Reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, I heard her laugh, felt the love, smelled the weed, and remembered the sound of gunshots. I felt the trembling, numbness, the pacing of a rapidly moving heart, shaking, in response to what I thought were the last moments of our lives. At eleven or twelve years of age, I saw my small frame trapped on a sticky thread of injustice created by the web makers’ own hands. My life, no longer my own. Count me among the many that witnessed a traumatic experience left to detach themselves from it all.
Trauma forms when a person is overwhelmed by something that is beyond their control. There are three types of trauma: acute, chronic, and complex. Acute is a one-time experience, chronic, repeated experience, and complex trauma exists when a person is exposed to various events that are invasive and interpersonal in nature. The limbic system includes the hippocampus, amygdala, and hypothalamus. When triggered, it sets off an alarm for a person to have an involuntary experience with a previous memory. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, is a term most associated with this brain function response. Flashbacks are a symptom of PTSD. Colors, odors, objects, sensations, or sounds could cause a person to become fully immersed in memory. They may also remain partially present, losing some awareness of what is going on around them. It can happen at any moment.
Somewhere between 125th St. and Columbus Circle on the A Express Train, my body temperature increased, as my heart pumped vigorously. The images around me started to move slower than normal. The events of that night started to unravel quickly and out of order. I recalled the police lights beaming through the living room windows. Voices filled the driveway. Men. A lot of men, in SWAT gear, while I was in my PJ’s. As I peeked my head out to get a sharper view, a man yelled, “get back” while aiming what was possibly a Sig-Sauer 552P at my face. Inwardly, I responded, NO, and slowly backed away from the window, just enough for him to no longer see me.
The SWAT team was stalled, entering my best friend’s mom’s apartment. My mother was on the phone. Calmly speaking with my friend’s mom about the choices she had to make, reminding her about the effects they would have on her children. Another shot goes off. Her daughter, who was staying at my home that evening, wakes up to the sound of shuffling, like a military team getting ready to save hostages, stop a hijacker, or re-arrest a prisoner who escaped. Only this time, it was not on TV, and they were going after one-person, frail woman, mother of two.
To remain grounded, I thought of positive experiences that took place during that time of my life. Then, seeing memories of my best friend and me, watching TV, cooking, and playing dress-up – my absolute favorite. Our faces adorned with silver eye shadow smeared wildly on our eyelids. Our small frames hardly filling the silhouette of the bold colored nightgowns, owned by my mother. Walking down the hallway to my mom’s room, balancing ourselves in her stilettos at the doorway, before the grand entrance. One by one, we would strut in, meeting each other at the end of the imaginary catwalk, which was nothing more than a small chunk of space existing between the bed and window. Giggling, we would repeatedly ask my mom, “Do you like our show”.
The giggling took me back, to that night, to us lying under the covers talking ourselves to sleep. Awakened by a familiar sound, then the phone rang. Footsteps echoed in the hall. I tiptoed into the dark entryway, which felt unusually hollow and cold. My mother waved for me to go back to bed. Her posture was tensed. It was not until after the second shot that I realized what she was doing and what my friend’s mom might have done.
Turning these images into inquiry, I began to investigate the best way to close this gate, starting by identifying the trigger. I have viewed similar occurrences in hundreds of TV shows and Films since the incident. Why now was a reoccurring question I wanted to figure out. Was it the continuous repetition of innocent people being wrongfully accused and murdered in the name of the law? Or that When They See Us was a major topic of discussion in my communities, reminding me that people will go through great lengths to see us innocently imprisoned. Maybe it was because the fear I should have had then was being made apparent now. I knew my life could have ended at a psychological level. I did not know how many lives had been taken, nor did I surmise the extent of lives that would be in the future under comparable circumstances.
No-knock raids increased from 3,000 in 1981 to over 50,000 in 2005, according to Peter Kraska, a criminologist at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond. That number per year is speculated to be at 80,000 or more now. There are several deaths connected with these raids, including the recent death of Breonna Taylor, which occurred while I was editing this article. Reading through Alexander’s book, I felt uncomfortable that I was a part of this statistic. Data gathered on my life, the black body, used to prove the need for brutality on my black body, created by problems inflicted on, my black body from, a non-black body.
Flashback. I saw my friend’s mom, she was an average person, as in, not perfect. Sweet as pie and funny as hell she was. If it were not for her teeth and infrequent changes in behavior, it would have been hard to tell she was a user at all. She was always well-groomed, face glistening, hair slicked back into a short ponytail. Her deep voice complimented her strong and loving spirit. Her home was as hollow as the inside of a chocolate Easter bunny. She did not have much, but the memories of us dancing, talking, and playing cards in that space are ones that I will always remember. Anyone with eyes could see the root of her contest was created by some conditions she could not control. She needed help.
It is said that 6.8% of U.S adults will experience some aspect of PTSD in their lifetime. These conditions can come in the form of panic attacks, depression, insomnia, and flashbacks. The amygdala, associated with emotional, and fear-related memories, works with the hippocampus, associated with motivation, learning, and memory, is suppressed, when stimulated. The amygdala then sends the body into a mode to respond against the threat. Fight, flight, or freeze.
Experts say the best way to deal with flashbacks is to ground yourself in your current surroundings. Become present with all five senses. Talk to yourself and recognize that it was indeed a flashback. Identify the trigger. Talk to someone, write (journal), engage in social and physical activity, and participate in creative projects (such as painting, drawing, singing, sculpting) all support positive cognitive-behavioral functions. Seeing a therapist is also top on the list.
Arriving at my office, I wrote down the flashback, seeking to discover the meaning and an entry point for continued healing. It was then that I realized my mother and I never had a conversation about that raid. I distinctly remember going to school the next day as if nothing happened. The next time we brought up my best friend, who was taken from our home by a social worker the night of the raid, was when my mom ran into her grandmother at a grocery store.
Striking up the nerve to ask my mom the million-dollar question when she came to visit me a few months post the flashback, came with a lot of unrest. What if this is a touchy subject for her? Would she relive the night as I did, or has she? Come to find out, my mom thought nothing of that day since. When asked, what was it like, to talk someone out of suicide, she answered, “I did what I had to do”.