Our neighbor is driving us nuts

I think she has mental problems. But is that my concern? I just want some peace!

Published January 25, 2011 1:30AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

My direct next-door neighbor is a boorish older woman in her early 70s who lives alone. She is having some problems with multiple invisible ailments including arthritis and depression. She's very lonely and has allowed her home to become a trash heap of papers and disorder. This can be seen from her open kitchen window right next to the entrance of our condo, unavoidable as you approach our front door. It feels pretty scummy living next to someone like this. I have literally caught roaches crawling in the door from her window and even some of my guests have remarked that for a second they thought that the view from the open-shaded window was part of my home -- and were horrified.

But that's not the half of it. Off and on over the last year, myself and my neighbors have been subjected to her screaming a litany of obscenities at all hours of the day. We share the wall that separates our small condo apartments and the walls are thin enough to make out loud conversations in their entirety. Not that it would matter because she literally will stand near her open window and scream herself silly with little regard for the rest of us. You would think that she was schizophrenic the way she goes on, but she is not.

In my own experience growing up in a codependent home with a disabled/drug addicted mom, I can identify with her personal crisis. It is hard to have disabilities and be in pain. With that kind of suffering it is easy to take a negative road and allow your home to fall to ruin, which is what happened with my mom. I have tried being kind to her, offering my listening ear to her long diatribes of victimhood and suffering, but it has gotten me nowhere and she pushes for even more attention. This is very draining and crosses my personal boundaries. For example, one day she called and left multiple messages asking for a ride to the hospital to get a cortisone injection. When I was unavailable to come to her aid, rather than getting a cab to get the needed medical attention, she stayed home calling other neighbors and never tended to herself. That very night I was awakened at 4 a.m. to her blood-curdling screaming and debated calling 911 or the police. She knows we share a bedroom wall and my own prior experience with codependents suggested that she was punishing me for ignoring her requests. Obviously, I am no longer giving her the benefit of the doubt.

Cary, I am exhausted of this. I know this lady is just a bit crazy but I feel personally triggered by this situation because I have spent years struggling to heal from the abuse of my childhood. I deserve to live in a peaceful home that is devoid of Scary Neighbor's constant shrieking. As much as I know that this is her way of getting attention and what she calls blowing off steam, I feel violated every time I am caught off guard and my heart rate momentarily elevates from the shock. I did have the briefest of conversations with her about it several months ago. That resulted in a couple of weeks of silence before she was back at it, even defending her right to her caterwauling -- so she knows she is being disruptive to myself and my partner, at the very least.

If I complain to the homeowners association board here (of which she is a member), she will know who made the complaint and things might become all the more uncomfortable. I trust to some extent that she has the strength to endure some kind of wakeup call, but I would feel responsible if it triggered her to endanger herself if some way -- depending on how much she is committed to playing the victim/attention-seeker role. I would no doubt feel profound guilt if she became suicidal, as I know a lot of this is born of her loneliness and depression (my own codependent childhood experience at play again). At the same time, I wish to have no more involvement with her and for the freak-outs to cease. My inner warrior-woman says I should just break down and call the cops next time it happens, for the good of all. Or more passively print a copy of HOA rules regarding noise disturbances and secretly plant it on her welcome mat. Or face her and tell her directly to stop with a harder tone of voice and suffer whatever consequences there may be to that. I am running low on humor at this point.

So what is to be done?

The Exorcist

Dear Exorcist,

This person may well need professional help. But you are just her neighbor. You are free to respond as a normal neighbor would, with appropriate outrage, and you have the power of organized society and its norms on your side. You don't have to have the perfect response.

As you say, you deserve to live in a place free of a shrieking madwoman.

Despite your efforts to stay balanced, you're still a bit paralyzed, looking for the exact right response. So let's try to break the paralysis. Rather than ask what is the best thing to do, let's ask: What do you want to do?

That is, let's strive for the authentic as opposed to the perfect.

What do you feel like doing? Do you feel like calling the cops? Then call the cops. Have a conversation with the cops. Maybe they'll come out and maybe they won't. But at least you're taking the action that feels right to you. If you feel like telling her that she's crossing the line and she has to clean up her act, then do that. If you want to call mental health services, please do. But it's up to you.

You have the right to respond in the way that feels right to you, knowing that no matter what you do, you don't have complete control of the results. Any action you take can have unintended consequences.

Your childhood history makes this more complicated than it might be for others. But I think you need to act. In fact, the more I think about it, here is a chance to confront your past and work through the very thorny questions that your particular past has left you with: To what degree do you respond to others with empathy, and to what degree do you protect yourself?

If you yell at her and then she tries to kill herself, is that your fault? These are serious questions. But they won't be rendered moot by inaction. Who knows what is influencing the course of her mental disturbance?

She is troubled. And her behavior is going to bring trouble down on her head because it's offensive. Whether the trouble comes from you or somewhere else, trouble is going to come to her.

So all you can do is react authentically. The minute you try to predict her possible reactions, you're getting into dangerous territory. You're trying to predict the future. And, to some extent, you are trying to protect your tormentor from your own attempts to protect yourself from her. That's the convoluted and impossible territory of codependence.

So what I'm trying to do is awaken your own very normal and just instincts for self-preservation. I mean, let's get primitive. What do you really want to do? How does her behavior make you feel?

Not that you should act on it, but ... it can be freeing to admit that what you really want to do is throw her over the railing.

Not that you would do that. But it's something you might feel.

It's helpful to get at the root feelings. Then the situation becomes more human.

So I'll say it again: You don't have to respond perfectly. You only have to respond authentically. Here's your chance to just be a human being, flawed like the rest of us and sick of being annoyed by a crazy neighbor.

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By Cary Tennis

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