Fire!

I teach high school and college – college, of course, is the easier job!

On Thursday, during a lab experience, one of my high school students started a fire in my classroom.  Intentionally.

Everyone is fine, the vice-principal who now has to complete mountains of paperwork not withstanding, but this is a sad commentary on American schools, and students.

Schools blame the parents, and the parents blame the schools — and somewhere, caught in the middle, are the children who aren’t being educated.

As parents, my wife – also a teacher at one time, and I sent our children to private schools – and later, when she left the profession, we home schooled our children.  Public education was not a viable option for us, for the most part.  My sons each attended high school for a very short time, this after we moved to a new community so that they could make new friends, but my daughter, now in 10th grade, has never set foot inside a public school.  I’m thankful we had the options we had, because public education in America today is scary and ineffective.

There are no easy answers here, but what is being suggested – longer school days, more school days in a school year, further standardized testing, isn’t going to work … the system is broken; doing more of the same thing won’t help.  As Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again in expectation of a different result.”

When I was a student, the number of difficult kids in a classroom was small – the average at least close to well-behaved student made up the majority.  Now, the opposite is true – leaving teachers to struggle for control of the environment; this is not conducive to good teaching, or to learning.

My students come to me already angry and jaded by the circumstance of their lives.

They aren’t looking for hope,  a brighter tomorrow, or the promise education affords — they just want to survive today.

And I want to believe that I’m wrong, but I see in many of them the face of future Mental Illness; Depression, PTSD and Anxiety – the seeds of which have always been a child with no hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vindictive Transparency

After the rape charges, Pat – who loathed Ed by this point – became unreasonable and irrational in her assessment of him.   If she was trying to discredit him in my eyes, she could have saved the effort – his treatment of me had been more than enough to do that already.

She accused him of all manner of thing:  sitting in his car in the front of our house masturbating as children on their way home from school passed by.  Drugging her, literally drugging her, so that she’d have no sexual inhibitions – and It was during this time when I first heard that he’d been molesting my younger sister for years … but perhaps the worst allegation of all: she [all of a sudden] believed he had molested Janet too, and she was going to have medical tests done to prove it.

In recollection:

Pat had no control of her emotions, and if she didn’t like you, she would stop at nothing in her attempts at assassinating your character.  If she did like you, you were akin to God in her book … but one mistake, one slip – or even perceived slip, and your value fell to zero.  She ran hot or cold, never tepid;  she existed on the extreme side of whatever she felt.

I didn’t, for the record, ever believe that Ed molested Janet – and I’ve contemplated that perhaps I just didn’t want to know that he had – didn’t want the best in Ed to be tarnished, or taken away.

At the end of the day, I can’t believe that Ed – even with all his flaws – would do that

But I have no problem what-so-ever believing that Pat would like for me to believe that he did.

Something Good

When I first in therapy, it was suggested to me that for every negative memory I had of Pat and Ed, I should immediately search for a positive memory to accompany it.  This in an effort to find balance … no one is, after all, all bad – or all good.

My good memories of Ed:

For one of my birthdays, he arranged to take me flying in a friend’s small plane.  Our family had no money, so a commercial flight was out of the question … in many ways this was better.

He was devoted to Janet – whereas this isn’t technically a memory of mine, it is a Good of Ed’s.

My good memories of Pat:

She was a good cook.

I liked her sense of humor, when she wasn’t being sarcastic.

 

Addendum to post:

Pat was kind to my daughter yesterday; 02/10/2013 … first encounter.

Abandoment

I recall with haunting clarity the day we left Janet at the hospital, the trauma of that event indelibly printed on my psyche.

This was, of course, trauma Pat and Ed did not intend to inflict – Janet had simply gotten too big for Pat to care for at home — but I was a young child, and to my  mind, they sent her away, abandoned her …

And I was desperately afraid they’d do the same thing to me.

Even innocent events can scar a child, and lead to lifelong fear and anxiety:

I was irrationally terrified of inpatient treatment for my depression …

In my mind, I believed my family would abandon me there — just as we had with Janet.

Children aren’t resilient, that’s something we tell ourselves so we can live with our mistakes – mistakes innocent and not so innocent.  Children are fragile, and they assimilate trauma in ways that will impact their lives forever.

 

Pat

Pat and I have been estranged since late 1983, and in that time she has only attempted to contact me a handful of times – 3 that I can recall; she invited me to dinner in celebration of my birthday in 1984 – the first birthday of our estrangement, she sent wine glasses as a wedding gift in 1986, and she sent me a birthday card on my 45th birthday in 2007, this not long after Janet died …

 

I did not reply.

 

What I know of her today:

She is remarried

She is currently estranged from my younger sister

 

I cannot begin to imagine the unbearable pain I would feel in not having a whole and emotionally close relationship with my children.

When I moved out of her house on bad terms, her words were, ‘Christmas and your birthday just got a lot cheaper.’

 

She simply did not care.

 

 

 

Of Janet

There was a time when Ed, periodically, would attempt contact with me, but this all stopped very abruptly when I threatened to print flyers, detailing his criminal past, and distribute them around his neighborhood.  I know, not cool, but enough was enough already – I had asked repeatedly to be left alone, and every time he tried to communicate with me I felt physically ill and became moody, irritable and depressed; I needed peace, and that meant no reminders of him.

It had been a few years since I’d last last heard from him, when out of the clear blue sky one Saturday afternoon the mailman delivered an envelope requiring my signature; the return address was that of a local law firm.

Ed had hired an attorney in the matter of custody/guardianship of my oldest sister.  To that point, he and Pat shared guardianship of my institutionalized sister, Janet, making joint decisions on her behalf – now he wanted his new wife to share in that guardianship as well … and, in the event of his death, share guardianship with Pat.

I read the petition in disbelief – I hadn’t had any sort of relationship with any of these people for at least 20 years, why in the world was I being asked to appear in court and give my opinion on the matter?  As long as Janet was well cared for and comfortable, did I even have an opinion?

And then I started thinking about what Janet might want – beyond just comfort and compassionate care, what would she want if she were able to speak for herself?

In all fairness, the last I was directly involved with any of them, Ed was far more concerned with my sister’s well-being and day-to-day happiness than was Pat, and  Ed’s new wife was kind and giving, and she would visit my sister along with Ed not infrequently.  I remembered being told that Janet was always excited to see her, and seemed to love her.  And …  if Ed has any redemptive qualities at all, they would lie in his devotion to Janet.

Pat didn’t visit my sister, to my knowledge she hadn’t done so in many years … always said she couldn’t bear it emotionally.  Although I tried to understand this position, I never did; it felt weak to me, and self-serving.  Janet was, despite her disabilities, Pat’s child for God’s sake!

Although I didn’t go to court, I did write a letter confirming what little I knew, how I felt,  and what I believed might make Janet happy.

To this day I don’t know how this all turned out legally.

When Janet died in 2007, I was notified by a priest sometime after the event; I was profoundly sad.

Janet never had much of a chance in this life.

For years

I didn’t even think about Ed and Pat, or the abuse they inflicted upon me.

I cut them out of my life, and I moved forward … on to marriage and children, on to college and career, on to a better life.

I have not spent my entire adulthood – from age 20, when they were last a part of my life in any real way focusing on why, or  on what they did.

And when, in therapy, I had to recall, it was painful and traumatic – but necessary; I had to understand why I suffered an emotional breakdown, I couldn’t heal without this knowledge.

So now, randomly, I consider:

Ed coming to my high school graduation.  He was an inmate at DVI at the time, incarcerated for Lewd and Lascivious Acts with a Minor – a charge that should have been Rape – the minor a 14 year old friend of my sister’s.   A guard, whom Ed manipulated into believing his innocence, got him a 6-hour pass and brought him to the ceremony …

Did it not occur to him that I didn’t want him at my graduation?  It was a small town, everyone knew what he had done – I was embarrassed.  I suppose his being there, in his mind, confirmed his victory – and he didn’t care how I felt.

His life is built on his ability to manipulate – the courts, his attorneys, mental health professionals – he once told me how easy it had been to make all of these people believe his story.

Sometimes I wonder if, deep down, his new family – and his siblings, have some sense of the monster he truly is.  I would like to say ‘was’ in place of ‘is,’ in the previous sentence, but I don’t believe in past tense, not his case; his manipulations are far too accurate and skilled, and he is capable of making virtually anyone believe anything he wants them to believe.  Sociopathic??? Narcissistic???   Is he really the victim of his parents cruelty as he claims to have been?  Was he beaten as a child?

I contemplate Pat, and what it was that happened to her to make her as she is:  distant, cold, unfeeling.  I ponder, too, how it was she came to marry Ed.  She is damaged, but from what?  Why?  Who hurt her?  My sister suffers from unattached syndrome, and Pat is like her in many ways, is this her diagnosis as well?  And, if yes, what caused it … the standard abusive father and emotionally unavailable mother?

And then, in the midst of my contemplations, I remember that it doesn’t matter to me why they are as they are, or why they did what they did.  It may have, once, but that time has passed …

In order to be forgiven, or even understood, you have to get real and honest, and you have to accept responsibility for what you did, regardless of why you did it.  But I’m sure they aren’t seeking forgiveness ….

They can’t even accept responsibility for what they did.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Should be simple, right?

I was obviously depressed, I wasn’t able to sleep, I was always mad, my anxiety levels were unbearable, I was apathetic and withdrawn, I couldn’t concentrate, my short-term memory was virtually non-existent, I found no joy in living, I felt almost nothing and I could not maintain emotional stability.

Physically, I gained weight, developed high blood pressure and gout, experienced low testosterone, higher than normal blood sugar levels – my thyroid tests were never normal – sometimes high, sometimes low, I couldn’t walk from one end of my house to the other without feeling winded, I had no stamina – couldn’t even complete cardiac stress tests, had pain all over my body, kidneys and liver were not functioning optimally – despite the fact that I seldom drink …

Prior to all this I was in great shape – worked out 3-4 times a week, held a 2nd degree black belt in karate, kept up with my young children …

I didn’t want to accept the mental health diagnosis, so I kept insisting that whatever was wrong with me had to be physical – and that’s when my endocrinologist explained the link between child abuse and adult on-set mental illness.  Then, she did every test imaginable; brain scans, blood tests, MRIs and cardiac stress tests to confirm her diagnosis and make me understand that my problems weren’t a result of physical issues – yes, I had Metabolic Syndrome,  but that fact only confirmed the primary diagnosis of mental illness – endocrine related maladies such as Metabolic Syndrome are a co-morbid feature of major depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and PTSD.

I could have been the poster child in confirmation of this study and yet I still refused to integrate the diagnosis into my life.

The stigma of mental illness is certainly part of why I didn’t want to accept the diagnosis, but I also very firmly believed I had gotten over the horror of child abuse, and I believed my good life, solid marriage and family proved that I had …

Until a very kind and compassionate therapist and psychiatrist explained to me that being stable for a period of time, personal accomplishments and even the ability to extract some measure of happiness from these things does not mean PTSD, depression and anxiety won’t surface at some point – and the cyclical moodiness and sadness I had experienced since childhood finally had a name, dysthymia; a chronic, ever-present type of depression – and when combined with a bout of Major Clinical Depression, it forms a condition known as Double Depression – something I was currently suffering.

I finally accepted the diagnosis …

And I learned my triggers – stress, fear of abandonment (this stems from the day my family left my oldest sister in an institution, my mother’s constantly leaving me alone as a child, and the neglect both parents are guilty of in connection to my emotional needs) and feeling helpless or victimized.

Today I can honestly say that I am happy, content even, and fulfilled – life is good.  I take meds, but I no longer mind; stable on meds IS stable, and I see a great psychiatrist – but I credit my wonderful wife and children for my health and well-being, I honestly don’t know where I would be if they had given up on me.

Just Get Over It …

We often hear this – and I probably said it myself of other victims before the world came crashing down on me …

Child abuse survivors should ‘just get over it …’

In truth, I thought I had ‘gotten over it.’

This is why I was wrong:

Child maltreatment has been called the tobacco industry of mental health. Much the way smoking directly causes or triggers predispositions for physical disease, early abuse contributes dramatically to the incidence of future mental illness.

Now, in the largest study yet to use brain scans to show the effects of child abuse, researchers have found specific changes in key regions in and around the hippocampus in the brains of adults who were maltreated or neglected in childhood. These changes leave victims more vulnerable to depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the study suggests.

Harvard researchers, led by Dr. Martin Teicher, studied nearly 200 people aged 18 to 47, who were mainly middle class and well-educated. They were recruited through newspaper and transit ads for a study on “memories of childhood.” Because the authors wanted to look specifically at the results of abuse and neglect, people who had suffered other types of trauma were excluded.

Child abust often leads to conditions like depression and PTSD, so the researchers specifically included people with those diagnoses. However, the study excluded severely addicted people and people on psychiatric medications, because brain changes related to the drugs could obscure the findings.

Overall, about 25% of participants had suffered major depression at some point in their lives and 7% had been diagnosed with PTSD. But among the 16% of participants who had suffered three or more types of child maltreatment  — for example, physical abuse, neglect and verbal abuse — the situation was much worse. Most of them — 53% — had suffered depression and 40% had had full or partial PTSD.

The aftermath of that trauma could be seen in their brain scans, whether or not these adults had developed diagnosable disorders. Regardless of their mental health status, formerly abused children showed reductions in volume of about 6% on average in two parts of the hippocampus, and 4% reductions in regions called the subiculum and presubiculum, compared with people who had not been abused.

That’s where this study begins to tie together loose ends seen in prior research. Previous data have suggested that the high levels of stress hormones associated with child maltreatment can damage the hippocampus, which may in turn affect people’s ability to cope with stress later in life. In other words, early stress makes the brain less resilient to the effects of later stress. “We suspect that [the reductions we saw are] a consequence of maltreatment and a risk factor for developing PTSD following exposure to further traumas,” the authors write.

Indeed, brain scans of adults with depression and PTSD often show reductions in size in the hippocampus.

The findings also help elucidate a possible pathway from child abuse to PTSD, depression and addiction. The subiculum is uniquely positioned to affect all of these conditions. Receiving output from the hippocampus, it helps determine both behavioral and biochemical responses to stress.

If, for example, the best thing to do in a stressful situation is flee, the subiculum sends a signal shouting “run” to the appropriate brain regions. But the subiculum is also involved in regulating another brain system that, when overactive during chronic high stress such as abuse, produces toxic levels of neurotransmitters that kill brain cells — particularly in the hippocampus.

It can be a counterproductive feedback loop: high levels of stress hormones can lead to cell death in the very regions that are supposed to tell the system to stop production.

What this means is that chronic maltreatment can set the stress system permanently on high alert. That may be useful in some cases — for example, for soldiers who must react quickly during combat or for children trying to avoid their abusers — but over the long term, the dysregulation increases risk for psychological problems like all forms of depression, anxiety and PTSD.

The subiculum also regulates the stress response of a key dopamine network, which may have implications for addiction risk. “It is presumably through this pathway that stress exposure interacts with the dopaminergic reward system to produce stress-induced craving and stress-induced relapse,” the authors write.

In other words, dysregulation of the stress system might lead to intensified feelings of anxiety, fear or lack of pleasure, which may in turn prompt people to escape into alcohol or other drugs.

With nearly 4 million children evaluated for child abuse or neglect in the U.S. every year — a problem that costs the U.S. $124 billion in lost productivity and health, child welfare and criminal justice costs — child abuse isn’t something we can afford to ignore.

Even among the most resilient survivors, the aftereffects of abuse linger. Not only are such children at later risk for mental illness, but because of the way trauma affects the stress system, they are also more vulnerable to developing chronic diseases like diabetes, metabolic syndrome and its various individual components, high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.

 

 

 
So we can’t just get over it …

Armchair Analysis

Now that I’ve been in therapy, I find myself wondering what mental health issues plague(d) Ed and Pat …

Ed was mean, seriously cruel, when I was a child.  He didn’t just beat me, he went out of his way to make it as painful and humiliating as possible; he removed my clothes, ignored my pleading – first for him not to hurt me, then for him to stop … when I would beg him to tell me how many times he was going to hit me, he would say -‘I’ll tell you when I’m done.’  He used his belt, green tree branches folded over a couple of times so they were heavy – this was like being hit with 3-4 sticks at the same time, wire coat hangers, wooden spoons and an old fashioned oak paddle.  He almost never used his hand, telling me he didn’t want to hurt himself … he hit me until I had screamed so hard and so loud I had no voice – and no will of my own, and then he left me to cry and come to terms with the trauma as best I could.  He beat me for every infraction … multiple times a week, often more than once in a day. He once beat me so violently I lost control of my bowels.  I was terrified of him.  He was filled with rage, obnoxious as they come and simply odd.

Pat was also cruel, and very detached.  Looking back, it is as though she simply didn’t feel – anything.  She beat me, naked from the waist down, with a wooden spoon, she also pinched me, slapped me, threw water in my face and left me all alone (literally left me home alone as a young child) when she was exasperated with something I had done.  She yelled … a lot.  She was never in control of herself, or her emotions.  She was sarcastic, negative and slightly rude, she was obnoxious …

They left my youngest sister and I alone, outside the institution my oldest sister was in, for hours while they attended care-plan meetings.  We were too young to be permitted inside, so we were supposed to hang-out near the hospital. I was something like seven years old, my little sister about five.

I don’t honestly recall ever feeling valued or cared about, and I know my feelings and needs were secondary at best.

They drank, a lot.

According to my sister, Pat has been in therapy for years and years … who knows about Ed.

Do I think they’re sick?  Absolutely.   At least I hope so – as bad as what they did to their children is, it would be worse to think they did it while in their right mind.