I was on my way to work in New York City at 9 a.m. in November 2019. After I got off my first subway train, I sat down and pulled out my phone to check the news while waiting for the F train to Brooklyn. Just like me, almost everyone was glued to their phone.
Then, Thud. Someone was punching me in the back of my head. Hard. I was hit so badly that all I could feel was pain, burning and fear. I heard the person hitting me scream something, but what they said remains a mystery to me, as does any justification for beating me in the first place.
I believe that the assault only lasted for a few minutes, but, due to the head trauma I experienced, I am not 100% sure what happened. No one tried to stop him from attacking me, and I was too stunned to fight back. A female MTA worker, I later learned, called for police help immediately after she saw me get hit. I only got a chance to look at my assailant when he was running away.
Some people who heard me scream for help assisted me in going up the stairs, where I waited for medical personnel. The police arrived and started to ask questions about what happened.
“Did you say anything to him?,” an officer asked. I struggled to even come up with a response. It sounded like they were trying to see if I had provoked my assailant. I had not. I had been the victim of a random violent crime.
Before I answered, an MTA worker who had witnessed the attack came to my defense. “She was doing absolutely nothing. He came up to her out of nowhere.”
To my knowledge, my assailant was never arrested for my assault and never identified. I have no idea what motivated him to assault me. It was not to steal anything from me: I had, in fact, dropped my bag that had my wallet and computer in it in front of me after I was punched, so those would have been easy to take.
Ten minutes after the questioning started, the medical personnel arrived.
After taking an ambulance to Lenox Health Greenwich Village, I was diagnosed with having a closed head injury, which is a traumatic brain injury that includes a break in the skull. The emergency room doctor told me I should rest in bed and try to take a break from work. I followed these instructions not only because I had a head injury, but because I was afraid that if I left my apartment, a stranger would attack me again.
When I woke up the next morning, my face had swollen up to the point where I could barely lift my head. My rheumatologist prescribed an anti-inflammatory medication, which lessened the swelling from my assault.
Prior to being randomly attacked, anxiety had been a part of my life since I was a preteen. My anxiety often makes me feel like I am not working hard enough, which then leads to me pushing myself too hard. After this head injury, it felt nearly impossible to get work done and go places.
I started to regularly take the subway again around a week after my assault. I wanted to continue my life as normally as possible, which included going to a university and work. This meant that I had to take public transportation.
When I took the subway, I stood as far away from men as I could. If possible, I waited for near groups of women or families. Wherever I walked, I became immediately uncomfortable when any man walked less than 10 feet away from me. I was in panic mode until I was in my apartment, in a classroom, or at my office. These were my safe places.
I managed to finish the fall semester of my senior year at The New School, but I stayed up doing work until around 3 a.m. because I could not focus on completing readings and writing essays.
In January, almost three months the attack, I made an appointment with a neurologist because my life was not manageable. I was either unfocused or terrified while commuting to school or work. I had suffered concussions from sports and sleepwalking before and recovered, but this time felt different. When I saw the doctor, he asked me questions about symptoms I had experienced.
After I answered the questions, the neurologist asked, “What would you think about going on Ritalin? Some patients with a traumatic brain injury develop ADD (attention deficit disorder), so this medication can help manage your symptoms.”
“Yes, it’s worth a try,” I responded quickly. I was desperate to feel like myself again, but part of me was furious. Some man had decided it was OK to assault me, and now I had to take medication to concentrate. In a follow-up appointment, I was diagnosed with adult attention deficit disorder.
After the medication helped me focus again, I grew less frustrated and angry about being assaulted. My physical pain from being punched in the back of my head also lessened significantly, in part because it did not take so much effort for me to read a single page or answer an email. I was able to distract myself with work or YouTube videos again, which helped me avoid thinking about my attack.
When I became a victim of a random act of violence, my world changed. Just as I was getting better, the COVID-19 outbreak was also changing New York. I decided to go back home to Massachusetts to be with my family, and my routine helped me manage my anxiety.
I did not leave my house for months in lockdown, which also meant that no strangers could attack me while I was waiting for public transportation. Even though I have since interacted with strangers in person, taking a break from doing so helped calm my anxiety for a bit. A part of me remains afraid that I will be attacked again, but it is no longer dominating my life.
I should not have to sacrifice parts of my life due to trauma, but trauma from my assault will continue to affect me. I doubt I will ever truly feel safe on public transportation again, but I’m not going to let that ruin my life.
The truth is, there will always be a risk of me getting attacked again, whether it is a random act of violence or a targeted one from someone I know. I am trying to use the new strength I have in my recovery to focus on what is happening in my life now and not a violent incident from the past.
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