Today, I saw my husband have a panic attack.
On our way home from the gym, we decided to check an errand off our list with a trip to the ATM. We needed to bop home for Dido’s wallet, but luckily it was on the way. We were chatting when we pulled in, and so I took off my seatbelt out of habit. Dido reminded me he was just there to pick up his wallet, so I stayed in the car, and soon we were on the road again.
Scrolling down my feed, I noticed that our gym had just posted a statement. I read it aloud, and by the end, we were both teary. It was a beautiful message of support and solidarity, it was reflective and substantial, and it encouraged everyone to do the hard work of examining ourselves and our society, and concluded with a resounding Black Lives Matter. We were so profoundly proud to be a part of this fitness community.
Then, the little dingdingding! that indicates your seatbelt isn’t fastened went off. Dido hurriedly reminded me to put my seatbelt on. I’d completely forgotten I had ever taken off!
“There’s a cop car ahead,” he said.
My first reaction was sadness – it reminded me of the way I immediately see spiders. My brain perceives them as a threat, and so whenever I enter a room, the first thing I have to do is scan for danger. If I call Dido in to kill said spider, I often have to point at it very directly because he just doesn’t seem to notice them the way I do. My reaction to spiders is evolutionary but irrational; his reaction to cops is cultural but rational. What a tragedy.
We came to an intersection, and as cars peeled away, we were left at a red light right behind the massive SUV labelled Sheriff. Dido hesitated, and stopped maybe two car lengths behind the police car. “I don’t know why that car is making me nervous…” he said, but his throat was tight with emotion and getting the words out was a struggle. “I don’t want to get too close.”
I saw him getting very anxious, even though we weren’t doing anything wrong. Later he told me that his thought process went something like this: Rachel didn’t have a seatbelt on, and that’s a reason to pull us over. I have a phone in my hand. Texting and driving is illegal. I’m not texting, but the cop
doesn’t know that.
And of course, the rest follows: We know well how a traffic stop can go bad for black men in America.
And then there’s the uncertainty – are cops wary of pulling black people over these days? Or might they be going out of their way to do so? I’m sure each officer is different, but I’m also sure there are some assholes who are doing the latter.
I made the withdrawal. When I returned, Dido looked a little calmer, and we decided I should drive home. Usually, Dido drives because I drive slow, and this time, slow was good. Good thing I did, too, because on our way, either the same Sherriff’s SUV or an identical one appeared. I could practically hear the Jaws theme as danger circled nearer.
The thing is that Dido is a professional mindfulness trainer. He has a masters degree in Science of Education from Johns Hopkins University, and his full-time job is teaching people the neuroscience they need to regulate their emotions, and in the moment, I did my best to encourage him to use the mindfulness tools he’s taught me to help him through this panic attack. Probably because of my slow speed, the cop eventually overtook us and disappeared.
If we had been stopped, do I expect something would have gone wrong? Not really – maybe 0.01%. However, that is with me – a white lady – in the car. If my husband had been alone? My worry increases – maybe up to 1%. That’s a 10% increase, which is significant, but I still feel relatively confident that if my husband got pulled over that he would come home. I understand the statistics are on his side for survival…
Here is what I think is missing from the larger discussion: Dido doesn’t have to get into a confrontation with the police for this to have an affect on his mental health. Our society – through a system that allows and excuses officers who kill a disproportionate amount of black people – sends a persistent and consistent message that he is less than human. If I can do this to you, then you must be less than human. And I will get away with it because you are less than human.
Make no mistake. There are systems in police departments that make them relatively certain they will get away with it. Look at how calm the cop was as he murdered George Floyd – he knew what he was doing, and he expected to get away with it. And why wouldn’t he? Just look at how many cops tend to get charged when they kill a black civilian they were supposed to be “serving and protecting.”
So today, we did not have a confrontation with the police. But we did have a confrontation with anxiety. With trauma.
Today, I saw my husband have a panic attack…
Because police violence is a mental health issue.