“ “Scared stiff” and “frozen in fear” (collapsing and going numb) describe precisely what terror and trauma feel like. They are its visceral foundation. The experience of fear derives from primitive responses to threat where escape is thwarted in some way. People’s lives will be held hostage until that visceral experience changes.”
~ Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
Busy streets surround the half-empty parking lot I am standing in, beside my car. It is broad daylight. As traffic speeds past, I doubt that anyone takes notice that I’m here. Anyone except him. I’m waiting for what’s next. It’s been a while.
My abuser finishes his cigarette, strides over, and pulls me towards him, reaching for my hair. He yanks my head back, forcing me to look up at him. The pain brings tears to my eyes. He leans down very close to my ear and, in a low voice, tells me what he expects me to do before he will let me go home.
We’re going to get me some fucking money, take me to the beer store, and drop me off downtown.
I’ve got a meeting with my associates.
I’m sure they’ll ask about you.
He pauses to let the last part sink in before releasing his hold on my hair.
Out of the corner of my eye, I sense movement. Furtively, I glance over and see a man standing at the edge of the parking lot, watching us. He looks concerned and I realize that he is deciding whether or not to intervene.
This is a situation I haven’t prepared myself for. My tormentor likes to abuse me in places where we are alone: cheap motel rooms, my office, my car. Today, fuelled by alcohol and marijuana, he is brazen.
The man watching us has caught a momentary glimpse into the deeply shameful world in which I am trapped. It is a hell from which I desperately want to escape, but I am frozen. I am stuck in one of those nightmares where you try to scream but nothing comes out.
What if I do scream? Right now, in this parking lot, taking away any doubt in the mind of our watcher that I’m in danger and need rescuing? What will he do? Will he demand that my abuser leave me alone? Will he stand up to him? Will he call the police?
Whatever he does, it won’t matter. I would pay for that scream later. My abuser will still be my abuser long after the man is gone.
In those few seconds I realize that I don’t know which outcome I fear more: that the man will try to help me, or that he won’t.
I stay frozen.