Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Survival Instead of Suicide, Shifting the Paradigm from Victim to Compassionate Survivor

I am a bullying survivor.

All throughout grammar school,I was either teased or bullied. When kids are taunted because, like me, they have "Pick on me, I am sensitive," emblazoned on their foreheads, is there much difference? Either way a child is meant to feel as if they are not as good as everyone else. Kids know innately when someone is sensitive and vulnerable. I don't need to read "Lord of the Flies." When you are a sensitive kid wishing, hoping, praying that other kids will like you, that is your life. And when, like me, you don't have any real refuge at home, you wish you were dead. Eleven year olds should not be wanting to kill themselves. But they do.And some succeed. Or rather,they fail to grasp that there are benefits to staying alive.They fail to see that suicide is, as some glibly put it, a permanent solution to a temporary situation.The pain feels permanent.

When i was eleven, we moved from Chicago's Southeast side to the suburbs. I thought, new town, new school, I'd have a respite from the bullies. Start over. I was hanging up my jacket on the first day of school when I saw a face I hadn't seen in several years. Was a bully who had moved away three years earlier. He recognized me straight away. "Miller, you are gonna get it!" He made sure that the other kids knew who I was. His best friend was in a nearby classroom. And the best friend's cousin was in my classroom. I had also left behind the mean girls, only to find myself besieged by another set of mean girls.

My desire to end it all was childish, yet my pain was very real. I imagined my funeral. People were gonna stand around at graveside and wish they had been kinder to me. I suppose that, in the case of suicides, the more realistic scenario is that survivors are angry with the person for giving up. No doubt there is some guilt thrown in for good measure.

On Columbus Day 1969 I went down to the kitchen. Instead of joining my folks at the breakfast table, I opened up the knife drawer and started testing knives for sharpness by placing my finger tip against the edge of each one. My dad sat there frozen, but my mom asked me what I was doing. I told her. She got up from the kitchen table and had me close the drawer. I followed her upstairs to my bedroom, and we sat on the bed and talked. She talked to me about how suicide is against God's law. I don't know if that argument would have worked on me if I had all ready been an atheist. All that matters is that it worked then. Mainly I think I realized how hurtful my actions could have been.I still remember the stricken look on my dad's face as he sat there at the table. Even without my mom saying a word to me, I think I knew how much pain I would have caused him. In my self pity, I had not considered how my actions would affect others.Just that I wanted them to be sorry.

Even as I was testing knives for sharpness, I knew I couldn't have gone through with it.I've always had an aversion to sharp objects. If I had escaped upstairs with a knife, I am certain I would have broken down sobbing instead. The pain was real, but the drama made it almost laughable. I got the attention I wanted,but scenes like this is why I occasionally refer to myself as a drama queen in recovery. It's not those of us filled with drama who people have to watch out for. It's the quiet ones who don't come down to the kitchen to test out knives with a dramatic flourish who we need to watch out for.

One can live past childhood, but unless one undergoes therapy or similar there is little way to get past the scars left behind by bullying. The watershed moment for me was in eighth grade when I finally stood up to bullies. All throughout junior high I was afraid of these boys. Eddie was the ringleader. Steve was the big, dumb one,and Paul was the short one. Paul may have been small, but he was great at dumping books in the hall. There was also Mike, but he was not really one of the bullies. He just happened to be Eddie's best friend.

In junior high I was in drama club. On those days I didn't fear the bullies because I stayed after school. The bullies had already gone home. On days that I didn't stay after school, I was often quasi chased by them. They didn't make me run, but they made me aware of their presence. I walked very fast on those days. One winter afternoon,I slipped on the ice right in front of Eddie's house. I had been wearing a skirt that day, and I tore my hose and skinned my knee. As I struggled to gather up my school books and get up, Eddie was crowing triumphantly, "Spit on her! Spit on her!" I turned to him and I said, "You son of a bitch." Eddie's older brother stood there in the opening of the garage. "What did you call him," he asked menacingly. "I called him a son of a bitch," I answered defiantly, all the while certain that, at that moment, the four, five of them were going to gang up on me.To this day it surprises me that neither of those boys made a move to wallop me. There were, to my knowledge, no adults around.Who knows what they could have done to me in that subdivision. But they didn't.After a tense moment, they let me go on my way.And they never taunted me again.

No one had taught me how to fend off bullies.Not my mom.Not my dad.Not my older brothers.Not any teachers.Not any friends.Took me years to figure it out.When a person asserts oneself, they are standing their ground.When I called Eddie a son of a bitch, I was clearly angry.I did not yell.I did not scream. It was a tense few minutes, but very little drama. That is how we stop bullies.We assert a quiet authority.

Last March when the DCFS investigator towered over me, and insisted I had to take Kid O to the ER right then and there, I stood my ground. I was quaking inside, but I still managed to calmly state to her, no, I wasn't going to take her to the ER for an alleged scratch. I told her that I would take her to the pediatrician's office first thing in the morning. She started to try to reassert her authority, but she backed down.

It is wonderful when kids have others to back them up, whether it's other kids or adults. Ultimately, however, kids are going to grow up and they will have to face bullies on their own. It is important that we teach kids how to be ethical, honorable and authentic human beings who know how to be calm in the face of adversity. If we do not teach kids how to be independent, self-assured adults, then we do let the bullies win. Victims will continue to be victims instead of survivors.

It's especially important that we, as a society, shift from the language and mindset of victimhood to the language of survival. It is not just for the sake of political correctness that we do that. It is so that we can facilitate the shift in many people to accept responsibility for themselves and their own survival. Women are not rape victims, for instance, but rape survivors.We do not talk about Holocaust victims. We talk about Holocaust survivors.

We are all responsible for the culture that in which bullying thrives. We all need to participate in the prevention of bullying. More importantly we need to all be responsible for how we talk about bullying.If we talk about victims instead of survivors, then we perpetuate that idea that someone bigger and stronger will always take out the more vulnerable amongst us. Each and every one of us, former bullies and former bullying survivors alike, are responsible for this paradigm shift.Language is powerful.How we label people and actions affects how we think about them and ultimately how we react and what kind of behavior we display. In this particular instance we cannot afford to be careless in how we use language. We need protect the more vulnerable members of our society, but we also teach them, as best as we can, how to fend for themselves. We need to help them how to grow up to be strong, self assured adults instead of weak, dependent ones.

Equally important as the shift in language is shift in consciousness from that of a bully to that of a compassionate person. When I was in eighth grade, I was standing in the lunch line with C and L, who were my fellow misfits. C, upon realizing she was no longer being picked on, decided that she would then pick on L, who had the misfortune of being covered with acne and who had a terribly nasal voice. I didn't say anything to C, but it was the beginning of the end of our friendship. I realized then and there that I did not want to be yet another mean girl. Right that moment I chose compassion.

We need to do more than simply teach children how to be survivors.We teach them to be ethical, honorable and compassionate as they become adults.We teach them how to share. We teach them to be generous and loving, not selfish and self-centered.We teach them how to be forgiving. If we do not do these things at this critical juncture, then we will ultimately fail as a society. This is our moral imperative. Not just parents. Not just educators. All of us.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Special Needs Kids Arrive, No Patron Saints or Guardian Angels Included

I don't know if Erma Bombeck ever had a special needs child, and I am not one to pick bones with the dead. Overall she presents a nice image of the mother of special needs child, but some of it comes dangerously close to the kind of sentimental claptrap I have been railing against for years. At the end she says:

And what about her Patron saint? asked the angel, his pen poised in mid-air.

God smiles, "A mirror will suffice."

For a woman with less emotional wherewithal, more than a mirror is needed. Bombeck assumes that all mothers of special needs moms will somehow all be strong, and, once the shock wears off, she will do just fine. The shock, anger and grief diminish over time, but they never really wear off.

I remain haunted by an event that took place almost ten years ago. Kid O was invited to a birthday party, her first and last. My husband stayed home with the baby Kid Q, and off Kid O and I went. Her classmate's family lived on the second floor of an old walk up apartment. The apartment was dark. The apartment was packed with people, however, a mix of the dad's family and the mom's family. They had hired a clown to entertain the ablebodied kids while the two disabled kids were largely ignored, tucked away on the couches in the living room. Both kids, KId O and her classmate, A, very much wanted to be included. Despite the fact that their son was celebrating his fifth birthday, there was no joy in that apartment. A's dad was a very angry man. A's mom looked really sad and resigned. My heart went out to her. Even as she was surrounded by family, her sadness was very apparent. A wore AFOs and so he could stand but only with assistance. No one seemed interested in helping the birthday boy join in the fun. A's dad wanted me to join him in his anger and resentment. I would not.

As these two five year olds sat in the recesses of the apartment, A's dad turned to him and said, "I don't know why we hired a clown. We already have you." I filled with grief for the son and for the mom to be saddled with such a horrible man. How could he be so unkind to someone who depended on him so? I understood the resentment at being denied what everyone else had to seemed to have: a "normal" child. What I couldn't understand was A's dad lashing out at him in such a cruel and public way. A may have been only five, but he understood that he was far from what could be desired in a son.

I could also not understand the obliviousness of the rest of A's family. I suspect, sadly enough, that A's mom felt too downtrodden to ask them to see to it that the birthday boy was included, and A's dad was too filled with rage to care. It was A's birthday, and he was being ignored by his entire extended family. I could not fault the clown. She was just doing what she was asked to do, and that was entertain the kids. She largely had them participate in races such as she could in that cramped apartment. I motioned for the clown to come over. She had those banner ribbons that kids so enjoy, and I figured that, at the very least, these kids, with assistance, could play with those. She gave me a ribbon banner and she gave one to the birthday boy. And for a few moments on that dreary day, those two kids were part of the fun. Kid O lit up when I placed the banner in her hand and helped her wave it around.

While it's comforting to think that all special needs kids go to strong women with great senses of humor, it doesn't align with reality. Even with family and friends around, a parent can feel horribly alone and left to despair. The grief is real. The anger is real. The sense of betrayal all the more so. If, as Erma Bombeck wrote, special needs children do not come with patron saints or guardian angels, then God, assuming there is one, has some explaining to do. At the very least someone needs to explain to me where to go and get one, like so many triple A batteries so I can get recharged.

Raising a special needs child can be exhausting, especially when a child is severely disabled. Everything needs to be done for them. That's becomes even more demanding as a child gets older. At the very least I could do with a guardian angel who could lend a set of hands to make the work lighter. Kid O is probably around 70 pounds and around five feet tall. She is not a passive sack of potatoes when she is carried from her wheelchair to some other chair in the living room, for instance. She may cooperate or she may kick and bare her teeth as if she were going to bite me. She may also scream or shriek. She is not passive, to say the least, and, frankly, I have yet to know a child or young adult of any age who is. Kid O has little autonomy, so it's understandable that she may choose to express herself in various physical ways.

While it's true I am patient, have a great sense of humor and at least a little bit selfish, I still have times when I feel I just cannot move another inch. I cannot imagine what it would be like for someone who doesn't have my inner strength. Having any child is not for the faint of heart, let alone one who turns out to be a special needs kids. Parents of "normal" kids have enough challenges, let alone parents of kids with special needs. And sometimes people who have "normal" kids crack, too. You read about it in the papers. 'Cause kids are kids first, and they disabled or have special needs second.

My mom, the pragmatist though she is, has this odd romantic streak about marriage and children. Everyone should get married, and everyone should have kids. Kids can be wonderful, but, as any honest person will tell you, they are a lot of work. And some people are not cut out to be married let alone have kids. We all have curves thrown our way as we go through life. We cope the best we can with challenges. Some cope better than others. Whether this is through attending a support group or going to therapy or actually having good family and friends to support us, it's important to have someone or something. And that even includes God. I don't believe in God, but I do not ever knock those who have faith. Sometimes, though, none of that is enough. Some people simply are ill equipped to deal with life, and a special needs kid may be the thing that sends them over the edge and into the chasm.

What many of us need and seldom get is the support of that elusive village. Families are spread out. Friends work. People often have their own problems. Often we don't ask those with extra burdens how they are coping or if they need anything. Too many parents flounder about. They feel overwhelmed. Perhaps they are embarrassed to ask for help or don't know where to go to ask for help. Or they think they ought to suck it up and go it alone, even as they are going down for the third time. And taking their child with them. Solutions that may seem obvious to someone else is not necessarily obvious to a parent right in the middle of trying to figure out why this child came along and turned their lives upside down. Many times we know what the solutions are. We just don't always have what it takes to bring those solutions about.

If I cannot have a village, then I'd at least like to sometimes have an extra pair of hands. Or maybe someone with wings.