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  • Sally Littlefield

What I Learned About Psychosis from My Police Records

Setting the (police) record straight.

What I Learned About Psychosis from My Police Records

  • People experiencing psychosis are still capable of accurate memory.

  • Discounting the recall of people who experience psychosis leaves them vulnerable to ongoing abuse, violence.

  • Revisiting experiences of psychosis can be empowering and validating.

“If I correctly fill out Joe Biden’s 2020 cabinet, will you let me go?” I ask. It’s 12:45 a.m. on February 16, 2019, and I’m handcuffed and kneeling on the ground of the second-floor lobby at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco with a police officers hand firmly on my back. “How about Corey Booker as Attorney General?”

The police officers ignore me.

“Are you guys strippers?”

“Ma’am, you’re being placed under arrest for theft.”

“Theft? You mean because I didn’t ask my mom first before I borrowed her shoes? She wasn’t home!”

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Years later, on October 21st, 2021, I read the report the police officers wrote of our encounter during my first severe manic and psychotic episode. One paragraph in particular stood out:

Littlefield appeared to be under the influence of unknown type of narcotic. Littlefield would make nonsense remarks, then attempt to leave, then would complain about the 2016 election and the state of U.S. politics and other topics. Littlefield did not appear to understand that she was being placed under arrest but did admit she was wearing her mother’s sandals.

These are the most validating words I’ve ever read in my life.

When I tell the story of that night—the story of breaking into houses, of climbing on top of cars, of getting tackled by police officers—people often ask me, in disbelief, “And you remember all of that?” As though my brain completely broke when I was in psychosis. As though I were incapable of logical thought, reason, and encoding memories. As though, on some level, I ceased to be a person and became nothing but a mental illness. My dehumanization was reinforced by all the doctors who dismissed me, who talked to me like I was five and incapable of any complex cognitive process. All just because I believed a team of psychologists had assumed control of my life and was experimenting on me against my will.

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I think that’s why I wanted to obtain my police records. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for or what I’d find. But I had to know what really happened. I had to know whether my memories matched everyone else’s reality. I had to know if I was crazy after all.

I was scared to read the report. What if it contained stigmatizing language that mirrored the worst of my internalized ableism, born out of my diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type? What if the narrative of the report was completely off-base from my memories, in which case I’d have to admit my brain had essentially ceased to function during psychosis?

I had my mother read the report first so that she might soften the blow in case any of the above came to fruition. But when she called me after I sent it to her, she told me it was fine–humorous, even, which goes to show the enormous amount of privilege I exuded in this situation as a white woman. Moreover, she told me, “It was pretty much what you told me happened during the conversation we had when you were in the psych ward. Save for the part about the psychologists, of course.”

I let out a deep, cathartic breath, hung up the phone, and opened the file that contained the police report. And there it was—proof that my account of the night was valid. As I read the police officer’s notes from his interview with the woman whose backpack I stole, I remembered how I found the backpack inside a janitor’s closet at the Warfield. A woman had exited the small, inconspicuous door, looked me in the eyes, and winked and smiled at me. Surely, it was a sign from the psychologists.

So maybe the psychologists never existed. Maybe the signs I thought were their breadcrumbs guiding me on a wild adventure through the streets of San Francisco were actually just run-of-the-mill, everyday objects. But everything else about my memories of that night, from the blue Jacksonville Jaguars beanie I’d found in the backpack, to their obsession with my mother’s shoes, to my rants about U.S. politics, was real. This police report documented it all.

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I always had a hunch that my memory of that night held up better than most people thought, but for years, others’ skepticism about my account of the night in question had slowly eroded my confidence that ‘Psychosis Sally’ had been capable of encoding actual memories. Even in psychosis, as my mother confirmed, I was still able to give an accurate account of the events that transpired, even if it was through a fictitious lens of an all-consuming psychological experiment. And this police report proved it.

People experiencing psychosis are still capable of logic, of feelings, of love, and, as it turns out, of accurate memories. There’s something at stake here that’s bigger than just my personal, vindictive desire to prove wrong all those people who doubted the validity of my memories of that night. If we brush off the memories of people experiencing psychosis—if we don’t believe their accounts of what they experience—then what happens when their recall is also the only avenue to safety? It devastates me to think about all the people who experience ongoing abuse, violence, and crimes who aren’t believed because we as a society don’t trust the accounts of those who break from reality.

I am more than my mental illness, both now and when I was in active psychosis. I was and am a person capable of the full spectrum of thought, emotion, and, it turns out, memory. It’s time we set the record straight: People experiencing psychosis are still people. Let’s give their accounts and perspectives the weight they deserve.

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