Situational awareness, or paranoia?

Do you feel safe? By that I mean do you feel “safe” in a general sense, in your home, neighborhood, and workplace?
I’ve never had much of a sense of safety–which is odd, because I’ve never been a victim of any notable crime. Recently I’ve been feeling particularly vulnerable; I’m not sure why. For example, when my family and I stopped at a fast food restaurant just after midnight recently, I kept one eye on the entry and exit doors the whole time, just in case an armed robber decided to make a late-night run for cash. And yesterday when I was leaving the local mall, I checked first for loiterers, to make sure I wasn’t being followed to my car.
Where does this hyper-awareness come from? It could be the news. There’s been a lot going on lately. Locally we’ve had several armed robberies take place in mall parking lots. A couple of teenagers were stabbed inside another mall, one that had previously felt “safe” to local parents. Plus there’s been a spate of home invasion robberies. Nowadays whenever I answer the door I make sure the person on the other side is aware of MacGregor, my 80-pound Belgian Shepherd-Lab mix. (Sure, Mac is smiling in this photo, but you should see him when his hackles go up!)
Am I being excessive? Is this caution the result of prudence, or paranoia? Studies have shown a disconnect between perception and the actual crime rate, according to experts. But that argument doesn’t hold water with the voice inside my head, the one that logs the nearest exit every time I enter a public space.
I’ve gotten used to the characters in our books having a sense of situational awareness, but it’s disturbing to have one’s personal space invaded. 

Maybe somehow all this preparation will pay off. Yesterday we had a terrible bus wreck in our area. The bus evidently lost its brakes and careened down a mountain road until it smashed into a couple of vehicles coming the other way. My husband suggested that the accident was unavoidable, that “destiny” might have been responsible for some of the loss of life. 
Nonsense, I replied. If the bus driver had downshifted instead of riding the brakes, and if he’d driven the bus into the inside of the mountain instead of trying to stay on the road,  more people might have lived.
My husband stared at me.

“Who has time to think of all that during an accident?” he asked.

“I do, every time I go down that mountain,” I said.

It’s that voice again. I actually don’t mind it too much, because it’s that voice that helps me conjure up scenes in my writing. What’s the worst thing that can happen, and what does this character do?
That’s what we writers do all day, right? We think about these things. 
The problem is shutting it off when the writing is done. 


27 thoughts on “Situational awareness, or paranoia?

  1. Two Things:

    On paranoia: I think we just go through phases where we feel more vulnerable for some reason. I haven’t experienced this lately, because I now live in a better neighborhood, but you can bet that during the 13 years I lived in nightly-police-flyover part of the city, I WAS watching every shadow.

    On thinking: This struck a funny chord with me because I’m an analyzer at heart. For several years was an analyst by trade. It’s hard to not think. But it’s been working against me in my physical workouts. I’m trying to learn to box and kickbox, and I’ve been told a few different times by a few different trainers to stop thinking so much and throw the punches, etc.

    But I have to analyze EVERYTHING. Understand EVERYTHING. Like a perpetual 2 year old. Why do you throw the left hook that way? Which muscles am I using? Etc.

    Maybe that’s why I’m no stranger to headaches. LOL!

    BK Jackson

  2. Thanks, BK! I buy Excedrin Migraine in bulk from Costco, too! I was raised by professional worriers, so I’m sure part of this tendency is genetic, part is learned. My dad was actually the first person to explain to me how to control a brake failure on a mountain. It just teaches you a certain way of looking at the world (not always a comforting one, admittedly!)

  3. There is no stopping the thinker in my brain. She thinks so much, that occasionally a simple but minor blurb escapes in the form of a tourettes outburst. No, I’m not kidding.

  4. Some of this may be a male-female dichotomy. I feel safe pretty much everywhere I go, in part because I’m 6’1″ and weigh about 245. I also walk with my head up. I’ve never had a problem, and I don’t expect to, largely because I don’t expect to.

    Cops tell women to adopt a bit of an attitude when out alone. Don’t be confrontational, but don;t look away from people. Criminals are predators, and predators look for the weakest members of the herd. Don’t give that impression.

    As for the driving stuff, I do what you do all the time: what would i do if…? That’s just defensive driving/common sense.

  5. It is very, very, comforting to know there are others like me out there. I’ve always put my paranoia down to an over-active imagination; a blessing or a curse?

  6. I plan for disasters for a living and it occasionally makes me a bit paranoid. I have to laugh and remind myself that I am planning for the worst-case scenario that is unlikely to ever happen.

    However, there is a difference between paranoia and situational awareness. I never leave a building without having my car key in hand, for example. Never. That was ingrained in me in high school.

    And, double yes, on the touch of attitude. I was recently leaving a concert. There was a guy in the parking lot, obviously doing a bit of trolling for women. He briefly made eye contact with me and just as quickly broke it off. Behind me were a group of giggly girls and he was on them like a rash.

    And Dana, if I ever see you in public, do mind if I walk with you?


  7. I too, get paranoid feelings. Maybe it’s normal. Mine comes from my time in Vietnam when situational awareness was mandatory.

    I trust my internal feelings. I’m not crazy about this. Even though I’m proud of being a little crazy, as the source of my talent (assuming I have any). Our feelings are paying attention to the environment and when aroused pinging the flight/fight response. I think we should trust them. Imagine ignoring the feeling and being wrong.

  8. Hi Kathryn,
    I think we are exposed to way too much in this world. The folks who lived during times with no cell phones, tv, etc. never knew what was going on somewhere else in the world. 911, wars, shootings, all of this puts us on edge. Then you add to that our creativeness and we can all get over involved in our imaginations. Personally, I don’t think it’s so much paranoia as fear.

    Do you remember the old Cherokee Legend about which wolf we feed? If we focus on things that are scary, etc. we’ll be more paranoid then if we focus on positive things. I know that’s very simply put but there’s truth in it. If we feed our fear we’ll get paranoid. If we feed and nurture good stuff within us we’ll feel better.

    When I start feeding the wrong wolf I fall back on a scripture I picked as a life verse: 2nd Timothy 1:7 For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.

    Hope that helps a little.


  9. Jill, that’s a beautiful legend about the wolf. I adore wolves, so I’ll use it as an image if you don’t mind. Brian, I’m sure it’s very hard to let go of the awareness one needed to stay alive in a war situation. Kind of like being a policeman–one looks at the world through a wary lens. Sechin, I’ll try to toe that line, thanks! Terri, I’m with you, I want to walk with Dana too! Joe, I never got to have any fun worth forgetting in the 60’s–but I have a lot to forget about from the 70’s, mostly involving polyester prints and platforms.

    • Kathryn,
      I have this posted on my door at work. Cherokee blood on my hubby’s side. 🙂

      An Old Cherokee Tale of Two Wolves

      One evening an old Cherokee Indian told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, ‘My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all.One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

      The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.’

      The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: ‘Which wolf wins?’

      The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

  10. Kathryn, I feel safe all of the time precisely because I engage in the patterns of behavior which you describe. When I sit in a restaurant I pick my seat so that I can watch the entrance, as well as what is going on with my fellow diners; when stopped in traffic, I maintain enough of a distance from the car in front of me so that I can see the bottom of the tires of the vehicle in front of me; when I’m on the street, I maintain awareness of who and what is around me and don’t take phone calls; I lock doors when I get in my car or leave home. Think of it as personal insurance: would you call someone who purchases auto or property insurance as paranoid? Of course not. People who are attacked and/or robbed on the street consistently say that their assailant “came out of nowhere;” not so.

    The absolute final words on the subject, in my opinion, can be found in HOW TO BE YOUR OWN BODYGUARD by Nick Hughes. It is available in e-book form from Kindle and well worth your time and money.

    • Joe, when you mentioned picking your seat at a restaurant so you can watch the entrance, I was picturing you in cowboy hat, gun and holster watching the saloon doors. 😎

  11. I think TV makes crime relateable in a way no other media does. You see the events of what just happened in Alabama,for example, and start to think about how that can happen to your child/a child you know (insert another crime you have seen on tv in its place). This made national news precisely because it is rare, not because it’s the norm. If you look at crimes stats violent crime is way down from the 70s. Yet people talk as if crime is more common, not less.

    Just because there is less crime now doesn’t mean it doesn’t exists, and that therefore one should ignore the possibility. I’ve heard time and again that those who survive are those that had a plan. When I’m out and about, say, walking alone in the woods near my house, I randomly think “What would I do if someone attacked me right now?”. I survey the area, look for impromptu weapons, think about my elbows hitting the soft part of an attacker, etc. Now, I’m not thinking this all the time (my mind is usually elsewhere, and blasted with music), and I’m not sitting barricaded in my house with barred windows, stroking my gun. That would be paranoid. But I do keep aware of my circumstances. That’s situational awareness.

  12. I thought I was the only weirdo…:)

    Seriously, I have always been hyper-vigilant. I think part of it is an innately female thing. And maybe it’s also my suspicious Scorpio nature. But I am positive it is also the times we live in. I hate this, but I watch people as they come into my bagel shop to see if they look edgy or are wearing loose clothes that can conceal a weapon. Last week, at my local diner where I go to breakfast several times a week, a rapper was the target of a rain of bullets. It took out a plate glass window but amazingly no one was hit or hurt. (I wasn’t there). It can happen anywhere, any time. That is what scares me.

  13. Great post…this is something we’re aware of, but don’t always analyze. When I was at a Denny’s a couple weeks ago, an unsavory looking individual stood in the doorway for a few minutes, glancing anxiously into the parking lot. I assumed he was about to rob the place, that I would be shot, and probably killed. None of this happened, but I had such a strong sense of disaster at the time. I don’t know how to get rid of this tendency…or if I should.

  14. Perhaps many of us writers find it easy to envisage the worst case scenario – I know I often find myself thinking through escape options in public places – though I don’t confess this to my husband in case he think I’m getting paranoid…but then again maybe he does the same! In this day and age vigilance isn’t a bad thing though I must admit I found in Australia I felt generally pretty safe (except from bushfires, venomous spiders, sharks and snakes…)

    • Ah, the Australian myth of security. As an undergraduate I went to USC. USC is in a notoriously bad part of LA. At USC you are always aware that Something Bad can happen, especially if you are alone in certain areas at night. My final semester I did abroad, at Australian National University in Canberra. Between downtown and the buildings where most students lived was a shortcut across empty, dark fields. None of the Australians had even the slightest qualms about walking across them – alone even – in the dead of night. They pooh-poohed the concerns of us Trojans, with excuses such as “but this is Australia, not LA” and “but this is Uni”, as if that meant there was some magical force field protecting them. And you know what? There were a few attacks on students walking across those dark and deserted fields that semester. Big surprise. Just because you think you’re safe doesn’t mean you are.

      Maybe they should have watched more American news shows.

    • Australia is no where near as safe as it once was but generally people act as if it’s America circa 1950. Sadly it isn’t. There are places I wouldn’t go late at night no matter the country but I guess most Australians pride themselves on living in a country that’s much safer than most and sometimes that is just plain foolish.

  15. Whoa, I can see from the comments that I’m in good company! Thanks, everyone, for letting me know I’m not the only one with these anxieties! I feel much better now. 🙂

  16. I love this post, Kathryn. I definitely have become more aware of potential exposure to crime because of my love of crime fiction & researching my books. We have surveillence cameras & special reinforced door locks that allows us to speak thru the door without fully opening it. We have dogs & a monitored security system.

    What cracks me up is that we don’t have ANYTHING in our house worth stealing.

  17. Kathryn,

    You mean some people actually have an OFF switch?

    I live a double-risk life because my day job in the medical field always demands I think up the worst-case scenario to protect my patients. Maybe that’s what led me to writing. It’s what I do.

    When I get those same stares and questions from my husband, I shrug and wonder why he didn’t think up the solutions first.

  18. My quarters are inside my warehouse building. One day the dogs were a bit hinky and I walked out into the main room (3500 sf, shadowy) and there was a man standing there. He had come through the dog pen in through the back door. I did my puffer fish impersonation and ordered him out the back door and through the gate. Just kept pointing and ordering. He complied. I had that metallic tang in the back of my throat for the rest of the day.


  19. Young life on the wrong side of the law, a tour in the Marines, lived in DC area for 5 years, was an EMT / wilderness rescue tech for 5 other years, served in the Alaska Defense Force as an infantry scout and a constable. There’s a reason I can still bench nearly 300 lbs and regularly train on fire arms and hand fighting.

    Am I paranoid for my family sometimes? Yes. Paranoid for my self? You bet.

    Moderate paranoia keeps you alive. Fear is what kills you.

    Stay Alert. Stay Alive.

    And God have mercy on anyone who hurts my family.

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