The Mindset of a Fighter

Up until August 2014, I lived my life completely and utterly unaware of the fact that April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. To me that never mattered, I never knew anyone sexually assaulted, and I was certainly never planning on being a victim myself. That changed August 9th, 2014. On that day, a man kicked down the door of a home in Old Town Alexandria, he kicked down the bedroom door, and jumped on me in bed.

The sound of glass breaking on the bedroom door was the minute it hit me: the noises I had been hearing seconds earlier were a sign of extreme danger. I was sitting up when he threw open the door, took two running steps, and jumped on me. Hitting me full force, knocking me down, grabbing my hair, and trying to control me. I could feel his left knee in my right hip. As he brought his head down to kiss me, I caught him with my left hand, pushing up, locking out my elbow, and sliding my fingers into his right eye. I sat up. Even as he grabbed my hair tighter, pulling it out from the root, I just pushed my fingers further into his eye, pushing him further away. I could feel his knee grind into my hipbone. I took my right hand and I proceeded to hit him, in the head, with my closed fist. It was then that he felt my bicep. He released my hair and ran away.

I followed him. I ran to the door of the bedroom before I remembered the breaking glass. It was pitch black. I had no idea where the glass was or really what the hell was happening. I threw shut the bedroom door. I could feel the lock had been broken. I put my back flat on the door; my feet shoulder width apart, squatted, and drove through my heels. All I could think was “drive through your heels.” Then I called 911.

“It was then that he felt my bicep. He released my hair and ran away.”

By the time the cops arrived, I had migrated into the bathroom having had vivid thoughts of Oscar Pistorius shooting his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, through the door. I will never forget the looks on the police officers’ faces when they saw me, when they heard my story. They looked at me, around the room, at the broken glass, and back at me. For the scene that the police were walking into, I appeared to be relatively unhurt. I could tell I wasn’t bleeding anywhere and I didn’t feel pain. It would be hours before I actually looked at myself in the mirror and saw my hair. My hair, which had clearly been tugged, ripped from my scalp. A chunk of hair clumped together, hanging off my head like a loose hairball. It would be hours before the adrenaline would finally leave my body and I would collapse in a heap of shivering exhaustion.

As the cops began to pepper me with questions, I remember insisting it was burglary. I kept asking if the TV was downstairs, if my car was still parked outside, and whether or not anything had been touched. They kept saying no, uncomfortably glancing at each other. It would take me a few weeks to realize that at that moment, the police were kind enough not to say what they were all thinking. That this wasn’t an attempted burglary as I had kept repeating, but instead an attempted rape. I had saved myself from being a victim of rape.

Everything happened so quickly, that there are moments even now where it seems unreal. It seems like a bad dream. If I am honest, there are days where I still think it wasn’t attempted rape at all, that my attacker was confused and happened to stumble upon me in bed. But then I am reminded of his prior crimes and the fact that this man, unknown to me, knew a woman lived in the house. He knowingly came to the room of that woman and even in the pitch black, he knew where the bed was located. It took him seconds to get from the front door to on top of me, passing three TVs, three laptops, an xbox, and various other items.

I didn’t choose to be a victim. I don’t think in all my days since the attack I have met a single victim that has chosen to be attacked. It’s not something you choose. Someone chooses you. And while none of us victims chose to be victimized, we do get a choice in the attack. It’s a split decision that we get in the moment, a moment that we will replay in our minds for days and weeks and years later. That choice is the decision of fight, flight, or freeze.

“I didn’t choose to be a victim.”

Since the attack I have met many courageous women who have shared their stories with me, stories of assault, domestic violence, and rape. Stories that make me realize how lucky I was that night. Stories that often include the line “I never thought to fight back.”

That line resonates with me, “I never thought to fight back.” To be honest, I never thought to fight. I was responding before I knew what was happening. I have spent hours questioning my actions in the early morning of August 9th, questioning how I knew to fight back. I have come to the conclusion that I fought because I had the mindset of a fighter. The decision to react the way I did was made years earlier in Cairo and I was simply carrying through a mindset that I had already established.

Living in Cairo was the first time I was exposed to consistent sexual harassment. At first it was hard to recognize; every once in awhile I would feel a brush of a hand or body on my breast or butt, I wasn’t sure if it was an accident or in my head. Then it became a little more blatant, I would feel a hand attempt to slip up my shirt or slide down my pants. And finally it escalated: one day as I was walking down a side street and man threw me up against a wall. I didn’t do anything.

I just stood there.

He grabbed my chest and took off. For me, that was a wake up call. All those inappropriate touches I thought were in my head, those were real. I played the scene of being pushed against the wall over and over again in my mind, like a broken record, the whole time becoming more and more angry. And then I decided no more, I was going to defend myself. I was done being pushed around.

Things definitely became more interesting after that, I actually got into a full fistfight with a cab driver that had slapped me for questioning an exorbitantly high fare. I felt like I was constantly under attack and having to assert myself. It felt like a daily battle.

“I have never been much for the Crossfit cult”

I used to think to myself, if I could go back in time, I don’t think I would make the decision to go to Egypt again. Now though, given my life this past year, I would not change one moment of my time in Cairo. In Egypt, I experienced a mindset change that has followed me throughout my life.

I was raised in a community of education. We were educated on date rape, domestic violence, and sexual assault; we were told “No Means No” and if we do everything right, we will be safe. That’s not true. As we learned to watch our drinks at bars and walk home in pairs of two, we glossed over the hard stuff. We addressed how to try to avoid assaults; we never talked about what to do if we found ourselves in a fight for our lives. We certainly didn’t hear stories of survival and most importantly, we were never challenged to consider our own preparedness for a situation like mine. No one encouraged us to think about scary possibilities in the world and to prepare ourselves with a mindset of fighting and survival.

Cairo taught me that is was crucial that I had a mindset to fight. If I wanted the abuse to stop, I needed to make the decision to fight for it. I personally believe that having the right mindset is the most important part of the battle; it’s also the hardest. Keeping the intensity and the intelligence to pick your fights and to train yourself for the situations that garner a response takes time and effort. Making a conscious decision to be a fighter in Cairo prepared me for August, it enabled me to react without having to think. My reaction came from my mindset; my follow through came from my physical strength.

I have never been much for the Crossfit cult; I started Crossfit almost four years ago because I was a little chubby and bored in Afghanistan. I kept with it for a few different reasons, the first and foremost being that I liked the way I looked; I fit into all my old clothes from college and my stomach was completely flat. I also enjoyed that I could afford to splurge eat peanut butter M&Ms and drink a little bit more beer. But lastly I liked being strong. I liked feeling empowered.

Crossfit, and more specifically DCF, provided me with a community that enabled me to become strong in a supported environment. My box is awesome. I learned to Olympic lift correctly, I didn’t hear “harder, faster, push it,” and I was certainly never encouraged to do anything dangerous. I say this because I am hoping this blog goes past DCF and the Crossfit community. And this post isn’t to tell people to go out and join a Crossfit box, not all boxes are created equal. This is a plea to take strength training seriously.

“You react the way you train”

I am sitting here today telling you a story of an attempted rape because I was strong, physically strong. I fought off a man who kicked in a front door that was dead bolted shut. He was not weak. He was heavy, and yet I sat up with the weight of his body on me. I believe me sitting up, me strong-arming his face away, the size of my bicep, that all scared my attacker. That plus the finger in his eyeball sent him running from my room.

You react the way you train, and because of the supportive environment at DCF, I have learned the proper techniques. I had so few coherent thoughts during the attack, and yet I remember thinking I needed to lock my elbow out and twist through my hands as I pushed his face away. I remember thinking “DRIVE THROUGH YOUR HEELS!!!!” as I squatted on the door. Training makes permanent, and I want to encourage people to find a place where they can participate in safe strength training, just as I do at DCF.

Sexual assault is not uncommon. One in six American women and one in thirty-three American men are victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault. It is not a crime that is isolated to drunken frat houses or poorer parts of town. It happened to me in a wealthy suburb of Washington DC, late at night, by an individual I had never met. Looking back, I can’t say I would change any part of my story. Things happen in life for a reason. It is my hope that people will read this story and consider themselves in my position. That people will be empowered to prepare themselves to be strong minded and strong bodied for whatever life throws their way.