Saturday, January 22, 2011

Things that go bump…

(This is an assignment I just finished for a literacy endorsement class I'm taking. It's a bit vanilla since it's for school, but I still figured I'd toss it up here.)

I'm 35 years old, and I'm afraid of the dark. This realization came to me a couple of months ago, when, because of the time change, I found myself walking to my car from a class after the sun had gone down, rather than before as I had done in previous weeks. I remember leaving the building and suddenly feeling my heart begin to thump, and then scurrying to my car like a frightened rabbit. The parking lot of SEDC, a harmless enough space which I had frequented weekly for several months, suddenly felt unsafe to me. While hurrying to my car, I nervously pushed the unlock button on my key chain several times, and when I slid into the driver's seat, I turned to check the back seat to make sure no one with malevolent intentions was hiding back there (even though I knew perfectly well that the car had been locked). I then speedily locked the doors and drove home, feeling anxious and confused and a little disgusted with myself

Surprisingly, even after this event, I hadn't put a name to my fear. It seems obvious on reflection, but it wasn't until a similar event occurred after stopping by Wal-Mart to grab a loaf of bread on the way home from work that I realized what was going on. I repeated the earlier process: hurry to the car, check the back seat, lock the doors, and then drive away feeling equal parts afraid and sheepish. On the way home, I quizzed myself. I am I afraid of being alone? On the contrary-- I enjoy solitude, and am more likely to feel upset by the lack of "alone time" in my life than by too much of it. Could I have developed a phobia of parking lots? Ridiculous. Like most working moms, my life is often a series of errands requiring me to get into and out of the car several times a day. Then I considered why my anxiety had cranked up on this particular errand, remembered my mini-panic at SEDC, and it hit me. The dark. I wondered-- really? Was I really afraid of the dark?

And the answer is, unfortunately, yes. I was, am, and probably will always be afraid of the dark. When I mentioned this fear to my mom, she chuckled a bit, and reminded me that this fear is nothing new, but somehow I had forgotten it. As a young child, my fear of the dark was a bit of a joke in the family. I refused to go trick-or-treating, pointing out that there was a perfectly good bowl of candy right here, thank you very much, and I didn't need to go traipsing about the neighborhood in the dark on a night known for its spookiness to get more. I also didn't like fireworks, and one or the other of my parents usually had to miss the show because of staying home with me. How embarrassing. No wonder I'd "forgotten."

My childhood fear of the dark was compounded in my adolescence when I began more and more to realize how my gender made me a target of violence. I remember being warned about going out at night alone. One particular youth activity sticks with me. A self-defense teacher came and talked to a group of girls about safety. He showed us how to hold our keys grasped in the fist, creating a mace-like weapon to fend off possible attackers. He told stories of women who got into their cars at night, only to be abducted by a hidden assailant in the back seat, and warned us to keep the car locked at all times. I remember going home feeling so unsafe, and feeling how unfair it was that that fear was generated because I'm a girl, a member of "the weaker sex."

As an adult though, I guess I began to just find ways around the fear. As a school teacher, my work day ends in the late afternoon, and so I'm usually home before dark. When there are errands to run once the sun goes down, I generally pass the buck to my husband. Really,  I haven't consciously realized how I subtly maneuver my plans and schedule around this phobia until now.

Another minor hint in my adult life of my nyctophobia is my dislike of winter and my love of summer time. I've long described myself as being "solar powered person with no battery back-ups" and while the cold of winter repels me and the warmth of summer compels me, I think the root of my preference is light. In the summer, there are hours and hours of lovely light, and the evening stretches on and on. It's easily 8:00, and often later before I have to start thinking of wrapping up my "out and about" activities in order to beat the dark home.

Fortunately, my fear of the dark is very specifically limited to darkness "out there," and not "in here." That is to say, I am fine with darkness in my home. (In fact, in order to sleep well, I like a completely dark room.) Furthermore, I'm usually ok in the dark if I'm with an adult that I know. I feel no anxiousness sitting on my back porch with friends on a warm summer night, and I don't panic in a dark movie theater. It is only in public or unfamiliar places when I am alone, or with my young daughter, that I feel the panic, the feeling of being unsafe.

As a result, I've learned to avoid certain things. Parking lots are the worst, so I try and do most of my errands over the weekend instead of during the evening. Anywhere else in the car is a close runner up. In fact, driving alone on the freeway in the dark is something that I'll go to some lengths to avoid. I don't go for walks alone in the dark, and even with my dog I feel anxious, so I get less exercise during the winter months than I should.

I do feel embarrassed about this fear. After all, I'm not five. I'm a grown woman with a mortgage and a child--but somehow, I just can't shake it. So, do me a favor. If you invite me to the movies, just casually walk with me to my car after. If you need a ride somewhere, try to call someone else if it's late. Because I can do it. I can be alone, outside, in the dark. But I'd sure rather not.

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