selfaware soup

Esther Weidauer

Why I Am Scared


Pattern made from red plastic branches

Deutsche Originalversion dieses Artikels: “Warum ich Angst habe”

Trigger warning: This article covers personal experiences with mental health issues, violence, bullying, abuse and rape.

I’ve been carrying around the idea if writing this piece for a while now but I haven’t been able to actually do it until now. I probably needed some time first to reflect on the things I want to talk about and to put them into context.

I’m scared. Not as often any more but that used to be different. Until not long ago I was basically was scared all the time. Scared to be among other people, even if they were close friends. Scared to go to work, to step on to a bus or train. Scared to leave my apartment. Scared to hurt people that were close to me or to lose them. Scared of what this fear would do to me.

About two years ago I was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder but I already had been suffering from it for many years. At that time I finally started therapy after I could almost no longer cope with everyday life. During therapy, for the first time I could talk about the things that happened to me as a child and that eventually caused my illness.

Although today it’s not entirely impossible for me to talk about all this, it’s still hard and exhausting every time. Writing it all down is much easier, which is why I’m writing this article. I also no longer want to keep my problems secret. I no longer want to have to come up with excuses when people notice that I’m not well sometimes.

As far as I can remember it all started in second grade, so in 1992/93. I had always been a shy and relatively reserved kid and not very
sociable. First grade passed without anything worth mentioning but during the following year, a few classmates had noticed my lack of self-confidence and I quickly became the main target of bullying in my class. Soon the physical assaults started. I was pushed and pulled around and hounded across the schoolyard under the threat of more violence. Over time more and more students participated in this. One day even someone from another class punched me in the stomach on the school corridor without any particular reason. Those assaults had no consequences for the attackers at all. My attempts to bring them to the teachers attention led at best to a request that they should leave me alone. This only encouraged the others to continue.

From this point on it was common knowledge at my school that I was a perfect victim and things continued to get worse. Also, I was never able to really evade my assailants. One boy from my class who usually was the “leader” in the attacks on me was also friends with the people that I considered friends. Today I know that those were never really friends but I needed some distance and a long time to realise that.

So, the same guy who led the rest of my school against me was also always present in my circle of “friends”. There were phases when the social pressure was strong enough to manipulate me into viewing him and others that frequently joined in the attacks on me as part of this circle. The fear of being completely alone and without any friends was just too much. So I frequently spent time with these people who of of course had figured out that they could also use this to torment me when we were not at school.

At some point the things that could be done to me became a kind of entertainment for everyone. I remember one day when about half of the students from my year where hunting me through the school building. None of the teachers seemed to mind the screaming child that was chased by a whole crowd. Another time, I was tied up at a flag pole in the schoolyard. Only at the end of the break, one of my “friends” was willing to untie me after all the students of my school had had their fun watching and laughing at me. Again, none of the teachers intervened.

To me it was normal that teachers didn’t do anything as long as things didn’t get loud. Punches in the stomach are not loud and I took many of those. At those rare occasions when I did fight back, mostly in an uncontrolled rage after being teased for hours, I was the loud one. So of course a teacher was there to tell me “not to be so hysterical”.

Although the composition of my class changed multiple times, I never got rid of that one guy. After primary school, he went to the same secondary school. When we had to choose our second foreign language and classes were mixed up again, he was still there; the same, when we chose between language and science profiles a year later. He was always there.

That led to the event that would define much of my life since then. It was one of those phases when I was again manipulated into spending even my free time with this classmate. That pattern had already repeated itself multiple times and by then I didn’t even think that it could be any different. It had become normal to get beaten up during breaks and sports class by the same people who I would also spend my afternoons with. The following is hard to put in the right time frame because I had suppressed the memory for very long and could only admit to myself what had happened many years later. It must have been in sixth or seventh grade though, in the summer. So, I was 12 or 13 years old by the time.

One of the most common free time activities in our town was cycling. It was a small town and since there wasn’t much else to do, we usually explored the area by bike. That day, it was only the two of us, me and that one guy, on a hiking trail outside of town. We took a break and climbed on top of a rocky hill that had a steep drop-off on one side. I was standing near that side when he grabbed me by the neck, pushed me down on my knees and, while threatening to push me down the drop-off, raped me. I was paralysed by fear and unable to fight back. I was also physically much weaker than him. I can’t remember how long it went on but it seemed like forever to me. He wanted to “try” various things and he did exactly that. Lastly he told me not to speak about this to anyone, threatening me again.

I didn’t speak to anyone about this back then. I suppressed the memory very quickly and everything went on exactly as before. I continued to take hits and punches, and my school work (homework, art projects) was frequently stolen or destroyed. On my way home after school, boys from other schools who had heard about what an easy target I was were waiting for me. Everything was as I was already used to.

Also, the indifference of my teachers didn’t change at all. In ninth grade there were a few new students at my school who were also being bullied. We tried to tell our class teacher about it. She refused to even hear what we had to say unless the guys that we accused were also present. She said, “it wouldn’t be fair otherwise”. From then on, I had no hope any more that I could expect any help from the school staff. My performance at school also suffered over the years. I can still see it in my yearly reports how my grades got worse every year since second grade.

It lasted until the beginning of tenth grade. Then it all ended rather abruptly for reasons that I can’t tell for sure. Suddenly, people seemed no longer interested in terrorising me. I was left to myself more and more. I even found new friends (this time, real ones) thanks to a student that had to repeat tenth grade and was also kind of an outcast. I got to know some of his friends outside of my class and formed a few long lasting friendships. My grades were still bad, so bad that I failed 11th grade and had to take it again, but attending to my private life was probably more important then. My second attempt of 11th grade went much better. Having completely new classmates certainly helped.

But one thing remained: the permanent fear. It was burned so deep into my mind to assume that most people were trying to hurt me and I couldn’t shake off that feeling. The long suppression of being raped also prevented me from realising why I was unable to build up trust towards other people.

Over the years my fears got worse and worse. At university I had my first breakdowns in situations of social stress and the first depression-like symptoms started to show. I may have studying chemistry because of that, I don’t know. But after that came a long depressive phase. Studying chemistry had been my dream for years and now I had failed at it. Over almost a year I was unable to look for work or another path of education and started to slide further and further into poverty since I also was not able to take care of my social security paperwork. Back then I didn’t know why I couldn’t get myself to do anything about my situation. Today I know that that was the paralysing effect of my anxiety disorder, not unlike depression.

Through a lot of luck, I got into an apprenticeship and moved from Freiberg where I had gone to university, to Chemnitz. There I enjoyed three relatively relaxed years like I never experienced before. The apprenticeship was pretty easy and nobody knew me. It was a new beginning. Sadly there was a guy in my trade school class who was permanently looking for confrontation and my inability to cope with conflict caught up with me. I was lucky to have a small social support net to catch me. For the first time I also had teachers who were willing to help me with my problems. All of that prevented a complete relapse.

Then came Berlin. After I successfully finished my apprenticeship I moved here and started my first “real” job. Complete with overtime, a manipulative boss and eventually my first breakdown in years. There they were again: Crippling fear and self doubt. My doctor who I was seeing the following day not only gave me an extended sick note but also referred me to a psychologist. The preliminary talks showed that she and I didn’t fit at all, though, and I quit that first attempt of therapy. Of course, I blamed myself for this and was scared that, if I tried another therapist, I’d fail again and that therapy wouldn’t help me at all. The following months were full of panic attacks and phases when I couldn’t leave my apartment for days.

Then came the second attempt. I was lucky and quickly found a new therapist. I had a much better feeling about this one. I began psychotherapy with weekly sessions. I also had the opportunity to get into a new and much less stressful job which helped me a lot. During therapy I could finally dig up all those memories and confront them. After seven months I agreed with my therapist that we could end the therapy. I had reached a point where I could handle my everyday life again and had regained control over myself. I don’t think that I will ever completely leave behind what I experienced but I learned to no longer let it control my life. But still, when someone asks me “How are you?” and I answer “Fine”, the sentence continues silently in my head with “apart from having to think about being raped almost every day.”

The fear is still there, although it’s not the center of my life anymore but from time to time I still suffer from anxiety. Small, crowded rooms that I enter unprepared often cause a claustrophobic feeling, unexpected contact with other people is easily too much to handle and a ringing phone still paralyses me, no matter who’s calling.

In general, situations when there are external factors controlling my actions are problematic: surprise visitors, unexpected crowds, phone calls and sudden changes in plans are things that cause a feeling of loosing control which leads to fear. By now I can sometimes manage to shake off those feelings but it often doesn’t work. I try to avoid situations where I might be confronted with these things or to prepare myself ahead of time. That at least allows me to participate in some social activities.

I don’t know yet, if I will enter therapy again to continue to work on my problems. So far, I think I’m through the worst parts and can improve on my own. I believe the most important result of therapy was to accept my own experiences and to identify them as the cause for my fears. I should have taken that step a lot sooner but I only realised that afterwards.

To anyone who isn’t sure if they need therapy, I can only say: probably yes. The sooner the better. It helps.