Shaken after verbal assault
August 9, 2017 12:52 AM   Subscribe

How do I get over being upset by an interaction on the street? How should I have handled it?

I was walking out of a subway station today to meet a friend, and heard someone talking behind me. I felt a funny gut feeling, so I lowered the music on my headphones so I could hear what the person was saying. I didn't turn around, but I could hear that it was an older woman with a Jamaican accent. She was right behind me and was obviously taking to me. She said that I was asking to be raped, and that a lady should dress like a lady, and how dare I wear what I was wearing. Just for the record, I was wearing a blue sundress that came to my shins and covers everything, but has a slightly low back (not that I should even defend what I was wearing). As a survivor of rape, the fact that anyone, let alone a woman was telling me I was "asking to be raped" sent me into a tailspin. I immediately told me friend what happened, and we walked around until I felt better, and then went about the rest of our night. I can't stop thinking about it though. What should I have done, and how to I quash her statements and feel safe within myself again?
posted by Champagne Supernova to Human Relations (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
How absolutely horrible. I don't know if I would have actually done this because I think I would have felt just as disarmed as you were, but I would like to be the type of person who would have just rolled my eyes and turned the volume of my music back up. There's no point in trying to talk to terribly mentally disturbed strangers. But I think you did the right thing, talking to a friend about how it made you feel, talking until you felt you could move on, and then continued on with your night.

I think others who have more experience with this could chime in to help you at this point even further because it's still on your mind, but for the situation at the time, I think you did great.
posted by like_neon at 1:56 AM on August 9, 2017 [9 favorites]

I am really sorry that happened to you! It sounds very distressing. I think you handled it really well by talking to your friend immediately and walking around till you felt better.

I was verbally assaulted twice today while minding my own business walking down the sidewalk (by two different people, several hours apart). I suspect I was merely a convenient target for their rage. It shook me up each time, briefly, because they were both large men who got up in my face and SCREAMED at me) and each time afterwards I thought about what I could have said to them. But in reality I know they were using me as a scapegoat for whatever else was upsetting them in their lives. I am a small woman, and I suspect gender played a role in the fact that I was singled out for the verbal abuse, because they knew I would not be able to physically retaliate.

I know in your case it was a woman, but I think she also targeted you to express her own warped views on gender. She has problems--that is NOT an acceptable thing to say to anyone, and it may help you to reframe this as you simply being in the line of fire when she had the urge to attack someone verbally. That does not make it okay! But it was a random attack on you because you happened to be proximate. It can be dicey to confront an unstable person. Honestly, nothing you could have said would have changed this woman's mind, and might well have resulted in her escalating and/or you becoming more distressed.

You have every right to feel upset by this--it was not okay, but it's good you are safe now. I hope you're feeling a bit better now that some time has passed.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:03 AM on August 9, 2017 [21 favorites]

That's awful, I'm sorry that happened to you. A man ranted at me in the street today and spat near my feet. I looked down and quickly kept walking. You did the best possible thing - to not engage and talk with someone you trust until you felt a bit better.

It might not make you feel safe right away, but so far 3/4 people on here have been subject to random verbal attacks today. I hope this helps you realise you were just in the line of fire for someone unstable. It had nothing to do with you, your worth, your dress. She would have yelled it at anyone.

Maybe it would help to write down/say in the mirror what you would say to challenge her if you could. Until you feel empowered again.
posted by wreckofthehesperus at 2:21 AM on August 9, 2017 [8 favorites]

What should I have done

YOU DID NOTHING WRONG. We all know this in our heads but sometimes it helps to hear it to believe it. The way you carried yourself was FINE.
(Kudos to you. I probably would have wished for some kind of magical verbal/karmic retaliation but...realistically? I've also had a few verbal attacks recently and each time spent the rest of the day in a funk, plus flashbacks later. I admire your presence of mind to handle it the way you did with your friend.)

We can't control how others behave. Keep on keepin' on. Let time pass, spend it doing something pleasant. I hope more pleasant days come your way and that you feel better soon.
posted by Sockin'inthefreeworld at 2:34 AM on August 9, 2017 [9 favorites]

As others have said - you did the right thing. You didn't escalate and you let your friend know why you weren't at your best. I'm sorry it happened to you in the first place, of course it's not OK that it did, and I hope you do get over it.

In terms of getting your own head straight about this, I can only hope that by hearing that you've been completely reasonable and reacted in a perfectly decent way helps you quash the woman's daft and damaging statements.
posted by SuckPoppet at 2:54 AM on August 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

Based on my experiences as a wheelchair user [and thus being on the receiving end of this type of behavior all too often], I can tell you that people looking to lash out at strangers pick targets they see as "safe":

- women, especially short women and/or fat women;
- wheelchair users;
- people of colour;
- anyone who is visibly different.

It's not your fault
. She was looking for a target, and she would have picked any "safe" looking person she came across.
posted by Murderbot at 3:02 AM on August 9, 2017 [27 favorites]

You did nothing wrong and you'll probably feel better in a day or two.

I'm hesitant to share this but ... Once after being harassed by someone who made remarks about what I was wearing, I found it comforting to wear more muted, "buttoned up" clothing when I knew I would be around them. I knew there was nothing wrong with what I had been wearing and it wasn't my fault that they had chosen to harass me, but it helped me to feel a little more camouflaged for a few days. This is not logical - I have been harassed while bundled up a parka where *nothing* was visible except my face, but it still made me feel better.

Harassment sucks, and I'm sorry it happened to you.
posted by bunderful at 5:57 AM on August 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

That's dumb (that that happened). I've also been triggered by people specifically talking about how they would be too smart to get raped. You have my validation that it brings up a lot. You'll get over it with a couple more days. Let yourself have a good cry if you need one. But yep, that's rape culture. As for the woman, she's just a random jackass. Such a pitiable human being if you think about it. And the words that were coming out of her mouth come from a scary place culturally but she learned them because she's dumb. Feel happy that you still have a cute dress and did nothing wrong.
posted by benadryl at 5:58 AM on August 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

You did nothing wrong. You handled it fine. Your feelings right now are normal, and it's ok to be having those feelings, too. The woman violated your boundaries, and anger is a normal reaction to that, and shame/guilt/sadness are often secondary emotions that come up along with anger. Flashbacks or feeling unsafe are (unfortunately) normal reactions to someone triggering a past assault. I find that reminding myself that all my emotions are expected and ok, feeling all those emotions rather than trying to push them away or change them, and reminding myself that I am safe now, are helpful things to do in such situations. Being extra gentle with myself is also often helpful.

I'm sorry that happened to you.
posted by lazuli at 6:13 AM on August 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'm very sorry this happened to you. That woman obviously has problems, probably related to her own anger and feelings of powerlessness. You did exactly the right thing by getting out of there and then getting support from a friend. If you'd confronted her, it's very likely she would have used that as an excuse to escalate.

As it was, you left her with full responsibility for her negative energy and her bile. No doubt both are sticking in her craw.
posted by rpfields at 6:43 AM on August 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

I think when something upsetting happens, there simply is a period of time that has to pass before the adrenaline and its psychological equivalents are out of our systems. So feeling upset afterwards, even if your judging mind is telling you to get over it or that you're overreacting, is not only normal but as far as I can see, is also healthy.

Some things will be upsetting every time we remember them. Some things are only upsetting for a period of time after they occur. But being upset doesn't mean you should have done anything differently. In fact, some upsetting experiences are upsetting precisely because there is no "good" or "right" response except to get through them however we can. Sometimes being assertive in response, defending oneself or giving back what you're getting or whatever comes to mind later, would have created a much more upsetting experience altogether.

Think of yourself as having to grieve the loss of power you felt during the experience and hold yourself with the gentleness you would hold an accident victim or a frightened child. Small daily losses are worthy of our mourning and it's never a bad idea to practice cradling your heart when you experience pain. When we allow ourselves the space and acceptance to feel what we are feeling in small daily hurts, we are practicing for the inevitable large ones. You wouldn't try to lift the hundred pound weight your first day in the gym, and it's unfair of us to expect ourselves to be able to weather the turbulence of life if we don't give ourselves room to practice with the five pound weights of daily experience.

I'm sending you warmth.
posted by janey47 at 7:12 AM on August 9, 2017 [6 favorites]

I'm really sorry that happened to you. You did not deserve it and I think you handled it really well. That would be a rush of adrenaline so I strongly advise doing whatever you usually do to spend that (for me it's exercise, and watching some comedy.)

For Reasons I am often a magnet for people who are struggling with certain kinds of mental health issues and having a bad day, and for myself I find it helpful to imagine that what is coming out of their mouths are actually the voices from their own past and trauma speaking through them. I personally picture it like a bunch of trolls shouting at the human who is shouting/hissing/speaking AT me. I don't mistake that for my own safety -- meaning I still treat the person in front of me as a potential and active threat -- but for me it depersonalizes it. I am not saying this to say you should not be upset! That was awful. I am just explaining what helps me in case it's helpful for you.

The other thing that helps... I don't recommend talking back generally, but for me it has helped to develop my own de-escalation techniques. When I do talk back, I try to de-escalate it by answering a bit sideways like:
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"What a bad day."
posted by warriorqueen at 7:15 AM on August 9, 2017 [8 favorites]

I know you didn't turn around, but I guarantee you this woman was mentally ill and processing outloud the way folks on the street do from time to time. She was not really talking to you or about you, although she absolutely triggered you and seemed to be directing her strong feelings your way. I'm so sorry.

Reclaim your space and your body with some sort of physical activity + meditation. I'm a big fan of kundalini yoga lately, but cycling at the gym while listening to uplifting music will put you in that zone, too. Maybe a dance class? Something new and different and positive including movement and sound that will make new neural connections in your brain. Do this to feel better.

Also some Magnesium or 5-HTP before bed can't hurt.

Keep this recipe (action + sound, plus supplements) for future upsets, it is a combination that works.
posted by jbenben at 7:25 AM on August 9, 2017 [6 favorites]

warror queen deconstructed the phenomenon you experienced far better than I did, and with more compassion. Similar prescription, too!

You walked around the block and talked with your friend. You intuitively and all by yourself did great in the moment!

Tea has L-theanine, that also makes you feel calm and groovy. If you don't have access to supplements the next time you receive a jolt like this, try walking and talking + tea.

If I may.... this is why having some kind of a practice is helpful, especially in a big city. Having a practice increases your forcefield somehow, it builds in a buffer to most situations, and it gives you something to fall back on when you don't know what to do. I wish I knew this 20+ years ago, so I offer it to you now. Be well.
posted by jbenben at 7:35 AM on August 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

Yeah - I will add to jbenben's comment that if you are shaken long-term, there are ways to establish some ground overall. For me it's martial arts and yoga practices, combined with some de-escalation training what feels like an eon ago.

But I didn't say that because a) you shouldn't have to work hours a week to take the subway (and you don't! The subway is generally really safe at least in most cities I'm aware of, with bystanders and staff and all) and b) it's a complex and sort of flaky thing, how people with wounds push each other's buttons and how to manage that for yourself in an imperfect world with inadequate mental health services and public transport.

But if you find yourself feeling unsafe a lot from this kind of thing, there are some steps you can take to see if something similar works for you. None of this makes it your fault or responsibility. Happy to chat in MeMail if you ever want to get into it. But honestly this just happened to you and everything you've described is totally are doing great.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:48 AM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Honestly, I think it's a lot more likely that the person following you and cussing you out was suffering from some kind of mental health issue than anything else. You probably did the best thing by just getting out of there.

It's normal to be freaked out when freaky things happen. I don't know how you can make yourself feel better except knowing that it's nonsense and giving yourself time. It takes a bit for your body to recover from a flood of adrenaline.
posted by windykites at 8:00 AM on August 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

Considering you had no other interaction with her, I agree strongly with the people who say she was probably severely, severely mentally ill. Had you turned around and looked at her, you would probably have seen an unkempt person dragging a filthy bag along who might not even have been looking at you as she spoke. Her comments had nothing more to do with you personally than the random horrible splot of urban moisture that probably hit you while you were walking down the street last week.

Not engaging with her was the correct response (you certainly couldn't help her in that moment and you don't want to escalate in such a situation, especially because you don't want to do anything that might attract police attention), telling a friend was a good follow-up, walking around to try to burn off some of the adrenaline was good self-care. Ultimately, time is what takes the sting off these interactions.
posted by praemunire at 9:48 AM on August 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

Mentally ill? The old thing was bitterly envious of your youth and attractiveness. Pity her and move on.
posted by zadcat at 4:56 PM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thank you everyone so so much for the warm compassionate comments. I'm feeling better today, and it's good to know that I handled the situation the right way. It's also comforting, although dismaying to know that most people have this happen to them too, and I am not alone. I think the thing to take away from this is that I shouldn't adjust how I live my life around someone else's behavior, however audacious it may be. The loudest voice in my head should be my own. I'll remember that from now on.
posted by Champagne Supernova at 8:05 PM on August 9, 2017 [6 favorites]

And for you and future readers: There's no reason to blame mental illness for other people's behavior, and doing so can create additional stigma for people dealing with PTSD who are triggered by such comments. Someone said something stupid, and that can happen in the absence of mental illness. And plenty of people subscribe to the concept of rape culture who aren't mentally ill, and writing them off as mentally ill gets them off the hook for their unhelpful views. "They were just mentally ill" is a stigmatizing brain-hack that's not really a sustainable helpful empowering thought in such situations.
posted by lazuli at 10:13 PM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

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