I was at work and my phone rang; caller ID showed it was coming from my parents home. I answered with a cheerful “Hi!” and immediately heard my mom crying before a man started talking. He said to keep calm and go somewhere quiet. My dad has been sick and I immediately thought they were going to tell me he had died. I figured this guy was a police officer, and he was talking because my mother was too distraught.
Then he told me that he was going to kill my parents.
He said if I told anyone, called the police or did anything other than what he said to do, they would be dead. I thought it couldn’t be real, but it felt real. I reasoned that if it was real, it would always feel like it wasn’t. It was an altogether unbelievable situation. Who would do this to someone? Who would go this far if it wasn’t real? He kept telling me to calm down as if hearing your parents are being held at gunpoint by a meth-riddled gang member was not unimaginably upsetting. I wrote a note on a post-it. It had my parents’ address and “call 911 someone is holding my parents hostage” written on it.
He told me to get all my money and to bring it to him. I didn’t have my car, I said. He yelled at me to get an Uber. He would stay on the line the whole time to make sure I wasn’t talking to anyone. I kept asking him to let me talk to my mom. He said I could when I did everything he told me. I said I couldn’t go anywhere because he called my work phone, a landline. I gave him my cell number so I could go to the bank. He got agitated and kept yelling that I better not be telling anyone or he’d kill them. He stayed on my work line until I answered my cell phone, a call that showed my mom’s number. I picked up, handed my coworker the note I had written and walked out the office door.
He kept asking me where the nearest Safeway was, saying that I needed to find the closest one and Uber there to exchange money. I kept saying I didn’t know for sure, but the closest one would probably take me 30 minutes to get to. He yelled it was not good enough and kept telling me to look it up while he stayed on the phone. I begged him to let me talk to my mom and he got angrier, then told me just to do what he said. I really lost it then and started crying and screaming that I needed to talk to my mom. I was standing outside my office, atop an escalator, yelling into the phone. I had lost all sense of the rest of the world – I didn’t care if anyone heard me. He told me to shut up and calm down so I didn’t attract attention, and to go to the bank. I said I could give him money, but I needed to go to the ATM. He kept yelling to “Calm down, calm down,” because if people got suspicious my parents were going to die.
He said they were gang members and that he was checking with his partner about where I could meet him to exchange the money. My boss came out and told me to calm down, that it was probably a scam he had just read about, and it probably wasn’t real. I was too afraid the guy on the phone would hear him, so I waved him away a couple of times, thinking “if this guy hears you and it’s real, he’s going to kill them.” I had considered this might not be real – all throughout – but things he said made enough sense that I took it seriously. His urgency, the crying that sounded like my mom, the ways he yelled when something didn’t play out the way he clearly hoped it would, talking about smoking meth and knowing the instability and chaos that can come of it. I didn’t really know if it was real or not – I just knew that it felt like it was and that was enough to keep me hooked.
Several times throughout the 10-15 minutes this man terrorized me, I thought my parents were going to get shot to death and I would have to hear it. I thought about how scared they must be. I thought about how I needed to save them, but that I didn’t know what to do. The more he yelled for me to settle down as I started to spiral out – the more I started to believe my parents were going to die because I couldn’t “keep calm.” Suddenly it all clicked. I’ve been told all my life that I’m “too sensitive.” The “why are you crying,” “stop crying or I’ll give you a reason to,” “why are you always so sensitive,” “you need to calm down,” “calm down,” “Calm down now.” It all rushed through my mind – all those moments that people had told me to stop being emotional and all those times I thought I had a right to be. Suddenly, and in the worst possible moment, I realized that my sensitivity and emotional expression is not just annoying, but a danger. My inability to calm down is why my parents were going to die.
My boss was able to come back and divert my attention enough that I heard him tell me to call my mom on her cell phone. I just pulled the phone away from my ear and stared at it, like it was some foreign object I had no idea how to work. My brain was so taxed I couldn’t comprehend how to make a call. I couldn’t remember her number. I couldn’t just hang up because he was yelling and threatening he’d kill them. I finally took a deep breath, muted the call and tried to dial my mom on another line, but I didn’t know what numbers to dial. I thought – if this is real, I just killed my parents.
I finally found her contact in my phone and called. She picked up and I just yelled to her, “Are you safe? Are you safe?” The moment she said she was, I fell onto my knees and sobbed. My boss walked away to let me talk to her, and I sat there on the floor in the hallway of our office building crying as hard as I could, trying to get the words out to tell her what I had just endured. All the while she was telling me to “calm down.” It wasn’t real, but it was for me. It was real grief, real trauma, real fear. I don’t know that I’ll ever get over those moments. I know what it feels like to believe my parents were going to be murdered by some stranger. I know what it feels like to feel helpless and confused. I know what it feels like to think my not being able to calm down is the reason my parents would be dead.
I can’t state well enough how real and terrifying this experience was. I didn’t stop crying until later that night, but every time I think about it I cry some more. I woke up sweating from nightmares last night and all the nights since then. I feel nervous. I do not feel embarrassed or ashamed for nearly giving everything I had to make sure my parents were safe. The man on the phone was real. The crying was real. The threats sounded real. It made sense it could be real, even though the magnitude of what was happening felt like it couldn’t be. I just kept thinking – if this is real, I have to help them.
I went back to work the next day and cried as soon as I got to my desk. I looked at my phone thinking – there it is. That’s where it started. My boss sent me home, with kindness. I had therapy and we decided the best way to tackle this is head-on. I should walk and hydrate and take care of my body. I should keep reminding myself it wasn’t real, no matter how it felt at the time. I can think and talk about it as much as I need to, to desensitize my mind and body until they’re both on the same page. I had lunch with my parents after therapy, and seeing them there, safe and sound, helped a lot. I cried when I saw them – they are okay. They are alive. The danger wasn’t real. They were never afraid. Nobody was going to hurt them. Nobody was going to steal them from me while I listened over the phone.
What happened to me was a new style of phone/internet scam that is becoming more and more realistic and terrifying. (see: CNN article) It’s as much a monetary scam as it is a psychological one – designed to trick a mind into disconnecting from reality out of abject fear so they can be driven to do whatever is asked of them. It isn’t designed just for older people or the Luddite. It’s for parents, for grandparents, friends, siblings, nieces, and nephews. It hits all over the board and people fall for it. We fall for it not because we’re soft-hearted or naive or trusting or stupid. We fall for it because, in those moments where you are rushed to decide the fate of your family and threatened with violence, you don’t have the luxury of taking a step back to consider what’s happening. They tell you that if you do, they’ll kill the people you love, and they’ll tell you in a way that sounds exactly like they mean it.
There is a swirl of “what if’s” in my brain. I am not supposed to dwell on those, but sometimes I catch myself staring off, having considered what it would have been like to hear a gunshot, to walk into my parents’ house and find them dead. I think about whether I could live with myself if any of that had come true. I think about that a lot. I then have to come back and remind myself how that man doesn’t deserve real estate in my head. He doesn’t belong in there at all. What’s real: my family is the same as before: safe. What’s not real: my parents are dead and I listened while a man shot them, because I didn’t calm down.
I just keep reminding myself over and over that it’s not true, with the hope that, at some point, the rest of me will follow
Maybe one day I’ll figure out how to “calm down” when someone tells me to, but probably not. And ultimately, that’s okay. There is nothing right or wrong with me and my emotional capabilities. I am an emotional human. I am sensitive. I am feeling with my whole heart. And you can bet that if the life of someone I love is on the line, I will not “keep calm,” but I will do whatever I can to keep them safe. I know that now.
*Cross-posted to Cassie Loves Linsey