In 2001, when Athena was just 3 weeks old, we were held up at gun point – outside our own front door. This is how I have told the story for more than I decade:
We had just come home from fetching Costa’s mom from the bus station. Costa dropped us off in front of the cottage we were renting and went to park the car up at the main house (our car had been broken into before). I heard a sound that I initially thought was one of the landlord’s dogs crashing into the window. As I went to open the front door, I heard Costa saying, “Please stop shooting. My wife is inside with my mother and our 3 week old baby. What do you want? I’ll give you anything. Please. Just stop shooting.”
While he was speaking there was another loud noise. I opened the door but the security gate was still locked. There were 2 other men outside, both with guns pointed at Costa. When they saw me they started asking me to open the door. Costa was shouting at me not to do that. I pressed the panic button on the remote that I was holding. Knowing that the security company was coming and that the landlord would also come down with his gun, I moved towards the security gate. By this time Costa had taken out his wallet and was telling them that he only had ten rand in cash. He pulled out the ten rand note to show them. He was waving the money in one hand and the wallet in the other. One of the armed robbers asked if we had any wine. Meanwhile, the other guy had worked out that they had been there too long already. He grabbed Costa’s (now empty) wallet and they ran off before the landlord or the security guards arrived.
I always end the story with a joke about how the bullets probably cost more than what they could have got for the wallet. What I don’t talk about is the crippling fear that I felt afterwards. The rest of the evening is a blur of police officers and security guards checking the fences and taking statements.
What I remember is when Costa had to go back to work later that week. He was in the film industry at the time, which meant that he often had to work after dark. The first night that I was alone with Athena after dark I lay in bed clutching her to my bosom, I rolled us over onto the floor every time I heard a noise, making sure that the bed was between us and the windows. It got so bad that the next contract he got, I went to stay with my cousin the whole time he was working. We moved back to Durban (600kms away) a few months later. Living in the city of my birth, close to the sea helped me release a lot on the fear. I was able to function again and life went on.
I thought I was over it. That was until a woman had her car stolen from her at knifepoint, in the driveway right next door. The night that it happened I had a full blown panic attack. I could breathe. My body was shaking. I had hot and cold spells. My hands went numb. It was horrible. I didn’t leave home at all the next day. The day after that I had to go out. I told the kids not to buckle up straight away. I wanted them to wait until we were out of the driveway, in case the needed to get out of the car in a hurry. I could feel my heart rate increase as we drove out of the driveway. I found myself holding my breath while I waited for the gate to close before driving off. When we got back home, I made the kids take of their safety belts a block away from the house…
After a week of needing just get on with our lives, the panic lessened. I was able to go out again without feeling like I was about to have a heart attack on the spot.
Tonight I was watching TV in the lounge with the kids when my husband got home, after dark. I could hear his voice and asked my daughter to turn off the TV while I rushed to the front bedroom window so I could see the driveway. It took me a moment to realize that I had had a flashback to hearing his voice outside the front door so many years before. I mentally shrugged my shoulders and told my daughter that I just thought I heard Dad’s voice. She replied that he was just on the phone. I felt really stupid for not having worked that out on my own. I don’t remember my mumbled response, just an overwhelming feeling of relief.
It is now 2AM and I sit here typing because I can’t sleep. My daughter plays a game where she tries to surprise me. She thinks she is sneaking up behind me and expects a startle response when she suddenly tickles me. What she doesn’t know is that my senses are mostly on such high alert that not much startles me. I have to put my Ipod on sometimes to shut out the world, just to maintain some shred of sanity.
This is just one aspect of what it is like to live with post-traumatic stress disorder. It is the response from one trigger related to just one event. Nearly 42 years of living in South Africa (including a childhood of apartheid where, for example, every year on June 16th I sat outside the school buildings with my friends watching the South African Air Force helicopters fly over, wondering whether or not they would bomb our school) has provided more than enough trauma to fuel much, much more emotional incompetence.
This is the reality of surviving. It is not all strength and healing and love smiles. It is hard work, every day. Too many people make the mistake of assuming that just because we, as activists speak of our pain with courage, we are over it. I am not over anything. I have chosen to act, to write and to speak because of my fear, not in spite of it.