Friday, December 28, 2007

Picking up where I left off: Landing on my butt

(This post is a work in progress and needs to be edited, but I wanted to write while these thoughts were on my mind--this is strictly stream of consciousness.)

I wish I could say that once the whole ordeal with the police and ER was over, it was over, but that’s not how it worked out at all.

I did eventually get to work that morning, and the second my boss saw me she said, “Oh no. What happened to you? You look terrible.”

I had to tell her. I also had to let her know I had been awake now for 28 hours straight, with a full day ahead. I had to tell her I didn’t think I could do the presentation—at least, not in a way to do it justice. Surprisingly, she wasn’t mad. She was quite understanding, actually. I was able to hand off the presentation to someone else, but I still worked the whole day. The truth is, I was afraid to go home. I was afraid to be there alone. I was afraid, period.

What really surprised me during the next few days, though, was how visceral my anger was and how consumed I was with the whole event. I tried not to think about it, but it just kept replaying over and over and over in my mind. I had entire conversations in my car—out loud—saying all of the vitriolic things I wished I had said to the cops and the ER people. I mean, my good behavior and cooperation seemed like such a waste in retrospect, considering that I ended up in the loony bin anyway.

I didn’t think it was possible to be as angry as I was. I didn’t think it was possible to feel so constantly afraid. For many months afterward, I had classic PTSD symptoms. My therapist worked through it with me, although she staunchly maintained that the police were only carrying out their directive to do what had to be done to avoid any liability on the city’s part. It all comes down to lawsuits, doesn’t it? I was absolutely hypervigilant. I couldn’t sleep. I was petrified of something happening to my car because that might mean having to be within close proximity of a cop and I didn’t think I could do that without wetting my pants. I worried that I would witness a crime and be left with the terrible dilemma of doing what I could to help, or walking away to avoid contact with the police. Enough of the days of being a good citizen. I believe that even if I were to be raped, I would never report it because I couldn't bear to be within a matterof feet of a cop. It would just mean dealing with one more situation where your power is taken from you. Plus, can you imagine if they were to look me up for some reason? I come pre-tagged, as it were, pre-labeled, and guaranteed to be written off as a mentally ill person and therefore totally and absolutely lacking credibility.

I took my anger and funneled it to Diner’s Club, demanding they close my account and apologize for their employee's actions. I cashed in my account points and finally got the iPod I had wanted for so long. I wrote a comprehensive letter about the ordeal and my disgust, but of course they never answered.

In the ensuing weeks, I felt increasingly worse. I wrote letters and emails and sent them to everyone from the state health department’s mental health division and the city attorney for mental health issues, to the woman who trains the police to intervene in mental health situations (and in made-up crises). Nobody would tell me what the magic words were I had said to warrant such punitive action. Nobody would tell me what those mystery criteria were that the police had used to judge my unworthiness to manage my own life. Nobody would tell me what makes someone be considered incompetent and deserving of being taken into custody. Nobody would tell me anything. Actually, the city attorney said he would not tell me what I wanted to know, but that I should hire an attorney of my own and he would talk to my attorney. Again, I was deemed too marginalized to be let in on the secret.

How could I ever be expected to not make my terrible mistake again if nobody would tell me, explicitly, what my mistake was? I am very intelligent and perceptive, but I am not psychic. Not being allowed to know what the exact criteria were for being forced into involuntary custody made me feel like I was viewed as so dangerous that I was not to be let in on this information so I wouldn’t be able to use it to deceive anyone should something like this happen in the future. That was the whole point—I didn’t want it to happen again, so why would it be so dangerous to give me some guidelines?

I spent hours, days, weeks poring over information on the Internet, trying to understand what had happened to me—but from a law enforcement perspective. I found articles, internal memos, training outlines, handbooks and more, all written for cops participating in CIT training programs nationwide. I downloaded the entire text of the State Revised Statutes as they pertain to mental health issues and custody. I found them to be very vague and open to interpretation—a troubling fact, really. Still, I learned all I could about the Statute, and I can recite it chapter and verse.

I analyzed the event over and over again in my mind, trying to identify all of my errors that night. I couldn’t fix what happened, nor could I undo what had already been done, but I just wanted to understand. I just wanted someone to take me through it step by step and say, “OK, because you said this, the cops had to ask this. When you responded with X, they interpreted that to mean Y.” I wanted some honesty and concrete information. Instead, I got no answers at all and I tormented myself with all of the wondering and confusion.

After months of being angry and frustrated, I resigned myself to the fact that I would never be privy to the determining factors that led to the decisions that had been made about me. I simply wasn’t going to be allowed to know. I stopped being angry. I stopped feeling so frustrated and my resignation evolved into a profound sadness. Not depression, just deep, deep sadness. It’s the kind of sadness that comes from knowing I had been labeled and from now on, my place in the world would be determined by people I didn’t even know and who couldn’t possibly care less about who I was or how I think. It was the sadness of knowing that we, as humans, are not allowed to think things that are not mainstream, even if we, ourselves, are the only ones affected by any resulting actions. It was the sadness of knowing that no matter how responsible and competent I was or had ever been, in the end, I was judged and found to be defective and untrustworthy, someone who really shouldn’t think for herself.

I am still sad.

As I said earlier, I can’t look at a police officer. If I see one, I must divert my eyes. I can’t even bear to look at a police car. My heart damn near beats out of my chest and my mouth goes dry. One day a few months ago, a police car was traveling in the lane next to mine on a city street. I had a full-blown panic attack and I couldn’t breathe. I was on my way to work, but I had to pull over to collect myself and try not to hyperventilate. I realized that this kind of action was dangerous—if a cop came by and asked why I had pulled over, surely they would check my registration. That would reveal my previous encounter with the PD, and there I'd be, quasi-hysterical and all alone, likely to have my state of mind misinterpreted and so I would be dragged off yet again. I could clearly see the conclusions that would follow.

No. I would not risk being judged that way. I drove the rest of the way to work, talking to my boss on the phone. She offered to come and get me wherever I was, but I was too afraid to wait. The very thing that had set me off was exactly what I was deathly afraid to encounter face-to-face—and god knows, I could never afford another $2,000+ ER bill. I pray that I never get into a car accident. The police contact would probably send me into cardiac arrest.

I continue to be embarrassed by my own reactions to these issues and to my inability to make these reactions stop. Why can't I get over this? I was never a fearful person in my entire life, and now I am deathly afraid of something ubiquitous and supposedly nonthreatening.

Then again, I had been lied to and patronized, so I wholeheartedly believe the police absolutely cannot be trusted. Sometimes I wish I were slow or stupid so I wouldn’t have to live with actually understanding that I would never be able to trust those people who claim to “protect and serve.” They certainly weren’t working on my behalf in my last encounter with them and it wasn’t my best interests they had in mind.

No wonder I feel sad. I suppose that this whole incident, and all of the retrospective attention I gave it, proved to be a huge reality check. I was living under the impression that I was rock-solid normal, a person other people trust with their secrets, their critical tasks, and sometimes even their money, but in just a few hours on one day, once I had uttered the word “Bipolar,” I saw how quickly perception becomes judgment, which becomes assumption, which becomes, well, we can stop at assumption because it all just stops going my way at that point. I feel sad because I know now that I have no power, no rights, no hope of advocating for myself if some stranger calls the police and tells them I am not well. That is a frighteningly easy way to ruin a person’s life. I see now that I am small and powerless, a person considered unfit to be taken seriously. It feels awful.

My therapist asked me what would have made this experience less traumatic for me. A lot of things would have, but more than anything, honesty tops the list. I wish that the cops had been straightforward in telling me exactly what they were planning and what protocol they were following. I wish they had spelled it all out very clearly, and told me step by step what was happening, going to happen, and why. I found it infuriating to be spoken to like a child and to know that details were being held back. I would have been less upset had they told me immediately and without screwing around that from that point forward, it wouldn’t matter what I said—someone had called and because of PD policy and for reasons of legal liability, I would have to be taken to the hospital and evaluated, period, end of story, not up for discussion, don't try to figure out why. That is the policy, right? I know this because it’s what cop #3 told my husband during that time he was detained on the front porch.

I wish that my husband had been allowed to be at my side from the second he got home until the moment I was allowed to leave the ER. Surely someone out there understands the value of loving moral support in an excruciatingly stressful situation. How does isolation supposedly make the situation better? In my case, it only escalated my anxiety and feeling that I was being punished.

I want a do-over. I want to go back to that day and remember to lock the storm door. I want to not lose my temper on the phone. I want to call my husband and ask him to come right away. I want to ask the officers to wait a minute while I get my doctor on the phone. I want to lie, lie, lie, lie about my diagnosis, about taking medication, about my libertarian, philosophical thoughts on right-to-die issues, and pretty much anything else I approached with candor that night. More than anything, though, I want the CIT trainers to require that anyone attending their program must learn about the specifics of brain-based illness, because it’s not enough to know how to de-escalate a situation. It’s just as important to understand who is genuinely in crisis and who is just having a bad day. Not all behaviors and reactions require a full-scale intervention. Thinking is not a crime. Ideation is not a crime. Some of us just think differently, but it doesn’t make us unstable, dangerous, or a threat to ourselves or anyone else. Can somebody please, please teach that?


Spilling Ink said...

I understand why you are sad, May. I think the concept of the whole thing and how is went down is very, very scary and it doesn't surprise me that you had PTSD symptoms. My problems with the police (did I tell you about that?) are different, but surprisingly similar, really. It's about abuse of power. This abuse DOES have real victims. I went to the grocery today with my husband. I stayed in the car. A cop car parked in front of me and an off-duty cop got out and walked into the store. I was watching him. I had a hard time understanding that this guy was going in to get some bread or milk on his way home. It was a hard thing to register, but he came out with a bag of groceries. It meant nothing to me. I tried to picture him walking through the door of his house and being greeted by children or a grateful dog who had missed him, but I couldn't picture it. Instead, I thought of how he somehow reminded me of a car dealer I recently did business with. The guy smiled WAAAAAY too much and he kept calling me 'sweetie'. I don't like that.

May Voirrey said...

Yes, it's about the abuse of power. It's also, for me, the point where I start feeling frightened because not only have I been made powerless and forced to do things I really don't want to do, I can see that it's all beyond my control because someone with the power to do so is forcing me into a frightening situation where I am denied my voice or any way to advocate for myself. None. The police have the power and permission to make us NOBODY. It will always be their word against ours, with the police being given the benefit of the doubt every time while someone like me is stripped of all credibility--not to mention all rights even when no crime has been committed. At least now this has been clear to me and I understand that what I have to say is irrelevant. I have less say and fewer rights than someone who gets arrested for actually doing something wrong. When I had my encounter, I felt like my mouth was moving, but nobody thought it was worth the effort to hear what I was saying--obviously I was written off, just dismissed as an actual person pretty early on in the experience.

The police have me in that computer system. I will never be anyone to be taken seriously again, and that in itself is a form of death to me. How ironic.