I can barely move when I get behind the wheel of my Chevy Trailblazer. Cici’s Pizza on a cheat day will do that to you. If the barbeque pizza wasn’t enough, the three slices of chocolate pudding pie with powdered sugar caked on top were. I open the door for my girlfriend. Her approach to the meal was more measured. Maybe her stomach sticks out a little, but she hasn’t ballooned to Tony Soprano after baked ziti status like me.
When we’re both safely inside my Trailblazer, I start up the engine. It’s only a mile to the other side of Las Cruces where we live. I hold out hope that the peppermints I pocketed as we left the buffet will settle my stomach on the way home. But the Organ Mountains grow nearer and I feel like my insides are going to burst through my stomach. I’d hoped for a romantic evening, but it’s looking more and more like a fingertip cuddling session after two spoonfuls of Pepto Bismol.
We’re a couple blocks from Majestic Ridge Rd. when I notice a white Ford Taurus behind me. It’s got its headlights on even though there’s still enough light out to see without them. I wonder if that’s odd or not, but then notice my automatic headlights have already turned on and consider that maybe this person’s car has done the same. Still, I keep an eye on the car as I put my turn signal on.
I turn right on Majestic Ridge. The entrance to our apartment complex is just a couple blocks up the road. I keep my eyes in the rearview as one block passes, then two. As we near the entrance, it happens.
The Taurus turns down our street.
This is a big neighborhood.
They probably live here.
They’re on the way to see a friend.
They’re not following you.
No one is going to kill us.
The one block left before our turn stretches out before me like a pirate’s plank, and the more I try to convince myself that everything’s okay, the more I feel like I’m going to be fed to the fishes.
The food coma has overtaken my girlfriend at this point and she sits in the passenger seat with her eyes closed. I contemplate turning into our complex, but the possibility of us being murdered is too much to bear.
As long as we’re in the car, we’re safe.
I keep driving.
I turn right on the next street. My eyes flint back and forth between the road and the rearview like a metronome set at 250 beats per minute.
Please pass. Please pass. Please pass.
The car’s headlights reappear in my rearview as it turns down the street.
Lots of people live on this street.
It’s a perfectly normal way to get home.
The music coming from the stereo makes it hard to process all the thoughts racing through my brain, so I shut it off.
The only way to know if they’re truly following me is to take a nonsensical route through the neighborhood and see what happens. If they’re still behind me, I’ll drive to the police station and everything will be fine. They won’t know where we live.
But they’ll know the neighborhood. That’s enough. They saw your car and—
They won’t find my car. Our parking spot is hidden, so—
They’ll look up your license plate. That’s how they do it on TV. After that, they—
Can’t get our address. At least I don’t think they can. I’ll Google it when I—
Get home? You can’t go home with them following you.
They’re not following us!
I turn left down another road. They follow us. I try to remember where the police station is, but can only remember the way to get to the campus parking patrol. It’s the weekend so they’re probably off and I feel like this is above their pay grade anyway.
As I’m considering all of my options, my girlfriend wakes up. She rubs her eyes and sits up in her seat trying to make sense of her surroundings.
I turn left on the next street wondering how I’m going to explain this whole situation to her. If she knew the truth – that I’m saving her from a maniac who’s followed us home to kill us – maybe she’d find it romantic. Or maybe she’d realize how crazy I am and leave me. I can’t risk it.
My eyes are locked on the rearview as she says something that I can’t make out.
Please turn right. Please turn right. Please turn right.
“Babe,” she says.
I look at her.
“Where are we going?”
We’re at the end of the road, where our neighborhood stops and the desert begins. You can see the Organ Mountains in the distance, a giant silhouette against the setting sun.
Please turn right. Please turn right. Please turn right.
The car turns right. I breathe a sigh of relief. She grabs my right hand from the steering wheel and I realize I’m shaking.
“I wanted to watch the sunset,” I say as I park my car.
She squeezes my hand and takes it in her lap. And for the moment, I feel safe again.
• • •
Four days before my 16th birthday, I joined a few of my high school friends for what was supposed to be a fight between two eighth graders. We were there to chaperone, but things quickly escalated when the other guys arrived with weapons in their hands. We raced to get out of there, but it was too late. I was dragged from the car I was in, beaten, and stabbed three times before being rescued by a friend who’d shown up late to the fight.
The emergency room doctor said I was lucky the knife hadn’t punctured my lungs. Physically, I would make a full recovery. Mentally, I was changed for life.
For six years, every time I pulled into the neighborhood where I lived I’d keep my eyes on the rearview to make sure the car behind me wasn’t following me. When they did turn in behind me, I would drive around the neighborhood until I eventually lost them, and then I’d return home.
The therapist told me this was a normal response to trauma and that I was likely experiencing PTSD that was being exacerbated by my OCD.
I had another word for it – “Crazy”. I knew the likelihood of someone following me was practically zero. And yet, I couldn’t help it. The risk was too great. If I were wrong, I’d lose a couple minutes max and maybe 30 cents worth of gas. No big deal. But, if I were right, I’d die. Maybe the lion chasing the elk is a figment of its imagination, but it’s not gonna let it get close enough to find out.
Eventually I started convincing myself that the people driving in front of me were “following” me as well. What better way to lull an unsuspecting victim into thinking they were safe?
At this point, I knew I needed to change, but realizing that didn’t make it any easier to stop. When panic kicks your sympathetic nervous system into overdrive controlling your thoughts and feelings becomes as futile as trying to steer a raft through rapids without a paddle. At that point, you’re just along for the ride.
It wasn’t until I moved in with my girlfriend that I decided to face my “crazy” head on. How many more times could I use the sunset excuse? How much time was I wasting circling our neighborhood when I could be home with her in my arms? How could I be there for someone else when I couldn’t even take care of myself?
Slowly, I trained myself to turn into our apartment complex whenever someone was behind me. Some days I would succeed. Others I’d give into the fear and go for a neighborly stroll. 95% of the time I made the turn the car behind me would continue on and I could breathe a sigh of relief.
Every now and then a car would follow me and my heart would beat through my chest as I tried to discern what objects in my SUV I’d be able to use as a weapon. And then they’d park at the other end of the complex and get out of their car and head into their apartment, completely oblivious to the crisis I’d just experienced.
I’ve got an awful poker face so I’m sure my girlfriend was aware of the terror I was going through, but she didn’t make it a big deal. It’s amazing how the well-timed squeeze of a hand or a head on your shoulder from the right person can erase all traces of anxiety.
And so, little by little, I got better. It took a long time, but the anxiety eventually lessened until it was nothing more than a minor nuisance. My thoughts and feelings were no longer hijacked and the sensation I was being followed eventually disappeared.
Once it did, I could finally enjoy the sunset.