Crooks stole my fearlessness. Here’s how I’m getting it back

This First Person column is the experience of Shannon Kernaghan, a writer and visual artist in Alberta fighting to regain her formerly fearless attitude. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I didn’t start out being anxious all the time. 

As a teenager, I felt fearless. I remember heading home from a party with a couple of girlfriends. We stopped at one red light after another as did the cute guy driving a red convertible next to us. We waved and he’d wave back. One friend threatened to jump into his car at the next stop. 

“Go!” I said, “do it already!” When she didn’t move, I felt my fingers grip the door handle, shove open the door and I hopped into his passenger seat. 

“They dared you, didn’t they,” he said with a wide grin as we sped off. 

How was teenage me comfortable accepting rides from strangers? These days I’m nervous to go into our underground parkade by myself.

A woman pretends to ride on the back of another woman.
Kernaghan horses around with friends in this photo taken in her younger and fearless days. (Submitted by Shannon Kernaghan)

I blame my draining courage on the range of ways my belongings and personal identity can be stolen, from sneaky digital thievery to the brazen stealing of catalytic converters.

I don’t even have to be a victim to feel the danger circling closer and closer.

In our parkade, the car parked next to us was stolen a year ago. Several vehicles have had their pricey catalytic converters cut off.

My fear level soared in December when residents learned that the master keys — the keys that open all doors in our building — had been stolen. Until new locks were installed, my husband Paul and I never left home together. One of us stayed behind on guard.

No one has pointed a weapon at me or yanked off my purse, but we’ve also had our credit cards skimmed and compromised.

In spring 2018, charges on my credit card statement appeared from a string of grocery stores in Las Vegas. How unfair that while we spent a chilly winter in Alberta, someone enjoyed our money down in the desert! 

Sin City lived up to its name again in June 2020 when we received an email from MGM Resorts, owners of a Vegas hotel we’d stayed at in 2017.

“Notice of Data Security Issue,” it began, followed by details about an “issue” in which an “unauthorized party” had “accessed and downloaded certain guest data from an external cloud server.” 

Who knew I’d been gambling with my personal identity while risking my money at the slots.

A colourful painting of an anxious woman.
A self-portrait from Kernaghan’s Anxious series of artwork. It was inspired by her personal experiences. (Submitted by Shannon Kernaghan)

Now my once-optimistic and trusting self is always on alert for so-called unauthorized parties and bad actors. Emails, texts and phone calls could be delivering nefarious links or dubious threats if I don’t send cash or gift cards.

Sure, my home is my castle but I feel increasingly trapped. When I told Paul that I’m tired of feeling anxious, he replied, “It’s time to build a moat.” 

With a cellphone and ingenuity, Paul created a Find My Car-styled tracking device in case our wheels leave home without us. Our extra phone is connected to a data plan and hidden within the vehicle. As soon as I’m out of bed each morning, I turn on the computer, fire up Google’s Find My Device and check that our “Baby Honda” is still where it ought to be.

A hand holding a cellphone with a car in the background.
A cellphone hidden in Kernaghan’s Honda serves as a makeshift vehicle tracker. (Submitted by Shannon Kernaghan)

Am I overreacting? Maybe. 

Or maybe not. In April, I felt bad but oddly vindicated when I heard that another neighbour’s truck had been stolen. 

When I surf the web, it’s through a virtual private network to smokescreen my computer’s location. I use a YubiKey device to add two-factor authentication to my Gmail accounts, and I subscribe to a service called Wordfence that secures my website from hackers. I receive a weekly report showing attempts to break into my site from IP addresses around the world.

A digital report listing IP addresses and countries of origin.
One of the weekly reports from the Wordfence internet security service. (Submitted by Shannon Kernaghan)

There’s comfort knowing that I can lower the drawbridge to the outside world while still keeping myself safe. But it’s a fine balance, wanting to be tech-savvy without becoming jaded with humanity.

Paul reminded me that being a victim of ne’er do wells is hardly new. Before we met, he bought a vintage 1957 Chevy. Two weeks after buying the car, he left for work and felt a draft while driving. Was his side window vent open? Nope. 

Only when he turned onto the main street and picked up speed did he realize his windshield was gone. He couldn’t find a replacement — probably the reason it was stolen — and ended up selling the car for parts.

Our “security moat” is a lot of work but it’s gone a long way toward keeping my anxiety at bay and allowing me to live a full and satisfying life.

Every day, I roll my bike into this big world, a world where most people are good. I double-lock that bike when it’s parked to protect it from the people who aren’t.

A bike rack with a cut bike lock and bicycle in the background.
A cut bike lock in the parkade bike rack at Kernaghan’s building. (Submitted by Shannon Kernaghan)

I’ve embraced my love of visual art projects where with a paintbrush or piece of charcoal, I can make a mess and colour outside the lines without losing control. In the daily news, I seek out success stories where good triumphs over evil. I don’t dwell on the sad reality of criminals lurking in our community. 

Now that Paul and I have found ways to feel safer, I’ve only had to agree to one request from him: No more jumping into cars with other cute boys. 

I can live with that.


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