melindaI don’t remember the blow that landed me on the floor and knocked me unconscious, but I remember those preceding it.

There were two men. It was the tall one who hit me: my face, my chin, my neck in rapid-fire succession.

When I woke up, they were gone. Sitting up, getting to my feet and finding the phone took a while.  Pushing the right buttons took several tries, my mind unable to steady my trembling hand.

I was alone at my job in my college dorm’s recreation center.  It was the era of the pinball machine, and this was the day when they were emptied of coins.  My responsibility was to take the university’s cut to the business office down the hall.

My office was unlocked when the men appeared, asking directions and distracting me enough to take the bags of quarters off the counter. I didn’t understand what was happening and took the bags back out of their hands.  The hitting started soon after.

Maybe $80 in quarters.  That’s what was in the two bags.  That was the price of my experience.

My right eye was swollen shut. My chin and neck were sore to the touch.  I had no idea if anything was broken.  After the police talked with me, they took me to the emergency room. That night, I was back in my dorm —back where it happened.

The next few days made my injuries increasingly apparent to the world. Blue-green-red bruises marked me as a victim.  People stared, a few asked questions.

My response was always the same: “It wasn’t much of a fight.”

At 5’6’’ tall, I weighed less than 95 pounds, making my throw-away line an obvious statement of fact. It usually succeeded in cueing people to change the subject.

Whether making light of the ordeal for my own comfort or others’, I didn’t realize the larger truth to my words for a long time. Those few moments of physical struggle were, indeed, not much of a fight compared to what was to come —the long, fierce battles with fear and anxiety.

The sleepless days and weeks that followed were a blur.  The sound of footsteps behind me instantly shot dendritic panic throughout my body. Sweating, faint and queasy:  My body’s fight-or-flight response would kick into gear without warning several times a day, paralyzing me.

Trips to the police station to view men in lineups reinforced my wounds, kept me on edge, guarded, looking over my shoulder.

I needed to figure out how to walk out of my dorm room alone.  How to get to the bathroom, the cafeteria, work and class—all without crumbling against the walls in fear.  I needed to stop smoking and start eating. I needed to get serious about school, my health, my future.

Every decision to leave my 10-by-10-foot room was a complex calculation of risk versus necessity.  Mind and body were at odds, with neither winning.

My fears were irrational, I knew that. These men did not seek me out.  But a fist to the face is tough to interpret as anything other than melindas-doorpersonal.

Climbing out of the deep well of anxiety and reclaiming some control over my life took months. For days at a stretch, I hid alone, believing that I would never stop crying and never start being normal again.

Gradually, the dark days were fewer in number.  Progress came through a few friends who somehow knew exactly how to help.

A friend who had served in the Army began taking me to the gym a few times a week. He taught me how to lift weights and become stronger and fitter.

Another friend started a program talking about racial and economic differences in elementary schools. He looped me in as his partner, and we took kids on imaginary bus rides, where they were stranded in the “wrong” part of town. Together, we worked through perceptions of others’ motives and our own prejudices and mistrust.

Thirty years later, I can see that the violence of a lifetime ago has left me stronger, more independent, more resilient and more compassionate.

Although I would like to believe that I have permanently boxed, sealed and shelved away my fears and anxiety, they occasionally come crashing down. They reappear, and I am upended again.

Fear changes us.  It turns us inward, makes us suspicious, cants us toward the negative—in ourselves, family and strangers. Fear limits our thinking and inhibits creativity, productivity and generous impulses—all of the best of what it is to be human.

Allowing fear to win is unacceptable. When demons return and doubts sideswipe us, we have to repeat our own mantras, our own stories of struggle and triumph.  As a silversmith, I learned that metals become tougher when hammered, when defects are imposed in their crystal structure.

In ways large and small, life knocks all of us down—no one is exempt.  Getting back on our feet, moving forward and continuing to see the good in others—however messy and long the process—is the real measure of success.

Stress forges strength.

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