It is Hard to Get The Feeling and Sounds of Being Handcuffed Out of My Mind

35 days ago, I was handcuffed into a police cruiser under an invalid civil commitment warrant. I was only detained for four hours, but does that matter? Denying me my civil liberties – my actual liberty – for any period of time without just cause or due process is an affront to democracy.

I am still unable to return to my home of 18 years and living across town with friends where I am safe, warm, fed, and have lots of companionship. But I don’t have a car.

When I think back to the moments of being handcuffed, I remember telling myself to just take breaths. In and out. Because this was traumatic, I still remember it as if it is still happening. It isn’t a memory, it a perpetual experience that still is horrible.

So we are processing this trauma. I have two “tools” I use. In one, I put my hands behind my back as far as I can and then slowly bring them around to the front of my body so I can see my wrists without manacles. I can feel my body controlling the motion of my arms. I remind myself that I am not handcuffed. I pay close attention to how my shoulders, arms, wrists, and hands feel. It is much harder than it seems because something shifts in my heart each time I try.

The second tool is to incorporate bilateral stimulation when I have an intrusive thought. Bilateral stimulation is a the use of a stimulus that is presented to both sides of the body. Most people known about rapid eye movement, something I do use, but in this case I am using tactile tapping. It can be as subtle as tapping my hands on my respective knees or the side of my thighs.

An example of a bilateral butterfly hug used to tap.

Essentially, by having you focus both on something distressing while also paying attention to the stimulus activating alternating sides of the body, bilateral stimulation allows the brain to access both sides of the brain which leads to more effective processing things that your brain has otherwise avoided.

As you might imagine, this is a lot of work. It takes time and energy. I have emotional fallout when I do this. It can be distracting if I’m in a social situation.

When I hear a police siren on the road or in the distance. When I see the police car parked across the street to monitor afterschool traffic. When a police car pulls up nearby and I’m standing on a sidewalk or otherwise feeling vulnerable. When I stretch my arms out and unintentionally reach backwards so that the tension in my upper arms is noticeable. When I see someone on tv put into handcuffs.

It works. It *is* work, but it gives me a way to manage these terrifying moments until they fade into merely uncomfortable memories.

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Then we layer in a form of exposure therapy. I can’t ride in the backseat of any car and I can’t ride with strangers. So no ride shares for me. No bus for me. No backseats for me. If I try, I have an anxiety attack. My heart pounds, my breathing gets shallow, time stops, and I feel absolutely terrified.

So for this exposure therapy, I go out to the driveway and sit in the backseat of one of my friend’s vehicles. I keep my feet on the ground and I do something sweet like watch a cute video clip for five minutes. Eventually, I’ll work myself up to putting my feet in the car, one at a time, then closing the door, seatbelt, etc. And then go for a ride with my friends driving. And then hopefully I can sit in the backseat while a friend drives their car.

A lot of work. A lot of negotiation and explanation to people with cars. A lot of missed experiences. A lot of justification to folx about why I can’t meet them. And I’m starting to notice people not being as willing to offer me a ride as they were 35 days ago.

One friend offered me her car. She’s having surgery and can’t drive for 6 weeks or so. She emailed me out of the blue with the offer and said “You are more important than a car” to assure me she was sincere. I wonder if other people on the Northside would consider such an arrangements when they travel for the winter, etc? I can drive myself because I feel in control.

I didn’t go to jail for justice. I wasn’t zip tied with my hands in front of me. I was restrained by metal force, that ratcheting sound of the cuffs being secured seared in my mind. What’s worse is that it triggers another memory of childhood abuse that also involved being restrained. That’s a memory I’m not ready to process.

Two pairs of handcuffs
Via Reuters

The bilateral theme is not lost on me. Handcuffs actually create a divide in your body, separating the left from right so they cannot work together – to disorient us, to create imbalance, to prevent us from being our whole human selves in that moment when we are simply things to be secured. The level of trust we place in who gets to decide when and where to forcibly handcuff someone without consent should require great care.

I had a sobering conversation with my two Black teen nephews about the experience, both of whom were clearly appalled. It chills my blood to think of either of them enduring this, especially as they would not be afforded the “perks” I received as a middle aged white woman. I mentioned this and one burst out in disbelief “But it wasn’t even legal, how you can you say they treated you well?” He was quivering with indignation on my behalf. It was a sobering conversation because we all knew that I had done everything right but still ended up handcuffed in the back of a police SUV.

The last memory I have of my home, the last time I saw my cats – I was being led away in handcuffs. I’m determined to do the work so that’s not all I think when I return.

We’ve raised $10,375 to date and that’s made the family law attorney possible. But I’ll need another retainer for the civil rights lawyers. the medical lawyers, and eventually the defamation lawyers. I was very fortunate to have pro bono supports early in the process, but they are no longer able to help me. 

If you are able to donate

There are many other ways to help – meals now and when I go home, maybe someone else will have a vehicle for a short period of time due to traveling, helping me get my new room in my existing home ready. I’ll need a truck to move my new bed frame. Mostly, I need the comfort and support of people who are outraged this could happen and want to resist. 

I  miss my cats and want to go home.


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