I was oblivious to the extent of my anxiety until I moved out of my parent’s house. Having been raised in a household where I was taught to trust no one and always, “Watch your back,” I truly believed that everyone was out to get me. The neighborhood where I grew up only increased my fear. Although I was seemingly rooted in the land of honest Midwestern values, my neighborhood was far from Pleasantville. Despite the Eastside of St. Paul, Minnesota’s mighty middle class family beginnings, by the early 1990’s, it became consumed with urban flight and increased crime. Robberies and violence were common.
From a young age, I was forced to accept the facts that it wasn’t uncommon to hear gunshots in the distance and that my stuff was only my stuff as long as no one else wanted it. I had many new bikes growing up, but only temporarily. One week after my first real bike was stolen, I saw a grown man riding it down the street. He didn’t seem at all ashamed to be riding a stolen purple Huffy with streamers and a unicorn banana seat. I assumed he just thought, “How else am I going to get to the BeeHive Bar on 3rd Street with a suspended license?”
Tired of being victims of theft; my dad installed motion sensor security lights around the perimeter of our home and in front of our garage door. To my dad’s surprise, thieves were unafraid of light. I assumed they actually enjoyed being in the spotlight and the fact that my dad was kind enough to illuminate what must have been a difficult crime scene to maneuver in the dark. On the same night these motion sensor security lights were installed, someone broke into our locked garage and stole all of his tools and a few of the lights.
While my dad’s distrust of our neighborhood grew stronger with each theft, my mom seemed unaffected. Despite the fact that my dad hated when anyone knocked at our front door unexpectedly, my mom loved it. She’d even occasionally experience a phantom hearing of someone knocking when no one was there. “I think someone’s at the door,” she’d often say with hope and excitement in her voice. Once she asked, “Do you hear someone knocking?” To which I had to remind her, “No mom. We’re in the car.” Whether invited or not she relished in the opportunity to have guests over at our house. I think this was in large part because entertaining company gave her a reason to light the hundreds of candles that adorned our home. However, my mom had strange rules when it came to her candles. They were only to be lit when we had guests. If my brother or I would even walk too close to one of her candles she’d yell out, “You better not be wasting a wick!” So on most days there sat the candles and my mother, both collecting dust until the next knock on the door.
Hearing someone knocking, my mom would run towards the front door like a giddy school girl runs out to recess. My dad hated when she did this. Before she reached the door he’d hurry past her saying, “Wait for me to get downstairs before you answer that door, Eileen.” My dad treated a knock at our door like he would an F5 tornado. He hid in the basement (aka his man cave) and locked himself in with a skeleton key afraid that if he didn’t, he’d be swooped up by a funnel cloud of socializing. One time while my mother entertained guests upstairs, I caught my dad in the basement sitting with his ear pressed against a battery-powered weather radio as if he were waiting for it to announce an official, “All clear,” so that he could head back upstairs.
When my mom wasn’t home, my dad forbade my brother and me from answering the door. Instead we were to act as though no one was home. “Close those curtains,” he’d insist upon hearing even the slightest footsteps walking up our front staircase. If we were walking across the creaky hardwood floors of our 1940’s constructed home when the knocking began, we were trained to immediately freeze in place and stay there until the knocks subsided . This was to insure that we wouldn’t make any noise that would indicate to our visitors that we were in fact home and five feet away from the door. Our dad’s strict door protocol was engrained in my brother and me. It was always worse when we were home alone and someone was at the door. We always assumed it was the end. Sometimes we’d even huddle together on the floor and attempt (often unsuccessfully) to be good Catholics by reciting the Our Father prayer we learned in Catechism. “Well, I’ve had a decent run,” I’d think while trying to appear strong in front of my younger brother.
As an adult, I have yet to shake my door demons. When I hear an unexpected knock at the door of my apartment, I am immediately transformed into that scared little girl in St. Paul, Minnesota who assumed that whoever was at the door was only there to seal my fate as a mystery disappearance on an episode of ABC’s 20/20 . My palms sweat as I silently wait for the knocking to cease. For almost 22 years of my life, I was totally unaware that this behavior might seem abnormal if witnessed by someone outside of my immediate family. However, after moving in with a boyfriend in 2002, I was, for the first time able to see my behavior through someone else’s eyes.
On a cold February morning, we were awoken to a knock at the front door to our one bedroom apartment. Instinctively, I pulled the covers up to my eyelids and played dead. I assumed my boyfriend would do the same, but was shocked when he casually swung his legs over the side of the bed, stood up and headed to the door. “What do you think you’re doing,” I whispered hoping that the criminal who was at the door couldn’t hear me. “I’m going to answer the door,” he replied as he exited our bedroom. I quickly crept out of bed and ran on my tiptoes behind him. When I was within reach, I grabbed hold of his hand and swung him around to face me. “Where are you going? We have to hide,” I protested as he tried to wiggle free of my death grip. “Joleen, you’re being a weirdo. Let go.” I couldn’t believe what he was saying as I held onto his wrist tightly and fell to my knees on the floor. “Just shut up and they’ll go away,” I angrily instructed him. He rolled his eyes, pulled away from me and continued to the door. It was then that I realized it was too late. I couldn’t stop him. He was going to answer the door even though we weren’t expecting anyone. “He’ll just have to fend for himself now,” I thought as I ran back into the bedroom and shut the door.
From the bedroom, I could hear the muffled sounds of my boyfriend talking with who I could only assume was a psychopath who was trying to weasel his way into our apartment in order to ruin our lives. I hid under our comforter and played dead again . Despite the stillness of my body, my head felt like it was spinning. I wondered how my boyfriend’s dad had failed to train him on how to properly evade unexpected visitors. After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only five minutes, he returned to the bedroom and uncovered me. “Are you okay?” he asked in a sarcastic tone. “Who was it?” I whispered. “It was just our neighbor. He locked himself out and needed to use our phone to call his girlfriend.”
At first I did not believe him. I was expecting to hear some story of a man who tried to stab him and steal our bikes, which sat right next to the front door. I examined my boyfriend for open wounds or blood, but was surprised to see that he looked to be untouched and happy. “It’s not a big deal. It was just our neighbor. What are you so afraid of?” he asked with his eyes squinted at me in a judgmental manner. I stared forward trying to think of a logical response to his question that would make me appear less crazy, but couldn’t come up with one.
Instead, I responded honestly. My answer seemed to fall right out of my mouth. “Everything,” I said. As I listened to myself say, “Everything,” I suddenly knew that this was the first time I had ever been honest about my own anxiety. I had for years justified it in my head, but now my secret was out. The next day our grateful neighbor left a bottle of wine and a card by our front door thanking us for helping him out. It was a complete shock. I had been rewarded for doing that which I was trained to never do and it still haunts me to this day.
I never read or touched the card myself, for fear that it was full of anthrax. And I never drank the wine for fear that it may contain some form of drug that would make me privy to the fact that I was living in a simulated reality. I was afraid I’d be asked to lead some kind of rebellion against the machines with Keanu Reeves and Lawerence Fishburne. I’ve never had the desire to wear a latex suit so I steered clear of what I assumed was Matrix wine.
It is said that admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery. Yes, I admit that I am still anxious about answering the door. Over the years, I’ve even developed checking patterns in a failed attempt to control my anxiety. I often awaken to make sure my front door is still locked and I’ve also been known to wake up a few times each night to make sure the oven (that I haven’t used since 2009) is turned off, but that’s another story…
That’s kind of… abrupt.