Saturday, July 21, 2012

On a More Personal Note: Children Who Hurt

In less than 15 hours after learning of the Aurora theater deaths, I've felt compelled to write two fairly long blog entries and it seems, alas, I still can't stop writing.  My thoughts in the wee hours of this morning now turn to nothing so much as the children.  The children the killers were before they killed.  Hurt children who hurt, in every instance.  It's never been any other way.  My understanding that unresolved hurt and the resulting rage are invariably behind murderous rampages that make the news and stun if only momentarily each of us does not equate, however, to my alibiing for any shooter.

A friend and I have been having a lot of conversations lately about hurt children.  We live where we see children on a daily basis whose most basic needs are not met in a way that I bet none reading this would think adequate, never mind conducive to a healthy outlook for their future prospects.  More to the point, we've spoken very directly about which child we wonder what headline we might read about in when he's older.  It's not an exaggeration for me to tell you I've taken photographs of children here that break my heart in the post production process.  I can't turn my head from the story the pictures tell.  And my friend and I don't lie either when we speak of these kids.

I know something about hurt kids.  As the oldest of three kids in a crazy home replete with physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, I had early lessons.  I have memory of no home I lived in as a child that doesn't begin with me remembering which corner of which room I sat in every night when it was time for our tormentor to come home from work, listening for the turn of the tires on the gravel driveway that would herald God (I had no choice then but to believe, hence the capital G) only knew what, dependent on God also only knew what, but it just always seemed out of my control.

I, of course, could save none of us, but it should be no surprise that I ended up working most of my adult life in the field of mental health.  But I never worked with children.  I very deliberately did not work with children, because I am not strong enough.  For a short time, I did do a few substance abuse assessments on some adolescents, and even those short sessions were more than I was the right person to do.  Sitting across from one so young who was in so much obvious pain and already so far along on a path that could have almost no good end, all I wanted to do was hurt somebody.  Not exactly a therapeutic response.

In the second blog piece I wrote tonight, I wrote about trying to get help for my son so he could recover from the pain he was in as a child.  What I didn't mention then was the times I'd step out of the elevator at the hospital to visit him in the pediatric psychiatric ward, to be greeted by a new kid on the ward, another victim so wounded that only the blind wouldn't notice at first glance.  Another child whose eyes and screams made it clear they'd already endured what none should have to in a lifetime.

Then there was Colby.  Colby was the same age as my son (14) when he took a gun one morning and shot and killed his father, his mother, and his older sister, his only sibling, in their Chicago home.  Then, he picked up the phone and called the police, reported what he'd done, went outside and calmly sat on the stoop waiting for the police to arrive.

I've tried many times to search on the internet to discover whatever happened to Colby (not his real name, btw, but close).  It was a big story in Chicago when it happened, of course.  His dead dad had been a Chicago cop.  The papers ran a few stories for a few days, the usual comments from neighbors who 'never suspected a thing' and the neighbors who spoke about the father who never took off his cop uniform, even at home or on his days off.

They didn't print the other stories I knew about.  By the time Colby killed his family, my son and he were no longer together in the psychiatric hospital where they'd met.  Blessedly, my son had just begun his first year in the school I also wrote about, but he talked to me about Colby.  See, Colby had told everybody in the hospital what he was going to do.  He'd told the other kids.  He'd told the counselors in group.  The other piece, of course, is that Colby's home was so violent and his family so terrorized by the head of the household, that this child believed that was the answer to the problem.  So, that's what he did.

I sometimes like to imagine that there was a family member somewhere, or a family friend, or maybe even a person in the system somewhere who might find Colby at some point in time to salvage enough of him that he might have a life.  I've never been able to find out.  I suppose how long ago it was (pre internet) and the laws regarding juvenile records combine to make it difficult to figure out now.  I didn't know Colby, not really.  But my son did and he was briefly his friend.  I've never forgotten him.

How many Colbys are out there tonight?  How many more kids raging for whatever reason, from the point of whatever unrelieved pain?  This is something else my friend and I talk about a lot lately.  How to save these kids.  We can't save the world, but can we make one thing better for one kid at a time?  Can it make a difference if we do?  We can't adopt and raise these children, but can we ignore them?

Alice Miller wrote several books decades ago about hurt children and what happens when there's no redress for the child.  I can't recall all of the titles now, but I'm sure if you search her name and The Drama of The Gifted Child, and Thou Shalt Not Be Aware for titles, you'll be on the right track if you're inclined to read some theory about all of this that's written by psychologist Miller in terms easily understood by the layperson.

Now.  I was sure when I started to write this that I had something that needed to be said.  I'm danged now if I'm sure I've said it or even just what it was I thought needed saying.  Maybe I just needed to vent.  The kids just get to me.  The little kids that were me and my siblings.  My own two kids.  Colby.  The kids that live where I do.  Hurt children that need help.  While resources are drying up and the inclination seems more to damn and blame than to help.

What's a Parent to Do?

In the immediate aftermath of the tragic massacre in Colorado this week, one of the things early identified for speculation is how could the shooter's family and friends or associates not have seen it coming.  Were there not warning signs?  Missed clues?  Some seem to be skipping right over even those questions and jumping right to blaming his parents, assuming there were indications they either didn't see or chose to ignore because, of course, if they'd sought help for their son, he'd have received it and none of this would have happened.

We seem to do this every time a young person commits acts of violence so horrific we couldn't imagine them if they weren't acted out for us.  When 23-year-old Seung-Hui Cho went on a rampage in 2007 on the Virginia Tech campus, we waited not long to wring our hands over the sad, if predictable, circumstance that this struggling immigrant family had not cared properly for their son and our children died because of it.  We had done a similar thing after the 1999 shooting in Colorado when Columbine students from relatively privileged families managed to build arsenals in their comfortable homes and went on to wreak their own havoc.  In that instance, we railed that their parents were too busy leading their own lives to pay attention to what was going on with their kids.

I make no claim here of knowing one dang thing whatsoever about what the parents of James Holmes either did or didn't know about their son's mental health, nor do I have any information about any attempts they or any other person may have made (or not) to get help for the young man at any point in his life.  I do, however, know something about raising a child who needs mental health services and what it's like to try to access that help and that's the story I want to tell here.  There is no way that the story of what happened in Aurora, Colorado this week is complete, no matter what we learn in weeks and months to come, unless the truth is told about what it means for a family when a child needs help.  If you believe yourself blessed because you think you don't need to know any of this, I hope you'll understand by the time you get through here that it is your business nonetheless.  You or your children might be in the theater or classroom next time.

My second born, my son, was one of those kids who was just so dang cute, pretty almost, that perfect strangers loved to engage him wherever he went.  He was also especially smart and very outgoing, very trusting, so he met few strangers and knew every bus driver on every route in the campus town we lived in by the time he was three and four.  He seemed to navigate his world easily and happily.

When he began school, there were problems.  More honestly, in retrospect, I should say that by the time he was in the first grade, there were problems being brought to my attention that I couldn't ignore, no matter how beautiful and brilliant and sweet and loving my child was.  He was all of those things, but he was also very troubled and was acting out.  So began my journey down the road to trying to learn how to best parent all of that.

The reasons for my son's problems don't matter for the purpose of this story, but they are not uncommon problems and the reasons or causes or responsibility or whatever you want to call it for those problems aren't exotic either.  What makes this story unique is that my son got the help he needed and so many do not.  That's what I want people to know.

By the time my son was about eight years old, I had already spent a couple of years during which there was rarely a week that I wasn't at his school at least once, summoned because of something he had done or, just as often, not done.  I had met with school nurses and teachers and principals and social workers.  Repeatedly.  We did Cub Scouts, Big Brothers, and martial arts classes...looking for some place to channel some of his energy in a positive way.  Later, I put him in a play group that was to be a sort of play therapy for troubled children.  We would graduate from that to individual and family sessions with a therapist.

By the time he was ten, he was still my special-in-so-many-ways son, but he was getting older, bigger, and not better.  On December 10, 1989, I had to put my son into a residential psychiatric hospital.  On Christmas Day, his older sister and I spent what remains the most poignant Christmas of my life, visiting him, taking him presents to unwrap in the hospital "community room" off in a corner we snared for privacy among the other families mostly trying to maintain cheerfully stiff upper lips and some semblance of holiday for their children.

From that time on until my son would graduate from high school when he was eighteen, he never really "lived" at home again.  That is not to say that I and his family were not involved in his growing up (we were very much involved), but his time "at home" was for weekend and, sometimes, several-weeks-long periods of time.  The hospitalization was followed by a group home, which was followed by an out-of-state treatment facility.  There were several emergency hospitalizations along the way as well.  Friends, I'm here to tell you that there is no experience that can prepare you for the devastation you feel when you see your child being carried to a padded room and you know even through your pain that it's so he won't hurt himself.

By the time my son was ready to enter high school, we were able to get him placed in a wonderful residential program that was local to where we were living and had been highly recommended.  The admissions process was long and arduous.  It took over a year.  And they had empty beds all the while.  And we had funding to pay for it.  But it was a place special enough that they cared enough about the ultimate well being of every child in their charge that my son sat on a waiting list for over six months of that time until they had the milieu they thought most therapeutic for him and the other children already there.  My son would go on to live there for the entire four years of his high school career.

Interestingly or coincidentally enough, I got a call from my son tonight.  I hadn't talked to him in months.  He's almost 33 now, living his dream in San Francisco.  We didn't talk about what happened in Colorado, but we did talk about that high school he attended, in another context.  What he said to me tonight, and it's not the first time he's said it, was that the school saved his life.  That's a quote.  He added that he had no doubt that had he not had the opportunity to go to there, he'd be either dead or in jail now.  He's said that to me before as well, and told me tonight that he's told his sister the same thing.  I believe him, because I always knew it.

So, why relate all of this?  Because I want you to know that it's damn hard to get help for a kid that needs it.  The story I've related here is the story of my son and my family, but I dare say that there are few parents today who could, no matter their intent or willingness, access now the help I was able to get for my son then.  In many cases, it mostly doesn't even exist any more.  Even the wonderful school I just told you about doesn't operate today the way they did when my son went there.  

It was not easy for us to get it either, and we certainly enjoyed circumstances many didn't then and don't now.  Both my son's father and I worked and covered him on our insurance policies through our employment.  We agreed to do this even though we were not together because we knew our son needed extraordinary care (there were some physical problems too) and it seemed the responsible thing to do.  Our thinking was that there could be no downside to our both paying premiums for his insurance because surely what one didn't pay, the other could help with, right? 

No.  We learned early on about the "birthday rule."  That's insurance industry speak for "we're gonna screw you anyway, even though we've collected your premiums."  Essentially, when two parents cover the same child with different health plans from different insurers, the parent whose birthday falls earlier in the year is presumed to be the policy that pays and therefore determines treatment.  Think of it as a lottery for the insurance companies, only one of them gets to win and you lose either way.  My son would be uprooted from two different programs when the insurance carrier determined to call the shots backed out on what they agreed to fund and the second insurer disagreed with the treatment regime and wouldn't pay for it either.

Neither insurance company funded my son's care during the four years he was in a residential treatment program for high school.  Not one dime.  When we got to the point that it was clear if he were to mainstreamed in a public school he would be more warehoused than educated, I found an attorney who specialized in disability law.  Fortunately for us, he was so appalled when he heard of my son's case, he offered to take it on contingent upon payment for his fees to come from the board of education if we won, or not at all if we did not.  We won.  My son won.

What I've left out is the daily toll this took on us all.  For years.  By the time my son needed help, I myself was working in mental health and social services, so I knew the ropes pretty well.  But nothing prepared me for what we would endure in the course of it all.  The meetings and hearings and adjudications and territorial disputes...the outrageous attempts that included even blatant lying in attempted ass covering maneuvers...every stop along our years' long journey was a battle.  There were many days when I understood clearly that the only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that if I didn't, nobody else was going to.  There were also days I wasn't sure if even that was enough. I was fortunate to work in a field that allowed a much more generous amount of time off than most people in this country enjoy, but even with that, I also had to miss a lot of work in order to advocate for my son.

My son's story is one of success.  Like I also told him tonight, all I ever really wanted for either of my kids was that they end up as self reliant adults who were relatively happy with their own life choices and didn't live their lives in a way that causes harm to others.  My son is surely doing that, but both he and I know it would not have been this way had he not received a lot of early intervention.  And that's why this is a story that needs to be told now.  Even with working, involved, well intending, insured parents, the road to getting help for a child who needed it was daunting.  Today, it would be worse.  I'll go so far as to suggest that it might even be impossible for 99% of us.  And I'd further suggest it's only going to get worse.  Mental health care in this country has been decimated for decades and is deteriorating again from even its already pathetically poor state.  Today, my son would probably be medicated/drugged to the hilt, warehoused in a "special ed" class somewhere, and encouraged to drop out as soon as he legally could.  The truth is, they tried to do those things then; the difference is that today I doubt I could successfully fend them off, never mind access the care that would save my kid's life and give society a productive citizen instead of a headline to recoil from.

I understand the desire to want to blame someone when something unspeakable happens and I've surely ranted about poor parenting I see every day.  Mostly I despair at what it all means for the children who don't get help for whatever reason.  But I think the real moral to this story is that it's of little use to blame parents for not accessing what doesn't exist or is impossible because of lack of resources to access even if it does.  If it's possible for even one good thing to come out of the Colorado tragedy, maybe it can be an increased awareness of how sorry the current state of mental health service is in our nation.  But we have to have the right conversations in order for that to happen.


Friday, July 20, 2012

There Was a Shooting

There was a shooting in Colorado.  I knew that before I went to bed last night, having seen the subject line of an email I left unopened until I awoke today.  A shooting.  Breaking news.  Too soon for details, I briefly mentally noted before shutting down my email client for the day.  There had been another shooting.  I don't know anybody in Colorado.  I'm trying not to say that my thoughts were as concise as "oh, it's 'just' another shooting," but I can't swear to you now that they weren't.

One of the few perks of having no j-o-b is that you have no b-o-s-s, so I've fallen happily into the habit of lazy morning coffee, indulged while perusing email and connecting electronically with the world until I'm ready to be fully present, or "live," if you will.  It's usually a pretty quiet time and this morning was no different in that respect.

But something else was different this morning.  The scope of what had occurred in Colorado started to unfold before my still bleary eyes.  I found myself struggling to take it in, momentarily even attempting to understand, to make sense of it.  I wanted the why? right now, even as I understood that I was attempting to make "sense" of something that was never going to.

But I pored over the internet and poured more cups of coffee and went looking for information anyway.  I visited news sites and I read comments to their stories posted on facebook.  I read so called "liberal" media and The Blaze.  I read that the shooter was a registered Democrat.  And that he was part of the Tea Party cabal.  I learned it was his parents' fault and he was, of course, a loner.  It was also your story to exploit no matter how you interpret the 2nd Amendment. 

Throughout the day I've been mindful of something else, and that's my own response to the horrific tragedy.  Without intending "another" to be a diminishing of the shooting in any way other than to note it wasn't the only one we've had, it was "another shooting."   But it's taken me most of the day to get in touch with what has felt so off for me.  After hours of pondering, fueled by not much more than larger quantities of caffeine and tobacco than I'm willing to publicly cop to, I finally realized what was bothering me.  The genesis of my  niggling discomfort was that email I left unopened last night.

To be more clear, I had to acknowledged that I've become, for whatever reason(s), so calloused to violence that an email from a mainstream media outlet based in New York screaming about a shooting in Colorado didn't warrant enough attention from me to be opened when it was received.  Nothing to see here.  I promise you it didn't keep me awake.  I slept like a baby.

I don't like knowing that.  I've had conversations with a good friend recently about the cheapness of life in the context of violence in our culture, turning over and examining with each other our own ideas, our own attempts to understand.  I hope I'm not just being melodramatic here, and I know (guaranteed) that I'm not beating myself up for it.  But it occurs to me this is something important to acknowledge for myself, because if life is perceived as cheap or of no value (which, on some level of logic, it must be, in order to destroy it), am I not succumbing to the lure of blissful ignorance when I can just reduce news of this sort so easily?

I guess this blog entry came about because I wonder if maybe we couldn't all benefit from taking a moment to consider our individual responses to the horror in Colorado last night.  Is it possible that at least part of the reason we spend so much time speculating about the why, and attempting to assign blame, that we think if we can understand it, we can prevent it?  Or, more to the point, that we can keep it from happening, not to those we don't even know, but to us or those we do know and love?  I'm not discounting the need to understand, but I am asserting that I think a lot of what passes for "trying to understand" is avoidance.  It's really a really rather clever form of denial.

In the days to come, millions of words will be written about what happened in Colorado last night, many more of them about the shooter than about the victims.  And every political agenda in the country will find a horse to ride in this race before it's over.  There are already articles on the internet blaming it all on the movie that was running.  For laughs, I expect to find comic relief as needed in the right wing media, probably on the aforementioned Blaze site, as Mr. Beck was on this bandwagon before it was one with his paranoia always available to incite the clueless and his hallucinations of a left wing conspiracy in the film.  Somewhere along the way, however, I hope there's room for discussion about how we've responded to it.  We'll have, no doubt, opportunity to do it better another time in the, probably, near future.

Monday, July 2, 2012

How the Sly Fox Makes You Stupid

You've all seen the studies that demonstrate those who are regular viewers of Fox News are less informed than those who watch no news at all, right?  The Farleigh Dickinson University PublicMind Poll report is just one of the more recent that documents what you've suspected all along...Fox makes you stupid.

If you're older'n dirt like me, you may have grown up hearing the ol' bromide "sly as a fox" and I want you to know that Fox News is not only doing their part to keep people clueless, they're keeping alive the tradition of the sly fox with their stealthy deceit.  I ran across this article on their site and I think it's a classic example of how Fox, at minimum, distorts information...when they're not outright lying.

I read the Steven Crowder piece because I followed a link from somewhere else and I'd been promised the "truth" about marriage and divorce in this country.  Gee, did I have it all wrong?  Are most marriages in this country really of the everlasting variety?  I could see it was a link to Fox, but I assured myself that even they must have something, some numbers, to present, otherwise they wouldn't run with a story that contradicts common knowledge, right?  And, maybe they'd even have a theory for why the trend is what they say it is and not what most of us can look around and see to be otherwise?

Mr. Crowder, a comedian who might want to consider stickin' to funny stuff if it's payin' his bills, had some numbers, alrighty.  Well, he provided links to an interminably long U.S. Census report and an article in the New York Times.  I'm gonna go out on a limb here and postulate that 99.9% of the people who read Crowder's mess never clicked on either link.  They were probably too enthralled by the rant against the evils that populate the media and entertainment industries to be bothered in the first place, but the sheer length of text to read in the census report was no doubt the deal killer there and a lot of them would rather die than let their browser take 'em to a NYT site.  I, on the other hand, had no such qualms.

Here's what Crowder was screaming about:  It turns out that, literally speaking, it's statistically true that "most" U.S. marriages make it to the 25 year mark.  "Most" means more than not, so they get this one if the number of marriages that don't end in divorce is 53% or 54%, as it apparently is.  That means, of course, that fully 46-47% of them do not.  Almost half.  But Crowder never mentions any of these numbers in his article, preferring (my guess) to count on those who are habitually hypnotized by Fox's drone to revel in their joy that, once again, here was "proof" that the "liberal" media and entertainment is lying to us all.  I don't think he expected anyone to actually see what the numbers might be.

I do understand that Mr. Crowder's article wasn't about anything a lot of people might consider to be news of critical concern to us all.  It's not about the election in 2012 or violent conflict around the globe or economics or health care reform.  But I do think this article could be considered a text book example of how Fox does what it does, which is to make people more stupid for the experience of hangin' out with them than they would be if they were confined in an isolated cave somewhere.  It's a model that works for them and has clearly identifiable components. 

1)  You begin by understanding that if you want to reach the largest audience, it's more important to entertain than to educate.  In fact, you must acknowledge and work around the fact that people don't want to be made uncomfortable with any information they don't like. 

2)  The messenger is at least as important as the message.  If a large crowd is your goal, a comedian or otherwise colorful "personality" is more desirable than is any authority or otherwise informed person on the issues.  Your messenger probably should not have alphabet soup after their names either, as it's almost a guarantee that some of us will drop out and dismiss (without hearing, of course) whatever might follow as elitism from...argh...intellectuals.

3)  Make the message about the people who disagree with you, being careful to avoid any revelation of the basis of your convictions where they might be exposed for examination.  Know your audience, and be sure to sprinkle all communications with words like "liberal," "leftists," and "lies."

I suggest you could take the plan I've outlined above and juxtapose it to almost anything on Fox and see that it's a plan they follow faithfully.  The only thing I have yet to explain here is the audacity displayed in using the Lenin quote as a lead to the article that Crowder wrote.  And that, mah friends, is number four in the fabulous Fox plan to slyly make you stupid...

4)  Assert the "leftist liberal lies" mantra ad infinitum.  Rinse.  Repeat.

Ok, I do know where their audacity comes from.  Fox does this because it works for them.  It's not rocket science.  In their relentless pursuit for the lowest common denominator, Fox News knows what will draw 'em in and if doing it another way would do the same thing, they'd change their business model.  It won't, so they don't.

P.S.  How groovy is it that Fox quotes Lenin?

"A lie told often enough becomes the truth."  (Vladimir Lenin)