A couple of weeks ago, I was driving along with all my windows open and the Fluffy Dog in the back of the car, when an impatient driver raced up behind me. I had seen her coming in my rearview. You know the kind: weaving in and out of traffic, trying to get the advantage of one more carlength. I needed to be in the next lane anyway, so I signaled and and pulled into the gap to my left to let her race by, at which point there was a blaring horn and I realised that the same impatient driver had simultaneously pulled to the left at high acceleration to get around me. She screeched back into the right lane and pulled up beside me at the next light, lowered her window, and began to scream and swear at me. (The Fluffy Dog raised his head at the commotion but didn’t bestir himself to look at all threatening or even concerned, the big old dope.)
This kind of thing happens once in a while. Sometimes I’m even the honker or yeller. People’s lives are full of frustrations, and it gets easy to take them out on strangers. Most of the time, I’m a pretty chill driver. I go a bit above the speed limit, use my turning signal conscientiously, and try to make sure my driving is smooth and predictable for the people around me. And even though I do get frustrated when people drive badly (especially when they’re too slow, don’t use the turning lane, or can’t stay in their lane), I generally do my eye-rolling and muttering in the privacy of my own car, rather than honking or yelling out the window. When other drivers are impatient, I try to remember that it has nothing to do with me.
But for some reason, this particular incident really got to me. I felt exposed and helpless. It’s one thing to get yelled at when you’ve done something stupid and inconvenienced someone else on the road, but it’s completely another thing to be verbally attacked when you’ve done nothing wrong at all. At one point when she stopped for breath, I started saying defensively “I used my turning signal–” but she just started yelling again and I stopped. I mean, even at the time, I absolutely 100% knew this had nothing to with me. She was freaking out on me the way one might slam doors when in a bad mood.
But it still got to me. Partly just because I was tired. Things have been busy. I’ve been feeling overwhelmed with too many activities and not enough sleep. It felt like one more straw.
But I think what made it worse was that we were stopped at that red light for a while and she was looking right at me, seeing me, and losing her shit on me even though I had done nothing wrong. Sure I could have rolled up my window, but I was pretty much paralysed. And I felt sick and weepy and scared in a way that went far beyond a stranger having a bad day.
Because being looked at—being seen—and being yelled at for something I didn’t do, or something I did that I thought was done right—well, that is a very old and familiar scenario for me. That’s something straight from the bad days of my childhood, and back then, that’s exactly how I felt: vulnerable and helpless and powerless and scared. When that driver was yelling at me, I was as scared as if she might pull out a gun or suddenly turn her SUV and start ramming my little car. And that goes right back to when I was little, and my dad’s wife would corner me and yell at me for things I hadn’t done, or even worse, for feelings she accused me of having.
I logged in to write this post today and saw that my last draft post was from about a week before this road rage incident. It was titled “Don’t Watch Me” and I had a few notes in it about how much I hate people watching me or watching what I’m doing.
I was very closely monitored as a child. Once I reached adulthood, for the longest time, I still felt like I was always being watched. I felt unsafe around windows and mirrors. I still don’t like crowds. I try to angle my computer screen so people can’t watch me play my game. At work, I flat out tell my bosses that if they are looking at my screen, I can’t work, so they’ll have to stand elsewhere. Being SEEN feels dangerous to me. Being KNOWN is dangerous. The more people know about you, the more ammunition they have to hurt you, right?
Well, yes, of course, but it really depends on the person. My dad and stepmom would mock and ridicule me. Most of what I did or said (most of who I was) was unacceptable unless it was exactly to their liking. A lot of this was framed as trying to build character and help me understand what the “real world” was like, so I would be prepared for harsh reality. But it really fucking sucked. It hurt like hell and I am still twisted from the scars.
But slowly, over time, with the help of therapy and meds and my own strong and irrepressible good animal instincts, I have learned to take the risk of being seen and known by other kinds of people. People who would never dream of shaming or mocking me, because that’s simply not how they interact with others. People who have become dear friends, and others who remain acquaintances I’m always happy to see. I’m still learning; this process is still ongoing. But the lesson is that it’s not “being seen / known” that’s the issue. The issue is who I choose to let in.
When I was a kid, I had no choice. But now I do.
And yet once in a while, something happens like that driver the other day. It happens and I can’t just let it roll off. I feel pinned down and trapped. I feel six or nine or twelve years old, unable to leave, trying hard to shrink into myself and be whatever they want me to be so they’ll stop using their words like fists. It’s often at a time like this, a stressed and too busy time, a time of not enough sleep and too many plans. It’s a reminder to slow down.
It’s been about five or maybe six years now since I last spoke with my dad and stepmom. Lately, I’ve been wondering if I should maybe try to get in touch with my dad again. But I am not ready. I am not healed enough or strong enough to put my heart on the table, naked and hopeful and fragile. There is so much love and trust and friendship in my life now. I do not really miss my dad, and I don’t miss his wife at all. The only reason I consider contacting him is the guilt of “family” and the guilt of “good daughter.” My life is so much smoother and calmer without them. I like myself better without them. I am happy despite them.
As long as the random rage of a stranger on the road can turn me into a scared child for days, I don’t think I am ready to face my father jabbing his finger at my face and declaring there was nothing wrong with my childhood. Instead, I will turn my face toward my friends, and be grateful for these wonderful people who love me even when we disagree, who like me even if they think I’m being silly, who celebrate my successes and encourage my weirdnesses and whose affection for me isn’t contingent on anything but me just being myself.
How lucky I am.
Listen. I mean it. I climbed out of that pit and I found the world. No amount of flashbacks or nightmares or asshole drivers can take this from me. I am seen and I am known and I am loved.