In response to today’s Daily Post prompt…
In the winter of 2005, I was living in Uptown, Chicago. It was around 8pm, dark and freezing out. I was walking home from the grocery store to my studio apartment, a short but slippery trip. In warmer months, those five blocks would have been well-populated with pedestrians headed to the gym or out to get a bite to eat at the nearby taqueria. Now, the streets were eerily empty.
I wasn’t dressed for the weather, really. I’d evacuated to Chicago from New Orleans just a few months before, following Hurricane Katrina, and I arrived in the city with two pairs of jeans, a pair of Converse, two t-shirts, a laptop, and my cat. I had added a pair of simple black heels, some sturdy lug-sole boots, a sweater, and a thrift store jacket to my wardrobe, but it wasn’t enough. I was freezing as I walked home, despite the layers I’d guessed might be enough before setting out to stock up on provisions. This was my first winter with snow ever, and I wasn’t coping very well.
I first felt it as I rounded the corner onto Clark Street, just a few blocks from home. It was a familiar feeling, though it had only happened once, years before. An intense darkness crept over me. Worry curled up in the pit of my stomach, and my heart started beating faster of its own accord. I looked around, ahead, behind, to the sides. No one was out on the street. But still the feeling grew. I was being followed. I couldn’t see the person, but my body was pulsing with energy, the cold forgotten. Someone was there.
Years of conversations with my father started to roll through my head. Keep your eyes and ears open. Be ready to drop everything and run. Don’t worry about your wallet – your life is worth more. Put your keys between your knuckles and use them to gouge. Of course, his big one was to never go out after dark in the city, but that’s not exactly a useful rule if you ever want to leave your house in Chicago between November and February.
A lesson from my diminutive best friend popped into my head. When we were younger and situations seemed frightening, she’d pretend she was a 6’6″ gorilla, bigger and scarier than anyone else around. It works. So I pretended I was a gorilla, too. I hurried home, still crawling with fear, but putting on my best gorilla swagger. I kept my eyes open, scanned all around me multiple times – there was no one, but I somehow knew that there was, despite the lack of physical evidence.
The courtyard to my building had a gated courtyard, complete with electronic keypad. I punched my code, ran inside, and slammed the gate, dropping my groceries and catching my breath there. I felt safe behind lock and key.
As I picked the groceries back up to go inside, my gut coiled up and fear washed over me again. I looked up and through the gate. He was across the street, casually leaning against a building with his arms crossed. Looking straight at me. He nodded and smiled a big, cold grin. His eyes were empty of emotion. It was one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen. For a second I froze, then dug deep to keep my feet from running away without me. I stared at him for a second, then tried to casually turn and walk indoors. Like a wild animal – don’t let them smell your fear. Of course, after the foyer closed and I was sure no one could see me, I ran straight up three flights of stairs to my apartment and didn’t stop until every lock was locked and I’d propped a dining chair under the doorknob.
I wish I could say that was the night I decided to take self defense lessons, or carry mace, or get a concealed carry license. But I didn’t do any of those. A few weeks later, I moved back to New Orleans, and I never saw the man again.
The reason that night stands out to me is because it wasn’t the first time I’d had a odd reaction to the emotional energy in my vicinity. It was, however, the first time that I’d put two and two together. After that night, I was able to look back and identify a few other times in my life where strong emotions either put me over the edge – like a clinically depressed ex-boyfriend who often drove me to tears just by walking into a room, to concealed emotions like anger or jealousy showing up as clear as day to me, but not to others who experienced the same conversations. I’d often get proven right after the fact, but was never quite sure why I’d known what I did. I had also had a similarly scary experience when I felt like I was being followed, sprinted home, and then found out the next day that another girl was attacked just around the corner from where I’d first felt threatened. Even after all of these signs, the snowy night in Chicago was my first realization that I had at least a touch of empathic ability.
Years later, while living in Chicago again, by happenstance I met a Reiki healer at a party. I didn’t know that he was an energy worker; in fact, I didn’t know anyone at the party. But as the party progressed, my chest got tighter and tighter, and I started to have trouble breathing. Eventually, I started crying – it wasn’t an unpleasant feeling, despite how I’m describing it. It was really like I was being shaken or vibrated, but from the heart outwards.
In the middle of this weirdness, as I struggled to figure out what was going on (had I been drugged? was I having a heart attack?), the healer turned, took one look at me, then immediately took me by the arm and led me to the nearest chair. When he touched me, I felt dizzy. “What’s going on?” I asked. He looked me over, closed his eyes, and just reached out a hand and stroked at the air. He did this for a second, then quickly pinched his fingers together and “plucked” something in the air between us. I felt better immediately. No breathing trouble, no vibration, no need to cry. I was fine.
That’s when he told me what he did for a living, and asked me gently why I had come to this party without “grounding” and putting up some kind of protection for myself. He couldn’t believe it when I gave him a confused look. As it turns out, he was the first person to explain what it meant to be an empath, and why I might be able to pick up some people’s feelings or personal energy if they were strong enough. He was also the first person to tell me that I could learn to expand the ability and control it if I wanted to. I’ve never tried. I can ground now, and I can throw up a quick shield in a pinch, but I’m still not as good at it as I would like to be.
Now I’m at the end of the post, and there’s no good way to close it out. There’s no good ending. I still walk down deserted streets sometimes, but now I keep my emotional feelers out, as well as keeping my eyes and ears open. I never wear heels if I have to walk anywhere, a little bit for comfort’s sake, but more because I want to be able to run at a moment’s notice. And I think about getting better at reading people’s emotions, but then I think of all of the ugly things out there. I kind of like being just a little empathic, and not all the way.