What is being a witness in court like? Canadian Edition
December 23, 2016 8:44 AM   Subscribe

I received a subpoena for being a witness to an domestic assault. It is triggering tons of PTSD and child abuse issues and I was hoping someone could tell me what it is like in a courtroom to try to get over some of my fears. Or, tips for doing this without completely having a break down. Please help me calm my anxiety and not run far far away and end up getting a warrant issued because I don't appear! (actually not going to happen but my first instinct)

I've read some articles on what part a witness plays but I seriously can't make a phone call these days without a severe panic attack. So I have no idea how I'll be able to do this especially since I have severe dissociation and confuse the present with the past on a regular basis. Since the police showed up with the paperwork I've been in severe flashbacks. I'm trying to remember that a) these police are real and the men who hurt me as a child were just faking being police b) that this is a good thing because it means they took the assault seriously and the woman was able to leave her partner before it got worse (something I wasn't able to do) and c) this is just severe anxiety blah blah blah.

If you don't have canadian court experience can you tell me any tips you've used when having to do something incredibly scary? I'd discuss this with my awesome therapist but she's away for the holidays and I don't really want to flood her email with my triggered rambling. You guys get to suffer again! Yay!
posted by kanata to Human Relations (14 answers total)
Unless your therapist has established a no-email boundary, this is actually a very very good reason to contact her.
posted by praemunire at 8:48 AM on December 23, 2016 [7 favorites]

I'm a lawyer in the US. Our office commonly works with witnesses who are anxious or scared about testifying, and I expect the prosecutor's office that is calling you as a witness has the same type of experience. After contacting your therapist, it is also worth talking to whatever lawyer is calling you as a witness to talk about your concerns. The attorney can tell you what sorts of questions they'll ask you, and you may be able to come in before the trial to visit the courtroom and meet the judge if those things would help. Generally, attorneys and especially judges are mindful that testifying can be a stressful experience, and they will do what they can to ease your anxiety.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:54 AM on December 23, 2016 [6 favorites]

Would it be possible to contact the lawyer for the party on whose behalf you'll be testifying? They will likely be able to provide you with an idea of the questions that they will ask you, what the opposition might ask you, and other details about your experience.

It's in that lawyer's best interests to have you calm and collected up there, so I'm guessing that they would be more than willing to take steps to walk you through what will happen.

On edit, what craven_morhead says.
posted by Fister Roboto at 8:55 AM on December 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just to underscore the suggestions above, not only would it be helpful to you to contact the attorney for the party for whom you will be testifying, it is practically essential to the attorney to talk to you. The attorney needs to know in advance what your testimony will be. If you're being called as a witness to testify to a statement that you made at the time of the incident, you need to be given a copy of the statement in order for you to refresh your memory.

I have been a witness in a federal criminal trial in the US, called by the prosecution despite the fact that they knew perfectly well that I believed the defendant was innocent. I didn't want to testify for personal reasons, and so I made them jump through some hoops to appease me. For example, I said that there was no way on god's green earth that I could face one of the other witnesses without scratching his eyes out and being too upset to testify. That resulted in them having to shift around some waiting rooms, etc., as he was set to testify after me. There was also a very amusing incident in which the attorneys & I were in an elevator, the elevator stopped at a floor midway to the one we were headed to, and when the doors opened, there was the VERY PERSON I told them I could NOT interact with. He saw me, and with surprise and apparent joy said "Jane! Great to see you!!" The two attorneys immediately stepped in front of me, held up their hand in the "halt" signal to the other witness, and said, "Next elevator." LMMFAO.

The bottom line is that the folks who have subpoenaed you want your helpful cooperation. Call and talk to them sooner rather than later. Make sure they know your issues, and make sure they tell you exactly what to expect. Take good care.
posted by janey47 at 9:31 AM on December 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hey kanata,

I bet you'll get great advice & info for all the court stuff. I have PTSD/DID related advice for you.

1. You are not on trial here. As a witness you are just there to say what you saw. But inside I bet there are a whack of...perspectives...who feel like a) THEY are on trial and b) the penalty for telling is BAD BAD BAD where bad is undefined. I know you know this, but happy to be an outside voice for it.

I recommend literally sitting on the ground and taking deep breaths, count of four in, hold for four, four out. and then having a little discussion or three in your head about how this present situation is not that. For me, in periods of high anxiety and flashbacks, it can help to have something physically visible (like a bracelet or ring) that reminds me that now is now. Like a snap bracelet.

2. I don't know how far away the subpoena is but could you shoot your therapist an email saying you want to pre-book an appointment Dealing With Courtrooms for between now and then? Having a set time that you KNOW you will be getting support for this particular thing may help you meantime. Also you could say 'and make sure I won't run away' if you're worried.

3. What grounds you in the present right now? Yoga, favourite movie, soup from a particular restaurant? Do that. This is a tough time of year for a lot of people anyway!

4. For me, in the midst of fight-or-flight which it sounds like you are struggling with, I find exercise really really helps me spend the adrenaline, and protein helps my body ground. I don't know if you have found that. Swimming is a good one for me because the water around me is sort of inherently calming, but I also do yoga, martial arts, and run. Even a walk outside might help shift your body a bit so that at least you are not also wrestling with your adrenal glands and amygdala.

Hope this doesn't sound too basic - sometimes when it's a bad time, I find it helpful to be brought back to basics.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:47 AM on December 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

I can't speak to what it's like to be a witness in court, but I'll weigh in on dealing with fear:

Do you have a close friend or someone like that who would be willing to do some "role playing"? If you have time to meet with your therapist before the court date, maybe your therapist could help you with this. Whoever it is, they could pretend to be the lawyer, and ask you some basic questions, and you can practice explaining the events you witnessed. This would be particularly helpful if you're able to try this out after speaking to the attorney who subpoenaed you so that you'll have a more specific idea of what they'll be asking, but even without that, it could be helpful. You may want to do this a couple times, sort of as a way to practice it.

Alternatively or additionally, you could do some visualization, where you go through the process in your head, and even problem solve how to deal with your anxiety in the moment. Like, deep breathing, or I really like warriorqueen's suggestion of having a bracelet you can look at.

I'll also strongly second the the suggestion to do exercise. In particular, I find any sort of cardio, swimming/running/biking/etc, to be what of the best things to calm me down when I'm struggling with intense fear, anxiety, or similar. If you're not up for that kind of intensity of exercise, even just going for a brisk walk. I also find walking/running/biking outside is way more beneficial than going to the gym. Maybe it helps me feel less trapped? I don't know, but it works for me.

I definitely agree with others that you should go ahead and email your therapist, but do you have a psychiatrist or even just a primary care physician you could get in touch with before the trial? IANAD/IANYD or any other medical professional, but from my personal experience with psych meds and therapy, it seems like this is the kind of situation where beta blockers or a similar medication could be helpful, as a short term thing. I know some people (even those without PTSD, anxiety, etc) will take them before making a big speech if they have a fear of public speaking.

Of course, this all depends on your personal medical situation, and you'd obviously want to try taking them before the actual trial, but I just wanted to throw it out there. I haven't personally taken beta blockers, but I do take clonidine for help with sleep and anxiety, and it's similar to beta blockers (both types of meds originally were designed for high blood pressure); it helps deal with the physiological effects of anxiety. Also, it's nonaddictive, unlike benzos, if that matters. And I think doctors are more inclined to prescribe beta blockers or similar versus benzos.

Also, I have no idea if this is feasible, but do you a trusted friend who could go with you to court? I don't know if they're allowed in the court room, but maybe they could go over there with you, so that they can help ground you before or after the trial. Or maybe you could set up a short phone session before and/or after the trial with your therapist.

One other thing: Maybe it would help to make a plan for what you'll do immediately after the trial. It could be something like a reward (eat your favorite ice cream while binge watching a TV show?) or just something to help if you need a way to feel safe or distract yourself from the emotions and memories that might come up for you during the trial.
posted by litera scripta manet at 10:27 AM on December 23, 2016

Do you have someone that can spend a few days with you on several field trips to court? Just to see how the procedures work and get familiar with the physical facility. Go first to the smaller, more boring court for traffic offences just as an observer and work up to watching maybe a longer half-day trial. If the case progresses (I can't tell at what point in the process it is) when you get a subpoena for a specific courtroom then go to that courtroom and become familiar with it. If you ask at the courthouse they should be able to tell you the judge's name and you can also see about watching the judge and getting to know their way of talking/personality. Again, if you can find out who the Crown is you can talk to them about the process of being a witness in this specific trial and see if you can see them in action in the courtroom. I think building up the familiarity with the people and place will help with some of the anxiety. There are a LOT of uniformed police at the court, which is why I recommend being with a supportive friend who can take the lead for you.
posted by saucysault at 11:13 AM on December 23, 2016

A relative of mine had very good luck calling the judge's chambers and speaking with the judge's clerk about her fear of testifying. I would have a sympathetic friend call on your behalf, but with you present to answer any questions they may have. I've had a lot of positive experiences with judge's clerks. (Maybe some Canadians here can tell you what the title of a judge's clerk is in your province?)
posted by stowaway at 12:05 PM on December 23, 2016

Another idea might be to take a friend and go to court to watch some random trials to get an idea for the process etc. Law students/media folks/interested parties do this all the time so you won't be alone.
posted by Lesium at 12:11 PM on December 23, 2016

At least in the US, you can talk to both sides' lawyers. And they'd both want to hear from you and give you a chance to understand more about the questions you're likely to be asked and the answers you might give. You can reach out to the lawyer who subpoenaed you, but you can also reach out to the other lawyer, the one who will be cross-examining you, so that you can understand what that's like. (IANACanadianL, so ask a Canadian lawyer if there's anything preventing you from contacting the other lawyer and letting them know that you've been subpoenaed and would like to talk with them about your testimony.) You might feel calmer if you have met both lawyers and know what both of them are going to ask you about.
posted by decathecting at 1:27 PM on December 23, 2016

Ontario has the victim witness assistance program for exactly this purpose - they can explain the process to you and familiarize you with the court setting to take away some anxiety! The crown attorney should also be meeting with you before trial to help you out.

I see you're in BC; they appear to have victim court support caseworkers who also help witnesses!
posted by julietjulietunicorn at 1:28 PM on December 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't know if the same deal happens with domestic assault, but, in Ontario, my roommate and I witnessed a pretty extensive street brawl between two men. We talked briefly to the police and went to bed; the police came back at 3am or so and had us fill out witness reports, politely apologetic about waking us. We were subpoenaed to appear.

The person who had asked for charges to be laid did not show at the courthouse, and we were sent home without ever setting foot outside of the court's cafeteria. So perhaps there is some chance that this might not even happen, if charges are dropped (not sure if possible with DV, but e-mailing the attorney is a great idea and you might ask if that's a possibility at all).

I've been in family and traffic court and have never, ever run into a mean or impatient judge. They are kind and professional even to out-and-out dirtballs. In traffic court (stupid fender bender -- don't drive on low sleep) I made the mistake of quickly sitting down when called up. I was kindly told that standing was the norm, and apologized and said I was partially disabled with bad hips -- would it be okay if I leaned on something or... The judge was visibly embarrassed and apologized and invited me to please sit back down. Even though it was me who was in the wrong on that courtroom visit, I've found I can really count on Canadian judges (NB: have never lived in Alberta...) to be extremely courteous, and also very aware that the majority of people inside a courtroom are very nervous. If you cry or are otherwise visibly upset you will be offered time to compose yourself, not pressed to continue. Judges, attorneys, and court staff generally work to put people at ease, as being stressed in court is the norm, not the exception. For what that's worth. Best of luck, and, thank you for testifying.
posted by kmennie at 1:50 PM on December 23, 2016

Sorry for the slow follow up (tis the season). I did what was suggested and emailed my therapist (where she again reassured me that emailing is fine and she's happy to do that). I forgot that she works out of the community centre where victim services is. She said she'd be able to help me through it (i.e. maybe meeting the police officer who came to my house to serve it to show me they are safe people and that the men were just lying to me, etc). She helped me sort out what was a real fear (getting triggered and dissociating and not being able to understand what was happening/embarassment etc) and what was "past thinking" (the police came because I told abuse was happening, they are the same police who were abusing me, everyone will be mad at us and get locked away). Also how to think of it as a good thing because it means the police and law are protecting the woman and her child and how that is how the world is supposed to work opposed to what happened to me.

The subpoena has a number I'm supposed to call to say I've received it and to set up a pre-interview but then it also says I have a pre-interview scheduled 1/2 hour before the trial. (which is in June , I know panic comes easily to us). I kind of used the excuse mentally that it is the holiday season to put off making the phone call but it was sheer anxiety. There is another sheet saying for children/vulnerable adults (which include mental health issues) they can request having another person with them sitting close during the testimony but I'm not sure if that makes me look like a freak or something.
posted by kanata at 8:43 AM on December 24, 2016

Strangers thinking you "look like a freak or something" because you have another person sitting with you is far and away less important than your personal well-being. My best friend goes everywhere with me, and half of my doctor appointments are him talking to the doctor because I just can't. For especially stressful excursions out of the house, my teddy bear goes with me. Big purple teddy bear. With a 39 year old woman in a wheelchair.

It helps me not care about whether I look like a weirdo to remember that we're all weird in some way. So I have a teddy bear. Maybe that guy over there likes peanut butter and Miracle Whip sandwiches. Or that woman, she leaves her Christmas tree up year-round because it makes her feel festive. Someone sitting next to you in court is just more visible, that's all.

Then, of course, there's the old saying about how you wouldn't worry about what other people think of you, if only you realized how rarely they actually do.

Do whatever it is you need to do, and to hell with what anybody else thinks about it.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 2:21 PM on December 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

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