Columns Sassy Mommy

How My Split Second Instincts Saved Me From My Attacker

He targeted me the moment I sat down. Did I look like easy prey as I was rushing to work? Unaware of him at first, I found a seat and took out my phone to listen to music on the way uptown.

As the express five train left the hustle of Manhattan on that beautiful summer day and moved above ground I noticed how empty the train was. Thinking how strange this was for an 8am morning commute, I counted just three people, including myself, in my subway car.

Everything seemed quieter than usual. A tall man with a white shirt and black shorts who was sitting across from me stood up, preparing to get off of the train as we approached the next stop. I watched his bright white sneakers move towards the exit, but a second later something inexplicably seemed not quite right: he had veered off in the most imperceptible way.

His sneakers now pointed ever so slightly at me and at that moment I knew, somehow, I just knew that he was going to do something to me.

In the millisecond between realizing this and his body lunging at me, I tightened my grip on my bag and leaned over, my shoulders and body hunched forward in a self-protective position. He charged at me, aggressively grabbing my bag and trying to rip it off of my body. I fought back, my hands clamped down on my purse straps with iron clad fists, refusing to relinquish it as he continued to forcefully pull at my bag.

In that moment, as we engaged in this bitter fight, everything just stood still. The subway seemed to freeze, the lights, the noise, the song that was still playing on my phone, the bright sunshine outside, all of it was just frozen.

Seconds later, I was abruptly jolted back to reality. The tall, angry mystery man and I were still battling and with my heart racing and fists still clenched, a voice in my head kept saying, “Just hold on.” Then the lights, sunshine and subway noise instantly came back, the conductor calling out the next stop in that garbled, you can never really understand what they are saying kind of way, the wheels coming to a slow screeching stop as we approached the next station.

He had to decide: How long will he stay there and try to rob me? Will he escalate and hit me? Will he run away?

He must have decided, with the next subway stop so close, that it was risky to keep battling with me since more people will likely be getting on the train. “STOP!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. The only other person in that subway car, a man who had been sitting at the other end, looked up and finally saw what was happening and began screaming at this aggressive, unknown man.

The train stopped at that second and the doors swung open and he flew out like a speeding bullet disappearing into the hot summer air.

“Asshole!” I screamed as he sped away. He disappeared into the crowded subway platform, faster than I could even process what had just happened. The next wave of people got on, filling up the subway car as the humid air drifted onto the train.

I sat, frozen, for the rest of the ride to work, almost missing my stop, with my body still hunched forward over my bag, the moment replaying over and over again as I sat in disbelief.

And I wondered, what would I do if the subway ever stood still like that again?

When I told my family and friends what had happened, some were alarmed and said, “What if he had a gun or if he punched you?” Yes, all of that could have happened, but in that adrenaline filled, fight or flight moment, when someone lunged at me, aggressively pulling my body forward so he could rob me, my first reaction was to fight back.

It was my instincts (those fleeting feelings that all of us, myself included, have at some point dismissed as “I am just being paranoid or non-sensical”) that seemed to whisper to me (and this time I couldn’t ignore that whisper) in that split second when I saw his shoes turned slightly in my direction, tipping me off that something about this man was amiss. 

When it comes to listening to these momentary instincts, we are often skeptical of this type of quick insight because we have been conditioned to believe that it is more effective to deliberate and collect information in order to make sound decisions and react appropriately to our surroundings.

The belief that things are invalid or unreliable when they appear in an inexplicable, spur of the moment way is often why we are so willing to dismiss these intuitive signs. Things that we can’t explain convincingly with logic, science or facts often end up being disregarded as erroneous.

Believing in our split second intuition in times of distress also forces us to acknowledge a terrifying reality: that danger or some form of heightened stress may be imminent and our reflexive response is to discredit or downplay that feeling.

As much as we see crime on the news and know that violence is prevalent in our culture, we often, understandably, try to reassure ourselves that it is less likely that these things will ever happen to us. We feel an unspoken sense of trust in the universe that we will somehow stay safe and when we are confronted with something that shatters that illusion, we may inadvertently undermine it. Believing my instincts that day allowed me to fend off my attacker, a man who expected to overpower and blindside me with his aggression. 

While it is true that in most facets of our lives (work, school) weighted analysis does lead us to the right conclusion, in matters of safety or possible danger, these electric quick signals are exactly what we need to listen to. The very nature that they tend to be quick and seemingly come out of nowhere should lend them more credence, not less. It is our split second instincts that appear in different scenarios and often act as our own personal warning system — we must trust ourselves enough to pause and listen.

There is no factual explanation as to why a random man’s white sneakers, turning ever so slightly in my direction as he exited the train, tipped me off to his intentions; they just did. It was as if those shoes were revealing to me that “we are not supposed to be facing you and something is about to happen.”

I will never ignore those short-lived “whispers” again, especially in those moments when I least expect something to happen.

Moments like that beautiful, sunny, summer day on the uptown train.

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