I didn’t want to go back to Omega Institute this year. Each time I travelled to this land of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, I’d get high from the holistic experience. But then I’d change into an Ichabod Crane feeling chased by the Headless Horseman who’d tell true life stories that caused so much pain I couldn’t hold it inside. Two years ago, I picked up a chair and slammed it to the floor after being unable to console an Iraqi veteran – a colonel close to my age –who spoke of losing the one and only love of his life. He was willing to convert and become a Muslim until his wonderful Iraqi translater fiance was killed by the very own people we had been sent to win over for democracy. I wanted to cry out, to sob, but instead, rage in me poured out.
Last year, I stormed out of a small group session when a similar situation grew. I couldn’t experience these group sessions where you’re required to listen deeply but offer no compassion or understanding to someone who has just opened their veins to you. I wanted – I needed – to respond in some way to show that I felt their pain, their suffering. I wanted to take on that pain and suffering, even for just a little while to help reduce it.
And so, I discarded the letter from Omega advising me of the “Real Cost of War” With Claude “Anshin” Thomas, the Vietnam veteran helicopter machine-gunner who later became a Zen Buddhist monk to help others like him with post traumatic stress. I know I caused a ruckus when I lost control and took it out on the metal chair. I don’t know why I did it. I hardly ever slam or break things when a “PTS” episode erupts. Despite my efforts to meditate and develop loving kindness and compassion, I now know I have this thread of PTS that has gotten all jumbled up with other parts that make up the whole of me. You can’t remove it without unraveling everything else. I will have it until the day I die. I want to recognize it and keep it in check, and more importantly, to be able to forgive myself for the crazy things I do when the rage arises unchecked inside of me.
Like the time I went shopping at a Pets Mart. While driving in a lot, I noticed that someone in a shiny new white van had taken up two parking spots. “Damn it,” I said, slowly passing the vehicle, looking for another place to park. I stopped immediately on seeing the driver of the van get out of the vehicle and walk toward the store.
“Excuse me” I called out to him. “You took up two spaces there,” I tried to point out the mistake he must have surely overlooked making. He looked in my direction and said something, but continued to walk to the door entrance. “Yo, man, you’re taking up two spaces,” I said, voice rising along with a feeling of a manifest injustice growing. He never looked back, but went in the store. “Hey you,” I shouted by this time, letting venom spew out with a choice follow-up: “You mother f-er.” I gunned the car engine and quickly pulled into an open parking spot further away.
Rushing into the store I tried to find him. All of the men began to look alike and after stopping two fellows who had no idea about some white van parking violation I had quizzed them on, I got my supplies and went to the cashier.
I started to calm down and come to my senses, but ended up telling the cashier about the double parking space scoundrel. It was the worst thing I could have done. She understood my feelings all right, but then told me how much she hated persons without handicap plates parking in a handicap spot, like the one she needed to use at her apartment complex. “I’d call the police, but they wouldn’t show up for the longest time and the guy would be gone by then.” She said. Leaning forward and speaking in a conspiratorial tone, she confided that one time she got so mad she “keyed” a car illegally parked in a handicap spot. “What do you mean by “keying?” I asked. She motioned with her hand as if holding a key between her fingers while sliding the metal device all across the side of the car.
I got shocked hearing this from such a peaceful looking grandmother-type. God, talk about violence, I thought. At that precise moment – just as she was ringing up my order, but before I could pay for it – I saw the white van driver exiting the store. “Hey man” I yelled, telling the cashier that I’d be right back. I rushed toward the guy, trying to get his attention. He wouldn’t look back as I made it to the door and saw him getting into his vehicle.
I screamed louder and went toward the van as he started the engine and began to back up. “M-fers” got mixed in with some “C-suckers” (think rooster strutting here!) as I pushed the envelope of what should have pissed off any reasonable person, and make them stop. He didn’t. So I did what any other Vietnam veteran with PTS would have done – I kicked the door of his new shiny white van.
That did the trick. He halted, opened the door, and stood in the street, looking down from his 6-foot, 3 inch-frame to my 5’6’’ height on my tallest days.
He got in my face, but I didn’t back away. At least one fellow – a bystander who saw the incident – tried to break up what had the makings of a real street brawl.
“Why did you take up two spots?” I yelled up at him, still trying to take the moral high ground in a world my PTS tells me is often lacking such moral justice. When he didn’t answer, I yelled again, and then threw in the worst epitaph any man living would hate to be called upon his death: “You f-in pussy,” I said.
Now those are fighting words where I come from, and I don’t know why I said them. Furthermore, I couldn’t figure out why he chose the words he did to try to insult me back by calling me a ”fat f’er,” but with out the “er” sound. ”You Fat Fu etc, etc . . . ” was what he actually said.
Again I shouted the “f” and “p” words at him. I didn’t care what he might do, because I felt like an avenging angel riding a wave of righteous indignation. I also knew that I could get him for assault if he laid a finger on me, despite any damage my foot might have caused when I kicked the van. I practiced criminal law for 20 years before PTS finally interrupted my peaceful and loving relationship as a public defender with some of Philly’s worst criminals. I knew from personal knowledge that causing property damage gives no one the right to physically assault another, particularly when the person had ”crossed the line” so to speak of societal parking etiquette and rules. He had to learn people weren’t going to take this anymore – particularly people like us crazed Vietnam vet types who get fueled by a weird sense of moral outrage at something as minor as a parking incident. (Come to think of it, most, if not all, of my PTS episodes involve simple things where I end up making mountains out of mole hills. I go from “zero to 60” in the flash of a millisecond. It was great to use such technique in combat, but could be deadly used at home.) Luckily, this incident broke up before escalating any further.
I have no idea what lesson I was supposed to learn or what action I was supposed to take from this moment of Karma-arising. Worse yet, I had no one I could talk to who might understand the craziness I deal with week to week. I never know when something might trigger an explosion. Why do I even let myself out to mingle with reasonable people, I thought, when I should be locked up for my safety and the good of others? I’m afraid for myself and more so for others. At times, I feel completely lost.
That’s when I began to re-think the Omega Institute experience, and I remembered how good I felt being around people like myself, that is, veterans who weren’t ashamed – or afraid anymore — of talking about PTS. I included among them the family members of vets who suffer not only from the vet’s actions, but also from what medical folks call secondary PTS.
The yearning to see them again – to hear their stories and to tell them of my homeland battles – kicked in, and I recovered the Omega letter, contacted the Institute, and lucked out with a scholarship. I figured I’d use something called “noble speech” to get around the “maintain-silence-at-all-costs” rule and discuss mutual problems while gaining some insights there.
Everything seemed to be going well until Thursday morning when I saw the black-robed, bald-headed, monk walk in the crowded hall of the Lake Theatre of Omega. (See Omega.org for more.) I went to greet him, seeing him for the first time with a cane, and I jokingly asked if I should provide him with a full prostration at his feet like I did on a previous occasion, and he said “Just don’t go slamming any more chairs to the floor.”
Despite the words, I felt lots of love and compassion as he smiled, and I knew no chair would come between me and this helicopter crew chief guru, Claude Anshin Thomas.
I felt I was at home again. I felt I was where I belonged, PTS or no PTSD.