THE BLOG

A Personal Appeal to Women: Don't Be a Statistic

10/18/2013 09:46 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

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TL;DR: Please do yourself a favor and arm yourself with something to keep you safe, like pepper spray. It just may save your life. It did mine.

I've never written a personal post before. I'm a pretty private person, so I usually like to stick to business, with some shoes and shenanigans thrown in along the way. But I'm going to make an exception with this post. If it saves even one life from tragedy, stepping outside my comfort zone will be worth it.

Some Background

I thought I was pretty safety conscious. I stay aware of my surroundings, shoot the stink eye to questionable characters, avoid parking or walking next vans with no windows, let a friend know if I'm meeting with someone from Craigslist to cash in on a good deal, etc. etc. Every once in a while an episode of Law and Order would alert me to a danger I hadn't considered before, and I'd add a new line item to my mental list.

But then a stalker turned my world upside down. After a few incidents that creeped me out but didn't seem to warrant a call to 911, he found out where I worked and who my boss was. One night, unbeknownst to me, he left several incoherent and bizarre but vaguely threatening messages on his voicemail throughout the night. No one at my work even knew I had a stalker. (See earlier note about being intensely private.) So when I arrived at work that morning, my boss's assistant told me what had happened, and they put the place on lockdown. I was mortified by the spotlight and embarrassed that I didn't detect the signs that his stalking was escalating. I didn't even know the guy's last name.

Needless to say, this incident catapulted my personal world into a frenzy. I did learn his last name later that day and ran an instant background check on him. And he had a history of aggravated battery. Great.

The good news was I had no problem getting a restraining order against him, and the judge made it permanent, which is apparently rare in Florida. But I was in a fog. I hadn't ever really never felt in danger from the stalking, more annoyed and baffled over why he was doing it. I barely knew the guy. And we had never dated or anything else that you would think would potentially trigger obsessive, stalking behavior. So my learning curve was pretty steep.

So why am I writing about this?

I'm not writing about this because it's fresh. It's not even painful anymore, so catharsis isn't my motive. I'd rather not think about that weird season of my life that is now almost 10 years in my rear view mirror. However, the lessons I learned from a very wise crisis intervention counselor I had to meet with at the courthouse, which was part of the restraining order process, set me on a course I'm now very grateful for. She saw that I was in way over my head and went down a list of safety tips with me:

  • Buy some pepper spray and put it on your key chain.
  • Stay alert when walking alone at night, especially in parking lots.
  • Don't talk on the phone, put headphones in, or look distracted if you're walking by yourself at night.
  • Always look into your backseat before getting in your car.
  • Invest in an alarm service.

As you'll see later in the post, although I couldn't have realized it at the time, the advice she gave me in that fateful meeting very likely saved my life several years later, particularly the tip about carrying pepper spray on my key chain..

The Power Of Pepper

Near Miss 1

To set the stage, I was in a Best Buy parking lot in Ft. Lauderdale walking out to my car. On the other side of the aisle were three guys. No big d. It was so inconsequential that I took advantage of the time walking to my car at the far end of the lot to check out something on my phone. But then I thought I caught something out of the corner of my eye. When I turned my head slightly to the left, I saw one of them beside me but behind maybe a couple steps behind. Then I looked to the right and saw one of the other guys to my right. So I can only assume the third guy was behind me. I was too scared to turn around (although I definitely would now). I really think, given that it was dusk and not late at night, they were probably just after my car. I don't know. What I do know is they weren't there to help me put my bag in the trunk.

So, when I pulled my keys out (which I now take out before entering a parking lot), I opened up the pepper spray and just held it straight up in the air. I never said a word. I just let them know that if they touched me, there was going to be some serious pepper drama raining down on them. And they dropped back and went back to their side of the aisle, and I got in my car and left.

Near Miss 2

Fast forward the clock several years later. I had just moved to Tampa and was living in an apartment until I decided where I wanted to buy. But it was brand new and still being developed. My building still wasn't finished, and I was in the very back of the sprawling complex, where there were few people living. (We were the second family to move into our building.) But I felt safe because it was a gated community in a nice area of the 'burbs.

It was a little after 1am, and I drove to my typical parking spot. But right before I got to my spot I noticed a car in an area that was usually vacant. And I thought I saw a person sitting in the car. But I dismissed it and parked in my typical spot, maybe 20 yards away. I mean, c'mon. People don't sit in a dark car in a nearly empty parking lot on a weeknight at 1am, right? I must have just thought the head rest looked like a head because I was so bleary eyed.

But when I opened my door, I heard a car start, and it sounded close. Startled, I looked over at the suspicious car. Just then he pulled his car back at an angle and turned on his lights. Then he just waited there while I got my computer bag out of the back seat. I couldn't make out his face because of the distance and blinding light.

My first reaction was a mixture of confusion and annoyance, not fear. That was a mistake. In retrospect, I should have run as soon as he did put his lights on me. And screamed at the top of my lungs. At minimum, it's an act of aggression. I wondered why he was being so weird. I thought perhaps he thought he was being helpful.

But the jumbled mass of entangled thoughts consuming my focus quickly took a sharp turn. He drove his car in front of me, blocking me from my apartment building. It wasn't until that moment that I realized my life was in danger.

I thought about screaming at that point but didn't want my girls to possibly hear and come running out. My thoughts raced and couldn't seem to land in any one spot. My chance to take off running had already eluded me, and I was blocked in by the drainage pond behind me. That slight delay, unfortunately, gave him the opportunity to put me in a very vulnerable position. And because I was at the very back of the complex and there was no way out in the direction he was driving, I knew he had no other reason to be where he was at that moment but to block me.

Even though he was sitting less than a couple feet from me, I couldn't see his face because his windows were tinted dark. But his window was down about an inch, enough for me to just see the top of his head. When he wouldn't move after what was realistically 10 to 15 seconds (but felt like minutes) of just sitting in front of me, I held my pepper spray out right in front of the open window and mustered my most heinous Jersey face. He hesitated but then slowly moved forward, and I hightailed it to safety.

I made so many mistakes in that incident because I over-thought everything. But I was thankfully saved by at least using pepper spray to regain my power. There's no question in my mind that pepper spray saved my life that night.

Near Miss 3, This Time My Daughter

One afternoon my daughter Destinee went out for a run. I had always told her that when she went for a run she needed to take her pepper spray with her and not play her music too loudly, so she could stay aware of her surroundings. There were a few patches of heavily wooded areas along the bike trail that snaked through our neighborhood, and they squicked me out a bit when I was alone.

Sure enough, right before entering one of those patches of trees, she noticed a guy walking on the sidewalk adjacent to the trail. When she turned back again she saw he had gotten onto the trail, which was weird to her, but he was walking. When she turned back again, he was running in a full sprint right toward her. He was wearing street clothes and flip flops, so she knew this wasn't just a case of a dude trying to impress her with his super-jock powers.

To her dismay, although she usually carried pepper spray, she didn't have hers on her that day. So all he had was a spike of adrenaline and sheer panic fueling her sprint at the end of a long, hot run. She got off the path and ran with all her might through the neighborhood and eventually lost him by ducking behind someone's door after turning a bend. It was the mother of all close calls. And guess how often she leaves her pepper spray at home when she goes for runs now? NEVER.

Near Miss 4, This Time Two of My Daughters

In another incident, when we were living in Tampa, Destinee was out "clubbing" with my other daughter, Tori, in a historic and super-hip but questionable area called Ybor City. I use the term clubbing lightly because they were under 21 so there was no alcohol, but their friends loved going there to dance. Any time they ventured out, I'd make sure at least one of them had pepper spray in her clutch. And this one night it came in handy.

The two of them were walking to their car shortly after midnight, and a group of 10 or so sketchy thugs came up to them and just started smack talking. The girls ignored their jeers and catcalls and kept walking, but one guy decided he wasn't going to be brushed off and grabbed Tori's arm, pulling her toward him. What they didn't realize was Destinee already had the pepper spray in her hand. In an instant she hulked out and held the pepper spray right in his face and bellowed for him to get his hands off her sister. It worked. He let go of Tori's arm, and they left with some choice words but without incident.

These aren't the only incidents we've faced, and we weren't living in dangerous areas. And we didn't engage in risky behaviors or hang out with dubious people. We were just going about our daily lives doing the things that women should be able to do without fear of harm.

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Why I'm Issuing This All Call for Women

My daughters are college students at the University of Central Florida, and they share an apartment with two other girls. Together, they have a lot of fun and are all pretty footloose and fancy free. But after one of their roommates had a close call a couple months ago, I outfitted both of them with pepper spray as well. And then this week, after watching a really sobering crime magazine show about a girl their age who suffered a fatal violent attack, it really got me wondering if there was something more I could do to get the word out to women about how easy it is to potentially reduce their chances of falling prey to a monster disguised as a human.

But I have to admit it was an agonizing choice. I've wrestled with the idea for two months because I really don't like to put my personal life on display. Very few people have known I had a stalker. I don't know ... There's just something sensational about even the sound of it. Like this stuff isn't supposed to happen in middle class neighborhoods among people who have backyards, mortgages, and kids.

But, as I thought about it, it occurred to me that in all the years I've been carrying pepper spray, I've only seen two other women with pepper spray out and visible. Two. But, in my opinion, it's the easiest way to let a would-be attacker know that you aren't an easy hit. They want easy; they don't want a big fight or face full of pepper spray. And they especially don't want a face full of pepper spray with dye in it that puts them in a suspicious light until the dye wears off. Brilliant, right?. You can get one on Amazon for under $10 (pick one, any one), provided it's not illegal to ship pepper spray in your state. We also carry an emergency whistle and a safety cat. Below is what my key chain looks like.

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Be Proactive

I'm not saying that any of these accoutrements will save women from all dangers out there. It's not a full-proof plan, and there are no guarantees in life. But I'm an analyst; I'm not going for guarantees. That said, I want to do everything I can to keep statistics in my favor.

And, having also watched quite a few crime episodes in my day, I'm always saddened to watch tragedies unfold that may have been prevented with something as simple as pepper spray and a whistle. (I didn't have a whistle during either of the incidents I listed. I learned about them when Destinee started college. The college provided students with them.)

But think about it: If you're in danger and set off a warning that people can hear (and these whistles are piercing), you've just brought people to their windows, adding to a potential list of witnesses who could provide key details to law enforcement at worst and scare off the perp altogether at best. And you've provided everyone in your immediate area with a potential timeline, if something terrible did happen. Although I'm not in law enforcement, in some states you can't even report an adult as a missing person until a waiting period has expired. But if people in the vicinity report hearing screams and a loud whistle, that could cause the case to escalate.

This stuff is morbid to think about, just like it's morbid for schools to rehearse disaster readiness programs now. But it's much better to rehearse what you would do in the event of an emergency while your thoughts are calm than to freeze like I did in a dark parking lot at 1am.

So I write this post with the hope that it will alert not just girls and women but anyone who's vulnerable to the dangers out there to how easy it to protect themselves. To that end, provided carrying pepper spray isn't illegal where you live, there's really no reason not to. (This site provides some information broken down by state for the US, but I don't know how reliable it is. Check the laws for your region.)

And if it is illegal where you live, find a legal alternative, such as this miniature-size canister of Farbgel spray that stains skin for several days. I wish it came on a key chain. I think that's an oversight. But having a case is at least better than having to carry a canister wherever you go.

If you do decide to carry pepper spray or the safety cat, just remember to remove any threatening items before entering airports, courthouses, schools, or anywhere else it could be interpreted as a danger to others around you.

Use Technology

My girls and I have a great app on our phones called EmergenSee. It allows you to set up people to be alerted if you are in danger. A really brilliant feature is it captures your GPS coordinates and sends them along with the alert. My girls and I have used it when we weren't sure if we were in danger. You can easily cancel the alert if it turns out you're not in harm's way. But it's a comfort to know people who love and care about you are on high alert if they don't get that cancellation notice shortly thereafter.

Any Advice You'd Like To Share?

If you've had similar experiences and have advice you'd like to share, please share them in the comments below. The more we can learn from each other, the better prepared we'll be to face the dangers at the hands of people with nefarious intentions.

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