Don’t let your fears or anxieties disempower you
August 22nd - a beautiful sunny day that will always be remembered for the Shoreham air disaster tragedy. A day that I will also always remember for an incident that rocked my personal sense of safety and well-being.
I live in Haslemere, a lovely country town on the borders of Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire. I have always felt lucky to live in this part of the country amidst the Surrey Hills and Sussex Downs with so many beauty spots close at hand including Blackdown, the Devil’s Punchbowl and Petworth Park. It has been said that we live in the safest area in the safest borough of the south east. Ever since I was a teenager, I have loved to walk, either on my own which is a wonderful way to reflect, gather and make sense of my thoughts and ground myself, or with friends, family and dogs to chat and spend quality time together. Occasionally, due to taxis being unavailable or buses not turning up, I have had to walk in the dark along country lanes which I have felt uneasy about, but I have never come to any harm.
So on that lovely August afternoon, I set out to walk along the tree lined road where I live into Haslemere town, a comfortable 10 minute walk. Along this road, you will pass through two tree lined copse areas where the pavement is set back and not visible to road users. The second area is very dense and can give the creepy sense of walking into a black hole on a dull day. I was caught up in my thoughts as I walked through this area and was disturbed by rustling of the leaves in the raised copse. I saw a pair of legs and looked up expecting to see a dog walker, but instead saw a middle aged man dressed in a t-shirt and shorts waving his penis at me with a strange smirk on his face. I continued to walk a couple of steps in an attempt to show I was unfazed by this and then my self-preservation instinct took over and I ran.
I work for a charity that supports victims of rape and sexual abuse (RASASC) and I know that flashing is often where it begins, and this can lead to abuse and rape as the perpetrator becomes more overt, confident and daring. Contrary to popular belief, flashers are not harmless fools to be laughed at and dismissed. To expose yourself in a public place is a criminal offence and it is harmful and threatening to those who witness it. It was unusually quiet for mid afternoon, almost surreal, and I was only halfway through the walk. I continued to run and waved at cars coming up the hill. I was hot, sweaty and my heart was pounding. A car stopped but could not help me. I then ran into a lady I know who took me to her son’s house where I called the police and then she drove me home.
It took me some time to calm down. As a therapist, I am experienced in working effectively with my clients to lower stress levels, ease anxiety and bring calm into their lives, whilst equipping them with the appropriate methods to manage these issues and thus feel empowered. However, when it happens to you, it is different, it is personal and you cannot maintain that therapeutic professional distance - I intentionally do not use the word detachment as to me that implies I am removed from my clients in the therapy room and I am not. I am present with them in a safe and caring therapeutic relationship, but it is not the emotional involvement experienced when something happens to me or someone I love and am close to. For the first time in, dare I say almost four decades, my confidence in walking freely on my own was knocked for six. I was totally discombobulated and disempowered. I regularly practice yoga, meditation and body balance, but at the moment all my learned strategies and techniques had taken flight.
There is no CCTV in the area where this happened. The police ran door to door enquiries in the near vicinity. I posted on social media to generate awareness (and hopefully recognition of the perpetrator) with a mixed reception - some sympathetic and grateful for the knowledge, others who mocked and seemed to know exactly what they would do if they had been in my position. The perpetrator has not as yet been caught. I continue to have faith that some day soon he will be.
I then sub-consciously began to avoid this walk. At a very base level, I was scared. I felt humbled by the courage and bravery of those who have experienced rape or sexual abuse; I knew my experience to be minimal in comparison but I was not going to take any risks. I wouldn’t go out in my garden in the dark to pick herbs or get washing in (let it get wet). I saw threats everywhere - the countryside I loved now had evil lurking - hidden behind trees or in bushes, round corners, all ready to jump out at me. My imagination went into overdrive. I would always find an excuse to drive rather than walk - it was raining; I had to go on a training course; I had shopping to get; I didn’t have time to walk… the excuses went on. I did the walk with my partner - that was fine and of course I felt safe with him by my side but I knew I had to face the demon myself and alone.
I acquired a rape alarm; I embraced my yoga and meditation routine; I regularly practised calming deep breathing. I talked with my partner, friends, family and my counselling colleagues and supervisors. Slowly, I began to build my confidence back up. If I felt anxious or scared, I would use the CBT techniques that have worked well for clients. I gave myself little challenges - putting my bins out in the dark; bringing in the washing after dark; walking home from my neighbours’ house alone at night after babysitting and walking back to my car parked in the next road from RASASC on my own.
A month or so back, I became aware from a news item about the Shoreham air tragedy that it was nine weeks since the disaster and so nine weeks also since I had undertaken that walk. And so I steeled myself to take the ultimate challenge for me - wearing flat heels (so I could run if needs be), rape alarm tucked in my pocket and phone in my bag, off I went. As I neared the copse, my heartbeat picked up and I could feel it pounding and my breathing shortening. I stood back and walked from side to side viewing the copse for sight of anyone. I took some deep breaths and held the rape alarm in my hand. I walked slowly through the copse alert to danger and focused on my breathing. I reached the other side safely.
I have now done this walk five times and each time it becomes a little easier. I feel a little less anxious and a little more safer. It will probably always be tainted for me and I would always need to have my rape alarm to hand, my safety net as it is vital for our well-being to feel safe. However, I have challenged and conquered my fear and my anxiety because I refuse to be disempowered by this. This is where I live and I will not allow the depravity of one person to limit or restrict what I do. I love walking and I am going to continue to walk for as long as my legs allow me to. Slowly but surely, I am getting better. I am becoming stronger and taking back the power. I am using the techniques and tools I have learned over the years to help me recover.
Anxiety and fear does not have to control you or stop you doing things you want to do and you don’t need to be a therapist to overcome these demons yourself. Sometimes the fear or anxiety builds from a specific recollected experience such as mine; other times it will be a deep-seated almost forgotten trigger from the past. I have found CBT techniques work effectively at rationalising and minimising the anxiety in the present day; for anxiety that is triggered by subconscious memories this can be gently unravelled and explored in person centred, eclectic or integrative therapies. Other therapies/practices such as EFT (emotional freedom technique) or AIT (advanced integrative therapy), yoga and meditation are wonderful for restoring calm and balance. Just start with a few simple deep breaths in and out when you feel the anxiety bubble up - you will be amazed at how this will restore calm if you stick with it. We all have the potential to heal ourselves in many ways - it’s just a case of finding and tapping into those inner personal resources we all possess. Remember - you have the power to bring positive change to your life! And isn’t that a great feeling?
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About Sarah-Jane Johnson
Sarah-Jane Johnson MBACP - I am based in Haslemere, Surrey and Midhurst, West Sussex where you can gently explore your issues in a safe and comfortable place. I offer a full counselling hour and concessions. I work with individuals and couples and specialise in integrative, person-centred, eclectic and Jungian therapy.