A White Woman of a Certain Age Driving a Volvo

My hands gripped the steering wheel, my eyes focused on the dark roadway ahead, I concentrated on the exact pressure my foot needed to exert to maintain my speed at the 35 mile an hour limit. My heart was pounding and I had to consciously breathe in and out, steady and slow. It was close to midnight on my way home from a friend’s house in northern New Jersey. As I had driven along the Harrington Park side of the reservoir, a car had pulled out from a side street behind me. The driver had been following me, about two car lengths behind my car, for approximately 5 miles. Yes, clearly I was being followed for what reason I didn’t know, especially since the car was police patrol car, and the driver was a police officer.

It had been an evening of pre-Christmas fun with my tennis buddies. We met in Bergenfield, New Jersey at my friends’ house at 5:00 PM, and two designated drivers drove us to Heidelberg restaurant on the upper eastside for totally gluttonous indulgence of schweine haxe, veal chops, and sauerbraten (good but never to compare with my mother’s.) Big 16 ounce glasses of weissbier. Then a decision to skip the strudel and drive down to Rocco’s in the West Village for cannoli, tiramisu, cheesecake, espressos and cappuccinos. We went back uptown for a lovely drive past the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Truly a night of friendship, laughter, over eating, and holiday cheer. Back in Bergenfield we all kissed and hugged, and wished each other “Merry Christmas!”

And so I began my drive home, a trip of 13 miles northeast, to Piermont, New York. I was listening to late night NPR, enjoying the thoughts of the friends I had been with, thinking about Christmas plans, singing along with “The Messiah.” When the police car pulled out of the side street, I was certainly a little more aware of my driving, checked the speed limit sign on the side of the road and held a steady 25 mph, which I must say is very slow, but why take a chance? I continued to sing along, but with a little less gusto on the “And he shall glorify!”

At the first main intersection, Livingston Street and Broadway I could have gone straight but decided to make a right turn and head east to Piermont Road. I pulled into the right lane and waited for the light to turn green, since it is a no right on red light. The police car pulled up next to me in the left lane indicating that he (yes, I could see that it was a male cop at the wheel,) would be going straight up Livingston. When the light changed I made my right and suddenly the police car pulled out of the left lane and followed me. I do believe making a right turn out of a left lane is against the law, but hey, he’s a cop. But then I realized, he was really following me. Driving along Livingston I became very aware of my driving, really aware. But then I noticed we were approaching a police station. Oh silly me, he’s just going back to the station. No, on past the station he continued to follow me, maintaining that just about two car lengths between my taillights and his headlights. At the intersection of Broadway and Piermont Road, I moved into the left lane to turn north; the speed limit changed to 35 MPH. Carefully looking both ways at the stop sign I made the left, and then out of the right lane, he turned left too, just about two car lengths behind me.

And this is when my hands started really gripping the steering wheel, I had stopped singing, and had pushed the volume button off, I was aware, very aware of my driving, my speed, the way I rounded each curve, exactly where I was in relation to the center line, the side line, and very aware that there were no other cars. Yes, it was after midnight on a Sunday night, but there were no other cars either in the oncoming lane or behind me, just the steady headlights two car lengths behind me.

I felt scared, trapped, pursued, and mostly I felt like I was being set up. This cop was just waiting for me to slightly veer over a line, to roll through a stop sign, accelerate just beyond the speed limit. I watched the headlights in my rear view mirror and envisioned that at any moment the blue and red strobe would kick on. And then I thought about the beer I drank. Sixteen cold golden ounces between about 6:00 PM and 8:00 PM, intermingled with sauerbraten, potato dumplings, red cabbage, lots of brown bread, and then the Rocco’s tiramisu and cappuccino. Never had I felt the least bit impaired beyond a slight buzz during dinner and that was more than 4 hours ago, and yet I had no idea of what my blood alcohol might be. Never being a careless drinker and driver, never having even gotten a speeding ticket, I had never calculated any of this.

So I could feel a panic setting in as I drove along quiet, dark, lovely wooded Piermont Road. Clearly, I was getting the pump of adrenalin associated with a stressful situation. The internal chemical reaction that has been with us since the dawn of human time to protect us with the fight or flight response.

Adrenalin: A hormone secreted by the adrenal medulla upon stimulation of the central nervous system in response to stress, as anger or fear, acting to increase heart rate, blood pressure, cardiac output, and carbohydrate metabolism. Fosters protective actions of fight or flight.

Yes, I was definitely getting an adrenalin rush.

Fight or Flight: Involving or relating to an involuntary response to stress in which the hormone adrenaline is secreted into the blood stream in readiness for physical action, such as fighting or running away.

Here are the specifics of how this works and the behaviors it causes from a site called Changing Minds:

When we perceive a significant threat to us, then our bodies get ready either for a fight to the death or a desperate flight from certain defeat by a clearly superior adversary.

Physical changes

Fight or flight effects include:

  • Our senses sharpening. Pupils dilate (open out) so we can see more clearly, even in darkness. Our hairs stand on end, making us more sensitive to our environment (and also making us appear larger, hopefully intimidating our opponent).
  • The cardio-vascular system leaping into action, with the heart pump rate going from one up to five gallons per minutes and our arteries constricting to maximize pressure around the system whilst the veins open out to ease return of blood to the heart.
  • The respiratory system joining in as the lungs, throat and nostrils open up and breathing speeding up to get more air in the system so the increased blood flow can be re-oxygenated. The blood carries oxygen to the muscles, allowing them to work harder. Deeper breathing also helps us to scream more loudly!
  • Fat from fatty cells and glucose from the liver being metabolized to create instant energy.
  • Blood vessels to the kidney and digestive system being constricted, effectively shutting down systems that are not essential. A part of this effect is reduction of saliva in the mouth. The bowels and bladder may also open out to reduce the need for other internal actions (this might also dissuade our attackers!).
  • Blood vessels to the skin being constricted reducing any potential blood loss. Sweat glands also open, providing an external cooling liquid to our over-worked system. (this makes the skin look pale and clammy).
  • Endorphins, which are the body’s natural pain killers, are released (when you are fighting, you do not want be bothered with pain–-that can be put off until later.)
  • The natural judgment system is also turned down and more primitive responses take over–this is a time for action rather than deep thought.

Modern effects

Unfortunately, we are historically too close to the original value of this primitive response for our systems to have evolved to a more appropriate use of it, and many of life’s stresses trigger this response. The surprises and shocks of modern living leave us in a permanent state of arousal that takes its toll on our bodies, as described by Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome.

Freezing

A third alternative response which often comes before fight or flight is freezing. This is often used by prey as they seek not to be noticed by predators and is typified by the rabbit paralyzed by the headlights of an oncoming car.

Humans also will pause at signs of danger. By freezing, you also cut down on noise and visual change and so may hear or see things around you more clearly.

Freezing gives you time to assess the situation and, if necessary you may then take further action, including fighting or backing away.

And…

Shielding

Another automatic, unthinking reaction when faced with a sudden threat is to go into a ‘shield’ mode, for example cowering down and protecting the head by throwing arms over it. Turning away to use the back as a shield is also common.

When with a child or another person, the protection instinct may cause you to throw your body around them, pulling them in and literally becoming a ‘human shield’.

Sacrifice

Beyond shielding or perhaps as an extension of it, we will even sacrifice ourselves to help others, for example where a soldier ‘takes the bullet’ for a colleague.

When people are praised for being heroes, a common response is to say that they ‘didn’t think about it’. In other words, it was an automatic reaction to help others, even at the potential cost of one’s own life. This willingness to sacrifice is an essential element of humanity and society, even if we never have to take this action.

If you get wound up yourself, stop. Get out. Use any excuse to go somewhere and calm down.

 

Flight or fight to the death. That’s what our medulla has been programmed for in our survival and the survival of those we love and care for, even complete strangers.

But let me take you back from primitive humanity to that night in my car as my heart started pounding, my hands were getting sweaty on the wheel and I had to work hard to keep my breath steady. And my sudden realization: If the red and blue lights began to strobe behind me and I had to pull over, fight or flight were the last things I would ever want to do when confronted by a police officer. Even “getting out, using any excuse to go somewhere and calm down” was not going to work. The response that has protected us as humans since prehistory was exactly what not to do. Read any of the recent news reports. Michael Brown, Eric Gardner, compelling statistics of police violence specifically targeted against black men. Fight or Flight in these circumstances is deadly.

I am a white woman of a certain age, driving a Volvo, adhering to the speed limit, with an extremely clean driving record. Why was I chosen to be followed? What was my profile? What is anyone’s “profile”?

This is not a rant against police. My own Piermont cops came to my aid when I was locked out of my house and on another occasion carried me from my driveway down 20 steps after my ankle surgery. I have worked with many police officers and detectives in victims’ services, and they are dedicated to risking their own lives to protect others. I also know that when stressed, their fight kicks in; fleeing is not an option.

Marc H. Morial, President and CEO of the National Urban League wrote in the Huffington Post:

That is why we march — because Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, John Crawford and others did not deserve to die; because Marlene Pinnock did not deserve to be viciously beaten and Levar Jones did not deserve to be shot for complying with a trooper’s request; because the excessive use of force — deadly force — by law enforcement against unarmed African Americans has no place in the land of the free and the home of the brave; because police should not fear the communities they have sworn to protect and communities should not fear those who serve to protect them; and because we — as a nation — must and can be better.

I never did have to contend with my fight or flight response that night. About 6 miles after the patrol car started following me, as I drove at 35 miles an hour on Piermont Road and I passed the big green “Welcome to New York, the Empire State” sign, the headlights suddenly disappeared as the officer at the wheel pulled a U-turn and drove back south. My heart rate calmed as I rounded the bend into Piermont and drove up my steep windy road home. But still I wondered why I had been followed. I continue to wonder about how we can all do better. I can’t pretend I know what it is like to be routinely profiled, followed, questioned, threatened, but I do know what a state of constant fight or flight does to a person’s nervous system, to the nervous system of a community, to a nation; a permanent state of arousal that takes its toll on our bodies, minds, hearts and souls, and costs lives when fight or flight is a death sentence. It’s in the research, it’s in the news every day. We must and can do better.

For me this was an isolated incident, but then I am a white woman of a certain age, driving a Volvo, adhering to the speed limit, with an extremely clean driving record.

 

 

 

 

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