The memory of an armed robbery and how it doesn’t go away

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I was about to enter the parking garage after a routine walk at the end of a workday. As I turned around, I saw two teenagers, probably around 16 or 17, each holding a gun and pointing them at me. I froze in a surreal moment I will never forget, just as I can never forget those six words.

It all happened so quickly. I stood there for seconds as time stood still. “This is not happening,” I thought. Because I didn’t think it was real at first, I remembered telling them, “Sorry, I can’t,” and motioning with my hands like I was confused. I then did something quite stupid, although at the time it seemed rational enough. I turned away from them and the barrels of the two handguns, and started walking away. By the grace of God, these weren’t meant to be my last moments on earth. In a flash of realization, I almost expected to feel at that instant whatever searing pain bullets entering me from close range would feel like. Instead, One of them approached me, stuck his leg out, and tripped me. As I fell to the pavement, I frantically reached in my pocket, pulled out my wallet and tossed it at them. They grabbed it and immediately ran away.

One surreal moment after another followed after that. I rushed back to my workplace, and in a state of near shock, blurted to one of my coworkers at the reception desk what had happened. She immediately called 911, and literally within minutes several police cars pulled up, and police were running into the building.

When they reached where I was I somehow maintained enough presence of mine to relate what happened. Naïvely, I thought they would question me, and then head out to write it up a police report, and then in due time start an investigation that wouldn’t result in finding the criminals, and that would be that. I’d be just another in a long list of crime victims in my city.

Instead, however, I was asked to get in a patrol car and drive with an officer to several locations where they had rounded up suspects. I was supposed to try to identify the robber as they stood a short distance in front of the patrol car, illuminated by headlights because it was dark by that time.

I was really horrified about having to go through something like that because I could barely remember anything about the robbers except oddly, their haircuts and the six words they spoke at the beginning of my ordeal. I saw one person who I thought might possibly be one of the robbers, but I couldn’t be sure. I was operating purely on adrenaline, but miraculously, kept my wits about me and realized there was no way I was going to be able to identify anyone fidgeting there in the headlights in front of me. What if I picked someone who had nothing to do with it? Again, the same totally surreal thought came to mind, that in my state of mind I’d be expected to be able to do this, much less correctly identify someone. I kept thinking I’d never get over it if the police arrested someone innocent.

I must have talked to four or five officers. They were very understanding and sympathetic to my plight, and when I was returned my workplace, they gave me their cards and told me to contact them anytime, and they would get in touch with me if there were any breaks in my case. I didn’t expect there would be.

It turned out there had been a similar armed robbery in that area only days before, so the police were on hyper alert. Several days later I saw in the newspaper a photo of two teenagers arrested in another armed robbery, and they appeared to look very much like those who had robbed me. Their mistake, which led to the arrest, was using a getaway car which someone got the license plate number on.

So, I think the youths who robbed me were apprehended. Case closed. Only it wasn’t for me. When I got home that night, instead of crashing on my bed in utter exhaustion, I called my banks to cancel credit cards. That was all I could do that night. In the ensuing days, I would get a replacement driver’s license license and tend to other matters related to the crime, this violation and threat to my very being. I could easily have died that night because I had the audacity to try to ignore the robbers and walk away. You can’t make this up. It’s not at all like it is in movies and on TV. It was real, it was deadly, and it left lasting scars.

I was proactive in the aftermath. Knowing how prone I am to clinical depression, I talked to one of my higher-up bosses and she recommended a counselor who would provide four sessions, paid for by my employer. This is probably the best thing I could have done at the time because the counselor was very wise and experienced, and helped me process and cope with an event that was one of the most traumatic things that had ever happened to me. The worst crime I had experienced prior to this was having my car window smashed in and someone stealing a jacket that was on the backseat.

Many people have been victims of armed robberies, but before it happened to me, I always felt it it was something that couldn’t, or wouldn’t, happen to me, or that it simply happened to other unfortunate people. That all changed in a flash. I was 65 at the time, and I realize now I must have looked like an inviting target.

I started the counseling sessions about two weeks after the robbery, which occurred on a January afternoon in 2016. I remember driving out to the counselor’s office, and on every occasion but one, the weather was rainy, wet and cold. Very fitting for my mood. Each time I entered her office, however, there was a soft light, and it felt warm and mellow as I sat down to talk to her. I felt my anxiety ebb away. I had also discovered an article which contained an interview with Rachel Yehuda, an expert on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Director of the Traumatic Stress Studies division at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. It was an illuminating article which seemed to release the shackles from my eyes about the subject, and about crime victims and trauma in general. I marked the article heavily with a yellow highlighter and brought it with me to discuss with the counselor.

Yehuda was asked, “Can people ever forget traumatic memories?”

And her reply has really stuck with me:

I think that’s a fantasy, like the movie, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” We sometimes have this fantasy that we’d be better off if we didn’t have our memory, or if we could distort our memories so that the ending would be good and not good. But ultimately our job is to grapple with the fact that we experienced something traumatic, and it means something important that we experienced it. And now we have an obligation to find meaning in it, and we have an obligation to move forward with the memory because, if you erase memory, you erase yourself, because you are your memory. So what we want to help people do is live with the memory, have the memory be less distressing, transform the memory in some way, not transform the veracity of the memory, but transform the response to the memory.

It was evident to me that I could be dealing up the road with a form of PTSD, complete with flashbacks, insomnia, and nightmares. None of that actually happened, probably because I survived the crime physically, and that knowledge alone cushioned the force of my memories. The robbery is not something I think about every day, but I think about it often.

Mainly I’ve tried to figure it out. Why would anyone threaten a perfect stranger in such a manner? Are they so hardened and sociopathic that they don’t care, that human life really means nothing to them? That’s very difficult to believe. What kind of monster would threaten to kill someone unless they gave up their wallet and cell phone? All my life these questions were just abstractions. Now they are real and based on experience.

And then there’s the question of anger, hatred, and bitterness. Why did it happen to me? How I hated the perpetrators of this crime who were obviously depraved and indifferent to what they did to me. Yes, they spared my life. They were teenagers, they probably had no intention of pulling the trigger, even though I tried to run away from them. After they were caught for committing a similar crime, did they end up in a juvenile detention center, or were they actually 18 and sent us to spend time in prison? I’ll never know.

I will also never know if, as they became adults in the intervening years, they ever had a change of heart, felt remorse of any kind, or that they might have acquired something akin to a conscience.

Now this intense anger I felt for them has subsided over the years, but as someone who tries to be a Christian, I know that one of the hardest things to do in life is to forgive someone who has grievously wronged you. In fact, forgiveness is a key tenet of Christianity. There have been people in my past who have wounded me more grievously psychologically then those two youthful criminals. I have experienced unimaginable, sick cruelty. It could take the rest of my life to forgive that person, although I intend for it to be sooner than that. I am mostly there now. I just have to take the final steps.

Sometimes I imagine how much easier it would be to think like an atheist and harbor whatever resentments and bitterness I wanted towards someone, and not feel the pain of guilt. The freedom to choose to be unforgiving comes with a high price. I know in my heart great weight would be lifted from me if I could only forgive once and for all. I can learn to forgive unequivocally if I want to. I believe that. I still have to forgive my father. How extremely difficult it is to forgive a stranger or someone you hardly know.

One final thought. I frankly have been surprised that I didn’t let that awful event get the best of me more than it did. Partly it’s because of my age. The farther along in life we are, the more likely it is we have experienced trauma, illness, or some other devastating setback in life. With age and experience has come the wisdom to understand more fully why horrible things happen to me in life, and how to come back from them and be resilient. With a strong foundation of core values and beliefs, and a a deeper grasp of religious truth as I get older, I think I am able to surmount and overcome the worst that life can throw at me. But for that to succeed, I must have the resilience that comes with age, and hopefully, the wisdom also.

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March 17, 2021

This is a well-told story and I wasn’t going to comment on the logical fallacy that “the grace of God” saved you (though he didn’t lift a finger to prevent the event from happening) until you made the statement about atheists. God always seems to be reactive rather proactive. Atheists can forgive people — at least this one can — and I’ve often been accused of doing that too much and giving people the benefit of the doubt more than I should. Because I believe life is limited and not eternal, I try to look at the big picture and strive for as much harmony as possible, knowing that this life is all there is. That doesn’t mean I’m not pragmatic and recognize when continuing on with, say, a relationship would be to my detriment.

Anyway, I’m sorry this happened to you. Thieves are lower than most murderers in my book because there is almost always a calculated decision to steal, whereas most murders as emotional in nature. I worry about this a bit more now that I’m up in age.

March 18, 2021

@solovoice  I certainly didn’t mean to imply that atheists can’t forgive, merely that it doesn’t seem as incumbent or necessary that they do this as compared to someone who holds Christian beliefs.  Forgiveness is a fundamental tenet of Christianity.  If one believes in God, and God forgives us, then we must do the same of others.

Your last sentence was interesting.  Thieves are much more likely to be calculating.   It makes sense.  They are indeed among the lowest subtypes of criminal humanity.