How a thief gave me an irrational fear of bushes

Why asking the reason behind someone’s phobia matters

Photo credit: CS-/Pixabay

I was coming home from kindergarten with my mother when I saw two guys jump from around a set of bushes. In my young mind, they were playing hide-and-seek. But when my mother started swinging her arms and wouldn’t let go of her purse, I quickly realized that this was not the kind of game I thought it was. I switched from excitement to be tagged in to admiring my 5'1 mother physically fighting two young men — and holding her own at that. But from the look on her face, this was really bad.

And then my mother screamed out “They took my purse” in a voice that was more angry than it was scared. We were on a dark street less than two blocks from home. It was the same route we’d always taken when I was coming home from preschool and then kindergarten. There was no reason to drive. But watching my mother breathing heavily and scowling at the two men who ran off with her purse, I wish we’d have driven. When we arrived home and my father and my brother came inside shortly after, there was pretty much nothing we could do. She was carrying cash, which obviously cannot be traced. Although she had to get a new ID, everything else was pretty much disposable.

Photo credit: danielsfotowelt/Pixabay

In self-defense classes, instructors always say to throw the item toward the person trying to rob you. Get them as far away from you as possible. In real life, you never know what you’ll do when you’re in that situation. I took from that experience to never carry too much cash on me at one time. And at the age of 38, you’ll still never see me with more than $5 on me ever. I also am especially on guard when I walk past bushes — more than 30 years later.

When I first decided to purchase a condo, a co-worker told me it was dumb to turn down a location with brand new appliances in a pretty good neighborhood. As much as I liked the place, I just couldn’t stop staring at all the bushes in the front yard. You couldn’t see anything on the left- or right-hand sides of the yard because the entrance door was too close to all of these bushes. He laughed it off and said I was “overreacting.” I told him that he was neither my boyfriend nor my husband, so I didn’t give a damn how “dumb” he thought my reasoning was. I do not deal with bushes. I told my real estate agent to show me more locations.

But while the co-worker’s lack of sensitivity was annoying, it was quickly dismissed. However, a harder conversation I had to have was with a childhood friend who I later dated. He admitted that during his teenage years — in which we were living in two different states — he’d grown desperate to feed his family and started stealing from people. In his mind, he was not “harming” anyone, and it was only things. I grew more irate the more he dismissed what he’d done. He tried to defend himself, “What was I supposed to do? Leave my mother in the dark with her electricity bill unpaid?” My response, “Get a f**king job.” His response, “Nobody has time to work at McDonald’s when the bills need to be paid now.”

Recommended Read: “Getting over your fear of dogs

I stared at him for a long time, wondering if I should let this conversation blow over. After all, he was defending his checkered past from more than 20 years ago, a time in which he did a short time in a juvenile detention center to shape up. At the time I was dating him, he had a new apartment, rekindled his relationship with his father and was working independently. Why be upset about something now when his actions were so long ago? But what didn’t sit right with me was that he was still defending it now. When people defend a wrongdoing, it’s too easy to come to the conclusion that if their back is against the wall, they’d do it again.

So I told him my own story about the bushes. He knew my mother well. And my mother was like his “play” mother. While I told this story, he was forced to humanize the people who he’d stolen from during his teen years. No longer was this just some random stranger who he was taking something from to feed his own family. No longer was this someone he’d never have to see eye-to-eye and face his own demons.

Photo credit: Godisable Jacob/Pexels

He not only knew someone who was the victim of theft now. He was looking at the adult version of a little girl he used to play with as a kid. I could see the wheels churning in his brain, trying to decide between taking care of his mother and what it’s like to be on the other side of this decision. While too often people believe “nonviolent crimes” are harmless and no one suffers anything afterward, my mother still had to take her small child to and from kindergarten every single day and figure out how to get home. Although she found alternate routes to take,we still had to walk past that same spot where she was robbed in order to get home.

And I would stare at those bushes every single time. As an adult, it’s interesting that the bush phobia stayed with me and I grow extremely anxious if I ever have too much cash on my person. But I still go to my childhood home and walk up and down those same streets no matter what. What neither my mother nor I would do was allow someone to scare us out of our own neighborhood. Still though, that “nonviolent crime” has stayed with us in different ways. My hope is by telling this story to people on the other side who dismiss “petty crimes” like this is that they’ll realize the weight of their actions. No one owes you anything. You do not have a right to someone else’s belongings. What you wouldn’t do to your own mother (or other family members), you shouldn’t do to anyone else.

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Shamontiel L. Vaughn

Written by

15-year vegetarian journalist/editor; Wag! dog walker; Rover dog sitter; Toastmasters member and 5x officer; WERQ dance enthusiast; Visit

We Need to Talk

These heart-to-heart conversations challenge some unpopular views on family, relationships and activism.

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