I’m sitting in the corner booth of some oversized café in the Westbanhof, the main train station in Vienna, and there’s a fly buzzing around me; negating every piece of comfort I had stitched together for myself when I felt the panic bubbling up beneath my skin. I’m listening to “Jackson” by Johnny and June and I’m furiously reminded of a boy whose last name was Jackson who hurt me, who used me, who threw me away. I’m sweating, which is a maddening catch-22, because the sweat only attracts the fly more. I have an irrational fear as I continue to swat it away that it will land on my face and get stuck—writhing—in the slick, salty, sheen.
I have had six coffees today and the table in front of me is currently displaying a liter of sparkling water, a grande vanilla rooibos tea I got from Starbucks (in the hopes that I could sit in there and charge my phone, but those hopes were promptly dashed when I looked around to see every single seat taken by other fucking people), and a double espresso that I bought from this café so I could claim this booth. All I have had to eat today is a speculoo cookie that came with one of the coffees. I haven’t been hungry, and I know I should eat, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Eating subpar train station fast food that’s made from God only knows what makes my stomach turn, and the thought of sitting in a restaurant by myself and wasting money on an elaborate meal while everyone stares at me and their eyes bulge out in cartoon absurdity instead of minding their own goddamn business—all the while waiting too long to pay my bill and get out of there—makes my brain hurt. And so, my appetite is helping me by laying low; it’s doing me a favor in this time of terror and dread.
I didn’t plan to come back to the train station this early. My train doesn’t leave until 20:50, but I couldn’t stand the people and the lights and the noises of the city any longer, so I came back around 18:30. I told myself I could just find a quiet spot, I could listen to music, I could write, I could breathe. And yet, when I got here, people were everywhere. People were all over the place and walking without a purpose, not looking where they’re going, wandering aimlessly, and heightening my anxiety. All I wanted to do was walk through the train station and find a quiet spot, but it didn’t exist. Every single place was full of people: people laughing loudly in a manner that my fiery brain twisted to feel like was directed at me. Everyone was shifting around, twitching, dancing, making crazy movements and all I could think was that I just needed people to be still. My mind is in overdrive and I can’t handle other people. I can’t process the movements of others or the sounds that they make. Every noise turns the current of electric stress flowing through my body up a notch, making me sweat more, making my face flush an even richer shade of crimson, making my heart beat faster. It feels like I just got done running a marathon and all I did was pace around the Westbanhof, face twisted into a scowl to ward off the looks of other fucking people.
And yet, that’s what attracts the people, like this fly to the sweat on my forehead. This all started when I was walking through the city, minding my own business, down a street off the main shopping avenue in the city center. I take the side streets because I know myself, I know my PTSD, and I know how to help prevent these kinds of panic attacks. Too many people making too much noise and moving too frequently in one place makes my skin crawl, it makes me feel like I’m in the middle of one big target, like at any moment, some angry kid who doesn’t understand what he’s doing will toss a grenade in the middle of us and we’ll all go from people with thoughts and emotions and convictions to busted meat bags on the sidewalk. And so…I take side streets.
I saw a man on his cell phone turn his head when I walked by, and it was that familiar lecherous look; that look that I was not a person walking but a prize to be claimed. I could feel him following me before I even turned around. There were people around, for which I was grateful, but I was still overflowing with fear, which is a new feeling for me. I’m never afraid. Even in moments when the panic takes over and my mind melts into mush, I’m never actually afraid. It’s more like my brain is so fried by the memories and the possibility that it could happen again. But I am never afraid.
Although walking fast down a cobblestone street on a chilly November night in Austria, I was afraid. He could grab me, he could tackle me, he could cup a hand over my mouth and drag me away without a sound. I braced to fight him, I subtly slipped my phone into my bag and pulled out the keys to my dad’s apartment and storage unit a world away in Mississippi that I didn’t know why I still carried with me, interlocking a key between each finger. I looked over my shoulder, my face red-hot and my eyes sending out invisible beams of hatred, and there he was. He was too close behind me for comfort, but distant enough that it didn’t look odd. He had a disgustingly lascivious smile plastered onto his face. He knew what he was doing. He knew, with every second I held that scowl, that he was getting what he wanted.
I turned back to the front and took a deep breath, keeping my body in fight mode. I clenched my stomach, and I made a game plan for how to hurt him and dislodge myself from his grasp if he tried to grab me from behind. This was it. This was how women get raped; it was so heartbreakingly simple. I could feel the future unfolding as the terror creeped out of my brain and down my spine, spreading all through my body. I always considered myself dynamic, different from other women, more educated and more aware…it would never happen to me. And yet, here it was, all the signs and signals aligning together and showing me that no, I’m not immune to the cruelty of the world.
I saw out of my peripheral vision that he had sped up and was walking alongside me, saying something. I ignored him, hoping he would go away. I was on my way to a coffee house where I could charge my phone, where I could order a croissant, where I could relax. I just needed to get there, in the lights, in the company of others; the energy I so profoundly rejected before becoming my savior now. He wasn’t leaving me alone. The more I scowled at the air in front of me, the bigger his smile got and the more he pestered me. I finally told him in Italian (and with a heavy accent) that I didn’t speak German, hoping that would deter him from speaking to me. The chances of him speaking Italian were too slim and it was my goal to make him think that I couldn’t speak English. “I want to invite you for a coffee,” he said with that same disgusting smile, a smile that suggests that we don’t have the same definition of “coffee.”
I told him no and kept walking. I kept the accent, hoping he would just give up. He continued to bother me, “You don’t like coffee? Everyone likes coffee.” I changed my tone; instead of a regular “no,” I talked to him like he was a dog who had just used the bathroom in the house (because that’s how he was acting) and walked the other way. Turned around in a foreign city and unsure of where to go now that my original plan was interrupted by someone who thinks I’m a walking candidate for sex and all the while not wanting to pull out my phone for fear that my awareness of my immediate surroundings would be lost, I just walked forward. I didn’t dare look back behind me, even though I desperately wanted to. I was on the Main Street, weaving my way through crowds of tourists and children running off from their parents, not caring whether or not they run or jump or skip into someone else’s path. Every movement from every person made me feel sick; I felt nauseated with every click of a light on the most popular shopping street in the capital of Austria. I just wanted to go home, to get in my bed, to put my face in a pillow and turn out the light. And yet…I don’t have a home. I don’t have a bed and I don’t have a pillow. Tonight, my bed is a second-class bucket seat on a EuroNight train.
I decided to get out of the city and come back to the Westbanhof when my terror hit a climax and I got dizzy. I took the metro from the city center to the train station and I didn’t dare touch my phone. I didn’t do anything that could break my concentration on my surroundings, I needed to keep my wits about me. I suddenly crumbled with fear and hatred around all the men in my presence, even if they didn’t regard me at all. They were there. They had the ability to hurt me. I couldn’t do anything but look down at the floor in fear and rage. A little girl in the metro was giggling in a way that would make a normal person feel warm inside, reminiscent of childhood glee and the unspoiled magic of youth…but for me, I wanted to shriek at her to shut the fuck up. Every falsetto octave made me feel even more stressed, made the electricity of what I was feeling jump a few volts. Even in the moment, I knew that it was a terrible thing to think, but I couldn’t control it. She was being loud. She was triggering my anxiety just like sirens and pops and bangs do. Her laughter was no different just because it was coming from a place of happiness. To me, it’s all just loud fucking noise.
It didn’t make me feel like less of a monster, though. It still doesn’t. My brain has gotten to the point where it can’t separate the joy of others from other, more terrifying sounds. I can’t listen to a kid laugh without becoming frustrated, then a horrifying mix of terrified and enraged. How do I go through life this way? How do I continue being a person in society? My brain is infected with PTSD, it’s absorbing every aspect of my life and spitting out something ominous, something sinister. I don’t want to be this person. I don’t want to find myself unable to tolerate people and their natural right to be loud and flashy. I don’t want to clench in a bubble of tension at all times. I don’t want to remember that day. But I can’t stop. I don’t know how to stop. I don’t know how to effectively fit this into my life, to put it in some box in my brain, to excuse it. My PTSD has taken over and is holding me captive.
This paints a heartbreaking picture for me. I’ll die alone. I’ll never be a mother. I’ll just bounce around from one place to the next, searching for a peace that doesn’t exist. The bleakness of what I just wrote makes me feel like my face has a sunburn.
And then there’s the disgusting fact that I’ve fallen into the clutches of the age-old stereotype that women can’t travel alone. It’s disgraceful and infuriating with a touch of terrifying. I never thought I was susceptible to that. I always thought I was too tough, too strong, that my skin was too thick to get caught up in the emotions of being seen as a piece of meat. I don’t want to be scared, because most men just want me to be scared. They just bluff, they are all talk. And yet, the feeling of being dehumanized to that level is sickening. And what’s more sickening is that I can’t seem to get past it, reinforcing the whole goddamn situation. It tears a gash in my soul that all I want to do is get away from my PTSD, to have time for myself and to not be so wound-up and stressed like I was when I was on active duty…and here I am, being cat-called and followed and grabbed in trains…the target of men who think they’re entitled to treat women like objects instead of people.
Everyone told me to be careful. Everyone I know was worried about me getting sexually assaulted over here. I would always scoff, I would tell them that the women who get sexually assaulted are drunk and stupid, and not to insult my intelligence. And yet…here I am, sober and self-aware, and it didn’t pass me by either. It kills me that they’re right. I feel like I should be above it somehow, I feel like I’m fitting into the category of women who get sloppy and stupid and trusting.
Now I’m sitting in the same café with an empty demitasse of espresso, the edges of the cup stained with brown, frothy residue. The milk cup and sugar packet sit untouched on the tray I was given, and the stirring spoon is sitting on the saucer still gleaming silver, unused. My paper cup of tea with the logo of the green siren—a little flash of home out here so far away and all alone—is holding its final few sips and my water bottle is no more than a plastic vessel. I’m finally, just two hours after being followed and verbally bothered by a man, feeling a bit better. It was just him following me and talking to me when I didn’t want him talking to me. When you break it down, it doesn’t sound so bad. He didn’t touch me. But when you look at his intentions, at his persistence, and when I think about that horrible smile painted onto his face…I have to ask myself, “Would he have chased down another guy for coffee? Would he have been so relentless to another male?” The answer is, of course, fuck no. And that is unnerving.
I’m not this person, this porcelain doll that breaks under the slightest bit of pressure. I’m a leather-skinned warrior with ice blue eyes that can rip a person to shreds. But here I am, still breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth, two hours later, trying to get myself back to the present moment…
I had no idea that the panic would still continue in my civilian life, the life when I could do whatever I wanted when I wanted…but it didn’t just continue…it multiplied.