Travel

An Armed Robbery Ruined My European Vacation, Then My Life

Sometimes the psychological aftermath of trauma is more terrifying than being threatened with murder.

by Nick Martinello
Dec 8 2017, 5:01pm

Left image via Wikipedia Commons, right courtesy of the author

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

It was my last night in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, where I had been living for a month as part of a three-month working holiday. I had left a friend’s party, very drunk at around three in the morning. I got out of a cab at Rustaveli Avenue, the main drag in the downtown core, and stumbled to the studio apartment I was renting and passed out in bed.

An hour or so later, I was awoken by banging on my door. I looked out the window and saw a young woman, alone, in the courtyard of the centuries-old apartment building where I was staying. She was shouting something in Georgian—I couldn’t understand—but she sounded distressed. I opened the door and asked what was wrong. She tried to force her way inside, wedging herself in the doorframe as I tried to close it. Two men ran from around the corner, into my apartment, and threw me to the ground. “Give us your money!” they yelled in English.

“Take anything you want,” I pleaded. I only had 20 Georgian lari in my wallet, the equivalent of about eight bucks—a day’s wage for many Georgians, but certainly not enough for anyone to justify a home invasion. They became increasingly aggressive. One of the men grabbed a large kitchen knife from the counter and pushed my head against the ground, repeatedly stabbing the floor inches from my face, and demanded more money as the other two ransacked my apartment.

He pulled my head back and pressed the knife firmly against my throat. The girl handed me pen and paper, and they told me to write down the PIN for my bank cards and handed me my phone and instructed me to enter my password. They reset my phone to factory defaults (I’m assuming so they couldn’t be tracked with security apps), led me to the bathroom, shut the door, and turned off the lights.

When I emerged, they were gone, and my apartment was trashed. Everything of value was stolen—my passport, computer, phone, and seemingly valueless things like my belt and a pair of cheap sneakers.

I walked to a high-end hotel next door in a state of shock and asked the receptionist to call the police who showed up promptly and escorted me to the police station, where I spent about 15 hours giving statements and filling out paperwork, all of which had to be painstakingly translated between Georgian to English.

Georgia has a weak economy by European standards, and tourism is one of its most lucrative industries. Crimes against tourists, especially Westerners, aren’t taken lightly. The police seemingly used all of their available resources to work on the investigation and apprehended the suspects the next day. I had everything returned to me except a few miscellaneous items—including my sneakers, which I believe one of the assailants was wearing in the police line up.

The legal process seemed to be expedited on my behalf, and I was able to leave the country two days after the robbery. I was told the thieves had confessed and agreed to four-year prison sentences, plus probation. Friends and family wired me some cash, and I bought a flight to Istanbul.

Since I had already paid for my transport and accommodations, I continued to travel for two months, but I'm not sure why. I found little to no interest in attractions or sightseeing. I wandered around Rome aimless and broke. I didn’t take a tour or step inside a museum. I opted to drink alone in a bar in Kraków instead of visiting Auschwitz—the reason I had gone to Poland in the first place. I spent three weeks in Budapest and barely left the apartment I was renting.

I still can’t quite articulate what effect the attack had on me upon returning to Toronto. I sought therapy on the advice of those close to me. A diagnosis proved difficult for the therapists I consulted with, who said I didn’t have PTSD. I was not having trouble sleeping or nightmares. I wasn’t triggered into anxiety attacks or flashbacks. They offered no explanation for how I was feeling—the best label I was offered for my mental state was “lingering trauma-related symptoms.”

I felt socially isolated, as if no one understood what I had been through, which led me to feel a lack of empathy toward others. I believed anyone who hadn’t experienced a traumatic event like what I had been through was naïve or a coward. This made me angry. Anger became my default emotion in times of stress.

Sometimes I would think everything was fine, and I was my typical, cheerful self, before slipping into episodes of deep depression. I partied in an effort to self-medicate. I drank every night, doing coke and MDMA more and more frequently. My behavior was becoming increasingly erratic and self-destructive. Friends commented on how confident and outgoing I had become since returning from my trip, but they were confusing confidence with a loss of inhibition. When I would go to social events, people would ask me to tell them my harrowing story, prefacing their request by asking if I felt comfortable sharing. I would say it was fine and indulge them. This attention made me feel that what I had endured had been worth it. This attention made me feel special and interesting and brave, as I continued to tell myself the attack had no effect on me, suppressing the emotions I was experiencing. Once I had shared my experience with most of my acquaintances, this attention began to diminish. I felt even more alone.

An image taken while Nick Martinello was vacationing in Rome

I continued to get fucked up. I would go to parties or the bar jovial and in high spirits, only to end up crying alone afterward, sometimes at home, sometimes in public. It was pathetic.

One night I was by myself in a parking lot, drunk and attempting to unlock my bicycle when the key got stuck. I struggled with the key, but the lock wouldn't give. I snapped, and started punching and kicking a wall as hard as I could while shouting incoherently. I fell to the ground, writhing and screaming and sobbing uncontrollably. I hyperventilated until I was out of breath. I was soon surrounded by police officers. They asked me if I was on drugs, wanted to kill myself, or needed to go to a hospital. I said no. I told them what I had gone and was going through. One of the officers told me that these sort of breakdowns happened to cops all the time. They drove me home in the back of a cruiser. I felt so ashamed.

Thrashing around on the asphalt was more terrifying than being threatened with murder. Nothing can quite describe how horrific it is to lose grip of your sanity. Afterward, I became very paranoid it would happen again. I decided to turn my life around.

When people perceive you as a traumatized victim, they tell you that there is no way to heal on your own. You need therapy. Maybe I am cheap or naïve or stupid, but I didn’t feel like shelling out thousands of dollars on therapy, when I hadn’t yet attempted to take control of my life under my own volition.

It’s been eight months since the attack, and I’ve recently turned 30. I’ve been trying hard to introduce stability and discipline in my life and feel mentally sound. I’ve started exercising and eating well and lost about 20 pounds. I still drink more than I should, but I'm getting a lot better and controlling my impulsive behavior. I haven’t sought therapy because I don’t want to. If things get bad again, perhaps I will. I am not sure how else to justify that I’m not in treatment to those who recommend I should be, but I feel confident in my decision, and that’s all that really matters. I know it’s not totally resolved. But that doesn’t mean I’m not ready for another vacation.

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