“No, Walter. You’re not wrong. You’re just an asshole,” The Dude (Jeff Bridges) admits to his bowling buddy Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) in The Cohen Brothers 1998 Noir film meets the end of The California Dream, The Big Lebowski.
I would accept that description of myself. If I also were not wrong and an asshole so often. I get it often enough, but my reactions need help. I am not to the point of pulling a piece in a bowling alley, yet. But my anger response to a perceived wrong, lack of set rules, or disruption is not too far from Walter’s.
Walter is a damaged Vietnam Vet with PTSD. He is divorced, yet still cares for his ex-wife’s dog, and strictly observes Shabbos, the Jewish day of rest. He is a man trying to cling to structures with meaning. They ground and reassure him. And when his routines, rituals, and structure gets disrupted, he lashes out as only John Goodman can. Big and loud.
In an early scene we see him casually talking with The Dude, the old hippie, and Donny, their ex-surfer friend, when he screams “OVER THE LINE!” to an offending bowler.
Walter clings to structures for comfort. His reaction is to overwhelm others by enforcing the rules, at gun point if need be. He even needs to control when his friend Donny speaks and corrects The Dude’s use of an Asian slur. By the end of the film though, we realize that under all that camo and tactical gear is a scared 18 year old kid who lived through “a world of hurt.” In fact, it turns out he is not even Jewish. He converted for his ex-wife.
But it is Walter who quickly realizes the solution to the mystery of the rug that really tied the room together. He even mentions how “Un-Dude” his friend is being for getting hung up on the “ins and outs.” And he goes whole hog in his attempts to help The Dude on his quest. These are all traits of PTSD. The clinging, whether to habits or routines, rules or people. The shit-losing when anything pops its head into his life with an unwelcome thought. And yet he stares down arch-rival bowler, The Jesus, while Dude stammers. And he will mess up a couple of Nihilists who killed your car with a quickness.
His tears at the end signal the restoration of order and peace for him. The Dude needs Walter. But Walter also needs The Dude. Because The Dude is the one man chill enough to give Walter the grace to forgive himself. When Walter apologizes, The Dude says, “Fuck it, man.”
What the movie doesn’t explicitly show, however, is the embarrassment of being Walter. We with PTSD are simply not cool like The Dude. We tend to be rigid, hold ourselves rigidly, follow routines, and construct a framework to hang the point of life on. And that protects us from the scary truth that our suffering was and is pointless. As all suffering is.
The end result is sometimes you just lose your cool and freak out in a diner over the accessibility of a severed toe. Then Pride holds him in that diner seat long after he has embarrassed himself and The Dude.
Embarrassment, shame, self-loathing, or disgust generally fill the calm after the fit has passed. And it is something I have had to face down fiercely as I do my last days to week in this hotel room. All of my life is uncertain right now. All structure is gone. I have formed habits already to keep me sane in this room. But after living in fear and uncertainty for seven months now, I have had my share of outbursts.
But I have come to realize that I do not have to sit in the diner where I embarrassed myself. Walter eventually breaks down in tears, admits how wrong he had been, and apologizes to The Dude, and to Donny posthumously. “Fuck it.” Says The Dude, as they head off into the sunset to the lanes.
Feeling the shame, getting unbent, and apologizing are the keys. And if you are lucky enough, you will have friends who tell you to “Fuck it” and go bowling. I mean, in the end, all that is wrong — and there is plenty to go around in this world — sometimes flips our asshole switch. And it feels awful. Nobody wants to lose their cool. Good thing all those cool Dudes need us as much as The Dude needs Walter. Because we will do anything to get back your goddamn rug that really tied the room together! Eh, fuck it. Let’s roll.
The day I described in my last installment of this series, and the citation I received, were not the end of my former neighbors’ abuse and harassment. But let us rewind a bit.
I had managed to get the male neighbor cited once by a nice young officer who was very sensitive and well trained. The neighbors were outside doing this elaborate, loud play acting…about me. They mocked my disability, accused me of being a “Welfare Queen” — thanks for that Ronald McDonald Reagan. It went on for a while, so I called the police.
I had gotten mostly the same responses from the other officers I met. “He’s got free speech.” 🙄 Yes, freedom of speech. The First Amendment, and the least understood. Folks are fond of saying “Freedom ain’t free.” And I suppose they imagine bravely standing up to tyranny. To me it is basic causality. Sure, you are free to holler insults at your neighbor from your yard, but it does not mean that speech is free of consequences.
We all know there are exceptions to free speech. Usually when words can cause harm: a panic, violence, lies about others, etc. So this bright young cop was fantastic! Finally, right? He came, talked to them, then left but told me to call again if they said anything about race, or threatened me.
Oh, my neighbor obliged. As soon as the cop left, he helpfully shouted at one of my security cams “she’ll wish she were [ducking] dead.” Bam. Harassment and Terroristic Threats.
The day I described last time, with my loud mouth and criminally awesome dance moves, was a week before his hearing on that charge. He had pleaded not guilty. So, when the cops came, the female neighbor and pals went to work!
The next evening, Stanman and I were sitting on our couch, around 10ish. Watching Star Trek: TNG on Netflix. Again in my pajamas. And then this knock. The one you hear in every crime show. The “It’s the police, open up!” knock. I went out onto the porch to talk to them. It all seemed wrong. There were four cops on my stairs. They looked like the SS. Black outfits, all holstered up. One particular future Einsatzgruppen member did the identification thing and told me I had to come with them on a 302 Emergency Commitment Order.
That is when I knew the whole thing was Baloney Sandwich. A 302 is a court order that allows a person who is a physical threat to themselves or others, or cannot take care of themselves to be committed to a mental institution against their will. They are difficult to obtain for the obvious reason that it is a power that could be abused (eh-hem). Normally, a social worker, someone from CRISIS, or a therapist/psychiatrist would initiate or weigh in on this. My therapist was not contacted. Often they are requested by family. And you cannot break into someone’s residence for a 302 unless there is an emergent situation, such as screaming or fighting. We were watching Trek. Mox nix, right?
I had been 302’d once before. I attempted suicide by taking a ton of NyQuil and Benadryl. My Mom and sister found me and took me to the hospital. I came around. I was still free. Not in restraints. But I was so angry, I hissed “I wish you let me die!” at my Mom. My Mom was a social worker, who worked with probation or parolees with mental health, drug/alcohol, or developmental disabilities. All minor offenders, but she knew the system.
Mom looked at the ER doctor and nodded, and then I was restrained. The place I went was more One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest than Girl, Interrupted. But basically, you have 3-5 days to be seen by a doctor and case worker, and have a meeting to judge whether you are still a threat or not. If you are calm, do what they say, and stick to yourself, it is not hard to get out of. You have to be very badly off to be committed in the long term.
So I knew how it worked as well. I knew the mental health system in general. I had been in it since about 19. My female neighbor wrote up something that basically said I had mental health issues and broke things on her lawn. (Because she called our house “the tenants’ house,” remember?)
It was delivered by Officer Einsatzgruppen to a Crisis worker, with access to all of my health records including my current treatment, whom I had never seen before or spoken with, and was a prison secretary to sign. And then the head of the County’s mental health board signed it without seeing or speaking to me either. (I see you Angie Krepps Alvarez! Sharon Harlacher! mwah!😘)
After hemming and hawing for an hour, and mentioning my neighbors on the darned Ring cam in plain sight (shrewd!). Then they broke down our door. Stan had already called 911 because he didn’t think they were real police either. They cuffed Stan, cuffed me, almost let our dog and cat out, and took me to a cruiser. Or some kind of car, it was dark. And I just resolved to stay calm. Losing my temper, being cranky, anything could have led to my actually being committed or jailed.
It is one of the odd consequences of PTSD that in the worst moments I don’t feel much. It seems like I am not me. I am somewhere floating above, or buried deep inside, or watching a movie of a life. So it was with this. I began to go down a thought hole of what may have happened to Stan. I pulled hard out of that downward trajectory. I could not think of anything else but breathing and remaining calm.
The doctors were confused from the beginning as to why I was there. They asked about my neighbors, and I said we had an ongoing dispute but I had no idea why I was in the hospital. And neither did the doctors. They couldn’t even find the legal order to commit me. From the hospital where the thing was written. Why they did not ask for it when I arrived is a question. But by 6am I was in the jeep back home with Stan, who they uncuffed and left to call every hospital looking for me.
We were home as the sun came up, we had a beer and went to bed. When we woke up it had sunk in. The extent of the violation. The broken door. The fact that four cops could be spared to take me to the hospital on a vendetta. But that night our neighbors effectively said, “We can touch you anywhere.” The same chill, creepy, skeevy feeling crept over me as other times with them.
We realized we were not safe in our own house. We couldn’t even call the police. So we packed a few important things, got our dog and cat, and drove to my Great Grandma’s house where family still lived, across the bridge in Lancaster County.
I took a selfie that next day.
The male neighbor changed his plea to guilty (freedom is wasted on him), so I couldn’t give this information as testimony that next Monday. He was fined $50.
So, yeah, that is my story of how far my neighbors and my community went in their hatred of I do not know what. Stan and I spent the next month and half packing and cleaning for dear life. He started looking for new jobs far away. We looked at a couple of states before we decided. But he had to empty his retirement fund to finance this move, start a new job, find a new house, and sell the old.
The funny thing this whole time is that the male neighbor used to sit up by his garage (the better to see me from) and listen to John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” I love that song! Who doesn’t like John Denver? He hung out with muppets!
The irony is that I AM from the country. My sister and I mainly grew up on two different farms in New Jersey. We had lots of acres, and would ramble about with our big white Lab, playing pretend. I collected the eggs. My sister tossed in scratch. We had turkeys. At one point we had a goat. I am a country girl, who spent a chunk of time in cities and abroad, but I am still as outdoorsy as ever.
They hated a phantom of their own imaginings. An idea of me. Not me as I am. And they would have gotten around to hating us for something if their Rottweiler had not have killed my duck.
They took nearly everything I loved: my chicken ladies, my ducks, my gardening, my peace, and they reached right in that house and tried to take my freedom.
So, we left that house at 6pm on New Year’s Eve to the booming of fireworks. Hours later, we checked into this hotel. And here I have been. But it will not be for much longer. I have had some time to process, through these blogs partly.
The harassment continued until we left, with gems like this:
But here is the actual tragedy. While those four cops were busy sending me to the hospital, a bare week later they let a mother of two’s Emergency Protected from Abuse order wait 24 hrs before acting on it. And that night her ex-husband (and ex-cop) kidnapped those little girls. He eventually shot them and himself in a ditch on the side of the road. And that mother has not received any response or justice that I know of since. They had officers enough for me, but not to enough to save that woman’s babies.
I had that sign down after some phone calls. My life has sucked for so long. But things are happening. Soonish. I should have the tools by now to heal and reframe the stories I tell myself, question the words and names used to describe me, maybe that is why I made it out. That same mechanism that kicked in when I was being cuffed and taken to the hospital. Or maybe I am finally letting it sink in that it was them not us. Not me.
Have you ever gotten a pimple that you’ve named after a person or stress? “Oh that? Why that’s ‘Newman.'” (Jerry Seinfeld sneers.)
Well, I have terrible news! There is a way to name, recognize, and work through how your body expresses your emotions. But part of it is called “exercise.”
Let’s rename this. We’ll call it “body awareness.” Does that feel better? Cool.
The abused or traumatized are more likely to live a shorter life. Drugs and alcohol, risky sex and activities, abusive relationships, and severe physical aliments such as heart disease or high blood pressure, are generally what the future looks like for those who don’t get help.
A few years back, a therapist first asked me where I feel my psychic pain in my body. And I knew just what she meant. It’s somewhere between my heart and stomach, about where the rib cage begins. I had never really thought much about it, but she knew to ask about it. Now, in my Trauma Therapy, my therapist has turned me back to focus on that place.
In the meantime, I had gotten back into yoga around the time of the Pandemic and lock downs. And I realized there was a whole bundle of issues hidden within me. Making me — keeping me — feeling utterly powerless and miserable. Which is a sure recipe to whip up a brew of depression and rage.
My new therapist was happy to learn I practiced Body Scans and yoga, and we incorporated a softening body meditation to our sessions. Either at the end of our session or the beginning. And I began to really get a sense of where I was holding myself tightly, or was stiff, even how I was sitting. I am beginning to become familiar with how my feelings are expressing themselves in my body.
And, as my yoga practice deepens, I’m growing to know my body better. What each little knot, weakness, and buldge hold. It’s also taught me I can be strong, flexible, and feel better in my own skin. And it makes me happy, proud of myself, and feel more in control. A sure-fire method to improve my mood and work through anger.
While every other medical tradition from the Romans’ “healthy mind in healthy body” to India’s Ayurvedic medicine recognizes the link between mental and physical health. We in the West see this as an epiphany. At least I did. As do the tons of wellness articles I keep stumbling upon.
But is it really surprising that you’ll feel better mentally if you feel better physically? Or vice versa?
As for me, my therapist helped me see that feeling in my stomach and name it Shame. A shame so crippling that my posture was slouched, my limbs were weak. My ass got, um, assier every moment I sat locked in frozen fear of doing anything because I was sure it would be wrong. So getting my back and core stronger, and opening my chest and shoulders more has become foundational. And I do see and feel the difference in my posture. I’ve both worked on and learned more, but I’ll leave that for another post.
I am beginning, every so gently, to learn to open up in that space where I feel the Shame that cripples me. That locks me in place. That makes me feel stuck, powerless, and pathetic. And that drives my anger. It takes patient, loving practice to soften the pain parts and strengthen the healthy me parts. To learn how to let go of the fear that holds me bound. To trust in myself enough to make a choice to do a thing, and then do it, even for a half an hour yoga session. It gave me some confidence.
I’m not prescribing yoga in particular. Any type of movement makes you aware of your body. Strengthens, unknits, and loosens. I do recommend Body Scans, though. You simply breathe as you notice each part of your body, and what you feel there. This is enough to help let go. And a useful tool for stressful moments.
There are tons of Body Scan meditations on Spotify and YouTube. I recommend trying a few. This guy’s voice sounds like Alan Rickman, and somehow that’s incredibly soothing. But find the one you like. Quiet your mind. Listen to your body. It holds your story, and your future. Hopefully a future without Newman!
*Author’s note: Yoga, exercise, and meditation won’t prevent tumors, or heal them. Maybe figurative ones. But, you know, balance. A little Western Medicine and some ancient wisdom.😉