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You Can’t Break Out of Survival Mode When You are Doused in Fear

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I had the most terrifying experience of my adult life last week.

Realizing that I was at the end of my third month of self-employment, I decided to write a list of all of the accomplishments I have made thus far.

I was feeling a bit doubtful of myself; lately I have been cramming so much reading, researching, and video tutorials into my days that it has felt like everything is moving too slowly. I laid down on the floor with my notepad — the Into the Wild movie soundtrack filling the room with soft, thoughtful tones — and started to fill a page with little bullet points of the learning, implementations and experiences that have shaped these last three months into some of the most incredible of my short career.

A smile returned to my face. It turns out that I have been growing in leaps and bounds — both professionally and personally — and that my worry about moving too slowly had only been a reflection of the impatience pervading our culture of progress.

And then, the back door slammed shut.

My heart leapt so strongly that it pounded against the carpeted floor. My husband was not supposed to be home in the middle of the day, but he had been ill over the holiday weekend. Perhaps it was him? All too aware that it most likely was not—specifically because my office windows were wide open and I would have heard the familiar drone of his engine in the driveway—I quietly got to my feet and peeked outside. There was only my car. I immediately crept over to the CD player and turned the music off, hoping to not hear any other sounds from the first floor, or if I did, to at least buy myself a few precious minutes before discovery. A surge of adrenaline pumped through my veins, my muscles hardened like petrified wood, and my ears painfully perked towards the rest of the house.

Shuffling. Footsteps.

The danger was so close, so palpable, that I looked down at my list in my notebook and for one brief second thought to myself, “so this is the last thing people are going to know of me.” There were no tears. There was only the release of survival instincts. Which closet should I dart into? Wouldn’t the burglar eventually find me if I hid in a closet? Is it better to hide in the large towel closet in the bathroom, where a burglar would perhaps pass over?

More noises.

I knew I had just a minute or two before the burglar would come up the stairs and that no matter where I decided to hide, by that time it would be too late. It sounded as though whatever it was had moved into our master suite, meaning it would take them a moment or two to get through the area and back out of the hallway. I thought that this would be my chance to escape before they came up the stairs and discovered me. Tensing up even more to account for any and all possible noises moving about on the second floor of a home typically makes, I ran on my tip toes down the hallway, down the flight of stairs (a few creaks along the way hurried me along like a pile of hot coals under my feet), threw the front door open and lunged into the front yard. There in the glorious glow of the sun, I furiously banged on our front doorbell, thinking I might scare off whoever it was. Then I called 9-1-1.

A neighbor who had been checking his mail took me into his home while we waited for the police. Two policemen and a police woman arrived within ten minutes and entered my house, taking their guns out of their holsters and posing in cop-show fashion to check each and every corner of the house. They found nothing. I thanked them profusely for their time, apologizing for potentially wasting it. They assured me that I did the right thing and that this was a job they were happy to complete. My neighbor assured me that vigilance is something we have evolved and that I was right to listen to myself and call the police. Still, I was slightly embarrassed.

I have never gone into that depth of fear before.

As my stomach slowly unhitched itself and my muscles dared to release the death-grip they had held, I had time to really think through everything that had occurred. My body and mind were so certain that someone had been in my house, and since the back door had been unlocked the noises I heard made sense. The neighbor who took me in mentioned that he had seen an unfamiliar person recently on our street; had they at some point come into my home? Unfortunately, I will never know. Since nothing was taken nor found out of place, it’s more likely that no one had been in our house. Then again, did they hear me on the second floor and bolt in those first few moments when I stood up from the floor, looked out the window, and then turned the CD player off? Once again, I will never know.

I came to the following conclusion: making long-term decisions when drenched in fear is next to impossible. Your body and mind is not set up for it. When you feel fear, it’s all about survival. Not until after I escaped into my front yard did I feel the first small wave of relief. Not until after the police arrived and inspected the house did I allow my body to unclench. Not until after the police left and I had a few moments to myself was I able to start to wonder about what else those sounds could have been. Finally, after fully disentangling myself from the fear several hours later, I was able to make a plan: plan to lock the back door whenever I am at home and a plan to keep a can of mace on the second floor after realizing that all possible weapons that would have helped me were located on our first floor. This plan will ensure that in the future, I will be in a better position to prevent a break-in, as well as to protect myself should there be one.

If there is anything you are fearful of, financial or not, you have got to get out from the fear before you can look at the situation and make decisions that will impact you for the better in the long-term. Decisions made from fear ensure that you will continue in survival mode. Survival mode is very important and I am thankful to have the type of reflexes that I do. But to ensure that we all do more than just survive, we must eradicate our fear. After all, survival mode cannot last forever. And who would want it to?

Thank you again to the HPD officers who came out to my home last week. You were very professional, and you did not make me feel bad about calling for help.

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Amanda L. Grossman is a Certified Financial Education Instructor, Plutus Foundation Grant Recipient, and founder of Frugal Confessions. Over the last 10 years, her money work helping people with how to save money and how to manage money has been featured in Kiplinger, Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Business Insider, LifeHacker, Woman's World, Woman's Day, ABC 13 Houston, Keybank, and more. Read more here.

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