I went to lunch one day and entered the “twilight zone” I’ve been trying to escape from ever since.
On May 3, 1991 I was working as a floating/relief receptionist at a law firm and going to school at night. If you’d asked me then where I’d be in ten years I would’ve thought I’d be done with undergrad, done with law school and working as an associate in a law firm, on the track to partnership. But here I am and I still have not even finished my bachelor’s degree because of what happened to me that day.
The short version is: 2 days after my 22nd birthday (May 1, 1991) I went shopping on my lunch hour to buy something to wear to a birthday party that weekend (a friend at work had a birthday too). I went to Carson Pirie Scott on State Street in Chicago. The clerk forgot to take a sensor tag off something I bought and they thought I was a shoplifter. I had no idea what was going on until I was almost back at work, five blocks from the store. I didn’t hear any alarm or anything. Two plainclothes guys (who didn’t identify themselves) grabbed me (I thought they were muggers—one grabbed my purse) and beat the shit out of me right there on Michigan Avenue in the middle of a beautiful spring day, at the bus stop at the corner of Michigan & Washington. Everyone who was out to lunch, passing by or waiting for a bus just stood around and watched like it was on TV. No one came to my aid. A tourist or student journalist or somebody, I never found out who, even snapped pictures. Then the police came and took me back to the store, where they hauled me into a small room and handcuffed me to a desk. They interrogated me, went through the contents of my bag and purse, established that I had NOT stolen anything, that it was paid for with MY store credit card, not a stolen one, etc. I thought they would let me go back to work when they realized they’d made a mistake. Instead, they called my employer, told them I’d been arrested at got me fired (when I tried to go back to at least get my belongings from my desk, they treated me like a criminal and I never got everything back). They took a Polaroid of me, told me it would be posted in the security office at their store and that if I ever set foot in any of their stores again I’d be arrested for criminal trespass, despite the fact that I had not DONE anything. Then, instead of letting me go, they put me in a paddy wagon and took me to 11th & State (common criminal lock-up) and literally THREW me in a cell!
They told me I was being charged with battery for RESISTING the two thugs who beat me up ( I later had to have a criminal trial for this, but fortunately the charges were dismissed by the judge, who thought them outrageous, and the record expunged. At no point did anyone read me my rights. They didn’t let me make a call and told me I’d be locked up for at LEAST 24 hours until they checked their records database to make sure I didn’t have a record anywhere else. They also told me I’d have to pay $1,000 bond to get out. All I knew was that I was an innocent, law-abiding citizen and I’d been snatched off the street, beaten an imprisoned and no one knew where I was or what happened to me. I thought that kind of thing only happened in third world countries, and I didn’t know what to expect next. I was afraid they might decide to rape or torture me too, and I wasn’t going to stick around for THAT, so I was about to try killing myself when they finally came and got me out, let! me call my parents. Fingerprinted & mug shot me, then let me go. By that time it was 11:00 p.m. I’d been beaten and traumatized and released late at night in a bad neighborhood. Fortunately a guy I’d dated lived nearby and though he wasn’t home, the doorman knew me and let me stay safe inside the lobby until my parents came to pick me up.
The store declared bankruptcy within the year and I have never gotten any compensation for pain, suffering, lost wages, medical bills, etc. or even an apology or admission of error. For years I tried to get a radio, TV or newspaper to report on what happened to me, but apparently the Carsons stores give everyone so much advertising money that no one will say a word against them.
Over the past ten years I’ve suffered nightmares, flashbacks, insomnia, panic attacks, agoraphobia, claustrophobia, paranoia, hypervigilance, extreme startle response, inability to concentrate, hopelessness, suicidal depression, inability to maintain a job, relationship, etc., you name it. These things combined are known as PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is usually associated with Vietnam vets. Though the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) is supposed to cover it, I have been fired from several jobs because of it. Every day I go to work in downtown Chicago and am confronted with what I refer to as “the spot where I was killed” (because surely whoever I was until then died that day—with all my hopes, innocence, idealism, ambition, dreams—and what was left was this empty shell, nothing but a caged animal intent on survival) and so many other painful reminders on a several-times a day basis. Every time I walk within eye-shot of that corner, which I have to do !
to get to and from the train to the office, and often when going to lunch, too—it triggers primal, life-and-death panic in me, as it does every time I enter that building and have to walk past security, remembering how I was barred from retrieving my possessions from my old law firm job.
Over the past ten years, excluding temp assignments, I have had fifteen “permanent” jobs, some lasting only a week or a month to a few months, the longest lasting not much more than a year. Only four of these I left by choice; all the others I have been fired from for absenteeism. Inevitably I use up all my sick days on those days when I am afraid to leave the house, and then I am canned. I hate myself for it. I’ve had numerous short relationships, some only one-nighters (though I wanted more). I have lived in thirteen different apartments, twelve in Chicago, one in Minneapolis, and with numerous room-mates/friends/boyfriends. One lasted only a month, the longest will be five years in August (my husband). In short, I’ve had no virtually no stability in any area of my life, at least until my husband came on the scene in 1997. I’m still not sure sometimes why he continues to tolerate me, I feel like such an utter failure as a human being. What with constant firings and !
subsequent ,unemployment/job searches, evictions, breakups and various other crises, I have had neither the money nor the physical or mental energy to finish school, though I would only have a year or so were I to go full-time. I’m afraid to go out places by myself sometimes at all, but especially after dark, so night school is out. I used to work out and walk much more but when you’re afraid to go places, even if you do have a health club membership you rarely go. I’ve become increasingly sedentary and have gradually gained eighty pounds or more (from 160 to 170 when I was working out, going to school and my job in ’91 to 220-230 now). I’m afraid if I don’t lose weight and get in shape I’ll wind up like mom, diabetic amputee, hypertensive, cardio risk, etc., and will die young. But until recently I always thought I’d die by my own hand before any of my bad habits caught up with my body. Now I need to re-evaluate.
For the past eleven months I’ve been going to a trauma survivors group, when I am not too scared to leave home. This week two other women were both were talking about something I had been thinking/writing about recently, the before and after phenomenon. Who we were before anything happened to us, the freedom, effortlessness of existence, the “lightness of being”, joie de vivre, youthful spirit, inquisitiveness, fearlessness, idealism, etc. of children and what it’s like to be robbed of that innocence, to feel heavy, trapped, tense, frightened, closed off, shut down, paranoid, to have every moment be an ordeal, a constant struggle to stay on guard against any and all possible dangers, and how sapping, how deadening that is. I’ve been thinking precisely about this, especially in light of having met someone recently who knew me before (John, the high school boyfriend), someone who does not (yet) know about any of the things that have befallen me since we knew each other last, !
in whose mind I am perhaps still the strong, outgoing, positive, forward-looking, intense, energetic girl he fell in love with when he was a boy and we were young and had our whole lives spread out in front of us like a wonderful, exotic adventure and anything seemed possible. I want to be that person again. Or maybe I am deep down somewhere still. Or maybe she is dead, maybe she was killed completely, utterly and finally that day (almost eleven years ago!) and there is not nor ever will be any hope of resurrecting her. What do I do with this shell that is left behind, and does it contain anything worth salvaging? How did I get to be this jaded, stagnant, stultified? When did life stop being something to look forward to and become only either a struggle to dread facing every day or else an endless grind, drudgery to endure hopelessly until someone or something (maybe myself) ends the misery? How do I try to get back to where I started or at least some mid-point where I ! can see my way clear to a road that looks worth taking? As long as I don’t write back to John, that girl still exists somewhere, held inviolate and pristine, somewhere, somehow, even if only a figment in someone’s mind half a world away...