Yesterday I got pick-pocketed. The worse thing was I wasn’t completely oblivious, and after, when I had confirmed that something had actually happened, I didn’t do anything while the perpetrator stood perhaps 5 metres away from me, on the bus I just got off, for about 30 seconds. Eventually the doors closed and the bus drove off, taking the thief and my mp3 player with it. I felt, and still feel, distinctly unempowered.
I’m not sure I could tell you what I was thinking while I stood there gawping, feeling up my pockets, checking to see I hadn’t just misplaced it, and knowing I hadn’t. I know, while it was within 5 metres of me, that I had already started rationalising to myself. At least it wasn’t my wallet, my phone. My music is backed up on my computer, I can just put it on my phone. I made a couple of movements towards the bus, but never got back on, never said anything, just continued to stand there, gawping. I guess I was partly in denial, partly in shock.
Later I got home and tweeted about it and got a couple of responses back from friends who had had something similar happened to them. It was somehow comforting to know that I wasn’t the only person whose mind short-circuited during a time when it should have started kicking into gear. It was also disturbing that it’s happened to my friends, but in another way almost nice to know that it’s happened so few times that we don’t have any experiences to refer to to tell us how to act.
Since the incident happened about 18 hours ago my mind has belatedly started going back to the incident and thinking about what I should’ve done. I should’ve gone up to him and just asked him for my mp3 player back. I should’ve told the bus driver. I should’ve moved my bag out of the way when I thought something was happening.
Edit (11/03/11) : After filing my police report I asked the policewoman what I could’ve done. She said that I could’ve called 999, if there were police around and available they could’ve sent a car after the bus and arrested the perpetrator then and there. This wasn’t something I seriously considered because I thought perhaps the crime was “too trivial” for 999. It wasn’t, and it could’ve helped the police as they are trying to crack down on pickpockets. If a crime is happening or has just happened and you know the police can catch the criminal(s), call 999.
The thoughts are tormenting, yes. These are all things I could’ve, should’ve done, and I didn’t. People say it’s useless to think of what you should’ve done during an incident after it’s over, but actually, I think my mind is taking this incident that has so obviously upset me and its going over it and picking out all the possible spots where I could’ve acted to change the situation, so that I will be prepared and know what to do for next time. Or to prevent a next time. In other words, lacking real circumstances, my mind is rehearsing.
Back at university I trained in karate and one of the main things you learn in karate is kata – that’s the series of movements you see karate students do. It may look like we’re just showing off, but the fundamental thing about practising kata was that you were practising these series of movements over and over again so that they were ingrained in your muscle memory. That block punch-turn combination may look useless if you’re fighting one person, but in a real life situation when you’ve got that drilled in you it could save your life. Without thinking you’ll block your attacker’s initial advance, punch to momentarily stun them, and throw them while you’re turning.
Of course, you should always take the opportunity to run the hell out of there when you can, but sometimes when you’re trapped that isn’t possible.
So I guess, in a way, my mind is performing its mental kata right now – taking in the situation and practising over and over what I should do in another situation.
But we don’t have to wait for these things to happen and to affect us so profoundly before our mind starts practising actions for these situations. I once tried to set up a women’s self-defence class at my university – unfortunately it never happened because the university didn’t have the budget for it – but speaking to Ger O’Dea, who I hoped would lead the class, I learnt a few things that I think would be really useful. Unfortunately I never practised it for being pickpocketed – I was focused on more violent attacks – but hopefully having done this exercise for violent attacks, during a violent attack (which of course I hope will never happen) my mind won’t desert me like it did last night.
If you have half an hour and a pen and paper right now, do this right now. If not, think about it and do it when you have time. It may save your life.
To start with, think about your most frequent route. For me, it’d be travelling to and from work. Now think about all the places where you are vulnerable on this route. Walking through quiet neighbourhoods. Waiting at quiet bus stops. Walking past dark parks. I hope, by the way, that you NEVER take short cuts through quiet ways by yourself when there is a lovely main road you can use.
Now think of the things that could happen to you when you are in these places. Perhaps while waiting at your quiet bus stop a bunch of rowdy drunk men could spot you and think you’re an easy target to harrass. Perhaps while you’re walking past a dark alleyway someone could jump out, grab you, and drag you in, and try to rape you at knifepoint. Perhaps, while you’re walking through a quiet neighbourhood, some guy in a van will pull over, get out, and ask you how much for a night. No, these are not pleasant things to think about.
Now the first thing to do, for all these incidents, is to think whether there is some way you can avoid them, or the places where they could happen. You could walk to the next bus stop which is on a main road. You could cross the road to avoid walking past the dark alleyway.
Some of these things can’t be avoided though. What do you do when that guy in a van pulls over and gets out and asks you for a good time tonight? Can you scream “FIRE!” and run to the door of the nearest house? (Always scream “Fire” – it gets people’s attention) Could you carry a rape alarm around with you and have it in your hand while you’re walking through this neighbourhood? Could you catch this guy off guard, kick him in the stomach, punch him in the nose, then run like hell to a main road? Write down several things you could do in each of the situations you have listed, and be realistic about your capabilities. Make sure you factor in other possible situations – what if that guy has a friend? Maybe you can say “Sure, come to my place, I like it this way and I have these toys…” and lead them to the house of the biggest strongest man you know. Always make sure you have an escape plan.
Now, while you’re on a roll, or later when you have time, work on your other frequent routes.
Is it too much? Maybe. But wouldn’t you prefer to rehearse before incidents happen rather than after?
One of the things you should hopefully find after you do this exercise is that in a funny way it frees you from anxiety. My best friend lives in LA and is always on red alert. When I visited her a few years back we got lost late at night and I asked a stranger for directions and she freaked out. He turned out to be a very nice guy, but she is always living with the “What if”. I don’t know how it is to live your life questioning the motives of every stranger – to fear everybody who looks at you the wrong way or passes too close to you. I’m not saying that after you do this exercise you should no longer be cautious – far from it – but that having these plans available you should hopefully be released from that anxiety of “anything can happen” and actually start listening to your instinctual feelings – so that your real fear signals – the ones you should really listen to – are not buried and confused with your anxiety.
If you’re interested in reading more about instinct and fear and how they could help you out in situations rather than that constant buzz of anxiety, a good book to read is the very aptly named “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker. I just bought two copies – one to replace the last one which I lent out and never got back, and one for my best friend. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who is always feeling that anxiety that my friend has and it’s pretty cheap – about a fiver including delivery on Amazon.
I will readily admit that I wrote this post partly to help clear my mind of last night’s incident, to write down my thoughts on the “mental kata” I’ve been doing, but I also thought it important that the people – particularly the women – I know do the exercise I have just mentioned. I do think and have always thought that self-defence is unfortunately very important in the times we live in, and I think it is 99% mental and should only be physical when everything else has failed.
Special thanks to Ger O’Dea who originally spoke to me about this exercise and who responded with great enthusiasm when I asked him to proofread the first draft of this post, despite us having been out of touch for years! Ger now runs the Dynamis gym in Edinburgh where he teaches self-defence.