Personal Safety and RA
Glance at the news online some morning or turn on the radio or TV at nearly any given moment and you’ll find an alarming number of stories saturated with violence: shootings, beatings, kidnappings, rape, assaults, murders, and the list goes on. And sadly, in today’s world, women still bear the brunt of violence compared with men, I’d argue. I’d stress even further that women with RA or other types of physically painful and/or debilitating conditions especially need to realize the importance of personal safety. Living with fragile, inflamed joints makes me vulnerable, I’ve recently realized, and it’s frightening to think about what could happen if I were to find myself in dangerous situations.
When I was living in New York this summer, I had a very scary experience one night when I was out by myself at Coney Island that made me stop and think about just how vulnerable those of us with RA are in many ways. Physically, yes. Mentally and emotionally, also yes. But vulnerable to being preyed upon and in physical danger from others? Definitely. I just hadn’t thought about this much until my creepy Coney Island night.
I traveled by myself all the time in New York and I always felt safe for the most part; there were usually other people around everywhere. Maybe that was naive and a false sense of security, but I tried to be careful and smart about what I was doing when wandering the streets and riding the subway. With my iPhone ready in my pocket, I quickly learned the art of avoiding eye contact and conversation with unstable-looking characters and I made sure to stay out of dark, isolated areas.
Despite my safety precautions, I found myself alone late one night at Coney Island, when I probably should have left for home much earlier. Coney Island is gaining a more positive reputation lately as being “family friendly,” but there are still a lot of, well, freaks and weirdos running around the place–especially at night. I’ll put it this way: it’s no Disney World.
I had been to Coney Island once before, when my sister was visiting, and we had fun being by the water and walking on the boardwalk in the summer sunshine, eating those famous Nathan’s hotdogs. Despite my bashing it in the previous paragraph, it is a really fascinating place: the amusement park rides, the beach, the shops, the food, the architecture of old vs. new, and people from all walks of life. Coney Island is also an excellent spot for taking photographs, and that was my goal the second time I ventured over there, prepared with my Nikon gear slung across my body.
My Coney Island Photo Day started off as a relaxing, fun day to myself. Aimlessly wandering up and down the boardwalk, I snapped photos of all sorts of things: old modernist-style buildings, brightly-painted wall murals, brightly painted people, swimmers frolicking in the ocean, the strange shapes of amusement park rides against a bright blue sky. I also walked seemingly for miles all the way down to Brighton Beach, just to see if there were any good photos to be taken there. Before I knew it, dusk was approaching and I realized that I should probably start the long walk back to the subway station.
As the sky continued to darken at an increasingly rapid pace, I saw the rides and signs and everything in the distance start to come alive with the twinkling of neon lights. How could I pass up this photo opportunity? I might never be here again! I decided to wait until dark, take some more photos of Coney Island nightlife, and then be on my way back to my apartment in Brooklyn.
Once I made it back to the main area, where all of the shops and food stands and rides are located, I realized I needed some food ASAP and to sit and rest my throbbing feet (especially my bad right ankle). I bought a cheeseburger and soda and wearily sat down on a bench to eat my snack/dinner. While I happily chowed down my burger and continued to rest my now-exhausted body, I began checking out stuff on my iPhone. Head bent and engrossed in something probably dumb on the Internet, I didn’t notice the man approach until I heard his voice wake me from my cheeseburger and smart phone trance.
Man: “Hello, are you European?”
Me: “Huh? What?”
Man: “Are you European? From Europe?”
Me (still confused): “No…what? I’m American.”
Man: “Oh, you seem European to me.”
I thought this was a strange way to approach someone, especially when I didn’t think I looked anything close to being European at that moment–greedily munching on a disgusting cheeseburger and wearing my RA-friendly orthopedic sandals and shorts and hauling around a dorky large backpack. I was not exactly a poster woman for chic European style. Without asking, he sat down next to me on the bench and passive-aggressively forced me into conversation with him. Probably due to my polite Minnesotan upbringing, I didn’t want to be rude and tell him to buzz off and get off my bench. Annoyed, I continued to talk to him, silently wondering how to get out of this situation.
He didn’t look very threatening, as he sat next to me in the darkness, continuing to drone on about how he was a filmmaker from Tibet and he had made this Tibetan documentary and I don’t remember what else he was saying about it. He asked me why I was living in New York, what I was doing there, where I was from and other personal questions that I stupidly answered automatically and truthfully. I was like a deer caught in headlights: I didn’t know how to shut up or lie and I didn’t know how to leave.
Feeling that something was a bit off about this guy (the odd European line was the first red flag), I finally stopped our conversation and stood up and said that I needed to go home. Dead-tired anyway, I just wanted to get back to my little apartment and fall asleep, and not feel pressured by this unassuming (yet creepy) middle-aged Tibetan man. He stood up too, and said that he was also going to leave. He said he had been waiting for his friends from California who were on the rides in the amusement park, but decided to leave them and take the train back to where he lived in Queens. My stomach did a nervous little flip-flop when he told me this. Was he going to try to walk with me to the subway station? I didn’t wait to find out. I said perhaps the fastest “goodbye” of my life and practically ran away from him.
I speed-walked the three or four blocks to the subway station, trying to not freak out that he was following me, yet also cursing myself for stupidly telling him that I lived in Brooklyn and which train I took. Why did I do that?! I’ve always been a terrible liar and this was no exception. Looking back over my shoulder a few times, I was relieved there was no sight of him. And, I reasoned, I had left before him, so surely I would beat him to the station anyway.
Still, my anxiety and fear grew as I approached the station. It was late and quite dark by now, and I had shared personal information with this probing, oddly aggressive stranger. He knew where I lived and which train I would take to get there, thanks to my big mouth and fear of not wanting to offend him. By the time I got to the subway I was convinced I was going to be assaulted and murdered that night. I didn’t want to die at Coney Island! I didn’t want to die anywhere yet.
Rushing into the subway station, I saw a police officer near the stairs to the train platforms. Feeling shy and nervous and somewhat silly, I walked over to him and told him about my experience with my “bench buddy” and that I felt uncomfortable and anxious about the whole thing. I was scared he was following me. The officer had me look around to see if I spotted the man and thankfully, I didn’t. He said there wasn’t much he could do and then gave me tips about being safe on the train–where to sit (in the first car by the driver) and to call 911 if I needed to. I thanked him and raced up the stairs to catch my train. Once I reached the platforms, however, my heart stopped. I saw him.
How did he beat me to the station? And why was he waiting there, on that platform, when he was supposed to be going to Queens? I didn’t stop to find out, but ran by in a panic behind him, hoping he wouldn’t see me. Luckily (maybe not lucky for her), he was chatting up some other young woman who was also waiting for a train. I wondered if he asked her if she was “European.”
Now I had time to kill, waiting anxiously at the other end of the platform, waiting for a train that seemed to never arrive. Was he going to get on my train? Did he see me? Due to it being late at night, there weren’t hordes of people that I could hide behind, so I paced back and forth on high alert, keeping a lookout for him. The train finally came and I jumped into the car right behind the driver’s car. Great, I’m safe, right? No. I was the only person in that car and the train was just sitting there, giving him ample time to step into my car and be alone with me. Of course I had no idea where he was at this moment, but my active imagination kept fearing the worst and I expected to see him walking through the doors and heading straight for me.
Thankfully, none of these bad and neurotic scenarios actually happened during my nail-biting train ride back home. But my heart was racing the entire time, scared to death I would see him walk through the connecting doors into my car, where I still sat alone. Was he even on my train? Would I meet him again once I got off at my stop? Visions of getting attacked in a dark, desolate subway station flashed through my head.
Only a few stops away from where I needed to get off, I decided to call my landlord’s cell phone to see if he could meet me at the station and walk back to the apartment with me (he and his family lived in a ground floor apartment in the large old house where I also lived). No answer. I left an embarrassed message about being scared that I was being followed by some creepy guy from Coney Island. Luckily he called back right away and agreed to meet me.
Thankfully, and with great relief, this story has a happy and safe ending. I did not get attacked and murdered by the Creepy Coney Island Guy. I didn’t even see him again, thank God. And I received some very wise, helpful advice from my kind landlord: “Don’t go to Coney Island at night! Especially alone. Never sit in the last car of the train at night. And don’t tell strangers where you live!” Er, yes, thank you. I fully realize that now, I thought, sheepishly.
The realization of how vulnerable I was hit me hard. I was a woman walking alone in some questionable areas at night. And not only that, but I was a woman with RA and chronic pain, and in particular very painful feet and ankles. If this guy had started to chase after me, there’s no way I could have outrun him. If attacked, how could I punch back with inflamed, sore hands to defend myself? I would give it my all, I’m sure, but realistically the odds of successfully fighting back against a strong, healthy person seem slim. It’s pretty terrifying to think about.
So what can we RA sufferers do to protect ourselves? A friend of mine who also lives in Brooklyn recommended I take adapted self-defense classes. She was horrified at my story and urged that classes are a necessity, especially when living in a big city like New York. I agreed and I do plan to follow her advice, even though I’m no longer living in Brooklyn. But no matter where I am in the world, I need to be able to protect myself somehow.