Why Do You Startle So Damn Easily?

A month or two ago while I was at my job, a man startled me and I physically hurt him.

I startle easy, I’ve come to terms with that, and I don’t usually react violently. Usually I freeze for a second followed by taking a deep breath to regain composure. I then ask whomever was the source of the startle, if it was just a case of them accidentally sneaking up on me, to make a point of making their presence known because I do, in fact, startle easy. I also have a mild neurological condition that causes my being startled physically painful for me (something I thought was normal and everyone experienced until about a year ago lol).

But the incident with this man at my work was different. He came up from off to my left but slightly behind me and all I saw in my peripheral vision was his hand reaching for my left upper. And I instinctively reacted by spinning around, leading with my right hand, grabbing his fingers, maneuvering in a manner I had learned – and apparently retained – from a martial arts class I took a while back.

…which startled him as well.

My supervisor let out an impressed, “Holy shit!” I was in the throws of my fun, bullshit ‘nerve owie” response and, my colleague’s eyes were bulging.

I played it off cool and said, “Don’t do that again.” I walked away.

I had a few folks approach me and tell me how impressive it was. While I felt a little proud – and thankful to know my reflexes worked so well – I also just felt a dread I didn’t want to vocalize.

I tried to put it in the back of my head, but every time I’ve walked by him since, he’s put his hands up and said jokingly (?), “I’m not touching you!” and other jokey statements and gestures as if I’m some sort of clear and present danger.

He did it again tonight, coming around a corner and doing an elaborate “Whoa, whoa, I’m cool, don’t hurt me,” and I stopped him. I asked him to please stop emoting this way and to move on.

He goes, “Well, I’m just being careful you know, since you startle so easy…”

I explained that yes, I do startle easy.

That there are reasons for this and they aren’t things that I want to relive every time I’m scheduled to be on shift with him.

What I did not tell him was that I grew up in a house wrought with pretty severe domestic violence.

That I had a boyfriend in high school who would punch the wall by my head when he was angry.

I didn’t tell him that I was married to a man who threw both a microwave and a dining room chair in my general direction in anger, and then later, in a psychotic rage, broke into my house and backhanded me in front of a room full of people. And that this man is the reason I am still startled by a sudden loud (male) vocal outburst regardless of the emotion behind them even though it’s been seventeen years since our divorce. And how angry – and weak – that makes me feel.

Or that my post-divorce rebound boyfriend grabbed me by the hair and yanked me backward as I was attempting to walk away from an argument, which resulted in me spinning around to break his nose. I guess that’s when I started to react violently because I was fucking done.

I’ve had multiple men grab at my body in nightclubs and sports bars because they felt they were entitled to my body.

I have been raped.

And I am hardly alone in my experiences with men, both in my life or men I don’t know from Adam.

And you would never know it by looking at me, which is a ridiculous thing to say but I think it’s important here. I don’t act or look like I should startle easy.

So if you’re someone who finds it surprising or amusing that someone startles so easily, especially if you’ve just startled a woman or anyone else who is in an ‘at risk category’ of being on the receiving end of violence, I would really like it if you took a few seconds to consider that maybe there’s a good reason or two why.

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