that night to pause the scene and to sit down with my cocoa and write out my pro con list and think about the potential outcomes of this situation, it would have been clear.
He had more power in this situation. Power. Being required to take Human Sexuality this semester has been both a blessing and a curse. During our unit studying consent, sexual assault, and rape culture, I had to read and watch videos about situations very similar to those I’ve experienced in my life. Yes, this sucked and the way I coped with the triggered thoughts and behaviors was harmful. But once I stopped and looked at my own situations with new factors in mind, a few things became a little clearer. I was able to see some inner workings and factors of situations like the one I found myself in that night. One of these factors is power. And that the person with the power is not always articulately labeled, but the power is there and it can be palpable.
First of all, he is a male. Unfortunately because of the ever present, deeply ingrained gender norms of today, yes, this gives him power. The fact that he is in a leadership position in his church and in a leadership position in his christian ministry on campus gives him my trust and gives him power. His size gives him power. He is at least five or six inches taller than me and is strong from regularly working out and swimming to compete in and win triathlons. He knows I am exhausted and that I said I had a long day. This makes me weak. And in the conversations leading up to this point I have been clearly stating that. I’m stressed, tired, and strung out. This isn’t a fact I have hidden. Every employee in the HPER building knows I do too much and I don’t sleep and that isn’t a hidden fact. My weakness lessens my power, increasing his.
This is his car. His music is playing. His blankets are laying in the back seat. Tiny details, but all the while giving him all control of the environment we are in. More power.
When I bring my dog over to play at my friend’s house, her dog is well behaved and he plays well. But when she brings her dog over to play at my house, her dog goes nuts and gets violent towards my dog. Random? No. Her dog is challenging my dog’s power because he is in a foreign environment and is not the alpha male any more. He is in my dog’s domain. This demonstrates a natural power struggle and who’s environment you’re in matters when it comes to power.
Another factor is that again, I told him I didn’t want to do anything, that I was exhausted. I have the messages in my phone and I’ve tortured myself over and over again reading them. Telling myself that maybe I wasn’t firm enough, I wasn’t clear enough, I didn’t set a clear enough boundary. But I’m trying to tell myself now that that shouldn’t be required. If I told him that I was exhausted and had a long day and didn’t want to do anything then that should have been enough, right there, end of story. I can feel myself physically rejecting that thought even as I type it. This is a mindset that hasn’t been taught to me and hasn’t been taught to so many other girls. A girl shouldn’t have to scream “NO” and partake in a physical fight in order for it to not be a “yes.” But I can see clearly this quiet indirect no has not in any way changed his plan for the night as he is putting blankets down and climbing into the back of his car. He has more power, he has clearly rejected my no and pushed and manipulated me into getting to this point. So, yes, my brain saw it as danger.
So as I’m standing there outside his car, my brain could have responded in one of the three ways I explained.
Let’s start with “Flight.” I could have tried to run away or avoid the situation or call someone to come get me. Even if this was my brain’s immediate danger response here, no one was around and we were completely alone, with nowhere to run to. This would have been pointless. It would have taken the closest person in my contacts at least 30 minutes to get to our location to pick me up. I could have sat on the ground in a little ball. Odd as it may have been, that might have worked? But I didn’t have any of those reactions.
So what if my brain had immediately told me to “fight?” To firmly say no and I didn’t want to do anything. I am not a fighter and my brain never goes there. Like I mentioned before, what if it causes more conflict? I have told him no at this point, so yes maybe a firm yelling “NO” may have worked. But that wasn’t my immediate response. Another thing I frequently torture myself with.
So.. this is where that third response comes in. And you may think, why would “freeze” even be helpful here? Brain WHAT even are you thinking with that response? It’s not going to help me at all. Wrong. If I had run or tried to hide or avoid the situation, and he really wanted what he wanted, then he would have chased me. And it would have been pointless. And as far as physically fighting, he is bigger, stronger, has more power. He could have forced me if he really wanted to. And even if the fighting wasn’t physical, he was manipulative and pushy and coercive. He would have pushed and pushed until I let it happen anyway. He could have gotten angry or annoyed that I denied him and told everyone at work about the situation and completely ruined that “perfect” person I had so delicately painted for myself. Even if he had lied to them, why wouldn’t people believe him?
So I froze. During a freeze response, it is shown that blood flow is actually diverted from the brain. Our mind slows down and thinking becomes difficult and some people describe this as it turning into an “out of body” experience. You mentally separate from the situation to protect yourself. This response has been shown to happen when you have little control or power over a situation, like a deer caught in the headlights. The deer can’t run fast enough to outrun a car and it definitely can’t fight a car. So it freezes. At this point, my brain was telling me the safest option for me was to get into that backseat, close the door even though I didn’t want to and separate mentally from the situation. A few minutes of self-disgust would be better than running and being caught, or fighting and being forced.. Right?
Though I pulled his hands away a few times and asked him to please stop, I went along with it and let him push me and this is why I was so incredibly disgusted with myself. This is why I just couldn’t let it be his fault and not mine. This is why afterwards I ran away and avoided the situation, trying to pretend it never happened. Why I tried to act like everything was normal afterwards, like nothing was wrong. But I had to learn that the situation is more than that. More than his fault or my fault. That it is more than what I did or didn’t do. That I am more than that.
Immediately after the quick physical stuff was over, I embarrassingly thought maybe this is where the talking part comes in. I always crave this emotional and mental connection with people. But he was quiet and immediately tired and wanted to drop me back off at home. On the drive home, we chatted about how I had to teach a CPR class next weekend as if nothing had happened.
He started telling me about a situation in which he had to use his rescuer skills. An exciting story in which a little girl hit her head while he was working as a lifeguard and split her head open. He claims he had to sit, covered in blood, and hold the wound together while keeping her and her mother calm. He recalled how the mother returned in tears after the incident and thanked him for saving her little girl’s life. A lot of me now wonders how much is true and how much was exaggerated to make him seem like this amazing hero. To make him seem stronger, tougher, a kind of guy who saves little girls from danger. More power.
We make it to my house and we are parked a little while before he finishes his story. I comment about how intense that sounds and I start to go into a story of my own from when I had to deal with a medical emergency at work. Trying to connect. But as I’m talking I can tell he isn’t really listening and he keeps glancing down at my chest. I keep talking but as his hands reach under my shirt, I stop. He tells me to keep going and that he’s still listening and so I continue as if I believe him. And then his hands find their way down to the waist of my leggings even though I kept telling him no before when we were by the lake. I told him to stop and tried to move his hands away again but he keeps pushing. And he tells me that I want him to and it’s okay. He’s treating this like a favor that he’s willing to do for me. An act of service. And again, that damn freeze reaction. My mind detached again and I just went along with it. My front door was right there, only feet away, and I told myself it was just a few minutes before I could go back inside. I told him to stop after a bit but he wouldn’t. I tried saying please. I tried to play along and even fake an orgasm but he still wouldn’t stop. Finally I had to physically force his arm out of my leggings, out of inside of me.
I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t exhausted any more. I was just done. There was blood on his hand and under his fingernails and for some reason my initial response was to tell him that if he wanted to come inside really quick and wash his hand he could. Why was I still being so nice to him? Why did I just offer for him to come into my home after all of this? But he pulled out hand sanitizer from the side of his door and used some to wash his hands. It was disgusting. I was disgusted. I was disgusted with the entire situation, with myself. And I felt sick. I said goodbye and went inside.
I lay in bed and my mind returned, no longer foggy and detached. I felt it all. I felt every ounce of feeling from the entire night. Feelings of shame and guilt and disgust for myself and everything I had done. Feelings of danger, of stress, of trauma. Everything that I let him do. Everything I didn’t fight off and everything I didn’t run from and I beat myself up for it all. Every ounce of failure, of mistake, of imperfection. And I think I broke.
And I couldn’t hide and I couldn’t bottle it. Because he was at work, the place I spend every spare second of my time. He was working the same times as me, hanging out at the desk off shift, working out in the fitness center, always there. If he was there or not, he was texting me over and over and over. Sending me snapchats, asking for photos, telling me stories to make him more powerful. Preying off of my weakness, which was increasing by the second as I punished myself with starvation and self-hatred and more exhaustion.
My counselor explained to me that the fight or flight or freeze responses are useful when you are walking in the forest and you come across a bear. But the problem arises when that “bear” transforms from an external stressor to an internal stressor. No longer is the danger a person you can fight or a place you can run from. It is a festering self hatred, inner disgust, feeling of failure, lack of self-worth, and fear of imperfection that has manifested into a bear inside of me. And in response to this bear, I freeze, trying to detach, go through life in a fog. Trying to run away, avoiding this bear with feelings of hunger or feeling so full of food I’m going to burst. I began to focus on running away, avoiding, denying, and distracting.
So I decided that I need to try and fight. Fight the bear with new habits and new things. Fight the bear with self-love and finding my worth. I need to realize I’m beautifully made for a purpose, and fight for that purpose. Fight for others, fight for love, and fight for change. I don’t want to freeze or flee any more in the face of danger. I want to fight. I want to fight the bear.
Sharing my story and the hard parts of life has never been an easy thing for me. But I know sharing has helped so much in the healing of the wounds brought on by this trauma and past traumas. Reading the stories of others helped me to write out my own story, process my experiences, and empowered me to report this experience to Title IX. I found myself in such a dark place, but hiding only makes it darker. So by sharing my story today and making it public, I hope to help another out of the darkness, give another some grace, and help someone else feel not quite as alone.