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What It's Like Getting Pulled Over as a Black Woman With a Mental Illness

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Editor's Note

If you are triggered by conversations themed around Black death and police brutality, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Mid-June of 2019 I was pulled over in Orlando, Florida.

I was driving home from Chili’s after a long day of work. I had a margarita and some hot wings and waited an extra hour so I knew it was out of my system. I drove with my music at a respectable level and was on a well-lit road 10 minutes away from my apartment. I did not know my headlight was out.

A cop slowly pulled up next to me. I kept my eyes straight forward, not making eye contact. AKA, I was doing my best not to give them a reason to pay extra attention to me. As the light changed and I made my turn they pulled up behind me, red and blue lights instantly fueling panic and adrenaline in my heart.

Orlando, while diverse with thousands of people from all over the world, is still a city plagued with racism and police brutality just like any other American city. I am a Black Queer woman in America. I know what being pulled over can mean for my life. I was given the talk from my mother. I’ve seen the videos. I’ve written and studied about it. I know too well how much of a crime simply existing while Black can be. 

I pulled over into a parking lot and instantly called someone, keeping them on FaceTime. I made a status on Facebook:

“If I die while in the presence of police tonight, it was not a suicide.”

I did all of these things while my vision was going in and out due to the rising panic attack flooding my chest. I could barely see, much less talk. In fact when I have panic attacks I become non-verbal. I cannot formulate words and when I do they tend to come out as one worded barks which can then be seen as aggressive, deeming me a threat.

Shaking, the cop pulled up and knocked on my window. I lowered it and she asked, “Do you know why I’m pulling you over?”

My head shook, “No,” while the rest of my body just shook. I sputtered out, “I don’t know,” as best as I can. She asks for my license and registration and I go to grab it, freezing as soon as I realized I did not tell her I was reaching for it. Functioning in pure survival mode, I forgot that crucial step. Is this the end? Am I the next Sandra Bland? 

I fumble through my things looking, knowing that my information is up-to-date and finally, I hand her my insurance, license and registration. 

She looks at me before going back to her car to run my information. I remember registering that she looked confused, of all emotions. Then she spoke words that are now tattooed in my mind.

 “You have nothing to be afraid of.”

As I mentioned when I have a panic attack I go non-verbal and I can even black out. Once I had a friend who wanted to be a cop (and no we are not friends anymore) tell me that, to a cop, that is a sign that I am hiding something and thus suspicious, not to mention me going non-verbal would be seen as non-compliance and non-compliance is typically seen as justification for violence or even Black death.

The reactions from my anxiety, PTSD and mental illness make me suspicious in the eyes of the law. I think about that whenever I leave the house. I do not engage in any “criminal” behavior minus having downloaded “The Cheetah Girls 2” soundtrack from Limewire in 2006 and maybe parking in a no parking zone once or twice. I refuse to be around people who smoke cannabis in fear that I may smell like it and then get pulled over or worse. I live my life in a very cautious way because I know what can happen if I slip up. To think that none of that matters because my mental illness alone is enough to raise suspicion is damning. 

Black women are not allowed the privilege of being mentally ill on a normal day. To think that my symptoms and reactions will be seen as non-compliant feels like no matter what I do I will still lose. I can still die. I am not safe regardless causing me to live in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze. 

She didn’t give me a ticket that night. She told me she would let me go as long as I got my headlight changed and promised that. I nodded and she gave me my things back. She drove away leaving me alone in a dark parking lot, the only light coming from a Del Taco sign. I sobbed. I cried. I let it all pour out because for 10 minutes after an otherwise beautiful night I did not know if I would see tomorrow, simply because I could not get words out.

The fact that my mental illness causes me to go non-verbal, thus creating “reason” for me to be seen as non-compliant which then gives a cop “a reason to shoot” is a life threatening notion and that is not OK

I do not know how to fix it. I do not know what advice to give to allies or those who want to help with the good fight. All I can is my mental illness reaction shouldn’t give cops a reason to shoot. It shouldn’t have been for Walter Wallace or any other Black Americans who live at the intersection of mentally ill and Black. I deserve the same empathy any other mentall ill person should get. I deserve the same grace, especially living while Black.

Image courtesy of Getty Images

Originally published: November 2, 2020
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