TL;DR: Please do yourself a favor and arm yourself with something to keep you safe, like pepper spray. It just may save your life. It did mine.
UPDATES: After publishing the post, I remembered about the amazing EmergenSee mobile app, which I talk about below. And a friend alerted me to a legal alternative to pepper spay for people who live in regions where pepper spray is illegal, such as the UK, also added below.
I’ve never written a personal post before. I’m a pretty intensely private person, so I usually like to stick to business on my blog, with some shoes and shenanigans thrown in along the way. But I’m going to make an exception with this post. If it saves even one life from tragedy, stepping outside my comfort zone will be worth it.
I thought I was pretty safety conscious. I stay aware of my surroundings, shoot off the stink eye to questionable characters, avoid parking or even walking next vans with no windows, let a friend know if I’m meeting with someone from Craigslist to cash in on a good deal, etc. etc. Every once in a while an episode of Law and Order would alert me to a danger I hadn’t considered before, and I’d add a new line item to my mental list.
But then a stalker turned my world upside down. After a few incidents that creeped me out but didn’t seem to warrant a call to 911, he found out where I worked and who my boss was and left several incoherent and bizarre but vaguely threatening messages at his extension throughout the night. No one at my work knew I had a stalker. (See earlier note about being intensely private.) So when I got to work that morning, my boss’s assistant told me what had happened, and they put the place on lockdown. I was mortified by the spotlight and kind of embarrassed that I didn’t detect the signs that his stalking was escalating. I didn’t even know the guy’s last name.
Needless to say, this incident catapulted my personal world into a frenzy. I did learn his last name later that day and did an instant background check on him. He had a history of aggravated battery. Great. The good news was I had no problem getting a restraining order against him, and the judge made it permanent. But I was in a fog. I really never felt in danger from the stalking, more annoyed and baffled over why he was doing it. I barely knew the guy. And we had never dated or anything else that you would think would potentially trigger obsessive, stalking behavior.
I’m not writing about this because it’s fresh. It’s not even painful anymore. That weird season of my life is almost 10 years in my rear view mirror now. But the lessons I learned from a very wise crisis intervention counselor I had to meet with at the courthouse (part of the restraining order process) set me on a course I’m now very grateful for. She saw that I was in way over my head and went down a list of safety tips with me:
- Get some pepper spray and put it on your key chain.
- Stay alert when walking alone at night, especially in parking lots.
- Don’t talk on the phone, put headphones in, or look too distracted if you’re walking by yourself at night.
- Always look into your backseat before getting in your car.
- Invest in an alarm service.
As you’ll see later in the post, little did I know at the time, the advice she gave me in that fateful meeting very likely saved my life several years down the line.
The Power Of Pepper
Near Miss 1
The tip she taught me that has yielded the greatest returns, without a doubt, is putting pepper spray on my key chain. It has saved me on a number of occasions that I’m actually aware of. That’s not counting the times I felt a little unnerved by someone’s suspicious behavior and just made sure he saw I had pepper spray in my hand, forefinger on the button.
One time, in particular though, I was in a Best Buy parking lot in Ft. Lauderdale, just walking out to my car, and on the other side of the aisle were three guys. No big d. It was so inconsequential that I took the time walking to my car at the far end of the lot to check out something on my phone. But then I thought I caught something out of the corner of my eye. When I turned my head slightly to the left, I saw one of them beside me but behind maybe a couple steps behind. Then I looked to the right and saw one of the other guys to my right. So I can only assume the third guy was behind me. I was too scared to turn around (although I definitely would now). I really think, given that it was dusk and not late at night, they were probably just after my car. I don’t know. What I do know is they weren’t there to help me put my bag in the trunk.
So, when I pulled my keys out (now I have them in hand before even entering a parking lot), I opened up the pepper spray and just held it straight up in the air. I never said a word. I just let them know that if they touched me, there was going to be some serious pepper drama raining down on them. And, God as my witness … they dropped back and went back to their side of the aisle, and I got in my car and left.
Near Miss 2
I had another incident several years later that was much more terrifying. I had just moved to Tampa and was living in an apartment until I decided where I wanted to buy. But it was brand new and still being developed. My building still wasn’t finished, and I was in the very back where there were few people living. (I was only the second resident to move in to our building.) But I felt safe because it was a gated community in a nice area of the ‘burbs.
But one night I came home late, a little after 1am. When I drove to my typical parking spot, I noticed a car in an area I didn’t normally see cars parked. And I thought I saw a person sitting in the car. But I dismissed it and parked maybe 20 yards away. I mean, c’mon. People don’t sit in a dark car in a nearly empty parking lot on a weeknight at 1am, right? I must have just thought the head rest looked like a head because I was so bleary eyed.
But when I opened my door, I heard a car start. Then he pulled his car back at an angle and turned on his lights. And then he just waited there while I got my computer bag out of the back seat. I couldn’t make out his face at all because of the distance and blinding light. My first reaction was annoyance, not fear. That was a mistake. In retrospect, I should have run as soon as he did that instead of gathering my personal belongings. But my first thought was, Why is he doing this? Does he think he’s being helpful with the light? Then it quickly turned to annoyance because of how weird it was. It didn’t occur to me that my life was in danger until he drove his car in front of me, blocking me from my apartment building. (There was only a drainage pond behind me.) My chance to take off running had already eluded me. That slight delay gave him the opportunity to put me in a very vulnerable position. And because I was at the very back of the complex and there was no way out in the direction he was driving, I knew he had no other reason to be going that way but to block me.
I couldn’t see his face because his windows were tinted dark, but his window was down maybe an inch, enough for me to just see the top of his head. When he wouldn’t move after what was realistically 10 to 15 seconds (but felt like minutes) of just sitting in front of me, I held my pepper spray out right in front of the open window and mustered my most heinous Jersey face. With that, he slowly moved forward, and I hightailed it to safety. I made so many mistakes in that incident but was thankfully saved by at least using pepper spray to regain my power.
There’s no question in my mind that pepper spray saved my life that night.
Near Miss 3, This Time My Daughter
One afternoon my daughter Destinee went out for a run. I had always told her that when she went for a run she needed to take her pepper spray with her and not play her music too loudly, so she could stay aware of her surroundings. There were a few patches of heavily wooded areas along the bike trail that snaked through our neighborhood, and they squicked me out a bit when I was alone.
Sure enough, right before entering one of those patches of trees, she noticed a guy walking on the sidewalk adjacent to the trail. I can’t remember what prompted her to look back, but when she did, she saw that he had entered the path and was running in a full sprint right toward her. He was wearing street clothes and flip flops, so she knew this wasn’t just a case of a dude trying to impress her with his super-jock powers.
And, to her dismay, although she usually carried pepper spray, she didn’t have hers on her that day. So all he had was a boatload of adrenaline and sheer panic fueling her sprint at the end of a long, hot run. She got off the path and ran with all her might through the neighborhood and eventually lost him by ducking behind someone’s door after turning a bend. It was the mother of all close calls. And guess how often she leaves her pepper spray at home when she goes for runs now? NEVER. (Right, honey?)
Near Miss 4, This Time Two Of My Daughters
In another incident, when we were living in Tampa, Destinee was out “clubbing” with my other daughter, Tori, in a historic and super-hip but questionable area called Ybor City. I use the term clubbing lightly because they were under 21 so there was no alcohol, but it’s supposed to be a really fun area. And they usually went with friends. Even so, any time they ventured out, I’d make sure at least one of them had pepper spray in her clutch, whether they drove or not or were with other kids. And this one night it came in handy.
The two of them were walking to their car after a night of dancing, and a group of 10 or so sketchy thugs came up to them and just started smack talking. The girls ignored their jeers and catcalls and kept walking, but one guy decided he wasn’t going to be brushed off and grabbed Tori’s arm, pulling her toward him. What they didn’t realize is Destinee already had the pepper spray in her hand.
Quick aside: In what might be considered questionable parenting by some, I have always told them that if they’re ever in a dangerous situation like that to dial up the crazy and forget all their manners. IOW, curse like a sailor! It’s tantamount, in my mind, to making yourself look as big as possible under the threat of a bear.
That’s exactly what she did. She hulked out and held the pepper spray right in his face and bellowed for him to get his [edited] hands off her [edited] sister. It worked. The dude let go of Tori’s arm, and the gangstahs left with some choice words but without incident.
These aren’t the only incidents we’ve faced, and we weren’t living in dangerous areas. We were just going about our daily lives doing the things that women should be able to do without fear of harm.
Why I’m Issuing This All Call For Women
After one of my daughters’ roommates had a close call on their college campus a couple months ago, I outfitted both of their roommates with pepper spray as well. (Destinee and Tori both go to UCF and live together with two adorable and amazing roommates. I just adore them.) And it really got me wondering if there was something more I could do to get the word out to women about how easy it is to potentially reduce their chances of falling prey to a monster disguised as a human.
But I have to admit it was an agonizing choice. I’ve literally wrestled with the idea for two months because I really don’t like to put my personal life on display. Very few people have known I had a stalker. I don’t know … There’s just something sensational about even the sound of it. Like this stuff isn’t supposed to happen in middle class neighborhoods among people who have backyards, mortgages, and kids. Or so I thought.
But, as I thought about it, it occurred to me that in all the years I’ve been carrying pepper spray, I’ve only seen two other women with pepper spray out and visible. Two. But it’s, in my opinion, the easiest way to let a would-be attacker know that you aren’t an easy hit. They want easy; they don’t want a face full of pepper spray. And they ESPECIALLY don’t want a face full of pepper spray with dye in it. Yes, dye! And you can get one on Amazon for under $10 (pick one, any one). We also carry a rape whistle and a killer kitty (Destinee’s find). Below is what my key chain looks like.
I’m not saying pepper spray will save women from all dangers out there. It’s not a full-proof plan, and there are no guarantees in life. But I’m an analyst; I’m not going for guarantees. But I DO want to do everything I can to keep statistics in my favor.
And, having also watched quite a few crime episodes in my day, I’m continually amazed to see how many tragedies could have been prevented with something as simple as pepper spray and a rape whistle. (I didn’t have a whistle during either of the incidents I listed. I learned about them when Destinee started school at UCF. They provided students with them.)
But think about it: If you’re in danger and set off a warning that people can hear (and these whistles are piercing), you’ve just brought people to their windows, adding to a potential list of witnesses who could provide key details to law enforcement at worst and scare off the perp at best. And you’ve also provided everyone in your immediate area with a potential timeline, if (God forbid) something terrible happens.
So I have nothing to gain by writing this post. It’s not link bait, and those aren’t affiliate links I shared, though I’m an Amazon affiliate. I wrote it with the hope that it will alert not just girls and women but anyone who’s vulnerable to the dangers out there and how easy it to protect yourself. So, provided carrying pepper spray isn’t illegal where you live, there’s really no reason not to. (This site provides some information broken down by state for the US, but I don’t know how reliable it is. Check the laws for your region.)
If it is illegal where you live, find a legal alternative. Just remember to remove any threatening items before entering airports, courthouses, schools, or anywhere else it could be interpreted as a danger to others around you.
My girls and I have a great app on our phones called Emergensee. It’s a mobile app that allows you to set up people to be alerted if you are in danger. It captures your GPS coordinates and sends them along with the alert. My girls and I have used it when we weren’t sure if we were in danger. You can easily cancel the alert if it turns out you’re not in danger. But it’s a comfort to know people who love and care about you are on high alert if they don’t get that cancellation notice shortly thereafter.
UK Alternative To Pepper Spray
A good friend of mine and brilliant marketer, Jane Copland, alerted me to a good alternative to pepper spray that’s legal in the UK. It’s a dyed spray gel that is reported to last on a person’s skin for up to seven days. The most prominent one I found on the market was Farbgel. Their video demo is underwhelming, but it seems like a solid product. What I like about it is the canister looks a lot like pepper spray. My only complaint is I couldn’t find one that’s attached to a key chain. The closest I could find was a miniature-size canister that came with a carrying case.
I like key chain accessories because I only have to remember to get my keys out wherever I’m going. And walking around with a canister in your hand could look a bit dodgy. So I’d probably gravitate toward the carrying case until someone figures out the opportunity to create a sheath for it that can be attached to a key chain.
Any Advice You’d Like To Share?
If you’ve had similar experiences and have advice you’d like to share, please share them in the comments below. I’m always on the lookout for better ways to protect myself. I’d like to avoid discussion about guns. It’s just too incendiary of a topic, and no one will be convinced by your thoughts on the topic because of a blog comment anyway.