Staring into the abyss without becoming the monster

Updated: Jan 15, 2020


Janus statue at the San Simeon Estate | Photo by Beverly Baker

Until we have met the monsters in ourselves, we keep trying to slay them in the outer world. And we find that we cannot. For all darkness in the world stems from darkness in the heart. And it is there that we must do our work.

— Marianne Williamson


I hadn’t been volunteering at the healthcare clinic very long. Maybe once a week for just over a month. Because the clinic offers abortion services (along side a wide range of other services) it brings out a regular cast of anti-choice protesters. And these aren’t your garden-variety anti-choicers. I know plenty of people who are anti-choice, but they aren’t so rabid and fringe in their beliefs that they are out every week employing methods of harassment and intimidation on strangers seeking healthcare.


On the other side of the equation are healthcare clinic escorts. These are folks who volunteer time at clinics to welcome and escort patients amidst the chaos. The escort group I had joined* has a non-engagement policy. We are there solely to support the patients and we do not engage the protestors in futile debate or conversation.


As a new clinic escort, I was still trying to wrap my head around the chaos: the screaming protestors, their five-foot-tall posters of bloody fetuses, the baby dolls coated in red paint, the amplifier aimed at the front door carrying the words of their scientifically impossible messages, sounds of babies laughing and off-key, live renditions of “Mother Let Me Live.” Everything inside me wanted to scream back at the protestors about how monstrous they were being. But I didn’t. The non-engagement policy kept me in check.


This particular morning started as usual at the clinic with the regular cast of characters. My fellow escorts and I were prepping for the shift when our shift leader noticed a car creep along in front of the clinic. I followed her gaze as she watched it slowly pull into the public parking lot next door. It turned out to be a patient and her ride who had been confused by the protestors. Frightened from the clinic’s driveway, they pulled into the wrong parking lot. This happens frequently and so we offer to walk with them through the gauntlet of protestors exercising their First Amendment rights.


As a newbie I hadn’t yet gone off property to welcome and escort a patient to the clinic. But this morning was destined to be my first. KT was our experienced shift leader who had been a clinic escort for nearly a decade. She is a soft-spoken, slight woman with the observation skills of a hawk. In the short time I had gotten to know her, her ability to stay cool amidst the heat of the angry protestors left me in awe. To the casual observer she may appear rather delicate, but her fierce coolness is something I aspire to.


I glanced nervously at KT, over to the patient’s car and back to KT. The look of steel glinted in her eye and she asked, “Will you come with me to escort that patient?”


((( Gulp )))


That meant leaving the safety of the clinic property, through the throngs of protestors swarming the patient. Then walking back to the clinic through the mob with their hot, hateful breath on our necks as they pressed close, ignoring social norms about personal space.

“Of course,” I answered and followed her lead into the fray.


I don’t remember the walk from the clinic or back with the patient. But I do remember the wave of relief as we successfully made it back on the clinic property. As we neared the front door I encouraged the woman telling her we’d be inside in just a few moments.

We got to the door.


Damnit.


It was still a few minutes before opening time and the door hadn’t yet been unlocked.

I cursed and cringed on the inside. On the outside I offered a warm smile, “I’m sorry. The doors will open in just a second and I’ll wait with you here until you’re inside.”


The woman had barely spoken since she gratefully accepted our escort from her car. She was in her mid-20’s, haired pulled loosely into a pony tail and casual, baggy sweats tossed over her tall, thin frame. Despite her height, her body was slumped forward putting her at about eye level with my own 5’4” frame. Her eyes remained downcast as she folded her arms across her belly.


“MURDERER!!! MURDERER!!! IF YOU GO IN THERE THAT IS MURDER!!!”

The protestors howled just fifteen feet behind us.


Impulsively, I began mindlessly chattering in an attempt to distract her from their shrieks. Feeling lost I glanced over at KT. My eyes searched her for guidance, but she was there for the patient, not me. KT looked stoic and her resolute presence calmed and inspired me as I realized I was going to have to make decisions on my own.


As I continued my mindless chatter, the patient spoke softly, “I had a miscarriage last night. I went to the ER and they told me to come here.” She wrapped her arms tighter around her frail body.


I looked at KT. I saw a chink in her armor — she was as heartbroken by this woman as I was.

I wanted desperately to comfort her. “Would I be breaking some kind of unspoken rule if I put my arm around her?” I wondered. But before I could overthink it, my hand went instinctively to the small of her back and I uttered the useless phrase, “I am so sorry.”


“They’re going to take good care of you here. The doors will open very soon, and you’ll be in good hands. I’ll wait with you here until the doors open,” I promised her.


As I prattled on she pulled out a stack of papers that had been in her purse. “The hospital told me to give you these when I got here.” I avoided looking at them — I’m not a healthcare professional so the documents were none of my business. The only thing that was my business was being her best friend in the whole world until those damn doors opened.

“When you get inside, the desk is on the left and they’ll take those from you. They’ll know exactly what to do and how to take care of you,” I assured her.


“I don’t feel good. I feel hot. I feel like I’m burning,” she mumbled as she clutched at her stomach and continued to shrink in height.


“MURDERER!!!! MURDERER!!!! MURDERER!!!!”

The chorus of rage continued behind us.


My protective instincts heightened as I inched closer and repeated my assurances. As the front of my body leaned gently toward her I felt calm and gentle. But at the same time the opposite happened in my back in response to the pandemonium behind us. I could feel my spine bristle and harden. My shoulders broadened. In that moment, I felt my back and shoulders become steel. I pictured the arrows of their rage bouncing off of me as I attempted to block her from their verbal line of fire.


FINALLY!


The doors to the clinic opened.


As she went in, I gave her one final assurance that they could help her. And then she disappeared from my life forever.


As the door closed behind her, I turned slowly to face the protestors crowding the clinic’s property line. The bristling that filled my back, now filled my whole body as I turned. My shoulders went back. My eyes narrowed. I was suddenly filled with anger of my own.


I wanted to scream at them for their hatefulness.


I wanted to scream that they had no idea what was going on.


I wanted to scream that if anyone was a murderer it was their version of a god that would have her miscarry then intimidate her as she sought healthcare.


I wanted to rage as I stared at them with my own hatred.


Instead I took