I hate running. I hate my feet snapping off the ground in syncopated succession; I hate the rabbit-heart feeling in my chest. I hate not being able to breathe freely. I hate the sweat my body produces, the way it’s always working to keep me safe.
Really, what I hate most is what it makes me remember.
I haven’t run in almost six years. Non-runners like myself are our own little club, as passionate about not running as those dedicated to purposefully and happily scurrying around the neighborhood, a nearby park, or on a local track. I hear all kinds of excuses to not run—an old injury, a lack of access to ideal running surfaces, or the old standby, accompanied by a laugh: I only run if I’m being chased.
The last time I ran, I was being chased. By a stranger with a butcher knife. Who had trapped me in my neighbor’s apartment while he stabbed his wife in front of me, threatening to kill me.
I should start from the beginning.
It was the Sunday morning of Memorial Day weekend, and abnormally hot. A heat wave had gone on for days. This was not normal May weather for New England, so few air conditioners had been installed in apartment windows yet. Instead, everyone’s windows were open.
I lived in a city, on the top floor of a three-story home that had been broken up into three apartments. My landlord and her friend lived in the second-floor apartment, and a large Guatemalan family took up the first floor.
I woke up to a woman screaming.
The connection between hot temperatures and increased crime has been the subject of much study. This article in Wired explains the most detailed and modern of them, led by psychologists Ellen Cohn and James Rotton of Florida State University, who looked at violent crime over a two-year period in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Their data was further analyzed by Craig Anderson, who found a linear relationship between heat and violence, with violent assault rates peaking at the highest temperatures. Aside from statistics, the correlation between heat and violence is deeply established in the English language, with phrases such as “hot-blooded,” “hot-tempered,” and anger described as simmering, erupting, and exploding. And it makes sense—our bodies react to hot weather by increasing its heart rate and blood circulation, by sweating, and by triggering our innate fight-or-flight response. Wired also points out that our sympathetic nervous system activity gets skewed even more towards fight as the production of testosterone increases in hot weather.
At first, I thought the noises were from somewhere else—another house, children playing, maybe someone having sex? I was on my phone, texting my younger sister about meeting for brunch somewhere.
Where does Mom want to go? The diner?
I heard another scream, and odd noises from below me, as if someone was moving furniture in my landlord’s apartment. Something wasn’t right. I had known those women for over a year, and they were always kind and helpful. I texted my sister.
Something weird is happening. I’m going downstairs. Call the police if you don’t hear from me in ten minutes.
Somewhere, deep in my mind, it had already been triggered— that fight-or-flight instinct, adrenaline sounding the alarm in the body. But my conscious brain downplayed the danger; my intellect told me that I was being over-careful, and that there was a perfectly logical and simple explanation for the noises. I was overreacting, I reassured myself.
There was a reason I believed my mind over my body. Five years before this, I was raped. As a trauma survivor, I continued to deal with anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares, and increased startle responses—symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. These symptoms contribute to a constant state of hyperarousal (a word I hate when used in connection to my sexual assault, though it is nonetheless scientifically accurate), a chronic state of fear. I lived with constant false alarms, exhausting and pointless rushes of adrenaline every day. Because of this, I had learned not to trust my instincts, to doubt the warnings my body gives me. It was a sunny morning, it was the summer, I was in my own home, my neighbors were nice women, and I lived somewhere safe. And so, in flip-flops, empty-handed, I went downstairs to see what might be wrong.
Everything was quiet. The vestibule between our apartments was empty, and my landlord’s door was open, sunlight streaming into their living room. I turned to shut my door behind me, and when I turned back there was a man in their doorway. I had never seen him before. He was easily twice my size, wearing a collared shirt with a strange pattern on it. He had a knife in his right hand, and it was wet. I realized his shirt was covered in blood. I screamed.
He started towards me, telling me to shut up unless I wanted to die, grabbed my arm and pulled me into my neighbor’s apartment. I didn’t see my neighbors. There was blood everywhere—all over the wall, on the table next to a red-stained pair of open scissors, on the floor. There was so much blood that, after, they would have to replace the wooden floors.
By now, my body was in emergency mode. My heart was racing; my blood pressure was surely through the roof. But I was quietly calm. I never became hysterical, and I never cried. My body’s release of adrenaline allowed me to become hyper alert, and my senses were as sharp as broken glass. I realized he must have already killed my neighbors, that this must be a random act of violence. I realized he was going to kill me.
He dragged me into a small, dark room at the front of the apartment, and I was no longer alone — a woman lay on a bed, covered in blood, crying. I recognized her—she was my landlord’s daughter. She had dark, curly hair and her face was speckled with freckles and blood. I had seen her before but I didn’t know her name.
The man threw me onto the bed and began interrogating me, asking the same questions again and again: Was anyone else upstairs, where were my car keys, where was my phone, did I realize that he was going to slit my throat and leave me to die? The woman next to me would cry harder and he would grab her, brandishing the knife, sometimes slicing her as he screamed at her to shut up. Over and over she told him how much she loved him, how she would do anything for him if he would just let us go. This was not a home invasion. This was love.
My heart. I could feel it beat in my fingers. I heard it underneath the screaming. The man told me to lie down, to put my face into the pillow, to not look. He was going to rape me. Next to the bed was a small table with an alarm clock on it, green numbers that never seemed to move no matter how many times my eyes darted towards them. I remembered my text to my sister, I remembered the number ten, I thought that if I could just make it for ten minutes the police would show up. Someone will save me. Someone will come. Everything in my body was racing, but time just wasn’t. The minutes seemed to move intermittently , almost randomly, and then I realized it had been so much longer than ten minutes. No one was coming.
I have no idea for sure how long I was in that tiny room. I can only hypothesize. How much longer than ten minutes? I didn’t look at the clock when I was first taken inside, and I don’t know how much time passed between the first smell of copper blood and when I was told to close my eyes. I heard sounds on an endless loop—her cries, him swearing at her, a ripping noise that was either hair, cloth, or skin. The sound of things (bodies? hands?) slamming against other things (Furniture? Was he raping her?). I closed and opened my eyes for what seemed like forever, my face pressed hard into a wet pillow (my sweat? her blood?). Until then, except for when he first grabbed me to force me into the apartment, he hadn’t touched me, but I was certain that he would keep his promise to slit my throat and kill me. I counted the minutes, sometimes the same minute again and again. I had stopped hoping.
Being victimized at a young age increases one’s risk for revictimization. I was twenty-two years old when I was raped, and twenty-six when I was almost killed by a stranger. While there are many hypotheses as to why this occurs, betrayal trauma theory posits that experiencing past traumas that are high in betrayal leads to damaged trust mechanisms, so that a survivor is instead “overly trusting, insufficiently trusting, or unable to accurately identify betrayal and respond in a self-protective manner.”
That Memorial Day morning, I never should have gone downstairs. I should have called the police. But I was raped by my manager at a restaurant, someone I had known for nearly a year and, while I might not have called him a friend, he was someone I felt comfortable enough with to allow myself to be alone with him late at night. To say he betrayed me when he raped me is the least of the damage he inflicted that night. Or is it? Betrayal trauma theory points to that betrayal of trust as one of the reasons I chose to go downstairs. And that the chronic, unwarranted releases of adrenaline whenever I had a flashback, or woke up in a cold sweat, heart pounding from a nightmare, or gasped and panicked when even slightly surprised, had created the perfect victim.
In that room, on that bed, I heard the sounds of things being forced together behind me, and the woman screamed again her love and please no don’t. I looked. I don’t know why I chose that moment to turn my head but I did. And he was lunging towards me with the knife, and the woman threw herself between us, and the knife went into her hand. The knife went through her hand.
There was red like water running everywhere, and he screamed at us again to shut up and grabbed her by the throat. She was hysterical and pleading her love. He took his mouth towards her ear, whispered something as he sliced her slowly. I watched her cry and bleed. Her pale skin, freckled or speckled with blood, is carved into my memory.
On ordinary days, memory is like a gold miner, picking and choosing what details to store and what can be let go, leaving most of the day behind in the water. However, according to Dr. David Eagleman , a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, during a traumatic event, when adrenaline rushes into the scene, memory latches on to even mundane details that would normally be ignored. Adrenaline kicks memory into hyperdrive, storing anything that could possibly be useful in the future. Which is why this morning will be one I can never forget.
He told us we were getting out of here, that we were leaving. I knew that if I ended up in a car with him that I wouldn’t survive. He yelled at the woman to clean herself up, to go to the bathroom and wash the blood from her face. She couldn’t really walk—she was too far into shock. She couldn’t stop crying. Still holding the knife, he told me to get up, to follow her. He walked us into the living room, three steps behind me with the knife always in his right hand, and we were in the living room with the door to the landing, to the stairs, still swung open, and the woman collapsed in front of me, weeping and wet, and he took one, two steps in front of me with the knife and more screaming and I turned to my left and I ran.
I ran through the door, down the stairs, but the door to the street was shut and I couldn’t get the doorknob to turn. My hands were slipping with sweat and her blood and I knew he was behind me with the knife and he was going to slit my throat and the door opened and I ran. I ran down the street and I didn’t look back and I counted the houses on my street because I knew I could outrun him once I got far enough and I started screaming. My body was working harder and faster than it ever had before and I ran harder and faster than ever before and I screamed for help, for the police, for anyone. I screamed and ran.
And there was a girl, a girl jogging towards me towards the house with the man and the blood and the knife because it was a perfect day for a run, and I grabbed her and made her run with me away from him and I kept screaming as I dragged her away and then into someone’s driveway behind bushes and onto grass and I am screaming and there are people around me now and all of the windows are open and someone puts a cell phone in my hand and it is the police and I am screaming my address and he is going to kill her and they don’t understand that he is going to kill her and no one understands and I throw the phone somewhere. Adrenaline has done its job and gotten me through and now I am outside, away from him and safe but I don’t feel it and the police are coming now and the grass in my hands is green and the sky above me is blue and there are trees and birds and air and my body is screaming and sweating. My heart goes through my chest and into the clouds and they are hot and the ground is cool and it is a beautiful day. It was a beautiful day for a run.
For many trauma survivors, exercise is a linchpin of mental health, of effective self-care. Running can be a tool to move past post-traumatic stress symptoms, a free and easy way to deal with anxiety and depression. It seems as if every week there is a new article about why running is the best exercise, a study showing that running is good for your brain, your heart, your lungs, your life. How a lack of exercise can be a contributor to depression and anxiety, how a regular rush of adrenaline can actually help the body heal.
Adrenaline can be triggered by an environmental stimulus or by a psychological state, such as stress or fear. Though its primary purpose is to prepare the human body to deal with an emergency, you can initiate an adrenaline flood by physical activity, such as running. (Jarrod James did an excellent scientific analysis of adrenaline and sports that was published in the PIT Journal, available here .) When people run, they are activating their bodies’ response without the additional layer of fear or anxiety. The bodies’ heightened arousal without any actual danger can be pleasurable, which is why thrill-seeking activities such as sky-diving, roller coasters, and race-car driving are so popular. Adrenaline triggers runner’s high.
I only do yoga and barre classes. I prefer to center and focus on my body, just my body, to try to shove out the associations and triggers of too-fast movement, of heightened anything. I avoid any exercise that causes my heart to race too much. I strive to find balance and calm and soothe my sympathetic nervous system, which remains far too nervous.
This is because, for me, adrenaline will be eternally linked to that morning I ran for my life.
The police expected to find Rachel, my neighbor’s daughter, dead. They told me to prepare myself for that. But after Aaron, her husband and our attacker, led the police on a three-state chase, they found her alive. She had over forty knife wounds on her face and body. She survived.
I gave my statement and told the officers everything I knew, which wasn’t much—I didn’t even know Rachel’s name that day. Then I stopped talking, and no one knew what to do with me. The EMTs saw me without any physical wounds, no lost blood, and left. Eventually the text message to my little sister got passed along to my mom, and she showed up to take me to the beach. I sat on the sand. I didn’t know what to say. People whispered around me.
A few days later, I went back to work, a few blocks away where it happened, from where I lived. My job was at a nonprofit organization, doing domestic violence prevention work in local school systems with teens. The irony did not escape me: how close I had become to being a martyr for the cause I was already committed to. I saw a crisis counselor every day for a month to talk about my nightmares, about how I was supposed to move on.
Aaron was charged with attempt to commit murder, first-degree assault, first-degree kidnapping, first-degree strangulation, first-degree unlawful restraint, and second degree larceny, among other things. But before he was sentenced, he conned a bondsman and skipped bail, becoming a fugitive again for nearly a week. Days before his escape, in open court, he had threatened to come back to my home and burn it down, to find me and try to kill me and Rachel all over again. Then he vanished and I got a panicked phone call. Police showed up at my door and gave me a half hour’s notice to pack a few bags and leave my apartment, not knowing if or when I could return. It was fall by then, but, again, unseasonably hot, and I sweated through all of my sheets for a week, until he was found and brought back to jail, bail revoked this time. Finally, more than a year after he tried to kill me, he was sentenced to twenty-three years in prison, with no chance of parole for seventeen of them. That’s eleven years from now.
I learned of Aaron’s long list of prior convictions, including battery, assault, and other felonies. I learned that, only a few weeks prior, he had been arrested for trying to strangle Rachel. After knowing these things, I don’t know if I trust our justice system. How can I trust a system that let someone like him roam freely? How can I trust a society that looks the other way when domestic violence is happening next door? Everyone in my neighborhood came out of their homes once the street was swollen with police cars and news vans, but no one had called the police until I was hysterical on the sidewalk. They must have heard her screaming.
How can I trust whom I fall in love with? Rachel and Aaron were married. He was a violent, psychotic man, but she had been in love with him at some point. She thought she could trust him. He lied. I didn’t hesitate to be alone in the restaurant late at night with a man who raped me. He lied to me too. Who, or what, can we trust?
I trust adrenaline. I now know to trust my body over my conscious or logical mind. And I trust that sheer adrenaline and instinctual drive will make me the fastest runner I have ever been before, even in flip-flops. Adrenaline will probably never be fun for me. But adrenaline will keep me alive.
*Names have been changed.