Something out of the ordinary happened today.
I was walking down the road after finishing my shift at the dental surgery, when I was approached in the street by a young (30-something year old?) woman. Firstly she asked me if I spoke English, and when I said yes – expecting her to ask me for directions or something similar – she proceeded to explain some things going on in her life to me in quite heavy detail.
The woman started crying quietly as she told me snippets of her story. She explained to me that she is a teacher; lives in an area local to me; is in an abusive marriage; is unsafe as are her three children; is leaving with them to go and live in a refuge outside of London with a charity for sufferers of domestic violence, etc…
She lifted up her glasses for a moment to wipe a tear away and indeed I saw what looked like a black eye. She also pointed out her front tooth which was severely chipped, another consequence of the domestic violence from her husband, she informed me.
She told me about the charity, including where the centre in London is located, and where the refuge outside of London that she is escaping to is based as well.
She told me that her husband knows that she is trying to get away, and that he has taken away all of her ID, money, travel passes, and other important documents she needs in an attempt to stop her. The children were at home, and the woman’s father was driving down from where he lived to pick them up at some point later in the day to take them all to the refuge where she would be waiting for them.
She told me that she needed a small sum of money to get transport to the London centre, and that if I gave her my contact details she would reimburse me at some point soon. She asked me if I could help her out, and so many things went through my head that I didn’t really know what was going on.
On the one hand, I have the appearance and disposition of a person likely to be perceived as approachable and charitable when someone is in need of a genuine favour. On the other hand, I also have the appearance and disposition of someone likely to be perceived as vulnerable and weak – someone who can easily be manipulated or taken advantage of within a situation.
I was slightly shocked, rather scared, but also very sad and concerned for her and the children she had described. I started judging myself because I couldn’t quite understand what was happening – if the whole thing was a scam and she was just trying to get money off of me, or if what she was saying was genuine and she was seriously in danger.
A few things went through my mind:
1) Tell her you don’t have any money on you, that you’re very sorry for what she is going through, and get the fu*k out of there.
2) Ask her for more details e.g. what school does she work at, more questions about the refuge centre, etc. and then make an informed decision about what to do.
3) Give her the money, speak to her, listen, show compassion, wish her well, and leave.
4) Hear her out, give her the money, remain suspicious, follow her and investigate further.
Her story made sense, her slightly battered appearance followed, and all the details she gave me matched up. (I even checked the centre details online following our interaction, when questioning if what I had done was right.)
At the same time, there was still something inside of me perceiving the situation as odd. Something felt fishy, and I wasn’t comfortable. I could hear my Mother’s voice in my head calling me “naive” and judging my lack of ‘street-wisdom’. I noticed myself agreeing with her, at least on this occasion.
My thought process and subsequent actions came from what I can pinpoint as the three main triggered parts of myself:
- My Compassionate self:
This poor woman is going through hell right now. A bit of cash out of my pocket is nothing compared to what she is facing at the moment. Imagine what her children are dealing with and how scared she must be feeling. A small act of kindness from me could go such a long way if it’s for what she is saying it is for. Someone needs to be there for this woman, and as someone who genuinely cares about and wants the best for people, it is in line with my values to offer this support if I can. This woman needs holding and safety and validation and any support she can get right now. A small sum of money, v.s. her life (and those of her kids) in imminent danger.
- My Codependent self: I really don’t want to give this woman my money as I have no direct proof that what she is saying is the truth… But, what if it IS? If her story is true and I’ve declined to help her, she could end up suffering more and it would be because of me. Do I really want to put her through more distress over a (relatively) small sum of money, which could potentially be ‘saving’ her within this moment? What if I don’t give her the money, and so she asks more people, and none of them do either? I can’t risk it – I would rather give her the cash and be that much poorer, believing that her story is the truth, than not give her anything and hinder the chances of her and her children getting to safety simply because I had the thought that this *may* be some sort of scam. I also cannot deal with the guilt, if that were to be the case.
- My Fearful self: I have absolutely no fuc*ing idea what is going on right now. I am slightly in shock, and my anxiety is rocketing. I am not good at these sorts of ‘situations’, knowing what to do, what is effective, or moral, or likely to be true. I need to get out of this situation, and I don’t care how. The easiest way for me would be to give her the money and leave. I just need a way out of this, and if that way out is through losing some money, so be it. My system is not happy, my body is overwhelmed, my mind is racing – I just need to get out of the situation in a way that will be least likely to impact me long-term.
After the interaction, it was ALL i could think about. I replayed the scene over and over multiple times, exhausting myself and losing track of reality in the process.
I am not 100% happy with what I did (option 3 – practice compassion, give her the benefit of the doubt, give her the money and show support in whatever way she needed), but I know that for me personally it was the least unsettling decision and direction to take of them all. At the same time, the whole business did thoroughly unsettle me. I don’t know why I get so thrown by these things, but it really knocked me off kilter for at least the next few hours, which spiralled into the rest of my day. I’ve felt pretty dissociated since, and I’m having a hard time letting go…