I have been lucky to have escaped any form of violence during my nomadic journey. Sadly, that streak came to an end with an assault last Sunday. This post is partly an account of the assault and partly some hard-earned lessons on dealing with physical violence.
I attended the gay parade by Copacabana beach in Rio. It was a great day with a million attendees, both partying and demonstrating for gay rights. The centrepiece of the parade was an enormous rainbow flag, as wide as the street and carried forth by the participants. I was one of those underneath the flag.
I felt a slight tug at my camera, and I looked down. For a second, I thought someone was upset that I had been taking photos of the event. It happened so quickly that I never understood that I was in the middle of a robbery. I never had a chance to surrender the camera before I was struck in the face. I never saw my attacker.
The next thing I remember, I was led away from the flag, still holding the camera, blood streaking down my face. A young girl and boy, late teens, were helping me to the curb. When I was strong enough to walk, they helped me to a medical tent where a quick examination showed that I had a cut below my right eye and a broken tooth. My two young helpers found me a cab and I returned home where I grabbed my passport and insurance information. I also called the only friend I had in Rio, Tainá, who hurried to my side, and we went to the hospital.
I was in the hospital for 5-6 hours, having my face sown shut with four stitches and a CT scan to verify that I didn’t have any severe head injuries. After having received sufficient painkillers to calm me down, Tainá took me to the police station where after 3.5 hours, we finally managed to finish a frustratingly long police report.
It was now 4 am and far too late to find a dentist to repair my broken tooth. Tainá took me back to her place and in the morning, she helped me find a dentist. It took the dentists 3.5 hours of continuous work to give me a root canal and a temporary new tooth which I’ll have until I can return to Sweden and have a proper one put in place. The dentists said that the canine tooth that broke is one of our strongest teeth, and it rarely breaks. The force of the blow must have been tremendous. That made me feel a bit better, and even more so when they told me that had the punch been weaker, it would not have snapped the tooth but instead pulled it out from the root. Lucky me?
The next day, I went to have a tetanus shot, in case the cut in my face had been caused by some kind of metal.
That, in a very small nutshell, is what happened.
Plan in advance!
When disaster strikes, there are several things you will need to do, such as finding a hospital, collect documentation and receipts for the insurance company, file a police report, call your mum and so on. Figuring all of this out when you are in pain and feeling ever so vulnerable is only going to make the situation worse. If you’ve planned for what you are going to do in the case that you are robbed or the victim of physical abuse, then you have a script that you can follow. That script is something you can cling to, helping you to take one step at a time, safe in the knowledge that you are doing ‘what you are supposed to do’. It banishes a lot of the scary uncertainty, something you do not want to add to your list of miseries.
A good place to start when creating your emergency plan is your insurance company. They often have guidelines for what to do in an emergency and potentially a crisis line that you can call to get help finding hospitals etc.
Spending a few hours planning for these eventualities is not something you should only do for long trips abroad. It is just as important for location-dependent ‘normal’ people.
Everybody needs a Tainá
I did not have a plan. I had no idea where to find medical help or anything like that. What I did have was a local friend, Tainá. Everybody needs a Tainá. She rushed to my side, and she helped me find the hospital, police station, dentist, vaccination clinic and more. She took care of all the practical stuff, as well as supported me emotionally. She also translated everything, an immense help if you are in a country where you do not speak the language.
I cannot stress enough how helpful it is to have a local friend guide you through the emergency procedures of a foreign city. Find your Tainá!
I also want to take this opportunity to thank her for all her wonderful help! Seriously, you were my saving grace!
This is easier said that done, but it is very important to stay upbeat. Being hit is incredibly frightening. You feel violated a perfectly normal reaction is to break down and cry. This is reinforced when everybody around you, rightly so, treat you as a victim. A bit of sobbing is OK, but a full breakdown removes your ability to act when you desperately need to do just that.
The way I fought that was by doing two things. First, I got fucking pissed off. I got angry as all hell. It worked! When I decided to be angry rather than sad, I felt my resolve return. Just be careful not to act on the anger. Acting out against your aggressor, if he or she is still there, probably creates more problems later. Acting out against the people around you trying to help is obviously a bad idea. You need help. Let them know that and don’t scare them away.
The anger worked well at first, but I couldn’t really keep it up, so I switched to forcing myself to be more upbeat and crack as many bad jokes as I could. Hospitals, needles, root canals and all the other bad stuff currently forcing themselves into your life are scary, but you can take the edge of them with a few jokes. It is also a good way to prove to yourself that you are OK.
Try not to cry into your spilled milk
If you have lost something in the attack, anything from a camera to a leg, it is lost. What is done is done. The only thing you can control now is how you are going to react to it.
I am a deeply vain person, and it really fucking bugged me to get an ugly scar on my face and a dead fake tooth. I know, stupid and vain, but I’m being honest here. But what could I do about it? It was done. The more I thought about it, the more my mind exagurated the importance of these things and the more upset I got. Then I made the conscious decision to just accept whatever was without willing it to be different. That helped. It helped a lot and it helped immediately. On one hand, I had what I wanted things to be like, the way they were before the attack. Then there was the reality of what things were really like now. The disconnect between those two things were the cause of my anguish. I could affect one and only one of those two things. Letting go of the wish for things to be like they were before, helped. A lot.
Of course, this is easier said than done, and naturally a lot easier with something as trivial as a scar. If I lost a leg, I doubt I would just shrug my shoulders and say, “too bad.” There is a place for a grieving process, but the goal should always be acceptance, and you may as well state that goal in your mind and start working towards it right away.
The world has not changed
The streets of Rio are no more or less dangerous now than they were before my attack. Nothing has changed. It is easy to take a traumatic personal experience and let it colour every aspect of your world, but that is a mistake. Remember that nothing has changed. The risks are the same now as they were before. You might understand the risks a bit better afterwards, but remind yourself that they are identical to what they were before the attack. Nothing has changed.
“Leave Rio immediately and don’t come back!” was a common reaction from friends and acquaintances when they heard about my ordeal. I don’t see why I should. I understood the risks of Rio when I got here. I took various precautions, but you can never reduce your risks to zero without pre-emptively shooting yourself in the head and escape this world all-together. Life is a long series of calculated risks. Getting in your car and driving to the supermarket is a risk, and it is one that is worth taking since you bloody well need coffee! If you were robbed on your way home, that doesn’t mean you should now cut supermarkets out of your life. Living is risky, but it is totally worth the risk. I knew Rio was a more dangerous city than many others, but I thought it was worth the risk before, and nothing has changed.
I want to be really clear that I am not saying that you should not let bad experiences influence future re-evaluations of risk! What I am saying is that your bad experience should not be the only factor in future risk evaluations. Rio is no more dangerous now than it was a week ago!
Learn from it
A personal crisis is the perfect opportunity to learn about how you react to rare and terrifying situations. When the dust has settled, it is a good idea to reflect on how you deal with a crisis. Did you find strength within you didn’t know you had? Be proud of it! Did it reveal some personal weaknesses? Cut yourself some slack, but also consider what you can do to improve.
For me, the main thing I learn about myself is that I can tolerate pain better than I had imagined. Physical pain has always freaked me out, but when I was living through it, it just wasn’t as bad as I had imagined.