|Fight or Flight: In Retrospect|
|By Dr. Susan Jones|
Have you heard of the fight vs. flight reaction that people may have to a traumatic event? This particular topic holds a very personal and significant meaning for me.
Years ago, while teaching a crisis intervention class, I was preparing to present this topic to the class full of corrections professionals at the correctional facility that housed mentally ill inmates.
This was not a new course for me and I felt very prepared to present this section of the course. I remember the co-instructors taking a break before I began my presentation. I went with one of the people attending the class to get a soda from within the facility.
As we waited for the elevator, and then for the sallyport doors, we talked. We were very engrossed in our conversation and not particularly aware of our surroundings. (Yes, I know, not a good corrections practice). I reached down for the soda as it dropped in the machine, and then I realized that an inmate had moved quickly to approach me.
As I stood up, he was right in my face. This inmate, who I didn’t recognize, was talking excitedly. He said: “Hello, Ms. Jones. You probably don’t remember me. I am ___, the person who assaulted you three years ago.”
Well, I didn’t recognize him, but I will never forget him. In those few words, my body did two things. First – it had to decide whether to fight or flee. Secondly, my brain had to process the information that I was getting. This inmate who had brutally attacked me was only a few feet from me. He was animated and talking quickly. I knew that I needed to pay attention to what was happening now, but my brain was replaying what happened then.
The scene flashed in my consciousness. I saw my head being pounded into the cement wall. I remembered the massive weight of this very strong and angry man who was on top of the desk that pinned me against the wall. Then, I saw the look on my husband’s face as the ambulance pulled into the facility. I remembered the pain, pain that I have felt every day of my life since then. My neck and back would never be the same.
I was knocked unconscious for a moment and when I came to, I heard the captain, who was one of the staff that had piled on top of the inmate in an attempt to control him. He was yelling at me to get help. None of us had working radios or phone lines at that point in the incident because they had been disabled or destroyed. I climbed from behind the desk and stepped around the pile of officers on top of the inmate and ran for help. After I got to the control center and help was on the way, I hit the floor again
I remember the recovery process that included “getting back on the horse” by going back to work and conducting hearings – which was my job. I also remember the support I received from many people that I never even knew cared. The message machine at my home was full and not accepting any more messages when I returned from the hospital. Not all of the responses to my assault were supportive. There were those who thought I behaved cowardly and “just like a woman.”
I remember sitting through a group debriefing that allowed me to communicate with the others who were hurt when they tried to help me. The facilitator of that debriefing told me something that I had never heard – you can’t be mad at a snake for biting you… that is what they do. In essence he helped me detach my anger that I held against the inmate, because that is what they do.
I remember years of doctor’s visits, therapy (physical therapy and psychotherapy), and consultations, only to be told that this was the new normal for me. I used this time to expand my compassion and reduce my need for retribution. I knew that was what I would need to do in order to recover and thrive after this unprovoked attack.
I remember sitting in the courtroom when the judge eventually sentenced this inmate to an additional eight years in prison. All of this seemed to flash into my consciousness as I was counting on my communication ability to get out of this encounter safely.
I also remember that was the day that I knew that I would not always be able to talk my way out of any situation. Just moments before this brutal attack, I truly believed that I could. However, this inmate didn’t give me a chance to show him my great communication skills. He just attacked.
Now, my co-worker and I walked toward the sallyport, toward the officer who was dealing with something on the other side of the control center. As we walked toward the control center, the inmate told me that was sorry that he hurt me, but that he was on medication now.
When we were separated from the inmate by a metal door, only then, did my body start to come down off high alert. My co-worker turned to me and said, “That was weird.” As I continued to process the reaction I just experienced—the fight or flight reaction, my body trembled a little bit. I was relieved that I didn’t have to fight again. I was still feeling that mix of emotions and alertness as my co-worker and I walked into the classroom and I began to educate these attendees about the fight or flight response.
Dr. Susan Jones retired from a warden’s position within the Colorado Department of Corrections. She worked in a variety of corrections positions in Colorado for 31 years, including: community corrections, correctional officer, sergeant, lieutenant, manager, associate warden and warden. Dr. Jones research interests have focused on the issues that correctional employees face on a daily basis.
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