Three years of violence and fear of death
God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.
Genesis, chapter 41
We are wanted
where we come from;
and we are expected
where we’re going.
We will never receive
anything more beautiful
than this respect
given by the love of God,
not even in heaven itself.
And if we are
here and now,
that changes everything
in our lives
here on earth.
Now she had got me a second time. 18 months later. 18 months which my soul had needed to recover from the first time. My former neighbour. The first time she had unscrewed a jar of pepper at the discount store, poured the pepper into her hand and thrown it in my face. Completely out of the blue. For more than eight years I had taken care of her at the request of her German husband, had invited her into my life as a friend. Comforted her when her first child was stillborn, and when the second child arrived safely, I had given her a pram, baby clothes and a lot of practical help. I had accompanied her to the mother-and-baby group. We had celebrated the children’s birthdays together. I had helped settle marital disputes. After her divorce I had organized the move and the helpers. Why? Why was she doing this? I couldn’t get my mind around it. The second time she approached me from behind (I was standing in the queue at the checkout and hadn’t noticed her), wrapped her arm around my neck and choked me. Why?
Physical injury: for 14 days after the pepper attack, pain in the face and severe pain in the jaw. This facial muscle continued to cramp painfully for years in stressful situations. After the second attack: swelling and bruising on the neck and for 14 days a burning pain in the scalp (she had used my hair to pull my head back violently).
Physical instability: hormone fluctuations, extremely heavy menstrual bleeding in quick succession.
Panic Attacks with palpitations and wobbly knees whenever I saw her in the distance.
Jumpiness: example: I flinched, absolutely terrified, if a dog suddenly barked anywhere near me.
Mental injury: uncontrollable, seemingly unmotivated crying, out of the blue.
Blackout: I kept forgetting words (often I only got to the first syllable, then I couldn’t remember the rest. For example, I wanted to say: “Yes, this landscape polarizes”, but only got as far as “pol…”)
Sense of threat in my whole social environment. Constantly locking all the doors – she knew where I lived.
Emotional numbness towards other people’s emotions, lack of empathy. Feeling of being constantly overwhelmed.
Off Track: Feeling of being in a sort of bubble, not in real life at all.
Not as resilient as usual, my internal “hard disk” was too busy processing the situation to cope with anything else.
Fear eats up the soul (film title). Insecurity and anxiety over a long period of time: am I still safe at home? Uncertainty: should I stand my ground, or should I flee?
What helped me practically:
Friends, accepting help
My husband was away on a business trip, I was at home alone with the children. My eleven-year-old was playing in the garden. I asked him to go round to our neighbour, who is also a friend of mine, and ask whether she could come round. Then we sat in the garden and I told her about it. I cried and she listened and prayed for me. My first step on the way to support.
I informed friends and my pastor by email about the situation and my condition. That’s how I got my help. I knew: I am not alone.
An email from a friend who knew me well explained that this was bound to hit me especially hard, because of my personality. That helped me to understand myself better.
Doing everyday tasks as well as I could helped me to distance myself from the situation, to stand back, not to sink into self-pity. Routine (at work in the office, doing the housework as usual) provided me with a healthy framework.
Get your facts
Research: Information about reactions to and phases of trauma, the soul’s self-healing powers. Literature, Internet, a friend’s paper on the subject, which she made available to me. Just knowing that my reactions were “normal” helped enormously. Knowing that it takes time (about 18 months) for the soul to process a trauma made it easier. I don’t have to start “functioning” as usual straight away.
I had repeated panic attacks. I fled to the car, my knees weak and my heart racing. She was near me! How could I calm myself down? After taking several deep breaths I hummed worship songs from the last service – and it worked, my breathing became more regular again, my heartbeat steadied.
Accept and communicate my limits
During this time, my father-in-law gradually required more and more help for mobility and personal care, until he became completely dependent in all aspects. At some point my strength for my share of the help was at an end, but I could not readily admit it. I wanted to be loyal, but I couldn’t go on – it was more than I could carry. I needed my circle of friends as psychological support in order to be able to explain this to my family. I needed permission to stop having to function – as a daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, and wife.
Reefing the sails
I live on the coast. I see lots of ships, sailing ships too. As they say here: If you’re sailing in a storm, you need to reef your sails, or you’ll capsize. I cleared my schedule, cancelled tasks, created space for processing. Absolutely correct. It is said to take the soul 18 months to process a trauma.
Holding a baby
I can’t explain it. After the second attack I met my niece and her newborn daughter at church one Sunday. I asked if I could hold the baby. There was something so pure and innocent coming from this baby, from this new human child. Her little face, her breathing in my arms. Many Sundays after that I held her in my arms – a very special therapy for me.
After the second attack several friends advised me to do something about my feeling of powerlessness. I attended a self-defence course and learned how to hit, learned about grips and patterns of behaviour. How I would really behave in an emergency I have no idea, and I haven’t had to test it so far, but the course gave me a feeling of being better prepared.
More walks, more listening to music, singing, gardening, nature, visiting museums, soaking up beauty. My husband surprised me with outings: pure joy. All this gave me strength. In particular I learned to appreciate anticipation. My 50th birthday fell in this time. I asked my friends to keep a particular Sunday free, but what I was planning was to be a surprise for them. So I took pleasure in it for six months: planning, preparing, making reservations – the anticipation was a great medicine for me.
Time-out in stressful situations
I reached the end of my strength much more quickly than usual. When nothing was working anymore, when my husband and I were always quarrelling, it was clear: I needed at least three days off just for myself. Away from the family, away from work, away from all my duties. We took out our calendars. Recreation, time for myself, time for my body: walking, swimming, sleeping, eating.
What helped me psychologically / spiritually:
I have the habit of writing down prayer requests in an exercise book, on the page on the right, and leaving the left page free for later additions. This way I can keep track of what has happened, what has been done, what changes have taken place. I note progress and setbacks and can draw conclusions. This helped a lot in coping with the situation.
Honesty and counselling
I was able to honestly admit my anger and rage towards this woman and to work on and “release” it in prayer with my counsellor on Sundays. Honesty was allowed, feelings came to the surface and were released. Only here, in my existential being, could God communicate with my heart, touch it and heal it. Sometimes a culture or a socialization prevents this deep honesty. For example, in my Christian environment we hate evil, but not people. It was not easy to admit this feeling (she hurt me where I had only done good to her!) Truth sets free (John 8:32) – and only at this point can healing begin.
Philosophy asks: What is truth? For me “truth” is bound to the person Jesus. He has the big picture; he knows me and the other person extremely well – better than we know ourselves. He can touch and change hearts.
Together with my counsellor I also worked on the process of forgiveness. It was clear to me: If I don’t forgive this person, it will make me bitter for the rest of my life and cause me to make bad decisions. I did not want that at all! Lewis Smedes says: “When you forgive, you think you are releasing a prisoner – only to discover that you yourself were the prisoner!” It took time – today I can live again in this wonderful freedom. Christ in me was stronger.
A carpenter gave me a sculpture of a blessing Jesus. I experienced three years of uncertainty, three years of “today you could die” (the police warned me: next time she might have a knife in her coat pocket). Every morning I stood in front of the figure of the blessing Jesus on my windowsill, crossed myself (I’m not Catholic, but it was a holy symbol of protection that included my body) and spoke out loud: “I don’t belong to Katie*, I don’t belong to myself, I belong to you, Jesus.”
It is only an apparent certainty that we get up every morning and go to bed every evening. Life is so fragile. And yet most of the time we live as if it will go on forever, of course. This ritual helped me overcome the fact that this apparent security had been shattered, helped me to endure the fragility, helped me to look for security at the right address and to let go.
A closing ritual was also helpful: three years later, the woman died unexpectedly from colon cancer in hospital. My friends rejoiced: “Now you are free!” My husband carried the pile of books back to the library. But I couldn’t believe it. It took months to really grasp it. It’s over – but not that quickly. Some films used to end with the words “fin” or “the end”, so you could be prepared: now the story is over, you’re about to leave the room… After seven months I was ready, I wanted to draw a line. The psychotherapist, whose help I had called on several times, encouraged me: “Close the year (and what happened) with a ritual. Don’t take it into the New Year with you again.” I looked for a Bible verse and chose Revelation 1, 17+18: Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. 18 I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. I sat in the car and together with my companion I drove to every place in town where bad things had happened to me or I had had a panic attack. We prayed briefly and then I spoke the Bible verse out loud. In this way I “reclaimed” my city. The last stop was at my front door.
The voice channel with God
There are not only 9 ways to communicate with God, as Gary Thomas presents in his book. There are many more. Some people experience him while walking, hear his soft voice on trips into nature. While singing, a thought suddenly falls deep into their heart. Others like reading, writing a diary, listening to music. It can be very diverse, and it is worthwhile finding your own way.
The “other” dimension
After the second attack, I had a frightening and recurring dream. It’s not often that I dream in a way that I can remember. Each time I woke up with my heart pounding and with an oppressive feeling of fear: It was like I was standing on a stage in the light of a powerful spotlight. All around me was blackness. Nothing to see, just black darkness. And me in the spotlight. Then, after a long while, a black hand came very slowly from the top right into the cone of light, grabbed me and wanted to pull me into the darkness.
After I had had this same dream over and over again, I realized that it was about another dimension, about the invisible world. About the battles that are fought there for every soul. I phoned my counsellor and soon we were sitting in the living room together. I reported, we prayed. She had the same impression as I did. We did not know much about Katie*: from which part of her home country was she? What was her religious background? What “magic” had she perhaps used? She had called me a witch. In the name of Jesus Christ, my counsellor renounced the influence of any supernatural forces. She took anointing oil and drew a cross on my forehead and in the palms of both my hands as a sign that my soul and body were “sealed” in the protection of the blood of the Lamb.
From then on there was silence. The dream never came back.
Isaiah 43: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.”
Criminal law and civil law are two different things. The interests of society are different from my personal interests. After the first attack I was told that I could file a criminal complaint – with little chance of success. Or I could hand the matter over to the social services, who would deal with the person, but I would have no right to information. I decided to go to the social services, I hoped I would get better results if someone was actually taking care of it. After the second attack, I heard nothing from the official side for a long time. I wrote a letter to the public prosecutor’s office, pointing out the repetition and the danger that this woman posed to the public.
Some time later the prosecution called me: I was told that nothing could be done until I was “seriously” injured. In order for me to adjust and know what to expect, they told me that the woman in question was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia with delusions of persecution. I had urgently needed this information! Up until that point I had not known how to behave in the environment of my small hometown: No more shopping alone? What a restriction! Or should I stand my ground, fight for my rights? From now on it was clear that I would take flight. Just leave the shopping trolley standing. No more standing my ground. There was nothing more to be achieved with intellectual arguments. Escape was the only correct reaction. This information brought me the necessary clarity.
In the meantime, I considered obtaining a court order preventing the woman from coming within a certain distance of me. The district judge informed me that this could only be done if both parties were in the room. After having explained my situation, I was told: “I can summon her, but whether she will appear is very questionable – and you must consider whether you really want to face her here…” I decided against it.
Translated by Karen Kersten