Resilience and Calling a Truce
anonymous Asks ...
Dear Dr LaPierre,
Thank you for offering your advice on the internet. Sometimes it's much easier to seek help this way, especially when some experiences are embarrassing to tell.
I have an ongoing fear of home invasion that started 14 years ago. It has got worse, and I have been experiencing ghastly nightmares and panic attacks for the last five years.
My home has been broken into several times, in fact this is what embarrasses me the most. I can't talk about it because not only do I see disbelief in the eyes of others, but I feel that the sheer number of times must indicate something is wrong with me. Yet I don't know what I could have done to prevent any of these events.
The first time, I was 19 years old, and studying in a town away from my parents. My father was (and is) emotionally abusive, controlling, and incredibly frightening. That day he decided to turn up unannounced, but I wasn't home. He was paying my rent, so he believed it was his right to break into my little one room flat by kicking a hole through the front door. When I got back that evening I felt such fear and shock that I called my mother, who told me they had "visited". Strangely enough, that didn't help at all. It nearly felt worse. I got the door fixed, but I had no idea how to fix myself. I felt awful, and angry, and guilty for the anger, because they were paying for my rent, after all.
The second time, I was 26, and I had my own place. A large flat I rented in a rather nice part of town. It was the middle of the afternoon on my day off from work, and I was indulging myself to a day in pyjamas, expecting no one, lying on my bed reading Jane Austen with a cup of tea.
I heard a loud knock on the front door, and was suddenly caught in a moment of indecision. Do I answer or just let it go? I wasn't dressed adequately, and besides, I was expecting no one.
But before I'd even made up my mind, I heard more noises. Someone was prying the door open with a crow bar. I froze, then got up, but it was so quick, that he was inside my home in an instant. Luckily, the corridor led straight to my living room, and he walked past my bedroom door to get there first.
I didn't know what to do. I knew the police wouldn't get there in time, but I knew my friend and neighbour was home. I hid behind the bedroom door and dialed his number. Whispering as quietly as I have ever whispered, but panicking too, I asked him to come round. At first he couldn't even hear me... then he wouldn't believe me... that was the worst. I wasn't speaking normally... I was deliberately skipping superficial words because I was afraid I'd be heard, talking like an old fashioned telegraph. Then he felt it in my voice. Less than a minute later, he got to the building and the burglar heard him open the door downstairs.
All the while the intruder had been making muffled noises in the living room and I could hear heavy footsteps. I thought I was going to die because I hadn't dared make my presence known... I was literally in a weird frozen state, like calm and panicked at the same time. I don't know how to explain. All these thoughts were rushing through my mind, such as, when he opens the bedroom door he's going to be surprised, his reaction will be unpredictable, he might panic too and kill me. Apart from that phone call, I couldn't move. I wasn't breathing normally, because I feared he'd hear my breath. My heart was pounding so hard I thought it would give me away. I was afraid my phone would ring, but I couldn't turn it off, because it wasn't on silent mode and he would have heard the "off" jingle. I wanted to break it. Even removing the battery was more noise than I could risk.
When the intruder heard my friend on the stairs, he walked out. I heard him walk past my bedroom and out the front door. My friend started shouting at one point, he told me it was after they'd walked past each other on the stairs, when he saw my door broken in, the lock was on the floor, and there were wood chips everywhere. I still couldn't come out of hiding. He had to come and get me where I was. That's when I collapsed, shaking, as if the frozen state had kept me up, and then it snapped, leaving me drained of all my energy and I just cried and cried and kept shaking with spasms.
We called the police but nothing had been stolen so they did nothing. A few months later, two detectives did show up at my friend's place, because he was an eye witness, and admitted the procedure hadn't been respected, because they'd forgotten to show him photographs of potential suspects.
Four months later, I got back from a sleepover to find the door broken in again. This time my laptop had gone, and the cables of my desktop were partially unplugged, which makes me think whoever it was must have been interrupted by something. I waited for the police to get there before I dared go inside, because I was afraid the burglar might still be inside. The police were horrible about it. They were brutal, and dishonest. I don't know why. Maybe they were fed up because I was sobbing. I don't know. They just wanted to know what was missing, but they wouldn't let me check properly. I only noticed my laptop was missing after they left. One of them said to another in front of me "if there's nothing missing, we'll say nothing happened". I couldn't believe it. My door had a gaping hole in it, where the "new" and supposedly "secure" lock had been, with wood chips everywhere again. My friend's theory is that they were worried about not having followed the procedure the first time.
I had gone straight back to work the first time, but I wasn't myself. This was too much, and my doctor told me to take a month off. I was working in a bank, and I needed to be efficient. So I didn't take the medical advice... and burned out. I lost my job. I hate myself so much. That job was so important to me... banks were no longer recruiting where I lived, and I desperately needed to hang on, but I wasn't strong enough. I was weak. I was a bit dead. I'm so ashamed.
I decided to move out of my flat, but without a job, I was living on my savings. I didn't feel up to going to any interviews, because something was very wrong. I wasn't "me" anymore. So I got a small room and went back to school. I had to do something, but I didn't want to "betray" an employer. So I chose to read law at university instead.
It was nice, because I could go to class and just learn. It was so much easier than going to a job, because I didn't have to pretend, or smile too much, or be criticized for looking like an empty shell. I actually did very well. I passed the first year with excellent grades.
It was the second year, during the mid term exams, that it happened again. I ran home between two sessions for lunch and a 20 minute nap (I wasn't sleeping well). Just as I lay my head down, I heard someone try to insert a key in my lock. I froze again. Being a coward was becoming a habit!
It wouldn't turn, because my own key was in the lock. Then I heard the door knob shake and rattle angrily, and my landlord's voice yelling "I can't get in! Something's stuck". I ran to the door then, in anger and disbelief. I never missed a month's rent in my life and it's absolutely illegal for a landlord to enter a tenant's flat. When I opened the door, his jaw dropped. He mumbled an angry excuse, then his wife turned up behind him, just as surprised as her husband, with my mail in her hands. I asked how long they'd been doing this. They wouldn't answer. I told them this was unacceptable, but I had an exam to go to. It was the hardest exam I ever took in my life. My brain was in a state of trauma and anger.
I wanted to press charges, but I couldn't bring myself to go back to the police. I started closing the blinds and putting toothpaste on the light switch, to be sure no one had visited my room in my absence! It sounds like madness...
I found the toothpaste smeared on the wall THREE times before I actually dared to do something. I was a ghost. I felt completely naked all the time. Exposed. Lifeless. I felt like I had no intimacy anymore. I started staying home to defend it from intrusion and dropped out of school. I felt like an animal. As though I had no control over anything.
Then I did the opposite. I left my room for long periods of time, staying at my boyfriend's instead. My friend, who is a social worker, tried to help. He called the landlord, and told him we were taking him to court, and stated my rights. In France, where I live, home intrusion is a criminal offense, whether you're the landlord or not. But the result was not what I expected.
My landlord got angry. He changed the locks and stole and destroyed all my belongings. Everything I owned. I was so broken by then that I couldn't do anything. I still haven't, and it happened two years ago. It's too late now. I hate myself for not reacting, being so inefficient, and pathetic. Letting him get away with it is awful.
Now I'm dead inside. I still feel naked and exposed. My diaries, all my papers, photographs, everything is gone, and it's all been taken by a man I fear and hate. I feel dirty, and ashamed. My deepest secrets, my dreams, my silly teenage thoughts were in those diaries. He was a nosey, disgusting landlord, who enjoyed letting himself into his tenants' flats, so I know he combed through everything I ever owned and probably read all my stuff.
Now I have lost everything. My belongings, and my soul. I'm living with my boyfriend and haven't been able to work. I'm especially ashamed of that. I have a fear of doors... it's not agoraphobia. I can go out. But I keep having nightmares about doors. I lock them, and they open, or turn into flimsy useless little things, people walk through them, keys don't work, I wake up in sweat and cry. If someone knocks or rings the door bell I freeze, it's like receiving a physical blow in the chest. I start shaking uncontrollably, every time. And I cry. A lot.
Now I feel like mental case. I don't know what's wrong with me. People have experienced much worse and they get over it. I would be ever so grateful for any advice. I cannot afford therapy at all. We hardly make ends meet as it is, because I'm such a useless burden. It's like I'm drowning, and you're my last resort.
Sorry for such a long and boring question. Thank you so much for reading it.
Jim LaPierre Says ...
Your judgment is harsh and unwarranted. I’m confident you’d never judge another person the way you are judging you. Your words show a person who is sensitive and kind to others. Too often, we who have great empathy for others lack compassion for ourselves.
Your fears are grounded in reality and experience. They are not irrational nor are they trite. You experienced recurring intrusion. You were both physically and emotionally vulnerable in dangerous situations. It is unfair that you should be ashamed of this.
You’re making an invalid comparison between yourself and how you believe most people would react in your situation and this is the thing I most want to challenge you on because it feels like the assumptions you’re making are not realistic. I can tell you that most people in your situation would have done exactly what you did – they would be paralyzed by fear.
You have redirected the anger and hatred that you have for your intruders at yourself and this constitutes a great injustice. To be angry at them feels empty and powerless to you. To be angry at you is familiar and continuing to reject you is an alternative to acknowledging and grieving how much you were hurt and violated.
Feeling safe and secure within ourselves and our environments is the most basic of human needs. This was taken from you. It’s time to take it back. Please write. Please use any form of expression to empty what you’re holding in – draw it on paper, put it on a canvas, sing it, scream it but stop clinging to it.
Write more to me. Tell me what you’d say to someone you love who feels similarly. Tell me what your willingness is to be compassionate to you. There is nothing that will make this all better but there are countless things that can make them better.
You can be better – despite not knowing you, I know that. Resilience is the greatest form of strength. It’s time to get back up. I believe you can do it and I thank you for the honor of bearing witness. Write me more. Best, Jim