How Do We Feel Safe? Paranoia, Reality, and Existence in 2022.
In memoriam of Christina Yuna Lee and all the sisters we've lost to violence ❤️
Hello, again. Today my heart is heavy and I felt called to write you for a second time. The below references the recent murder of Christina Yuna Lee. Please read it when you feel able. May she rest in peace and may we all find safety and healing.
I was 23 years old and living in the Lower East Side of New York City when I first started attending therapy. When I speak about my early therapy experience, it mostly centers around the work I did around depression and anxiety but the past few days I’ve been thinking about how I was also ‘diagnosed’ with mild paranoia, because of my vivid and ‘irrational’ fears about my physical safety, or lack thereof, living in the city.
I am not a doctor nor am I a therapist, but I like to do my best to be accurate, specific and non-flippant with my psychology-related language. A diagnosis, as I understand it, requires an official report by a provider of the patient having a diagnosable disorder from the DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or in regular-people speak, a clinical person needs to say one of the many things on the official^TM list of things can be wrong with your noggin is in fact, wrong with you. *Refers back to two sentences ago when I said accuracy, specification, etc. etc.* Anyway, I was not officially diagnosed with paranoia, but I was told I was exhibiting behaviors that were typical of someone who was clinically paranoid.
Paranoia is the intense, irrational, and unfounded feeling that someone is ‘out to get you,’ that your person is constantly under threat. Back then, without any meaningful trigger, I could get extremely caught up and fearful that someone would enter my apartment, violently attack me, and that there was nothing I could do about it. More often than not, these fears would be accompanied with a fear of sexual violence and torture. More than one evening, I found myself sitting on the floor, clutching my blanket with my back against the corner: the position I would feel most safe in. I began to fear being alone at all and found myself in an endless stream of debilitating and extremely convincing anxious thoughts. I would reason all the ways that, if someone really did want to kidnap me and hurt me, there were really so many ways they could go about doing it. I would find myself strategizing on how, if I was to say, get a body guard, I could ensure that that person was safe and could be trusted or if I could convince various family members (once I moved back home, obviously bc #safety) to stand guard outside my room all hours of the night. And so on, as one does.
This all, obviously, sounds absolutely fucking bonkers and needless to say, was not a fun mental place to occupy. And believe me, the roots of these fears were extensively and exhaustingly examined in the therapy room. If u must know [insert tea emoji here], the working definition of the root of my ‘paranoia’ was that my fear of my body being attacked was a ‘physical’ manifestation of the mental attack depression was waging in my head; the feeling that ‘there is nothing I can do to stop it’ was a very literal parallel to my lived experience of mental illness, prior to getting help. My brain was torturing me; my body feared that same torture. Damn, I know. Our minds can be our closest friends and as any once-a-middle-school-girl will know, our closest friends make the worst enemies.
As an aside, this feeling of lack of safety is well-documented as a trauma response, e.g., versions of my ‘paranoid thinking spiral’ are common in survivors of PTSD. As far as I knew (or remembered), I had not experienced a significant trauma that would warrant such a strong response. The visceral nature of my response to these fears was one of the primary reasons I began to explore psychedelic-assisted therapy a few years ago. I became curious about whether I had a suppressed a traumatic experience (in this lifetime), or if via epigenetics (see: science) and/or ancestral trauma (see: spirituality), someone in my family line had passed the shadow of one down to me. But that exploration is another story for another time. 🤫
That was all a long way of saying, when I was an Asian-American woman living in an apartment in the Lower East Side of Manhattan I feared that someone was watching me, waiting to come into my apartment, attack and hurt me, and that there was nothing I could do about it. And at the time (2014), that fear was deemed irrational, my fascination with it hopping over and back on the border between overactive imagination and mental illness. Good times.
So to say I am devastated by what happened to Christina Yuna Lee is an understatement. If you haven’t been following the news, Christina was a 35 year-old Asian-American woman who was murdered in her Lower East Side apartment this past weekend. The story is more nightmarish than even my old fears, because it is so heartbreakingly straight-forward and simple. Christina was dropped off by a cab in front of her apartment in the early hours of Sunday morning. She entered the door and left it to shut behind her. Before it shut, a man stopped it and entered. Christina walked up to her sixth floor apartment and he followed her, always staying one floor behind her. Based on surveillance footage, she didn’t realize he was there. He entered her apartment after her and attacked her, stabbing her 40 times with a knife from her own kitchen. Her neighbors heard her screams and called 911. By the time they entered, she was dead, naked from the waist up, and the attacker was covered in her blood.
I questioned recounting this to you, sending it into your inbox, because who needs more trauma these days. I waited a few days to engage with this story because I am tired. This comes a month after another Asian-American woman was murdered as she waited on a subway platform. She was standing there, and then was pushed into an oncoming train. It comes almost a year after the shootings in Atlanta, when multiple women were going about their daily working lives when a man entered and shot them dead.
Women pass down, from mother to daughter, friend to friend, the small things we ‘need’ to do in order to stay safe. Like quiet incantations, these actions, like walking in the middle of the street rather than on the dark sidewalk, or sharing our location via our iPhone with a friend, become the soft shields we whisper into being to protect us against the dark intentions lurking around every corner. We cover our drinks with our hands at clubs and shift our gaze quickly away, just in case accidental eye contact invites unwelcome attention. Society gaslights us into thinking to ourselves, “but what was she wearing?” even though we know it doesn’t matter; we hate ourselves for thinking it, we hate the men for asking it out loud. We hate that the thought made us change out of our ‘too-high’ heels — we hate that we needed to, because what if we do need to get away quickly?
But after a year of stories like Christina’s, we hate that the function of questions like, “what was she wearing?” doesn’t even matter. Not that it should — let’s be clear it never matters, and to make it as such puts the blame on the victim and not the perpetrator. Nevertheless, there is particular level of pain and heartbreak when the situation is so nondescript: she was waiting for the train, she was working the front desk at her job, she was walking up the stairs to her apartment. These are passing moments that happen to us everyday. She was just existing. She was an Asian-American woman and she was just existing. She was a woman and she was just existing. She was just existing. And her existence was enough to warrant attack.
I have spent most of my day in bed today because when I hear about stories like this, I feel hopeless. And I am devastated for Christina, and her family, and her loved ones. And I am devastated for every woman, Asian-American or not, who has seen her worst fears, over and over, played out in these real-life stories.
But what I am more devastated by, is that if I was to attend that same therapy session today, my clinician would not call me paranoid. My therapist would instead let me talk through how the events make me feel, and she would say that I am not her only client that feels this way. She would nod as I cry saying I went through Christina’s photography portfolio and that it reminded me of my own creative work. I’d talk about how my dear friend still lives in a sixth floor walk-up in downtown Manhattan, how it could have been her, how it could have been me. Today, my therapist would find herself in the break room, discussing with her colleagues the patterns they are seeing in their female clients, their Asian-American clients. The fear and the anxiety. How they don’t know how to avoid the triggers, the following and unfollowing of activists and actors alike. How they want to speak up but how they are so tired. They might compare the similarities in experience of their African-American clients, who hear stories of men who look like their partners, or brothers, or fathers, gunned down without warning. And women. And children. And the increasing tension between the two groups, the complicated and absolute necessity of intersectional activism. But how we are all just so tired. So tired. One might recall a client who lost a cousin to a school shooting, who now moves about the world on edge that any unexpected shift in the individual down the aisle at the grocery story is the split-second before a mass shooting. They’d talk about how the line between paranoia and overactive imagination is getting fainter and fainter, because life has begun to play out like a nightmare.
Today, I would not be paranoid. I would just be existing, because reality has shifted in such a way that our deepest fears have manifested themselves into existence. What was deemed irrational is now fact. Today, I would not be paranoid. I would just be existing. I would just be responding to the pain of my sisters as they wait for the train, and work at their jobs, and open the doors to their apartment at night. Today, as I move about the world my heart bleeds, and I take the little energy I have left to recall all the goodness that our existence has to offer and the breadth of this experience of life itself. But today that feels hard. Existence feels heavy, and hope feels more like a wisp of a forgotten incantation than a protective shield. Today, I am no longer paranoid. I am devastated and I am just existing.