A strangely vulnerable place

What does the shadow know?

I recently was pointed to an excellent blog post by someone who writes about disability. Her post No, You Are Not Adam Lanza’s Mother and Yes, Your Kid’s Privacy Matters really struck a nerve with me. She basically took to task the author of a blog post that went viral, recounting personal struggles with a challenged kid and what she felt she was forced to do. She seemed to truly believe that her kid might one day turn into a shooter like the one who massacred all those little kids and teachers in the Newtown, CT elementary school.

When I read the words of that mother who blogged about her troubled son and publicly “outed” him in ways that can — and will — follow him the rest of his life, frankly it was eerie. And like the author of No, You Are Not Adam Lanza’s Mother, it really bothered me, hearing a mother tell the world about her usually brilliant, sometimes violent son. To all appearances she was calling out for help. I got that. But I also had to wonder – what about her son? And not only now, but what about later?

Certainly, it must be horribly, terribly difficult for any parent to struggle so much with a kid like that. I feel a great deal of compassion for her. At the same time, I also cannot help but think of my own mother, who spent much of my childhood reaching out for support and help from her friends, by telling them what a difficult time she was having with me and one of my other siblings, who was also a “problem child”. I can remember quite vividly the winter vacation we took with the family next door, when I was 12 or so, and I overheard my mother complaining with great anguish about me and my anger. She could not understand why I was so bitter, so angry, so uncontrolled. I’ll never forget the tone of her voice, the disgust, the helplessness, the blame — as though my anger, regardless of the cause, was an insult to her.

I was making her look bad.

After all, my other siblings were so good — except, of course, for the other problem child who ended up addicted to heavy duty drugs, dropped out of high school in 9th grade, and was in and out of trouble with the cops for years. If only we could all be like the other three who were such good kids, such diligent students, so responsible for their age. If it weren’t for the two of us, everything would have been just right — no criticisms from grandparents, no condemning stares from strangers, no tsk-tsk-tsk from the “church family”. Just a nice all-American family growing up together in a happy little unit.

But of course, there was me… the kid who’d gotten hit in the head a bunch of times (not that anyone put two and two together and understand that was why I was so angry, so quick to act out, so impulsive, so unable to keep focused on anything for long). I was a problem. An embarrassment. A puzzle that could never be solved. I was the wedge between my family and perfection, the barrier between my mother and her happiness. My dad spent a lot of time traveling for his work, when I was a teenager, so he got out of dealing with us, most of the time. So, mom was left to deal with me and The Other One. We were her cross to bear. Especially me — at that point in time — age 12-13, when I seemed irreversibly at odds with everything in the world, including myself, and nothing could calm or soothe me except solitude and the company of my own imagination.

And I wonder about that kid who got basted in that blog post. I wonder how he must feel — how he’s going to feel. The sound of my mother’s dismissing, disparaging, judging, disgusted voice in that cabin in the woods, some 35 years ago, stays with me to this day, and it did a number on my head for years after I first overheard it. I cannot even imagine how that kid must feel, having his issues broadcast all over the world wide web, for all to see and read and think they know about.

Truly, it must suck.

What also sucks, is imagining what it means for the kid long-term. He’s been committed, and his mother has publicly said he’s a threat. What are the chances now, do you think, of him ever being admitted to a public school, or for that matter a college? What school would want him? What college — especially considering the episodes at Virginia Tech — will welcome him with open arms, with a record he’s already started at 13? It probably makes no difference if they sort out his meds. It probably makes no difference if his chemistry rights itself with his advancing years. And it certainly makes no difference, if he learns coping mechanisms and behavioral strategies that help him keep centered and grounded in the midst of any storm.

The damage is done. His face and his name are out in the open for all to see. He’s well and truly screwed.

But hey, at least his mom feels better, right?

What a strange feeling this is. I can only be thankful that my mother had no access to the blogosphere when I was a kid. If she had, she would have been all over it, broadcasting her woes and my ills to the world on every forum and blog and social media outlet she could get to. She did that sort of thing — old-school — as much as she could, with both me and my other problem sibling, with whomever she could, so long as they were willing to listen.

To this day, she hasn’t let go of the pain and humiliation and hurt which my ex-addict sibling brought to her and her otherwise perfect family. She continues to punish them with judgments and criticism and public humiliation, even decades after they had their last high. And she continues to treat me like I’m somehow deficient — to this day she still jumps a little whenever I make a sudden move, as though I’m still as unpredictable and volatile as I was when I was younger. It makes no difference that both of us kids have paid our dues and gotten our lives in order. It makes no difference that we are different. For her, we are just the same.

She remembers. She remembers what we did to her and her chance at perfection. And we will never live it down.

That recollection of what it’s like to have your mother broadcast your illness for her own sake… it’s only half the actual struggle with all this I’m having right now. The other half is with privacy, and the freedom to be anonymously imperfect in this increasingly invasive world. There’s a reason I don’t tell people who I am and where I live. There’s a reason that no one I know is aware that I keep this blog going. Because people just don’t get it. Unless you’ve been in this kind of situation, where your brain and your body and much of your life are all seemingly pitted against your will and best intentions, you cannot know how it is. But you can sure as hell judge. You can sure as hell condemn. And you can sure as hell make certain that your views are known — whether it be on Twitter, Facebook, blog comments, or some other online social medium. There’s just too much talk and not enough knowledge, too much criticism and not enough compassion.

And that is a battle I choose not to take on. Because it’s a losing one. A long and losing one, at that.

Now, being curious to see if there was any kind of response/backlash against the blogger who took issue with Pseudo-Adam Lanza’s mother, I checked back today. Sure enough, she got a ton of comments, apparently a lot of them were not that great. She followed up with a great post: Debriefing: On the Ethics and Implications of Outing a Child in the Media and she touched on many of the things I was thinking, myself. I hope you’ll read her piece – she says it all quite well.

In the end, like many people after the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre, I’m feeling quite raw and vulnerable, these days. But even moreso, as someone with a history of cognitive issues and anger issues and attentional issues that could easily be amplified and skewed by the scapegoating mob who are seeking to root out “bad influences” and “threats” from polite society. Behind every rock, there seems to lurk a demon. People are looking high and low, and you generally find what you look for. It’s truly bizarre, to feel that after so many years of working so hard to gain some semblance of normalcy, I should experience this sense of intense vulnerability — not as a victim, but as someone who might be targeted by the status quo, because of my past. Especially my childhood.

And it makes me reluctant to actually speak my mind and talk about what’s really going on “ïn here”. Someone might take it the wrong way, after all. And then what?

I know I’m indulging in some pretty far-ranging what-if’s… and yet…

Are people with mental illness going to be targeted by an uninformed and aching public? It’s quite possible.

Are people who have different cognitive capacities going to be singled out and marginalized by a world seeking desperately for ways to return to normalcy — a normalcy which never actually existed and we frankly will never “get back”? It wouldn’t surprise me if that happened.

Are people with known anger issues, who struggle with impulse control, who honestly and sincerely work towards keeping to stable ground and staying centered in the midst of chaos going to be seen as potential threats to those around them? I wouldn’t doubt it.

In the extremes, of course we have to be careful. We have to be wise and prudent and use our heads and not let the batshit crazy people loose their rage on the rest of us with tools of mass destruction. But there’s a whole lot of different kinds of crazy swirling around in many, many guises, and I for one wouldn’t care to be labelled by the maddening crowd and possibly targeted by those who “mean well” and are trying to protect their loved ones from threats they imagine are there.

Nor would I want my ills to be dragged out into the light of day without my consent or say-so, and marked as “a future Adam Lanza” — just because my mother needed to feel that she wasn’t quite so alone.

Author: brokenbrilliant

I am a long-term multiple (mild) Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI or TBI) survivor who experienced assaults, falls, car accidents, sports-related injuries in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. My last mild TBI was in 2004, but it was definitely the worst of the lot. I never received medical treatment for my injuries, some of which were sports injuries (and you have to get back in the game!), but I have been living very successfully with cognitive/behavioral (social, emotional, functional) symptoms and complications since I was a young kid. I’ve done it so well, in fact, that virtually nobody knows that I sustained those injuries… and the folks who do know, haven’t fully realized just how it’s impacted my life. It has impacted my life, however. In serious and debilitating ways. I’m coming out from behind the shields I’ve put up, in hopes of successfully addressing my own (invisible) challenges and helping others to see that sustaining a TBI is not the end of the world, and they can, in fact, live happy, fulfilled, productive lives in spite of it all.

15 thoughts on “A strangely vulnerable place”

  1. BB –
    This is a a tricky one. I don’t know the woman who wrote the article but I must say that the sense I got from her piece was not that she didn’t want to ‘be alone’ but rather that she was trying to create an honest and open dialogue about what it meant to parent a child with severe psychological difficulties. This child was not someone who was a ‘problem kid’ or a bit odd, this was a child who was violent, destructive and dangerous. As parents we love to brag but we rarely talk about our children’s issues in an honest way – and consequently we end up with a fantasy of what others people’s children are like. This woman was trying, I felt, to make it okay to talk about the child who was in fact severely ill – and the struggle for a parent in how to deal with it. If the alternative is to say nothing and change nothing than speaking out is the right thing to do.
    I had some mixed feelings about the name/picture thing but truth is could you right now identify that child if you saw him on the street? Most people who knew this kid already knew of his issues or else maybe they judged the family and the kid which certainly wasn’t helping him. This kid was being judged by others for a long time already.
    And I guess that’s my point – the mother isn’t putting judgment into our heads – WE decide to judge. If we read this story and say – wow, we need to address this and not ‘ewww, get me away from that family’ then WE make the difference. But if we don’t hear about it, aren’t forced to look at this then we don’t face it at all.
    His mom doesn’t ‘feel better’ from this – she is trying to explain, to stop others from suffering in shame so that they can join together to do something.
    I am a parent, I am fortunate my child is an amazing person – but I know many people who have had troubled kids – some more so than others. While the parents may not be perfect I don’t think they wanted to just be good guys, it was hard hard hard to have a child who could be disruptive not just to themselves but to others. And if that disruption was violence, potentially life threatening – makes it even harder. How do you address that?
    Our mental health systems – including the ones for TBI – are inadequate. We like to think everyone is perfect and only deviants are outside the box. Slowly – by people speaking out – we have begun to realize that things like depression, PTSI, bipolar disorder, autism, dyslexia, etc exist. And that these are not character issues but neurological processing issues, sometimes combined with emotional factors – but that those individuals USUALLY can be helped and can integrate into society. But the question remains – are there those who cannot be helped? In May the NYTimes magazine posted a long article on children who were extreme in their behavior – violent, destructive, lacking empathy or understanding, yet very intelligent and capable of managing their environment – and they asked, what do you do.

    I think this woman was also asking that question – from her heart.

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  2. thanks! this really needed to be said, and you did it well.
    appreciate your giving voice to what so many of us in the TBI and other marginalized communities are feeling.

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  3. Hey man (sorry I call you that, I forgot your name),

    After reading a lot of your posts, today I understood why you chose “Brilliant Mind” as part of your blog’s name, because you DO have a brilliant mind. Does that take away the pain(s) you and people who have endured similar damages as you (like me), still have today? Maybe the answer is yes and no.
    The No is because I’ve learned myself that sometimes, having lived ’emergency’ situations and life-or-death scenarios for a long time, even heartfelt compliments take a back seat in the face of other priorities. And Yes is because it makes us feel good to know that at least some people ‘get’ us and maybe what we go through and think is not sooo far-fetched that someone else would be unable to grasp it.

    Having said this, I of course agree with and support everything you’ve written, but I would love to throw in my 10 cents.
    After my first (pre-injury) bouts of depression and existential crisis, I developed a critical, sometimes deeply judgmental vision of my parents, feeling they were in large parts responsible for my weaknesses.
    Over many years, 22 to be exact, and even after an out of the blue accident that happened exactly a year ago, which changed/exacerbated a lot of things, I have timidly come up with a forgiving stance towards my parents, especially my mother whom I ADORED as a child and from whom I distanced myself a bit during my 20’s. I remember an episode in 1991, when I was suffering from a deep anxious/depressive state (triggered by the use of LSD, by the way). I had been kind of stagnant and isolated in the house for some time. One day she came to the room I was in, where I often remained alone shutting them out of my world, and was talking to me through the closed door. I got up and opened the door with a look on my face that kind of meant ‘hey, why don’t you open the door yourself and let yourself in, after all I’m your son, not a stranger – plus this is YOUR apartment!’ although I didn’t say those words. She stayed outside the room even after I opened the door and stood only one foot away from her, and she remained hesitant and even physically distant. I remember distinctly her body language showing distance – physical distance in addition to the emotional one – from me. The type of fear-induced type of distance. That safety distance that allows you to run should anything happen. Of course, I had NEVER in a million years even remotely thought of hurting her or anything of the sort, but I came to understand over many years that her defensive strategy is not something I can bitterly blame. I KNEW that I could never hurt her, but did she know? As close as a mother can be, can she read her child’s mind? The answer to this is NO, so her fear is not to be demonized, diminished, or looked at with contempt. The survival mechanism of humans is such that doesn’t involve much reasoning or logic. It’s a gut thing “I love my son to death but let me take a little step back, JUST in case”.
    Of course, what’s different between my story and the woman you described who kept the blog publicly putting her son ‘out there’ is that my mother never did that. She did have her ‘confidante’ in all issues pertaining me and my ‘strange situation’ but her ‘confidante’ was my father, not the Web. And also I don’t recall them having ever hinted at committing me anywhere (I don’t know if they had ever thought of it, but they never said it nor hinted at it in my presence).
    Our parents have been children too. They also were conditioned, in good or bad, by their own parents, by the type of family dynamics that influenced their development. They are also human, as we are. They have their faults, their limits, their (mostly unwilling/unconscious) contribution to someone else’s pain and misfortune.
    The greatest challenge every disturbed kid faces in his/her own life is eventually outing their difficulties in an organized way that makes sense (to others) and reaching out. A great number of disturbed, maladjusted kids have lost ability to reach out and faith that someone will understand what they mean, if they do.
    Luck has a LOT to do with this. I don’t know how to define luck truly, you may call it God’s intervention, you may call it astrological effect of the moving planets, or you may call it anything else, LUCK is a REAL factor. It’s the window of opportunity. It’s that 3 minutes delay before you carry out your deadly plan. It’s that accidental entry in your life of a person who says or does a surprisingly good thing to you and that changes thing.
    So, let me conclude (sorry my comment was longer than your post – LOL – but I needed to elaborate) by summing up and saying that:
    1. The (Western) world we live in MUST find a new respect and tolerance for mental and emotional issues people go through.
    2. The very much demonized parents need to be cut a little slack because their fear and their suffering isn’t any less real or less ‘understandable’ than their own kids who end up commit monstrosities.
    3. Strike a good balance between LUCK and FREE WILL. Parents must become more competent and more aware of their children’s troubles by creating a more acceptable support network around the kid(s), and also keep the hope that some lucky break might come in the form of a breakthrough, in the form of an inspired psychologist or in the form of anyone, known or unknown, who comes forward and makes a suggestion that will turn out to be good.
    4 (and last). Troubled kids should ALWAYS be encouraged to express and verbalize their distress as best as they can. They will probably resist doing that, aware as they are of the fact that the world is just waiting to criticize/demonize/isolate you for your problems, but the adults around them MUST keep trying to get it out of them, whatever ‘IT’ is.

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  4. m –

    I do see your point. And I still have issues with a mother telling the world about her kid. She could have stayed anonymous – the fact that she didn’t is what makes me wonder about motive. Privacy is no joke, and while it is heartening to have people raising consciousness, who pays the price for that?

    We need to be conscious of this.

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  5. BB –

    I think that there is a big difference between a ‘difficult child’ and a child who shows early signs of severe sociopathic behavior – I do not know this womans son nor what she has gong through so I cannot judge. As a parent I know how very very challenging it can be. I also know that parents often do talk to others – just like we use the tools of social media to share our stories and get points of view.

    A kid with TBI is not a sociopath – but coming home to find a child who perhaps physically harmed the family pet and shows no remorse -that is a different story. Not saying that was what happened here – I don’t know – only saying that I can’t judge.

    Using the picture and name might have been a mistake on her part but I think she simply felt desperate. It is agreed more needs to be done for mental health the woman who spoke out against her has talked with her and they are agreeing to unite towards that ends.

    I have known a few folks with major major mental illness and it can be very hard. if it was my kid I think I would be at wits end. I can’t judge folks for this – I don’t think desperation is the same as motive though. We make mistakes, she probably could have done more to keep privacy but…

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  6. here is a comment that kind of covers it..(a response to the piece by a reader)

    .I had a similar reaction – I’m not sure why you’d want to publicize this sort of thing as a mother. I think a semi-fiction piece with personal details more obscured would have been a better route.

    That said, I think the piece contributes to the discussion about what to do with mentally ill children who may be a danger to themselves or others, but who are too young to properly diagnose. If you are interested in the topic, this May NYtimes piece is quite interesting.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/13/magazine/can-you-call-a-9-year-old-a-psychopath.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

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  7. All good thoughts Cataldo. Thanks for weighing in.

    I don’t think there are any easy answers in all of this, but the more we discuss and have more to consider, the better our thinking process becomes. And in the end, I think our thinking process is what we need to hone, rather than coming up with easy “silver bullet” answers that we think will fix everything.

    When I think back on how those years affected me, I realize that the one thing that saved me was that I made a personal connection with one of my teachers at school, who had hit a bunch of “speed bumps” in their life and was clearly having challenges in their life – which they met, in broad daylight for all to see. I think your point about luck is so valid. Who knows how many other potentially deadly experiences we escape, because the would-be killer gets distracted, or their mood passes, or they make some connection with another human being at the 11th hour? I’m not saying that I would have ever become a shooter – I am saying that my life might have taken a real turn for REAL trouble, had I not had some sort of human connection with another real-life human being.

    Which makes me wonder if one of the primary causes for the bloodshed – which just keeps happening – is a lack of connection with others. A lack of communication. A feeling of being so cut off that you cease to care about anyone or anything will not help anything. And let’s not forget the SSRI/psychoactive meds connection – see http://prozacwithdrawal.blogspot.com/2012/07/school-shootings-ssri-nightmares.html for just a taste of all the stories about how bad withdrawal can be — in fact, it’s my understanding that one of the side-effects of certain of these drugs is actually a sense of disconnection from, well, everything — including yourself.

    Anyway, none of it is easy. But sometimes things really hit home. And the more we share and talk about these things with real stories from real lives, rather than what’s written on a label or handed down from licensed professionals, the better chance I think we have of making at least some sense of it all.

    Thanks again for the thoughts. Have a great day.

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  8. m –

    Agreed – there’s a difference between the extreme and everything else. I’ll spare you the stories of how I was as a kid. But I will say that immediately after my TBI at 8, I became aggressive and violent towards kids around me, and before long I found myself isolated in the midst of groups who really didn’t want me there. My main point was to try to illustrate the effect that all this has on the kids, not necessarily to judge anyone – tho’ I’m not sure how well I succeeded at that.

    There is so much talk about the parents needing help – it sounds now like it is all about the parents. Somehow the kids don’t seem to really matter in the public discourse — unless the media is talking to them, which they should not do. Meanwhile, it was the children (and their teachers) who were directly threatened by the shooter — and all the other shooters who have showed up at schools. Yes, it is horrific for the parents. But it’s a different kind of fear, and it leaves different kinds of scars, and all the adults shouting… it seems to be drowning out what the kids might need.

    If anything, I think the bulk of the blame lies with the media and those who published the personal information about the child. We have HIPAA rules, after all, and mental illness is a medical issue. I hear you about the young boy probably already being a “known issue” in his community; at the same time, there are reasons that court records are sealed for juveniles. His chances at having a regular life can be terribly harmed by health and court records, and even if TBI and mental-illness-triggered violence are two very different things, how well does public sentiment differentiate between the two? We know there’s a big difference, but the rest of the world? That, I doubt.

    And I think back to someone I knew briefly who made the mistake of posting something about their brain injury around the time when they were looking for a job. They posted openly, using their name, and they were found by a Googling potential employer — who promptly lost interest.

    My feelings about protecting kids from online exposure works both ways — protect them from what comes in, and protect them from what can go out. Would this mother have left her kid in the care of strangers who have a history of child abuse? Probably not. So, why would she expose their case to a world which is even more damning in respect to the whole of your life, and the whole future ahead of her?

    I agree that she was reaching out for help, and it’s great that the two women are working together about this. My point is really that when some parents reach out for help, it can hurt their kids. It happens all the time. Why must it be an either-or situation? Why must we choose between the welfare of a child and the support of a parent?

    Ultimately, I think the real culprit is isolation and fear and lack of connection with folks who actually care. If we want to find a culprit, we can look to our whole cultural context and mindset in this — our gross ignorance about so much that has to do with the mind, brain, and spirit, and our eagerness to medicate away and isolate problems, so they don’t bother us quite so much (or at all). Relying on meds to solve mental illness often doesn’t seem to work out — especially where withdrawal is concerned. And yet we live in a world where these are our go-to for all kinds of issues — and sometimes schools require them.

    Much of what happened last Friday tracks directly to our society’s approach to differences and mental illness and medication and guns. As horrific as it has been, this isn’t the first time it has happened… I can only hope it will be the last. But in the meantime, we can do a better job of protecting the most vulnerable, instead of making them even more vulnerable.

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  9. Interesting – thanks – the reader comments are interesting. Everything from exorcism to the Marines to not “sparing the rod” are suggested as appropriate responses.

    Semi-fiction would have made perfect sense, with all of the details carefully concealed. Then the whole story could have been told in great detail, and it could have given us more to consider.

    I agree that the NYTimes piece contributes to discussion — and I hope that the media learns to better report this sort of thing. NYTimes still goes too far in giving out more details, IMO — not mentioning Miami or the parents’ real names would have been appropriate. The article made me extremely uncomfortable for more reasons I won’t get into. Let’s just chalk it up to my personal differences with “modern parenting” techniques.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing and have a great day.

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  10. You bring up an interesting point – one which I wish I had better understanding of – there IS a difference between a child -even a violent or abusive child – who is suffering from a reaction to tbi, emotional stressor or a some other exogenous factor that makes it difficult to communicate their needs and feelings. And yes, I totally agree that we have to think of the child – but parents are the caretakers of the children and so understanding the interaction and needs of both is critical. This is true for spouses and family of those with TBI as well – if those caretakers aren’t given supports then the person who is injured can’t get what they need either – the military recognized this as well. I think that we all kind of relate to feelings of isolation, frustration, anger and despair – and so we may say ‘there but for the grace…go I’ – my suspicion is that that is incorrect. Committing mass murder isn’t a bad day, its a really really really severe break from reality. But we have no system to identify these kids or to help them or prevent them – and I wonder if we can. In the Newtown case this was made worse by the mother taking her kids target shooting (whatever was she thinking) and having guns in the house. I worry that some of this will make it harder and harder for those with very treatable issues to get help – and instead mean that they get locked up. Yes, many folks with TBI act pretty violent and aggressive in the beginning – and some parents just don’t want to deal.

    So much of this has to do with our attitudes towards mental health – and even many with BI feel – well thank god I am not mentally ill – as though having a mental illness was a sign of something terrible about a person. 98% of all the population could probably qualify for at least one DSM-V category.

    The conversation is good – need to talk – but the roots of this go very far – fears about neuro-based issues, work, family, medical care (psychological care is still not on par with physical – and that is also true with BI) …..just basic humanity.

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  11. True, true – it all goes deep. I also wonder about your point about folks with treatable issues being reluctant to get help – or that the system will be unable to help them outside of a prison system.

    Good points about the caretakers – as a caretaker myself, that part hits home. It’s just not easy to get help when you need it.

    In the end, we’re all learning. I hope, anyway.

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