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.

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And so the search for meaning begins

For Sandy Hook – Newtown, CT

The holidays are always a bitter-sweet time for me. It is supposed to be a time of joy and happiness and celebration, but I have always dreaded it. There’s something about the crush, the rush, the pressure to perform, the urgency that everyone is feeling to “get it right”, and the lingering sense that — yet again — I have not accomplished all I set out to, 11-1/2 months ago.

This year was looking like it was going to be a little different. I haven’t got any extra money, so the whole Christmas shopping thing has been a non-event for me. And there hasn’t been much snow at all, with the weather warmer than expected, and the snow that did fall rapidly melting away. I haven’t been in any sort of Christmas spirit at all. Far from it. But I was fine with that, because I’ve felt a lot of peace and equanimity, which I haven’t often felt at Christmas time.

Then some batsh*t crazy f*cker walks into an elementary school and kills 20 kids and 6 adults. Little kids. Babies. Gone. The shooter’s gone, too – along with his mother, whom he killed first. And last I heard, they were questioning his brother.

Shit. All day yesterday, it has been on my mind so much that I missed two turns on my way home and I spent 30 extra minutes driving to pick up supper I’d ordered. By the time I got home, dinner was a little cool. I didn’t break down and weep like many folks I know, but I did call home to tell my spouse how much I loved them. No matter how dulled we may be to the cruelties and anguish of this world, awful tragedies like this do alter our world view at least a little and force us to look at the world with fresh eyes.

Senseless. Awful beyond description. Horrifying.

Preventable?

How? Why?

… Why?

At times like this, our national instincts seem to respond in two ways — one, with unimaginable grief and horror… two, with clinical, distant reasoning that reaches conclusions that seem “logical” enough to the thinkers. On the one hand, there are those who plunge into grief and compassion… and pray. And then there are those who raise the banners of their crusade and charge forth into battle — to either stem the tide of semi-automatic assault weapons that keep showing up on the news, or to call for an even more aggressively armed society where people will think twice before they do something like this… again.

Before the shouting begins (although it already has), I need to take a breath and remember that I too will feel the eager pull of diving into the debate about gun control and the rights to keep and bear arms. I need to remember that I am tired and frustrated and in pain for these families, and that inclines me to say and do things that I wouldn’t otherwise do. I need to remember that the things that I often think are really good ideas, often… aren’t. And the things I want to say and do under such circumstances may not match the things I’d say and do under more ideal conditions.

I need to hold back and not strike out at others whose politics and cultural habits seem to either feed this scourge of shootings that has become so terribly commonplace, perpetuate it with apathy and denial, or alienate and polarize members of “the other side” so that no constructive debate can actually happen. My feelings on the issue of gun control, medication, mental illness, and personal/public security are many and varied, and I don’t fall easily into any one camp. I can easily burn through the friendships I have with a wide variety of people, over this whole thing… and I can’t afford to just alienate everyone on a passing (and passionate) whim.

So, I need to stop — just stop — and check myself, before I start doing and saying things that I can’t take back.

Ultimately, times like this — as senseless and as horrifying as they are — serve most to remind me just how much suffering there is in the world. Without getting into the reasons “why” or pointing fingers or laying blame — as we all love to do — I need to just remember that this kind of thing happens terribly often, all over the world. And whether the parents are in Newtown, Connecticut or in Kandahar Province or in Marseilles or in Chenpeng or in Baghdad, there are an awful lot of them who are losing their kids and parents and teachers to violence they would do anything to avoid, but cannot.

Times like this, I also need to remember how quickly we all tend to “apportion” our compassion. Closer to home, it’s easier to feel the burn and recognize the true horror. When the kids and teachers look like OUR kids and teachers… when they speak the same language, when they eat the same foods, keep the same schedule, vote for the same politicians, and could easily be related to us, it hits us so much harder when something this awful happens.

When the others are… well, other… it becomes a different story. Especially when the others are on the other side politically or geographically, or we’ve been told there is a Very Good Reason why they are being forced to suffer — sometimes in our names, with our tax dollars buying the ammo. And then there are those who are so remote from us, politically and socially and culturally and racially, who are undergoing such horrifying violence and destruction, it is literally impossible for us to get our heads around it, and the best we can do is try to protect ourselves and our kids and our families from having that happen to them.

And that’s all the suffering that’s on the surface. Deep beneath the careful veneer of everyday functioning, there are countless individuals who struggle daily with pain and anguish they neither understand nor can seem to overcome. There are countless individuals whose pain and suffering is well concealed, which cannot be guessed at by anyone nearby. The concealment can be deliberate — they can’t afford to let anyone know — or by default — either because others cannot fathom what it’s like, or they choose not to see. It could very well be that others choose not to see because their own inner pain is so profound that, to open that up is not an option… they literally feel like that might kill them.

And so they don’t open up to it. They stay closed. They get on with things. And they expect others to do the same.

I wish I could do just that — shut down and suck it up… and get on with it. I wish it were that easy. I wish I could just pretend away the headaches, the memory lapses, the distractability, the inner storms that rage at times, the frustrations, the sleeplessness, the stress, the nagging uncertainty about, well, everything. I wish all those things, compared to what happened yesterday in Connecticut, paled and didn’t matter or affect me. I wish I could dismiss it all, since compared to some, I have it really great.

But it’s not that easy. It’s not that simple. And while focusing on the pain of others does put things in perspective and make me incredibly grateful for what I have, I still have to deal with my own issues as I get on with my day. I’m not feeling well this morning. I haven’t felt well for most of this week. I’m fighting off a cold, with my ears filling up with fluid and my balance going haywire. I’m distracted, too, by all this anguish. Which makes me particularly vulnerable to more injury, if I’m not careful. I have to get back to some semblance of normal after a grueling couple of weeks, which is a prelude to an even more challenging 8 days before I leave for my marathon Christmas/New Years tour through five states and several families.

I just don’t feel right. And a whole lot of other people don’t either. We keep checking the news to understand “why”. We keep checking Facebook to see how others are dealing with this. We loop through question after question after question in our shuddering minds, unable to get our heads around it, haunted by the images of the parents and the kids, unable to keep from imagining what it must be like… even if it does us and them no good to do so. At some point, we just have to stop. Just stop. Take a break. Go back to bed. Or go shop. Run some errands. Just do something — anything — to get our heads off it. And all the while, Why… why…? Along with the constant running commentary in my head that pretends to “know why” as a form of logic-driven self-defense in the face of such loss.

… Why?

This world is hardly a simple, cut-and-dried sort of place, and this holiday season may or may not be even worth celebrating. Suffering is rampant on any given day, and this time of year is no exception. In Connecticut this Christmas, there will be toys that cannot be opened, and there will be pain so great it is unspeakable. There are just no words…

And around the world, this holiday season, there are countless other families who have lost babies… mothers… fathers… loved ones.  To war or fire or famine or flood or drought or disease or any number of other reasons. They are brown or yellow or black or red or white. Some of them are even in our own country, living on the fringes of our Great American Experiment, watching their loved ones and all their own hope fade before their very eyes, as so many look away.

This is what I bring with me this holiday season – not just the urge to “be happy” in the face of it all (although that is certainly part of it), but to see and know and understand the other side of happy — the pain and the suffering that so many, myself included, endure at this time. This is not to say that I am succumbing to the dark pull of the nebula of suffering that lurks at the edges of our personal universes, but to say that I can see and feel clearly how much pain and suffering there really is in the world. There are so many who are so alone, whether or not they are the only one in the room. There are so many who struggle and suffer in silence without recognition or support from others. There are so many who carry immense pain and anguish with them over invisible difficulties that they just can’t shake. And seeing and feeling that seems only right, in this time when there is — at the same time — so much light.

Because there is. On the 21st of December, the Winter Solstice will mark the expansion of daylight in our northern hemisphere. The darkening days (literally) will give way to longer hours of light, and a shorter night. This will not eradicate the night — hardly — only give us more light to see our way, for more hours of each day. And when I think of that, when I think of how the world turns and changes, and how many myriad times we have all been through the darkest of dark times and the brightest of bright times, I know that other side of things — the peace and the joy and the hope. Peace that passeth understanding. Joy unbounded. And hope beyond hope.

This is the ultimate irony of this season — that it is such an extremely hard time for many, and yet it has so much hope and promise in it. That 20 little children and adults who were trying to care for and protect them were gunned down, less than two weeks before Christmas is something that will overshadow this season for many years to come. I can’t imagine that a single Christmas will ever pass again without this being remembered.

And in the midst of this remembering, I have to also keep in mind, how many others are suffering — hidden or forgotten or both… how many others are struggling, for other reasons… how many others have lost hope and have no idea what comes next. The politicking and social debates and cultural clashes are bound to flare up soon, which to me adds an even greater pall over these events, even as I know that some sort of change is necessary. It’s not the debate that gets me — it’s the tone of it, the tenor, the divisiveness and the aggression. From each side towards the other. What I need to keep in mind, as those battles rage, is that the source of the frustration and the aggression and the divisiveness is nothing less than human nature — fueled by passion over Things That Matter.

It’s not the greatest comfort, but it is something.

In the end, though, I can’t afford to be felled by this experience. I was not in Connecticut. I do not know those families or those children. My own involvement is as limited with them, as it is with families in Ramallah who lose their kids, too. The fact that they are from my country doesn’t mean they are any more or less valuable than anyone else. ALL are valuable, and ALL matter, and enough with the apportioning of compassion to decide who matters, and who doesn’t.  The fact of this horrible shock doesn’t make the sufferings of others any less — the homeless vets struggling with PTSD and TBI on the bitterly cold streets of Chicago or Philadelphia… the families in the Detroit area who are being evicted because they cannot pay their rent… the farmer in South Dakota who lost his barn to fire… the housewife in Boise whose doctor can’t explain that nagging pain in her abdomen… the injured, the broken, the burned, the terminally ill… whether ambulatory or bedridden… whether about to be discharged to go home and recover, or to be moved to hospice to pass on during the Christmas season…. whether cut down in the flower of life, or struggling with lingering dementia in their final days/weeks/months/years/who-can-tell-how-long? For all the light that comes in, this is NOT an easy time for many.

And so it becomes all the more important to find light… to find something else to dwell on… not to banish the pain, but to find the strength to face it. We must find sources of strength and light, so that we can keep ourselves going in this seemingly impossible stretch of “holiday cheer”. We cannot run our best on fumes, and we cannot keep our strength up by dwelling only on darkness. We must seek more, we must find better. For the sake of facing What Is… no matter what.

Ultimately, it really is our choice, what we choose to do with these situations. We can allow ourselves to be pulled down into nothingness and give up hope entirely. Or we can see with different eyes and choose something different for ourselves. We can starve ourselves in grief… or stuff ourselves with sweets in denial… or we can eat sensibly and exercise and get on with doing what needs to be done. What others do… we have no control. What comes of our actions and reactions… that we do have some say in. And what we choose matters a great deal. To everyone around us.

But I have gone on too long… looking for meaning in all of this. Hoping for hope. Digging for clues. The earth cries out with the loss of each child, the ground soaked with young blood the world over. How we choose to approach it, how we decide to use that knowledge… it is up to you. So choose wisely.

And let there be Life, as well.