Every so often, something from childhood percolates to the top of your mind and you get a valuable insight to why you are the person you have become. One of those has been rumbling around my mind this week.
When I was in seventh grade, my best friend was a girl named Dawn. We had sleepovers and went roller skating and did all the things you do when you are a seventh-grade girl.
One Friday night, we were over at her house after an evening of roller skating. Because her dad was still out of town on a duty assignment, it was just us and her mother. She and I unrolled our sleeping bags in the living room and settled down a little after midnight to exchange gossip.
It was a little while later that we noticed someone moving quietly across the front of the lawn, headed for the front door. Nervously, we got up, holding on to one another for emotional support, and walked over to the front door.
There, clearly outlined against the frosted glass, was the shape of a man.
She screamed. I screamed. Her mother came out of the bedroom screaming. The dog howled and barked. And the door...opened. Her father walked in through it, looking both annoyed and confused. He'd come back early from his assignment, unaware that we were sleeping in the living room, and was trying to come in quietly so as not to wake the household.
He asked us why we were screaming, and we said, "We didn't know it was you. We thought you were an axe murderer." What followed then was one of the more interesting conversations of my young adulthood, in which he explained that of all the choices available to us, screaming was exactly the wrong one. Almost anything else we could have done would have been better. Calling the police. Waking Dawn's mother. Hiding someplace safe. Getting out the back door. Fighting back. He took us around the house and showed us all the different options we had for weapons, and all the best places to hide and hit someone over the head with a saucepan.
His lesson, though a little intense for 2am, was this: when you're faced with trouble, panic is always an option, but it's rarely a good one, and there are any number of others ranging from 'seek help' to 'get away' to 'fight back'. If you can keep your head, you can usually do something productive.
If I recall correctly, that was my last panicked freakout on record. I have been terrified, I have been scared, I have been overwhelmed by a situation far outside my expectations, but outside of a few startled 'someone jumps out and yells boo at me' situations, I don't remember having a single "screaming paralysis of fear" moment since. And even in those startled moments, I've always been inclined to punch first and freak out after.
Time passed and as Army Brats do, Dawn and I moved on and lost contact. Eventually, that night fell out of my medium-term memory, but the lesson remained: you have so much else you can do that is not panic, that is not giving in to fear. There are always options for response and reaction.
I doubt Dawn's dad has ever, again, thought of that night or the conversation. Probably to him it was just another in the long line of lessons raising a daughter entailed, just one at which a friend happened to be present. But when I think of all the times that keeping a clear head and putting the fear reaction in a box to deal with later has helped me, a small part of me wishes I could find some way to tell him just how far his words have taken me.