A few weeks ago, I was working the closing shift at my second job. It was “Halloween dress up” night and I was wearing a pirate costume, although most people referred to me as a bar wench. That’s appropriate I guess, as I was serving beer. I felt a tad uncomfortable in my costume because it was a bit more revealing than what I would have liked. But not even close to the costumes I’ve worn in previous years. My job is to serve craft beer and to be friendly with the patrons. Easy enough. I love beer and I’m already quite friendly. I love this job. Plus, my coworkers are great, and we all have a lot of fun.
Weird vibes started creeping up on me towards the end of my shift. There was a man sitting at the bar who was staring at me and watching me. Every time I looked over at him, his eyes were fixed on me. Whether I was pouring beer, cleaning up, or at the register, I felt his gaze. I began to feel “dirty” as I often do in these situations. It’s the “un-clean” post-traumatic response that my body remembers so vividly and can’t seem to shake.
He eventually attempted a conversation with me. I was focusing more on his slurred speech than what he was actually saying. He wanted to know the history and meaning behind my tattoos. I didn’t want to share this information with him. I didn’t want him to know anything about me. I politely replied that they are “personal”. He didn’t appreciate my response and he began to make that clear. I could hear him saying things like, “I just asked about her tattoos. I’m trying to talk to her. And she acts like that. Wow.” He continued bothering me and asking me about my tattoos. He asked me “why are you being like that? I just asked you a question!” and I told him that I gave my answer. He wouldn’t let it go. He just kept going on and on to anyone that would listen. He became gradually louder, and his tone changed to one of anger. Now he was glaring at me with frustration. He blurted out, “you would be prettier if you smiled!” Oh hell no.
Standing there and holding my tongue was nearly impossible. I wanted to completely lose it on this guy. I wanted to tell him that he didn’t make me want to smile. That this is my face and I wasn’t about to change it just to please him. That I had no desire to be pretty for him. But I knew I couldn’t do that. I started to imagine myself walking to my car after my shift and being attacked. All kinds of visuals and scenarios started to form in my mind. I was becoming fearful. I know what you’re thinking. Over-react much? Well, yeah. I do. Because I’ve been here before and my body has never forgotten what happened to me. My body picks up on the signals that bring me back to that event. I’ve ignored my body and those signals too many times, in fear of looking crazy, and I can’t do it anymore.
I went back into the office and just stood there alone for a bit to compose myself. By this time, I had worked myself up enough to know that a panic attack was imminent. My heart was already starting to race. I kept thinking, “why can’t I just be stronger?”, “why can’t I handle this?” and the answer is simply that I’m just not there yet. I still become terrified over what some people would consider trivial. I’m still fearful that someone is going to hurt me, even if that someone is just looking at me the wrong way or being an annoying drunk.
My boss told me I could go home. My co-worker gave me a hug. They both reassured me that I was not being paranoid or crazy. They both felt the creepy vibes too. Their comforting words meant so much to me. So, I drove home and before I got to my house the tears just exploded out of my face. It felt as if I had been holding them back for years, but the dam was finally broken. I screamed. I swore. I hollered “I hate you” at the top of my lungs and I felt it. How infuriating that someone so evil, who hurt me so long ago, still affects me and my body this way. When will I have control?
The next morning, I felt embarrassed. I wondered what my co-workers thought of me. I’m sure the drunk man thinks I’m just a dramatic, crazy bitch. And then my tough girl, alter ego showed up and said “Girl, who cares what that idiot thinks about you!!” My co-worker texted me to make sure I was okay and that felt like validation. And it felt wonderful. We all need more of that. Checking in on each other and allowing others to feel what they feel without judgment or explanations can help tear down those walls of shame or insecurity. The drunken man will never know why he struck a nerve with me and that’s okay. He will also never know the meaning behind my tattoos and that’s okay too. I don’t owe him anything.
Speaking with my therapist last week got me over the hill I was climbing. I needed to let go of all the negative thoughts about myself that were created that night. I had to let go of the fear and embarrassment over how I handled myself. I told him I had felt so weak by retreating to the back room and then going home, just to get away from being uncomfortable. And he asked, “what’s wrong about doing whatever it takes to feel safe? What’s wrong with trusting your gut? What’s wrong with getting away from things that make you feel bad?” “Those triggers, those memories and those feelings that your body has absorbed are there for a reason. When you felt it in the past, it hurt you. Your entire being remembers. Your flight response is there because you know. You know when something is off and I’m proud of you for listening to yourself.”
He’s right. And I should be proud of me too!