A few weeks ago, I was summoned to attend jury duty. I’ve had to do it a couple of times in the past, always spending the day sitting there while the attorneys interviewed prospective jurors in the jury box, while I waited on the benches with everyone else. I’ve always thought it would be kind of fun (or at least interesting) to be a juror, but I was never chosen. Never even got called up to be interviewed.
On my first day in court, I sat in a waiting area with dozens and dozens of potential jurors. Groups of at least 40 people at a time were called away while I continued to wait. After a couple of hours where two different groups of people left, then returned, I was called in. We were taken into a courtroom where there were four attorneys, two at each table, their clients next to them, and the judge. The judge proceeded to tell us who everyone was, and what the case was about.
As soon as the judge said the plaintiff was The County of Los Angeles, I knew this would not be a quick case. As much as I thought being on a case would be interesting, Wil and I have so many different things going on that anything more than say, a week, would seriously mess up stuff for us. Don’t get me wrong. I am aware that this is my civic duty. I’m getting to the part where it felt like anything but that.
The defendant was a contractor, and his company had done work on a couple of historic buildings in the local area. We didn’t get too much detail on the case other than the County wasn’t happy with it and refused to pay the contractor the additional billing he requested. Basically, they were suing each other. I can only imagine a contracting company has got to have a great reputation if he gets to work on stuff like this for the city, so for this guy to sue in return means he is gambling on winning the case. If he doesn’t win, that’ll be the end of his company.
The judge went on to explain that this case will take approximately 50 days, possibly longer. FIFTY DAYS. Ten weeks of our lives are about to come to a screeching halt. My heart began to race. I started thinking of all the deadlines and commitments and travel already booked that I would have to not only bail out on, but responsibilities that Wil and I share would all be dumped on him, just as he was about to launch a crowd-funding campaign for TableTop while simultaneously preparing for his show on SyFy. I was so anxious for both of us and how we would manage. Total panic.
The judge asked the 40 of us to raise our hand if we could not commit to that time frame. All but two of us raised our hands. One by one, we had to stand up and say why we couldn’t do it. People said everything from the financial hardship it would cause, to their business needing them to run it , to caring for elderly parents or small children. The judge excused us for lunch, but had all of us come back after.
When we returned, I was one of twelve that were called up to the jury box to be interviewed. I explained my commitments and my inability to stay for fifty days. A week? No problem. Ten to twelve weeks? I couldn’t do it. I also explained that I’m currently being treated for anxiety and that a trial this long would not be good for me. (To be clear, it’s anxiety during super stressful situations, not a daily issue for me like it is for some, but a thing that I finally talked to my doctor about a few months back, and I take Ativan if it’s needed.) Everyone had their turn to speak, some even being excused and replaced by a new potential juror. They would come back to me, asking my experience with working with contractors, family members possibly in this business or other jobs connected to the business. It didn’t matter that I have a family member who’s an architect or another who’s a D.A. They kept making their rounds of questions, always keeping me in the box.
The defendant on this case sat next to his attorney at the table, which was directly across from me in the front of the jury box. He seemed to be staring everyone down, with a small smirk on his face. Occasionally, he would even doze off. Here we are, a room full of people who are about to be forced to put our lives on hold, yet he’s dozing. He would sit up a bit, wake himself, and settle back in to looking at us with a smirk that made me SO uncomfortable because he kept his eyes mostly on me.
You ever get a feeling from someone just by watching their body language that they are the kind of person who would lie, steal and take short cuts to even their own family members just to get ahead? That was this guy. I’ve seen guys like him. My father was one. So was my ex-husband. It was the smirk on the guys’ face that made it all connect for me. This guy was about to take control of our lives with this case, even if he was wrong in the matter, because he didn’t want to pay the county for his mistakes. I’m a really good judge of character in people, so I felt like my instincts were right about this guy. The attorneys seemed satisfied with my answers to their questions, and it was obvious I was going to stay.
And that’s when the panic set in. I could feel myself choking back tears as I looked up at the clock on the wall, then over at the judge. My eyes briefly meeting the defendants eyes, who were now completely fixated on me, the smirk on his face broadening. I looked away, the feeling of someone standing on my chest while my heartbeat pounded in the sides of my neck took over. I looked around at the wood paneling on the walls, looking identical to the other courthouse Wil and I been in at least a dozen times over a five year time period, when my ex-husband kept taking us to court attempting to get custody of our kids.
I tried to compose myself, my nose feeling like it was about to gush everywhere. I brushed the back of my hand across my nose which was a HUGE mistake. The glob of cry-snot was overwhelming, and so was the courtroom. I stood up, now in full hyperventilating-ugly cry mode and started walking out of the courtroom, the judge calling out “Mrs. Wheaton, we are in session. You may not leave.” Too late. I was out the door, running down the hallway and into the bathroom, hyperventilating and crying out of control.
What the hell just happened? What the hell is wrong with me?
The woman handling all the jurors had followed me into the bathroom, full size box of kleenex in hand. She asked me if I was alright. Between gasps, I told her I didn’t realize it until now, but I feel like I have PTSD from years of being forced into family court. She kindly walked me out of the bathroom, back down the hallway, and sat me on a bench away from all of the jurors they had to clear the courtroom of because I left. Woops.
The woman then went in to talk to the judge and attorneys, and came back out to get me to come back in to see them. The judge was an older man, very sympathetic, and very confused looking. He asked if I was alright. The crying flooded my face again as I told him I knew it was my civic duty to be a juror and I’m sure being on a case that lasted a few days would be interesting. But being forced into doing this for so long is an unreasonable request to put on anyone, and it brings up what feels like a PTSD thing for me from years of being forced into a family law court because of my ex-husband. He asked if I had someone I could talk to about this, which I totally didn’t expect him to say. I told him I have a therapist and will be scheduling an appointment as soon as possible. He excused me from jury duty (at least until I get my next summons in a year) and I left.
I was still upset when I left the building, so I stood on the sidewalk outside the courthouse talking to Wil on the phone about what had happened. I hung up, called the therapist and scheduled an appointment, then called my best friend on the drive home (after I had calmed down.) I had jokingly said on Twitter that I was annoyed that I had jury duty, but I realized I was annoyed because I was upset that Wil and I had been working so hard on things that I was going to have to walk away from. I still couldn’t figure out why all that triggered an anxiety attack, but that’s why I was going to the therapist.
At my appointment with the therapist, (who I had only talked to in the past in regards to what was happening with the kids before they started seeing her as teenagers) she pointed out that she doesn’t know much about my background, except with what was going on with the kids, and occasionally, how Wil and I were handling all of that stuff during those years. She asked about my father (who as it turns out, is putting myself and my brother through a bit of legal junk right now, bringing the courthouse thing to the front of my mind) and how abusive was he to me. At first when I started talking about him, I didn’t think he was, but then I remembered that he hit me up until I was 15, when I was finally strong enough to stand up to him and make him stop. He was very emotionally abusive and controlling to my mom, which I always remembered, but somehow forgot about what he did to me. The therapist pointed out how I traded that physical abuse for emotional abuse with my ex-husband, and then the boyfriend after him, finally stopping that cycle of seeking that out in men when I met Wil. My life with Wil has been the two of us working so hard to be good people and separate ourselves from awful people, and that courtroom itself wasn’t the only trigger, it was the defendant sitting in front of me with that smirk who was about to control what I did with my life for the next six weeks whether I liked it or not, that brought up those feelings.
Turns out I spent all those years helping my kids get through a pretty horrible situation, but never helped myself along the way. Sure, I learned how to cope with it as much as I could, but I had felt like the way to separate myself from it was time and distance by thankfully, not seeing my father or my ex-husband for years. No matter how much I had that space, the old wounds resurfaced when I was forced to get close to it again. I get this fight-or-flight feeling that washes over me (It happened a year ago when I walked past that old boyfriend in Pasadena. He didn’t see me, but I saw him.) I’ve talked about all this stuff so much that what I do need to learn is how to handle that feeling that takes over me when I get in those situations. I’ve been seeing the therapist weekly since then, and I’m already feeling so much better.
So, this is why I haven’t updated my blog in a month. I wasn’t feeling up to talking about anything, really. But this is a situation that I’m sure happens to more people than we know, and sharing stuff like this I think helps others as much as it can help ourselves. I know it has helped me, so thanks for listening.