Beating fear and paranoia around crime
February 15, 2018 2:49 PM   Subscribe

This is the first time I’ve lived in a big city that has a high perception of crime. It’s been a year that I’ve been here but I can’t beat my paranoia and fear every time I’m on the street or walking home. It hasn’t exactly interfered with my daily life, but it stops me enough from living as much of a fun life outside of work and necessities, and it keeps me up at night. Details inside.

If it matters, I am a young cis woman of color. I live in Baltimore. I didn’t really know of the crime reputation about the city before until I got there, or if I heard about it on the internet, much of it was “Oh, those are frantic white folk who have never hung around the city or black folk, don’t pay attention to their blown out fears.”

Now living here, I have gratefully not experienced anything *directly* to me, but I have been witness to a couple assaults and robberies in my neighborhood. One assault involved a man being beaten in the head with a large rock after a robbery behind my apartment. I was terrified and have never seen so much blood in real life. He survived and we called the ambulance, but I can still hear his screams. Yet really, I wasn’t the one to get beaten to a pulp, so I don’t have a reason to be traumatized, that poor man does.

I live in a pretty mixed/wealthy neighborhood, but we still get a fair share of crime. I follow many news reporters for the city because it relates to my job, but I also hear a lot about crime because of it. I also am on NextDoor to know what is happening in the neighborhood, but then I hear about all the crime incidents that happen near my apartment, and I am afraid again. I like this city and all it offers, but I honestly get afraid of exploring.

Other people are living their lives and going out and about and seem just fine, but why am I so dang paranoid and afraid? Does anyone have practical tips for avoiding a mugging or assault? Or at least being less afraid of something happening to me? I don’t want to be always jumping at every person on the street. I thought about moving out of the city, but honestly, the city offers so much, and I feel like there could be crime anywhere (it’s just particularly high in Baltimore.) I also feel like I would hopefully not be targeted because I can blend in with most of Baltimore, I don’t really stick out. But I do get harassed on the street by men and teenage boys quite often. I do carry mace, but I don’t know if that is ever useful to use. I heard it can be turned against you. And not to use it if you’re being mugged.

Any tips or stories or experiences would be so appreciated.

Also, I’m in therapy, so I’m good on that front.
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
First, take a women's self defense class. In my experience these go beyond just techniques and talk more broadly about fear of assault/crime. Look at reviews of such classes. I've heard that they really vary in quality.

Second, read the Gift of Fear. It's an AskMe classic and helps people better understand why we have these feelings.

Third, there are some general things that one should do when walking in the city at night. Don't be on your phone, don't have headphones on, be aware of your general surroundings. You probably already do these things, but just as reminders. Don't carry a big bag/purse with a laptop or iPad in it, if you can.

Fourth, get more involved with your neighborhood to the best of your ability. Get to know your neighbors. If something was to happen, it makes it more likely that they'd help. It also gives you more information sources about what is going on. I'm especially fond of the idea of getting to know people that are at home a lot (elderly, stay at home parents) because they're more/differently aware of strangers in the neighborhood.

As far as Nextdoor, take that all with a grain of salt. People on my Nextdoor (in Seattle) report absolutely everything and tend to exaggerate about the changes in the neighborhood when they report. Like people talk about cars being broken into but when one looks at the data, there has been virtually no change in the frequency of it happening in many years and our neighborhood is actually less likely to experience it than other neighborhoods. We live in a city. Don't leave crap in your car. Lock your doors. If it happens, get your window fixed. People post on Nextdoor though because they've been a victim and posting makes them feel better about being a victim - they're venting. Certainly this is a different type of crime than the one you describe, but every time you see something on Nextdoor, remember to take it with a large grain of salt. No one is posting about how someone shoveled the elderly neighbor's walkway or brought food to a family with a new baby. Tons of good stuff is going on too but Nextdoor is mostly good at making bad stuff more visible.

I had a similar situation when I lived in DC and someone was robbed and hit over the head with a brick at 3 in the afternoon. It scared the shit out of me. You're not alone. Hugs.
posted by k8t at 3:02 PM on February 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

I don’t have a reason to be traumatized

You absolutely do. Witnessing violence, especially to that degree, can be profoundly unsettling and eat away at your sense of safety. This is entirely legitimate, and I suspect you haven't brought it up with your therapist, because they would have told you this also; so please do.

In a lot of ways, urban violence is like the weather, in the sense that it's unlikely to strike you in a ruinous way, but there's not much you can do to affect whether it does. I'm sure you already know the general tips such as not zoning out on your headphones, sticking to well-populated areas, especially at night, and not being oblivious to your valuable property. Realistically, someone in your situation is far far more likely to experience a snatch-and-grab than to be violently assaulted. You're not a male teenager pounding his chest amongst other male teenagers in the grips of testosterone insanity, nor (I assume) are you involved in the criminal economy. You know most people aren't out there in the street just looking for someone random to hit, I'm sure.

However, your brain is not in a realistic place right now. I bet your therapist can recommend ways to work on that.
In the meantime, can you go places with friends, to get your lizard brain more accustomed to the sense that such places are safe?

(Male harassment is unfortunately an endemic issue. How did you deal with it in the places you lived earlier? I'm sure it happened there, too, right?)

Also, get off NextDoor. I have rarely heard of a NextDoor community that wasn't essentially a paranoia-magnification mechanism when it comes to crime.
posted by praemunire at 3:07 PM on February 15, 2018 [16 favorites]

Oh, and another thing that I learned more recently with regard to fear, in the form of a story.

I play Pokemon Go in my neighborhood and one night I was out later than normal and playing with a man in his 30s that I knew pretty well through Pokemon circles. We were in my car together and he suggested that we go to a Pokemon gym a little bit further away. It is on a busy street that I try to avoid on foot at night. There is a ton of prostitution and drug activity there. But for whatever reason I agreed to go. We drove there and parked in the parking lot of a sketchy looking building - this was around 10:30pm. There were tons of people hanging out in the lot. I assessed the situation to be people selling stolen iPads and phones. I was visibly nervous. But Pokemon friend calmed me down with two things. First, the context of the environment of our location. He explained to me that he was a former junky (his words) and has been in recovery/sober for nearly a decade. He told me that this sketchy building was one of the few bus accessible AA/NA locations in our part of the city and they ran meetings 24/7. A lot of people are mandated to go to those meetings and they tend to hang out there afterwards, especially because they don't have a lot of other places to go and that hanging out with other sober people was a good way to stay sober.

I will still nervous. But the second thing he did was explain the positions of those involved. He turned to me and said, "You need to know that you are more threatening to them than they are to you. Right now they are doing something illegal. You are not. You are a white woman sitting in a car. Right now they are worried that you are possibly going to call the cops on them. Most importantly, if they did something to you, they are very likely to get in a lot of trouble. Stealing your phone or your wallet is really not worth it to them. Do NOT look at anyone in their eyes because they will think that you are trying to memorize their faces to tell the cops."

He was totally right. However, I have not gone back to that Pokemon gym at night.
posted by k8t at 3:15 PM on February 15, 2018 [13 favorites]

Hey, you should get evaluated for PTSD. You saw a dude get beat to shit and from your description are having intrusive thoughts at minimum, auditory flashbacks at maximum. You sound traumatized, and should seek some specific help for that. This isn't an overreaction, and you're completely justified in seeking specific intervention about this kind of issue.

Therapy is great, but sometimes therapists aren't exactly versed in PTSD treatment options. There are some pretty legit resources for that kind of incident-level PTSD, that can work in tandem with your existing therapy. Searching for an EMDR practitioner is a great place to start, hell, ask your therapist for a reference. It's impacting your life, and is therefor an addressable problem.

If you have any questions about EMDR, PTSD or just want to discuss "things that are traumatic, but don't really seem like it" memail me, I'm not a professional, but sure do know a bunch about the topic, and some of the better avenues to get assistance dealing with it.
posted by furnace.heart at 3:28 PM on February 15, 2018 [9 favorites]

You are describing genuine risk. k8t's list is quite good. Take a self-defense class, learn some martial arts. It gives you a stronger attitude that makes you less likely to be attacked. Not foolproof, but anything that makes you a little safer is good. Take up running, because most attackers don't want chase somebody. Take a cab/ Lyft if you need to when it's really late or you've had a few drinks and feel vulnerable. Budgeting for the cab home might be a way to feel safer so you go out more and get the benefit of the city.
posted by theora55 at 4:20 PM on February 15, 2018

I agree with furnace.heart.
I got PTSD from witnessing crime, and the hypervigilance you describe is the classic symptom of PTSD.

I read the Gift of Fear while I had PTSD. It was one of the worst things I’ve ever done to myself and it cranked my hypervigilance up a thousand percent. My heart is beating fast now just thinking about that.

You need a therapist that specializes in trauma and you probably want EMDR. It’s a specialty thing that only a few therapists are trained in. Don’t settle for a therapist that just wants to talk and talk like a friend. You need to treat your trauma response, not re-live it over and over.

If you are able to move, go ahead. You will lose all of these memories of all of the crimes you’ve seen or even heard about. You won’t think of it each time you look in your alley. Blank slate at the new place. You will likely feel relief.

I know the next door stuff probably makes you feel hypervigilant too. At some point in your life you will need to be able to hear about everyday petty crimes like car and garage breakins and not catastrophize. Your EMDR therapist will probably de-sensitize you to this stuff too if it doesn’t resolve as you work through the more violent things you’ve seen.
posted by littlewater at 4:43 PM on February 15, 2018

hey I lived in Baltimore for... years, also as a young female PoC. You kinda get used to it after awhile (like "yep, someone a couple floors above me died a few months ago, yeah" "oh and there was a robbery there across the road, oh well", etc).

some tips:

- yeah don't look people in the eye. mind your own business.
- don't walk around by yourself at night. (actually - even if you're with other people, i'm not sure you should be walking around much at night either.)
- just don't use your cellphone or even carry your cellphone visibly when you go out.
- carry expensive/big bags at your own risk.
- don't look like you're an expensive sitting duck, basically.
- and don't listen to music while you walk around unless you're very familiar with the neighborhood you're in etc.
- know the neighborhoods you walk in (i.e. the crime level, risk, etc). ...if you don't know the neighborhoods you're walking in, why are you walking there. by neighborhoods I guess I mean blocks too - since crime level/danger can vary block to block in some areas.
- develop an awareness of your surroundings. be alert even during the day. after awhile this can become habitual.
- when in doubt, use a car/Uber/Lyft.
- remember to lock the door. on top of that, make sure you have some kind of alarm system. also, even if you live in an apartment with some sort of front desk service, that's not always that reliable so... have emergency numbers (incl numbers of friends you can call for help, if possible) ready on your phone.
- don't leave anything in your car.
- if you are being mugged... just try not to freak out (as much as you can) and give them the stuff they want. you don't want to die trying to protect your wallet or iPad or something.
- i think the safest look/attitude to have in Baltimore is basically indifference. not necessarily a "yeah I did that self-defense class now and i feel so tough now i can take you on if u come at me" kinda attitude, but more like a general attitude of indifference and minding your own business. if people are verbally harassing you, don't engage with them or respond - pretend you didn't hear etc (as much as is possible, anyway). basically - seeming indifference on the outside, alertness on the inside. (also re someone's advice to take up running, upthread: i'm not sure taking up running is that effective (although it's good for your health)... i feel like attackers in Baltimore do chase. sometimes they even have wheels with which to chase you. like bicycles or wheelchairs, heh.)

Especially at the beginning - if you don't know the area/neighborhoods that well and are still adjusting to the city, err on the side of caution and just take a car/Uber/Lyft. and if you're walking in an unfamiliar place, try not to walk more than 1-2 blocks, if that makes sense. I feel like Baltimore can be pretty ok once you know it reasonably well. Knowledge of the city (i.e. knowing which areas are dangerous and why they might be dangerous, etc) can make you feel more in control and less powerless.

Good luck! It is possible to adapt to the city and even appreciate the city. And on the bright side, after you've lived a few years in Baltimore almost everywhere else you go will look pretty safe and easy to navigate. I actually miss Baltimore sometimes.
posted by aielen at 6:16 PM on February 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

I do carry mace, but I don’t know if that is ever useful to use.

If someone is stoned, they won't feel it, and it may not do you any good.

As someone who has travelled a lot, I have walked in Chicago in the middle of the night as well as New York City, and a slew of other big cities, including Baltimore, but I have been in tiny backwaters places where people literally had shotguns on their laps, too. I have always been fine, mind you, and the way I carry myself as resulted in strangers on the street calling me Cagney and Lacey, and shouting they wouldn't want to mess with me, and that I "scare" them.

I can't say I look like a cop or someone with a temper. I am not big and burly.

I used to box, and if you are thinking about going for any kind of training -- that's the one to do for a number of reasons, but it is the sport that shares the same spirit as the book The Art of War -- it gets you thinking in terms of down and dirty strategies that get you out of trouble. Weapons can be used against you.

I recommend you do not stick to a routine when coming and going to work or other places. Be unpredictable.

Be aware of places where you can be isolated or marginalized, and learn to assess your surroundings. Don't carry a purse, either. If you are focussed on just being aware, a lot of that fear will subside. People are scared because they feel helpless. If you have a plan, you gain control.

Finally, there is a book with a politically incorrect name I highly recommend: Manwatching by Desmond Morris. It gets you to study people so you can assess aggressive postures and get a sense of what to look for.

Fear is not a bad thing: it is healthy, but do not just read crime reports or watch just that -- go look for stories where people defended themselves successfully, so you do not suffer from a confirmation bias, and then think it's all a foregone conclusion.

You will scare yourself to the point of being helpless. Please don't willingly ride on that hamster wheel. People survive in war zones. If you can get into a healthy strategizing mode, you can build confidence.

I wish you luck and peace.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 9:09 PM on February 15, 2018

I love Baltimore and have worked with Erricka Bridgeford over the years for community mediation and strengthening community relationships through safe communication opportunities. Talk to your elected officials about your experience and how you’d like to feel safer by finding people who are engaged. My City council details are not as sharp as my state delegates but they all had so much energy when we were at City Hall for the Women’s March this year. Del. Mary Washington was especially memorable, and they are easier to reach with the legislature in session now. Call. Talk to people who know your neighborhood and are invested in its success ...there is more connection with discussion, even with a staffer on the phone. Social media doesn’t serve where you are now, so take a break. Best wishes with connecting & feeling better. We’re stronger together, and Baltmore is full of good people, including you.
posted by childofTethys at 9:15 PM on February 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

I wanted to add two more things: can you get a dog? It might be a good idea to have a dog that can warn you of trouble.

And secondly, if you can, take classes in something gentle and constructive, such as art, jewelry-making, felting, and the like. You can meet like-minded people and you will not feel as isolated.

Again, good luck. I enjoy Baltimore, and their restaurants.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 9:41 PM on February 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

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