For about 10 years, in my 20s, I grappled with severe mental illness. I dropped out of school, lost jobs, moved between apartments and cities. I was in and out of psychiatric facilities, on dozens of medications, had shock treatments. I had persistent suicidal ideation and was even violent at times.
My parents bore the brunt of this. They lived with constant fear and exhaustion as they tried to get me help. My behavior was so erratic that my mother had to call places — hair salons, doctor’s offices, family friends' houses — to warn them. She was constantly translating me to others, partly so that they wouldn’t be offended but mostly to protect me. For a decade, her life (and my father’s, to a lesser extent) was about serving as an intermediary and keeping me safe. It was like juggling a live grenade.
After I heard about the shooting of Walter Wallace Jr., my first instinct was to tell my mother. I knew she would know what didn’t need to be said: that the woman who watched her mentally ill child killed in the street probably has a lot in common with my mom. I don’t know her, but if our situations were even remotely similar, Wallace’s mother was likely already juggling that grenade, weighing so many options and impossible decisions, exhausted and heartbroken even before she picked up the phone to call for help. But that’s where the similarities end. Because had my mother called the police to help with her irrational daughter, she would not have seen me — a young white woman — gunned down in cold blood.
You might say this is speculation, and of course, it is. But it’s based in my experience both as a recipient of mental health services and as a provider working with mental health organizations. In both arenas, I benefited tremendously from my white skin, which rendered me unthreatening. Though I did commit acts of violence, theft, vandalism, and aggression, I never had any interactions with police that weren’t friendly. I’ve never even had a moving violation.
There were two times I brandished a knife in public, as Walter Wallace Jr. did on the day he was killed. The first time was at a state mental hospital in Texas. I was told to relinquish the knife or they wouldn’t admit me to the hospital. I said I would never let the knife go (I had some strange ideas at the time about the magical powers of the knife). They simply said: “Well, you’re going to have to leave. We can’t have that knife in here.”
The second time I was at a hospital ER, where, after demanding to see a psychiatrist, I was put into a curtained waiting room with a bed. Within minutes, I had taken my knife and cut the curtain into strips and stabbed the mattress until its stuffing bled out. I knocked things over. The little room was a mess. Were the police called? Of course not. Instead, a nurse came in and said, “Oh, honey, you don’t want to do that.”
I have thrown bottles at people on the street; I have stolen things under the gaze of retail cameras; I have talked to myself out loud in stores that I stayed in for hours at a time. None of it got me in the slightest bit of trouble, or even attracted much notice.
And yet when I worked in mental health services as a certified peer specialist, and commiserated, often laughingly, with Black men and women about the crazy stuff we did when we were seriously ill, I noticed their stories always ended with a jail cell, while mine usually ended with a warm bed. It’s a lot easier to laugh about the years of suffering if you get to come home and feed your cat and grab some cereal from the fridge instead of getting lost in a spiral of injustice and punitive retribution for a moment you can hardly remember.
I quit my job in mental health services because, as I told my boss, it felt hopeless. “Well, you do need to quit if you think mental health recovery is hopeless,” he said. I didn’t correct him, but what I thought was: “That’s not the problem. It’s the racism I can’t fix.”
In the years after that job, I would go on to cover, as a mental health blogger, instances of police violence against people with mental illness — though it should be said that, as with the suicide by cop of my childhood friend, not all of the victims were people of color. But if you remove the situations where suicidality was a factor, you get a much more limited demographic sampling.
There will be plenty of talk now about the need for crisis intervention training and de-escalation techniques, about the need for social workers instead of cops responding to calls, and all of that is worth discussing. When former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey instituted crisis intervention training for his officers, he made the mistake of making that training optional; it should be mandatory, and the curriculum should be reassessed because we’ve seen such training yield different results in different cities, and we have better ideas now about what works.
We also need to talk about nonlethal strategies for defusing tense situations; we seem to have no end of such means to protect traffic on 676 from protesters but can’t find a Taser anywhere when a man’s life depends on it.
But even with all those considerations, the truth is that if it had been me with a knife on the afternoon of Oct. 26, with my white mother behind me pleading for help, not harm, with white neighbors saying, “We know her, don’t hurt her,” we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Whether I was taken into custody or not, there’d be a warm bed for me sometime after, a snuggle with my cat, a good night’s sleep. For the friends and family of Walter Wallace Jr., I don’t think there will be a good night’s sleep for a long time.
Liz Spikol is the editorial director of Mid-Atlantic Media. She has been writing and speaking publicly about mental health issues for more than 20 years and is a recipient of the Access Achievement Award from the Philadelphia Mayor’s Commission on People with Disabilities. She lives in Mount Airy. Find her on Twitter @lspikol.