Facing Down Fear

Due to violent content, please be advised that this material could be a trigger for some people.

It was just over four weeks ago that I was attacked while I was out for a run.

I’m okay.

This was scary — very scary — but I walked away virtually unharmed. I had a fat lip and a sore shoulder for a few days.

I’m still finding it hard to believe that this happened to me and that I was fortunate enough to just walk away.

The perpetrator of this crime is currently in jail. The intent of this post is not to talk about him, but rather to share how I think being prepared for something like this is exactly the reason that I am okay.

(If you really want to read up on the case, you can view the local news report here)

Writing this post has been more difficult than I anticipated it would be. It’s a bit like tearing off the scab on a wound. After finally starting to sleep well again, I’ve begun having nightmares since starting this post. A very good friend pointed out that this may be a sign that I’m not ready to write about the event yet, and I agree. However, I also think writing about this could be therapeutic for me. And part of me feels like if I don’t write it now, I likely never will.

The purpose of this post is to share what I think helped me so that others can, perhaps, learn from my experience. Doing this would be quite difficult without actually discussing the details of the event. That said, I’m going to give you a full run down from start to finish with the details I think are most important to include. Then, I’ll get into some advice based on this experience and the advice of others.

Before I begin, I want to be really clear about the fact that the content I’m including here is not at all intended as a guide for preventing bad things from happening. We all know that’s not possible. Life is unpredictable and scary things happen all of the time, even in places we don’t expect them. My goal here is to help us all be a little bit better prepared in the event that something does happen. While my hope is that you never have an experience like this, I believe having this knowledge for yourself or for a friend could be potentially meaningful.

In the summer months, I prefer to run after dark because it’s generally too hot to run safely in the heat of the day. I know I will be criticized for this, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with running after dark (and I still don’t). It’s really normal for me to go out between 9 and 9:30pm, once the sun has set, and run for 60-90 minutes. In fact, I’ve walked this same route a few times since the incident at approximately the same time of day (with a partner) and have found that there are (still) a lot of other people out walking or running or biking at this time of night.

The trails I run and the neighborhood around my house are mostly well lit and well populated areas. I’ve run this particular trail hundreds of times and I am always very aware of my surroundings. I keep my music turned down at a low volume so that I can hear what’s happening around me. I notice if something’s different or out of the ordinary (for instance, if there’s new construction or if a house has recently been painted). There are a couple of spots on this trail that are more remote and hidden from the view of houses and roadways where I always have my phone out and ready to dial for help if needed. (Because I’m kind of a cautious person.)

On the day this occurred, I had been out for about an hour and was only a block from returning to my house. I was cooling down, so I was walking at this point. I heard a bike come up behind me and I stepped to the right side of the sidewalk so they could pass. I turned and looked over my left shoulder to acknowledge the person (because I always do) and I was thinking to myself something along the lines of, “Oh, it’s just a kid on a bike.” I didn’t perceive this person as a threat even after I noticed him behind me.

As I was looking at him, he extended his right arm out and hooked it around my neck. He threw his body onto me, knocking me to the ground and trapping me underneath of him. It’s so strange to write out the details of this sequence now — as in, how was this physically possible? It was so fluid — it was as if it happened in slow motion.

Even as my body hit the ground, my brain couldn’t comprehend what was happening to me. I kept thinking, “You could be a student in one of my classes, what are you doing?” Thankfully, my body began reacting well before my brain caught up and I started screaming for help immediately. He shoved my face into the ground and threatened to kill me if I wasn’t quiet. This resulted in me throwing my head back and screaming as loudly as I could. He kept trying to cover my mouth to quiet me, so I kept moving my head and biting his hand whenever I had the chance.

When I run at night, I always carry pepper spray (strapped to my wrist). Unfortunately, my hands were still pinned underneath of me, so I couldn’t get to it. And honestly, even if I could, he was in such close proximity that it would have sprayed us both. All I could do was kick and try to get enough leverage behind my elbows to jab him in the ribs. I kept trying to throw my weight to one side so that I could roll out from under him, all the while still screaming at the top of my lungs.

I’m not entirely sure if he realized he was losing the battle or if the sound of neighbors scared him off, but moments after the whole thing started he was back on his bike and riding away. I immediately ran to the first house I saw with a porch light on and began ringing the doorbell. I went to dial the police and realized that I had his cell phone and pocket knife in my hands. Somehow, they had been lost in the scuffle. I dialed the police from my phone and while talking to the dispatcher (who was practically gleeful that I had his phone), neighbors began coming out of their houses. Several of them waited with me until the police arrived and even gave statements (though none of them had actually seen him or the incident, unfortunately).

The police arrived in less than five minutes. One of them drove me to the station to give my statement and to be photographed. Coincidently, after only a few minutes at the police station, a call came in reporting that the alleged perpetrator had gone back to the scene and was looking for his cell phone. One of my attentive neighbors was kind enough to call the police and my attacker was arrested that evening.

The whole thing from start to end was only about an hour.

I didn’t sleep much that night, or the next few nights. I’m mostly back to sleeping well now, but still have nightmares some nights. I will talk later about some of my coping strategies and how I’m handling the situation currently, but I want to first outline the things that I think are most important in terms of being proactive and protecting ourselves:

Be aware of your surroundings. Know where you are and be attentive to what’s happening around you. I LOVE loud music (as in, love when you can actually feel the vibrations in the things around you), but when you’re running outdoors you have to be able to hear when someone is nearby. So, leave your headphones at home or have them turned down low enough that you can hear when people are across the street or coming up behind you. If you notice a situation that seems off (like someone who might be following you), text a friend, get off the trail you’re on, and/or go to a populated area (such as a water fountain at a park). The most important thing is to get to a safe place.

Choose ideal areas. I prefer the trails I run because they are well maintained and have a good amount of foot traffic. It’s also important to consider things like good lighting (especially if you’re running after dark or under bridges). If you’re trying out a new trail or path for the first time, consider going with a partner (or even using an app that maps the path for you) so that you will have some familiarity with the area when you’re out on your own. I also prefer areas that are not as noisy due to nearby traffic or trains because it makes it easier to hear when someone is coming up from behind. I realize this may not be possible in all cases, but I generally look for more residential areas to run. 

Bring your phone. Always have your phone with you.  If you don’t want to be disturbed while you’re out, there is an awesome feature (on most phones) called “Do Not Disturb” that you can turn on while you’re out. Also, most leggings have a built-in side pocket for your phone now and if you don’t wear leggings, you can buy an arm band on Amazon for like $10 (there are a lot of other great options out there as well). Even if you don’t think you would ever need a phone for yourself, imagine coming upon someone else who could be injured and in need of help. Do you really want to run all the way home to call for help and leave that poor person alone and injured? No. So just bring your phone. 🙂

Consider running with others. I actually enjoy running alone so I feel personally conflicted about this point. If you’re someone who doesn’t mind running with others, then this is clearly a great option. For now, I’m walking with a partner when I go out after dark (because apparently none of my friends are fans of running). If you have a dog, running with your dog could be another great alternative. I considered adopting a dog for about 5 seconds and then remembered that dogs are a huge responsibility and that my cats would likely murder me in my sleep. So I’m remaining dog-less (at least for now).

Learn some self-defense basics. I was fortunate enough to have taken some basic self-defense training in the past as a job requirement (this was prior to my faculty position and totally unrelated to my current work). I also grew up in a household where I was taught to be mindful about parking under a street lamp and having my keys out and in my hand so they could be used as a weapon if needed. I am certain that all of this knowledge stuck somewhere in my brain and assisted in my quick reaction to this situation. The main point here is to educate yourself and to be aware of potential risks.

Select options that work for you. There isn’t really a perfect formula in terms of what works best in every instance. Again, the point of this post is not to prevent all potential bad scenarios from occurring because that’s not reasonable (we can’t live in bubbles). I had pepper spray with me and it was completely useless in this case. I’ve had some people recommend that I carry a gun. In this exact scenario, my attacker could have reached for it more quickly than me because I was pinned to the ground by the time I realized I was in danger. At the end of the day, the methods you choose to be proactive and to protect yourself are completely up to you. You have to be comfortable with the tools you choose because you’re the one that will be using them. For me, the most valuable things I have taken from this experience are education (e.g., how to defend yourself) and awareness (e.g., being in tune to what’s going on around you).

Lessons on being a good neighbor. There is a lot to be said for good neighbors and I am incredibly grateful to my neighbors who heard me that night. Since then, some of my neighbors have even mentioned that they are now keeping their porch lights on because that’s what drew me to the house I initially sought for safety. This experience has taught me the importance of being a good neighbor as well. It may be through keeping the porch light on, or checking things out when you hear a commotion outside (even if you think it’s probably just some kids messing around), or just mentioning to your neighbors when you see something out of the ordinary in your area. We all have the opportunity to be good neighbors simply by being vigilant and supportive members of the communities in which we live.

An honest reflection on coping and moving forward. Since this event, things have mostly returned to normal. I (successfully) defended my dissertation as planned which occurred only about a week after the attack (though I did briefly consider postponing my defense). I found it difficult to focus in the immediate days after the event, but I think part of that was the result of lack of sleep. My fat lip and bruised shoulder have fully healed, but I think the psychological impacts will take a bit of time.

I have moments of complete panic that I have never experienced previously. I have fear that I have never had before. Sometimes a thought flashes through my brain and I remember, “I thought I might die.” I know this is my way of processing this experience and that I will heal. And, I know healing will take time.

I’ve spoken openly about the event with family members and friends. I’ve gone back out running and I have taken the same route several times since the attack. I’m using my personal yoga practice as well as the classes that I teach as opportunities to practice being present in the moment and to find some inner peace.

Today, I’m writing about this event and sharing it with all of you. In the coming days, I’m going to look for a trauma counselor because I think talking to a professional could be helpful. For now, I’m trying to give myself some grace by allowing myself to feel sad or scared when those emotions arise and by giving myself plenty of time to process this event. And, I’m reminding myself that I survived and that I will be okay.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post.

With love,

Tiff

References

Pinola, M. (2011). Basic self-defense moves anyone can do (and everyone should know). Retrieved August 9, 2019 from https://www.runnersworld.com/beginner/a27559884/running-safety/

Road Runners Club of America (RRCA). (2019). Education: RRCA general running safety tips. Retrieved August 9, 2019 from https://www.rrca.org/education/rrca-general-running-safety-tips

Spector, N. (2018). Scared to run alone? Women runners share their best safety tips. Retrieved August 9, 2019 from https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/scared-run-alone-female-runners-share-how-they-stay-safe-ncna935186

Triola, P. (2019). The best safety tips for running on the roads or trails. Retrieved August 9, 2019 from https://www.runnersworld.com/beginner/a27559884/running-safety/

Photo Credits (in order of appearance)

Person walking on fire. Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash

People running and walking. Photo by Chanan Greenblatt on Unsplash

Man and woman jogging on bridge. Photo by Curtis MacNewton on Unsplash

Two bicycles near a house. Photo by Christopher Harris on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “Facing Down Fear

  1. This is such a courageous and helpful post! I am grateful on many levels – that you are ok, that you are facing your fear AND seeking help, and that you are reaching out to and helping other learn from your terrifying experience. Thank you for this…and for just being who you are. What a wonderful gift to us all!

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s