Berkeley Traumatic Stress Disorder

You’ve no doubt heard of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. People may suffer from PTSD after an assault or from living in a war zone. In Berkeley, we have our own version of PTSD: I call it Berkeley Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Most people know that PTSD exists. If a loved one returns from the military or leaves an abusive partner, we understand that they may suffer from the legacy of trauma. But in Berkeley, BTSD is a hidden disease — though the signs of it are everywhere.

BTSD isn’t a new disorder; it has existed since the 60s. Then the radical groups, such as the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, and the Symbionese Liberation Army (kidnappers and rapists of then Berkeley resident, Patty Hearst) unleashed a reign of terror all around the area.

I wasn’t here then, thank God. But apparently, there were bombings and frequent evacuation of buildings and death threats. The National Guard was called in, and curfews were enforced.

BTSD circa 2015 may actually be worse than in olden times. (1) For one, the Guard isn’t being brought in. Consequently, our local, overworked police have to deal with the unpredictable riots, while being cursed and screamed at and victimized themselves with thrown bottles and worse. Further, the only ones on curfew are law-abiding citizens, firmly ensconced behind locked doors in the evening and sometimes during the day.

And with current day BTSD, there is widespread, isolating denial. I imagine back in the 60s, having the National Guard on the corner reminded the residents that it wasn’t business as usual.

But it’s a rare person here who will admit that we live in a madhouse, a war zone, a region that defies normalcy or common sense. People are just oblivious, like those Seattle folks jogging, playing tennis, and hiking in the frigid, pouring rain. In Seattle, the oblivious hikers just get drenched. Here we get preyed upon.

I spoke to a friend the other day who has a serious case of BTSD, although she never would admit it. The poor woman has to take buses to get around, an often harrowing experience. She sits on the bus with headphones on, trying to block out the bloody fights and explosive rage that take place on a regular basis.

Not surprisingly, the woman has nightmares, feels deadened, and spaces out much of the time. She concedes that even after decades in other cities, the East Bay is the most violent and aggressive place she’s ever lived. But she tries to put on a happy face when reciting the perennial Berkeley mantra: “But we’re so lucky to live here!!! It’s beautiful, and the weather is great!”

And then there was the acquaintance I caught up with the other day, who told me that her highly coveted North Berkeley house has been broken into yet again. This is the third time in a year, not counting her car break-in. And yet if she tried to sell her house tomorrow, there’d be a bidding war for it, with offers well over a million dollars, even if the frequent burglaries were disclosed. When I asked my acquaintance whether she’d consider moving, she protested, “But I love living around here!”

Another sign of a traumatized population: the insane road rage, as agitated drivers speed like their lives depended on it (maybe their lives do depend upon it). I was tailgated by a bus yesterday, and the day before that, by a mad mail truck. . . not to mention the average, incensed driver.

Tragically, BTSD takes its tolls on everyone, man, woman, young and old. You can see it in the hardened faces and averted eyes and the hair trigger tempers because everything is always so hard and futile (parking spaces; decent, affordable housing; jobs). Life can feel like one arduous, frustrating, uphill climb, a fight for survival that can break one’s spirit.

Having no personal power decimates courage, and kindness, and hope; it erodes everything that makes a human being, human. Powerlessness is discouraging in the true sense of the word; it decimates courage.

Maybe saddest of all is the abject loneliness around here, the distrust, the every-man-for-himself mentality. Yet, we humans are social creatures; we need to connect, even on a random social level. Without this, the alienation around Berkeley feels as thick as the hot, stagnant air.

As for me, I fight against BTSD every day, trying to ward off that life-crushing alienation and hard heartedness. Some days I do better than others.

I often wonder: is it possible to reside around here and not lose parts of one’s humanity, one’s soul? I do my best; I ask God for help with this on a regular basis.

Because there is no way to fight PTSD, or BTSD, or any other human malady, all on our own. And from all the sad and embittered countenances around here, it’s no coincidence that Berkeley is a community that has rejected the Almighty God like nowhere else.


(1) From where I sit, life in Berkeley, Oakland, SF, et al. has gotten much much worse since the election of 2008. More people are hunkering down and shutting down. And since the elections, and the covert and subliminal messages since that time, the racial tension is as high and as threatening as I’ve ever experienced before.

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