Friday, August 25, 2006

Promises, Promises—A Child’s View of Incest

I know I have been ranking on CPS a lot lately. It maybe a good sign, though. I felt a lot worse when I was angry with my parents. At least there is a progression to my feelings. Before I move on, though, I wanted to share the following. I first read this in a Dear Abby (Abigail Van Buren, Universal Press Syndicate, 1987).

Promises, Promises—A Child’s View of Incest

I asked you for help and you told me you would if I told you the things my dad did to me. It was really hard for me to say all those things, but you told me to trust you—then you made me repeat them to 14 different strangers.

I asked you for privacy and you sent two policemen to my school in front of everyone, to “go downtown” for a talk in their black and white car—like I was the one being busted.

I asked for you to believe me, and you said that you did, then you connected me to a lie detector, and took me to court where lawyers put me on trial like I was a liar. I can’t help it I can’t remember times or dates or explain why I couldn’t tell my mom. Your questions got me confused—my confusion got you suspicious.

I asked you for help and you gave me a doctor with cold metal gadgets and cold hands… just like my father, who said it wouldn’t hurt, just like my father, who said not to cry. He said I look fine—good news for you. You said, bad news for my “case.”

I asked you for confidentiality and you let the newspaper get my story. What does it matter that they left out my name when they put in my father’s and our home address? Even my best friend’s mother won’t let her talk to me anymore.

I asked for protection and you gave me a social worker who patted my head and called me “Honey” (mostly because she could never remember my name). She sent me to live with strangers in another place, with a different school.

Do you know what it’s like to live where there’s a lock on the refrigerator, where you have to ask permission to use the shampoo, and where you can’t use the phone to call your friends? You get used to hearing, “Hi, I’m your new social worker, this is your new foster sister, dorm mother, group home.” You tiptoe around like a perpetual guest and don’t even get to see your own puppy grow up.

Do you know what it’s like to have more social workers than friends?

Do you know what it feels like to be the one that everyone blames for all the trouble? Even when they were speaking to me, all they talked about was lawyers, shrinks, fees and whether or not they’ll lose the mortgage. Do you know what it’s like when your sisters hate you, and your brother calls you a liar? It’s my word against my own father’s. I’m 12 years old and he’s the manager of a bank. You say you believe me—who cares, if nobody else does?

I asked you for help and you forced my mom to choose between us—she chose him, of course. She was scared and had a lot to lose. I had a lot to lose too—the difference was you never told me how much. I asked you to put an end to the abuse—you put an end to my whole family. You took away my nights of hell and gave me days of hell instead. You exchanged my private nightmare for a very public one.

Feelings by Cindy, age 12; put into words by Kee McFarlane

This breaks my heart. One of the things that struck me is that for an abused child there are no good options.

Speaking of the options for abused children, there was an article in the Seattle P-I last month that illustrates this. (The article was taken down, so I can no longer link to it.) After 10 years of allegations and reports of physical and sexual abuse, 2 amazing and brave young women went public and led police to their foster father’s stash of child porn depicting him molesting his foster daughters (3 total). Despite at least 25 referrals to the state about the girls, they disregarded the charges in large part because the girls would not corroborate the abuse allegations while still living with their abusive foster father! Do the people investigating these cases have a clue? How can they expect a child to testify against a violent and dangerous adult that they are still living with and dependent on? Jeez. It seems these days the pedophile idiot needs to be stupid enough to film the abuse to land in jail. If this is what it takes to get caught, imagine how many abusers are getting away with whatever they want. It's pretty easy, I imagine, to threaten a child not to tell and not capture your behavior on film.

Finally, here is a very disturbing article about the rationalizations and online activity of pedophiles.

Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. Child abuse makes me angry.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

ex motio (a teaser)

I said in my last post that I would report on my progress. Here's my report:

Okay, where to begin. I have been thinking about emotion, Buddhism, psychology, and self-help books. The book I'm reading, Emotional Alchemy by Tara Bennett-Goleman, incorporates all of these. It starts with a discussion of mindfulness (the Buddhist part). This part talks about acknowledging feelings as they bubble up (not suppressing them), observing them, and then letting them pass. She equates this to an experience she had meditating when instructed not to move a muscle. She discovered that it was incredibly uncomfortable, even painful, to not shift her body to alleviate stress points. In time, though, the pain passed and she was able to focus on her meditating rather than on her (continued) physical discomfort.

The book is about 10 "maladaptive schemas" (1). Schemas are part of the framework we use to understand and interpret the world. For example, the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson identified a highly adaptive schema called "basic trust" (1). A person with "basic trust" will experience the world as non-threatening, and will assume people are trustworthy. Children who are cared for, supported, and loved learn this schema, and are more likely to have positive interactions with people and stable relationships as adults. As you might imagine, abused children are more likely to use the "mistrust" schema, assuming people cannot be trusted. This is a maladaptive schema because viewing other people with suspicion, and constantly questioning people's motives, makes it very difficult to have healthy relationships (speaking from experience). Here is the rub- when you are a child in an abusive home being mistrustful is adaptive. It is a necessary response to reality. After all, you have to survive any way you can. You cannot afford to trust.

Once you learn mistrust, though, how do you learn trust? That is why I think it is insane and unconscionable for CPS to take an abused child out of their school and separate them from their friends. Their friends are probably the only ones they can trust. The first rule of thumb as an abused child is- you cannot trust adults. Furthermore, ask any child psychologist if it is good for a traumatized child to switch schools while their family is being torn apart. Chaos, instability, not having any predictable environments or people to rely on = NOT HEALTHY FOR CHILDREN!!! Please read this article or just let me share this statistic from the article- only 44% of foster children graduate from high school! Only 44%! From high school! How can this be? I cannot believe it even though I dropped out of high school. So, you are victimized by your family, and then the police, CPS, the education system, and the economy (when you cannot find a job because you are a high school drop-out). You become an adult surrounded by adults that you do not trust.

Guess what, there's more. The first 5 maladaptive schemas affect our close relationships: abandonment, deprivation, subjugation, mistrust, and unlovability (1). The other 5 are more broadly defined: exclusion, vulnerability, failure, perfectionism, and entitlement (1). These schemas are our expectations about the world (that we will be abandoned, deprived of what we need, subjugated, that the world is untrustworthy, we will be excluded, and/or vulnerable to catastrophe) or how we see ourselves (that we are unlovable, a failure, entitled, and/or need to be perfect). I thought I would deal with each one separately since the book says to. First, though, I want to write about how the book deals with emotion. Before that, though, I have to pack and go to bed. Tomorrow I am off to Nooksack, WA to meet my boyfriend’s parents. Wish me luck!

(1) Bennett-Goleman, Tara. Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Meet the Books

Happy Sunday! I just finished my Sunday morning ritual- watching Meet the Press and the McLaughlin Group. I get the feeling that PBS is not too gung-ho on the McLaughlin Group, even though it is their show. I could not find a link to a website for them on the PBS website. That is too bad, because it is a great show. They argue important issues very passionately, from both conservative and some liberal perspectives. I find it very educational to hear both sides, and the shades of gray in-between. I am absolutely a liberal, but I think it is important to expose yourself to multiple perspectives. All the people on the show are very intelligent, and occasionally I even agree with what a conservative has to say. I am a PBS news junkie, and my favorite shows are The News Hour with Jim Lehrer and Frontline. Some of my favorite people are Jim Lehrer, Gwen Ifill, Eleanor Clift, Mark Shields, David Brooks, and that guy who is the voice of Frontline.

Politics and journalism are topics that I get very excited about (you should see me jumping up and down when I hear the Frontline guy), so not surprisingly one of my favorite books is about both. Chris Hedges is a veteran war correspondent who wrote War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, a book about his experiences and impressions of the psychological affects of war on reporters, soldiers, politicians, civilians, and society. I am a little hesitant to try to review a book such as this- the topic is so powerful, and I can only deal with a small part of it. Suffice to say, the book speaks to the enormous demands of war on people, demands that are challenging both to survive and to recover from. When a person and a society have lived through the horrors of war, it can be very difficult to return (or get to, in the case of conflict that has gone on for generations) to a peaceful co-existence with neighbors and other people. People become acclimated to ways of coping that do not adapt well to "normal" life, such as suspicion of people who are different in some way, rallying behind one point of view and disregarding others, being in a constant defensive (and offensive) mode, expecting violence and chaos- i.e. living on the edge. When people expect violence, they will often times look for it to validate their expectations, and can, at the very least, be wary of overtures of peace and compromise.

When I was reading about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I thought a lot about this book. PTSD is a huge problem for both individuals and societies who have experienced war, because it can prevent people from moving on to a happier existence. It can even cause people to slip back into war after peace has been achieved. Just consider all the places in the world where neighboring societies alternate between all-out war, sporadic violence, and uneasy co-existence, unable to let go of old grievances, agree and stick to a peace plan moving forward for the overall good of both societies. It is really hard, understandably so, to set aside past betrayals and atrocities, and trust a perceived enemy enough to agree to lay down your weapons and stop fighting. It can feel too risky, even if the alternative is continued violence, death, poverty, fear, and living conditions that are hardly worth living in.

I wrote about PTSD in my 2nd and 8th postings. In my 8th posting, Drama Junkie, I talked about the book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter A. Levine. This book talks about how people can become stuck in the fight or flight (or freeze) mode, unable to process the emotional and physical energy produced by trauma. As a result, you may stay in a state of fear and agitation, re-living the event and unable to move on. (In chapter 15- The Eleventh Hour: Transforming Societal Trauma, he discusses the shared trauma that a society can suffer from, as I did above.) The book points out that the only way to effectively deal with trauma is to transform it, to renegotiated our trauma rather than re-enact it. I have noticed, as this book might have predicted, that when I wrote about the causes of my own post-traumatic stress- child abuse, rape, and my brother's suicide, it helped me understand my pain better and forgive myself, and to feel less alone, but it did not help me get over the trauma still affecting my life. For example, last week I wrote about my life right after my brother's death when I was 25, and my dad beating me severely when I was 17. While those posts helped me sort through what I was feeling and still experiencing related to those events, it did so by bringing it all to the surface, and I have been struggling with those feelings since then. This is how I feel-

I still expect catastrophically bad things to happen to me, and I fear what the future may bring. I think that I will lose everything I worked so hard for, and the better my life is going, the farther I have to fall and the greater my fears. I am suspicious that the people in my life will turn their backs on me when these bad things happen, as some did in the past. I am haunted with lingering feelings of terror caused by the beating, and the extreme physical pain and mental confusion (from the concussion) I experienced. I have phantom soreness in my right shoulder and butt, as well as regular migraines and nausea. (I went limp and my dad held me up by my right arm while he punched me in the face, and used my right arm and leg to throw me against a wall, twice, where my head and my butt slammed against the wall.) I am still angry at authority figures such as the police, doctors, and those people at Child Protective Services. I have panic attacks, often triggered by paranoia that my friends and boyfriend will die suddenly and without warning. I feel that other people are better than me, that I am a fraud and that other people deserve their careers, homes, and relationships while I do not. Even if I am not less than other people, I fear that other people think that I am. I feel that there is something wrong with me, something that I do not understand but other people are aware of.

I saw an interview with a man whose mom had abandoned him in a park when he was 10 years old. Even though it happened 30 years ago, even though he found his mom and met her and she was clearly insane and a horrible person, he still felt that something was wrong with him that caused his mom to abandon him. The interviewer told him that instead of being ashamed of what he had been through, he should be proud of what he had overcome. I totally understand his shame, though. It is a lot harder to be proud than it sounds. Someone can tell you from now to eternity that you are worthwhile, you can tell yourself, but when your experience tells you that you are powerless, expendable, and unimportant, you tend to believe your experience. Victimization is powerfully demeaning and so effective because most people will internalize it, taking over the role of the victimizer themselves. Then we re-live the trauma, potentially for the rest of our life. How do you purge, transform, and/or renegotiate that internalized trauma?

I have a bookshelf of unfinished and un-started books about overcoming PTSD, abuse, destructive emotional patterns, and low self-esteem. Thankfully, these books are action-oriented, with plenty of exercises to help me work through my difficulties instead of just floundering in them as I have been doing lately. I could use a different perspective. My next project is Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart by Tara Bennett-Goleman. A wonderfully compassionate, creative, and intelligent friend of mine recommended this book, and it has a foreword by the Dalai Lama. The back of the book says, "most of what troubles us falls into ten basic emotional patterns, including fear of abandonment, social exclusion (the feeling that we don't belong) and vulnerability (the feeling that some catastrophe will occur). This remarkable book also teaches us how we can free ourselves of such patterns..." Hmmm, it sounds promising, does it not?

I will report back next Sunday on my progress.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Stigmata Martyr

August 28th is the 9th anniversary of my brother's death. I found out early the morning of the 29th. I was in shock, but over the next couple of weeks, I was also shocked by other people's reactions. There was no time to think, just get to Pullman for the funeral. Once there, we had to pick a coffin, decide on what the announcement in the newspaper would say (self-inflicted gunshot wound), the program, the clothes he would wear, who would officiate, where it would be, on and on. There was a viewing the evening before the funeral. My mom pushed me to look at my brother's dead body with the bullet hole in the back of his head (concealed, of course). That night, a friend called. Somehow, she tracked me down (pre-cell phones) and was upset I had not called her.

Here I was, in the middle of it, stunned and completely overwhelmed with an experience that nothing can prepare you for, and she wanted to know why I had not thought of her. It was the first thing she said, not "I am so sorry" or "how are you doing?" I know she meant well (I think), but I did not understand how she could be so insensitive.

It happened the summer before my last year of college, and I was working at a restaurant/bar. Even though I told the general manager exactly why I had to leave town suddenly, he told me that if I did not come back to work by that weekend, he would have to let me go. I had to pay rent (not having a savings to live on as I was a student and working for minimum wage) so I went back to work as soon as I got back. I soon discovered that the general manager had told everyone I worked with that my brother had committed suicide. My co-workers treated me like a leper- left me alone, didn't talk to me, except one manager, who would corner me while I was washing dishes and ask a series of rapid fire questions- "why did he do it?" "How did you deal with it?" "How does it feel?” I felt like I was on a talk show, the kind of talk show that provides voyeuristic entertainment from the pathetic guests.

I was in an emotional wasteland. I had a headache (re: migraine) pretty much all the time, and I felt raw and painful, as if my skin had been peeled off. At the funeral, my boyfriend stood up and said we should not stigmatize my brother because of the way he died. I thought, how crass, no one would do that. Why is he saying that? Who cares how he died or what people think? I discovered it does matter what people think, or at least, it matters how they treat you. It matters when most of your friends never call to offer their support and ask how you are doing. It matters when your boyfriend will not talk to you about it after the funeral. It matters when you spend your time in between classes crying in the bathroom, and your evenings alone with your thoughts.

It definitely matters when you have been taught your whole life that no one cares about your problems and you should just keep it to yourself. When adults knew your family was abusive but did not do anything about it, when a therapist even says you are being physical, emotionally, verbally, and sexually abused but does not intervene as required by law, you start to think there is no point in opening up your life for scrutiny.

When a policeman takes you away in his police car after you finally call Child Protective Services yourself, he assures you that he will save you. He will not tell you where he is taking you or what will happen to you, however. At the police station, they take pictures of your body, ooo'ing and ahhh'ing at the fresh bruises, the lumps, and the crusted blood. They tell you that because of how bad you look, you have a strong case against your dad. They make you tell your story over and over, asking repeatedly, because this is important for your case, don't lie or we'll find out, did he hit you with a closed or open fist? They lock you in a room without anything to read for 2 1/2 hours, popping in occasionally to tell you that your caseworker is running late. Finally, a woman who does not even ask you how you are doing takes you to a doctor. The doctor confirms "your story" about the closed fist, but does not clean your lip where your braces have punched (this is the operative word, punched) all the way through your lip, or do anything to determine if you had a concussion or are in shock (yes on both counts). In fact, he tells you he is not allowed to treat you. CPS will not pay for it.

They take you to a foster home, where you meet a girl whose dad stabbed her with an ice pick for years, because he enjoyed hurting her. She was a cheerleader, and the police came during a pep rally and lead her away in front of the entire school. Her parents were allowed to call her every night, which they did, to yell at her for betraying her family and demand she drop the charges against her dad (even though she had no control over what the state decided to charge him with). CPS moved her to another town and did not allow her to have any contact with her friends, her only support system during a lifetime of abuse. (The foster parents explained to me that CPS thought it was best she start a new life and wanted to distance her from her old life so she could let it go and move on, but could not prevent her parents from talking to her because they have legal rights.)

A social stigma is a "mark of infamy or disgrace; sign of moral blemish; stain or reproach caused by dishonorable conduct; reproachful characterization" (Webster, 1913). A stigma is what happens when the police lead you away in front of your friends as if they are arresting you, when your dad is never arrested, and despite your strong case and all the pictures, they drop the charges. (Why? I have no idea.) A stigma is when a teacher tells you "it's about time" when you drop out of high school because you've turned 18 and the foster care system will not provide for you any longer. A stigma is the entire school knowing what happened to you, including the teachers. Want to know what it is like to go from a straight "A" student to flunking classes because your home life is a war zone? How about fighting your way into college from the streets, only to have your brother commit suicide a year before you graduate? I was feeling pretty hopeless at that point. All I wanted was to escape that life.

I think it is fair to say, in my experience, there is a stigma around suicide. That is not to say that everyone feels that way, but after living with the stigma of child abuse and the initial reactions to my brother's suicide, I thought it made more sense to avoid talking about what had happened as much as possible. I thought if I could just finish college, I could move on with my life, unencumbered by the abuse and chaos of my past. Dealing with Jeff's death also meant dealing with our childhood, our parents, and the hell that we shared. It was more than I could handle at the time. I just wanted that college degree, that proof that I really was smart and capable and not a loser and a failure.

As a result, I avoided talking about and acknowledging my past, especially to myself. Even now, with all the support I have received since I have laid it out for the world to see, I fear the stigma. It is a trade-off. When you talk about it, you give people the opportunity to offer you support and encouragement, but you also give them the opportunity to pull away from you and act uncomfortable, like there is something wrong with you. After years of feeling like an outcast and a freak, I wanted acceptance and appreciation. Who doesn't?

I guess I really should not care if child abuse and suicide makes some people uncomfortable or changes the way they think about me. It is harder than it sounds, though, because I hate the thought of being defined by some victim status. I want to be judged on my merits and weaknesses, not my family's. I am a writer, a poet, an MBA, almost a CPA- these are my accomplishments, not things that happened to me that I had no control over. I want sympathy and understanding for the extraordinary circumstances my brother and I dealt with (or not so extraordinary, unfortunately) but I also do not want to be treated differently than other people are.

If that seems contradictory to you, it does to me too. I am different, whether I like it or not. I have strengths and challenges that not everyone has. That's not a bad thing. The person whose judgment and stigmatizing I struggle with the most is me. Indulge me while I quote Sex in the City (I hope I'm not violating some copyright rule)- "The most exciting, challenging and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself." I know that how I feel about myself, and my ability to appreciate who I am and not see myself as undeserving or flawed, is infinitely more important than how other people see me. I do feel acknowledged, now that I have talked about it, for what I have survived. Now all I need is my own acceptance, and to stop making myself so uncomfortable.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Jeff Coker (December 31, 1977 - August 28, 1997)

I found out this week that my brother's high school class (of 1996) is having a reunion this weekend. The class reunion website memorialized him. I feel good that they are remembering him, but it has been an emotional week. I thought I would take a stab at writing a memorial for Jeff, to mark the occasion (and the anniversary of his death at the end of this month).

Jeff was the saving grace of my childhood. It scares me to think of what I might be like if he had not been there. He is the reason I can believe in other people and that I did not lose faith in humanity. He was my friend, my ally, the one person I could always count on. He was proud of me- the only person in my life who recognized how hard I was fighting and how well I was really doing. To have him look up to me, brag about me, idolize me, was an amazing feeling. He made me feel like I was worth something.

I wish I could have given that feeling back to him. I do not think he had any idea how important he was and how devastating his death would be. He was funny, smart, and original- it was not just that he kept me company while we were kids. He kept me laughing at the absurdity of life, kept me aware that not everyone was cruel and vicious. Some people are sweet and care about other people. There are people who are fun and make you happy when you are around them. He was light, and I was dark. He saw good things in me, and trusted me. I was important to him, and he was the person I admired the most. I was guarded and distrustful, and he was open and vulnerable.

How he changed in the last year of his life shocked me. One of his closest friends, Brandon Wisniew, died around the time they finished high school. His friends left for college, and he spent a semester in Eugene, Oregon living in an apartment so small you could not stand up straight without hitting your head. He seemed less light, less open, and more dark and secretive. He seemed more like me- bad development. I needed him to be happy, lighthearted, and hilarious. I needed our inside jokes, our comedy routines, and our sarcastic humor. It was what kept me going. When I lost him, I lost my optimism, I lost my faith in myself, and I lost trust in the world. He was that important to me.

I suppose I have had to find those qualities I valued about him in myself, and accept that it was unrealistic for me to think that I could protect him from his life, and take on all the struggle and pain for the both of us. I wanted him live in happy, supportive, social, friendly world, while I battled loneliness, depression, and untrustworthy people for the both of us. I thought he was better than I was, and would live in a better world that I experienced when I was around him.

Obviously, better world did not work out so great. I still think he deserved better though. He was a good person, a very good person, a credit to humanity and a blessing to his friends and family. He did not deserve to die. It should not have happened. Life is not fair, is it?