#SWAAYthenarrative
Courtesy of Mary Beth Wilkas Janke

Self-defense From A Former Woman International Protection Agent

4 Min Read
Health

What would you do if you felt physically or emotionally threatened in some way? Do you trust your ability to escape a dangerous situation without harm? Would you remain calm and grounded, responding if needed in an appropriate way, or do you fear you'd panic — making a frightening situation worse?

The ability to respond to danger and protect yourself both physically and mentally from violence and fear is a valuable life skill. Especially in these times of uncertainty, protest, and unrest, simply knowing you have the tools to respond in the case of a physical or mental assault can bring peace of mind and boost your self-confidence — even if you never have to use them.

Especially in these times of uncertainty, protest, and unrest, simply knowing you have the tools to respond in the case of a physical or mental assault can bring peace of mind and boost your self-confidence — even if you never have to use them.

As a former US Secret Service agent and international protection professional, I co-led a team protecting top Colombian officials including the president at a time when Colombia was nicknamed "the kidnap capital of the world." Its government was in the throes of a bloody war with guerilla and terrorist groups. Three Americans had just been kidnapped and the State Department had issued an alarming Level 3 (Orange) Travel Advisory. I have worked undercover, had a bounty placed on my head, and kept a watchful eye on drugged-up thugs on the streets of countries such as Haiti, Peru, and Colombia. High-profile individuals I've protected include members of the Versace family, Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and the grandchildren of President George H. W. Bush. I talk about all this in my memoir The Protector: A Woman's Journey From the Secret Service to Guarding VIPs and Working in Some of the World's Most Dangerous Places.

It wasn't often that I needed to use the self-protection skills I'd been trained in — although when I did have to, I was beyond grateful I learned and practiced them, tirelessly. But as one of the tiny minority of women in this male-dominated field, I am thankful for the sense of peace and empowerment that simply having these skills, and the ability to stay calm amid danger, gave me. My personal motto is, "prepare for the worst, hope for the best."

Doing so requires not just physical toughness but also mental toughness, a skill I now help people build in my second career as a psychologist. Although in an ideal world, nobody would ever find themselves facing threat or danger, here are the basic steps I recommend you take in order to protect yourself physically and mentally in uncertain, frightening times and for all times:

Learn your surroundings to notice when something is out of place (e.g. it's 90 degrees outside and there is somebody walking around your neighborhood in a long winter coat). Make "surroundings checks" a habit, almost like a game, taking mental note of anything unusual that has changed. This will help prevent you from being caught off guard.

"Prepare for the worst, hope for the best."

Learn five self-defense moves. You do not need to have a black belt in martial arts to effectively protect yourself and boost your self-confidence. Take a weekend self-defense class and learn just five techniques. Then, practice them until they are natural and are part of your muscle memory. There are many excellent techniques to choose from, including knife and/or gun takeaways, getting yourself out of a choke hold, and breaking someone's nose with a palm strike.

Choose the lens through which you look at things. When you notice you are starting to panic or become scared, focus on acting, not thinking. For example, shift from "Oh my gosh, I don't know what to do…" and freezing in the process, to telling yourself, calmly, "I am going to get myself out of this situation, NOW!" and acting. Always tell yourself you can do something — it could be a matter of life or death.

Focus on your physical fitness. This is the key to both mental and physical health, and for mental and physical preparedness in any situation. When you are strong and fit, physically, you are more self-confident and likely to respond with clarity and, if needed, strength and speed.

You do not need to have a black belt in martial arts to effectively protect yourself and boost your self-confidence.

Find your voice. Voice is a stun technique that can buy you 2 to 4 seconds that you need to either run or disorient your attacker. If someone is making you uncomfortable — for example, by walking close behind you on the street for quite a while — turn around, put your hand up, signaling, "stop", and scream, "stop!" Then, run. Oddly, people are embarrassed to do this. Don't be! It will stun your attacker and buy you valuable time.

Meditate. Meditation is proven to reduce stress, decrease fear and anxiety, boost positive mood, and promote emotional health and self-esteem. Do it! It will serve you well in any stressful situation.

5 min read
Self

Lessons Learned and the Power of Turning 50

Except for 16, I have celebrated all of my milestone birthdays in New York City.

I turned 16 in Arnold, Missouri. Arnold is a small town (though not small anymore) 20 miles south of St. Louis. St. Louis is known for the Gateway Arch, a beautiful arch of shiny stainless steel, built by the National Parks Service in 1935 to commemorate Thomas Jefferson's vision of a transcontinental U.S. St. Louis is also known for its custard, a frozen dessert that is so thick, they hand it to you upside down with a spoon inside. Something else about St. Louis you should know is that there is a courthouse just steps from the base of the Gateway Arch where one of the most important cases in history was tried: Dred Scott v. Sanford.

I'm turning 50 during what I define as a miraculous time to be alive.

Mr. Scott was born into enslavement around 1799 and, in 1830, was sold to a military surgeon who traveled back and forth between his military posts in Illinois and Wisconsin, where slavery was prohibited under the Missouri Compromise of 1820. In 1842 the doctor and Mr. Scott both married, and they, all four, returned to St. Louis. Still enslaved, Dred Scott filed a lawsuit against the doctor's wife for his and his wife Harriet's freedom. We don't know exactly why he chose this moment in time to file a lawsuit, however, he did. At the time of filing his, now, famous lawsuit, he was 50 years old. Ultimately, The Scott family did not gain their freedom, but their profound courage in filling this case helped ignite the Civil War and what we would come to know (or think we know) as freedom from enslavement for all human beings. Powerful then and even more powerful now.

My next milestone was turning 21, and I did it in the Big Apple. Having only moved to "the city that never sleeps" a few months prior, I knew nobody except my new friends, the bus-boys from the restaurant I was working at, Patzo's on the Upper West Side. And, yes, pazzo is actually the correct spelling of the Italian word, which translates to "crazy." Trust me we all had several laughs about the misspelling and the definition going hand in hand. I worked a full shift, closing out at around 11 PM, when, my kitchen team came out from the line with a cake singing, "Cumpleaños Feliz." It was fantastic. And the kindness of these almost-strangers was a powerful reminder of connection then as it still is today almost 29 years later.

I design the life I desire and the Universe creates it for me every day. I show up, keep the story moving, and work hard because I am relentlessly devoted to making the world a better place and this is how I choose to leave my legacy.

When I turned 30, I had just finished a European tour with Lucinda Childs dance company. The company had been on tour for months together and were inseparable. We traveled through Paris, Vienna, Lisbon, and Rome. We ate together, we rode on a bus together, we had drinks after shows together, and we even took turns giving company class to get warmed up before a show. It was deeply meaningful and dreamy. We ended the tour back in New York City at BAM, The Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was an incredible way to end the tour, by being on our home court, not to mention I was having an important birthday at the culmination of this already incredible experience.

So, when I invited everyone to join me at Chelsea Pier's Sky Rink to ice skate in late August, I was schooled really quickly that "tour" does not mean you are friends in real life, it means you are tour friends. When the tour ends, so does the relationship. I skated a few laps and then went home. This was a beautiful lesson learned about who your real friends are; it was powerful then as it is today.

Turning 40 was a completely different experience. I was in a serious relationship with my now-husband, Joe. I had just come off of a successful one-woman dance show that I produced, choreographed, and danced in, I had just choreographed a feature film, John Turturro's Romance and Cigarettes, with A-list actors, including Kate Winslet and James Gandolfini, who became a dear friend and had even been on the red carpet with Susan Sarandon at the Venice Film Festival for the movie a year earlier.

And I encourage all women to identify their power and choose to be fully in your power at any age.

This was a very special birthday, and I had, in those 10 years between 30 and 40, come to cultivate very real friendships with some wonderful colleagues. We all celebrated at a local Italian restaurant, Etcetera Etcetera (who is delivering for those of you in NYC — we order weekly to support them during COVID), a staple in the theater district. Joe and I were (and are) regulars and, of course, wanted to celebrate my 40th with our restaurant family and friends. We were upstairs in the private room, and it was really lovely. Many of those in attendance are no longer with us, including Joe's Dad, Bob Ricci, and my dear friend Jim Gandolfini having transitioned to the other side. Currently, that restaurant is holding on by a thread of loving neighbors and regulars like us. Life is precious. Powerful then and today even more so.

I write this article because I'm turning 50, still in New York City. However, I'm turning 50 during what I define as a miraculous time to be alive. And I could not be more filled with hope, love, possibility, and power. This year has included an impeachment hearing, a global pandemic, and global protests that are finally giving a larger platform to the Black Lives Matter movement. Being able to fully embody who I am as a woman, a 50-year-old woman who is living fully in purpose, takes the cake, the rink, and the party.

I'm making movies about conversations around race. I've been happily married for 11 years to the love of my life, Joe Ricci. I'm amplifying and elevating the voices of those who have not previously had a platform for speaking out. I choose who to spend time with and how long! I design the life I desire and the Universe creates it for me every day. I show up, keep the story moving, and work hard because I am relentlessly devoted to making the world a better place and this is how I choose to leave my legacy. Being 50 is one of the most amazing things I ever thought I could experience. And I encourage all women to identify their power and choose to be fully in your power at any age. I'm 50 and powerful. Dred Scott was 50 and powerful. This powerful lesson is for today and tomorrow. We have the power. No matter what age you are, I invite you to use your powerful voice to join me in making the world a better place.