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Life, Death, and PTSD in Oakland

How violence and poverty are traumatizing the city's youth.



Javier Arango can still feel the bullet lodged against his spine. It paralyzed him instantly and is a reminder of the war he's managed to survive. But this battle wasn't waged in Kandahar or Fallujah. Arango, 24, lived in East Oakland, right in the heart of the urban warfare practiced by gangbangers, drug dealers, pimps, and those who get caught in the middle.

Dressed in an oversize black T-shirt and jeans, with his black hair pulled back in a ponytail and a crucifix dangling around his neck, Arango tells the story of how the bullet ended up in his back. He was seventeen, only four years into a life in the United States. He had emigrated with his parents from Medellín, Colombia, where the cocaine trade was bloody and brutal. "I thought when I moved over here it was going to be better," he said. But it wasn't.

The night of the shooting, Arango sat in a parked car with friends on 92nd Avenue. He had danced at his high school prom hours before, gone to a club afterward with his friends, and was ending the evening when it happened. "We just got blasted," Arango recalled, describing how several men fired at him and his friends. To this day, he's not certain why. "At that time, I didn't feel like I needed to walk around with a gun," he said. "Shoot, I was just going to a prom."

The only bullet that struck Arango put him in a wheelchair. And that's really when he became a soldier in the war. He decided he wasn't going to let someone shoot at him again, so he bought guns for himself and his friends. His girlfriend knew a guy in the Army, and Arango got a hand-me-down bulletproof jacket that he wore everywhere.

"I didn't have the chance to move to the suburbs or live somewhere else," he said. "No, I had to live in a rough area in a wheelchair." He said he joined the Border Brothers gang for protection and became a leader. Arango always carried a weapon or wore the bulletproof vest and traveled with a coterie of young men hauling plenty of firepower.

The first time Arango heard the term post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, it was on a television show a few years ago. He learned that it had something to do with soldiers and the wars they fought. These men came home, but their minds were still in the battle. Arango could relate to this.

He startled at the sound of sirens, or gunfire, or someone screaming for help. The daily shootings in his neighborhood were breath-holding moments. A pop-pop-pop followed by silence could be anything. But if a boom-boom-boom-boom broke the quiet, Arango knew someone was answering back, fighting for his life.

So he said he listened to a lot of music to block out the terror. And when it still followed him, he drank alcohol or snorted cocaine to blot out the present. The month of December was the worst because it marked, within the span of a week or so, the anniversary of his shooting and the shooting deaths of three close friends. At dusk Arango would roll out to the street in his wheelchair, with a pistol in his pocket and, to last longer in the cold, a baggie of cocaine. He sat for hours in the darkness.

Inside his house, he imagined how his enemies might kick in the door. He played out the firefight in his mind over and over again. Holding a gun soothed his nerves. They're never going to take me, he thought.

Eventually, at the age of 22, Arango decided to quit gangbanging and sought help doing so from Catholic Charities of the East Bay. He learned from a counselor there that he was more like the soldier on TV than he realized: He had PTSD. Except the counselor didn't call it that at first. Instead, being easily startled, emotionally numb, and always edgy were just signs of the trauma Arango endured. Over time, he understood that these signs were symptoms of a medical condition, just like a fever accompanied the flu. And eventually he would recover, but it would be a long road.

"There is basically a war going on in Oakland," he said. "It's not that you leave the war. You always live inside the war. You're not going back home."

In Oakland, youth like Arango haven't been told that the experiences they've come to consider normal — deaths of friends and family, abuse and neglect at the hands of caretakers, cupboards that are always bare, random acts of violence — are so traumatizing that they could lead to depression, anxiety, or even PTSD. These conditions can shackle a child, dragging him down as he tries to forge bonds with others, stay engaged in school, and dream of the future.

Unless a parent, teacher, counselor, or doctor is trained to spot symptoms of trauma and knows a psychologist or social worker who can intervene, few of these children will receive the treatment necessary to heal. But there is a growing awareness that PTSD is born and bred in our own neighborhoods, and there is a movement in Oakland, as well as nationally, to relieve the burden these children carry.

"We have to put a stop to the war here, and really take a look at how we are going to help our kids," said Cindy Hill-Ford, director of mental health services for Catholic Charities of the East Bay. "How are we going to help our veterans?"