At 17

4:17 a.m. on the 19th of July, 2000 was meant to be the final minute of my life

Morning Sun, Edward Hopper

4:17 a.m. on the 19th of July, 2000 was meant to be the final minute of my life — at least, according to the intruder who was already in my home. Instead it was the minute I woke up, in bed, on my belly, under the light I had left on because I had been broken into earlier that day and had been nervous falling asleep.

It was the moment I looked at the clock: 4:17 a.m. “Well,” I thought, “if no one has broken in and tried to kill me by now, I guess I’m ok.”

Click.

I turned out the light. And rolled over, ready to go back to sleep. Except I really had to pee. I mean, really had to pee. And even though I resisted at first, I finally gave in and got out of bed, groggy with sleep, and half-stumbled to the bathroom. Where I met a man who didn’t belong there.

And suddenly, I was fighting for my life.

He lunged at me. I didn’t know how to defend myself, but I didn’t really have any control over my body anyway. I remember feeling that I couldn’t let him get me to the ground, although he finally did knock me down. I remember feeling why are you doing this to me?

I don’t remember screaming, because I lose my hearing when I’m in shock… but I remember the sound rushing back into my ears after he ran off, I believe because he heard the neighbors shouting and running across their floor above to come down and help me. I remember being thrown back into shock when he pulled the front door right open, even though I always kept it locked and chained, realizing even in that moment when I wasn’t realizing anything that he had obviously prepared that exit in advance. I remember shaking so hard I could barely dial 911, and I remember finally, hours later, asking one of the neighbors to accompany me, so I could finally go to the bathroom.

Night Windows, Edward Hopper

Earlier that day, when I had returned home from work, I noticed my back door was open — I lived in a ground-floor apartment in Hollywood. It was still daylight, and Los Angeles was having a terrible heat wave. I actually thought, when I saw the door open, that I had left it open myself when I was rushing out to work that morning, late as usual and particularly stressed out as I was finishing up loose ends at work in my last couple of days before I started a new job. So although I was cautious, I entered my apartment to see what was going on.

Nothing much, it turned out. My linen closet had been gone through, as well as a box on the top shelf of my bedroom closet, and a file cabinet that was kept deep in yet another closet off the kitchen. The bathroom hadn’t been touched — not that I had anything to steal, but no meds had been stolen or sought. My computer, stereo and TV equipment was all intact. Even my 35mm camera was there. I called the cops anyway, and they determined it was just kids on a prank, daring each other to do stupid stuff in weather that makes bored kids stupid. That seemed reasonable enough.

It was the detective who came the next morning, after the attack, who guided me toward the realization that it was the intruder who had broken in that afternoon, preparing his entry for later that night.

But it was only 12 years later, when I was arguing with someone online about gun control in the U.S., that I realized the intruder had been, earlier that day, looking for a gun. Because that is all the places I would have kept one: the linen closet, the bedroom closet, the file cabinet. If I had had one and he had found it, would he have brought it back at 4:17 in the morning to use against me? I will never know.

I do know that 4:17 a.m. on the 19th of July 2000 changed the course of my life forever.

New York Movie, Edward Hopper

One of the things that pissed me off after I was attacked was exactly this fact, the way everything I was about to do had been interrupted, sometimes for good, sometimes just for a while, but I had no way of knowing which. I had planned on stopping smoking the coming Monday, but after the attack that was more than I could handle, on top of dealing with trauma and finding my way back to myself again. So it took me another eight years to finally stop. Eight more years of smoking that I didn’t even want.

I was working on shooting some short films, to help me understand if my screenwriting skills actually played out on a big screen. The scenes were shot, but it took me another two years before I could edit them. The new job I was about to start almost fired me right away for being unfocused, forcing me to tell them what had just happened only a week before my first day.

I had finally moved out of grieving over a long-term relationship and was starting to date again. At 32, I was ready to commit to someone for real, and was thinking a lot about having a family. The desire to have children never came back. I can’t say now, 17 years later, if the desire to have children was even that strong to begin with. There are some sensations I can no longer remember from before that attack. That one is gone forever.

I was angry for awhile, at the same time feeling raw and vulnerable and not at all sure who I was: was my favorite color still red? did I like the same music? what kind of ice cream was I partial to? I was angry that I didn’t know myself anymore, and angry that I had to rebuild. I was angry that the only place I felt safe to sleep was in my car, while I was driving, and how impossible that was. I was really, really angry that even though I logically knew it was misapplied, I couldn’t trust men for a while.

I really missed the company of men for that while. And I was angry about that too.

Automat, Edward Hopper

While I worked on sorting myself out, I learned a martial art — I earned a black belt, and then earned another, and another. I became the first woman in my dojo to become an instructor. I learned how to fight with sword and stick and knife and hand-to-hand. I learned how to be hard while appearing soft. And then I learned to simply be soft. But I’m learning that still.

It took me a couple of years of training to learn, thanks to a persistently annoying roommate, that I actually did hear the intruder enter my apartment that night, even though it was softly, in bare feet, through a window in the living room. I learned that we hear when we sleep, and it’s those little anomalous noises that wake us up, rather than the big bangs. I learned I could sleep soundly, finally, because I could trust myself to hear an anomaly again.

It took me some years after that to understand that there are years when the 19th of July matters, and years when it slips right by. I prefer both, actually, because the degree to which the date matters in any given year tells me something about my life, about where I am with things at that moment. The time, though: that always matters. 4:17.

It took me quite a few years more to learn that having to go to the bathroom that night saved my life; that we have neuro-receptors in our guts, which are located close enough to the bladder, and that sometimes our brains deliver information to us in indirect ways to keep us safe — because I got out of bed, I was on my feet, I had a chance at surviving.

Q Train, Edward Hopper

And it took some more years after that, and after a decade of life not working out, of self-sabotage, of bad relationships and jobs and decisions, of therapy that didn’t provide the keys I needed because my burden was getting heavier and my ability to carry it weaker, and my desire to put it down getting stronger — my desire to put me down was getting stronger — to finally understand that in order to truly forgive myself, I had to apologize to myself first.

It took me a long time to understand that the 32 year old woman who got out of bed and defended me that night, in the best way she knew how, stayed there, defending, frozen in time, never receiving a thank you for her hard work, never receiving an apology for the cognitive split in that moment, at 4:17 a.m. It took me a long time to learn that this 32 year old woman was the one who was tired, and angry, and that her efforts to defend me had long twisted into punishment, for 17 years — via bad decisions and relationships and jobs and dreams that were destined to never work out. That she had been pushing my buttons until I finally saw her, and heard her. And said I’m sorry to her, sorry for not doing better in that moment, explaining I did the best I could, the best I knew how, at 4:17; and simply thanking her, so she could finally stand down.

And I learned, in the end, that if my body will do anything — even beyond my control — to keep me alive, there is a part of me that loves me more than anything ever has or ever will. I owe it to that part of me to fully live. And that’s true for everyone, not just me.

It took me only a little while after that to understand that even though I didn’t “fight back” or do any of the things I teach women now to defend themselves (because I didn’t know how, back then), even though I came out of that moment broken and bloodied and burdened with something I carry for the rest of my life, even though it has been a long, long road full of mistakes and regrets and stumbles and falls; even though all of these things, on that night at 4:17 a.m., on the 19th of July in the year 2000 when I fought for my life, I defended myself perfectly.

Because I didn’t die.

Because I’m still here.

Happy 17.

The Singing Butler, Edward Hopper

This is a true story. If you have suffered aggression or violence, please seek help. No one deserves to handicap her life with the burden of her experience. If you know someone or suspect someone is a victim of violence, please guide them to resources in your local area to help. And when you’re ready, learn self defense! (preferably from someone who has the empathy and/or experience to understand what women face.)