Watching my Brain Succumb to PTSD: How the System Silences Women
Updated: Jan 19, 2021
Have you ever had a moment in which, through no fault of your own, you feared for your life? I truly hope that your answer is no, and if it isn't I hope that you were able to obtain the supposedly available systemic support that has seemingly eluded me thus far.
Anyone who follows my written work knows that a little over two years ago I was almost kidnapped. I talk about it a lot in my writing, because violence against women, often resulting in death, is extremely common in the city in which this incident occurred, and unfortunately still too common in the world in general. I do this because I know that speaking out and raising awareness is one of the best ways to help combat social justice issues like this one. I have also, since the incident, devoted a lot of time to first filing an immediate report against the perpetrators, and then subsequent complaints against the police officer and the department that mishandled my initial report.
In summary on the morning of August 14th at 5:30 am I went for a walk, as I had done on many mornings. I was covered from head to toe, carrying a large walking stick and my cell phone. I had chosen to wear a hooded housecoat as a jacket over my pants and a long sleeve t-shirt because it was cozy and warm. This may seem odd to some people, but it was common for me as I rarely saw anyone on my early morning walk. Even though I wear business casual clothing at work by choice, I'm not one to judge others for their wardrobe choices, and at 5:30 in the morning I don't really care who is judging me. The only thing that was truly odd on that morning was that smoke from a nearby forest fire was blotting out the rising of the sun that was occurring as normal. The clouds from the smoke had kept Prince George somewhat literally in the dark for about two days at that point, and on a morning that would normally have been bright and illuminated it may as well have been midnight.
Shortly after I set out a black SUV began following me and I ran into a nearby park, thinking about how the fence and the playground equipment could be used as obstacles and even weapons to defend myself if need be. I called 9-1-1 using the cell in my pocket the moment I was inside the fenced park. I waited for four minutes with a reasonable operator on the phone until a police officer showed up on the scene. He was flippant from the beginning and didn't even acknowledge my presence for at least the first thirty seconds of me approaching his vehicle hoping for the needed rescue I had been promised on the phone. His immediate response when I told him that I couldn't get a license plate number because it was dark and I could not get myself close enough safely to see it was to roll his eyes at me and tell me to 'just go home and sleep it off.' I had tried to get the license plate number by running out behind the vehicle as it was passing one of the park gates, but the vehicle stopped as soon as I got behind it. I realized that from that position they could back over me fairly easily, and I had to go back to the safety of the fenced park.
The inappropriateness of the officer's comment didn't really dawn on me until I was in the back of his car, being transported to my friend's house as I had requested. I lived alone in a suite at a single mother's house and I didn't feel safe going home. He didn't ask me any questions about the incident beyond questions about the vehicle. I had actually seen the face of the driver when they first drove past me, and could have given him that information along with other things that may have provided clues to help catch the perpetrators. His final comment was a scoff at me when I told him that he could have been more compassionate, but I still appreciated his timely arrival.
I went with a friend to the police department to complain about his conduct later that morning. It was not made clear to me when we were there which department I was complaining to. At the beginning of the meeting we had I thought I was speaking to victim's services, but then they offered me a pamphlet after hearing my story without any explanation of the kind of assistance victim's services could provide me with beyond counseling. I left that complaint meeting with the brochure and the voice of a female sergeant ringing in my ears telling me that 'women have a responsibility to protect themselves.' Thankfully she also conceded that covering oneself from head to toe and carrying a large stick and your cell phone to call emergency should count as being responsible, and that I should still be able to feel safe while walking in my own neighborhood.
A series of mistakes ensued within the department over the next ten days, and as the victim of a crime I couldn't get a hold of anyone I had spoken to in my complaint meeting to find out if anyone had been apprehended or if my complaint against the officer had been taken seriously. I didn't want to go to the department and risk running into the officer I had complained about since I knew he had been informed of my complaint against him. I didn't want to go home, because I didn't know if the men from the SUV knew where I lived or not, and if they would come back looking for me. Evacuees from the nearby fires were taking up most available rooms, even the spare ones my friends in the area had. The fact that I have an eighteen year old cat did not make finding accommodations easier. I had picked him up with my friend shortly after arriving at her house at six am, and I of course refused to leave him alone at a home I wasn't sure was safe.
When the officer from my complaint meeting finally got back to me, two weeks had passed. He had been on vacation. I had nearly lost my cat when he ran away from me in a strange neighborhood, and I had slept in my truck with my cat in the parking lot of an out of town park. A traveling musician friend had thankfully come to town and he agreed to come stay at my house so I could get comfortable at home again. As I had said with evacuees taking up so much space, it worked out well for him too, as we had a spare room that was not in use, being between tenants at that time.
So I was at least at home when I received that phone call after two weeks of waiting and wondering in fear. I was told at that time that he and the officer in question had spoken and that they both felt like he had 'learned something' from the incident. Being that they had all refused to meet with me again—even though a face to face meeting had been offered to facilitate reconciliation—I had no evidence that anyone had learned anything. I also still didn't know if the perpetrators had been caught or even really looked for. To this day I don't know why the men in that SUV picked me to target, or what they might have done if they had gotten me into that vehicle. At the time that it was all happening I wondered if they were planning to rape me and kill me, or just rape me, and I focused on getting away and not finding out. Looking back later I couldn't see any other reason why strange men would target a woman walking alone, and that unanswered question still haunts me a little. Those are just a few of the things that started to 'break my brain' as I say now.
As I said, given that I had no evidence of justice or anyone's 'learning' from my misfortune I was not prepared to stop complaining. While I am not Indigenous, the fact that I lived in Highway of Tears (https://www.highwayoftears.org/) country was not lost on me. Maybe the rest of the white people in Prince George could just seemingly ignore the fact that Indigenous women were rapidly disappearing from several Northern B.C. communities, ours included, but I could not even before my experience in that park and with the police who were supposed to assist me. I had heard people like Brenda Wilson speak, and I felt the pain in their voices when they spoke of their missing sisters, mothers, and friends. I couldn't help but wonder how many Indigenous women had received even worse treatment than I had when they had asked for assistance or sought justice when that assistance was less than helpful.
After consulting with some community leaders from various cultural backgrounds in my area, we decided I should call a press conference. About four members of the press showed up in total. I made a statement about my experience, and Hira Rashid—one of the community leaders I had consulted with—made a more general statement about violence against women and its prevalence in our community. Press releases with our statements were sent out to every news outlet we could think of. The CBC did an intense radio interview with me that they never aired for reasons that have never been properly explained to me. I never did see much coverage from media, but a well-written article published in the Citizen newspaper caught the attention of the RCMP. All of a sudden they wanted to discuss my concerns and find a resolution for my complaint.
That process began with me alone in a room with a man from the Prince George Police Responsibility Unit. Let's just call him Kevin. I had to go over the entire incident with Kevin again so that he could file my complaint through the CRCC (Civilian Review and Complaints Commission), which is supposed to be an independent government body that investigates complaints against the RCMP. I know from what he told me that Kevin worked closely with the Prince George police detachment, and even had a ranking in the police department, so I fail to see how that constitutes independence on the part of my investigator, and it was obvious from Kevin's final report where his loyalties lay.
I met with Kevin about five times in the course of a year and a half. Each time he greeted me with a crocodile smile and tried to act as though he cared about my concerns. I put on a dumb blonde poker face—something that has served me well when I'm up against misogyny and I don't want my opponent to see my next move. I nodded and smiled and pretended that I believed in his concern so that I could get my complaint filed. In his final report, he misconstrued facts by omitting pieces of evidence of—at the very least poor communication and training within the RCMP and stated that he felt that the officer's conduct was professional, and the CRCC decided that his opinion was sufficient evidence to close my case.
I have asked for an appeal of the CRCC decision. I am still waiting for them to decide on my appeal. I have one more avenue of complaint that I can pursue through the government, but they will not start their investigation process until the CRCC has given me a decision. I have tried to follow up by phone and fax. Even though it is 2020 the CRCC doesn't have email. So the CRCC has effectively halted my complaint. Buried it in paperwork as the bureaucrats say. I think that is the real brain breaker for me. When I looked at my email sent folder a few months ago I realized that I have literally sent over 300 emails to politicians, press outlets, and official bodies like the CRCC, and those are just the emails. I cannot even count how many days in the last two and half years have been spent making phone call after phone call to everyone already mentioned as well as advocacy centers and lawyers. Whole days devoted to making what felt like very little progress, and I still have no idea if I will ever see justice done in my case.
My friends who live in Prince George still regularly post stories on social media about women from the community who are being stalked or have gone missing, and every time I read one of those posts my heart stops for a moment. While the logical side of me knows that one person cannot save everyone, my brain still asks me if that girls misfortune is my fault. It starts to turn the whole experience over again, to see if there is one more email to send, or one more phone call to make, even though I am utterly exhausted.
I have worked basically full time all the way through this. Taking days off mostly when I had to meet with Kevin, and a few extra when getting out of bed seemed too overwhelming because of stress and exhaustion. I also moved away from Prince George about a year ago. I had wanted to for a while, but it isn't the pit of hell many people want to say it is and I had a secure and successful life there in many ways. I still miss the river that I used to walk beside in the morning. I had two very stable jobs, a comfortable and affordable place to live in a decent neighborhood, I hosted a monthly spoken word night at a local café, and had other successful artistic endeavors happening in the community.
Despite all of that, I just didn't feel safe there anymore. It wasn't just that fact that Prince George is past knee-deep in the opioid crisis. With a grossly short-sighted municipal, provincial, and federal government response (or lack thereof) to that crisis, many people there are desperate and/or live in poverty. But more than that it was the things I had heard about the RCMP and their loyalty to each other. One of my very good friends in the area is a six-foot five-inch tall bodybuilder who didn't want me to complain about the police because he knew people who had faced physical retribution from certain officers for doing so. I won't go into more detail on that, but he isn't the only person that I've heard horror stories like that from since my case began.
There is the biggest brain breaker for me: the need to fear those who serve and protect society. One of the men in the SUV was wearing a very distinct and common item of clothing. It took a few months for my body not to react with a slight anxiety attack when I saw someone else wearing clothing similar to what the man in the SUV was wearing, but it doesn't trigger me when I see it anymore. Because of the fires, it was smoky out on the morning I went for that walk. I discovered this summer that thick smoke in the sky was also an anxiety trigger for my body, but I do a lot of thought work and once I figured out the connection for my body to the memory of being targeted for kidnapping in my brain I was able to talk myself through it, and I am not sure that clouds of smoke will have the same effect on me again. I am, however, still extremely triggered by police uniforms, and no amount of thought work has helped with that so far. Because of thought work I can at least laugh when the anxiety attack happens, because of the irony that a community service provider hired and trained by the government to protect me causes me to have a panic attack, but damned if I can convince my body that it is safe around police officers and get it to calm down. It continues to go into fear mode no matter what I tell my brain and body. This is partially because I could very well run into Mr. 'go home and sleep it off' the next time I need assistance. It's unlikely now that I have moved, but he was never disciplined or retrained at all, and RCMP officers transfer to a new community every three to five years.
I have had the fortune and misfortune to meet many women who have experienced violence and then mistreatment or outright dismissal by members of the RCMP. I say fortune because each of these women is amazingly brave and strong, and just hearing them speak is inspirational. I say misfortune because I understand their stories all too well, because of my own experiences being targeted for kidnapping (and who knows what else) and other experiences of violence I have encountered in my life. It sickens me to know how many women understand that pain, and how the fear changes you, and to think of how many women of the younger generations will also have the misfortune of understanding this.
As I stated, in Prince George I had a stable income and medical and dental benefits through my employer that gave me access to mental health support that I would have been lost without. Since I have moved, I don't have the same benefits, and accessing mental health support has been more challenging. I called the only free service I know of in my area to follow up on referrals that are just not coming through. The receptionist there told me to remember that I have to 'advocate for myself'. I'm thinking of forwarding all three hundred of my emails to her.
Even after rereading what I have written here, I don't know if I have gotten my point across because that is how much PTSD has affected my ability to mentally process anything. I also don't know what else I can say to make my point besides telling you that I am exhausted from advocating for myself, and that is just one of the many ways that the system silences women like me. Even if the CRCC did not have me buried in paperwork, I may not have the energy or mental capacity to send more emails or make more phone calls. I'm not going to claim I am perfect (refer to my blog post 'We're all Assholes) but up until the last two years I was pretty good at dealing with my emotions. Now I feel reactive and guilty about that reactivity, and constantly worried that I am jeopardizing work and personal relationships, which often takes up what little energy I feel I do have, and there are some days where it feels like I can't even out how to do a simple task like cook dinner as I have done many times before PTSD became a part of my life because of this experience simply because I decided to go for a walk one morning in my neighborhood.
I am not writing this because I want anyone to feel sorry for me. I have been accused of that in this process as well. I am writing it because even though I am exhausted I cannot be silent knowing that another woman may have to share my experience. The system is a brick wall, and while I can't keep banging my head against it I can keep making whatever noise will make someone get the sledgehammer we all so desperately need right now.