Stronger Than Fear


Jaime Zuniga

Years after her attack, AP psychology teacher, Heather Wilson, struggles to recover.

Bad things happen every day. Everywhere, every second, there’s some struggle to be had, some war to be fought whether internal or external. Though some of these horrible things exist in the past, their effects and the paths they create still exist in their victims, some of whom you see every day. Two of which you might know here at Lake Ridge.

Rewind to about 40 years ago. Visiting an aunt in Matamoros, a Mexican border town, Ivonne Want, Spanish teacher, was waiting to be granted entrance into the United States. Want was only 4 years old at the time and things went as normally as they do when you visit family. However, one night during their stay, trouble literally came knocking.

And I remember looking at my mom and my mom was just frozen like she couldn’t move.

— Want

“I remember opening the door and looking up and seeing this big guy. He just went down, picked me up. And I remember looking at my mom and my mom was just frozen like she couldn’t move. And he took off towards the back of the house,” Want said.

The man only made it about two blocks carrying Want before he stopped. Whatever his plan was, he’d been forced to abandon it in a split-second decision.

“We walked about 2 blocks when there was a police car driving by. I don’t know if he thought my mom had called the police or what,” said Want.

Either way, the sight of the police made the perpetrator drop Want on the sidewalk and take off running in the opposite direction. To Want’s knowledge, the man was never brought to justice.

“I know some people might say it’s luck but I think it was divine intervention,” Want said. “I think it was God.”

At that time in Mexico, young children were being kidnapped to either be forced to work in drug cartels or sold to families in the United States who could not have children of their own.

Years later, a few hours North in the state Want hoped to call home one day, Heather Willson, AP Psychology teacher, would be threatened by the same sort of terror in San Antonio, Texas.

In the middle of the night I woke up and there was an adult at the end of my bed,” Willson said. “Yes we had an alarm system but it’s easy to cut them and that’s what he had done. He hadn’t gone through a door he had gone through a window.”

In the middle of the night I woke up and there was an adult at the end of my bed.

— Willson

After stealing her father’s truck, what followed was a 45-minute high speed chase between Willson’s attacker and, at one point, 13 police cruisers from 4 different departments.

“The high speed chase continued and I was glued to my door. He almost lost control of the truck several times, he hit several things. We almost rolled, almost flipped a couple times. He ended up crashing into another vehicle and taking off on foot after cutting me,” Willson said.

Willson was in court for three days. Prior to that she went through months of looking through police books in an effort to identify her attacker. In the end, what her 6-year-old eyes had believed to be an adult at the time actually turned out to be a 15-year-old boy on drugs.

“We went to court and I was able to identify him. The judge was a female and she was really angry that this teenager had hurt me. My parents were allowed to be in there during the sentencing and ask him why he had done this,” Willson said.

According to Willson, the teen’s response was “Dude I don’t know, I was on drugs. It didn’t even really happen for me, I don’t care.” Willson and her family never got the remorse they desired from the teen who inserted himself into their lives. Ultimately, the 15-year-old was tried as an adult and given 20 years at Huntsville Prison. Willson, on the other hand, was given a life sentence.

Willson still remembers what happened vividly, similar to Want. Want can still see the face of the “big bald headed man” and can still describe it in detail should she be asked. However, unlike Willson, her attacker was never caught.

After the incident, Want couldn’t be alone in public places. Little things that reminded her about the tragedy triggered her and she struggled to readapt to places she previously considered normal.

Even with my dad, if I saw a male adult I would start shaking. I would start freaking out like I thought they were going to take me

— Willson

“If I did not see my mother in the classroom with me or very least at the door, I would take off running, I would go home. Even with my dad, if I saw a male adult I would start shaking. I would start freaking out like I thought they were going to take me,” said Want.

Similarly, Willson rarely found herself alone after her own incident. Her parents worrying over what had happened and could still happen caused her to constantly be in the care of another person.

“From that point on I wasn’t allowed to be by myself. This guy who kidnapped me had a little brother at the same elementary school and I had to get a restraining order because he was threatening me in retaliation for sending his brother to jail,” Willson said. “At school I had to have an escort. I wasn’t allowed to leave the classroom. Before and after school I had to be with a teacher but the teachers weren’t consistent so I ended up having a principal who doubled as a personal babysitter. I was conditioned to always be around a person or people.”

Want too found herself in need of assistance at school. Having a brother only a year younger than her made it easy for someone close to her to step up and play a protective role in her life. Due to the relationship she had with her brother, he never left her side.

“My brother would come to my classroom during recess and I wouldn’t leave. I wouldn’t leave my teacher until he came to get me to take me to recess then he would come drop me off again,” said Want.

However, in the years after the incident Willson’s family continued to struggle financially and emotionally. Willson’s own mother, father, and brother each have had to deal with the residual effects of what happened to her. From feelings of jealousy and resentment to blame, Willson’s trauma did not just stop with her.

My mother always blamed me for everything that happened after that because there were financial difficulties.

— Willson

“My brother feels like he’s responsible for me even though he’s younger but he’s also mad because he feels like I got a lot of attention out of it and he’s resentful. He didn’t get help after the event like I did. My father’s happiest moment in life was when I got married because he felt like this child who had emasculated him was headed off to my husband. My mother always blamed me for everything that happened after that because there were financial difficulties,” Willson said.

The kidnapping sent Willson and her family down a path that ultimately resulted in poverty. Expenses ranged from medical to legal and resulted in hardships that lasted beyond the night of January 19, 1987.

“There was financial difficulties with repairing the truck and going to court. I had to go to the hospital the next day and I was in the hospital for 24 hours. We had to pay off a lot of things and we lost our house when I was in third grade from it,” Willson said. “It completely dismantled my family.”

Despite the differences in their respective incidents, both Want and Willson dealt with PTSD after their traumatic experiences and could see the effect it was having on their daily lives.

“In Mexico not a lot of people have vehicles so you walk everywhere. I was walking to my cousin’s house and then all of a sudden I feel like somebody is following me. I look back and there were these two grown males. I think they’re following me and so I started walking faster and I could’ve sworn they started walking faster too. In my head they picked up the pace. I never turned to look back I just felt that they were chasing me and I took off running,” Want said.

I never turned to look back I just felt that they were chasing me and I took off running.

— Want

In the end, Want realized she’d seen the two men, but they weren’t following her at all. At just 12 years old she fought to get past what happened while Willson’s fight would continue into her adulthood.

At one point I was sitting down and a young male came and put his hands on my neck,” Willson said.

The young man was her coworker at a waterpark and had no idea he’d laid hands on the injury Willson received from her attacker and the constant reminder of her kidnapping. 

“I went into an episode. A complete flashback that lasted 17 minutes,” Willson said.

Her PTSD was triggered and Willson was immediately taken back to that night. She had to remove herself from the office. Her boss was angry and, yet again, Willson found herself being blamed for her own trauma.

Want’s struggle with the stress disorder pushed her to the realization that she couldn’t keep dealing with things the way she had been. After that day, she made the decision to get better for herself.

“I told myself I can’t go on like this. I remember telling myself one day I’m going to die. How? I don’t know, but whether it’s a good death or a bad death, I am going to die and I cannot live afraid,” said Want.

I told myself I can’t go on like this…but whether it’s a good death or a bad death, I am going to die and I cannot live afraid.

— Want

Willson was able to draw her own conclusions about how she’d live her life after what happened. She chooses to separate herself from any and all types of negativity, regardless of how it presents itself.

“I don’t watch scary movies. I’ve already been there, done that, lived it, and don’t want to do it again. I’ve seen some pretty dark sides of humanity and I may not be sunshine and rainbows and unicorns inside but I don’t need to surround myself with things like that,” Willson said.

Movies aren’t the only lasting effect of her life being interrupted. Willson practices a variety of security measures. She finds herself needing to drive places rather than be driven, and can often be found with a shut classroom door, among other things.

“I don’t like being in crowds. I don’t like going certain places by myself. I don’t trust others a whole lot. I’m very exclusive in who I actually call friends. It’s this weird oxymoron where I can’t do groups but I can’t be alone,” Willson said.

Decades removed from their respective tragedies, the two have each found their own path to healing.

Now that she’s older and has a family of her own, Want doesn’t live in fear anymore. She has learned how to control her nervousness and take back her independence. She even treats her kids differently as a result but not in the way most people would expect.

I think most people would think I’m overprotective but I’m the opposite. I try to teach them to be more independent, to be more self-reliable. Because what if something happens to me? Then what are they going to do if they can’t do anything on their own,” Want said.

Willson saw a number of psychiatrists after everything happened but didn’t receive any advice that truly helped her until she went to college and explored self-help and group counseling. Today, Willson has let go of her anger and uses her faith to cope now.

“I came to the realization in my mid-late 20’s that God put me on a certain path because I can handle what’s given to me,” Willson said. “I have hurdles and mountain tops to climb because I have that internal strength and it’s better that I get it than someone who can’t handle it.”

I came to the realization…that God put me on a certain path because I can handle what’s given to me…

— Willson

Want considers herself better off in life and over the years she has become a stronger person. A few years later Want and her family were finally able to move to the United States. Her overall takeaway is that life is meant to be lived in the moment until it’s over.

Anything can happen and if you don’t live your life to the fullest you’re going to end up with regrets. You just live life to the best you can. You try to be the best person you can be every single day,” Want said.

Willson hasn’t necessarily formed an overall opinion or judgement on how life should be lived as a result of what happened to her. She has however, found that faith can be a pathway to a new beginning.

“[God] knows my inner strength whether I know it or not and I just have to trust that I will get through it and I need to get out of my own way of dealing with the situation,” Willson said.

Even though bad things happen every day, there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. There’s a counselor somewhere waiting to be spoken to, a church somewhere looking for members, or even a corner of your brain ready to say “enough is enough” and move forward. Willson and Want each use every day like a second chance, showing their students, friends, and family that while tragedy can affect you, it doesn’t have to define you.

Written by: Kennedi Roman and Sydney Ferguson